If I squinted, the farm looked pretty much the same as it had when I left, 9 years ago, blinking back tears. The pond had shrunk; the bluegrass had grown longer and gone to seed. The fence lay halfway down.
Frost bleached the roof, yet no smoke rose from the chimney of our farmhouse on the knoll. The front field that the goats used to clear was now overgrown with larkspur, ragwort and blackberry. No sign of livestock, chicken or ducks. The horse barn was leaning at an odd angle, as though reeling from a strong wind. Between the cow barn and the house, the dust seemed as untracked as the snow-powdered mountainsides of the Rockies I had just seen day before yesterday from the train.
I walked over to the corner of the cow barn. The tall splints Pa and I had fashioned were still in place, still straight.
I remembered the young black bull, Napoleon, no higher than Pa’s shoulder, in a sudden burst charging at the big Hereford bull that was temporarily sharing his pen. When the other bull leapt out of the way, Napoleon’s amazing forehead had cracked the eight-inch square post that formed the corner of the barn up to the hayloft; hence the splint.
“Son. Pray you’re good as gold. Ma and the girls have died with typhus. How I miss them. Napoleon going strong. Pa.”
I looked around for signs of the old bull. I had said goodbye to Ma and Missy and Verna at church in El Cerrito.
Two months ago, I had gotten this letter:
“Hope you struck gold. Napoleon’s poorly. You might come. Pa.”
I saw the plea in it, hiding in the scant shrubbery of his words. Never in my life had Pa let a need or hurt flaunt itself, naked, or let it stare insolently at another human. I imagined the stocky black bull listening to it all, as Pa’s loyal comrade, shifting his bulk occasionally to balance the load of loss and pain, blinking his egg-size eyes incredulously from time to time.
Napoleon had been a calf-making miracle. Almost everyone in this corner of the country knew his name, even without knowing Pa or our family. Get your cows down to Shelbyville, leave them a week, and let nature take its course. Forty weeks later, you’ll have calves that put on some of the densest, tastiest meat in the state.
In the corral were the scattered bones of a large animal. Near the white skull was an iron ring, the nose hardware that had made this big little Angus cooperate occasionally. Napoleon. Small, but dominant.
Now he was picked clean, in a tumble that showed wild things had tasted his meat.
On the train, through the Great Plains, at dinner for one in the dining car, I ate with the spirit of Pa, imagining him dying, while I was still trying to get to the farm. I sat across from him while he ate a reverse meal, forkful at a time, daring me to stop him.
His twinkle went first, poured back into the glass. Then a spoonful of marrow, an eye on a tine, a stringy gut pulled out like spaghetti, and then a ball of meat plopped onto the plate.
My hands were frozen on the white linen cloth, my tongue stuck to the back of my teeth. I was helpless.
His breath went last and continued flowing out like the wind past the train car and I reached for him.
There was a flicker of color from the house, at the window. I dropped to the dirt without thinking; it smelled like dung and cherries. I got up and dusted myself off. No real danger to speak of here. It was a skinny chicken, nesting in Ma’s hat tree in the parlor, getting in and out through a window propped open, making a mess of leaves and straw.
I circled around toward the kitchen door. I paused, and then knocked on the door with the back of my knuckles. I tried to do it in a familiar way, to cover my sense of not belonging and my empty certainty that no one was inside.
Up close, the siding had been worn to soft edges by years of wind-blown dust. Nail heads protruded everywhere and had been painted in that position. Must not have been Pa. He would have fixed them first.
The kitchen was different from the scene in my memory. Instead of the table where us six kids ate and did our studies and horsed around, there was a rack that looked like it held some old jerked beef and dried apples. A single pan and water pitcher were on the counter; plate, knife and chipped cup in the sink. He’d probably used his fork to fix a hinge or something.
At home, I’d been one of the herd, six kids in seven years, and me second oldest. Ma fed us and Pa worked us and they paid us no mind, put up with no ‘impudence.’ We had our run-ins, but mostly I fenced them out.
I left on the morning after my sixteenth birthday. Pa had walked past me three times that day without a word. I hid my clothes in a bag outside my window and left a short note for Ma on the bed:
“Don’t miss me.”
I kissed her kid-leather cheek as usual when I went through the kitchen screen door, and only wrote again once I was well away:
“Streets aren’t gold, but I do alright. I make harnesses during the day and go to evening school.”
When I pushed his door open with a knock, there was no smell other than the musty oldness of dust and bedding. He was on the bed with his clothes on, seated and slumped a bit sideways. He even had his boots on, up on the covers.
His skin was thin, sucked into all the hollow places of his face and the backs of his hands. In front of a candle I could have seen through him. His right hand was on a white card and the nearby pen had bled onto the bed cover in a black irregular lake.
The note said:
“Son. Pray things are golden for you. Napoleon passed. Funny how I miss him. I’m going …“ and that was all.
Going strong? Going to Louisville? Maybe just going.
I sat on the bed alongside him through the night, looking for memories, embodied here as they were. I was not in a hurry to say goodbye, as I had been to go. He knew I was coming; just not when. He knew we were bound together; maybe not how deeply.
We would have talked.