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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2014 - Vol. 11, Issue 1


written by

Randy Peters

The sun blazed in a bright blue cloudless sky. Birds sang, the air carried the smell of hay drying in back fields coupled with manure from the barn. Cows, impatient to get back in the pasture, mooed in the barnyard, and in the distance, Pepere circled a meadow on one of his old tractors. Sounds from its ancient skipping engine echoed off distant trees crowding in on the open edges. It was a great day to be five.


Mom pulled Dad’s car to a stop in front of a two-story white farmhouse sporting green asphalt shingles. An enclosed woodshed stood attached to the left, and a dilapidated tool shack leaned beside that. A cozy sunroom ran along the house front, abutting a white clover speckled lawn. Like most of the buildings, it was used for storage.


I wrestled open the enormous door of Dad’s Ford Galaxie 500, slipped through the crack I made, and raced toward the house. Clanging and crashing hammered out from the milk-house beyond the tool shed like a summer storm. I figured somebody must have been cleaning up after that morning’s milking. I almost tripped over Ginger, my grandparents’ collie cow dog, in my mad dash for the two wooden stairs leading to their front door. I stopped just long enough to pat her on the head.


“You know, Ginger, you shouldn’t lay by the steps like that. Somebody might step on you by accident.”


She thumped her shaggy brown tail on the ground while licking my hand. I heard a car door slam and assumed Mom had closed the door I was unable to. I stomped up the steps, stretched as far up as I could reach, and managed to turn that shiny brass knob, just under a large, rattly pane of glass, enough to open the plain wood door.


After several short-legged strides into Memere’s kitchen, I peered around a sturdy table piled high with paper, beer tabs, and assorted what-nots. Memere, a large, happy woman who always wore a flower print apron, stood with her back facing me doing dishes. Loaded counters surrounded by varnished cupboards, formed a box canyon around her. The floor sloped down on this side of the house, so Memere looked somehow smaller from where I stood.


“Hi, Memere.”


She cast half a glance over her shoulder.


“Hi, Pet.”


“Is Donald in the barn?”


“Yes he is.”


“Can I go help?”


“As long as you mind and don’t git in the way.”


I sprinted to the still-open door and ran toward the barn, brushing by Mom at the woodshed entrance.


“Bye, Mom, I gotta help Donald do chores.”


“Be good, and be careful.”


The barn was gray at one time, but the elements had taken their toll. Remnants of dull paint clung to weathered boards in defiance of Mother Nature. I lifted the old fashioned steel latch on the double boarded door with both hands and stepped into the smell of dust and cold concrete that lingered in the milk-house. The stainless steel bulk tank across from the deep double sink hummed an electrical tune. The room sat as cluttered as the rest of the farm. An antique wood cook stove stood in one corner, its snaking tail of bagged grain, milk replacer, baling twine, and barbed wire ran along one wall, turned a corner, and ended at Donald’s battered red mini-bike where it leaned against some bowed stairs. I climbed the short staircase and pushed open a thin wooden door. A spring on top creaked and twanged as it stretched. I crowded past the ancient flap and let it go; the spring did its job well, slamming the door shut with a loud crack. I looked to the right and scanned an empty section known as “the little barn”. Deserted wood stanchions, behind a barren feed trough, seemed lonely without their boarders.


“Donald, where are you?”


My small voiced sounded like a giant’s in the desolate structure.


“I’m in the calf barn.”


I tromped through the barn, careful not to step on any loose floorboards covering the gutter. In those days, before gutter cleaners, one had to lift a plank and scrape manure into an opening underneath, where it dropped into the basement. From there, it was shoveled by hand into a manure spreader. I reached the calf barn- two converted horse stalls- peeked in, and saw Donald working hard at piling calf droppings in the floor’s center.


“Hey, Donald.”


“Hey, buttthead.”


“Whatcha doin’?”


“I’m shovelin’ crap, what’s it look like I’m doin, stupid?”


Despite his rough brotherly treatment of me, I idolized my uncle. He was nine years older than me, slim built, and in my eyes, the second strongest man I knew. The first, of course, was my dad.


I watched as Donald used his dung fork to fish an iron circlet from the manure and sawdust. He grabbed the ring and lifted a square plank trap door with an ease that made it look feather light. He set the cover aside then shoveled manure into the basement.


When finished, he looked at me while replacing the lid and said, “Okay, butthead, me and Janie are gonna put the cows out ta pasture. Do ya think ya can stay here and outta stuff fer a few minutes?”


Janie was my aunt, Donald’s sister.




He gave me a playful swat then left, his rubber boots thumping across the floor.


I stared at that trap door thinking, “I bet I coulda’ helped shovelin’ crap.”


An idea dawned in my head. I could feel my face brighten like the early morning eastern sky. I’d prove I could’ve helped. I found a small dried calf pie to use in my experiment. I held it in my right hand while reaching for the iron ring with my left; its corroded metal felt rough from the coating of manure it wore. I lifted, nothing happened. Maybe it was heavier than I thought. Using all my strength, I heaved again. The cover crept past its casing, tilted, and plummeted through the hole, taking me along for the ride.


I rocketed downward at blinding speed. A light brown blur, which turned out to be a main support beam, flashed by, my head just missing it. When I hit the manure pile there was a soft, wet, splat!, followed by a crack deep in my ears. The force of my head striking that trap door erased the next few moments. My brain began recording again as I splashed toward two large sliding doors through a knee deep wheel track filled with a concoction of water, urine, and liquid manure. I emerged from the basement screeching like a banshee.


My aunt and uncle were next to the gate on the far side of the barnyard. Although they were side by side, their reactions were miles apart.


When Donald laid eyes on the walking dung heap, he laughed so hard he fell on his back, incapacitated by the delicious humor of my plight.


Janie yelled at him, “It’s not funny, he could be hurt.”


She rushed to me as fast as her oversized barn boots would allow, used her fingers to wipe some of the mess off my face, and asked if I was okay. I could only nod. Shock and shame had stolen my voice. She led me toward the house.


Memere had heard the commotion and met us in the doorway.


“What happened?”


Donald appeared beside me, fighting resurging waves of giggles.


“You shoulda’ seen it, Ma. The sighta’ him stumblin’ outta the basement was the funniest thing I ever saw.”


Janie tried to defend the last shreds of dignity I had left.


“It’s not funny at all. He coulda’ been hurt, stop laughin’ at him.”


“Well,” Memere interjected, “we better git ’im cleaned up a little and git ’im home.”


“I’ll help.” Donald offered with a gleam in his eye.


He ran to the tool shed and came back carrying a square pointed shovel. When he started scraping me off, Janie took a swipe at him.


“Stop that. Why are you so mean? Go on, git, I’ll do it.” She used her hands to dredge as much gunk off me as she could.


“You want me to run a bath for ‘im, Ma?”


“No, I’ll take ‘im home.”


Memere placed a thick layer of old newspapers on the cloth seat of her caramel colored Ford LTD, hoisted me in, and gave me strict instructions NOT to touch anything. We rode home in silence. I’d left most of my pride in the manure pile and couldn’t risk losing any more by speaking.


My heart dropped to my stomach as we pulled into my parents’ white pea stone driveway. Was Mom going to be mad at me? What if she didn’t let me go to Memere and Pepere’s ever again? The beige house wouldn’t have instilled more fear in me if it had been Dracula’s castle. When she heard us pull in, Mom hurried out of her kitchen and down three concrete steps. She reached the car just as Memere climbed out.


“What happened, Jeanne?”


“Your boy got himself into a bit of a fix.”


“Is he okay?”


“Nothin’ hurt but his pride.”


Memere opened my door and lifted me out of her Ford. I could tell by the look on Mom’s face that my hi-jinx had reached a new level.




“That’s what I thought when I first saw ‘im too.”


Memere set me on the ground then continued.


“Once we got ‘im scraped off a little and figured out he only had a bump on his head, I decided that since he’s your boy, you should get the pleasure of cleanin’ ‘im up.”


She walked around her car, slid back into the front seat and left.


Chin on my chest and heart pounding like a jackhammer, I rolled my eyes up to gauge Mom’s mood. She grinned at me and I knew everything was going to be okay. She led me toward the far side of our house where the garden hose rested. She doused me with ice cold water until the runoff was no longer brown, then put me in the bathtub. I was allowed to go to Memere and Pepere’s again, but I avoided the calf barn like it was haunted.



Originally published in the Green Mountain Trading Post, Sept. 2009

Randy Peters has had short stories published in "The Green Mountain Trading Post", "Northland Journal", Through the Fence, and two inclusions in an anthology put out by Resilience Multimedia. He’s also an award-winning poet with World Poetry Movement, received second place in the Louise Wahl Memorial Writing Contest, and has four poems slated to appear in Twisted Dreams and four more in Death Head Grin.

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