A journal of narrative writing.

In the spring of his thirty-seventh year Waldemar’s life was perfect: the herd was growing, the family was well and the farm had a promising future. One March morning he awoke at four-thirty, as was his habit, and when he got to the kitchen Lydia was already there. A matching pair of fancy China cups sat on the old Formica table, steam unfurling from the dark still surface of their contents. Waldemar sat heavily in his chair by the window and cradled the dainty cup in his giant, work-worn hands. Lydia smiled across the table at him. “The calves look good, Wald,” she said.

Waldemar drank and gazed out at the moonlit darkness. After a while he turned from the window and looked at his wife.

“Only one with bad feet,” she said. Her small hands flitted from the cup to her thin brown hair to the table in front of her.

“Is that your expert opinion?” He asked. Her instincts about these things were always right. And irritating, like a bad case of chiggers.

Lydia ignored his tone and squinted to make out the heifers. Their lumbering shadows were just visible in the misty top field. She pointed her chin toward the pregnant cows. “They’ll freshen soon.” Lydia understood cows and she’d even taught Janet, when the girl was just eight, to latch the milking machine onto the pendulous teats of the older cows (the new milkers would balk at her inexpert groping). Janet had taken a real shine to one, a nearly all-white Holstein that was eventually sent to slaughter. She’d wept inconsolably that day but Lydia had hugged her and dried her tears, just as she’d dried Fredrik’s a few years earlier when Waldemar had drowned a batch of sickly kittens born to a stray the boy had brought home. Yes, Lydia understood cows (and, for that matter, children and love and her miserable old husband, too).

Waldemar took a deep breath and waited for his annoyance to subside. “Yes, the herd is growing nicely.” He paused and furrowed his brow. “And this summer we’ll buy the land from those damned Hindus.” How dare those turban-wearing darkies refuse to sell him their land?

“Oh Wald, don’t talk like that,” Lydia said. “They’re just like us, trying to get by.”

Waldemar looked at his wife through slitted eyes then pulled on his coat and left. How could she be so blind?

But in farming, as in life, things seldom go the way we expect and Waldemar did not buy the land next door; equipment broke down, feed costs went up and the price of milk sunk lower and lower. The property was bought, instead, by a man from the city whose plans did not include dairy farming or vegetable farming or, for that matter, any kind of farming at all. Men with ropes and stakes and measuring tapes turned the land into a patchwork of strips and squares. They bulldozed the house. Finally, a fat man in a dark suit installed a roadside sign: Valley View Lots For Sale.

Fredrik finished high school around the same time with good grades and high hopes. He’d filled in dozens of college applications and it was only a matter of time. He was sure he’d get into one. Any one would do, just as long as it got him away from the burning oil stink of the crappy old John Deere he was forced to saddle year after year.

But as Waldemar saw it, the boy was finally free to work on the farm. In time he would of course love the land and one day he’d take it over. Half way through dessert one hot August night, Waldemar laid out his plans for Fredrik.

“But I don’t want to be a farmer, Dad.”

Waldemar leaned across the table. It was how things were done where he came from. One generation saving for the next. “Why do you think I work so hard?”

Lydia wanted to speak up for her son but knew better.

“I don’t even like cows,” Fredrik muttered. But not a single college had replied. How could that be?

Ire rose in Waldemar’s throat. “There is nothing wrong with farming. Nothing wrong with hard work.”

“I just don’t like it, Dad,” Fredrik said. Nor did he like his father’s farmer friends with their fat farmer wives who were just as dumb as the cows they raised. Of course he didn’t mean his mother. She wasn’t fat or dumb, but she was a rare exception.

The veins in Waldemar’s neck stood out.

Fredrik stared morosely at his father. “And you know what?” His eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened.

Waldemar glared at him, unmoving.

Fredrik took a deep breath and said, “I’d kill myself if I ended up like you.”

Rain had been scarce that summer and when it finally came in September, Waldemar’s yearling heifers walked through a gate left open, he was sure, by the conniving new neighbours to the west (never mind that the land was still vacant). He refused to believe that Janet or Lydia could have been so careless or that Fredrik – could he have known his applications weren’t mailed? Did he know Waldemar had thrown them into the incinerator with the rest of the trash? No, it wasn’t possible. The animals, free to roam, couldn’t resist the young corn plants and, before long, half the herd was staggering while the rest lay prostrate in the rain, unable to breathe. Most of them died within hours.

Fredrik got drunk with his friends that night and didn’t come home till sunrise.

Janet was just fifteen then, but life and death had become, to her, one and the same. The miracle of birth she once revered was little more than a messy chore and she no longer cried over culled cows and sickly calves. In fact, she’d only cried about two things that summer: a boy who’d promised his undying love (and when he’d gotten what boys that age so often want he said so long and that was that), and the baby she didn’t keep.

A year later, Waldemar sat by the window drinking his coffee, deep in thought. In the quiet hours before the children stirred, he could forget they were not children any longer; that Janet was nearly as old as Lydia had been when they’d married; that at Fredrik’s age, Waldemar was already a husband and a farmer – a man. He could almost forget Lydia’s voice as she’d pleaded with him to stop hitting Fredrik when the boy (just out of diapers and thinks he’s a man!) had stumbled into the house stinking of whiskey and smoke and sneering in Waldemar’s face. Won’t be a farmer! He – Waldemar – had lost control. Anger had poured from him like blood at the slaughter. Waldemar shuddered to think how good it had felt.

And in those quiet moments he could almost forget how he’d learned, too late, that his little girl had been to one of those clinics and that his loving, dutiful wife had taken her there herself. And behind his back!

Lydia had told him, months after, over a lunch of sardines and onions. She’d watched in silence as he hunched over his plate, deliberately pushing one forkful after another past his oily lips. When he finished (and before he sat back to belch) she laid her hands over his and said there was something – something he would not like – that she needed to tell him. She spoke calmly and clearly. When he tried to speak she shushed him. When there was nothing more to tell, she gazed soothingly into his face and said, “She was afraid to tell you, Wald.”

Waldemar brooded while Lydia cleared the table.

It had been, quite possibly, the most liberating moment of Lydia’s life, though she’d never have said it out loud. And not much later, over a sink full of dirty dishes she’d given him an exceptionally kind look and said: “Oh, and the doctor says I have cancer.”

In those quiet moments he could forget, if he tried, how terribly wrong it had all gone, all at once.

The old house stood in perfect isolation on the highest point of the land above the barns with a sweeping view of the fields. To the east were what remained of the summer crops. Then came the old gable-roofed barn that had once housed the pigs and the sheep and even, for one winter, two goats. After that there was the equipment shed and, further south, just beyond the giant willows, the big red barn.

The big red barn had been his pride and joy. His beloved Holsteins, with their strong supple udders and perfectly angled hocks, had grazed the fertile bottomland. When they were old enough to breed, the black and white beauties with their big wet eyes came up to the barn where they produced calves and milk and money. But that was then.

Now the barn stood as silent as the blue hulk of the distant mountains.

Waldemar held the cup close to his face and the ashy aroma filled his nostrils. He thought about the old truck and wondered whether the clutch would survive another trip to the highway. And whether another bigmouth, know-it-all, city slicker would show up and tell him what he should and shouldn’t be growing. Like they know anything about farming! He got up and shoved the chair under the table and was in the middle of making breakfast when he heard his wife’s tentative footfalls on the landing upstairs. “Lydia?” he said. “You ready to come down?” Her condition had worsened rapidly in the months since she’d told him, and he was overwhelmed at various times by a confusing mix of anger, pity and guilt.

“I’m fine, Wald. I’ll just take my time.”