Lamentations Of A Farmer by Steven Baird


When the derecho winds arrived Friday, they lifted the split-rail fences, tore up most of the barn roof, uprooted the vegetable garden, then set everything down, hard, probably, in the parking lot of the shuttered A&P in Mechanicsburg. When he first heard the sound, he thought the P&E Freight was running ten minutes early, its whistle off-key by about two octaves. Then he remembered he hadn’t heard that whistle in nearly sixty years, and the bones of that old depot were half a country away.

Saturday morning, he carried his shovel to the fence line, now reduced to a perforated line of dirt clumps and splintered cedar, and he rubbed the tired out of his eyes. Strands of barbed wire spread across the pasture, patches of galvanized weeds.

As through a wide breach they come, in the midst of the ruin they roll themselves in,” he said. “Job, you were one sorry son of a bitch if you couldn’t figure that out.” Before he started, he checked his pockets. “Fool,” he said. “What is it you expect to accomplish with only a shovel?” Nonetheless, he set the blade into the dirt, and leaned into it with his boot.

From a mean distance, he noted the tricks of the midmorning sunshine, how it spilled through a colander of apple tree branches and furnished a fine frippery of light, then raised its heels along the curves of the pea-gravel garden borders and set itself to dance. Even so, the dark western horizon was starting to crawl back.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated,” he whispered.

His cows, those that remained in the field, gawped at him from a tousled ridge of hay. His favorite (if a beast could be called a favorite, though she wore a particular sorrowful glint in her eyes that always drew his attention), named Marmalade for the spoon-shaped patches on her neck, stepped towards him, tentative, and she brought her melancholy with her.

“To the end, eh, Marmy?” he said.

She wore a garland of barbed wire around her neck and blood soaked her throat.

And Adam gave names to all cattle,” he said, “and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found any help meet for him.”

{He drove unescorted women in his cab, to parks and to clothing stores and to fine restaurants, and they would not speak to him other than to tell him their destination and to sometimes thank him upon arrival. They sat properly in the back seat, spines stiff, and he studied them discreetly. He would notice the color of their hats, the fabrics of their skirts and blouses, the accoutrements of jewelry and baubles, and the polished silver chains around their necks. They all smelled of strong perfumes and dry-cleaning chemicals and heavy hairspray. These women were contrivances, really, from top to bottom, from their hard red frowns to the arch of their uncomfortable shoes. That he still wanted them troubled him.}

There was an empty glaze in Marmalade’s gaze, an absence of purpose and curiosity. Her movement was forward motion only, and with just a few steps left in her, there was a good chance she might collapse on him.

He leaned his weight into the shovel and it cracked in two, and he fell onto its splintered barrel, belly first.

“God-damn,” he said, and collapsed.

{Early April morning in 1968, he drove a young woman all the way to Mile Square in Indianapolis. It was an uncomplicated route from West 24th near the river to the Wholesale District; not a long distance, ordinarily, but Bobby Kennedy was in town to give a speech that night, and traffic was tight with detours and checkpoints. She said she wanted to meet up with her friends for breakfast, though that would likely turn out to be lunch. A fifteen-minute drive turned into an hour and ten. She talked, he listened, surprised by all the air she had in her voice.

She was standing in front of a gas station when he picked her up.

“Where you heading?” he asked.

“You know the YMCA on Alabama Street?”

“I do.”

“Great. There, please.”

They drove the first two blocks in silence. He saw her study her nails, then frown, then stare out the window.

“You going to see Mister Kennedy tonight?” he asked.

“What? No. He makes me feel sad. What happened to his brother was awful, and every time I see him on TV, I want to cry. What do you think about this necklace?” She gathered it in her hand and lifted it so that he could see it in the rearview mirror.

“Sure. It’s pretty. Did you make it?”

“Yes, indeed. They're just wooden beads, but I like them. They soothe me when I make them and when I wear them. Like prayer beads, only non-denominational. I'm a born worrier, I suppose.” She took a deep breath. “I’m going to a harp concert tonight with a few friends. Well, concert and seminar, and yes, there are such things. You should go.”

That startled him. “I can’t,” he said. “I’ll probably still be driving. Make some good tips, maybe. A lot of important people in town today.”

“Well, that’s a shame. It’s such beautiful music. Like prayers in an empty space. That’s what my mother used to say. She was a funny lady. Or maybe she was just crazy. Who knows, right?”

He thought about his own mother. “Yeah.”}

A murmuration of birds overhead. Were they starlings? He saw an article about such things a few weeks earlier, in The Atlantic or The New Yorker, something he read in Dr. Wannamaker's waiting room. That's what they were called. A murmuration. Such a calm, sleepy word. Why was he thinking about her again? She never told him her name, he never told her his. Was this how it was supposed to go, this business of dying, so careless, so noiseless? Fretting about the old things, the lost things? This. Just this. This is what he wanted. He wanted to remember that girl, the little bit of time they shared. Well, that’s a shame, she said when he told her he couldn’t go to her harp concert, and it sounded genuine. What kind of thing was that, a harp concert, unless it was a dream, all of it a dream, right down the part where he impaled himself with a shovel? Was his life just a murmuration, so useless, so... so wanting?

Marmalade stood above him, her sightless eyes staring down at him. What was she thinking? Why was it easier for her to keep standing than it was to surrender to everything, to just fall and keep falling until you were done?

Do not remember the former things, nor consider the things of old: this, by rote. “Behold, I will do a new thing, Now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it?

“No,” he said. “Apparently, I won’t.”

{“My dad used to walk me to school when he could,” she said. “And there were holly trees beside this one house, an expensive house set back from the sidewalk. And every spring, the berries would drop on the pavement, and they’d turn brown and they sounded like snap peas if you stepped on them. Dad said they were poisonous, and I thought, ‘Why on earth would I put one of those in my mouth?’”

He laughed. “That would be something a boy would have tried. I probably would have.”

“Oh? If it was a pistachio tree, I would have. I want to grow pistachios when I’m older and wiser. An entire orchard of wild pistachios. Pistachios!”

“I think you like that word.”

“Pist-ach-ios? Yes, I think I do. When I meet up with my friends and we go for breakfast, you know what I want?”

“Pistach--”

“No, no, I'm finished with those for now. No, I want marmalade. Orange marmalade on toast. With a cup of orange pekoe tea. Just like a fine, cultured woman.”

“You realize orange pekoe is not a color or flavor. It’s--”

“Oh, I know, it’s a grade of tea. But I can be such a crazyhead sometimes. I can’t remember what I want until I’m wanting something else. It could be a psychosis or something, I don’t know. I could be a very dangerous woman.”

“I think you’re fine,” he said, and swallowed.

“Well, thank you. And I think you’re nice, too. Do you think these cars are ever going to move again?”}

Do you think this cow is ever going to move again? Please keel over, Marmalade, and away from me, please.

He couldn’t turn his head anymore, and now the cow filled his entire field of vision. She was listing now, fore and aft, and he was afraid to close his eyes, and so they stared at each other, each waiting for the other to die first. This can’t be all there is to dying. It seems too easy, too stupid. It wasn’t easy at all.

He decided to become a farmer because he realized how much he despised cities. It took him almost ten years and a thousand – at least! -- trips to that gas station where he first saw her. He hoped she was growing pistachios in another part of the country, safe and sane, far away from people who never learned how to stop wanting.

{“I don’t have much money, but I want to give you this as a thank you,” she said, and handed him her necklace. “For calming my anxiety in all this traffic. You look like someone who really doesn’t like to drive at all.”

“I really don’t. But I can’t accept it.”

“Yes, you can. I make them, remember? I have dozens of them at home. Please. It’s not much.”

He nodded. “It is.”

“Well, thank you again.” She smiled.

“Listen, if you ever need another ride, I’m--”

“Oh, hey, there’s Barbara! Hey, Barb!” She waved. Then to him: “I'm sorry, I have to go. Look me up if you want to, okay?”

“Sure.”

And he watched her leave.}

There was a harsh shotgun blast from the side of the road, maybe thirty feet away, and Marmalade fell, to his left, away from him.

A voice rushed towards him, each word progressively breathless: “Oh, man, mister, are you okay? Jimmy, call 9-1-1, and fetch me that blanket in the back seat... the blue one, not the plaid one... that's the dog's. No, let’s not try to move him... it looks pretty... bad. Could be he’s... in shock.”

When the time came to move him, he hoped they would be mindful not to spill the beads from his pocket. There were sixty-two of them, and someone with better eyes than he would have to restring them one day. He lost his eyeglasses some time ago.

Murmurations were above him again, and the sky, this time, was bathed in orange light.

Remember, he said to no one, there are sixty-two of them.

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