essay from writer's retreat
Wentworth, N.H. 1997
The thunderstorm moves in just as the evening milking is nearing completion. All day the August sun has climbed, a brass ball in a sultry sky, shrivelling the long green streamers of the field corn, wilting the dahlias along the north end of the house. The cosmos near the front porch droop delicately, their soft pink petals faded and limp, their frothy leaves dangling on listless stems. In the yard the hens scratch in the dirt, clucking querulously.
My grandfather has not lingered over his noon dinner today, has foregone his usual doze in the rocking chair. Leaving his pipe and the can of Prince Albert on the living room table, he gathers the hired men, the pitchforks, the water jug and clambers stiffly into the passenger seat of the farm truck. The truck bumps down the rough track to the meadow, lurching over the ruts, its slow progress marked by puffs of dust.
I scuff along to the meadow gate to watch the slow loading of the hay bales, the jerking stops and starts of the old truck. Three times the men return to stow the neat tiers of bales in the bay of the big barn. Their blue shirts are stuck to their backs; when they swill from the common jug of ice water, the wetness dribbles onto their chins, drips and mingles with the sweat of their forearms, spatters onto their dusty shoes.
In the northwest sky the clouds pile, white shading into ashy grey and purple-black. My uncle fusses about the dooryard, shooing the hens toward their coop, muttering dourly about "thunder heads." A sullen wind stirs up acrid dust, rushes through the branches of the apricot tree, turns up the leaves of the maples.
No one needs to fetch the cows home for milking; an hour early they cluster uneasily at the gate. We stand guard while they cross the dirt road and plod into the barn, cowpies splotting behind them onto the dry packed earth. The old De Laval milk pump sputters and drones, the sound harsh in the heavy air. The clatter of pails and milk cans, the scrape of the hoe pushing manure into the gutters, create a dinning discord as the wary hush deepens outside.
I lurk at my grandfather's heels, getting in his way, as edgy as the stable cats, until he installs me on an upturned bucket in the alcove between the milking barn and the hay barn. A tiger cat weaves around my sneakered feet, his eyes glowing amber in the strange early dusk.
As the milking machine is pulled from the last cow the sky outside the open windows is slashed with fire, yellow-white cutting against a horizon gone an angry blackened green. Thunder crescendos, the timbers of the barn creak. The cows plunge in their wooden stanchions, straining, frightened. At the third crack the lights flicker and go out. The milk pump whines to a stop. My grandfather appears beside me, his bulk familiar and reassuring in the gloom. We walk out to stand together in the roofed passageway between the barn and milkhouse. Rain pounds on the tin overhead and sluices in sheets past the open sliding door, drilling a trench as it hits the gravel of the driveway.
There is a pause like a gasp of indrawn breath, a split second before the rain is followed by a staccato of small hail. Steam rises from the ground and the smell of old dust gives way to a cool scent ---like snow in summer. In a few moments the din eases, familiar shapes loom through the silver veil of wet, the thunder creeps off, still grumbling.
My grandfather reaches back inside the stable doorway, plucks his ragged denim barn frock from the peg. He wraps me in the coat, the woolen lining scratching my bare arms. Hoisting me, he plods through the green twilight toward the house.