The Girl in the Hayloft
Noreen was a mysterious stranger in our neighborhood. She looked rich, and she rode a shiny horse, as shiny-black as her long flowing hair. It was on the evening when she trotted Midnight over to Abraham's barn--to have his saddle sore treated--that she asked me to take her into the hayloft: "I've been lots of places," she said, her bright blue eyes lifted toward the front of the milking barn, "but never in a loft like that."
I was lean and strong for sixteen, but what she'd asked frightened me. For though I was alone most of the time, because I had no brothers or sisters and Mama had died three years after she'd married Abraham, I had dreamed many happy hours away up there in the hayloft, mostly between the milkings and when I wasn't going to school. Taking a girl up there had been a part of my main dreams, like deer stalking, rabbit hunting, and living long enough to leave Abraham Setnick. But I wasn't sure how ready I was for this creamy-acting Noreen.
After Mama died, the hayloft became the most peaceful place I could find. Abraham beat Mama too much that last year, and lately he'd turned on me. But I'd never been hit or fussed at up there in the hayloft. I reckon that was because Abraham was too lazy to pull his bull-hard body over the ladder to pitch down the hay.
Noreen, standing about an inch taller than me, was wearing thick glasses, ironed jeans, and sticking out gently in her neat yellow blouse. She kept gazing toward the loft. I moved away from her, over to help Abraham dab the Pioneer livestock oil on Midnight's raw backbone. I hoped she'd soon forget about exploring the loft with me. It wasn't that I didn't think she was real pretty; she just didn't fit those quiet country girls that I'd been dreaming about up there. It crossed my mind that she could fade out my dreams, and then the hayloft wouldn't be my special place anymore.
She took a couple of steps, stood beside me. "Please," she begged. "Will you take
me up there?"
Her perfume smelled rich, too, like a flower garden beside a mansion. I held hard to the reins, because the healing oil, like the late May evening, was hot. Midnight felt the stinging on his sore, jerked his head up and then was still. Then Abraham, powerful, barrel-chested, blew out one of his heavy breaths, like he'd done all those dreaded times he'd gotten mad with Mama and me. He wrenched the lines from my hands and said in a strange polite voice: "Your mama never did teach you proper manners, did she, boy?"
He was angry--angry but now thin-smiling at Noreen. "I never been able to teach him none, neither, Miss," he told her. Then he turned his icy, dark eyes on me, spitting the smile straight at my feet. "You git on up there in that barn and show that girl round the loft," he said. Now he shook his head at me in an all-is-lost way: "Somehow, boy, you got to do better 'bout your company."
"Yes, sir," I said, rubbing my sweaty palms over Midnight's sweaty shoulder.
He stared at me long enough to work up another thin smile, before he turned back to Noreen. "I've got business in town, Miss. Your horse'll be tied to the fence yonder."
I guess she nodded because I didn't hear her answer nor glance to see why she'd suddenly become so still and quiet. I could feel my heart picking up a faster pace, for I was about to turn and ask her to come with me to the loft.
Squeaking in her Oxfords, she followed me along the lower floor of the barn, down past the double row of empty stanchions, on to a doorway that opened into a cramped silage depot at the bottom of the silo, which also housed the ladder to the loft. It was here that Abraham had built a shelf as wide as the radio and electric clock he'd bought for the twenty Holsteins. He was convinced that the cows milked more to Bluegrass music and the strict starting time of five in the morning and five in the evening. Nothing, not even the preacher preaching after twelve, made him any madder than a late milking. Once, after I'd returned to the barn twenty minutes late from an oat-patch baseball game, he laid on me four heavy lashes with bailing wire.
I remembered ... and noticed that it was already four o'clock when Noreen and I climbed the ladder and entered the loft. She paused behind me, where I left her standing and staring at what she'd never seen before. I walked on to the door that opened out to the pasture and grazing herd. But somehow I couldn't see anything in front of me except Noreen's kind blue eyes, long, dark hair, and the yellow blouse pressing outward now and then. My feet wanted to turn round but I held them in place. "Better be careful," I warned, "Those lespedeza bales ain't stacked to stay ... and don't get tangled up in that loose bailing wire."
Against one of the dormer windows, a fooled sparrow fluttered. And above the stuffy heat amidst the towering hay little pops and cracks echoed off the tin roof. There was a sweet scent, like a pecan pie, coming off the cured hay. Then the sound of her voice broke the somber silences that I'd grown so used to hearing: "I'm afraid," she half whispered. "Please come and be with me."
Her plea flowed into me, touching deeper than the saddest Bluegrass I'd ever heard. I turned, saw her taking in the sagging cobwebs that thickly braced the rafters of the wide gambrel roof, and for a moment she reminded me of a bedded deer listening for
trailing hounds. I thought she might be scared and felt guilty standing that far from her. And as I watched, she got even prettier, like a rainy day cleared just before sundown. I'd never dreamed that a girl like her would ever beg me to come and be with her.
When I reached her, she glimpsed my hand, fumbled for it. The hold was tight, tender, as soft as I'd dreamed a girl's would feel. "It's just beautiful up here!" she said, still gazing up at the roof.
I'd heard a little quiver of fear in her voice. "You mean the dust webs yonder?" I asked.
"No--it's the light." She squeezed my hand and then eased off. "No, not the light," she sighed, shaking her hair. Now she took a step, nudging me beside her. A deep breath raised her breast round against the blouse.
I glanced at her eyes behind the thick glasses. They glittered between dark, jumpy lashes and reflected the colors of a sparkling blue pond. I wondered what they were seeing. "Maybe it's the dark corners," I suggested.
Then her eyes closed. "Transition," she whispered. "It's magnificent."
I raised my eyes and searched the loft, searched my brain for some meaning of her strange word. Then she led me to one of the dormer windows, where the green dust of lespedeza and the red dust of crimson clover had covered over. And there in the stained sunlight she glowed brown like an Indian. She raised her free hand and trembled her fingers just off from the large dusty pane.
"Don't ever clean it," she said. "It's perfect." I didn't answer. All I could think of was a pretty window I'd seen once behind the choir of a big-town church.
"Do you come up here often?" she asked, still playing her fingers near the pane.
"Mostly every day," I said.
"Is your name really 'Boy'?" she asked.
"Mama called me Luke," I said.
We talked but she wouldn't look at me. She just listened and watched her pointing finger wind through the dust of the pane, on which she was now leaving lots of large printed letters. Just as she'd finished a long word, we heard Abraham's pickup start up and grind down the lane toward the highway. From the window we could see his dust rolling up and then he was out of sight. She released my hand, took off her glasses and folded them on top of the windowsill. Then she suddenly turned and sat down on the loose straw under the window. For a moment I felt lost and lonely.
"There's room for you," she said, gazing up at me while her right hand smoothed out a place beside her. Below the light of the window she was even darker, except for her bright, unblinking stare. "Aren't you coming?" she asked in a low, clear voice.
Seemed that the whole loft had suddenly taken on a peaceful glow. I sat down close. Her leg rested against mine, not pushy but there. She raised my right hand and settled it gently on her lap. As she studied the calluses under my knuckles, her hair slipped off her left shoulder, hid her face. A stingy breeze touched the flimsy ends, curled them and then let them go. Then she held my hand sandwiched between hers, like she felt pity for my calluses, but she wouldn't look at me. We just went on talking for a long time.
"Luke, what do you do when you're lonely?" she asked as she wandered compassionately over the top of my hand.
"Play," I answered.
"My harmonica. What do you do?"
"Ride Midnight," she said, rubbing my palm now. "Do you play well?"
"Good enough to feel better," I said.
"Please, would you play for me?"
I lied, said the harmonica was home in my room. But it was safe in the loft, in a metal box where I kept special things. Besides, my breathing was acting strange, and it took calm breathing to blow the songs I knew. She might not like them, I thought. Hoping to take her away from the harmonica, I nudged my leg tighter against hers.
"What does the word mean?" I asked.
"Something about the light ... the dust up here."
"Oh, yes--transition." She talked faster than I could think, but I remembered the part about change from darkness to light, from shouting to whispering... "If you can learn to control transition," she said, "someday you'll become a real artist," Then she pointed toward the window. "The beautiful dust--it's the artist up here."
We were seeing each other now. She smiled the kindest smile I'd ever felt. "Now, do you understand transition, Luke?"
"I think so," I said. "Are you going to be an artist?"
She nodded and then turned back to my hands. "Yes, a painter."
I loved the way her cheeks curved below her eyes. There was a bright spot on her forehead and her smooth, damp lips stayed parted, as though an easy breath was going all the time. I inched my hand out of hers and slipped my fingers between her fingers and pressed us gently together. She found my eyes, her breast high and then down again. Even before I spoke, I knew the trembling would bother my words: "Ca-can I touch your lips with mine?" I stammered.
She leaned, eyes closing, clutching the loose straw to brace her free hand. The air between us heated, and we stayed soft together till she leaned harder on me, till she mashed her breast against my chest and broke and fell back.
Before I was able to calm my breathing, she stood and reached for her glasses and placed them on her face. I waited, still on the straw, feeling like I'd just come home from a long time away. And then I watched as she wheeled from the window, passed by me and, staring straight ahead, called out loudly: "Good-bye, Luke!" She didn't look back as she ran beside the stacked hay to reach the ladder. I couldn't make myself follow her.
She'd printed T-R-A-N-S-I-T-I-O-N across the window. Through a T, I saw her sitting strong in the saddle, trotting Midnight the way she'd come. Dim flashes of sunlight bounced off her hair and the sleek rump of her horse. There was a rise near the highway ... then she was gone. For a long spell, I just kept staring through the window, down the empty path where she'd been.
Suddenly I saw a rising cloud of gray dust following Abraham's pickup. It was then that I noticed the tall shadows of sycamores standing on the fence line between Abraham and Mr. Lee. And then, too, that I discovered how the cows had drifted from the meadow and were milling about in the holding pen. Milking time had passed!
I thought of praying to God that Abraham wouldn't beat me, but I'd long ago decided that his vexing load of evil was hopeless and prayer-proof. I wasn't afraid, though. I couldn't understand what strange thing had come over me--I wasn't afraid of Abraham anymore. I climbed down the ladder to meet him.
He parked the pickup where he'd doctored Midnight's saddle sore. He glanced me, not mad yet, and then to the silent compressor that should have been humming and working the electric milkers. "What's wrong with that thing?" he asked, walking toward me, reflecting aggravated concern.
I knew if he slapped me, after I'd told him the truth, it would be over. If not, he'd unwind a piece of used haywire from the first fence post leaving the barn. But I knew--I knew that what I'd done held more for him than a slapping-punishment. So I stepped in close to him, because missing only made him swing harder next time. He was there, and both of us knew that the moment he'd waited for my answer was all used up.
"What's wrong!" he suddenly shouted, frowning, drilling his hard, cold eyes into mine. "Why ain't them milkers clicking?"
With the toe of one of my brogans, I scarred the dirt, and then I dug the scar deeper with the other one. My hands grew slippery as they held each other behind my back. I drew in a deep breath, stared him in the face and said, "Abraham, I--I was with the girl. I was with the girl in the hayloft."
I hoped a calf would bellow, or maybe a hound would bark a time or two. Seemed the whole world was listening and waiting. The quiet between a rabbit I'd flushed once and the roaring blast of my double barrel crossed my mind.
His big hand came up, flashed open. I thought it would hit, but it pointed up, toward the door of the loft, Abraham frowning behind it, then asking, "You mean all this time you've been fiddling round with that..." He paused, shaking his head as in disbelief. "Have you lost your mind, boy?"
I dared to check Abraham's face but couldn't hold there. So I kept looking up till
Noreen's word across the window stopped me; and the next moment my brain blanked
Abraham's evilness away, and I could feel my lips together on Noreen's and her soft
breast moving against my chest....
Then Abraham was shouting: "Have you lost your mind, boy!"
I tried to tell him that I was sorry. "Abraham, I didn't know time was passing that
He went for the haywire, muttering that he'd teach me a good lesson about time.
On his way back, he doubled the wire strand and raised it for the downswing. He grunted like he was splitting firewood. I heard the wire skirring past my ear. Then I felt it scorching into my shoulder, fitting hot round my back. My knees buckled. I stiffened again, waiting for the next lash. If I had begged: "Abraham, please don't hit me anymore," or had cried him blurry in front of me, there wouldn't have been over four hits, like the last time.
But I didn't cry nor beg for mercy. For the first time since the first beating, the noise was his. He was hearing himself work me over. He got my neck, deep, long, and bleeding. Maybe it was a mistake, a wild swing after he'd glimpsed me dry and silent, staring into his red, angry face. The wire swished up again, wet and red over his head but holding. My arms hung stiff beside me. I stood steady in my shoes and nothing about me twitched, not even the tips of my fingers.
I could tell, now, that I was getting blurry to Abraham. He didn't chance a wink. Dropping the wire, then his eyes, I heard him quiver, "Let's milk."
After the milking, he left the pickup parked and walked down the lane towards the house. Abraham walked a lot when he was lonely, slow and bent. I think he was afraid, now, that he'd finally lost me.
From the loft, I pitched the night hay into the feed wagon. Noreen's word got dusty. I cleaned it best I could, and then found my harmonica and blew slow under the window a while. Even with my bloody neck, I thought it had been the best day of my life--my first real kiss and, I was sure, my last beating. I stopped playing and heard myself whispering, "Noreen...." The straw beside me lay like she'd left it--pressed down smooth and peaceful. I smiled and thought of a spring morning in the sage field, of an empty place still warm where a deer had bedded down.