In broad daylight, I like to say that I’ll bet that my barn is haunted.
It makes sense. For over a century and-a-half, it’s been almost continuously occupied—give or take that 15 years or so before I came on the scene back in 1999. Since then my husband and I have reared a mixed family of Nubian goats, Pineywoods sheep, Italian honeybees, chickens, cats, peacocks and dogs.
In Philip’s childhood, there were cows, and a black and white goat named Holly who refereed (and interfered with) all the football games in the backyard. Before that, there were horses, chickens and quail, quite possibly pheasants (the mid-century occupant was an Englishman), and before that, the requisite beasts of a working plantation.
For most of the story of this place, in fact, the activities which held together the bodies and souls of those who lived here were centered in the stalls, broad hallway, and cobweby loft of our barn. It’s easy to speculate, in the clear light of day, that some of the warmth and intensity of that first, stouthearted family must surely have seeped deep into the soul of this place, saturating the spaces we now occupy with an influence we cannot see.
But on an autumn evening, when dark drops down early, and the wind makes weird music among the eaves, and the joists and timbers creak like aching bones, I often regret my sunlit assertions. Especially when I happen to be in the barn alone, having drawn the lot of nighttime chores. I try not to think about anything but the present inadequately-lighted-moment, as I’m cleaning mangers and toting armloads of hay. A battery of shot hammers the old tin roof, but I know it’s just a tumble of overripe walnuts from the trees overhead; a bluster and thump in the shadows of the loft is just Adhiraj the peacock settling into his roost. When the walls whisper and mutter with inhuman noises, I picture the squirrels scampering back to their nests—with pouch-loads of pilfered corn, no less.
I will admit, however, when my Great Pyrenees, Flora, barks intently at the air, I don’t like it.*
She did it just the other night, peering in through the slats of the goat stall after Hermione and Perdita had been safely ensconced with grain and fresh water.
“Flora, don’t bark at the goats,” I said, with studied nonchalance.
But she wasn’t barking at the goats; she wasn’t even looking at the goats. A second later she bounded over to the sheep stall and started doing the same thing, directing that deep-throated, rumbling Pyr bark at the corner adjacent the goat’s stall.
“Flora, don’t bark at the sheep,” I said, somewhat weakly.
Intentionally or not, she obeyed, for at that moment, she wheeled around and started barking at something beside her in the hallway; then behind her; then—
At this point I sagely surmised that it was about time for me to head back to the house. I may or may not have taken the distance over the shadowed lawn at a trot.
Needless to say, it behooves an imaginative soul to stiffen themselves with a stout dose of philosophy before undertaking the barn chores at our place of a dark night in October.
This past Saturday, the time got away from me, and the sun had long gone when I headed out to put the animals up for the night. I heard Flora barking far away on her fence line patrol, and as I walked down to the barn I kept calling her over my shoulder, stopping to listen for the jingle of her tags. At first I thought it was my imagination, but every time I shouted, “FLO-ra!” there was a corresponding swishing and shuffling in the western pasture, just on the other side of the fence to my right. It sounded like a breeze scuttling over dry leaves, like the earth heaving a sigh. Not like a 98-pound dog galloping towards her dinner.
I shivered and called once more. Soon a white form materialized from the gloom of oaks and hickories arching over our drive, tongue lolling in a most unphantomlike way, plumy tail aloft.
“C’mon, girl,” I said, plunging my fingers into the comfortable substantiality of her fur. “Let’s get the babies** to bed and call it a night.”
As we approached the barn, I knew something was off. An uncanny silence reigned; the emptiness reached out to meet me before I was well within the gate. Even the rooster held his tongue, which was odd, and as I peered around the corner into the hallway, I knew exactly what I would find: Nothing.
The animals always flock to the barn before nightfall, ambling back over honeyed fields in the mystical half-light of early evening; even if I’m late, they’re always there, chewing their cud with visions of crimped oats and cracked corn dancing in their heads. The conscientious Perdita will often meet me at the gate, venturing boldly from the light and companionship of the barn into the uncertain shadows of the yard, trotting at my heels as I fasten enclosures and secure the chickens for the night. The babies may vary their tastes from pasture to pasture upon the whim of the day. But they are always back in the barn at night.
Except, of course, when they aren’t.
In which case, I can only deduce one of two things: they have been distracted by something, like a windfall of fresh acorns (just this past week Hermione feasted so immoderately we were obliged to administer a drench of soybean oil to settle her stomachs). Or they have been spooked by something. Like a half-grown, exuberantly goofy Great Pyrenees who keeps forgetting she’s here to guard them, not play with them.
I didn’t stop to question Flora on the matter. I simply reasoned that preparing the stalls would go much faster without the animals underfoot, and that as soon as all was ready for the night I would go out into the pasture and fetch them in myself.
Accordingly, I topped off the water buckets and mixed up the grain with a tasty, monthly treat of wormwood, garlic, coltsfoot and fennel (they don’t know it’s good for them), chatting cheerfully to Flora all the while, and fighting the fierce urge to whistle. I dusted off my philosophy a bit, remarking inwardly how infinitely interesting it is to live in a place where so much has happened—and where anything might happen. Old homeplaces maintain a settled watchfulness over their own past; they don’t just become a part of your story, they usher you into theirs. And the occasional fancies which raise the hair on your arm or startle your heart into a mad little canter aren’t just aberrations; they’re all part of the romance.
My imagination would be so bored in a new house, I reflected, as I latched the chicken run and made my way across the barnyard towards the west pasture.
At the gate, however, I hesitated. I like to pride myself on boldness where my animals are concerned—it’s a valor sorely lacking in other areas of my life, I’m afraid. Philip is always concerned I’ll do something rash for their sakes, like dive into an active honeybee swarm, or accidentally shoot myself up with anti-toxin in an effort to administer a sub-Q injection. But that night, courage quailed. I stood looking into that black abyss of the lower western pasture, and my feet felt rooted to the ground. I love the terraces of that field in the daytime, undulating south-easterly and fringed with old pines and chestnuts. But at night, it’s hard not to think about the Civil War trenches up in the woods, or the number of Minié balls and rusted harmonica reeds Philip has turned up with his metal detector.
Fortunately, at this moment I remembered every overly-imaginative romantic’s most indispensable accessory: my iPhone. Retrieving it from the feed room, I hurried back to the gate and took a few tentative steps along the fence line, piercing the gloom with its heroic little flashlight app.
“Here sheepies!” I squeaked. “Hermione! Perdita! Sebastian, Harry, Benedict!”
I steeled my nerves and plunged a bit farther.
“Beatrice! Hermia, Titania, Ophelia!”
Silence. I determinedly did not think about dead soldiers, or the fact that the southeast corner of the pasture was always so unaccountably cold. I put from my mind the very idea that the most haunted places on earth are supposedly the sites of most traumatic events. Like Civil War skirmishes.
But just at the first rise, under a clump of wizened pecan trees, I saw something that stopped my heart in my chest. I almost dropped my phone.
Nine pairs of green zombie eyes stared fixedly out of the stygian void.
I stared back, frozen with horror. Then I laughed.
“C’mon babies,” I said, sweeping them with a beam of brave light.
The disembodied eyes remained fixed, unblinking. I walked towards them, but they did not move.
It was then that my philosophy, so woefully neglected during the balance of this adventure, piped up again. I don’t recall the exact words, but it was something like, “Shut that thing off, dummy. Don’t you know how annoying it is to have a flashlight shined straight in your eyes?”
I swung the light back towards the barn, and there was a faint swishing and shuffling in the dry grass behind me. Exactly like the earth heaving a sigh.
“Here, sheepies,” I said, in my most sing-songy voice. “Here, goaties. Let’s go back to the barn.”
A dark figure moved towards me, stepping daintily over the crunching leaves, long silver ears cautiously perpendicular.
“Atta girl, Perdita,” I chimed. “Now, let’s go, all the rest of you.”
It was a slow procession. I quickly realized that my phone had served its purpose; the light streaming from the barn was beacon enough, and the animals knew where they were going. It wasn’t illumination they required, but words. The sound of my voice. Whenever I stopped talking, they stopped walking. As long as I chattered on about cozy stalls and fennel-laced grain, they followed me, quickening their pace at the mention of their own names. If I moved too many steps ahead, they froze, but one gentle word over my shoulder was enough to get them going again.
We finally made it back to the barn, steadfast Perdita at my right hand and gentle Ophelia bringing up the rear. Flora was so happy she greeted everyone with a play bow, which, for once, the sheep were too relieved to be terrified by. I closed everyone safely in their stalls, gave Harry’s horn a playful shake, kissed Hermione on the bridge of her Roman nose. Then, to the soft music of munching grain, I turned out the lights, feeling like I had just witnessed something beautiful and very important.
On a dark night, when things not-quite-canny made an interminable distance between the gloom of the pasture and the light of the barn, all my animals needed was my words, spoken as only I would say them. They knew my voice, and they followed it, straight through the black heart of their blackest fear.
As I wrestled with the crotchety barnyard gate, I conversed briefly with my rational mind. “You know there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, right?”
Indeed, there are. And thank God there always will be.
**It’s bound to slip out at some point, so I may as well state it here: that’s what we call our sheep and goats. We’re real farmers like that.