I was singing again. At the same time, I was swinging on the lower half of the cow barn door. The top half was open for air, and the bottom half was supposed to be kept closed so the loose calves wouldn't get out. I was not allowed to swing on the door, because it wrecked the hinges. It was something I did when there was nothing else on my mind. It was like singing; I sang almost all the time, but only because I couldn't think of anything more important to think about. I was still too young to help with the milking, and I had already done my chores. I was waiting for everyone to finish milking. I did have sense enough to watch out for Dad; I would stop swinging on the door if he came. Mike came by instead, carrying a halffull pail of milk.
He looked at me crossly. "Why are you singing like that? Don't you remember Grandma Swenson died yesterday?"
Well, yes, of course I remembered she was dead; but that wasn't enough to think about, either. She was a very old woman who gave us cookies when we went to visit our uncles. I really didn't know much else about her, other than she was Mom's mother. Mom had never said much about her, and when we went to see grandma, they never seemed to talk to each other about anything special. But I knew Mom was crying some now, which made me sad, too. But I couldn't hold sadness too long in my mind, either. It would slip away, my mind would go blank again, and the songs would start running through my mind, and from there to my throat; and I would look around for something to swing on.
I didn't say anything, though. Mike was 11: 4 years older than me. I knew I was wrong to be singing when I was supposed to be sad about Grandma Swenson. I concentrated on being sad for awhile, and before I knew it, milking was over; we turned the cows out to night pasture, carted the milk in ten-gallon cans to the cooling tank, and went inside to eat.
Mom made a large supper, as usual, but she ate very little that night. I was hungry, though.
I loved to eat chicken, and looked forward to any Sunday when we were expecting company. Dad would go to the granary and take the hatchet from the workbench. The hatchet was broad, sharp, and its edge kept very shiny. He then went to the chicken house with its walls of poured concrete. It was damp all year round, and smelled strongly of ammonia. Inside the door was a 6-foot long heavy wire with one end folded back in a tight half loop. It was easy to snag a chicken's leg and drag it squawking back to you. The other chickens flapped and ran for their lives. Dad brought the chicken to the old stump by the milk-cooling tank. If he seemed to be in a good mood, I would say, "Dad, show me what it's like to run around like a chicken with its head cut off."
That was a favorite family saying about frantic, pointless activity, and I never tired of watching that most basic example. Dad would hold the chicken by its legs, carefully lay it down on the stump, and cleanly sever the neck with a single hatchet blow. He quickly set the chicken down on its legs. It would furiously flap its wings and run, but not like the scared chickens. All sense of front-to-back balance was gone, so it kept falling forward on its breast. Its sense of direction was missing, too, so it was as likely to turn around and go back from where it had come as to go forward. Meanwhile, blood was squirting out of the end of its neck, leaving a red record on the ground of its final pointless trip. After a few moments, the chicken lay on its side, with the jerking of its legs and the flapping of its wings coming less and less often. Dad picked it up and dunked it in a bucket of very hot water. He swung the carcass once to get rid of excess water, and then began to pick it clean. After this, Mom cut the chicken open and removed the guts. I watched the rapid operation closely, trying to make meaning out of the tangled grey and light-yellow tubes, the gizzard full of gravel and greygreen mush, the heart (surely not big enough), the large liver, the tiny green bile duct. But within a minute, the unwanted parts had been thrown into the slop pail for later feeding to the pigs, and the chicken was ready to stuff. While the chicken was roasting in the wood cookstove, we washed up to go to Sunday School, where we memorized stuff I didn't understand. One Sunday, we were told of the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. I was thinking instead of the chicken at home, imagining its aroma, and wondering if Jesus could have resurrected a chicken.
I was in the house with Mom and Aunt Esther, who had lived with us forever. She had moved in after her husband died. When I was born, she had picked out my name. Dad and Mike were outside. We heard a motorcycle, and I looked out the window. It was cousin Carl, who had ridden up on his red-and-blue Indian with two rearview mirrors. He was talking to Dad, while Mike stood to the side, listening.
"I suppose he's here to tell about another fight with Robert," said Aunt Esther to Mom. Robert was his brother, and both were grown up. They ran a farm together along with their mother, Aunt Louise. Uncle August had fallen out of a Chestnut tree and died, but that too had happened before I was born. During the summers, Johnny, who was Mike's age, spent a lot of time visiting at that farm. Johnny was a city kid. Mike liked to play with Johnny, and I did too. Of course, I did have some trouble keeping up with what they were doing, which was mostly playing war.
I knew Carl and Robert didn't always get along, because I saw one of their fights once. Mike and I were at their farm, playing war with Johnny. Carl was pitching some hay from a hayrack onto a pile. He was talking to himself, saying mean things. Robert came up the driveway on the motorcycle they shared. I don't know where he had been. As the motorcycle rolled into the yard, Carl jumped off the rack and ran towards it, hayfork still in hand.
"I'm going to kill you, you sonofabitch," he yelled to Robert as he ran. Robert jumped off the motorcycle, which was still running, and steered it at Carl. Carl grabbed the motorcycle and tried to stop it, but that meant he had to drop the pitchfork. He ran alongside it too for awhile, finally getting it shut off. "Who said you could take the goddamn motorcycle?" he yelled at Robert.
"Who the hell wants to know?" asked Robert, not very ashamed. Carl jumped at Robert, and they began rolling in the gravelly driveway. The chickens which had been peacefully pecking at the gravel scattered in all directions. We moved back quite a distance to watch. Carl was trying to get his hands around Robert's throat, but Robert had a weight advantage, and he was able to hold Carl off. They rolled over and over on the ground. The argument went on between grunts, until Robert was able to get a tooth-hold on Carl's ear. Now there were screams as well as grunts, and Aunt Louise, who couldn't move very fast, finally came out of the house. She had a broom in her hand. She waddled over to the driveway, saying, "Boys, stop the nonsense."
They wouldn't, of course, so she began beating on the pile of sons with her broom. This made them roll faster, as they tried to decide whether it was better to be on the bottom and be at a disadvantage in the fight or to be on top and be beaten with the broom. She kept swatting at them until they finally broke apart. Both pleaded their side of the argument to Aunt Louise, who listened while leaning lightly on her broom. Each brother had wronged the other so many times that I lost track of where it all started. There was much less anger in the dispute this time, though, since neither brother dared use foul language in front of his mother. No one even brought up the murder threat, but Aunt Louise said the bitten ear was a serious matter. She made Robert promise he would not do that again.
"A human bite will kill you worse than a snake bite," Johnny told us. Johnny always knew lots of stuff because he was from the city. "You'll get infection and die from it. I know someone who got bit by his brother on the finger, and a red line ran up his arm, and they had to take it off at the shoulder." Then he pointed his right index finger at me, with the thumb up and the other three fingers pointing back, and shot me twice, going Ksch! Ksch! with his mouth. I fell down the way I was supposed to. Then Mike shot at Johnny. I had to revive almost at once, since a three-man war needs a steady supply of soldiers. We all ran to the shelter of different farm buildings where we could snipe at each other.
Dad and Mike came in the house as Carl roared away. "Well," said Aunt Esther, "was I right? Have they been fighting again?"
"No," said Dad. "They want me to go up and shoot Arkady for them. He has the heaves so bad he can hardly breathe."
"Shoot Arkady!" said Mom. "They go deer hunting every fall. Why don't they shoot the horse themselves?"
"Carl said they tried. Carl tried it first, then Robert. Neither of them can pull the trigger."
"Can we come along and play with Johnny?" I asked. I knew if I didn't say it before Mike, I might be left behind.
"No," said Dad. "You'll be in the way. There'll be real shooting."
"We'll stay in the porch, out of the way," said Mike. "Please let us go. We haven't seen Johnny for a long time."
Dad was silent for a moment. "Well, OK. But you've got to promise to do what I say and stay out of the way. This is not playtime. This is serious."
I tried not to sing to myself on the way to our car.
Carl and Robert had seen us coming, and met us as we pulled into the driveway. Carl was carrying a deer rifle. Robert pointed to the house. "Go inside," he said. "Johnny's in there."
"And all of you stay inside until we say it's OK to come out," added Dad, sternly. "Don't you dare come out to look."
If we couldn't look, we could at least peek. Johnny, Mike and I stood on the glassed-in porch, watching as Robert led Arkady out of the barn and around to the barnyard in back. Arkady was black, and looked sweaty, although I was not feeling hot. "What are heaves?" I asked.
"That's when a horse can't breathe," said Mike. "It's caused by dusty hay."
"Why don't they get the horse doctor?"
"Because you can't cure it," said Johnny. "Carl said so."
"He doesn't look sick," I said. "He's walking slow just like any horse."
"You didn't see him up close," said Johnny. "He wheezes, and takes short breaths, and he can't move any faster than the way he's going now."
Aunt Louise came out to check on us, and we promised again to stay in the porch. She went back inside, and we all crowded to the end of the porch where we could just barely see Arkady standing in the barnyard. Nobody else was in sight.
It was not like the chickens at all. All parts of Arkady went limp at once, and he crumpled onto his stomach, then rolled over on his side. We all jumped as we heard the shot. Arkady didn't move. Aunt Louise was sobbing in the kitchen. The three of them came around the side of the barn. Carl was now carrying the rifle. They came in the house. "Ma, could we have some coffee?" said Robert. Then he began to clean the rifle.
The grownups didn't say much. We drank some milk, grabbed some cookies, and went outside. We went over to look at Arkady. "Right between the eyes," said Mike. "That's because Dad was in the army."
"How come he's not in the army now?" said Johnny.
"That was World War I," said Mike. "He fought the Germans that time, so he doesn't have to do it again."
I was tired of looking at Arkady, with the almost bloodless black spot on his white blaze. "Let's play war."
"You be the Jap," said Johnny.
"I was the Jap last time," I said.
"You make a good one," said Johnny, as he pointed a finger at me. "Ksch! Ksch!"
I didn't fall. I pointed my finger at Arkady, and went Ksch! Ksch! "Arkady's the Jap."
Mike and Johnny were both mad. "Don't you know better than to make fun of Arkady?" Mike said. "Arkady's dead."
"I'm sorry," I said. I knew I was going to have to be the Jap all day now.
Later on, a truck came up the driveway. Carl, Robert and Dad came out of the house. "Who is it?" said Johnny.
"It's from the fox-farm," said Carl. "We called them this morning."
The truck driver must have seen Arkady, or else he knew where farmers shot their horses, because he backed into the barnyard without saying a word. He let down a ramp from the back of the truck, and unrolled a cable from a hand winch. He winched Arkady up the ramp, momentarily disturbing a bunch of green-bottle flies on the floor of the truckbed. They began to crawl over Arkady, exploring his still-open eyes.
As the truck pulled away, Robert swallowed hard. "I can't help but feel bad," he said. "Arkady worked for us all those years, and now he's gone."
"Goofy Charlie's auction is next week," said Dad. "He has four horses for sale."
"But there'll never be another Arkady," said Robert. Dad didn't argue with him.
It was time to milk the cows, so we started home. Nobody said anything. I hoped Mike wasn't still mad at me. A song started to come, an old friend. I hummed it under my breath.