TITLE: BARN DANCE
By Lisa Fowler
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Under the shadows of the enormous crossbeam, beneath the circular window she crouched. Alone. Low hanging tree limbs bobbing in the moonlight and the flickering light from the dimming candle threw eerie shadows against rotting boards.
The attic was hung like a prairie Christmas morning in strings of glistening silver and sticky cobwebs. It was drafty and cold and the dusty floor boards whistled and creaked when the wind blew through high the rafters. And it smelled.
It smelled of old shoes and sweaty discarded clothes. The floor boards were spotted and stained with a multitude of animal droppings. In one corner sat stacks upon stacks of dented copper pots, the discarded remnants of uncle’s bootlegging days.
Just then she spotted it. It was covered and appeared untouched, its oblong frame unmistakable. Well hidden, it was beneath dilapidated boxes of damp, musty books, and a busted milk crate filled to overflowing with pieces of broken fishing bobbles and old lures. Large plastic bag stuffed to the brim with wrinkled, hand me down baby items were crammed into the crevices above. It was by all accounts, just as she remembered. Though the day of its discovery is lost to memories past, she longed to explore its contents.
Draped loosely, as an undertaker would flag drape a casket, it was weathered and worn from years of use and abuse. It was sandwiched tightly between shelves of empty paint cans, pieces of rubber hoses, and dull, rusting tools with broken handles long forgotten.
It’s cover was obvious patchwork. Though faded, stained and worn thin in places, it clung tightly to the confidences within its grasp. Seams raised and stitches broken, she imagined it screaming, longing to burden its onlooker with time honored skeletons from closets long forgotten. She stroked it softly and raised it to her face. As the well worn material skipped across her skin she wondered what stories the quilt would tell if it could talk. Which hidden halls had it haunted?
What indiscretions lay sandwiched here, hidden from multiples of generations to follow? Were there undisclosed longings of children yet unborn, or of lives not lived to their fullest? How many wedding vows were consummated and sealed beneath its layers? Were the stains that gripped tightly to its threads stains from large dinners of the numerous family reunions held for years on these hallowed grounds? Or, she imagined, are they rotting blood stains from battles fought and lost, remembered only in books of history?
Were children, christened as infants, then later growing to rambunctious toddlers, warmed and bundled tightly within its hold? How many loved ones forever unknown to her, were ushered from this life into the next, comforted beneath this one quilt? Truly she thought, this meager fabric of generations past is the hidden gold of modern day treasure hunters.
She recognized the pattern of the patchwork as the drunkards path. Was the pattern itself, combined with the stacks of old copper pots tossed aside in the corner a clue of the secrets within the old trunk, or merely a coincidence? Was this pattern screaming riddles long hoarded as sacred family memoirs?
How she ached to hear the stories it might tell. Stitched with pieces of worn out clothing and old feed sacks, she pulled it closer, holding generations of family members tightly within her grasp. Sadly, now it is forgotten and tossed aside, labeled insignificant and petty.
She lifted it to her ear. She listened intently as if straining to hear past conversations from community quilting bee’s or from widows, stitching tears of remembrance and grief along every inch of its tired, thread-born cloth. She pulled and clutched it ever so slowly to her breasts as if cuddling her yet unborn children.
Momentarily she hesitated, allowing it to drape across her chilling frame. She reveled in its warmth. So old, yet still so useful. Blowing away cobwebs’ remnants and dried spider carcasses, she rolled and laid it gently onto the floor.
She ran her hands slowly and purposefully along the joints of the trunk. It was rough and jagged in places, smooth and even in others, grungy and dilapidated everywhere. Breathing deeply with eyes closed, she anticipated with ecstasy, its breaching.
The lock was, to the untrained eye, time rusty. Nonetheless, she shook it. Hard. Though small in size, it was reluctant to loose its grip. She jiggled a bit more. Finally, she tugged and shook it roughly, sideways at first, then with a jerking motion, up and down. The lock popped open.
Cautiously, she cracked the lid. It was heavy. So heavy in fact, it took both hands and all of her might to raise. She grimaced and
cringed as It squeaked a bit halfway up. She paused and turned to snatch a quick, “did anyone hear?” glance over her shoulder. With nothing about its discovery quiet until now, there was no need to borrow trouble. She realized she must try harder to keep her whereabouts a secret. Onlookers in rooms below would desire to bring a halt to her inquisition. She listened closely for several seconds, not allowing her lungs the luxury of air. She breathed a prayer that her presence until now unnoticed, would remain so.
The hurried shuffling of footsteps! Closer and closer they came. Her heart quickened its beating. The shuffling abruptly stopped. She snuck a cleansing breath. She waited. Shuffling began again. Slowly, it faded into nothingness. After momentary silence, she heaved the lid to its fully open position.
The contents reeked of moth balls and mold. The stench knocked her backwards. It stung and burned her nostrils. She turned her head sharply and gasped for air. The dust brought a stifled sneeze, and then another. Her heart continued its quickened pace. For a moment she paused, reflecting on what lay before her.
She recalled the first time she viewed its contents as a wee child barely able to form letters into words. Standing at arms length, she stretched and strained on tiny tiptoes behind her grandpa’s massive frame. Grandpa bent and squatted to his knees. He leaned and swayed, keeping the contents purposefully and deliberately hidden from view.
Her mind raced back in time and fixed upon Grandpa. He was a big man by any standards. Handsome and rugged with muscles bulging, his arms reached with much room to spare easily around Grandma’s petite frame. When he made his way into town, small children stopped to looked up at him. Towering in excess of six feet in height, he stood as straight and tall as the toy soldiers in her brothers collection.
He was a logger by day and a lover by night, but only of Grandma, his belt never straying from her bedpost. He was unwavering in his vow to his loving bride unto the last breath he drew. His commitment to her was steadfast and dedicated.
His eyes, Grandma said, were what drew her to him. They were as blue as the Carolina sky in autumn and could stare a hole clean
through a man at thirty paces. He could judge a man’s character simply by the look in his eyes and Grandpa‘s character was unblemished and above reproach.
His ebony hair curled, and waved, and danced in the cool, crisp afternoon breezes. It brushed ever so slightly, grazing only the tops of his hard, stocky shoulders.
His boots were worn bare in the soles and the holes stuffed tightly with pieces of old newspapers. His steps upon the muddy ground formed crevices large enough encircle small animals. She recalled her tiny footprints leaving no impression in his.
His voice by day was brash and boisterous and unforgiving. It boomed and loomed over the popping and chopping of the ax he
slung and tossed through the forest with ease. It chiseled its way through the holler of their small valley like a newly sharpened ax against a whetstone.
But by night his words were gentle and soft and loving and kind. Like whiskey and warm honey soothed an ailing body, so were Grandpa’s words to a heavy heart. She longed to hear his words and the tone in his voice once more.
His rough, calloused hands were strong and powerful and could crush anything that dared defy his grip. Her tiny hand she recalled though delicate and fragile fit snug, like a tiny seed nestled deep into his. His giant fingers circled around her hand for miles making her feel safe and loved and protected.
She recalled his laugh. It was comforting and inviting, like a roaring fire on a frigid night, it warmed those within its glow clear to the bone. And he shared it often.
Times were hard and money mostly nonexistent, but as a child she never knew it. Grandpa joked and kidded and made each member of the family feel special, treating them individually as though they were his favorite. He would not dare allow the hard, rocky, beaten down paths of adulthood to cross the fragile, delicate, sweet smelling grassy paths of childhood innocence.
Suddenly, a tiny mouse darted across her bent knees. It sent a cold shiver down her spine snapping her back from her saunter down the path of remembrance. She paused to ponder the creature’s aloneness. Were there more like him waiting, lurking just beyond the shadows? Was she being watched, stalked by the creatures that only dared come out in the darkness? Her desire to linger suddenly shortened.
She once again turned her attentions to the trunk, examining its contents slowly and searching for signs of things remembered.
A large stack of black and white photographs of people she did not know, and a cigar box of tarnished costume and other jewelry were the first of its contents to be removed. Next she lifted what appeared to be pieces of an insect eaten crocheted table cloth. Though in shambles, it was heavy and she knew that it must have held some sentimental value to have been placed with the other treasures in the old trunk. She surmised perhaps it was hand made by her great-great grandmother, long reported to be the most talented member of the family.
Gone long before she could remember, she had heard the stories told of her great - grandmother crocheting and knitting the entire year long in preparation for the holidays. The family benefited greatly from her handwork. Warm, soft caps, scarves and mittens were the anticipated welcome gifts of an icy Christmas morning.
She gently removed a large stack of papers that flaked and cracked with the slightest of touches. Among the papers were
marriage and death certificates, priceless records of a family’s history.
Beneath the papers was a large heavy book with yellowing pages labeled simply: Family Bible. As though instantly reunited with an old friend, she painstakingly lifted the Book from its resting place. She ran her fingers over its cover feeling each bump and lump of the grain, knowing well that each nick had its own story to tell. Stories of her own families triumph and heartache, pain and struggle and stories of joy and rejoicing were written within the pages. Though impossible to put into words had she tried, there was a strange almost unnatural warmth that rose from deep within her being when she cradled the Book.
Grandpa read from the Word each evening after the supper meal and the Scriptures brought much comfort to the home, especially in troubled times. No matter the difficulties of the day, there was a reverence, an almost holy hush that instantly came over the gathering. Like fresh churned butter on hot, steaming cornbread, the Word melted and softened and dissolved away the cares and heartaches that challenged the family.
Gathering in front of the fireplace with roaring fire blazing Grandpa would read from the Bible. Exciting stories of great battles,stories of overcoming and conquering, stories of worship and praise were all contained within its pages. There were stories of love and of passion that Grandpa said were reserved for special times. “Those,” he said, “are saved for when you are older and can understand their meaning.” As a child I pondered his words, but I trusted his judgment without doubting. His insight into the Scriptures was a treasure I desired to attain.
Grandma sewed on her handwork while he read and often she would hum. Grandpa, looking up from the pages would smile lovingly at her. “Mama, sing the words,” he would say. She would begin singing the words to the hymns they loved so much, hymns that brought comfort and hope. Quietly at first, but each verse became more powerful in its tone and message. Even now when she thought of them, the hymns brought tears to her eyes. No matter how far she strayed, hearing the old hymns was like being home, like being wrapped in a blanket of love.
Sometimes Grandma knitted as she sang. Sometimes she rocked in the wooden rocker that Grandpa made for her, but never did she miss a word or a beat. The old hymns were imprinted deeply in her soul and were as instinctual to her as breathing or as blinking.
She kept busy darning nicks in socks and patching holes in worn out clothing. Wear it out and make it do was the rule of the
home when times were lean. Recalling the Scriptures that Grandpa read and the hymns Grandma sang seemed to lift the weight and bring healing relief from the heavy baggage she carried. With eyes misty and heart lightened from memories cherished, she glanced again into the old trunk.
Creased and yellowed by time and most deliberately stuffed into the near corner she saw it. Unmistakable as the only treasure left, she realized that surely this must have been what Grandpa had taken such pains to hide from her. There was nothing else here that she hadn’t seen at one time or another. Nothing that is but this.
But, what possible secrets could an old, worn out newspaper hold? A historic world event marked in time by words on a page? An obituary or birth announcement from memories long faded? What secrets, guarded and hidden upon the well worn pages of the old yellow paper were relevant? What could the stories contained within possibly have to do with her? Were there skeletons yet to be discovered or were they simply words on a page, trivial and insignificant in her present world? If there were nothing here, why would Grandpa take such pains in keeping it a secret?
Carefully, she opened the paper and smoothed down the well worn crease with her hands. Dates. Pictures. Headlines. These
were nothing new. It was obvious to her that she would have to dig for the story hidden within the pages if indeed there was a story there. It would surely take more investigation than she had first anticipated, but time was not to be her companion this day.
Suddenly, once again, footsteps approached. Much closer and at a more hurried pace than before, the steps grew louder. She
could tell by the pace that they advanced that they were not going to pass her by this time. How could she not have heard until they got this close she wondered.
She threw the paper into the bottom of the trunk,quickly reloaded its contents, not taking pains with the packing, and grabbed up the old quilt. She threw it, in one swift thrusting motion from her, across the top of the trunk. Footsteps struck against and stopped on the bottom rung of the dusty wooden stairs.
“Emily? Emily, you up here?” a voice called from below.
“You’d better git down here. Can’t nothing good come from you ramagin round up there. Stop your snoopin now you hear?”
She heard him go back down the stairs but not far enough away that she couldn’t hear him still fussing. Foolish girl. Always
snoopin in somebody elses business. She’s way too long on nosy and far too short on mindin her own business.
She recognized it as her “Uncle” Jeffery, a bossy man not more than ten years her senior.
“Um, yes. Yes I am. Or, or, I was,” she answered, hurriedly restacking the books and worn out milk crate as quickly as she could under such pressure. “But I’m coming now.” She turned and raced down the stairs.
Newfound mysteries, if indeed they were to be found, would have to wait. Wait, that is, for another day.
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