JUST BEFORE WINTER

By Michele Bardsley

THE BARN DOOR creaks as I open it. Smells of rotting hay and manure greet my nostrils when I enter. Gray, old, dying—the wood building, the land on which it squats, had been my father’s pride. The farm—the one I hated, the one I left so long ago— Memories are like bits of exploding glass: sharp, insistent, painful. The hay pile. I laugh. Oh Anne, where are you now?

I lean against the post, watch the dust motes twirling in the sunlight. The faded yellow paper feels rough in my hand. A silly note written by a lovelorn boy, but it’s the reason I stand here, thinking, remembering, feeling.

Anne. She was pretty. Straight nose, brown eyes and thin pink lips. After twenty years, I still remember the way she smelled—like honeysuckle and cool October wind. She was seventeen and I liked that about her, probably because I was only fifteen at the time.

In September, our farm looked like one of those little postcards purchased in a roadside cafe. The red barn stood stoic and alone against a gray sky. Leaves of gold, red, and orange decorated our property like colored paper tossed by a careless child. Fall was that lonely time between the end of summer and the beginning of winter, a limbo of color and sound and feeling. With Anne around, I pushed aside my good-byes to summer and my gripes about the upcoming school year. Anne became, for me, the essence of autumn.

She was fascinated by the farm. I complained about the noxious smells in the barn, but Anne liked spending time in it, saying it was “so romantic.” She liked “our little farm” as she called it, better than her own house. She lived next door to us, which was nearly five miles away, in a new housing edition. She walked to the farm nearly every morning those first weeks of fall. In the evenings my father drove her home.

At first, I pretended dislike for her, but when she wasn’t looking, I studied her face. Sometimes, I stroked a strand of brown hair when I thought she wouldn’t notice. I even counted the freckles on her nose. Twenty-three, to be exact. Anne liked to stretch a lot. She’d raise her arms just so, and her T-shirt tightened across her breasts.

Anne tortured me with slanted looks and tight T-shirts. I nearly broke down under the stress of trying not to show my interest while busting my rear to impress her with my nonchalance. She pulled me aside one day and said, “Darlin’ Roy, I think you’re wonderful.” Then she kissed my left eyebrow.

The weeks before school dwindled into days. Anne and I attended different schools and I knew we wouldn’t see each other much. Although I tried not to care, I’d just glance at her brown eyes and twenty-three freckles and feel sharp regret cut my insides.

The final night I saw Anne, we were alone in the barn. I had finished my chores, but Anne wanted to stay because she liked the smell of hay. Even though I would’ve rather breathed the vapors from hog slop, I stayed.

“Do you know any songs about the winter?” she asked me and I shrugged. She looked at me in the dying light of the barn, her eyes wide with secrets. “Do you read poetry, Roy?”

I shook my head. Poetry didn’t appeal to me in the slightest. Reading in general didn’t appeal to me for that matter.

“I like Robert Frost the best,” she murmured. “His poems are so inspiring.”

“Suppose so,” I said.

“I’m going to get rich writing songs,” she said. “Famous singers will beg me to write beautiful ballads.” Her eyes were dreamy, reminding me of the sun tea my mother made on hot summer days. “What do you want to do?” she asked.

“Get off this farm,” I said.

She gave me a half-smile that made my stomach flip-flop and did the t-shirt torture ritual. She sat down in a big hay pile. I stood there looking at her and she sat there looking at me. I felt so nervous my palms were sweaty. Then I got mad at myself for being nervous and plopped next her.

Anne put her arms around me and my heart started to pound. She kissed me, pushing her tongue into my mouth. I met her with my own tongue, and she made a little gasping sound that shot sparks through me.

Then she took my hand and put it on her breast. I had watched her breasts often, trying to determine whether or not she wore a bra. They were small, but firm, and holy moly, no bra. Anne touched me all over and I went kind of crazy touching her and the next thing I knew, her top and my jeans were unbuttoned.

“Tell me a poem,” she breathed, putting her tongue in my ear. “Tell me something beautiful.”

“You’re pretty,” I said.

She sat up quickly, pushing me off. I rolled onto my back, breathing heavily. My body was tight and ready to finish what we had started.

“What is it?” I asked, reaching for her again. She let me put my arms around her.

“I know I’m pretty,” she said and I heard an odd ache in her voice. “Tell me something else.”

For a minute, I couldn’t think about anything but the heaviness between my legs. I took a deep breath. “Like what?”

“I’m not supposed to tell you,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It wouldn’t be as good. Now give me some love talk.”

Darn, I thought. She wanted mush. She kissed me on the cheek and stared at me expectantly.

“You’re prettier than the sky on a summer day,” I said. “Prettier than the August moon. Prettier than a sunset.”

“Oh, Roy,” she breathed. She sagged against me and allowed me to cup her breasts again.

“Prettier than sun sparkles on the lake,” I said, trailing my hands down to the zipper on her jeans. “Prettier than...than spring flowers.”

I slid my hands inside her jeans, touching the soft fabric of her panties. Just as I got the nerve to push my fingers into the unknown region of her body, we heard a low “mooooo.”

“What is it?” Anne whispered.

“Don’t know,” I said. “Sounds like a cow.”

“In the barn? I thought you put them in the pasture.”

Both of us were breathing hard and my hand was a mere inch away from Anne’s womanhood. She was trembling—from the cool evening air or nervousness, I couldn’t tell. “You want me to check?” I whispered.

She nodded, so I got up and buttoned my jeans. I walked around inside of the barn. There wasn’t a cow in sight—not even a little one. I circled the barn one more time and then went back to the hay pile.

Anne was straightening her clothes and she looked pale. “I think we better go,” she said.

Disappointment flared through me. “Just stay a few more minutes.”

She shook her head. “No. I gotta go home.” She angled her neck to look around me and I turned. The barn door was open just a crack. I didn’t remember leaving it that way, but figured the wind had blown it open.

“Maybe you could come over tomorrow night for supper,” I said. “We could, uh, talk some more.”

“Maybe,” she answered, jumping up. I followed her out of the barn and I saw my father standing by the truck. He looked us over, but didn’t say anything. I got into the truck, too, hoping for a good-bye kiss, but Anne didn’t even say good-bye when we got to her house. She slid out, slammed the door and ran inside.

She didn’t come back the next day. Or the next. In fact, an entire week passed. My mother accused me of acting lovesick and told me to stop moping.

School started and I found myself immersed in homework and renewing old friendships. But Anne infiltrated my thoughts at strange moments. Every time I remembered her, begging me with tea-colored eyes to “tell me something nice,” my body tightened.

Images of Anne, pale and naked, haunted me at nights. Part fantasy, part dream, I would think of her small breasts rubbing against my chest as I took her. I found myself aching with a need for which I had no name, except one—Anne.

One Sunday evening, my father called me out to the porch. “Sit down, son. I’d like to talk a minute or two.”

Heaving a sigh, I sat on the porch steps with my elbows on my knees. “Talking” to Dad was a ritual. He’d rocked back and forth in the rocking chair that had been my great-grandmother’s. He got out his pipe, filled it carefully and lit the tobacco. He puffed a few times and tapped the pipe against the chair.

“Once there was a young boy who lived on a farm much like ours. He was a good boy—did his chores, didn’t talk back and was real helpful to his mama. For Christmas, this boy got a rifle—not a big one, more like a B.B. gun. Well, one day this boy decided to go hunting. He didn’t want to waste his time shooting rabbits and squirrels. No, this boy wanted a wolf. He thought all he had to do was find a wolf and kill it. But the boy didn’t know anything about wolves or hunting. The only thing he knew was how to shoot his gun.”

“Why didn’t he want to kill a bear?” I asked.

Dad looked at me, his bushy gray eyebrows raised. “There weren’t any bears in this forest. Hush your mouth and listen.

“Now, this boy needed some knowledge before going out into the forest, but he decided confidence was better than knowledge. So he went into the woods and tracked down a wolf. The boy pointed his gun at the snarling beast and popped off a few rounds. Those little B.B.’s felt more like bee stings than bullets to the wolf.”

He paused and puffed his pipe. I heard creaks as my father settled more comfortably into the chair. Seconds turned into minutes as Dad smoked his pipe and rocked back and forth. Finally, curiosity got the best of me and I asked, “Did the wolf kill the boy?”

“Nope. That wolf tried, though. Just as the beast jumped toward the boy, a shot rang out and the wolf dropped dead. Luckily for the boy, his father had followed him into the forest. If it hadn’t been for the father, the boy would be dead.

“You see, son, that boy shot his gun without considering the responsibilities or consequences of that act. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”

An uneasy feeling crept into my stomach. I knew he wasn’t talking about a B.B. gun and a wolf, and for some reason, I thought of Anne. Longing replaced the uneasiness in my gut. I wanted to see her again. Anne would have taken me to a place I had never been and I really wanted to go there.

“Roy, do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded, but I knew that Dad didn’t believe me. He looked at me for a long moment, then sighed and started puffing his pipe again.

Thoughts of Anne crowded my mind. I remembered the feel of her breasts in my hands, her tongue in my mouth and the soft, warm skin hidden by her jeans.

“Dad, do you think you could drive me to Anne’s tomorrow?”

The thick scent of tobacco assailed my nostrils. I looked up and saw my dad standing above me. He stood there, staring at me, his pipe clenched in one hand. Dad patted the pipe against his leg, looked me square in the eye and said, “Boy, don’t go looking for wolves.”

I sat on the porch watching as dusk settled across our property, stretching long purple fingers over our fields. I saw the barn, nestled on a slight rise, a reminder of Anne.

When darkness claimed everything, I went inside. I said good night to my parents and went to my room. Scrounging for a piece of paper and pencil, I was determined to write something pretty for Anne. I wanted to give her some love talk. I wanted her to come back. I stared at that piece of paper, clenching the pencil between two fingers, until Dad told me to go to bed.

Blinking, I shake away the memories. The note clutched in my fist crinkles as I open it.

“Anne likes pretty words, but I’m not a poet. I wanted to travel to the stars with her, but just before winter, a wolf came and devoured my dreams.”

I fold the paper and tuck it into my pocket, musing about the tricks memory can play. The past is as musty and faded as the old barn, but sometimes, like now, it feels new and shiny.

Wind rattles the building, whistling through the cracks, stirring the moldy hay. The crisp feeling of winter envelops me, and as the breeze whispers past, I detect the faint scent of honeysuckle.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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