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Filling the old barn with hay and memories

AMONG the things of this earth, I depend on certain comforters; I have only to let one of them enter my mind and my spirits rise. I think of family members, favorite foods like my mother's Christmas fudge, certain old hymns, books read and reread in my childhood. And I think of barns. Not stone barns, because these mostly lie outside my Midwestern experience. My barns are two-storied, their walls one pine board thick, their huge beams snugly dovetailed and fastened with six-inch oak pegs. Their upper stories are filled, not with unromantic bristly bales, but with tons and tons of loose hay that has been pulled into the big triangular window on the front, forkful after forkful, by horsepower.

Our horse Old Pete does the job at our place, and sometimes I am the one to lead him across the barnyard, out to one of a series of stops in the driveway: by the arbor of pink roses for a front load, as far as the big elm if the men need a load in the back for leveling. When we hear somebody yell for us to stop, we back slowly into position beside the water tank, causing the huge fork to descend on its pulley for another bite from the wagon.

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Pete never balks; he is the most patient and gentle of our horses, game for a bareback ride down the lane, though he will only consent to give you a gallop or trot on the way back to the barn.

In the mow you can dig a series of interlocking tunnels in the new, sweet-smelling alfalfa that lies on top of the leftovers from last year, and the year before, and the year before that. Has anyone ever emptied a haymow? Hundred-year-old mows are likely to have a little hundred-year-old hay on the floor, ten or more feet below where you stand.

The haymow is where the cats go to give birth. Sometimes you miss a litter entirely, and the little ones grow up to mistrust humans.

But most of the time you've got them all named before their eyes are open. You lie on your back holding a kitten or two, and watch the sparrows and the pigeons bringing food to their nests of babies in the rafters.

The bantam chickens nest here, too; if you want bantam for dinner you come up and haul them down from the rafters after dark, equal in number to the expected guests. As a child you may not look kindly upon this process if you have become fond of certain colorful birds, until you see the lovely morsel on your plate, dark and rich as wild game.

You will have climbed into the mow using its perpendicular ladder, to play or to pitchfork hay through the chute for the animals. But you may decide to take a quicker route down by jumping onto your pile of hay, which is quite cushiony if you have been diligent. In any case, like the mow, that part of the floor is never totally depleted.

The lower floor of the barn is cooler than the outdoors in summer. All those tons of hay above your head provide an insulation never dreamed of by the building industry. Unless it is milking time, there may be nobody in the barn but you, some flies, and a few cats and chickens on the same quest for comfort as you are.

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If a pair of barn swallows has built a nest of mud against one of the beams, they flash in and out on family duty, gradually growing less anxious about your quiet figure. Dust motes dance in the thin shafts of light that slant toward the floor from cracks and knotholes in the walls.

But it is in the cold of winter that the barn is at its best, for then the animals' bodies substantially raise the comfort index. Here the horses in their stalls - two tons of radiant heat - feed on the hay you threw down, and on their allotment of grain. The big red bull, full of menace, moves about in his reinforced pen.

The cows, ruminating gently, stare straight at you, their luminous eyes giving back, even seeming to magnify, the light from the hanging bulb. They appear not to notice that one or two humans are milking, sitting on T-shaped stools, their faces pressed into the hollow of a flank.

Where the wood of the stanchions meets the cows' necks it becomes polished and oiled to a wonderful silkiness. It has taken a long time, this polishing, but the barn has time, defies time. A stanchion may need replacing after years of coping with a bad-tempered cow, or perhaps a piece of the pine siding rots away, but the beams, the rafters, the floor of the mow, were built for the ages.

When the milking is done the cats - are there 16 or 17 at the moment? - are clustered at the big tin pan for their ration of milk. This is an indulgence, for they are supposed to earn their keep catching mice and rats.

One or two of them follow us up the cinder path under starlight or snow, hoping for seconds. But most are happy to stay in the barn's shelter, bedding down in the hay or, if it is very cold, in that same hollow in a cow's flank where you press your face while milking. The cats keep an ear cocked for the skitter of rodents' feet.

All the other buildings on the farm, including the house, are full of sharp corners, and cold drafts, and expectations. Only here, in my childhood's barn, all life's edges are rounded. Here comfort envelops me.

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