A.N. This is more of a character study than a story
per se but it remains one of my favorites that I've ever written. I'm
not sure why.
I was five. We had just moved from the big city I had been born in to a town my mother would always say was "wholesome." We moved, I supposed at the time, so that I would be separated from all my friends. I was never what one would call an observant child. It was just a few days after we had moved into the town, days filled with my whining and complaining, when my mother apparently had had enough of me and discharged me to my father. My father, being the man that he was, decided I was only bored because I didn't know the joys of life in a small town. So he took me on a walk. Looking back, I realize I should have been happier, should have enjoyed this time more.
But five-year-olds don't expect things to happen, they expect life to stay exactly like it is at that moment. Anyway, I was five, on a walk with my father, and bored to the point of playing the "why" game. I had just reached my seventh successive repetition on the subject of why birds don't fall out of the sky—I happened to be going for a personal best—when I saw it. It was amazing, awe-inspiring. It was quite the sight to a city boy. I'd never seen anything like it. It didn't squat like the houses I was used to seeing, shouldering aside their neighbors for the few feet of property beside the road each could seize. No, it stood there in its majesty, at once a part of and separate from the trees surrounding it. The sides rose into the heavens and were lost among the treetops. 'What is it?' I asked my father. Surely it was a giant's home. What else would construct this gigantic building. He bent down on one knee in the underbrush. 'Well, son, that is a barn. Not like Grandma's on her farm is it?' I shook my head. Grandma's barn was a tool shed compared to this monster that had been overgrown by weeds and shadowed by giant trees. It looked like a relic from a bygone era. It was…old. It had no place in the modern world, and it felt right for it to be buried like a hidden treasure among the great trees and dappled shadows.
I, being five, quickly passed over all this and went right to the thought that it was a giant jungle gym planted for my use. I ran for the door. 'Hold on, sport, it's dangerous in there for kids. Promise me you won't go in there without me around.' The grey monster called me. I couldn't resist. I quickly nodded without listening to what I might have agreed to. It didn't matter, the thing, the barn, was too big for a simple promise. It was a world in itself, I world I would be the first to explore in, I believed, ages. The pressure on my arm released, I again bolted for the slightly ajar door. I ducked inside, the small opening perfect for my small body. I giggled, my father, for all that he was never a large man, was still much too large for the hole I had come through. I looked around me. A wonderland! Aging bales of hay stood stacked in one corner, extending like stairs up to the loft where I could see the remains of what might have been a giant's haircut. The smell was amazing and peculiar at the same time. Musty and sweet and sour. On the wall across from the hay bales, ancient stalls stood. Something rusting and made out of iron and wood sat in the corner. Arms grabbed me from behind, swung me around. I screeched. Surely the giant that lived in this place, this barn, had returned and caught me. I would be mashed and my bones ground to make bread. Then I felt my father's warm laugh, how it made his chest jump as he hugged me close to him. He started coughing in the musty air. I asked him what was wrong. He didn't answer, said we should head home, mother would be worried about us. I should have sensed something was wrong, but I was only five.
I was eight years old. I was a pirate, or an astronaut, or a fireman all in my barn. Yes, my barn. It had become my barn not long after I started school and became independent enough for my parents to not worry so much if I was out of sight playing with friends. I was still under the "no playing in the barn without supervision" rule, but I thought what my parents didn't know, wouldn't kill them. And it was my barn. Only my closest friends, those I trusted with my dearest secrets, knew about it. The rust red-and-grey structure had most certainly been set there by aliens or was a hidden treasure landmark for pirates to use when they needed to bury the treasure from a big ship or their captain when they mutinied. It was no longer awe-inspiring to me, instead, it was like a great mystery waiting to be explored and discovered and found out. It was so different from home. At home, my mother would sometimes go very quiet then push me away from her for no reason, or my father would sit down in front of the TV after we'd been playing and not get back up for a long time. Perhaps I should have noticed something was different, but this had been happening so long. Didn't all families act like this?
But eight-year-olds don't think rationally about their families. They're too concerned with avoiding cooties and getting the best seat for story time. So I went out whenever things started to be bad. I went to my barn, to my place. It was a place where no one would push me away or not play because they were tired. It was a place of magic and stories and mystical gypsy fortune tellers who would put a hex on the fair maiden that only the brave knight could cure. One day, the day I made my biggest discovery, my best friend was sick. I didn't feel like asking any of the other boys to go, so I walked out to the barn by myself. I was going to find the buried treasure. The path now held as many pleasures almost as the barn itself. Small things rustled in the undergrowth. There, a bird took flight, or maybe, my eight-year-old mind supplied, it was a wolf stalking its prey, waiting for the perfect time to attack. At the barn, I squeezed in through the hole under the door. I fit, barely. The barn wasn't as monstrous to me anymore. It was huge, but it wasn't a giant's home. Gone were the fairy tales, now it was home to countless adventure stories. The pirate's lair was old and dusty. The hay bales in the corner weren't hay bales at all, I imagined, they were rocks in a cave, stalagmites reaching up to the ceiling. I felt like Tom Sawyer from the story our teacher had read to us the week before. I climbed up the stack of old, dirty bales and reached the summit, the loft. It was a sandy beach beside an underground lake. The air was damp, not from the rotting of the hay and old wood, but from the water seeping into the cave from the ground above. I looked down into the depths. That thing in the corner, was that a sunken pirate ship? I'd never looked down at the old horse cart from this angle. Something glittered in the late afternoon sunlight. Forgetting my game, I jumped down into the hay. Even though it wasn't really that far down, I knew my parents would have fits if they saw me doing that. That was probably part of the reason I did it. The rusty hinges of the cart shrieked as I wrestled the tongue of the wagon out of the way. Something was definitely sticking up out of the dirt floor.
As an eight-year-old, I was almost more excited than I could stand. There really had been buried treasure in my barn. I dug up the rusty metal box. It wasn't very large, no bigger really than the photo album my mother kept on the coffee table. Pieces of rust-coated metal shaved off as my hands examined the outside of the box. The lock was broken. Was this how explorers felt when they found ancient temples and burial sites of kings? I was sure it couldn't be that different. The broken clasp lifted with a tired groan, as if it had already waited too long for someone to open it. Inside was…not what I expected. Instead of gold coins, jewels, or maps to the real treasure there were pictures of smiling people and fading handwritten letters. I lifted out a stack of cards that turned out to be baseball cards. They were nothing like mine, though. These cards had players like Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Dizzy Dean, players I had never heard of. It slowly dawned on me what I held. During the summer, my school had added some new classrooms and a courtyard. All the students were invited to bring a small something to put into a time capsule to be buried under the courtyard bricks. We had learned about time capsules the first week back in school. That was what this was, a time capsule, a glimpse of the distant past. And who knew how long this one had lain here, waiting to be discovered? That was when I got my great idea.
What a grand idea for an eight-year-old, leaving something behind for others to find years and years in the future. I ran home as quickly as I could. I knew my parents were gone to work or visiting, so no one would ask me what I was doing. At home, I grabbed a few trinkets I knew I could live without: a few new baseball cards that I had doubles of anyway, a decoder ring I had gotten out of a box of cereal that week, and—I hesitated—a picture of my family. It was one of the latest, my father and mother smiling over my shoulders. How would the people who found the time capsule ever know who had put the things in it if there was no picture? Besides, I reasoned, there would be many more pictures for me to put in my spaceman picture frame. My mother would never even notice it was gone. I gathered my things and ran back to my barn. The barn that had been only a setting for my adventures now held a mystery of its own. It seemed to stand guard over a myriad of secrets that I would never know. I placed my treasures in the box with the others and reburied it. I left the barn in high spirits that day. The thought that most likely no one would ever find the box should have occurred to me, but I was only eight years old.
I was ten years old. I was never an observant child, but even I couldn't miss what was happening now. My father spent most if not all of his day in bed or on the couch watching TV. My mother spent most of her day out; working, shopping, and generally being gone ate up her time. I, in turn, spent my time out of the house. But still no one would tell me what was happening. At first, I thought my father was just tired. Later, I thought maybe he was a little under the weather. Finally, they couldn't pretend to hide it from me anymore. But maybe I didn't want to know. I spent more time in the barn with and without my friends. The warm grey walls and the smell of the hay comforted me better than any person could. I'd spend hours there playing or doing homework. The high walls, now not quite so high, still soared toward the sky, calling me up. The black, inviting roof was the only part of the barn I hadn't yet explored. That was why I set out to discover a way up the summer I was ten. There was a row of small, eye-like windows set high in the walls on either side of the barn to let light in, or perhaps, my brain sometimes supplied, to let the robbers check if the bounty hunters had come to get them yet. There were also a number of large trees standing near the barn, crowding it, competing for the sun that glanced off its once-shingled roof. With these elements, I had all I needed for a perfect escape hatch.
At ten years old, an amazing phenomenon occurs where the growing child suddenly forgets his mortality. This is sometimes accompanied by the belief that he can fly or breath underwater. I had more than my fair share of stupid ideas, but getting to the roof was possibly the most stupid. It was a clear day; the sun reflected lazily off the row of windows. The shadows inside the barn stretched across the floor. They seemed to be pointing toward the stalls where I had often been a knight tending to his faithful steed. I glanced toward the loft from where I had kept the bad guys at bay many fateful days and the grand staircase of hay bales leading up to it. None of those would help me now. I looked up at the windows. From inside, they looked like windows into another dimension, showing nothing but the blue of the sky. I climbed up to the loft to get a clearer look. If I had been a few feet taller I would have been able to reach them. They hung out of my grasp as if the barn itself was taunting me, daring me to be the adventurer I had always pretended to be within its walls.
The average ten-year-old may have given up when no immediate solution presented itself, but no, I was determined. My first problem was getting to the window. I had an idea already how to pass this first obstacle to achieving the summit. In the bed of the decrepit horse cart, there lived a family of boxes that may at one time have held almost anything. What, I always wondered, might the cart have been hauling before the fateful day that it was left in the corner of the barn and forgotten. I jumped down to the hay bales and climbed into the cart. The top boxes on the pile started to crumble as I moved them. On the bottom, though, was the perfect box. It was still sturdy despite years of sitting exposed to the elements, protected as it was by the other boxes. I hauled it up to the loft. The box went against the wall and I climbed up. It was perfect, I could see directly out the window. I could see a problem. There was no tree directly out the window over the loft. There was a perfect branch just to the side, directly out from the next window over, the window placed squarely over the remains of one of the stalls. This would have stopped most anybody in their tracks, but I was determined, I would not be deterred from my master plan. In the corner of the loft was a stack of old planks that must at one time have been intended to repair the barn. I was sure one would be long enough to reach the top of the first stall. I quickly searched through the planks and dragged one over that I thought would work. I slid it out over the abyss. I wondered if the first person to make a bridge felt like this. The plank fell short. It was too heavy to pull back so I let it drop. It fell to the floor. On the way down, it knocked against the side of the stall, making a thudding sound that echoed dully through the barn like mocking laughter. I would not fail.
For most ten-year-olds, the initial failure would have been enough. Not for me. I tried three more boards before I found one that would stretch across the divide and hold my weight as well as that of the box. I inched across, pushing the box ahead of me as the board bowed and bounced and shook but did not fall. I reached the middle and stepped onto the box. I looked out the window and there it was, the perfect branch. It stretched to within a few inches of the window and looked sturdy enough to hold two or three of my friends as well as me. The window would not open. Another road block, I would not be turned away from my goal. I went back to the floor of the barn. I looked around for something to break the window. Nothing. I went outside. There, a rock the size of my palm courtesy of divine providence. I crawled up to the loft and tossed my rock at the window. It bounced off the wall and disappeared into the gloom at the base of the wall. Frustrated, I retrieved the rock and tried again. After a number of tries, it finally cracked against the window pane. For a moment of terror, I thought the window wouldn't break, but it crashed through, soaring into the open space beyond. Now all that remained was getting out the window. Plank, box, window, carefully avoiding the class shards left in the frame. I dragged myself onto the branch which was much higher than it looked. I reached back to the overhang of the roof and pulled myself up. I scrambled up the gentle slope and settled myself on the peeling black tiles.
Possibly the first ten-year-old in space would experience this sensation, but nothing else, I was sure, would ever come close. In awe, I looked out across a sea of trees. There was my house. It looked so far away, so fake, like a miniature house in a model of a town. Reality ended at the edge of the forest my barn stood in. Beyond the trees, the solid realness, extended a piece of scenery constructed of twine and plastic stretching to the horizon. I was alone in my island of safety and sanity. I was alone. I sat until it was almost too dark to see my way back into the barn, and I could no longer think. Perhaps I could have come to some understanding with time, but I was only ten years old.
I was eleven, and he was gone. It was one of those things like on TV where the victims sit there and go 'it happened so fast.' It was a lot like that. Except that it had been coming for years. It was still too soon for me. The day it happened, we came home from the hospital and my mother went straight to the bedroom, changed clothes, grabbed her purse, and left. She said she'd be back 'later.' She didn't come back that night. When I figured out that she was gone, I went out. To my barn. It was a sad grey in the lowering light, like it knew. For the first time, I cried, the sun-warmed bulk of the barn at my back. It seemed too small, somehow. The darkness inside the barn seemed to be closing in on me, trying to comfort me and smother me at the same time. I had to get out, had to leave. Even the thought of going up on the roof couldn't keep me from feeling trapped. My promise had trapped me. I had said I would wait for him and I didn't. I left. I didn't go back, didn't look back. I should have known it was too late to make things different, but I was only eleven years old.
I was twelve. In fact, it was my twelfth birthday. It was also the day I left to live with my grandparents. I walked out to the barn. My barn, ha. It was as foreign to me now as the first time I saw it and even more distant. Somehow, I blamed it. Its cold, cloud grey, rain and sleet grey walls stood impassive. Its blank windows stared unseeing down at me, its black eye an accusing black hole sucking me in. The monstrosity, the uncaring thing that I had thought was so special, now stood before me what it was, a lifeless structure. It held no mysteries or fantasies, just a childhood with too much time spent in the wrong places. I had not been back here since the day he died, I didn't want to come back, but for some obscure reason I felt I owed it to the barn and to myself to say good-bye. Now I questioned my decision. It stretched into the heavens, untouchable and unfeeling. The black roof sucked in the light, leaving a cold black cap like night descending on an unhappy day. The few remnants of paint still on the walls seemed to drip and dry like old blood. The trees bent over both of us, watching, waiting for something I could not sense. Everything seemed to be waiting, even the animals were quiet. It was the waiting, the silence that I couldn't stand.
At twelve, I was old enough to know that the barn could not hear me, that nothing I said would matter or change anything. It didn't matter. I screamed out everything to the barn, how if I hadn't spent so much time there, my father would be alive, my mother wouldn't be an unfit parent, and I wouldn't be as good as an orphan, a ward of the state. Things would have been different if it hadn't made me break my promise. Everything was the barn's fault. Deep down, though, I wanted to yell instead that everything couldn't be my fault, but how does one believe that when one is only twelve years old?
I was eighteen. It was my first time back in the little, horrid town since…then. My mother had asked me to come visit. Since I was of age and the state no longer had any control over me, I agreed. It seemed like the right thing to do. I don't know what exactly set my feet on the old, decaying path, but for some reason I felt the unavoidable pull to go, to see it, to be there. I couldn't not go. I was struck by the silence of the path. The animals who had grown used to my wanderings as I grew up were alarmed by this stranger walking through their place. Theirs, not mine, not anymore. After what seemed like a much longer walk than I remembered, I stepped between two trees and finally saw it. It was so different. It had suffered during the years I was away. What I remembered as a looming, grey monolith seemed shrunken, a fable shriveled to the size of reality. It squatted now on the land instead of reaching into the heavens. It seemed almost ashamed of its constructed façade among the nature and life surrounding it. It seemed dead. The only life it had had was what I gave to it, and I had abandoned it. It was not a thing out of legend, just a thing that had seen too many baking summers and freezing winters and looked tired and worn for it.
At eighteen, strange things begin to take over one's life. Life becomes hectic and hard and not what it was. Eighteen-year-olds begin thinking it's the end of the world. The barn couldn't help me with this. It had seen me through the first day of junior high, and my first girlfriend, although all we ever did was pass notes in class, and my best friend moving to another town. It had watched and listened and stood steady against the current of my fears, but now it was powerless, now I saw that it was no more a being than the rock I had so long ago thrown threw the window. It was no more able to help me escape now than it was to hold me before. And it was somehow less real for the reality I had uncovered. I turned to leave. Something glinting in the underbrush caught my eye. I knelt down at reached out to pull whatever it was from the plant. It came out with some difficulty, leaving a large, bleeding wound in the flesh of the small tree it had been imbedded under. It was scratched and scuffed, smudged and dirty, but it was definitely recognizable. It was a piece of glass no large than my thumb. It had managed to catch the sun at just the right angle to reflect the light. I glanced reflexively back up at the window the shard had come from all those years ago. I stopped. The wall of the barn which had so recently been dull, faded with years upon years under the beating sun, caught the fading rays of daylight. The sinking sun painted the wall of the barn a brilliant golden brown, the streaks of red burnished gold stripes against the darker coat. The windows glinted a pearly yellow, winking at my foolishness, my inability to see that which was right under my nose. The third window from the right, the broken one, was pure, solid black, and yet perhaps the most vibrant and alive of all of them. I sat, almost holding my breath, while the illusion faded. It could have lasted no more than a few minutes, but seemed an eternity. Perhaps it meant nothing, perhaps I shouldn't have read anything into that display, but I was only eighteen years old.
I was twenty-five. I hadn't even thought about the barn, I didn't want to call it my barn, in so long. So why was I going out there? Simple, my better half decided I would. I had brought my fiancé to meet my mother. While we were staying in the house, I told her about the barn. She wanted to see it, so here we were, walking down the path that I hadn't been down since before I left for college. She was marveling over the wildness of the woods and the sights and sounds along the path. I was, frankly, marveling that I had managed to catch a girl like her. I was watching her instead of the scenery, so I missed the first view of the barn. I could tell, though, when she saw it. I could tell she felt the magic of the place, the magic I had felt for so many years. Magic which I was certain was out of my grasp. I looked up at the ancient structure which had stood so much at the edge of my consciousness throughout my life. It looked surprisingly normal. I found myself looking for a great deal that I remembered from years past. The broken window, the door shoved slightly off its hinges from too many entrances and exits through the shrinking hole, the faded grey and red walls, the place on the roof where I had always sat, they were all there. They didn't seem as different as I thought they would be, but it was different. The barn no longer appeared hostile or even sad, nor was it a place of adventures. It was a place to which I felt no connection. I felt no pain looking at it nor pleasure, there was nothing.
The thing about being twenty-five and completely in love is that there is very little one can refuse the loved one. So, we ended up going inside the barn. It was one of those moments when life suddenly seems to have been created for the specific enjoyment of those present. Dust motes danced in the sunlight streaming in from the high windows, the barn was enveloped in an all-encompassing silence that nevertheless filled the space with presence, as if the barn was welcoming home one who had strayed too long. The silence was broken by a soft mewling from above us. My fiancé glanced quickly toward the loft before scrambling up the bales. I smiled as I remembered the obsession she had with cats. I started to follow. My gaze happened to fall on the decrepit old horse cart. A glint in the dirt. Curious, I climbed back down. As I walked toward the corner of the barn, I recalled exactly what had once called my attention from the loft to that very spot. My pace quickened. It couldn't still be here. I was sure it had long been disintegrated by now. But no, digging into the dirt, I uncovered an old, rusted box. Flakes of rust colored metal shaved off as I picked it up. The clasp rasped angrily as I opened the lid of the box. Inside were baseball cards, newspaper clippings, and pictures of smiling people. There was one picture, though, that stood out from the rest, because it was not old or in black and white. It was a simple picture, just a man and a woman smiling over the shoulders of a young boy. Perhaps I didn't know everything about magic, yet. I was, after all, only twenty-five years old.
I am thirty. My son was born yesterday. I am writing this so maybe he will know someday what it was like to have a place like my barn. I would take him there for him to experience himself, but the barn was torn down over a year ago to make way for a new, four lane highway cutting through the state. Progress. There are two pictures sitting in front of me now. One is my favorite picture of my father. It was taken not long after we'd discovered my barn, our barn together that day almost twenty-five years ago. We crouch in the dry leaves and warm dirt, sharing between us some secret that causes the dimples to appear on my father's cheeks, the ones I always wished I had inherited. Behind us as we crouch looms the figure of that which I had spent so many years trying to tame, to figure out, to know. It stands there in the picture, quiet, at rest, a set piece for the players. It shows nothing of the life and vibrancy I know it contained. It looks not so much like a giant's home or a pirate's secret hideout as it does a very, very old barn, much in need of repair and a glass pane or two. The other picture is of my fiancé, a few years ago. She is smiling gaily at the camera, twirling. She secretly believes that makes her look like a leading lady from the movies with her hat and gloves and perfect smile. She is the focus but behind her looms…the same barn. Taken lifetimes apart, the pictures capture the same façade of greying red-painted wood. There are small differences, of course, time lets nothing pass unaffected. In one the third window from the right, the one that looks out on the largest branch of the largest tree in the vicinity, is broken. It appears as a black eye among it's glittering, sun-reflecting fellows. In the other the door has not sagged quite as far out of the doorway. The number of weeds surrounding the barn, my barn, change in the picture, the only proof that time has passed.
The funny thing about being thirty, at least for me, is I'm starting to realize just how little one can ever really know about something. Looking at my pictures, I'm beginning to understand that the barn, my barn, wasn't really that special and yet it was. It held not a single mystery and yet was full of them. It was awful and awesome and I still don't know that I can attach only one label or one thought to it, describe it, tame it. It was full of everything and empty at the same time. It became its own mystery. Perhaps one day I will understand the answers to the riddles that surround my barn, perhaps I never will. I still have time. After all, I'm only thirty years old.