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Amber Paulen

Cat Barn

It was the alfalfa. Alfalfa is the color of the deepest quarried jade, of the most virile verdancy and when the shower of speckled lavender blossoms, I charge through at glorious speeds. Running through alfalfa dyes the shoes green as does shuffling through piles of freshly cut grass. Are not shoes but simply vehicles that assist in propelling us through the quick of life? It was also the corn. Tall and brittle are the lime green stalks that surround our house in pygmy proportions. To stand within those mystical boundaries, the heavens a mere shard, there is only the keen scent of earth. It is the regiment of roots tunneling forever deeper into the soil, it is the smell of the dirt and the grit, it is what is hidden beneath this top layer. It is the plant which wafts sun and silk, the drying husks and the odor of molding kernels. Running through the corn I must hold up my arms to shield my face, for when the stalks whizz by at frightening speeds the razor edged leaves leave thin slices of blood. To throw myself head-long into such seraphic sensations I could never emerge unscathed.

It was mostly the cats. They infested in great hordes the red wooden barn to the middle. Cats to the upper, cows to the lower. Not young and not old the holsteins chew their cud like a wad of gum that won’t break down. They pace their shit covered stalls unaware of time or day, of space or self. If I were to reach out my hand they come running at an awkward gallop best described as a quick plod. The best Bessie wins and slurps up my hand in one slimy suction. Its sorrowful and slow eyes roll to the back of its head, its two mucous coated nostrils flare so soft and slick in contrast with the warmly rough palpitating tongue and the ridged bridge at the top of its mouth. I wrestle out my hand when I’ve had enough. A long string of saliva connects the greedy mouth and me. I wipe all the gooey and gross mess hastily onto the leg of my pants.

The smoothed wooden ladder is hued by the forgotten. It is grey and wide and shoots straight up. I climb it with one hand for in the other I clutch a weighted gallon of mastitis milk. I am dextrous with my motions. I could climb this ladder with my eyes closed while balancing two gallons and three plates of crunchy cat food. Above, the cats close in around the perfect square opening. I must push them out of my way, push the milk to one side. I swing my legs up in one agile action. I am now among my brethren. The cats rub against my leg and I stroke each one whom I call by name. I ration out the milk, chunky in summer and frozen in winter, though unfailingly orange in color. Again I shimmy down the ladder to lug up their delectably crunchy cat food.

They thank me in their devouring way. Goldie, the golden tom, is always the first to eat and the first to be satiated. He licks his lips in pure contentment, he struts up to me to procure some pets. The younger ones, kittens of all ages and litters, must fight for their bite. Lucky for them I am always on their side. I sit to their rear on a dilapidating hay bale. I observe until the cats take their fill. I am encased by the smell; the manure of the lowing cows, the ricketiness of the ancient barn, dust and cobwebs cloak the walls, the wood whittling itself away, the fermenting piles of bales of hay, the excrement from hundreds of cats buried within, sometimes a dead one long forgotten, the cats themselves, the mastitis milk and the crunchy food. It is pungent but in some insane way it calms me.

I come to the cat barn for respite from the world. I come to the cat barn alone. It is solitude and hundreds of lapping tongues. I read every message that has ever been written on these cobwebbed walls. I take in every signal through my stimulated pores. The world rings clear. Every question I may pose I am assured I will eventually stumble upon the answer. The cat barn is my haven.

The cats share with me the excitements of their day. Goldie, always on the prowl, tells of sexual exploits with the ladies ten miles round. Tabby, always slow and languid is the matron of the bunch. She reclines to expose her teats. The wee ones smell the milk dripping and come blindly clambering from any distance. I build houses out of hay and splintering planks. I try to keep separate the numerous litters but they always seem to get mixed up. I hold two kittens in my hand. Gently they wriggle within the concavity. I hold them to my nose and smell them, their downy fur rubs against my face and it is joy that flows from their softness. They mew for their mother and I return them with proud care. In the cat barn I watch. It was the cats who taught me the fine art of observation for I could read their wants and their minutiae desires with the same hunger as I read my books. The cats perfected my patience and welled my compassion for their ultimate well-being.

It was the cat barn and the openness of the fields that fueled an imagination that I have not yet fully reckoned with. To sit so still every evening after dinner and to feel a glowing inner bliss from merely watching. To step out of the cat barn was jolting. In winter the sky was black and the earth was white. And when the full moon came to pass the heavens seemed to adhere themselves to the ground, for it was illumination and wonder. At other times it was the black, black of death and I ran sprinting to the glowing orange edifice which was the house. In the summer the crickets and the frogs chirped their summer song and the earth rang with life and the sky with the falling sun. There was the corn, sturdy in its stalks and growing plump for the coming harvest. There was the alfalfa, which when cut penetrates the air in the perfume of ripe nature. Who can blame me if at times I took off running?

Bracciano, Italy
September 2007


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