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Amber Paulen

To Do the Hay

The air was so thick with vegetation, pushing upwards, pushing down through the soil. The light of a long summer afternoon ran itself through plump blades of grass and spindly ones. As the sun sank, but before it sank through cornstalks, my shadow became much taller than I’ve ever been. It mimicked me and joined me at the crunch of gravel but its shoulders were in fat grass or thin grass and its head was sunk deep into the tangle of alfalfa. My profile was pockmarked by tiny fragrant purple flowers which were my eyes and my nose the whole walk along the drive.

I heard the water pumping from the irrigation; how the front gun beat its shotgun spray through the yellow smelling cornstalks to the dry brown earth. Sometimes my brother and I would run out to the field to stand in the forest of splicing leaves and wait for the heavy drops to swing round and soak us. Or, if it were low-laying beans of the field, we would run over them after the water’s wet path.

I heard the shrill call of the killdeer protecting its young, the frog-song and cricket chirps, the multi-decibel myriad of insects scurrying, flying, buzzing, whirling, walking and the crunch of gravel under my feet.

Through the kitchen there blew a summer breeze bringing farm smells, corn smells, alfalfa smells and cow smells, in one window and out again. My mom was framed in the two rectangles of window outlined by blue sky, red barn and green grass, as she stood before the sink rinsing the vegetables. She turned to me and told me what I could do to help her out and I did it.

When my dad came in it was direct to the shower, stripping off holed shorts stained brown with cow-shit and holed shirt streaked green by who-knows-what. His hands calloused brown-black and on his face were the course of recently fallen sweat beads etched through hay and dirt and who-knows-what. “Tomorrow we’re cutting hay,” he said before shutting the bathroom door.

My mom and I both know what that meant.

To cut hay meant to work from sunup to sundown through the heat. It meant driving a lunch out in the afternoon to whoever in whatever field they worked in, out over the thick stubble and uneven ground. My grandma or my mom stopped the car and waited for the combine, that massive mechanical phantom moving methodically row by row, to approach. The combine stopped and my mom or my grandma would get out and walk over the harsh stubble to lift the tupperware where two hands joined, we were again on our way.

After the hay was cut and lined there came the tractor and the machinery that raked-up and tied the hay into rectangular bales, popping them up and into the haywagon as if the bales were popcorn with built-up steam. The haywagon was then driven to the farm, joined with the conveyor belt, which the bales were then thrown onto and conveyed and thrown again to the appropriate loft in the barn. To do the hay was a ‘man’s job’ of hard manual labor, smelly, sticky, difficult. I’ve never met a woman who would want to do it. The ‘woman’s job,’ in turn, was the food.

My mom had boiled two packages of hot dogs but yet this was not enough. She carried the pyramid of hot dogs and the monstrous bowl of potato salad and macaroni salad and cookies and watermelon to a table pulled out into the lawn. My dad arrived first, though the others soon followed, loud and covered by fly-off bits of hay that stuck to their sweat like swatted mosquitoes. The men ate standing or sitting, they ate laughing and joking and sweating, they ate hot dogs and watermelon, spitting the seeds out between their teeth without breaking their cadence.

I stayed off to the side smelling them and the hay that rolled off them like dusty bits sodden with saltsweat. I wondered at but never questioned the endurance that kept them laughing and joking and eating until all the food was eaten and digested; they would have to work until the night. They filed off as a group, shuffling the acceptance of farmer, hard physical labor, unnatural hours.

I heard the machinery running from across the fields, even after the dark shadows conquered twilight and settled over the merciful land. I heard very intermittent and nonsensical shouts flung up and out into the still air where the crickets were strumming full-throttle and the frogs accompanied them at a distance. I heard the night song.


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