The Willow and the Barn

I was born and raised in the same house. It wasn’t anything special, a tri-level with a partially underground basement, a two-car garage, and three bedrooms for five people. The backyard was wider than it was long; it was always green and only sometimes cut short. In my dad’s twenty plus years in the house, he built two sheds, a swing set, three gardens, a base for a hot tub, and countless bird houses. But past the wire fence was the only piece of untouched land in our suburbia. It was eight acres of woods, grass, and a flowing creek. Wildlife flocked to the field, and from an early age I was all too familiar with the circle of life.

Mrs. Fehrebach owned the acreage that our land backed up to. The neighborhood kids always said she was over 100 years old. She couldn’t maintain the land, so my family helped her out. She owned the first two story log cabin built in the state, the deed of which was signed by Andrew Jackson all the way back in the 1800’s, but she lived in the carriage house. There was an empty stable in between the cabin and the house, but the three buildings were off to the side and I could only see the back of the house if I went to the farthest corner of our yard. Besides the endless field of wild grass and a thick line of Sycamore trees, the only building that faced our house, barely hidden by a willow tree, was a small, empty barn that Mrs. Fehrebach hadn’t touched in all of her years owning the estate. It was a strong structure that withstood the storms and tornadoes our community knew all too often. My family often spoke of how impressed we were that it had lasted so long.

The only time I met Mrs. Fehrebach was when her son was walking her down the field, towards the willow tree. I was outside doing yard work with my Dad, when Curtis, her son, stopped to talk to him. My family loved their land like it was ours. We knew the gem that we had in the middle of the city, it was our safe haven, our escape. Because of this, my Dad always offered Curtis his help, trimming the grass, cutting down trees, and occasionally disposing of the corpse of a creature that the coyotes had left behind. Curtis and Mrs. Fehrebach approached the fence, with linked arms, but painfully slow.

I had always considered myself kind of a tomboy. I liked fishing with my Dad and even working in the yard with him. I liked tending to the garden, and the compost, anything that got my hands dirty. I hated pink and anything related to it. The only shoes I owned were tennis shoes and my work boots. But this year, things began to change. My body started to look more like my older sisters’. I had a hard time hiding my chest, unless under a loose-fitting t-shirt. And once a month I had to ask my mom to take me to the nearest CVS for products that my Dad was too embarrassed to shop for on his grocery store runs. The boys in my school had begun to notice how much my body was changing. One day I wore a tight-fitted turtleneck to school and even my friends had a hard time looking me in the eye.

That day, I was wearing a sports bra and tank top. My mom and I hadn’t had the time to go get a bigger, better fitting sports bra. But I was just working with my Dad in the garden, so I didn’t think anything of it. But when Curtis approached the fence, he noticed. I was acutely aware of his wandering eyes, but I know Dad didn’t see it. I pulled up my tank top a little bit.

Mrs. Fehrebach had silver hair in a braid that touched the back of her knees. At the age of twelve, she was no taller than me, with her beady brown eyes barely above the fence line. When they finally approached the fence, she took a moment to catch her breath, then smiled at me. It was a stretched smile that made me uneasy. But my Dad and Curtis had already struck up a conversation, making me feel a little bit more comfortable. After a few more strenuous pants Mrs. Fehrebach let go of her son and took a step towards me.

“Hello dear,” she said. “You must be young Naomi. Your father has told me about you.”

“How do you do?” I asked.

“My sweet boy here offered to take me down to the Willow. I hadn’t visited her in quite some time and I dreamt of her last night” she said. She gestured towards Curtis, who smiled at my chest.

That tree was the only willow I had ever seen, except for in pictures and movies. It had hair that rested on the ground and flowed like the ocean waves I knew at the beach. It was magical and I could see why Mrs. Fehrebach dreamt of it. But it was just a piece of nature to me, it wasn’t a living thing, let alone a “she.”

“It’s very pretty. I like to stand out here in the mornings and just watch it,” I said to her. Mrs. Fehrebach paused for a moment, smiling at me with her mouth wide shut.

“She’s older than I am and the farmers that owned her before I did. They told me when I bought this land that the Tribe who lived here before them grew it from just a single seed.”

My father and Curtis had stopped talking about who would trim the grass this week to listen in on Mrs. Fehrebach’s teachings. Curtis didn’t take his eyes off of me. My mom had told me that sometimes older men just can’t help but stare like that. It’s just in their nature.

“You see that barn next to her?” she asked me.

I nodded. I knew that barn all too well. Any time I ate breakfast on our deck or read a book on the swing, it would be staring right back at me. Sometimes I felt like it was watching me through the strands of the willow leaves.

“I bought that barn from them, too. The farmers told me to tear it down. They said it would attract nothing but coyotes, wolves, and insects. But I’ve never had a problem with it. Never seen a coyote go in or out of it, and wasps have never built a nest on it. You know what I think?”

I shrugged my shoulders. I was too embarrassed of Curtis to respond.

“The Tribe used to bury their people on this land. We live on top of them right now. Your house, too. They protect that barn. They told me not to touch it. They told me in a dream. Whenever I hear the –”

“Mom. That’s enough. You’re scarin’ the poor girl,” Curtis said. I took a step away from him.

She lowered her eyes and smiled regretfully. He was right, she was scaring me, but he was, too. I learned in school of the Miami Indians that used to live here. And my older sisters used to joke with me that the field was an ancient Indian burial ground. I thought they were just trying to scare me.

“It was nice to finally meet you, Naomi. I’ve heard so much about you,” she said. She winked and patted my head with her small hand wrinkled like paper. “Come now, Curtis. Let’s go see her.”

My Dad and Curtis said their goodbyes, then he turned and smiled at me with a grin like sandpaper, and then the pair was on their way. I watched Mrs. Fehrebach until she approached the willow, stood to take in her height and her beauty, then disappeared behind her.

“Naomi Fern, get back to work,” Dad said. He turned around, grabbed the shovel, and started digging into the garden.

“Dad, do you really think people are buried under here?” I asked him.

He pierced the grass with the shovel, exposing rich dark Earth with a thick juicy worm crawling out of it. The thought of a body being somewhere deep beneath it flashed through my mind. That worm could be feasting on whatever’s left of it, bone, hair, eyes. I’ve found fossils in these woods before, sometimes just on complete accident, exposing it if I kicked a rock around. So, who’s to say we couldn’t just as easily find a body, just digging around planting squash.

He grunted in response as if completely ignoring my question altogether. This is how Dad talked most of the time. It was like his own language that only the family knew how to interpret. Each grunt had a different meaning, and this one meant to quit asking questions.

We finished planting an entire row of squash until my hands and knees were caked in dirt and little sandy pieces were stuck under my fingernails.

“We did a great job, Dad! When do you think the squash will grow?” I asked in excitement.

He stood in silence for a moment then grunted. “Make sure you water them tomorrow,” he said.

That night after my mother tucked me in bed and kissed my forehead and my Dad waited outside and said goodnight in his own language, I dreamt of our garden. The squash had grown overnight, large, round, and the perfect shade of orange. The soil was darker than what we had dug up that day and was spilling with earthworms. They began to attack the squash, drilling holes in the gourds, growing bigger and bigger with each bite. They quickly began to rot, crumble, and were pulled back into the soil.

Amongst the rotting pieces of gourd, a hand emerged from the ground, spraying little pieces of wet earth everywhere. Then the ground began to move, and something was emerging around the hand. Slowly, a body was rising from under our garden. When the earth had fallen from his face, I could tell it was the body of an ancient corpse. He was wearing claws around his neck and had a drum in his hand. He turned and looked at me, then began playing. It was loud, so loud I began backing up trying to escape back into our house. He jumped up from his seated position, pounding the pieces of squash back into the garden. Playing the drum, he sprinted from our garden over to the willow tree, but the noise only grew louder. He circled the tree, then escaped back into the barn. Suddenly, more and more drums began to play, and the barn lit up. I had never seen light coming from the barn before, but it was so bright I was afraid it was on fire. The sound escalated until I heard an entire band of only drums, all playing in unison with each other.

There was a pounding at my door, a loud pounding. The sun was shining in from my window and I knew it was morning. Like my Dad, I grunted to let whoever it was at my door know that they could come in. My Dad opened the door.

“Garden needs watering,” he said. I nodded in response and got dressed for the day. I opted for an oversized t-shirt today, just in case I saw Curtis again.

I stood over the garden, spraying it with the hose. The image of the hand, and the worms, and the drums kept flashing into my mind. As I was spraying the fertilized soil, I heard the drums again.

I looked up at the barn as if expecting to see it lit up. But it wasn’t. It didn’t look any different than it normally did. But I knew the drums were coming from it. I looked around as if expecting to see someone around who also heard the drums, but I just saw my dad in the doorway, watching me spray the garden.

“Oh! Hey Dad, you scared me. Think these are watered enough?” I asked.

He walked over to me, hands in the pocket of his work jeans, but said nothing. He approached the garden, then stared ahead at the barn. This was something he usually did. He was always looking over the land, like a lion over his pride. Finally, he grunted, letting me know it was time to put away the hose.

I heard the drums the rest of the night. Sometimes they were softer and sometimes they were louder. It sounded like they were following me, but that night, before I fell asleep, they were louder than they had been all day. I laid awake all night, anxious, tossing and turning. Nobody had said anything about the drums. I was the only one that heard them. It was like when I focused on them, they got louder. When I folded the pillow over my ears, they got closer. I didn’t sleep that night.

The next three days I was more anxious than I ever had been. I watched my family to see if they showed any signs of hearing the drums, too. Sometimes they were so loud, I couldn’t hear my family at the dinner table. Dad never really spoke during dinner, but my sisters, mother, and I were always talking over each other. Nobody seemed to notice when I didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t know if I would be talking too loudly, screaming over the noise of the drums. If I let it slip that I heard them, they would only call me crazy.

After the squash had begun to sprout, like a finger emerging out from the dirt, a storm wreaked havoc on our town. It came in the night when I again couldn’t sleep. The wind made the tree branches slap my windows and the rain sounded like it would penetrate the glass. The thunder was no louder than the drums, but I could hear them more than ever. They beat in unison, accentuating one another.

I heard my Dad’s footsteps walking around the house. He was probably covering the garden and checking on the bird houses. He liked to make sure his things were in order when chaos reigned on the land. Since I knew I wouldn’t sleep, I thought I would go downstairs and help him.

“What are you doing up, Naomi?” he asked me.

“I couldn’t sleep. It sounds like the storm is right above us,” I said. He had on his rain boots and jacket. He seemed anxious, too.

“Get your coat and boots on. We need to head to the yard. A branch landed on the garden,” he said, then disappeared out to the garage.

I quickly pulled my boots over my fuzzy socks and my jacket over my sleep shirt. When I reached the back door, Dad was still in the garage. The rain was so thick, I could just barely make out the garden. There was a large tree branch not on top of the garden, but rather inside of it. The squash wouldn’t make it. I looked past the fence, out to the barn and the willow. The wind was whipping the willow leaves around in a tornadic fashion, her hair was completely up in the air. I thought the wind would tear the roof off of the barn, but it remained unbothered.

Dad wasn’t anywhere to be seen, so I thought I would try to move the branch myself. The rain was freezing cold and it stung like getting a shot at the doctor’s. My boots sunk into the Earth and each step was an effort. I grabbed the tree branch and tried to pull but it didn’t budge. I pulled and pulled but it was only sinking more into the muddy garden. The thunder made my ears rattle and the drums made my head hurt. Suddenly, a crash came from the field. A bright light burned my eyes and I fell onto my butt into the mud. Before I could look up and see what had happened, my Dad was running after me from the garage calling my name.

“Naomi Fern, what are you doing? I didn’t tell you to come out here yet. Get inside now!” He said. He picked me up and carried me into the house.

“What was that?” I said through the rain dripping from my face.

“Look for yourself,” he said, pointing through the back door.

The willow had been struck by lightning. The top half was on fire. I couldn’t believe it. It burned so bright in the storm amidst the rain. We stood and watched for a moment as the branches fell, one by one, but the trunk remained standing. I thought it would burn the barn and the rest of the trees surrounding it, but the building remained unsinged. Nobody knew how old the willow was, but all of the sudden she’s done and over with. It lived through generations of families and watched the land surrounding it go from nature to suburb. But there she was, crumbling before our eyes.

“Come on now, go take a shower. In a few days we’ll go out there and chop her down for Mrs. Fehrebach,” Dad said after watching the fire dwindle to just a flame. After the storm the drums had calmed a bit, but they were still beating. The land had dried up and the birds had come out of the birdhouses again. Dad and I put on our work boots and moved the branch out of the garden. Some of the seedlings survived, others we had to throw over the fence and give back to the land. After chopping up the branch to use as firewood, we got out the ladder to cross over the fence and chop down the willow.

The world was always a little bit quieter on the other side of the fence. It was like the rest of the world didn’t exist. We weren’t that far from a major city road, but the noise didn’t quite reach the field. As we trudged across the land, parting our way in the grass that sometimes reached up to my shoulders, I was getting closer to the drums. Standing next to the barn, it was like I could hear the hands beating on the drums.

We worked for hours that day, up until dusk, until there was nothing left but two feet of trunk. The hiss of the chainsaw sounded out the drums a little bit. When we were finished, the sun was setting and we were dripping in sweat. I didn’t notice until we were loading the logs into the wheelbarrow, that the drums had actually stopped. I hadn’t heard silence in days. I could hear the birds chirping and the slight breeze against my ears. I stood for a moment and looked at what was once maybe a few hundred-years-old relic. Dad came up next to me, hands on his hips, looking up at the untouched barn.

“The beating finally stopped,” he said.

“You heard them, too? The drums?” I asked. The breath had left my lungs so quickly I put my hand on my chest.

He turned and looked at me square in the eyes, with something I hadn’t seen in him before.

“Yeah, I hear them too, Naomi.”

After a minute of silence, reveling in our hard work, we heard Curtis walking through the high grass. He approached us joyfully, a stupid grin mounted on his face. I quickly pulled up the front of my sports bra and tugged at the back of my tank top, trying to make the neck a little higher. He noticed immediately with his wandering eyes.

“Well Mom will be sad to see it go! What’s a pretty girl like you doin’ choppin’ down trees?” he asked.

My Dad put his arm around me and drew me into a side hug.

“Well, she takes after me. She’ll always be her Daddy’s girl.”

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About the Author

Beth Hannah is a young writer living in Kansas City. She received a minor in Creative Writing from the University of Kansas and enjoys writing in her free time.

Beth Hannah
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