When I was eight, my father woke me in the middle of the night to watch a calf being born. I woke to the rolling, rich sound of his laughter, then boards creaking as he climbed the stairs. Before I could drift back to sleep on my warm, soft feather tick, my door opened. I smelled the cold air on him, a whiff of manure, and sat up in bed.
“Harry,” he said, “get up.”
In the kitchen, he handed me my first cup of coffee. The coffee tasted bitter, and I set the mug down, believing nothing could be worth all this trouble. But my father was alive that night, as if on fire, as if someone had set a light inside him. He glowed.
My father grabbed me by the hand, and we jogged across the yard. The night air was cold. Subzero temperatures slapped me awake. Our boots crunched the snow as we ran. I will remember this always, this jog to the barn in the middle of the night with only the light of the stars. I couldn’t quite keep up with my father, whose legs bore him forward in great strides.
Our three, one-story barns stretched long and low in front of us. My father pushed open the door to the second, ushering me inside. The barn was flooded with light, which made me blink. I wanted to stop to catch my breath, but my father’s palms rested on my shoulders, propelled me forward to the far end of the barn, where Dr. Vargas with his pointy beard stood, a black bag opened at his feet and his arm stuck up to the elbow in one of our cows’ back end.
I started to leave.
“No, no, no,” my father said, grabbing me by the shoulder and pulling me back. “This is okay. This is life.”
Dr. Vargas laughed, then lowered his head. His forehead wrinkled. He spoke to my father. “This will be a difficult one, James.”
The cow moaned.
I looked up at my father, whose hands still rested on my shoulders. “What’s he doing?” I asked.
Then my father did something that focused my undivided attention on that moaning cow. My father spoke to me in Swedish.
He said, “Titta här, Smulan.” Look.
My father called me Smulan affectionately. In Swedish, Smulan means crumb.
I think of this now as I sit in a dimly lit hallway, listening to the nurses on the night shift tell each other about their Christmas plans. I can’t see them well from where I sit. I see only the circular, mauve desk surrounding them, the pool of white light that bathes it. The pool of light reminds me of the barn, reminds me that the calf’s birth is the only birth I’ve ever seen, reminds me that watching a calf being born is no preparation.
My father was wrong. That was not life.
One of the nurses laughs, and the sound of her laughter carries down the hall past me. I stand and rub my eyes. I wonder what time it is. I’m not wearing my watch. I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, a down jacket and slippers. Megan’s slippers, which are pink. I think of how she looked tonight as we raced to the car, biting her lip, holding her tummy, one wayward brown curl falling in her eyes; of the thin, tense smile she gave me as the nurses rolled her down the hall and away from me.
My father and mother are waiting for my second phone call. I imagine them now, sitting at the kitchen table. My mother has her hands wrapped around a coffee mug, and my father is leaning back on the two back legs of his chair, feet propped on the table, smoking his pipe. I imagine that my mother is watching the clock and shaking her head. And I imagine that my father is deferring to my mother’s experience, letting her shake her head, letting her mutter, “This is not good.”
When I called her from the lobby phone not too long ago, that was what she said: “This is not good.”
We know we have a boy. We just didn’t expect him this soon.
Farther away, in St. Paul, Megan’s parents wait, trapped inside their house by a sudden December blizzard. I can’t imagine them clearly. Maybe Mrs. Hall is making coffee. When in crisis, she usually does. Mr. Hall is probably clenching the keys to his Chevy Impala, waiting for the snow to stop. Most likely though, he has decided not to wait, just like my son. Instead, he is sliding down 94 East with Mrs. Hall, following the headlights to western Wisconsin and to the small hospital where I stand now, listening to nurses laugh.
My parents will not come.
I stand and stretch my legs, then lean against the wall. I don’t understand the waiting. My mother’s voice, soft and low, echoes in my head. “This is not good.”
But waiting doesn’t matter, as long as everything turns out all right. There is no price I would not pay.
The calf was breech, so Dr. Vargas had to turn it around. He stuck his arm inside the cow almost up to his shoulder, placed his free hand on her backside, and worked on turning that baby calf. The cow moaned, and when she did Dr. Vargas whispered to her. He whispered that she would be all right. He nodded to himself. Yes, she would be fine.
Then Dr. Vargas lifted his chin and grinned at my father. “Here it comes.”
Dr. Vargas slowly pulled his arm out of the cow. His arm was smeared with blood, and the shirt sleeve he had pulled up to his elbow was stained. As his hand came out of the cow, his fingers were gripping two hooves.
I remember I stepped closer and watched as the skinny legs emerged, and then a nose, and finally, in a great rush, the whole heavy body wet with birth. Dr. Vargas caught the calf against his chest and laid it gently on the straw next to the cow. I stared at the shivering calf at my feet. Its eyes were open. It looked at me, and I stared back.
Dr. Vargas smiled at me, stretching his mouth so wide that his beard stretched as well and became even more pointed.
“Not bad for a night’s work, eh, Harry?” he said.
I heard my father behind me. “He’s never seen a calf being born before.”
We had three barns then. Later, we tore down the third because we had fewer cows, because the barn was too old. We expected to rebuild, but we didn’t have the latest equipment, the size, or the clout to convince the bank to give us a loan. We were a family business. We relied on our reputation, but our reputation wouldn’t pay the bills. The older I grew, the worse we did. We lost business. We scaled back. We got by.
I have lost track of time, and I search the pale yellow wall for a clock. A sketch of a barn and silo is on the hospital wall. I feel suddenly like I’m lost in a shopping mall, looking at a floor plan for the red triangle which will tell me where I am, orient me. But this picture doesn’t orient me. This picture tells me where I am not.
My father and I don’t speak any more. Whenever I call, my mother answers the phone. She apologizes for him. She asks if Megan and I are okay, listens to my yes, then quickly tells me that Mr. Hendrickson wants our cows. She still calls them our cows, as if I have a claim to them. I say nothing.
On rare occasions, she asks about my job. I lie. I don’t tell her that I miss hearing the cows lowing. I don’t explain how much I miss watching the sun rise behind the barns or eating family meals around our aged, wood table or drinking Dad’s bad coffee, thick as sludge. Some things cannot last; some things last too long.
I am tempted to ask one of the nurses what time it is, but then I think, I don’t really want to know.
My great-grandpa Patrik left Sweden when he was 18. He came here, to Wisconsin, and married an American girl. He was not interested in talking about Sweden; he was not interested in lutefisk and lefsa and Aquavit. He insisted on speaking English. Patrik said this country was paradise.
Now our family can no longer speak Swedish. Our linguistic skills have deteriorated with each generation. We are reduced to tapping glasses together and saying Skal. We are left with only pieces of my great-grandfather’s past, with only part of the truth, with only his surname, Kvist. What we have in common with Patrik is exactly what he intended.
Out here in this flat expanse of land, the wind gathers strength as it rolls across the prairie. Hits a man square in the face with cold and snow and sometimes ice. This is the same wind my ancestors endured; this is the wind that beat against their faces until their skin was red and raw and rugged. For years, we have worked the same land, and we are marked more by the wind than by our name. Today, our surname means nothing. We are no more Swedish than my friend Marty Feinstein. But we are farmers. We have the leathery faces, the chapped lips and hands, which are our scars.
Or, at least, I did have them. My skin is healing, now that I’m not blasted by wind or standing in a cold barn stamping my feet. Now I sit at a wooden desk. I swivel back and forth in my chair when I talk on the phone. I tell farmers about fertilizer. Sometimes I call home, just to hear them answer. They no longer answer as Kvist’s Dairy.
I used to ask my father about Sweden, ask him to tell me stories. When I was young, he’d indulge me. He’d tell me about his father, August, and his Uncle Peter, whom great-grandpa Patrik in his old age sometimes called Peir. They each had a farm, not too far from one another, but as far apart as possible. My father told me what he could, but he couldn’t name people in old family photographs. He couldn’t remember who played the accordion, though he suspected it was Uncle Peir. He couldn’t remember the names of Patrik’s parents, or whether or not Patrik’s father farmed.
Once when he was drunk, my father told me about Christmases at Uncle Peir’s farm, all three households gathering to cut the tree, then decorate the boughs. They sang Christmas carols, Uncle Peir always leading, always off-key, with my grandmother accompanying on the piano.
But this is as detailed as my father got.
I have stared at the pictures of these men, of August with his round glasses and curled mustache; of Uncle Peir with his sizable belly; of great-grandpa Patrik, who is squinting. I want to ask Patrik why he left us with nothing but photographs. Photographs and land in paradise.
I think, “You had too much confidence in this country, Great-Grandpa Patrik.” The night my father told me about the family Christmases at Uncle Peir’s, he slipped. Too much Aquavit. He leaned over the armrest of his chair, motioned me close with his hand. His breath was hot and wet against my cheek when he spoke:
“My father told me that he thought Grandpa Patrik left Vimmerby because he killed a man.”
Then he pushed me away, shook his head, said nothing for the rest of the evening. He fell asleep in his armchair, woke himself snoring, and lumbered off to bed. Sleep well, he muttered.
I don’t know if my father remembers his slip.
I’ll never know what he knows or doesn’t know.
At the opposite end of the hall, past the nurses’ station, there are vending machines. I walk the length of the hall, Megan’s slippers slapping on the tile. When I pass the nurses they lower their voices. I keep my head down. I don’t want to speak to them. I don’t want their sympathetic smiles.
The calf that was born became my training bull. My father lectured me on its development. As the calf grew, he explained to me what weight he needed it to be. This was not a bull my father planned to keep; he made this clear immediately. He said, “Don’t name the calf, Harry.” The bull was good stock, but we didn’t need another, and we could get a good price for him. And I didn’t cry when the bull was carted off with others we didn’t plan to keep. My father said, this is the life of a farmer, and I understood. I have always understood.
In early October, I walked downstairs from Megan’s and my upstairs bedroom, from the converted attic that was our apartment within the house, and told my father I was going to stop farming. We had had the first snow then, and the morning air was rejuvenating or maybe without the wind, the cold just didn’t bother me.
I said, “Dad, let’s go for a walk.”
But we didn’t. I got as far as the back steps and sat down. I couldn’t move. The sun was rising, and suddenly I didn’t want to walk. I didn’t want to say anything. I wanted to stay.
Dad met me on the steps with a freshly brewed cup of coffee.
He said, “This house is too old and too small.”
He was smoking a cigarette, rubbing his trim white beard. He wore his black rubber boots.
“Maybe we can fix up the house ourselves this spring.
I said, “Dad…”
He shook his head and took a sip of his coffee. “Don’t worry about the money. We’ll manage.”
Maybe the tone of my voice betrayed me, because his eyes immediately met mine. He stared at me, and I looked away. Away from the barns, away from the Swedish flag snapping against the flagpole beside the house, away from my father. Away from the land I had planned never to leave.
And then, as the sky settled into the washed-out gray of a winter sky, Dad asked: “What will you do?”
“I’ve lined up a job with Hansen’s Fertilizer in Eau Claire.”
“I see. You’ve been thinking about this for a while, then.”
“You should have told me earlier.” Then my father was silent. Suddenly he said: “I can’t do this alone.”
We have not spoken since.
These are the things my son will not know: the first dark morning of winter when stars freckle the sky as we head out to do chores; the chorus of cows lowing as they come back into the barn from pasture; the taste of milk fresh from the cow.
This is what kills me, deep down. Not that my childhood is slipping away, or my way of life. Not that the last tangible evidence of my past is up for sale. What kills me is that my son will never know what the seasons smell like on a farm. My son will not know in his bones how a farm works. My son will not understand me.
We are two families now, the family that farmed, and the family that will not.
The evening Megan and I left the farm, just as we were about to climb into my truck, my father pulled me aside. He said nothing, he simply tugged at my jacket sleeve. I walked with him down the driveway, waiting for him to speak. We walked in silence past the house, past the flagpole, down the driveway, to the first barn. He pulled open the door, and we walked by each cow. As we passed they turned their heads, glanced at us, then looked away. We walked out the door at the other end, then into the second barn, past the empty stalls, over the scrubbed floor. He stopped finally at the far end of the barn, and I understood what he could not say.
My father will wait up until the phone rings. He won’t go to bed. And perhaps tonight when I call, he’ll get on the phone. Perhaps tonight we’ll speak, if only of the baby.
I see the doctor. He’s standing at the nurses’ station, dressed in his blue paper gown, discussing something with the nurses. He turns in my direction, and I stand. And suddenly I’m walking as I imagine Mr. Hall is driving, as perhaps my father is driving, coming from the other direction, west to his grandchild, west to his son.
“Mr. Johnson, you have a son. He weighs three pounds. Amazingly, no defects.” The doctor is smiling at me. I can’t remember his name.
“Will he live?” My voice sounds hoarse.
The doctor pushes his glasses up on his nose. “I can’t say he’ll survive, but I have high hopes.”
I can live with high hopes. I notice there is blood on his blue paper gown, and I stare at him, waiting.
Finally I say, “How’s my wife?”
“She’s fine,” he says.
“I want to see them.”
I walk with him down the hall, past the nurses’ station, down another hall, and into a room. Megan is asleep, her head to one side. She is pale and drawn. I kiss her forehead, but she doesn’t open her eyes.
The doctor stands on the other side of her bed.
“She’s fine,” he repeats.
I hold her hand. I wipe her forehead though it is dry and cool. I listen to her breathe.
“Would you like to meet your son?”
I glance up at the doctor, at his round, flushed face, at his broad smile, at the wire glasses he wears.
The doctor calls for a nurse to guide me. She leads me to an elevator, and we ride up two floors. We walk through double doors, past another nurses’ station, past an old man whom someone has left sitting in the hallway in a wheelchair.
We stop in front of a large glass window that looks into a room full of babies, terrifyingly small babies. They have tubes sticking in their nostrils, tubes taped with white tape to their arms. I search the bassinets. I search among the faces of the babies for one who looks windblown.
I see my son. I know him instantly.
He is the one who is screaming.
“A kid like that has to live,” I tell the nurse, and I mean this as an order.
I have a son now, a three-pound son. A three-pound son with no name. But unlike the product of the only birth I’ve seen, this one will be named. This one I will keep.
The nurse stands beside me for a moment, then mutters something I can’t hear and leaves. I place my forehead against the glass and watch my son. I watch another nurse go over to him, put her hands in little gloves which are made to fit inside his incubator, adjust a tube which is in his arm, check the tube in his nose. He is too little for tubes. The tubes must be bigger than his veins.
I speak to him through the glass. I whisper: “Titta här, Smulan.”
My son stops screaming. I flatter myself that somehow he knows I am here.
I don’t know what to say to my son, so I begin to recite my memories. I begin by telling him about his grandfather and about the night his mother and I left the farm, left the house that had been my home for thirty years, and drove to Eau Claire. I tell him about the walk my father and I took, about the smell of the cows and the chill in the air that whispered of snow. I tell him that my father and I did not hug good-bye, that we stood facing each other, staring at each other, until he turned and walked back into the house.
I tell Smulan that as I watched my father walk away, I knew how I would remember my father: half eaten by dusk, halfway back to the house, half with me and half not. And I promise Smulan that I’ll ask for my father when I call home tonight; that when we are done speaking of him, I will ask my father what he really knows about great-grandpa Patrik.
Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned an MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University, and her short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Puerto del Sol, Mud Season Review, Hypertext Magazine, South85 Journal, and Long Story, Short. Her first book, a short story collection called To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, was published in August by Fomite. Most recently her poetry was published in The Literary Nest. She spent many years in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado before settling with her family in Knoxville, Tennessee. She co-owns the book marketing firm, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, founded in 2003.
Image: Flickr / Tim Green