Volume 32, Number 2

Claire Rose

JoAnneh Nagler

The barn won’t be warm tonight, and not the house neither. Not for a girl like me who’s lost everything. Everything that matters, anyway.

Cows been fed, chickens too. Nothin’ to do out here but look at the hay piled up too high, waiting for it to fall. Building a fire won’t do no good. I been cold these six months now, down to the bone, ever since he done it. Can’t get warm no matter what. No use trying after dark.

I got my mama’s old lambs-wool on. I was thinkin’ that maybe if I was in her clothes, I could feel her some. That she’d come ‘round a bit, a spirit up from the dead, and help me stand up, keep me walking. But it ain’t no use. Evil is evil, and you can’t make it go away with an old sweater.

I been staring at it all day long for months now—that hole in the barn floor. Just a square with a hatch of battered wood for a lid, leadin’ down from the hayloft to the stone stalls on the ground floor where we keep Daddy’s milk cows. The light’s on down there for the cows, and it’s glowing up through that hole so’s all I can see, sittin’ on the barn floor, is a bright square of yellow, just blarin’ up at my eyes. The whole hay-stacked place is pitch-black ‘cept for that yellow square, burning a hole in my heart.

When we were kids, me and my big brother, Les would crawl up and down the wooden ladder nailed to the wall just underneath that hatch, pitching hay and grain to the cows down below. Les could play with me all day long and never get tired of me. He teased me and chased me and hauled me up in the air, landing me light as a feather. He showed me pretty things—how the mist come up over the pond after sunrise, where a patch of pink flowers was sprouting by the woods where they weren’t s’pposed to be growin’. He was good to me. That’s what I thought men were like.

“Claire Rose, you come on over here and see these pink flowers, now! You won’t see a prettier thing come out of the ground ever and ‘specially since nobody planted ‘em but God.” I’d run over where he was standing, right near the cleared out place on the edge of the wood, and look with him, those pink flowers standing on tall greens stalks, wild lilies sprouting up outa hay.

“Stick your face in there, Claire Rose. It smells something sweet, I’m telling you.” I’d do it, and as soon as I bent over he’d start to tickling me, rolling me around on the ground and making me laugh so hard tears would come outa my eyes.

I used to run out to the barn after supper with him, before he grew up and left home, joining up and livin’ someplace overseas I never heard of. I’d leave the light on downstairs for the cows, open the hatch and dare Les to get up high on a stacked bale and jump off in the dark with me, caught by nothin’ but a pile of loose hay. Just the glow of that yellow light in the hatch for seeing. We’d be screaming and laughing for an hour before Mama would come out and make us stop it, afraid we’d get hurt. That’s what that square of light used to mean to me. Me and my brother Les, laughin’ ‘til we cried. Not now. Not anymore.

The man I had wasn’t like Les. He said he wanted me, then one day just started hating me. Felt like it happened overnight. I looked over and saw it in his eyes: hate.

My daddy says that any man that done what he done ought to be locked up forever, or better yet, shot. But he got himself a city lawyer who come out to Omro where our farm was, then at the trial in Oshkosh, the two of them said what happened was just a terrible accident.

But I know. And he knows, too. Don’t do no good, though. 1960 in Wisconsin, nobody was listenin’ to a skinny farm girl.

Daddy says that’s what comes of not getting’ married first. Pain, hurt and bastard babies. He says that man never really loved me at all, that it was all for lust and nothin’ else. I can’t say that I knew any better. I just thought that’s what you did when you were with someone. I never seen nobody givin’ me lessons on loving a man and living on a farm in the middle of nowhere, nobody woulda thought I needed telling. Things just were how they were.

All I want now is to sit on the edge of that hatch and dangle my feet like I used to, jumpin’ ten feet down to the stone floor of the animal stalls like the girl I used to be. But I can’t get near it. I just come to stare at it, not believing.

* * *

I was fifteen when he first come around—he was seventeen, named Vance, a boy from school in town. I guess I was surprised he liked me; nobody else had paid me much notice. I’d always been a skinny thing, hair like straw, big eyes and on the skittish side. Never thought much of myself, but he kept coming by, riding his bicycle six miles to see me. Then he bought a beat-up old car and took to driving me around a bunch, and my daddy said I had a steady man. Daddy looked mad when he said it, but Mama said not to worry, daddies never like their daughters’ men.

One night, I was fiddlin’ with the light bulbs in the chicken coop, and Daddy come up behind me and said, “You better watch out, Claire Rose. That one’s got a mean streak.” But I didn’t believe him. I just saw what I wanted to see.

I liked his smell. He had a smell like corn and oats mixed, kind of dry and fresh, like somebody was about to make something special outta him. He had a mess of dark brown hair; strong, working man’s hands; and eyes that could pierce you through with their darkness. I gave him my body, didn’t think it was wrong. Thought I loved him. I thought that’s what you did with a steady man. You gave him what you had and expected he’d do the same.

After he had me, he always cried a little, like somethin’ was breaking in him, and then he’d hold onto me hard like he was tryin’ to keep me from getting away. The crying made me uneasy, like I should be seeing something about him I wasn’t seeing.

He liked to sit with me outside on the grassy slope in front of the barn. Our barn sat kinda funny, on the side of a hill, the way Wisconsin barns always do—the front side a rise of sloped soil and grass for the flatbed truck that Daddy drove in there to unload hay into the loft; the animals coming on in from the backside to the stone stalls below, like a basement, big sliding wood doors down there that we kept open in warm weather. He’d lean back on that pitched drive in front of the barn and kiss me when Daddy wasn’t looking, sayin’ that this was the best place on earth, then jump up all of a sudden, runnin’ like he got a wild hair and tearing all the way around the barn, hollering how he loved me, and he wanted to live here someday. He’d come back ‘round and throw his body down on the ground next to me real hard, almost knockin’ the wind outta himself. Reminded me of a chicken we had once, kinda touched in the head, used to flap itself in crazy circles every time it was outa the coop, spooking the other birds. I laughed every time though, with the chicken, and him, too.

Mama said he didn’t have two dimes to scrape together and to watch out for a man who come from nothin’, wanting in on our farm—we had forty acres, that was a lot around Omro; corn and cows and sometimes pigs—but we were still just poor, no matter what it looked like, so I put that stupid idea outta my head. Nobody’d come chasing after me for money.

When the baby was in me everybody acted as though we did somethin’ terrible. Looking the other way if they saw me, big as a house and pregnant, walking around in town. Being nasty to my mama in the feed store. But when the baby finally came, all that changed. People said she was a beauty. Took one look at her little smiling pink face, an’ they just smiled right back. Mama and Daddy were happy we give ‘em a grandchild. Seemed everybody loved her, and all that stuff people were sayin’ just passed on like a bad windstorm come to a halt.

Except for him. His meanness came when everyone else’s went. A girl knows when she’s hated, and I knew. But I pretended I didn’t. I thought it would go away, that he’d get past it like an old dog that has to get over sharing its attention with a new pup.

I guess I shoulda known that meanness is meanness. But I never seen nobody turn like that, as if the sun froze up in a day and the cold just seized up everything.

I been praying to whatever God there is that if I shoulda known better, that He’ll let me make it right somehow. I don’t know how.

* * *

I didn’t count on the kind a’ love I was gonna feel for my baby girl. When she was in my arms, it was like the whole world could disappear under a pile of crushing soil, and I wouldn’t a’ cared. I’d look into her bright blue eyes, lettin’ her wrap her tiny hands around my fingers, and I could go on staring at her like that for hours, not being bothered by nothin’. Not even him being awful to me.

It was like love came up underneath my skin and warmed me inside and out, all the way through my soul. I never thought nothin’ about having a soul ‘til I had her. That there was something in me—deep—that could love her so strong it’d go and make my heart burst from all of the feeling rushing through me.

I’d sit in Mama’s beat-up rocker on the front porch—the same rockin’ chair she rocked me in when I was a tiny thing—and I’d look out off the rise of our farm’s hill, holding my baby, rockin’ her, staring at her pink cheeks. She liked me to hold her up in the air, raising her from side to side like she was flying. She’d laugh and drool on me as if she’d never know a better thing, ever. I’d see the green fields full a’ hay all around us, or the sun setting over the one-lane road comin’ up to our farm, and I’d feel more love than I’d ever felt welling up inside me, just sittin’ there, holding her. More than I’d felt for my brother, Les, who I loved best of all.

My baby girl’s little face would flush kinda red when she was wanting somethin’, but even when she was hungry, I could calm her to still by stroking her pretty cheeks with the back of my fingers. It was what Vance used to do to me when he was first tryin’ to get me to love him. He’d lay me down in the grass, away from the house on the other side a’ the woods, and stroke my cheeks, takin’ his sweet time, saying how he never felt nothin’ like this before. Like love was welling up inside him. I believed him.

* * *

At first it didn’t seem like nothin’ at all. It was just after the baby—him being in me the first time after and me all tender inside. But I wanted it. Wanted him. He was on me in the upstairs bed and he flipped me over and pinned my right arm behind my back, pulled on it so it stung and pinched. You coulda said it was just excitement, just a thing men do when they’re all riled up after they haven’t had it for a while. But I squirmed under him and pushed him off, twisting sideways to get a look at his face. Those dark eyes of his were cold.

Daddy’d made him take me down to the justice of the peace, sayin’ if he wanted to work the farm and earn like a man, then he better stand up and be one. Why he went along with it, I don’t know. I guess he had nothin’, and staying was better than nothin’.

Then he heard Daddy talking low one night to Ponty, that man from the farmer’s insurance company, about us not making our mortgage. Vance said he was hiding under the stairwell—that’s how he heard. I didn’t know to believe him or not. That mean look was in his eyes. Then he come upstairs and woke up the baby, yelling at me about who did I think I was, trapping him with a baby and now there’s no money. When I didn’t say nothin’, he went over to the crib and started shaking her—hard. I jumped in the crib and got myself writhed up under him and covered her with my body. My skinny body wrapped around her, my back takin’ the blows.

I remember thanking God my daddy built that crib strong, outta oak. Like the crib breaking woulda been the worst thing.

* * *

He started yelling at me mean after that. Screamin,’ really. He’d do it when Daddy was in the barn with Mama or up to town at the farm supply or at the A&P.

“You skinny little bitch! You trap me into marryin’ you, and now you got no money?”

He’d try to slap me or pull my hair when he was like this, and sometimes I would run. But I always tried to keep my body between him and my baby girl—between him and the house if we was outside and she was in there, or between him and the bedroom door if she was sleepin’.

He yelled all kinds of awful things, but I just figured I had to take it. That it was my fault what I done, getting pregnant with him, and takin’ this was what I had to do to make up for it.

Sometimes he would goad me. “You got nothin’ I want! Nothin’!! You’re just a skinny, good-for-nothin’ rope around my neck!”

I’d back away, watching his hands. I never cried. I just watched, never takin’ my eyes off him.

“You gonna duck and bob like that all day? I can break you in half if I want to!” His eyes would get wild and crazy-looking then, like a hog that hadn’t eaten for weeks, wantin’ to rut its full, ornery weight towards you just to get to your flesh.

Most of the time he would just blow up and spit all his ugliness out on me, and then he’d peter out and be done with it. Come back later and try to touch me sweet, like nothin’ had happened. Reach out to hold my hand or kiss me like he did when he first come ‘round; then being all nice with Daddy and Mama. But not always.

When I was pregnant, he’d started slappin’ me on my arm or my back—hitting me like he was just trying to get me to listen, but harder than he should: harder than a man should ever hit a person with a child in her belly. I shoulda known then.

Truth told, I never should’ve let Daddy make him marry me. I should’ve told someone—anyone—what he was doing. Shoulda let him go, told him to get on his way, no matter what people thought.

* * *

My baby girl was four months when Vance stopped going into town at all, just hanging out on the farm smokin’ his cigarettes out the backside of the chicken coop or sitting on the grassy ramp leadin’ up to the barn door, starin’ and not showing up at our table for supper.

“Get your stupid farmer food away from me!” he hollered when I came out one night to bring him a plate. He grabbed it and spit on it, then chucked it into the grass.

He was barely pretending with Mama and Daddy and never touchin’ our baby girl, ever, not even when he was in one of his good moods. If she cried at night, he’d hiss at me to make her shut up, whispering low like a growling dog, tryin’ not to let Mama and Daddy hear him.

One Tuesday, that insurance man, Ponty, came back to say he had a way we could keep the farm and not go under, but Daddy said we might be too far gone. Ponty brought his kids out to have a look at our place—they were nice, all three of them, and said the farm was real pretty. “Well-behaved,” my mama said. “Raised right, you can tell.” She thought the older boy, Terence, took a shine to me, but I didn’t pay attention to that kind of thing, me being in the middle of the mess I was in. There are things that come about—just split-seconds of them—that you have no idea are gonna come around years later. But that’s what happens.

Mama was already looking at me sideways by then anyway, askin’ in a low voice what’s going on with Vance and me, but she’d blush bright red saying it. Nobody talked ‘bout those kind of things. I didn’t know what to say, so I just kept quiet.

I tried, but talking to him was like trying to get a Pitbull out of his corner without getting bit, so I just let him alone. Why I didn’t tell somebody, I don’t know. I just kept hopin’ things would change.

Sometimes he went by the lake to get drunk at DJ’s Tavern, but only after we were already asleep, so he could steal Daddy’s keys and take the truck. Those were bad nights.

I’d hear him pull up on the gravel, and I’d lock the bedroom door where my baby was sleeping, climb out the window and try to head him off at the back door. Sometimes he’d swing at me, lettin’ a punch fly, and I’d duck, thanking God for my good reflexes. Other nights I wasn’t so lucky.

* * *

The night he done it, I didn’t see him take the baby with him. It was dark outside, and I was doing the supper dishes. I went upstairs and saw the crib empty—my stomach came up in my throat and I just ran. The barn door was closed, but I could see the square of light beaming out from the hatch through the broken slats in the wooden door. He was standin’ over that hatch, holding her out over the stone floor below, ready to let go.

I screamed a scream I never heard come out of no one before. It sounded like it came from the bowels of a place so awful and full of pain I couldn’t believe it was me screamin’. My arms slammed the weight of the barn door to the side, and I saw him do it. He dropped her with one flash of his cold, hateful eyes.

My mouth went dry, and I felt every bit of warmth that ever was in my body get sucked out, like a sink hole ripped open the inside of me. I heard her cry out below me. Just once. I remember falling down, hittin’ my chin hard on the wood-beamed barn floor, feeling the blood gushing out of it. My heart went ice-cold, like the pond had broke, and I had dropped like a rock to the frozen bottom.

What happened after is nothing I can tell for sure. I sat in the barn for days straight, my daddy says, not eating or drinking nothin’. Going out back to the old outhouse when I had to, refusing to come in the house, then going back in there, sittin’ on top of a pile of hay on the cold barn floor. Staring.

Only thing I remember from those days is feeling like my eyes had come out of my head, as if I had suddenly gone blind to everything ‘cept the yellow light in that hatch.

My mama died a month later—they said from her diabetes, but I knew it was from heartbreak. All Daddy does now is sit and look at her empty chair at the supper table.

There’s a preacher in town who came out a while after we buried my baby girl. He said, “Time will heal.” He said I ain’t got nothing to feel guilty for, that the guilt ain’t mine to carry.

My man didn’t go to jail, that’s true; but the judge said that he can’t get anywhere near me for his whole life. He don’t want to I’m sure.

My mama got buried in the cemetery, but my baby girl’s buried in the little patch of hay by the woods that my brother, Les showed me, that place where three or four pink flowers come up every spring without ever being planted. Where the soil ain’t no good for flowers, but they come up anyway. I been looking for those flowers every spring since I was a little girl, and when I find ’em it lifts up my heart.

* * *

That preacher come out again a couple of nights ago and sat down next to me with his Bible, right there on the barn floor, on the pile of hay I’d been sittin’ on for months.

“It’s been six months, now, and it’s time to come on outta here,” he said, putting a hand on top of my skinny shoulder. “This isn’t what God wants for you.”

I turned and stared at him, like he was the first thing I saw with my eyes since it happened. I don’t know why it was him I saw, and not Daddy, but it was.

“It’s time to stand up,” he said, offering up his open hand.

I took a long time tryin’ to speak. I was cold in my thin cotton dress—a yellow dress with tiny white daisies on it my Mama had made me with her old black Singer machine—and I looked down at my arms and legs all red and pockmarked from sittin’ on the poking edges of loose hay for so many days and nights.

My voice broke and cracked. “I can’t,” I said.

He breathed in hard and looked me in the eye and said, “Yes, you can.”

I wanted to reach my hand out—I felt myself reaching—but I just stared at him instead, my fingers frozen at my sides and closin’ tight around fistfuls of hay. I turned and locked my eyes on that hatch, just waiting for him to go. I sat there ‘til mornin’, never moving.

* * *

The barn ain’t no different tonight than it was two nights ago when that preacher left, no different than the night before that or the night after. That square of yellow light is still blarin’ up at me, cutting me from across the room.

I been sitting on my pile of hay thinking about Les, about the days we spent in here running and laughing, doing our chores, bein’ brother and sister. About how love is something you can feel and see and how it’s up to me to see it. How evil is evil and how I shoulda known it when I seen it, an’ known better to run from it.

That yellow light has got to flickerin’ all of a sudden, and it’s like somebody’s searing my skin as it sputters. Bile comes up bitter in my throat, something in me wanting to scream and cry and burst open. It hits me maybe that preacher is right: maybe the only thing I have to do is get up again and help my daddy get up, too, if he’ll let me. Try to live some, and find some way to get on in this life if I can.

I’m breathin’ hard, and I stand up and walk to the house, my legs wobbly like I’d never used ‘em before, like a fawn takin’ steps it don’t know how to take yet.

I take my daddy’s hammer from under the kitchen sink, grab a handful of thick iron nails. I sink them deep in the pocket of my dress and head back outside before Daddy can hear me.

When I come back in the barn that hatch is still blaring, a beam of wicked light shining up like a fire that can’t stop torchin’ itself, burning and destroying everything in its path.

I walk over to that blaring hole, reach down for the latch on the top of the thing—the square wooden lid on the hatch that I’ve almost never seen closed my whole life long. I slam it down. The thing smacks the wood, and the sound stings my ears. I stand over it expecting the roof to fall in or something, but nothin’ happens.

I take the nails from my pocket and hammer them in, one at a time, banging as hard as I can, my tears coming up fast. I can’t stop it—the crying or the hammering—but it’s alright with me. I am stoppin’ up that hole.

Tears come hotter now, and they’re stinging like a hail storm pelting down on my neck and dress, my fingers blistering from the pounding. A moan comes outta me, and it feels like coarse, nubby sandpaper scratchin’ across my heart, but I don’t care. I’m closing off this thing if it’s the last damnable thing I ever do.

I bang those nails until every single one of ‘em is slammed in good, pounded and flattened.

* * *

The wind has got up this morning. I’m standing out in the field near the woods over my baby girl’s grave, lookin’ back at the house, Daddy’s rusty pickup with the paint peelin’ off parked out by the back door. The leaves have all gone off their branches, most of ‘em crumpled-brown against the fallow ground.

My fingers are still swelled up from all that banging, new blisters makin’ it hard to hold onto anything. But it doesn’t matter. Something has let loose in me, and I feel like I can stand up now.

I stayed up the rest of the night cleaning things for Daddy and gettin’ ready, the two of us figuring what to do. Leaving him seems like it ain’t right, but he said that preacher told him to help me get on my own way, so’s maybe I have a chance somewhere away from all this.

I get down on my knees next to the small stone I’d carved for my baby girl, a tiny flower I painted on it, my mama’s old suitcase in my left hand. Those pink wildflowers are still growing—a little faded, but it being autumn I don’t know why they’re still here at all.

Daddy said he’d gone and sold all the boards on the barn to some city people for siding—it’ll be down to bare studs in a week—and he’s putting the whole place up for sale. Funny somebody wantin’ them old beat-up barn boards.

At the cross-road, I start down toward the highway stop, to wait for my bus. I picked a spot on the map, got the money my mama hid for me behind the slats in her closet floorboards, and I’m buying a ticket.

I got my mama’s old lambs-wool on again, and I pull it tight to my body, takin’ the wind in my face as I walk, but all I’m thinkin’ ‘bout is those pink flowers, rising up every year, not being asked to, but rising up anyway, no matter what.

When I step up on the bus stairs, I’m shaking, but I get on. I got nothing but a few pieces of clothes and a little money. Nothing but my grief and the preacher’s voice in my ear, tellin’ me to stand up.

I’m guessin’ that if the froze-up ground can melt and grow into something where pink flowers come up year after year without being asked, in a place they’re not supposed to grow, then maybe there might be something in this world for me. There just might be.


“Claire Rose” will appear in Ms. Nagler's short story collection Stay with Me, Wisconsin (October 2021, Coyote Point Press, an imprint of Flying Ketchup Press.)