Nothing remains the same as seasons change at Walnut Bottom Farm. As two families do their best to make a life on their Appalachian homesteads, ghosts from the past haunt their waking and dreaming.
Two women struggle with their past while trying to foresee the future, while two others strive to fulfill their roles in the present.
Can the men stay true to their callings as they practice the fine arts of husbandry, or will their own tempers and emotions get the best of them?
Spring was coming slowly between splashes of rain and spatters of snow, followed by more rain. Besides a few determined crocuses, the predominate color of late March was still winter grey. Then, all at once on April first, spring arrived in a package to be picked up at the post office. The call came at eight o’clock in the morning.
“The peeps are here!” Grace shouted up the stairs. She shouted it two more times until Calla finally yelled back down that she heard and was calling Lexi.
Every two years Grace freshened her flock of chickens with some new peeps. This year Clayton and Alexis, wanting to start their own flock, went in with her on the order to save on quantity and shipping. Clayton had well thought plans of a substantial pastured poultry operation in mind, among other things, since he bought Green Acres the year before. He had spent all winter working out the details. After returning from their tropical honeymoon in January he immediately set to work farming, despite the blanket of snow and frigid temperatures. Walking every inch of every acre, drawing plans and maps, making materials lists and transferring it all in detail to his calendar, every inch of irrigation and electric fencing was planned out with precision. As an agricultural engineer with a decade of experience making other people’s dreams a reality, he was beyond enthralled to finally be putting all of his best ideas into practice for himself and his bride. Sometimes he wondered if he were dreaming, perhaps he’d had a fall and hit his head and has been sleeping all this time. He was the master of paradise with one of God’s most lovely angels for a wife. As if to reassure him that he was not dreaming, the angel’s voice pierced his dreamy thoughts.
“Where in the HELL is my hair straightener Clayton? And when are you going to start remodeling this tiny bathroom? I need my own space!”
“I took it because you left it plugged in, again. How many times do I have to remind you to unplug it when you’re done using it? And you have straight hair, so I don’t even understand why you use a hair straightener.”
“Clayton, how many times do I have to remind you that I paid a lot of money for that particular hair straightener because, among other features, it has an automatic timer that turns it off when left on, so it does not matter if I leave it plugged in?”
Producing the object of contention and handing it over, Clayton had the last word, “And if I have to remind you one more time that that is not good enough and that I still want it unplugged, you may have to buy another one because I just might cut the cord. But, at least you won’t need to spend as much on the next one because once I stripe that sassy ass of yours with that cord I bet you will remember to unplug it.”
?His half grin let her know that he was only half joking and she hoped she would remember to unplug the stupid thing. Sharing a bathroom with a man turned out to be the hardest part of married life, so far. Never mind a bigger bathroom, I want my own bathroom! she thought to herself, knowing that it was not the right time to suggest the notion. In the mood to shop and in the market for a new farm-friendly wardrobe as well, she and Calla had plans to make the forty-five minute drive to the nearest outlet mall. She was nearly finished getting ready and wondering how she would look in overalls when her phone rang.
“Damn it! I bet she’s cancelling again!” Alexis was becoming frustrated already, only two weeks into Grace’s injury. ?This would be the third time Calla cancelled on her.
Grace had slipped on some ice outside of her greenhouse and broken her arm. With her right arm in a cast that she couldn’t get wet, and having so much work to do to get ready for another gardening season, Calla had become her handmaid. Cabbage and onions were already in the ground. Spinach was starting to grow. Seedlings in the greenhouse needed watering, some repotting. Compost had to be spread. And that did not even include all of Grace’s regular daily chores. The hen house and kitchen still needed attention. Calla never realized how hard her mother-in-law worked every day. Nearly all of their food came from the farm. The frozen and canned vegetables they ate all winter were in the pantry because of Grace’s careful planning, and the green thumb on her ever-busy hands. Somehow, she made it all look easy. ?
“The peeps? Oh! Okay! We’ll meet you there!” Alexis couldn’t be disappointed this time. She too was excited to see the peeps. Grace’s excitement had become contagious to the younger women. Anything that could make a mature woman like Grace Cowen giddily excited must be special.
The boxes of densely packed fluff began to chirp and cheep loudly as they carried them to the truck. Hundreds of baby chickens fit in just a few boxes, snugly packed for warmth. Once they had returned to Walnut Bottom Farm everyone sorted and settled them in their nursery. Corralled by rings of cardboard under hanging light bulbs for heat, with little Mason jar feeders and waterers in beds of straw, they just bounced and hopped and flitted about, then stopped and napped while others bounced and explored all around and all over each other. The ladies could hardly draw themselves away. They were like little girls (Grace included) at Easter, wanting to hold each one of them, watching them hop, peck and scratch, and fall asleep in a mass of downy feathers. Bruce and Clayton were delighted by the peeps, but even more delighted watching Calla and Lexi watch the peeps. This was the first time either of them had seen baby chicks up close. It would likely become a beloved yearly ritual, Clayton thought to himself. There were Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Ameraucanas and some Silkies. Some of the peeps were white, some yellow and some were black as coal. Clayton couldn’t wait to see them in the nursery he had made for them.
As Grace, Calla and Lexi went about counting them out and separating them, Clayton let himself daydream, savoring the fuzzy little beginnings of Green Acres livestock that were finally here. He wanted to free range his chickens as soon as they were big enough so he wouldn’t need to buy so much feed and he’d have better eggs and meat, as well as less mess and odor. He hoped he had the predator situation under control. The place had basically gone to the wild before he bought it. Foxes and black bears inhabiting the land would have to be deterred or dealt with. ?He still wanted that bearskin rug he imagined on the floor in front of the fireplace the first time he laid eyes inside his new home. The gorgeous real estate agent he imagined lying upon it was now his wife. Now he just needed a bear, which there were plenty of. Even so, he knew he could not kill every bear, fox, raccoon, opossum and hawk on the mountain. He had to find the right mix of adequate deterrents and protection. Clayton was also wise enough to have ordered more chickens than he planned on ending up with, not begrudging the fact that he would surely lose a few. Mother Nature would exact her tax. All this began going through his mind and he became anxious to get back home and back to work.
“What are you doing, Lex? You and Calla still going shopping? I want to get back home and get our peeps into our nursery.”
Calla and Lexi decided they still had plenty of time to make a dash to the outlet malls and Lexi could bring Calla home later. They had watched Clayton and Bruce wrangle bulls; surely Clayton could get the chicks home and corralled on his own. And, with her own peeps to peer at, Grace perhaps wouldn’t miss Calla’s helping hands so much for a few hours.
Spring sales rained in a bounty of bargains for the shopping-starved friends. They found pretty rubber muck boots in bright colors and figure-flattering overalls with a modern amenity, a cell phone pocket. Of course they splurged on new hats and scarves, and sandals.? Finding new dresses cute enough to want to wear, but functional and comfortable enough for working and wandering was priceless, almost. Even with the sales, they spent a small fortune. If Calla and Lexi were going to help with farm work, they would at least look good doing it. ?
After one more stop, at an art supply shop for Calla to get a few new paints and brushes, they were famished. Even if they weren’t hungry they wouldn’t have passed up a chance to eat at a Thai restaurant, something one couldn’t find in Walnut Bottom.
“I really don’t mind, Lexi. I know it leaves a little less time for us to hang out lately, but helping Grace get her gardens going has actually been kind of fun for me. The way she makes things grow seems almost like magic or voodoo. Being her hands in the dirt, I have learned so many interesting things that I have never even thought about before, like the purposes of crawly things like wasps and ladybugs. I’m still not dedicated enough to squish a grub with my bare fingers like she does, though! But I think I’m getting addicted to gardening.” Calla was sincere as she reassured her best friend that she was not being held prisoner against her will and was truly enjoying spending time helping her mother-in-law. “Enough about dirt and bugs. How is married life suiting you lately Alexis Green-McBride?”
Taking another spicy bite of Pad Thai Shrimp as Calla asked her question, Lexi thought a moment and said, “I hate sharing a bathroom! Otherwise, happily ever so-far, but I want my own bathroom!”
Lexi laughed, “I wouldn’t want to be Clayton and share a bathroom with you! I know how you leave your lotions and potions scattered all over the place. I’m surprised he hasn’t given up and started shaving at the creek!”
?Following the heat of the dish with the cooling coconut milk concoction of Thai Iced tea, Alexis suddenly spit her drink across the table onto Callas plate. “Oh shit! I think I left my flat iron plugged in!”
“So? Doesn’t it shut itself off?”
“Argh! Yes! Do you think that matters to Mr. McBride? We were just having this discussion before you called about the peeps and I was getting ready to go shopping. I’m pretty sure, in my excitement, I didn’t unplug the damn thing. Maybe Clayton hasn’t been in to use the bathroom? If he’s working outside and doting over the peeps he’ll just water the grass. If he sees it I will either need a new hair straightener or an ice pack for my butt!” Alexis was rambling on loudly and forgetting they were still in public until she heard the cook and the waiter snort and laugh behind the counter. Luckily they were the only customers there. Lexi was blushing brightly, nonetheless.
Calla calmly resumed her meal, spit and all, while Lexi fidgeted and picked and muttered about men being pigheaded and unreasonable. She pitied her friend, but knew it wasn’t the end of the world and there was nothing she could do about it.? She, too, had a sometimes-strict husband that sometimes warmed her bottom when he thought it necessary. And knowing full well, neither man had ever done it when it was not deserved, and knowing the only lasting effect would be Lexi having a newfound ability to remember to unplug her hair straightener, Calla was not about to rush this meal to hurry back. Lexi, having lost her appetite, sat across the table, arms crossed and staring. This continued while Calla ordered another glass of tea and drank it slowly as Lexi huffed.
“Please, Calla,” she pleaded pitifully, “If it were you, you wouldn’t be so nonchalant! And I would hurry to try to save you from a trip to the woodshed!”
Calla thought, realized it was true and threw in the flag, dropping the napkin from her lap onto the table. “Let me use the restroom then I’ll be ready to go.”
Lexi waited in the parking lot with the car running.
“Please don’t drive like a fool and get us killed, or worse. I wouldn’t want you to show up for a paddling with a speeding ticket too,” Calla advised as she buckled her seat belt.
Without acknowledging a word, Lexi tore out of the parking lot, laying rubber in her little red sports car. Used to Lexi’s normally aggressive driving, Calla settled herself for a rough ride home. By some miracle the girls managed to get out of the city and suburbs without being pulled over by the police. By comparison to many other drivers, Lexi’s antics on the freeway were not bad enough to draw any attention from highway patrol. Then, with only twenty miles of country road from home, Lexi really let loose and began testing the curve hugging capabilities of her car, as well as Calla’s nerves. Just opening her mouth to ask her friend to slow down a bit, Calla’s voice came out as a scream as she saw someone in the road.
Lexi swerved and braked and the car fishtailed, then spun before coming to a rest. Calla burst out of the car first yelling at her friend, and then laying eyes upon the crumpled man lying in the roadside behind them, with a big black dog whining and pawing at him. Calla ran over to him and Lexi followed. They stopped short when the dog turned, raised his hackles and gave a low growl. For a moment all four were frozen in their positions. The crumped man finally broke the standoff as he groaned and sat up. The two women let out sighs of relief as the dog went to tail wagging and licking the dirty face of his companion.
“Calm down, Bear. They look to be unarmed.” The dusty old man sat up and began roughly petting the shaggy and tangled pooch to let all know he was all right. He then hauled himself up back on his feet while Calla and Lexi exploded in a barrage of questions.
“No, you didn’t hit me. Damn close! You bumped my bag a good shot and spun me for a loop. I’m okay though, I think. Where the heck’s the fire? Where are you going in such a hurry?”
Calla offered up the facts. “My friend here remembered she left her hair straightener on and her husband won’t be happy if he notices before she gets home to unplug it, so, naturally, it was imperative that she fly down the road like an idiot, nearly killing you.”
“Shut up, Calla! Left it plugged in, not on. It will have turned itself off by now anyway.”
“I see. No fire, but in the name of fire prevention.” The leathery-faced man smiled widely at the pretty pair and their obvious emergency. “I better let you get on your way, then.”
“Are you sure you’re okay? I wish we could give you a ride, but her racecar only seats two. I could call my husband to come pick you up. Where are you going?” Calla asked.
“Relax girls. I’ve been thrown harder than that by bulls bigger than that wee car of yours. I’m almost to where I’m going. Carry on with your day now.” Patting his dog and picking up his duffel bag and shrugging it onto his shoulder as proof, he gave them a little wave and a nod.? He stood there in the road smiling as they reluctantly turned back to their vehicle and drove off, then resumed his slow amble toward Walnut Bottom.
Calla and Lexi made the rest of the trip in silence. After dropping off her friend, Lexi was back home in minutes. Upon arrival she headed straight to the bathroom and her straightener in hopes of finding it there as she left it. However, a post-it note on the mirror read:
You can have your hair straightener back after we have a little sit down discussion.
P.S. Please clean up this clutter!
?Yelling an expletive and snatching the note and crumpling it and throwing it on the floor, Lexi stormed out of the bathroom and went to the car to get her purchases and begin putting them away. Why the hell should I clean up the clutter when his whiskers are all over the sink? Who in the hell is he to tell me what to clean and when? He should hire a cleaning lady to clean up the bathroom if he won’t do any cleaning himself. Fuming and fretting, Lexi worked herself into a full-fledged tizzy until she got out the note pad and wrote a note of her own, saying as much as she thought, and taping it to the bathroom mirror over the cluttered counter of bottles and jars and beard trimmings. When he returned from whatever field he was working in she would be gone. That would give him time to give himself a reality check, she thought. Deciding to go to Calla’s and see if Grace needed an extra pair of helping hands, she left.
An hour later, sitting in straw and watching the antics of the little yellow and black balls of down, she nearly shot ten feet in the air when Clayton’s voice startled her. “How was your shopping trip?”
“Bruce called me to help herd up some steer that got loose a few hours ago. We still have some fences to mend. Did you get my note then, love?”
“Yes,” she answered with another one word reply. Having so much to say earlier in her note, yet she couldn’t muster the nerve to give him any sass face to face, she did not even look at him.
“I’m sorry for leaving you my shaving mess to clean up, but when I tried wiping up the hair around the sink I kept knocking down your hair products and moisturizers and makeup. Do you think you could keep those things in a basket and bring them in when you’re using them instead of leaving them in there all over the place?”
Offering an apology and a solution at once only irritated Lexi more. What she wanted was her own bathroom, not her own basket. Nerve now mustered, she turned to face him. “Do you think I could just hire a contractor to add on my own damn bathroom?”
“Okay, Lex, don’t start being a brat about this. We talked about it before, eventually, but not yet. We are going to have to make due for a while. And I’m not paying someone to do what I can do myself. Maybe next year.”
“And maybe I can pay them myself. Maybe next week.” Alexis puffed out her chest and put her fists on her hips and gave him her stoniest stare.
“I am beginning to look forward to discussing this with you later, woman.” His voice dropped to a lower and gruffer tone as he put his hand to his belt buckle and puffed out his own chest. “Right now Bruce and I have a lot of work to do.” Without another word he turned and left her there to squirm, knowing full well she’d just made things much worse for herself.
Not wanting to further provoke his anger, she decided to go home and take down the note and clean the bathroom. Wisely, she first stopped in at the house and asked Calla’s mother-in-law, Grace, if she had a small basket to spare.
Lexi spent the rest of the evening waiting in unpleasant anticipation, having a few glasses of wine to calm her nerves and reflecting upon her stubborn stupidity. She and Clayton had made plans and set goals for Green Acres together. She understood it wasn’t practical to remodel right now. Clayton was raised in a big family on a farm and was used to being practical and sharing space. She was just not. Even as a kid she’d had her own bathroom. As an only child she never had to share her space with anyone, except Calla in college. Then Lexi got to thinking about how badly she’d scared her friend on the drive home and how reckless she had been. She would make a point to apologize to her tomorrow. And she would apologize to Clayton as soon as he got home. Maybe that would soften him up a bit. Having struggled through the long day, wrestling as though through the stages of grief, from anger to denial and mental bargaining, and finally coming to the acceptance that she wouldn’t be sitting well for a few days, her exhaustion and the wine finally overtook her and she fell asleep on the couch.
Clayton returned hours later, exhausted himself. Seeing her there asleep next to an empty wine glass, he decided to bring her a blanket and go to bed himself. He could deal out discipline tomorrow. Still stewing on her haughty outburst, he wanted to be sure he had plenty of energy for the task. She had been quite the brat lately and a good spanking was overdue.