Husso

HARVEST

Birdsong resonates through the orchard and across the lawn, signalling dawn long before daylight reaches my bedroom. I stretch under the sheets and turn on my side to gaze at the window. A morning breeze pushes the blind.  Reedy breath hums through the curtains, and exhales, the blind clattering back, its ring-pull tapping the wall below the window sill.

I ease myself up and lean back against the iron bed head. My arms ache. As I rub them the skin smarts, tender and warm. Then I remember: sunburn. I swing my feet to the floor and stretch in search of discarded jeans, t-shirt and socks. Brush and braid my sun-bleached hair. Scratches prickle my shins and forearms, and my finger tips are tender from grasping. I reach for a red paisley scarf and tie it bandana-style around my inflamed neck.

Down in the kitchen, I cram a whole biscuit into my mouth and slip another into the pocket of my jeans. There are few coals left to stir in the firebox. I add crumpled newspaper and kindling, watching as the match flame wavers, curls round the tinder and takes hold. I add wood from an alcove, pieces I cut and stacked only days ago, and the fire begins to crackle.

At the fridge I pour milk and drinking it thirstily in one long gulp, eying the clock over the rim of the glass. Just after five. I slide the kettle onto the hotplate and slip out to the veranda, easing my feet into gumboots still damp with sweat from yesterday. Eastward the sky has paled and dew sweetens the air. I swing my quiver over my shoulder and reach for the long bow; ram a pair of leather gloves into my pockets. The blackbird’s song falters but, as I step onto the path, it resumes.

Beyond the wide gate splashes of colour lie low on cloud. Rain may follow; last night I heard dad sniff disapprovingly at the barometer. Fine weather enables us to finish our harvest before searing summer sun and winds set in, stripping pasture of all nourishment. Rain means a delay.

I perch on the gate and tilt my face into the breeze. Two paddocks below, hay bales crowd the stubble: a week of cutting and raking transform a sea of tall, sweet rye grass to concentric orderliness. Yesterday the baler had chugged its way round the rows, feeding, compacting, binding and depositing the hay like monster droppings. Its rhythmic pulse reminded me of African drums, and its urgent feasting raised clouds of dust that drifted, carrying earthy smells to the house.

We’ve already carted and stacked several loads to the old hayshed and, as the baler worked into the evening, I strolled down to follow the beast, rolling two rows of hay into one. Dad and my brother followed, carting them in twilight, lifting bales one by one with a yellow contraption attached to the tractor.

Now the sky clears and the horizon glows scarlet.  Cattle graze. A mudlark calls beside me, its piercing cry sharp as a blade. Sparrows replace blackbirds in the orchard, and spill into the air with excited chatter. Clinking metal reminds me to unchain Husso, our border collie. He welcomes me with a deep stretch, grinning happily.

Together we walk down the dusty track, passed the cattle yards and dairy, deep into the heart of the farm. Slithering though the fence, I leave my bow and quiver resting against a stout post, and hurry to the pick up on the unfinished row. I lift the first bale with the edge of my boot, catch its roll, and push it along with my hands.

‘Ouch!’ I haul out my gloves and put them on. They’re way too big, the fingers folding as I slip them under the taut green twine of the next bale, manoeuvring it straight with my knee. Husso follows fresh trails, startles a lizard sheltering beneath the next bale: its home mown and gathered. We continue down the row, intent on our work, pausing at the corner to stretch. I survey the sea of bales, estimating the work ahead. It would be easy to accept defeat but, by tomorrow, this and the adjoining paddock should be empty.

Ken our neighbour, will bring his truck today. Hay carting is brightened with his cheerful banter and jokes. He is half dad’s age, a brawny, hard-working bloke. Dad lends him tools and implements in return for help. I look forward to riding in the cabin of his truck, with its familiar smell of old leather and grease, the floor strewn with grass seeds, ropes and tools. While I can drive the tractor now, I hope to try his truck this harvest.

After an hour’s work I stand at the centre of the paddock, a few steps from two pines, and sit on a bale. Husso slumps down beside me, panting and snapping at flies. I remove my gloves, slapping them against my jeans to dislodge dust and seeds that have gathered in the finger tips. The noise startles Husso. Reaching down, I reassure him, trying to mimic his panting. He watches me, amused. But everything amuses Huss.

It must be almost seven when I fish out my second biscuit, passing half to Husso who swallows it in one grateful gulp. I regard him with mock disgust.
‘Where’s that gone?’ He grins widely. ‘It’s breakfast. All you’re getting.’ His tail thumps the ground.

I crane my neck to see larks hovering over the paddocks.  Below crows stalk, stepping ungainly among the bales. I stand and stretch, keen to do more before breakfast.

With the last bale set aright, I reach for my bow and join Huss to walk back for breakfast. On the veranda we’re greeted by the smell of fresh toast and poached eggs. Grandad is shaving at the laundry basin, and turns to acknowledge me. I laugh as we share the tap, and I tell him he looks like a mime artist.

‘See any foxes?’ He asks, forgiving me.
I shake my head. ‘Nuh.’
‘Rabbits?’
‘No. Not one. Husso reckons he saw a few mice but he didn’t catch any.’ I watch as he completes his ritual, and I sniff his stick of shaving soap before I hand it to him. His knuckles are gnarled now, the skin like transparent, bruised parchment. But his hands are steady.

It’s almost nine when I finish my chores around the house. I’m eager to join the men. Grandad offers to finish the veranda and, for once, I accept. The day is already hot and mum insists I take a stainless steel billy of cordial and cups with me. The ice blocks will soon melt, and the billy’s sides are dewy with condensation. I set off across the yard, smiling at the sound of Grandad’s three-note whistle. The sky is cloudless now, and pale, and a gust of wind pulls at my shirt.

Dad and and my brother are still in the yard, changing the tractor filter. Soon we set off, Nick driving, with dad seated beside him on the mudguard. As I open the gate I leap to rescue the drink billy as its iceblocks tinkle in protest. Husso barks from the end of his chain. Dad says it’s too hot to bring him.

While the men fit the loader, I carry the drink billy over to the shade of the pines. The larger tree guards a generous patch of pine needles and twigs, but the smaller one barely casts a shadow around itself. I place the billy at the foot of its trunk as a gesture of encouragement.

Dad and I walk behind the load for the first row, throwing bales on board. Then dad hops up to stack. Once the loader is adjusted, I take over driving, freeing Nick to help dad. The first load is finished by mid-morning. But before we head back to the yard, the men secure the stack with ropes, and I pour each of us a drink. We quench our thirst on the first, and welcome a second. Dad drives while Nick and I sit atop the load, taking turns to open gates. As we bump and sway across the drains, I imagine how it must feel riding a camel.

Once the last bale is unloaded and I’ve swept the trailer floor, I return to the house to replenish our drinks. Mum has made some fresh vanilla ice cream: I spy two trays in the freezer beside the iceblocks. Now she’s preparing meat loaf for lunch.
‘I hope you’re not actually lifting those bales, dear.’ She’s worried I’ll hurt myself keeping up with the men.
‘I’m being careful, mum,’ I assure her, wiping my finger carefully around the inside of an empty can of sweetened condensed milk I’ve discovered in the sink. Mum rams some meaty looking stuff into the cast iron mincer, and clicks her dental plate as she labours over the handle. It’s quite muggy in the kitchen and her face is glossed and flushed.
‘What are you up to now, dear?’ she asks.
‘I’ll make two billies of cordial and then we’ll head back for the next load.’
‘And what time will you be in for lunch?’
We both look at the clock. ‘Should be done by one,’ I estimate. ‘Depends on when Mr Fahey comes. If we load his truck it’ll take longer.’
‘All right. I’ll have salad ready then.’ Mum smiles, glad of my cheerfulness. I lift the billies, and open the door with my foot.
‘Jo, you should be wearing a hat,’ she calls.
‘Hate hats. They blow off in the wind. And I’m not gonna tie one on!’ I place the billies on the step. ‘Look.’ I untie the bandana from my neck. ‘I’ll wear this over my head. That should help.’
‘It won’t keep the sun off your face.’
‘Well, I’m not wearing one of those boofy straw hats, that’s for sure. What about a towelling one like dad’s?’
‘I’ll check at Reicha’s this afternoon.’
‘Thanks. Make sure it’s a size that stays wedged on.’

I carry the billies over to the haystack, and pour mug-fulls for the men. I leave the second billie behind. We’re about to set off when Ken arrives. He’s just finished raking his own hay, ready for baling.
‘You mightn’t be baling tomorrow if that cool change comes, Ken,’ dad warns.
‘Yes, Mr Clarke. I heard the forecast. Never mind. Bit of rain doesn’t hurt. Hay dries out quick enough.’ He seems unperturbed, and he has already completed a day’s work, milking his herd and feeding the pigs.

Ken and Nick load the truck while I drive the tractor and load for dad. We take a break in the shade of the pines before setting off to finish Ken’s load.

After lunch, Ken invites me into the driver’s seat, and sits with me for a half lap of the paddock til I’m confident. Then he climbs down to help dad and Nick. I’m thrilled to complete a load at the wheel. We’ve done several more by afternoon tea time. The unrelenting wind keeps us dry and reasonably cool. We’ve changed into long shirts that flap about in the blustery conditions, and dad insists I wear his towelling hat. I keep it wedged down over my ears so it won’t blow away.

After we’ve unloaded the hay, we stop for a cuppa. The kitchen is still a little cooler than outside, and a welcome reprieve from the nagging wind and flies. We’ve decide to work as late as we can, and I help mum prepare sandwiches. Dinner will wait for dusk or a break in the weather, and Ken agrees to work until milking time.

Stiff and tired now, we return to the paddocks. At five the wind changes direction, still hot but more humid. Sweat streams down our backs and legs, feeding desperate flies. The wind freshens as we set off up the track, swinging round to the south west. Cattle can smell the change and leave their shade to graze. Dark clouds build like marble columns, with thunderheads threatening. Dad sends Nick and me back to the paddock and we stack the bales in stooks against the rain, leaving outer rows for the last load.

The dramatic sky drives us hard, and we finish as the vehicles return. I’m glad to sit down in the driver’s seat, peering through the dusty windscreen at the imminent storm. We make a final, desperate effort as dark clouds loom. The air is almost completely still. Distant rumblings announce the first whiff of salty air. Sheet lightning flashes above the horizon and a huge thunderhead swallows the last of the sun. As both loads lumber up the track, the storm arrives, thunder crashing only a few miles away. It’s unnerving.

Dad orders us off the load and instructs we run ahead. Stumbling through the open the gate, we sit panting in shed as both vehicles ease steadily through the yard. Unloading hay into steel shed during an electrical storm can be risky. Dad leaves the trailer parked beneath the big cypress tree, while Ken backs his truck in beside the haystack. Daylight has faded to gloom. We loosen ropes and begin kicking and tumbling the hay bales down to where dad and Ken work furiously. We finish just as huge raindrops lob down on the roof.

Ken dives into his truck, and dad thanks him profusely for his help. He heads home to relieve his wife, who is working alone in the dairy, with two young children at her side.

The heavy drops send us scurrying, too. Dad lights the pressure lamp and hangs it on wire from a girder in the middle of the shed. Beneath its eerie, hissing glow we stack the remaining bales before sitting, too exhausted to move, staring out at the storm. The wind has risen again and we shiver in clothes soaked and heavy with sweat.

As the full front of the storm churns overhead, clattering hail becomes a deafening downpour. Forked lightning and spontaneous belts of thunder rip the air. The drain pipes spill and gutterings overflow, creating a cascading waterfall. Driving wind drives spray over us and the smell of wet hay and warm, soaked earth sweeten our fatigue.

After dousing the lamp, we scurry over to the house, leaving the other load for tomorrow. We arrive drenched and panting. Nick and dad discard their sodden clothes and boots on the veranda, and head indoors. I rinse my face under the gushing drainpipe, and return to sheltered against the veranda wall that is still hot from the day. I tilt my face to the sky in worhsipful adorations, my hair and clothes plastered to my skin, sensing the passion of the storm, its intensity, the raking thunder, the unpredictability of living so close to the elements.

‘Jo. Come inside.’ Mum’s at the door, holding the fly-screen open, and offering me a towel. ‘Here, little puddleduck,’ she laughs.
Pouting, I take the towel, and wash at the laundry basin. The soap stings my scratches and the towel is merciless on sunburn. Although beyond hunger or fatigue, my first wish is to climb on my bike and ride up and down the road, slicing through fresh puddles. I peer over the towel. Grandad is standing there, grinning at me.
‘There’ll be time for that another day,’ he says. ‘More storms and harvests.’
‘Hope so, Grandad. But never one exactly like this.’

I amble up the hall to my room. My throat tightens. How ever much I love Grandad and this summer, it will end soon. I have little confidence or reason to believe good things will last. Perhaps it’s just part of growing up: a child beginning to comprehend time and the hardness of facts, struggling with evidence of what the future may truly hold.

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