From A High Place
On a farm, the most important building is the barn. Barns place the farmer squarely in the middle of dirt and reverence. It is where animals live, and the serenity and stupidity of animals is an experience close to grace. It is where things die openly, but not serenely—
stillborn calves, drowned cats, frostbitten swallows. The barn is a place of largeness and work, but the open mows and high arching spaces of barns are also places of majesty. The barns are the cathedrals where I lost my innocence of death.
Barns are the first places where I explore danger. In the big barn, on days when we can leave the fields, Tom, my brother, and I dare each other to walk the high crossbeams, balancing on the old cross cut, axe-hewn ten by tens.
At eight or nine, death is still distant, and my sense of awe, though active, is naive.
I am afraid the first time I walk across. Tom taunts me. “Hey you, you’re gonna get stuck up there, and somebody’ll have to come getcha.”
“Yea, scaredy cat, can’t walk the high beam.” Rick, another brother, joins him.
And then, I remember what my mother, who is afraid of heights, has said: “Don’t look down.” I look directly at the beam, at the ladder brace in the middle, and take tentative, wobbly steps all the way across the high beam.
I learn there exists no greater fear, and no cockier, surer sense of accomplishment than walking a crossbeam. When I am good enough to climb like a cat, I curl onto the ladder and laugh down at my little sisters. Though I am too young for the words, I love the sense of power I gain from sending dust and pigeon droppings down into the shafts of light. But that experience, walking that ten-inch-wide danger across the open bays, has nothing to do with death, only with risk, with the love of danger and a sense of invincibility.
Walking the crossbeam is a chosen dare. Though aware of danger, though my brothers and I say to each other, “You could fall and die,” what we mean is “You could fall and hurt yourself.” We do not believe ourselves immortal, as teenagers do, but rather we haven’t thought of death personally yet at all. Being in the barn still means being in the place of adventure.
One day in the barn, my foster brother, Bobby Barnes, who lives with us while he finishes high school, holds a heavy work rope in his young hands. The rope is winched to an iron eye at the very peak of the barn. Bobby is tall and lanky with dark brown hair and in a way that I don’t yet understand, I like him. He is from a downstate city called Muskegon. He is much older than other children who sometimes stay with us, and he works long hours with my father. He often plays with me, and he is willing to teach me things. On this day he is teaching me to swing the bay.
The rope hangs and drops loosely down into the center of the bay, that open space where we pull the wagons to unload the hay. Bobby and I take turns hauling the rope up into the north mow. We wrap our legs around it, grab it with our dirty hands and leap off the high-stacked bales. We swing wildly across the bay to the other side, dropping into the softer, lower mow on the south. The trick is to let go at the right time, before the rope starts its pendulum swing back. And because we are swinging from a high place, the rope, even at the lowest point of the arch, is many feet above the floor of the barn. But we never think of falling, only of the wild swinging and the shrieking as we land in the softer, lower hay on the other side.
Even though I am clumsy, the thrill of the swing through the dusty air is a sweet addiction. Bobby does it better than I do. Swinging farther and farther out, he whoops and waves. It becomes a dare, him swinging, then me swinging, seeing if I can fly as high, as far as he can before dropping off onto the other side.
Though I am tired and sweating, I grab the rope, “I want to go higher. Higher than you.” I am full of bravado.
“You probably can. You’re lighter.” He grins. For him the competition is no issue.
This time I twist the rope twice around my foot. This time, as I pull the rope back and up tightly onto the mow, he grabs my hips and lifts me higher, so I can leap from a greater distance. Then he lets go and I lean back and fly. I slip into the air, swinging fast, the dusty speed cooling my face. But way out, somewhere in the space between one mow and another, leaning too far back into the slim beams of light, my hands come loose, slipping in their own grime and sweat. Because my feet are wrapped in the rope, the trunk of my body falls first, my ankles untangling last. From several feet in the air, I freefall, landing on the floor of the barn on my back.
I feel no impact. I know where I am on the floor of the bay. Staring up through the dust motes in the sprawl of light, I experience an odd sense of floating, as though I am underwater, in a lake. And then, in that dim way awareness returns when one is stunned, I realize that I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. My body tightens; I feel pain in my chest so foreign that a streak of panic rushes through me like nothing I have known in my life. I cannot breathe.
I know that I have died.
This sense of not being able to inhale is fiery and alien. No other awareness enters my small intellect. I thrash and roll on the floor, and then somehow I stand. Without knowing how or where, I am running, trying to scream, unable to scream. Some part of my brain registers that this is like my nightmares when I wish to escape and can not.
Somewhere between the barn and the house, I do inhale and do scream. But in that way trauma and adrenaline distorts perception, I do not know I am screaming. The screams bring my mother from the clothesline. Through some wild buzz in my body I see her running too, wiping her hands on the faded apron. She dashes down the sunny driveway in her brown saddle shoes. She moves closer and closer to me in an odd silence that is also a huge noise in my head, covering the sound of her quick steps. I do not remember entering her arms. I am simply there, screaming the strange, incongruous words over and over.
As sense pulls me back into the world, I look down at my chest. My hands are spread across my chest like wings, as though something in it would break open and escape from my body. I hear my breath at last, rasping but real. I say the words again, more softly, winding down, “I died. I died.”
And for every time I say the words, I hear her soft chant, a methodical response to my claim. She is kneeling in the sand on the edge of the barnyard, rocking me, answering over and over, like a litany. Each time I say, “I died,” she responds, “You’re not dead.”
I begin to believe her.
But if I am not dead, what is this pain? What happened?
In the scrambled telling, I explain how we were swinging, how I have fallen. But what I feel, this terrible fear, is muttered in half-sobbed nonsense. How can I tell her I feel broken inside. How can I ask what happened to certainty, power, flirtation with danger. And more importantly, that I know enough about death to know that breathing is life. If I couldn’t breathen I must have been dead.
“You got the wind knocked out of you.” She pulls away and looks into my face.
“The wind knocked out of me?” I am trembling.
“When you fell and hit the barn floor, it knocked all the air out of your chest. It takes a minute for it to come back.” She nods.
The wind knocked out of me! I feel astonishment. The wind had been knocked out of me. Breathing, like wind in a tree, can leave the body and go away and then come back?
Together, we walk back to the barn. It is still calm and huge, but I am changed. I point tenderly to the rope but do not touch it. I show her where I fell. She explains what happened, the rudiments of a person’s lungs. Bobby joins us; he is shy and worried until he realizes that she does not blame him. She says she is glad I am not hurt, tells him not to play this game with me anymore, walks us back to the house where she pours Kool-Aid and tells us to find something more constructive to do. My chest hurts, and my back, but I know my body is not seriously hurt. But there is this other pain of awareness, and I am just old enough to think about it.
The pain comes to rest in the words, words that describe something like dying, this an abrupt phrase knocking the wind out of your body. I say the phrase over and over. It comes to represent a fear so formative it is forever associated with the trunk of my body, the thick part of me where breathing, majestic as a barn, is housed. The words and their meaning, linked now to the body in cellular knowing, become prayer-like, religious. On that day, my mother named for me something that was so like death, it negated ever coming back to the place of innocence. I never walked the crossbeams again, and after that, when I played in the barn, I was tentative and less sure of myself. With a child’s commitment to knowing, I understood that I could die. And I gave death a name.