Thursday, the final day of my nights free. Just a little nap after morning milking, and I stir to consciousness in the growing heat of midday and hear the call of the barn swallows sweeping across the yard, and the crunch of the mail car out by the box at the end of the drive. From my bed, I watch the clouds working across and gaining intensity for an evening thunderstorm and the idle promise of rain. What I must do today, Thursday, is to check and repair the bottom fence which marks the far northern line of this farm. There will be no fishing today; we bought home six large suckers Wednesday and seven good-sized trout – six German Browns and a brookie – the boys landed. It will be the weekend before I have more free time, but the weekend often brings an extra night’s work at the hospital. The fill-in position for my nights-off stands open; maybe a midterm college graduate in January will grab it.
Where I will be working, the fence crosses the creek several times and tends to be forced down by the movement of the water and the stress of the animals using the access. It needs repair at least twice during the summer.
I can take the Fiat down the road to the creek; park it at the bridge at the corner of the farm. There is no name on the bridge, but the stream is important without a name – for the life moving around it. I can take the Fiat down or I can walk. I stand in the entry-room taking from the wall fence-pliers and staples and a roll of smooth wire. The Walkman radio is on the bench, but I decided against its canned music
I can put on rubber boots for the water. Wearing them all the way down to the creek would be oppressive… I’ll wear canvas shoes. I have put on old breathy jeans and a man’s white shirt which fends off insects. I want to walk. I can do some repair on the fences going down there and can spot woodchuck holes along the cow lane, a hazard to all large animals.
It’s a mile walking. I can take along a watch but decide to trust the sun of my inner clock. This evening Louise is likely to be left off; they said six o’clock. I pin a scrawled note to the milkhouse door; “I am fixing fence down at the bridge.”
The herd is lying at the bottom of the pasture hill. They pay me little heed. Only Irene gets up, rear first, to follow me as if I’ve brought her a treat, and then she gets sidetracked by clump of lush grass.
I reached the water and go left a quarter-mile to where the line fence makes its first crossing. I follow the fence into the water – which fills my shoes, gurgling around my ankles, and gets deeper, swishing on my shins. I see that some of the wire is pulled loose from the posts in the middle of the creek. A middle wire has broken and hangs limp for fifteen feet. The fence is a sagging and tangled snarl. Some of the posts are bent and will need replacing. It means another day’s work. I feel relief at having begun it today.
There are few fish here – some upstream, I’ve heard. Here, there are crayfish and frogs and an occasional mud turtle.
I have cut in slowly and worked up to an acceptable pace, grateful for coolness among the bush and in the water, a benefit I had forgotten to expect. As if someone had called, I look upstream, at a movement, a man approaching from the road. I hear Milo’s step in the twigs and undergrowth. I keep working. He lifts a leg over the fence, straddles the fence, comes across and slows for the water, then comes into the stream, “Slippery on the rocks,” I say to him. I am twisting a small piece of wire, fastening the barbed wire to the steel post.
“I saw your note on the barn,” he explains, as I finished with the post. The water is well over his boots. He seems subdued, held back, careful with his words; I feel subdued too. I’m not sure I want him here. It’s been several days and nights, and the idea is remote and farfetched that we have ever talked as two friendly people, much less anything more than that. I’m relieved for the staples in my hands, the wires and tools – I can’t shake hands or whatever crazy thing I might do.
“The note,” I say, “was for the Christensen guys. You didn’t take it down, did you?”
“I wouldn’t do that,” he says defensively. “Well –” (with a grin) “I did think about it, you know, to keep the crowds away.”
He takes barbed wire in his two hands and pulls it tight, away from me, while I fastened it. “Thank you,” I say. “It looks like I’ll be down here again tomorrow. This stuff is bad. The darn cows will go on through, and I’ll be chasing them up the road Sunday morning.”
“Somebody live over there across the line?” asks Milo.
“Empty this year,” I tell him, “or they’d certainly have been included in this picnic. It’s a rental place.”
He takes the middle of the bent post in his two big hands. “Here, just grab either end, and we’ll bend it out,” he says. We stand and brace against each other, my hand constricting under the cutting force of the angled rib of the post. It bends a few inches.
“Needs a new one,” I say, “we can’t do any more. I’ll bring out a new one in the morning. They get rigid. They get corroded.”
We go on to the next post, at the edge of the water. Three very loose wires sag hopelessly. A smart cow could come right through. I wield the fence pliers and put in some kinks, winding it; this can snap the wire if it gets tight enough. Milo puts the palm of his hand out to keep his eyes from the line of fire. “How long’ve you been here?” he asks.
“Today? Two hours, maybe.”
“It’s nice down here,” he says. “I think I’s here one time when I was a kid. I think I remember this place. Trees were littler then.”
“Did you grow up around here?”
“Oh, I’m further away now – seven miles – but then I was just a village kid. I was a kid, eight years old prob’ly. I think some other young punks and me were out here catching crayfish.”
“That’s possible,” I answer, kinking the next wire, “although crayfish numbers are down now. Stream seems to be dying. There’ll be some new rules before too long. Maybe it’ll pick up again after that. Crayfish are a big delicacy in the south, aren’t they?” I stand straight and point down with my pliers. “You’ll ruin your shoes.”
“Cleanest they been in years,” says Milo, his eyes warm.
Unbidden through my mind walks a though of lying with Milo Ruszczyk in the soft grass bordering the low pasture. Still alive, the hex is encumbered today with doubts, with caution. A foreboding has moved over me, a sadness, and I’m a stranger in a strange land, no longer self-assured.
We are walking upstream. I’m looking for breakdowns along the high bank. In twenty more feet the fence extends down again. “You are here why?” I ask him, as if reciting poetry, smiling big at him trying to strike down passivity.
“I’m here why?” he says mockingly, looking at the sky. “Well, I got thinking I ought to check you out. I said I would.” He takes the wire from my arm, carries it walking beside me in the ankle-deep water. “Unless,” he says, “you don’t feel like you did feel, you know, that other night, Monday it was.”
“Well, I don’t change a whole lot in a couple of days,” I say, “Only if I have to.” I can’t look at him. I watch my step in the water.
“There are some times you think something over later,” he says, “and just decide it was an awful big rush.”
“You got that right,” I say enthusiastically. “It was a big rush, and it could’ve scared anybody off.”
“That’s it,” he agreed. “So…that’s why I thought I should come on down here and catch you workin’. Show you I’m not scared off.”
I walked to where the fence is hanging across the water, and I shake the wire to test its tension. I try to conceal the jubilation I feel. “I have to get going here,” I say firmly.
“Way to get the work done is to do it,” Milo says, as if quoting a parent.