Shuck and Shell
For Sally Mills
A perfect midwinter day, he thought, as he slogged toward the barn. The lowering sky was the same color as three-day-old snow. Some light snow blowing across the landscape greys it all out. So little color. He looked back at his dark foot prints in the white snow. Ahead, the wind had shaped a few drifts in his well-worn path. The barn door stood partly open, a black slit to enter from the white world.
He slid through, and out of the wind it seemed a little warmer. Maybe the horses gave off some heat and it caught there in the lee of the wind, against the barn basement dug into the hillside. A couple high windows above ground level let in some light. The windows were streaming with cobwebs which swung with every breeze. In the half-light of the barn, he was half-blind and groped in the corner where he knew the corn-sheller was stored.
When he'd found a handle and pulled it out, he began to drag over the steel drum where they stored stray ears of corn. Three small grey mice leaped over the barrel's edge and were gone below the wooden stall partition. He didn't grudge them the corn. Before it had been gleaned it from the fields, the corn was just waste. What did it become now that they'd gathered, stored, shucked, shelled and fed it to the chickens? Chicken feed, chicken flesh and eggs. They'd worked hard to save it, stooping in the rough field.
He liked to think back on that work in the fall sun, while he fed whole ears down the sheller's gullet. He thought, too, of the cleaning and repair by brazing which the sheller had required to work again. It took care to reassemble the little cast-iron machine, and he was careful to feed the ears in straight, to go slow and listen for the chucking sound which told him the machine was running right. The sound told him when he and the machine were on the right track.
He cranked hard with his right arm and fed the machine with his left. When the ears were just the right size, the machine worked like a charm. Stripped ears popped out through a hole on the opposite side. More often, though, the sheller would strip off only a spiral of kernels, and then, without losing his timing, he'd bend, snatch the ear and feed it through again. Anyone watching would have liked the rocking motion of this dance.
Despite his total physical involvement with the machine, cranking, feeding, hearing its chucking and the rattle of the corn filling a pail, his thoughts weren't totally engaged in the process. He thought about the value of the corn. This year, corn prices were so depressed that even large farmers were going under. If they didn't have a use for the corn on their farm—chickens, pigs, cows—neither did anyone else.
Out of one window of the barn, he could see the shape of Hildy's drumlin field, planted all in corn and still standing in the snow. Stalks were beginning to break down in the wind. Hildy would probably never pick that corn. He was cutting his losses; why waste gas in the picker and drier for $2 corn? He'd never asked Hildy if he could take that corn, though it was within sight and easy walking distance. The etiquette of their area said that standing corn shouldn't be disturbed. He could pick up all the corn he wanted down the road, from the acres Hart had harvested.
Must have been something wrong with the settings on Hart's harvester—it seemed to miss as much as it picked, and even when it picked and shelled the corn, piles were spewed all over the ground. Not to mention what was missed in the soft spots and the corners. Of course Hart had a big operation and hired a lot of help. If they saw the problem, would they fix it or could they?
Anyway, there was plenty of corn for a man with a sack. He must have lugged three hundred pounds back to the truck in one afternoon. Bad for Hart but good for chickens, and he didn't mind drying a few of the ears down to grind the kernels into meal for the family. Made good cornbread. He remembered the day he mentioned its food value to Hart, standing out in one of his fields. Hart said, "I've been raising corn for forty years, but I don't remember tasting any of my own." A couple weeks later he'd left a couple pounds of meal in a plastic sack by Hart's back door. He never heard another word—maybe Hart ate it, maybe not.
The bucket was about full of shelled corn. The sheller broke up a lot of kernels, which was fine with the chickens. They liked cracked corn better than whole anyway and probably used it better in cold weather.
He slung the pail over his arm by the wire handle. Not the handle that came with the bucket but a replacement wire probably added about the same time the bucket stopped holding water and became a grain bucket. Might have been stepped on by one of the horses.
He slid out through the crack in the barn door back into winter. No change, and no change expected—it had been cold and grey for four days running. He walked to the chicken yard, threading a path inside the drifts next to the wire garden fence. "Never did get around to clearing the garden," he thought, seeing frozen tomato and pepper plants sticking out of the drifts. There was beauty in this display; the dead plants were arranged in symmetrical lines and circles, but nothing like the garden had been at midsummer, his pride and joy. The sweet corn stalks were all dismasted by the wind and settled back into v's in the snow.
Are chickens ever glad to see you? He couldn't say. He couldn't tell if their alarm at his appearance was greater than their anticipation of being fed. They liked the look of that bucket, whatever they thought of him. They didn't leave the house much in this kind of weather and only the side door was open. He opened the larger door and walked in, shutting it behind himself.
There was no uniformity in the flock—they were all kinds and colors, the effect of buying a few here, a few there, and letting some of the better mothers raise their own broods. They seemed to be true individuals, not just in color but in behavior, but he had never taken time to get to know them in this way. They were a flock to him, in all their colors and forms. He spread the grain partly on the floor, which drew cackles, squawks and heavy hopping down and scrambling from the perches in the back. He poured the rest of the grain into several long, narrow feeding boxes against one wall. Some of the birds would only feed from these boxes; others always fed off the floor. Some held back and others rushed forward. Not much smell to them in the cold weather but already he anticipated what the spring cleaning would be like.
© 2002, Stephen Lewandowski