Trolls, mythical boggymen who hide in thorny brush scattered along river banks, under rotting stumps in dense forests, were sown in cautionary tales of Billy Goats Gruff by my mother to prevent me from wandering. When I was tiny, I remember listening to those tales, watching for the little people as I crossed the plank over the stream that separated our place from Grandma and Grandpa’s and over the Botna River as I lowered my head and ran fretfully across the bridge on my way to kindergarten, not looking back until I was on the other side, an instinctive fear of a curse. They stealthily encircled our house at dusk and disappeared at the first light of morning. I can still see the blue-black trolls as they emerged covered in moss out of the depths of my dreams. When my younger brother and sister were born, the trolls followed, lurking in the shadows around the stock pond that my sister and I passed on our way to Greeley Country School, along with the dinosaurs of old limbs that bobbed in its murky depths. But mother was deathly afraid of water, refusing to let any one of us learn how to swim in fear that she would retrieve our drenched bodies even from a stock tank.
Mother feared most everything that could possible happen to us, except what did happen. She feared us lost in corn fields, being chased by sows; feared us being trampled by horses. She would wring her hands as we were lifted up or stepped up on the tractor to lean against a wheel rim while hanging onto Dad’s metal seat as we jostled from one pasture to another, down an edge of a field to take a look at the crops, or cultivate. If Dad didn’t override her, none of us kids would have risked anything more than a bruised shin.
When Dad stuck a corn knife in my hands and ordered me, and later my brother, to tramp down one row, with him in another, to cut weeds, she didn’t say anything for it was part of necessary work. She let me in the granary with my brother to shovel corn or oats aside as gushers of grain streamed from the hopper above. In that steel granary with its only door that one had to step up to exit, we were up to our knees in oats or shelled corn with more raining down on us, the kernels pelting us like hail while we shoveled the new to the side to make way for more. In there my brother tormented me, sticking dead and live baby mice and what else down the back of my shirt.
Being left to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Hodder she didn’t fear, but should have, considering the ugly tales about Mom’s stepfather that I know and that she probably had an inkling of. But Mom not doing so would have seem disrespectful to her mother. When I was in the fifth grade or so, one time Grandma came to stay with us. I was ordered to sleep with Grandma on the sofa that clicked open into a bed. I had a fit, refusing to sleep with her. Mom threatened me by telling me that she was going to send me to an orphanage and I would never see Grandma again.
Mom didn’t seem to mind my carrying five-gallon buckets of slop and grain in each hand to feed cattle or pigs or lifting steel bushel buckets full of corn on my shoulder or lugging cream cans to trucks and lifting them onto the chest-high truck bed. My huge arms today I swear the result of all that lifting.
But she couldn’t keep an eye on us all the time. When Dad hired on Herb Wiese, the divorced husband of his sister, in order to help out the drunken sot with some room and board and a little wages, she didn’t know that her seventh-grade daughter, me, drank wine with Herb in the backseat of his broken-down car at the top of the hill on the Beh place. He swore me to secrecy. She didn’t know that a bunch of us high school kids broke into a known ghost house west. She didn’t fear we kids catching our deaths of cold sleeping on make-shift beds of coats on living room floors of relatives as they played pinochle or poker, nor our inhaling gray clouds of cigarette smoke that lifted off each relative. And it seemed then that she didn’t seem to mind that kids at the country school picked on me mercilessly. Now I know that both she and Dad went up to the country school once for sure to complain about a classmate RuthAnn pushing me out of a swing onto broken glass that gouged open my knee. Mrs. Griffith did nothing, for the family was sort of that section’s power elite. The folks told me to forget about it.
Spring on a farm has its own smell, a wet birthing of grasses peaking through the soil, the chill wind that swirls, the thawing frozen fields, a mix of winter rot, manure, seeds, and animal sex. And dogs that roam in search of other dogs that roam.
We kids had this black and white border collie that we loved. One spring it was tied up, probably a result of running off too many times. But the dog got loose, and was gone for over two days. We kids were worried, raising a stink; but the weather was such, cold spring wind and fields of mud, that Mom wouldn’t allow any of us to search pass the out buildings. We were stuck inside the house all day except for school and chores. On the third day, a Saturday, our dog was still gone. Mom ordered us to stay in the house. She disappeared. Where Dad was, not sure. Hours later, Mom returned, leading our dog. She had walked the creek bed that weaved through the farms to the south, stopping every once in a while listening for a bark or a whimper. She found him next to the creek, his leash entangled in dead limbs embedded in mud, the weight too much for the collie to free himself.