It was a beautiful sunny Sunday, but I cried anyway. I worried the dogs. I don´t think they ever saw me cry before.
...But it´s not me, really. It´s my cousin Barb.
Barbara is my cousin, maybe my favorite of all my many cousins. When I was small and gangly and lonesome, Barb was grown-up and beautiful and kind. She painted her toenails, and she showed me how to paint mine. After the enamel dried, she took me out to the barn and introduced me to the sweet comfort and company of animals, and the self-confidence that comes from practical wisdom.
Barb had a bouffant hairdo then, and a French poodle so smart he could climb up and down ladders and howl along to the radio. Out in the field Barb kept a big Arabian mare, a breathtaking animal she could ride bareback and drive and push around fearlessly. Barb built the horse´s little barn. She set up the electric fence around the pasture. She shoveled the manure and polished the bridles and drove us to horse shows. In her hallway hung long rows of ribbons: red, yellow, and fat blue rosettes, even some silver trophies. She was amazing. She was tough and long-legged and beautiful. I wanted to be just like her.
Over several years Barbara taught me to curry and saddle and ride horses, too. She showed me how to tie knots in a rope to make a halter, how to shift the gears on a tractor, catch chickens, lift sheep, pitch hay, pour beers, boil lobsters, plow snow and braise metal. When she went on holiday I fed the animals for her, even the mean roosters. When “everybody” went on all-day trail rides, Barb found a horse for me to ride, too. When my pet cat Flour died, she brought me Pete, a terrier pup she´d found wandering out on the road somewhere.
Barb´s always finding animals, or animals find her. The broken ones she fixes up and frees, or finds homes for – one winter afternoon she had a lame swan in one stall of the barn, and two screaming peacocks in the next, along with the usual parade of ponies, goats, and horses. In the house, keeping warm in the bathtub, was an orphaned goat kid. A Peaceable Kingdom, in other words. The original.
Barb is not overly sentimental, however. One Thanksgiving eve she tried to introduce me to the art of poultry butchering. Results were mixed. The duck and turkey ended up roasted, but my career as a chicken-plucker ended there in the back yard.
Barb knew strange people and odd places, and she drove her Jeep up and over the steep hills of rural Western Pennsylvania seeking out breeders of Afghan Hounds or someone giving away guinea hens. One blustery Autumn day I followed her into a murky old-fashioned German “bank barn,” a two-story barn built against a hillside, with stock below and hay up above. We entered from the road, right into the second story, where the floors were carpeted with flattened cardboard boxes and fallen hay. Barb called out for the owner, who waved us over to where he was sharpening sickles in a corner.
Suddenly everything vanished. I plunged downward through a hole cut in the floorboards, a chute used to throw feed down to the cows in the stalls below. I caught myself by my elbows. I dangled there, too shocked to shout or shriek, the corner of my eye catching sight of the horns of the cattle way, way below. All I could see in front of me were the backs of Barb´s cowboy boots. I swung an arm forward and grabbed her ankle.
“What you doing down there, Beck?” Barb said, completely casual. She hunkered down and caught me by the armpits and heaved me right back up onto my feet. “Quit messing around now. We need to see the goats before we lose daylight.”
The man with the sickle barely looked up. “Good thing you didn´t fall. Them are steers down there. They´ll eat you up, you know.” He chuckled. It was outrageously unsafe, covering up the holes with cardboard. At the time I was too terrified to even speak.
Still, the most vivid memory of that afternoon was driving home in the dusk, wedged into the tiny rear seat of the Jeep, holding a nanny kid steady in my lap. She sucked on my fingers to calm herself, an unforgettable sensation! We named her “Little.”
A good 30 years have passed. Barb still hangs on to the same wiry beauty, even though she is a grandmother now. She´s seen more than her share of suffering – sudden deaths, divorces, lawyers and lowlifes. She survives, and nowadays she´s a heavy equipment operator. She drives a forklift at the nuke plant in Homer Center, working 60-hour weeks during maintenance outages, and rolling out pavement on highway crews when the weather is good. She still keeps a crowd of critters. Two summers ago, when Paddy and I came to Spain to find a home, she kept Una for us. Una made a great pest of herself. Barb may be the only person patient enough to have done that long-term dog-sitting job.
Barb´s one person I want most to see The Peaceable, because this place is so Her. She could look through the back yard and see exactly which stall would be best for firewood, for foals, for hay and straw – where the manure pile ought to go. She could get Gladys to lay proper eggs, she could calm the wildest donkey, and I bet she could make the chicken hut roof stop leaking.
And she would love Spain. She has a capacity for cold wind and wide starry skies, squidgy mud underfoot and old, old adobe. She´d know the urge to re-use the beat-up hand-forged spikes and hinges. She´d adore the people here, even if she couldn´t understand the language. She knows what honest faces look like. And she knows how to be still, and silent. She knows how to just be...an important skill around here.
Barbara´s got a wonderful life at home, but she also needs to see the cathedral in Leon, and the mosaic floors in the Roman villa over in Calzadilla. She ought to see the castle in Grajal, (home to a couple of doozy pitfalls!) and a Saturday market in Sahagún, and prancing Andalusian horses. She needs to eat roast suckling lamb, and drink really good wine, and bask out in the patio in sunshine with Bob singing in the background. Barb needs a good vacation. This place is perfect for the job.
Barb has never been outside the United States. In July, when I saw her last, she assured me she´d apply for a passport and start saving up some money, that I could show her Spain sometime soon. I have been looking forward to it, a treat out there in the future.
This week Barb learned she has cancer.
It´s treatable, she said. She´ll start radiation therapy within a week, then chemo. There´s hope. And the nuke plant laid her off work, so she can claim Medicare health benefits. (Like millions of working Americans, Barb has no health insurance.)
It´s not like she´s dead already. It´s the suffering ahead of her I cry for, and the very real possibility that she never will make it here now. It´s not about me, really. It´s about the person who gave me the dream that became The Peaceable. She´s gotta see this place. She´s got to. In a real way, it is hers.