Fledermaus

by Laura Murray

After hours of driving, we turn onto the Fifth Concession. I check the numbers posted on each green sign, looking for the one that matches what I’ve jotted down. Now that we’re this close, part of me wants to linger a bit longer in the space of not quite being there yet, while another part of me wants to stop and stretch. Maybe it’s like that whole taking off a Band-Aid thing, where you either rip it off all at once or take it off slowly one edge at a time. Or, maybe it’s more like an early spring dip when you either ease yourself in, first one foot and then another, or jump right in and have the whole thing over with. But Ben is driving (and he’s more the ‘jump right in’ type), Ribby’s lurching forward between us eager to be outside, and before long we spot number 19015.

There are two mailboxes, one which has the word Fledermaus painted on its side. So this is where he goes to get my letters, I think as Ben turns the truck down the lane. There’s a stand of spruce to the right of us, an open field to the left. Dusk is dropping her curtain. We follow a light shining from the second floor of the house that looks like it’s coming from a cathedral window.

We pass a pond, and then the lane ends in a wide open space. There are two big maple trees by the house, one with a rope swing. The side porch is piled high with firewood and various animal skins are stretched out in frames – sheep skins the easiest to recognize.

We pull up in front of a garage-type building. There are over a dozen rain barrels surrounded by piles of buckets. A trailer’s parked off to the right of us, settling into the earth like into its grave – all rust and story. Behind the trailer is a fenced-in area, with weathered skulls fastened to each of the tall posts. Ben and I turn to each other, taking it in, and I remember when we read Thom’s first letter; how he described there being a Third World feel about this place.

“Well, here we are,” Ben says, holding me in his gaze.

“Yeah, here we are,” I echo. I know he’s checking in to see how I’m doing, but I’m not exactly sure what to say. I have been anticipating coming to the farm since Thom began telling me about his life here; first in letters, then in phone conversations and most recently in person when he came to visit us in Peterborough. It reminds me of being younger, when you’re becoming friends with someone and one day they ask you to come over to their house, and when they show you their room it’s like you’re entering their world. There’s something so intimate about being in their space; you really get to know them, which feels both exciting and tense.

For 33 years, my birth parents have occupied the unknown. This year, they…we…have suddenly washed up in each other’s lives. I have been lucky in my reunions with them both in the sense that since ‘meeting’ one another we have steadily wanted more; to continue talking and getting to know each other better. Going to the ashram where Beth lived was a big moment for us, and now being here on the farm with Thom is similarly a big moment. These are two people who made a conscious effort to live out their dreams, which is incredibly inspiring and supportive to me. The strange thing is that I imagined myself living in both of these places growing up, even though they represent the complete opposite of how I was raised.

When Ben and I get out of the truck, the smell of goat is pungent. Ribby stumbles down and rushes over to nose a wheelbarrow that’s heaping with animal pelts; then he darts over to a large metal bin that I notice is partly covering a cow corpse. Even in his old age, with his stiff joints and body aches, his wild nature still readily ignites once he’s outdoors. I ask Ben to put him on his leash.

Thom comes out to greet us as the geese charge in, all honk and hiss.

“Hi there!” He chuckles, “That’s Gill and Gus. We’ve had them since they were in eggs, so to them we’re family. They guard the farm and are very protective of us.” He’s wearing a thick wool sweater, brown work pants and muddy rubber boots. I’m getting used to seeing him dressed like this – it’s what he was wearing in the photos Hannah emailed me, and it’s what he wore when he came to Peterborough.

When our eyes meet, he grins and it’s like a banner of happiness strung across his face. He hugs us both, bends to give Ribby a good pat, and then reaches up to give Ben an exuberant pat too which gets everyone laughing. We reach into the truck for our ‘farm attire,’ as advised, and in my case this includes the pink Carhartt jacket I inherited from Beth and my black rubber boots.

“This is Beth’s jacket,” I tell Thom.

“Oh, that’s great,” he says. And I remember when we first met and he told me I was just like her; in the way I walked and how I looked and what my voice sounded like.

“Here, I’ll show you around.” He takes me by the arm, as if this is what we always do, and I can sense how glad he is that I’m here…by his side.

We pass a shed built from many different found materials that serves as the chicken coop. The rooster struts around it and a couple ducks waddle away from us seeking cover in a pile of sticks. “The ducks offer up their eggs to us in exchange for room and board,” Thom says. “They are pretty funny and their lack of morals give the geese a lot to honk about.”

Nearby is the greenhouse, with a raised bed of herbs and greens and three of the largest rabbits I’ve ever seen. Behind the greenhouse is the garden – now resting after the harvest. It doesn’t seem as big as I imagined it would be, or as organized. How do they grow enough food to eat?, and how do they store things for the winter? I wonder.

Next, we come to a gate. To the left, two horses stand close to their stall – a structure that appears wrestled together and quite open to the elements. “The white one’s Babe, the grey one’s Fandango” Thom tells us. “They are the last of the horses we once had here.” This must explain why there is so much pasture for them to graze in, I think.

To the right, two adorable brown calves huddle together under a lean-to. “Those are bull calves,” Thom says. “They are newcomers to the farm, and Steph is training them as oxen.” Beyond them is what I assume is the barn, although it doesn’t have the traditional barn shape, isn’t very big, and has a ramshackle appearance.

It’s becoming clearer to me what Thom meant when he wrote that if I had come looking for him in Greenfield and asked for the names of farmers in the area, his name wouldn’t have come up. The farm is run sort of pioneer style; the work is done by hand and, with the exception of a few power tools, there is no mechanization. It seems to be a place where dreams have free range, and boundaries take in a lot of wind.

In front of us is a high fenced pen. We decide to tie Ribby to the gate before going further, knowing all too well the kind of mischief he’s capable of getting into. Ben takes my hand as we head inside the pen to meet the goats.

“This year we’re just making feta and only milking three goats,” Thom explains. “Three weren’t bred and three are males, and they don’t take kindly to being milked.” He nudges me, raising his eyebrows, and I laugh heartily with him. Partly because I do indeed think it’s funny, but mainly because of how funny he obviously thinks it is; knowing all too well this type of comedic act.

The kids are a chorus of bleating. The smack of their hooves a steady drum beat as they jump against the fence and chase one another. We watch amazed as they swarm their mothers for milk – head butting their swollen udders to encourage the flow. The mothers gaze down intermittently to check who they’re feeding, kicking away those that aren’t theirs. I think about Beth, breastfeeding me for five days in the hospital…my Mom, bottle feeding me formula all the days after that.

The kids shift between curiosity and shyness – coming right up and chewing our clothes, and the suddenly bounding off. They are all very comfortable with Thom, and he handles them each lovingly while telling us their names. Their shit is scattered in tiny pellets and fat patties that don’t smell so much but he warns us they stick like glue.

As we head to the barn, Ben asks Thom if they have a name for the farm.

“Fledermaus,” Thom answers.

“And where does that come from…what does it mean?” Ben asks.

“It’s a German word,” Thom says “and means bat. When Steph bought the property, there were over 3000 bats in the house when they first moved in that had to be wrangled out.”

In the first stall of the barn, we are passed newborn bunnies to hold. I feel nervous with their fragile little bodies in my hands, having to be so careful not to squish or drop them.

“We found their mother dead this morning,” Thom tells us, matter of factly.

We track back and get Ribby. As we loop around the barn we pass about 40 rabbits housed in three-story cages of many different colours and sizes. Ribby strains on the leash, trying to get a good sniff. They thump their feet in retort.

“What do you do with all of them?” I ask.

“Well,” Thom starts. “Some we eat, others we sell or give away as pets.”

“Oh right, of course,” I reply, as if this is something I’ve heard about or experienced.

“The garden, the animals and the woods provide us with most of our food and our medicine,” he adds.

As we pass a huge pile of woodchips, Ben asks what they use them for and Thom goes on to explain their compostable toilet system. While the two of them talk, I take the opportunity to look at Thom more closely. Even though many people commented on my striking resemblance to Beth, I’m not petite like she was. Thom’s built like a football player; he’s so solid. Ben thinks I have the same broad shoulders, and I figure he’s right. Then, of course, there’s his boisterous laugh, which is somehow as soothing to me as the softness was of Beth’s voice.

As we walk around the side of the barn we hear loud snorts and grunts. It takes me a couple minutes to distinguish two huge black hogs from all the muck they’re tromping around in. I thought the big rabbits were a bit unnerving, but these two (Stella and Big Fella) must weigh over 200 lbs and are totally frightening. I find myself relieved at the distance, and fence, between us.

Staked nearby is the male goat. His fur is mostly brown, with white around his mouth, ears and two bushy eyebrows. His horns curve out behind him and are quite thick, his beard is full and comes to a point well below his chin. He seems mythical, and the way his eyebrows frame his almond-shaped eyes makes him look like he’s contemplating life in all its mystery. Thom approaches him as if he were a bosom buddy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they spoke their own language.

“This is Sheldon,” Thom introduces us.

As we move towards him we are met by his odour, which is so strong I find it hard not to choke. Ribby is very interested in checking him out and attempts to get close, but once he reaches him he suddenly stumbles backward into a seated position.

“Wow, Ribbs,” Ben says. “You feeling a little upstaged?”

Ribby’s reaction catches both Ben and me off guard, coming from the dog who chased moose and has wrestled with many a porcupine. But we get it, Sheldon is an incredibly striking creature.

Thom asks us if we’d like to walk into the woods, or if we’re too cold and tired and would rather rest. Ben asks me how I’m doing, and I tell him that a stroll in the forest sounds good to me.

“I would like to take you to see Grandmother,” Thom says. It takes me a minute to realize that he’s talking about an old maple tree he has written to me about. And I remember the moment when he asked me if I could talk to trees; how amazed I was that he would ask me that question…a question I so deeply longed to answer and discuss.

As we enter the woods, I let Ben walk beside Thom and follow behind them. I notice my shallow breath. My feet feel as if they’ve been lifted off the ground, so I focus my attention on anchoring them back to the earth. I look up at the naked tree branches, then I look down at the ferns and crispy leaves. I take in a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. He is living right on the edge, I find myself thinking. I’ve always wanted to be out there, but this is really out there.

“Are you OK, Bracken?” Thom turns to me, concerned.

I surprise myself by looking up – answering the call of a name I can’t ever remember hearing before.

“Yes,” I meet my hazel eyes. “I’m fine.”