Fathom Mag
Short Story

Honeysuckle Rail

A short story

Published on:
October 24, 2016
Read time:
12 min.
Share this article:

Well, Ben, it looks like spring is here.” The screen door clacked shut behind Lois as she scuffed her boots on the mat. “Saw the first robin just sittin’ on the feeder. Didn’t want to scare it, so I ain’t fed the birds yet.” She let the paper bag of Purina birdseed thump to the floor as she spoke.

Ben grunted and took another sip of his coffee. The oil slick on the surface didn’t bother him. Why make another pot if the one from this morning was still half-full? 

Lois puttered around the kitchen, clinking plates together and dropping them into the sink. “First robin already, and there’s still snow on the ground. You going to plow the north field today?” She settled heavily onto the vinyl kitchen chair. “Ben, you listening to anything I’m saying?”

Ben set his mug down on a chipped coaster painted with a child’s attempt at a cowboy. He flicked the paper with a thick forefinger and folded it. He smoothed the creases and set it to the side of his coffee and looked his wife full in the eye.

“John says he doesn’t want to take over the farm.” 

Lois batted at the air. “Oh he’s always saying that. He’ll come around and take charge when he’s good and ready. He’s a man, just like his father. He’ll do the right thing.”

“No, Lois, he won’t. He’s leaving us here on our own. Gone for Colorado last night. I only just found out this morning.” Ben slid an envelope out from under the newspaper and pushed it across the Formica table.

Concern pulled all the lines in Lois’s face earthward as she unfolded the single sheet of notebook paper. Her eyes darted down the page, back up, then slowly down again. Ben took another sip of his coffee, then reached for the lazy Susan in the middle of the table and spooned another heap of sugar into the mug. 

“So he’s really leaving this time?” Lois set the letter back on the table and smoothed her apron with both hands. “Really leaving.”

“So it’d seem. It don’t look like he’ll be coming back, neither. A job like that don’t come up around here. But Colorado got lots of them ski hills.”

“But he was so happy. I thought he’d always live on the farm. Live with us.”

“Now, Lois, don’t get to thinking that just ‘cause you wanted him here that he wanted to be here just the same. He’s a grown man. If he wants to do that skiing stuff, there ain’t nothing we can do.”

Lois sighed. The wrinkles at the corners of her eyes sagged. After a moment, she stood and unpinned the mesh that covered her hair. She wrapped a loose strand of gray back into her bun and pinned the head covering in place. Ben heard her sniffle as she bent to pick up the birdseed on her way back outside.

Ben thumbed the handle of his mug and thought. He would have to plow under the north field before the volunteer alfalfa sprang up. He needed to put corn in this year. The silage was running low. The winter wheat crop had all but died with the wet they’d had. The fields flooded in November, then froze, and then thawed, then flooded again, then froze. Bad for the wheat.

As he stood, Ben sucked down the last drops of oily coffee and went to put the mug in the sink. Through the window, he saw Lois sitting on the one remaining rung of the old split-rail fence that used to run through the back yard. The bag of birdseed sat forgotten on the grass, the morning dew soaking into the paper. The robins had gone, but black-capped chickadees pecked away at the sunflower seeds, and goldfinches flitted about on the ground. A blue jay cawed from a nearby tree and the songbirds scattered in a flurry of feathers. 

Ben watched his wife as she watched the birds. She would need to come to terms with John leaving. They had work to do. The farm wouldn’t run itself.

Ben nodded as if that was decided, and went to the mudroom. He tugged a yellowed string that sparked the solitary light bulb to life. The washing machine hummed as he pulled his boots on and tied a grocery bag over each foot.

His feet swished as Ben thumped down the wooden steps into the garage. He gathered his manure-caked Tingleys and pulled them over his boots. The plastic bags made it easier on his creaking joints.

The Snider farm had been in Ben’s family for five generations, growing corn and milking cows in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains for nearly a century. The farmhouse rambled along at the end of a gravel driveway, each generation having added a room or two as suited their needs. Ben had left it the way it was. He and Lois had only one child, after all.

Ben had worked the farm with his father from the day he turned eleven. His pops had given him the responsibility of looking after the newborn calves down in the hutches behind the milking parlor. Ben took to the task with equal parts irritation and excitement. Irritation, because like most eleven-year-olds, he’d have preferred to be running in the woods behind the house than doing farm work. Excitement, because his pops let him work the gear shift on the John Deere. 

Every morning he’d help his pops carry the five-gallon buckets of colostrum out to the hutches, and partition the milk out to the calves. Several months after he started looking after the calves, a heifer died. Ben had been giving the heifer’s colostrum to a bull calf for a week straight. The tiny calf got sick and then died a day later, and Ben got a whipping he thought he’d never recover from. He had cried for half an hour behind the dead calf’s hutch until his ma found him and made him wash up for dinner.

Ben changed that day. His two brothers still played in the forest, climbing the peak behind the farmhouse and damming rivers. Ben no longer joined them in blowing up groundhog holes with the M80s the three of them snuck across state lines for the Fourth of July in 1955, because Ben had begun to love the farm—the calves particularly. When his two older brothers graduated from high school and started a welding business in town, Ben was the one who had taken over the farm work from his pops. 

This morning, as Ben trudged over to the tractor shed, he found himself growing sour. John may have found a good job in Colorado, but it left him to manage the farm alone. Lois was good help, sure. She’d grown up on the farm right next to the high school. But running a farm was man’s work, and Ben wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to keep up.

He snorted and put the matter out of his mind. The north field needed plowing. Ben started up the old John Deere and backed it out of the shed. He turned it around in the gravel and backed into the shed again, lining up the three-point hitch with the plow. He shut the engine down—he never hooked up implements with the tractor running, just like his pops had told him. Years ago a neighbor boy had gotten himself wrapped entirely around the PTO on accident. Ben was careful. With his limbs still intact, he clambered back up onto the tractor and drove out to the field.

Lunch time brought a growling stomach by the time Ben finished turning the volunteer alfalfa back under the ground. He chugged up to the house on the tractor and turned the engine off. Inside the kitchen, Lois had already laid out sandwiches. A bag of Utz kettle chips and a cup of new coffee sat next to his paper plate. Ben washed his hands, and Lois opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of mustard to set on the table.

Ben pulled his sandwich apart and spiraled yellow mustard across the two pieces of bologna. He peeled the plastic off a piece of American cheese and smashed all the components together and took a bite. Lois sat down and arranged her own sandwich with mayonnaise and onion. 

Silence shouldered its way into the kitchen while the two ate, only broken when one or the other reached for a chip. 

“The honeysuckle’s starting to grow,” Lois mumbled around a mouthful of bologna and onion. 

Ben nodded.

“I think that stuff would pull the whole farm down if given half a chance. It’s already wound up the fence pretty good.”

“Well, I can get out there with the weed whacker and cut it back. I just have to put the tractor up.”

“No. That’s all right. It’s far enough from the garden this year. I figure it can have that fence. There’s only one rail left anyway.”

Ben nodded again and took another bite of his sandwich.

Lois sipped her coffee and sat back in her chair. “You really think he ain’t gonna come back? Maybe he’s just out there getting a feel for the big world. Maybe after a year or so he’ll come back.”

Ben set his sandwich down and wiped his mouth with a paper towel. “Lois, I’m telling you. He’s not coming back home. Leastways not for good.”

“But Ben, we have skiing here. Why don’t he just do his skiing here?”

“’Cause the resort here ain’t big enough for the likes of John. He grew up in those mountains and skied down every one of them. They’re small stuff to him now. And he ain’t—he ain’t got a love for the farm.” The last words fell out of Ben’s mouth in a whisper. 

The two of them sat in silence for a minute or two, then Ben pushed his chair back. The chair leg caught on the torn linoleum and nearly pitched him backwards. Grumbling, he righted the chair and slammed through the screen door.

 He trudged toward the milking parlor. Lois’d be along in a minute or two, and they’d set to rounding up the cows for the afternoon milking. As he walked by the patch of honeysuckle, Ben stopped and looked the fence over. The post-and-rails had stretched some forty feet when Ben was a boy, but now only this one section remained.

When he was growing up, the honeysuckle strangled the entire fence and filled the back yard with sugary perfume through most the summer. The fireflies would dance in and out of the vines, and he and his brothers spent many a summer evening smacking them out of the air with baseball bats. The little golden explosions horrified their mother.

When Lois wanted to put in a garden, Ben had cut down and pulled up the majority of the honeysuckle. Without its bindings, most of the fence had come apart in the process. Pretty as it was, honeysuckle was a destroyer. It’d smother buildings and plants alike in sap and sugar. Lois had wanted to keep the patch by the birdfeeder, and so the honeysuckle—and the fence it held up—remained.

Lois joined Ben after cleaning up the lunch dishes, and the afternoon passed pleasantly. They pushed four groups of cows through the milking parlor in an effort to get the tank filled. The milk truck would be swinging by that evening, and Ben wanted to have as much to sell as possible. After the winter, money was as tight as the bun on Lois’s head.

With the milking finished, Ben left Lois to scrape the manure out of the parlor and hose it down. He went and hooked the feeder to the tractor and filled it with corn silage and hay. He drove the tractor down the feed aisle in the middle of the cow barn, and by the time Ben put the equipment away and finished feeding the calves, night had begun to settle in. 

The season was still too cold to eat on the patio, so Lois turned the small television on in the kitchen as she cooked dinner. Ben walked in just as she pulled the baked macaroni out of the oven and set it down on a wicker mat. A casserole of ground beef and green beans topped with mashed potatoes already sat steaming on the table. Ben went into the mudroom to wash his hands and shed his boots. By the time he sat down for dinner, Lois was pulling half-empty bottles of ranch dressing and Italian dressing out of the refrigerator. She set a glass of milk in front of Ben, followed by a mug of coffee. 

The TV muttered in the background. An advertisement played for the hardwood flooring company that was right next to his brothers’ welding shop. The jingle had been stuck in Ben’s head for well on six decades.

During dinner, Lois and Ben watched a rerun of a public television show, Wild America. Blonde-bearded Marty Stouffer was doing a special about whitetail deer. Ben chuckled to himself. Those deer were more nuisance than nature. His freezer in the garage was chock-full of the crop-destroying animals.

They were like the honeysuckle, gorgeous to look at when they left you alone. But when they moved in, they’d start eating at the very things that gave you life. Your food, your crops, your land. Beautiful, but deadly just the same.

Halfway into dinner, Ben heard a rumble coming up the driveway, and looked up from his casserole. “Sounds like Gary’s here.”

Lois nodded and lifted a forkful of macaroni to her mouth. 

Ben brushed his hands on his coveralls and clumped out through the garage. 

The twin beacons of the truck’s headlights carved swaths out of the growing twilight. Gary had been a longtime friend of the family. His dad had owned the farm four miles to the north of Ben’s. A big milking corporation crept in three decades ago and started to buy out the milking operations in the area. Gary’s family didn’t have the capital to compete, so they ended up selling off most of the land to a developer and the cows to the corporation.

So now Gary drove truck for the rest of the dairy farmers in the area. 

Ben waved as the tanker passed and followed the red lights toward the milking parlor. 

“Hiya, Ben,” Gary called as he climbed down the cab. 

“Gary.” Ben stuck out a hand, and the two men shook. “How you doing this evening?”

“All right. Kids’ve been going a bit wild. Glad to let them out of the house today.”

“I reckon it’s warming up for that.”

Gary walked to the back of the tanker and started unwrapping the hose. 

Ben helped him cart the coils toward the milk house. 

Inside, Gary screwed the hose onto the tank and cranked the valve open. “Got much in here tonight?”

Ben climbed the short stepladder next to the main tank to check the gauge. “Enough to fill you half-up most like.”

 “Good. Give me an excuse to go home early tonight.” Gary chuckled. “Jan is going to her mother’s this weekend and I’m headed out with the guys.”

Ben nodded. “You going to the same land this year?”

“Got plenty of spring gobblers last time, and Joe said we got first dibs on the lease this year.”

“That’s good.”

Silence stretched out between the two men. Ben climbed up to the gauge again. Gary was a good guy, but Ben felt strange talking to him about farming, knowing everything that had happened with his family.

“Ben, you gonna sell this place?” Gary’s voice pushed up in the gloom of coming night. 

“Beg pardon?”

“This farm. You ever gonna sell it?”

“Now why would I do that?” Ben climbed down a rung and stared hard at the man below him.

Gary shrugged. “I can’t keep running milk forever. Leastways not for these smaller farms. The money’s just not good enough anymore. Not when I can get three loads from the Defibaugh farm in one day.”

“You gonna quit running my milk?” Ben’s voice grew tight.

Gary shrugged again. “How long are you going to be able to do this, Ben?” He waved his hand, taking in the milk room. 

“Long enough. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I left Lois in the middle of dinner.”

Gary nodded and pulled his gloves back on. “Don’t let me hold you up.”

“Evenin’, Gary.”

Ben started back toward the house. He moved slower than he’d like these days. The winter cold made his hips hurt, and a wet spring wasn’t much better. He stopped to lean against the vine-covered fence rail by the garden. 

Gary was right. He was getting old. John wasn’t coming back from Colorado. He hadn’t told Lois about the shouting match he’d had with their son the night before. John had anticipated his father’s arguments and adamantly insisted he wasn’t going to stay home. He’d called the farm outdated, unsustainable, and worthless.

It was the last word that boiled Ben’s blood enough for him to raise his voice. This farm had been in the Snider family for five generations, he’d yelled. It’d been there when Ben’s grandfather was born, wet and squealing, into the world. The farm bore the heavy stones that marked the graves of his own parents. And one day, Ben’d be buried there too.

This land had remained the same and nourished their family. John had no right to call it worthless. With his anger eventually sputtered out, Ben had walked away. His blood pounded in his ears even now thinking about it. He refused to have a conversation with a boy who didn’t appreciate what was in front of him.

Ben sighed, his breath puffing out in front of him. Best that Lois never find out. Her heart would break knowing her son and husband parted on such bad terms. 

The worn out farmer turned his gaze to the mountains towering above the farm. The backyard ran right up to the foot of them, and Snider land kept on running under the trees up to the ridgeline. The moon washed the mountaintop in icy light. 

Ben frowned. That mountain had seduced his son away from him. The damned ski resort. He found himself wishing his grandfather had never sold that part of the mountain. Maybe John would still be here. 

Ben tried to push himself off the fence when a sharp crack split the night air. The rail under his hands gave out beneath his weight. He twisted as he fell backward, cartwheeling his hands for balance. Ben landed hard on the broken rail—hard enough to knock the breath out of him.

Ben lay there sucking at the air. The broken fence rail dug into his side. Ben closed his eyes. He could feel the wind pick up. He heard it shake the trees as it rolled down the mountain. He heard it rustle on the vines wrapping on the remaining fence posts.

Ben opened his eyes and tried to sit up. The ground sloped and made it difficult. He grabbed a bunch of honeysuckle in each hand and tried to pull himself up to his knees. The posts held for a moment, but then they, too, splintered. He collapsed backward onto the ground in a heap of broken fence and spring honeysuckle.

Just then, the patio light clicked on. Lois’s voice joined the wind in the air. “Ben? You there?”

Ben managed to roll over and get to his knees. “Yeah.”

“Phone for you. The Jones boy called. He’s looking for work.” 

“I’ll be in.”

The screen door banged behind Lois. Gary must have finished loading as the big tanker was pulling away from the milk house. 

Ben stood and brushed off his knees. His side ached as he walked to the house, leaving behind the broken fence and honeysuckle.

The back door closed behind him, and the porch light clicked off.

Jed Ostoich
Jed Ostoich is a writer, editor, and the Dwight of his office. He has his BA from Moody Bible Institute in Hebrew, and his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary in OT Biblical Theology. When he’s not marking up other people’s words, he’s reading up on Magic the Gathering or down the rabbit hole of YouTube. Jed lives with his wife and four kids in Grand Rapids. You can find him on Twitter @TheJeditor.

Cover image by Frank Köhntopp.

Next story