Red Lake Falls, Minnesota: The Emptiness

This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

After my grandfather’s funeral I asked my sister to drive me out to the farm. I don’t know why I didn’t have my own car, nor where my husband and daughter were. They might even have been in the backseat.

I do remember that my sister —nervous about messy emotion – looked skeptical. I was a noisy mourner, given to snotty hiccupping and weeping, and it made her apprehensive. But she’s a good egg, and makes allowances for grief, even if she would rather not demonstrate it herself.  We drove out there.

The farm. 200 acres anchored by a sagging crooked house and a gorgeous barn, the old-fashioned kind with red wood slats and a hayloft. There was a chicken coop grandma had turned into a kid’s playhouse when she finally got rid of her hens and a shed, filled with gears and bolts and marvelous mechanical stuff, including a go-cart grandpa cobbled out of old parts. In the back, an outhouse was slowly falling into the soil.

I hadn’t been there for years.  I’d been out of the country­­–literally on a boat in the Amazon–when grandma had died unexpectedly, two years before. In those days before cell phones, one had to buy a ficha to use the big yellow street phones the Brazilians called “Orelias’” because they were shaped like giant ears. By the time I could get to a phone for my regular call home, even the leftovers from grandma’s funeral casseroles were gone.

Maybe this was why my grieving was more ragged than the rest of my family. They’d done their shocked and noisy mourning at grandma’s funeral. They’d witnessed grandpa’s decline, and had said their goodbyes to the farm.

The farm was in the middle of the middle of nowhere, where Minnesota meets Canada. Colder than a witch’s tit, as they say.  Hard to get to.  I got pregnant right after I came back from Brazil, which might explain why I never made the drive from Chicago to visit Grandpa.  Then one autumn day he took the pickup and got lost. The neighbors found him half-ditched and disoriented. So the decision was made to put him in a home.  He did not transplant well.  He had planted potatoes, lost fingers and interred children in that farm, dug wells, dug graves and crawled home in the ruts in the road during a blizzard.  He died shortly after he left it. And, when it became clear that none of his children were interested in moving to the middle of the middle of nowhere, the farm was sold.

So I was trespassing when I stepped out of the car that February day. And it was colder than a witch’s tit. My sister stayed in the front seat with the heater on, looking worried she might have to comfort me. I somehow knew that the new owners were out of town—probably the neighbors had told us. I pulled boots on under my funeral dress, and circled the place, hearing the crunch of ice crystals mixed with clods of dirt, knowing I might not ever be there again. Seeing my childhood in every doorway and tree branch. The wind blew ribbons of new snow sideways across pitted gravel, and my freezing breath stiffened my scarf.

My grandparents had kept a dairy herd far longer than anyone their age should have. Even after they stopped, the magical red barn kept that warm cow smell for a long time. But eventually, only occasional whiffs in the farthest corners yielded the heady aroma of hay and manure. Filled with longing, I yanked open the door and stepped inside.

I gasped like I’d been doused. It was probably twenty degrees warmer. I had a sense of the building breathing, of moist exhalations and the warm, stubborn aliveness that one feels when surrounded by animals. My eyes adjusted and I saw two goats staring warily. A disinterested cow lifted its head. Chickens fluttered from a beam. I inhaled. I breathed and I breathed. I was inhaling comfort. And wisdom and something weirdly close to joy: certainly acceptance and peace. The place was as it should be.

I stayed longer than I meant to, gingerly making friends with the goats. Finally I came out and got in my sister’s car, making sure there was no manure on my boots. She looked at my dry eyes with surprise.

If farm life demonstrates nothing else, it is that for us animals, life is transient. The comfort and sense of rightness that infused me that day stayed with me until my mother died. Then, the last link gone, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that my thoughts circled back to the farm.

Mom used to describe how, after dinner and the chores were done, she’d pedal a rickety bike past yellow fields to the mailbox a mile away.  She’d begin slowly, watching the foxes play in the shadows. But at a certain point, the lingering northern twilight would shift, and the sky would begin to pull in around her, drawing in the dome of night and dark. Thrilled and a little frightened, she’d rush back, racing the bats streaming out of the hayloft into the twilight. When she described it her face was transformed, like a private moon was washing her in an aching silver light.

My kids will never see that of course, or the farm. It seems impossible, that something so solid can be wiped away in a generation­­ – the winter-locked fields, stars frozen in skies so frigid no moisture can obscure their glow; the summertime shimmer of northern lights; the root cellar; the milkhouse. The sweet corn. The emptiness. The cold—oh my God, the cold.

As we drove away that February, I pictured my grandfather, wearing his moccasins as he broke through ice crystals in the grassy mud, pointing at an old moose plodding down the ditch.

Rebecca Keller

Rebecca Keller is an artist and writer, teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2012, her book of art and essays, Excavating History, was published. She has published fiction in New Fairy Tales, Calyx, The Public Historian, “Crossing Lines” from Main Street Rag Press, Alimentum and other journals. Keller has received the Joan Jakobson Award from the Wesleyan Writer’s Conference, a Pushcart nomination, the Betty Gabehart prize, and was a finalist for the 2013 Chicago Literary Guild Prose Award. She has been awarded a Fulbright and grants from the NEA.