“How are the cows doing, Erron?”
Daddy always said the same thing when he came into the barn, and Erron’s reply was always the same: “Great, Daddy, just great!”
Erron loved helping Daddy with the chores in the barn. Ever since he was little, Erron watched Daddy feed the cows, adjust the settings on the milking machine and guide the herd through the barn so that every cow had just the right amount of food and was milked at just the right time.
Erron liked to watch Daddy work the farm because Daddy was such a serious farmer. Daddy could roughly hoist a hay bale in each hand at the same time, or gently milk a cow by hand if it was scared of the milking machine. To Daddy, every cow mattered, like people. Daddy treated every cow with the same tenderness and care, no matter what.
Out in the barn, Erron and Daddy shared a world all their own, a world where Erron wanted everything to stay the same, forever–just him and Daddy, the way it had been ever since Erron’s mom went away. The barn was theirs, their own little world, a complete paradise, lacking nothing.
But sometimes, if the afternoon was getting late, Mose’s mom would slide silently in to the barn and wordlessly motion for Daddy to come in for dinner. Whenever she entered the barn, she only gestured towards Daddy, but her actions meant that Erron was expected to come, too. In her discomfort, Mose’s mom would slip out of the barn as quickly and as silently as she arrived. Erron could feel his muscles relax when she left the barn.
At other times, Erron could hear Mose’s mom calling Daddy’s name as she walked from the farmhouse to the barn to tell Daddy that dinner was ready. Daddy would always say, “we’ll be right in as soon as we’re finished, dear”. “We.” That’s just the way it used to be: Daddy and Erron together, just the two of them, ever since Erron could remember.
Erron tried his best to stand like Daddy, to lift like Daddy, and to talk to the cows in the same hushed and soothing whispers that Daddy used for every living thing on the farm: his garden, his herd, and his family. Erron knew that when he grew up, the whole farm would be his to look after, so he watched every move Daddy made to make sure the whole farm would get the same care from him.
Well, not maybe the whole farm, but all of it except for the part that Mose gets to keep, so about two thirds of what was there. Erron got more, because he was born first. Before Mose came along, though, Erron had counted the whole thing as his, and it bugged him that he had to give part of it to Mose, who didn’t ever do anything, even though Erron knew the whole thing really belonged to Daddy.
Mose was Erron’s little brother. Well, half-brother, really. After Erron’s mom went away, Daddy married Mose’s mom, and Mose showed up. Erron hated Mose.
Mose liked to play around the house and eat his mom’s rhubarb tarts while they were still hot, even before Erron knew that the tarts were ready. That way, Mose could eat as many as he wanted, then he could divide the rest in half so that Mose’s mom could see him sharing.
Mose didn’t even do any chores when he came to the barn. Daddy always said that Mose’s mom thought Mose was too little, and too delicate for the barn, but Daddy wanted Mose and Erron to learn to work the farm together. Erron hated the idea. He was happy that Mose’s mom kept him close to the house, even if Mose got to eat all the tarts. Maybe someday, Erron would have to share the barn with Mose, but right now, the barn was his. Well, his, and Daddy’s, of course.
Erron was proud that he worked with Daddy in the barn every day, caring for the cows before and after school and before dinner and homework. Even though Mose’s mom said he was ‘too little, too delicate,’ Mose thought the barn belonged to him, too. Sometimes, Mose would wander out to the barn and Daddy would whisk Mose up in his arms.
Then, without looking in Erron’s direction, Daddy would say, “Let’s take a break.” Then, Daddy would play tag with Mose in the hayloft, or play hide and seek with Mose in the garden if it was cool in the middle of the day, or push Mose on the barn swing in the same way that Daddy used to swing Erron when he was little. Erron never looked up when Daddy played with Mose. Usually, Erron would leave the barn and head out to the garden, where there was more work to do.
Sometimes, if Daddy and Mose played tag or started a gave of ‘hide and seek’, Mose would rush to the edge of the garden where Mose was digging, tag Erron, laugh, and run away, saying, “You’re it.” Daddy would laugh too. Erron hated that.
Erron flushed with embarrassment when Daddy laughed, so Erron never tagged Mose back. Erron just pretended to get back to work, pick up a mop or a shovel, and hoped that Daddy would notice how grown up he was, that Erron was long past playing silly games.
At moments like that, Daddy would curtly tell Erron to put down the tools and play with his brother, but Erron would keep working. “He’s NOT my brother,” Erron would whisper to himself, and he would continue to mop the barn, or toil on the soil at the edges of the garden until the sting of sweat dripped into his eyes, blurred his sight, and forced him to squint blindly at the dust.
One afternoon, when Erron and Daddy were working in the barn together, Mose’s mom ran into the barn all frantic, and told Daddy that Mose was missing somewhere and she didn’t know where. Daddy looked at Erron and said, “Erron, can you handle the cows for me?” And then Daddy ran off, without waiting for an answer.
Erron knew that this was his chance to show daddy that he was ready to be like daddy, so he swept out the barn, adjusted the computer on the milking station, increased the grain supply for the cattle feed, and lead each of the cattle into the machine in turn.
With the cattle back in the field, Erron was just mopping up the milking room floor when daddy came back into the barn. Erron straightened up, leaned on the mop, and looked around at all he had done to impress Daddy. Erron smiled and waited for Daddy to notice all of his hard work.
“Well,” Daddy began, “I’m certainly pleased to tell you that…” Erron waited to see what Daddy would notice first.
“Your brother has been found safe over at the Templeton farm”. Erron’s smile faded, and his face flushed red.
“How are the cows doing, Daddy?” Erron asked dryly.
“Oh, safe enough, I guess. I don’t know, really. I’ll check on them in the morning,” Daddy replied absentmindedly.
“Now,” Daddy intoned curtly, “it’s time for you to come into the house so we can have a family dinner together with your brother and your mom. Your mother found your brother safe, and it’s good to have him back home, so she’s made a special dinner so that the whole family can celebrate together.”
Erron gritted his teeth and rubbed at a smudge on the floor, refusing to look up, and Erron kept mopping as Daddy turned to go.
After Daddy disappeared through the door, Erron furtively looked up and winced at the feeling of sweat dripping from his brow. Looking into the emptiness where Daddy once stood, Erron whispered to himself, “I’ll be right in as soon as I’m finished, ‘Our’ Father.”