WOLF CREEK WINDS like a snake through the woods and under the rusty iron bridge marking the entrance to our farm. Fallen trees crisscross the shallow creek, and the smell of the muddy bank still fills the air. To us as children, this spot was the end of civilization, the land transitioning from cultivated space to the untamed wilds of the swamp—a place of beauty but romanticized danger as well. And here, on the wooded hillside facing this world of in between, not quite real and not quite fantasy, we buried favorite animals and marked their graves with handmade wooden crosses bearing their names.
The hillside faced east toward the rising sun, as is traditional for cemeteries, and it was surrounded by an aura of peace. The land was covered in a wild orchard grass that grew twelve inches high each spring yet remained delicate and wispy—soft to walk through. We planted Lamiastrum, or archangel, which eventually intermixed with the witch hazel thickets planted by the frontiersmen before us. Down closer to the marsh were buttercups, marsh marigold, and skunkweed, and though the soil where we dug the graves was sandy, it was littered with small, round stones, the product of eons of erosion and the force of floodwaters.
Most of us children had been to funerals and knew the rhythm and order, so we tried in childlike ways to mimic them. We chose plots for our small friends with care, laying them to rest next to other past pets we thought they might have liked to play with. The first small coffins were shoe boxes lined with fabric or even wallpaper samples from the big books Father bought at auctions for us girls to use in our homemade dollhouses. By the time we youngest siblings came around, Mother had joined in the rituals and showed us how to line the small boxes with wildflowers—tiny and delicate or more robust, but each plant chosen with care.
In the weeks after a funeral, the grave would cave in as the small cardboard coffins collapsed under the weight of the earth. As with most children’s projects, the simply painted names would soon fade. Over time the crosses fell down, brush grew over the sites, and the graves were forgotten by some.
But not by me. I would sit in the grass on the hillside, gaze fixed on the plots for what felt like hours, saddened by the
effect of time on both my memory and on the graves themselves. Each animal I got to know on the farm had their own personality quirks; in fact, they weren’t that different from people, just less appreciated. Less respected. I felt they needed an advocate or at least someone to mourn them when they were gone. Every creature deserved acknowledgment, I thought, and to not even receive that was the saddest thing I could imagine.
I would often revisit the pets I missed most to talk to them, to make sure they knew I remembered our friendship. I would recite details of each lost pet and recall our most treasured memories each time I walked between the graves—spoke them repetitively, like a prayer. And then I would smile at the flowers that sprang up over the graves as our beloved pets passed on their life, back into the farm and the forest forever.
That thought made the graveyard a place of quiet comfort to me, and there was something to be said for solitude when growing up with nine siblings and the occasional foster child. Mother had one sibling, and she envied my father his family of sixteen; she wanted the same experience for her children. And so my parents had eleven children—ten surviving—and I was the next to youngest. Mother had so many of us that she eventually stopped going to the hospital to give birth. I like to think that being born on the farm is the reason I’ve always felt tied to it and to the life residing there.
There is a unique dynamic between children of a large family, one that is hard to understand. My older siblings had a parentlike relationship with us younger kids, but we also recognized the close bonds between siblings near each other in age. We were not merely friends and confidants; we had a built-in drive to protect the younger brother or sister next in line, knowing well how in a large family they could otherwise be overlooked in times of high commotion. This sense of responsibility matured us early, and the bonds it created have stayed with us long after our years on the farm. Yet despite our closeness, when the joyful bustle of a large family became too much, we would seek refuge in the outdoors, either privately or in the company of our nearest sibling.
The solitude of the woods was medicinal for me. I craved these private pilgrimages into the ever-changing forest, and I knew my siblings felt the same way. We each had our secret territories extending to the furthest corners of the eighty-four-acre property. Paul had “Paul’s Place” across the road, reached by passing through the swamp, along some paths and log bridges lined with marsh marigolds and trillium, and all the way down to a secluded point frequented by great blue herons and turtles. Maria had a cluster of pine trees that formed a sort of teepee, back behind the furthest field. My hideaway was a grove of trees on an island in the middle of a shallow, rocky stream down a horse-made trail from when the loggers came with their Clydesdales and ponies. I enjoyed walking in the cool stream and feeling the pebbles under my feet. It reminded me of a place pixies would surely live.
From an early age, I spent a lot of time freely exploring the woods, with no one wondering where I was—one of the benefits of being a youngest child. But there were dangerous territories that frightened me, and I avoided them when alone. If ever I needed to pass nearby, I felt eyes on me from out of the shadows and made sure I never fully turned my back to them. The little shack constructed of rotting, reused boards and pieces of scrap metal was the perfect hiding place for bears or evil wizards, I thought. The deep swamp between the two back fields was a wonderful place to collect treasures like hundred-year-old bottles, but it was also gloomy and foreboding. The century of farmers before us had dumped discarded equipment alongside the fields they cut out of the forest, and nature had eaten at the piles of antique junk. Trees grew through ancient tractor parts, creating rusty sculptures, half-living, half-metal. Twisted metal and glass became mosaics interspersed with green moss and red leaves. Cow skulls, too, were sprinkled throughout the mud, especially the lower part of the swamp to the left, said to be sinking sand.
Even with my siblings I was cautious in these places, always keeping an eye out for broken bits of spiked fence wire, old traps that trespassing hunters had left, and spots of moss-covered ground that might have concealed hidden streams or sinking sand. Once my shoelaces tangled around barbed wire, and I was terrified I would be stuck there forever—my siblings had already run into the next field and out of sight. I was able to free myself, but only after calming down.
I never quite shook the fear that I would be left behind, left alone. As the baby girl of the family, I often struggled to keep up; and along with my shorter legs and less developed muscles, I had a worsening spinal distortion that made it more and more uncomfortable to run. The sun made me lethargic and lightheaded too, symptoms of a disorder not uncommon ro redheads like myself, though I would not receive a diagnosis or explanation for that or my back pain until my teens. But as a child I didn’t understand why I fell behind so easily on our farm adventures, and for the eternity of those few panicked moments alone, I would imagine myself as one of the animals my neighbors trapped in the winter, my foot caught in a snare made tighter by my struggling.
Despite my fears, I found the farm magical, a sanctuary, a place no one else could fully comprehend and that outsiders rarely entered. Butterflies surrounded us, drunk off my mother’s acres of beautiful flowers. Every night lightning bugs floated gracefully through the fields like fairies. Matching black-and-white-spotted bunnies and mice littered the landscape, as though the line between domesticated pets and woodland creatures had blurred. Cities of birds communed at the feeders, their songs thankful and like music.
During the evening, after the work was done, Mother—a classically trained pianist—would sit at the piano playing Beethoven or Chopin or an old German folk song passed down from her grandparents, and Father often plugged in a guitar amp as they sang in perfect harmony to an old gospel song or hymn. It was better than any radio station or recording, this symphony of farm and family sounds that combined and changed as you moved around the house and yard: the spring peeper frogs in the background, laughing kids and barking dogs circling outside, the slightly out-of-tune piano from the heart of the house, and my parents and siblings joining in with harmonies and then dropping back to quiet conversation so as not to ruin the effect.
The true magic of the farm was in the land. I vividly remember the sweet, damp scent of the ground as it thawed every spring. Sure, the winter had its own smells: crisp snow and the smoke of the wood burner that heated the farmhouse. But the earth was in our blood, or close to it. There is a theory that microbes in the soil can cause your brain to produce chemicals that make you feel happy and content; my brother Joel told me it ensures farmers return to the land to cultivate it, a way for nature to keep its hold. Perhaps this explains why nothing could replace the sensation of bare feet and hands in the dirt. Even the landmines of thawed dog and cat poop weren’t a strong enough deterrent to keep us from reconnecting to the soft spring turf. The land was like another family member that knew everything that had happened there and could understand and comfort like no one else. The farm was in us, and Wolf Creek ran through our veins like blood.
The great melting pot of our farm life was the Amish-built barn, a time-weathered mother personality of warmth, protection, and nourishment. It had existed for a hundred years before we arrived on the farm, and smelled of musty hay and the dust that glimmered in the sunbeams filtering through chinks in the roof and walls. Along the perimeter were pens for larger animals like pigs, chickens, and goats. In smaller pens that Father built, we kept chicks, doves, and rabbits, usually 4-H projects for us kids. Ducks and geese came in and out of the barn at will, depending on the weather.
And the cats! Cats perched everywhere, tending to their mousing duties or lazing about. The hay was a haven for cats, and in the winter the barn would host huge piles of cats wrapped around each other like a quilt of orange, tabby, black, and calico. The cats almost always looked a bit under the weather, with their messy eyes, runny noses, and all-around scraggliness—much like me, their little farm girl counterpart. I even had a constant chapped, runny nose, as if I too had a cold year-round. But healthy or sick, they greeted me with excitement and enthusiastic purring, and every time I walked into the barn, my heart surged at the thought of discovering a new life: a tiny kitten or perhaps even a brand-new stray that had found shelter in the hay and was anxious to see a friendly face. My creatures were the perfect remedy anytime I felt down or lonely, and in return I did my best to care for them as pets and friends.
Excerpted from Shoebox Funeral: Stories From Wolf Creek. Copyright © 2017 Elisabeth Voltz. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Animal Media Group.