Old Swayback

The men said it was time to tear down the old barn. The boys were afraid this was coming. For years an old mare named Swayback moped around the farm. When she died, the men started calling the old barn Swayback. This was not a good sign.

The boys did not like the idea of tearing down the old barn. It had a rope in the haymow where you could swing from the ladder on one side all the way across to the other side. It had two rusty cupolas that you could climb into and see as far as people could see from airplanes. It had loose-board traps the boys had fixed to trip any bad person who came snooping around. It had pigeons and sparrows and sometimes a barn owl. Stray cats lived in the old barn. Skunks, badgers, or raccoons might stop by to spend the night. You name it: the old barn was a hotel where unwanted critters could feel safe. When the boys were unwanted critters, it was the one place where they could feel safe too. Even with all the beams of light shining through the cracks and holes, the old barn was a cozy place. It had a good feel to it, and a good smell. It smelled like the chaff that fell from their grandfather's overall pockets. The boys asked the men not to bulldoze down the old barn and to please not call it Swayback.

The grownups told a story about how an old barn somewhere went down in a big cough of dust and killed twenty pigs and a Shetland pony. The boys knew what this story was supposed to do: it was supposed to get them ready for the end of the old barn.

The men argued that Swayback the old horse had lived 37 years and that Swayback the barn was over 100. It had been time for the Swayback mare to go, and now it was time for the Swayback barn to go.

The boys argued that you couldn't figure barn years in horse years. They just weren't the same. Still, the boys did have to admit that the roof of the old barn sagged like a hammock and almost looked worse than the old mare's back before she died, and they did have to admit that the old barn's joints moaned and creaked when they ran across the haymow floor. They even had to admit that the barn's gray shingles were flaking off the way hair from the Swayback mare had started to flake off. Worst of all, they had to admit that the old barn's ribs looked like the ribs of the Swayback mare the last month before she died.

At least nobody has to push the barn to get it to stand up in the morning, said one of the boys.

Everybody remembered what that meant. The boys had all helped push the old mare to her feet in the last two weeks of her life. Together they'd reach down and lift the bony body, then steady her while she took a drink of water.

All right, all right, said one of the men. We'll let the old barn stand and see if it can make it through the winter without falling down on itself. The men built a fence around the old Swayback barn. This would keep the cattle and pigs out. Of course, it didn't keep the birds and critters out. It didn't keep the boys out.

Winter came and the snow piled up. The windows of the old barn stared out like dark eyeholes under a white skull. But something in the old barn kept breathing, and the snow on its swayback roof started melting. The melting snow turned into a heavy beard of icicles, making the swayback roof stoop even more. The men kept watching.

She's going to go down any second now, they said. That ice is heavy.

The old barn didn't go anywhere.

Spring came and the old barn was still there. The men started talking about the bulldozer.

You can't bulldoze the old barn, said one of the boys. There are baby sparrows in a nest under the eaves.

And look at all those swallows that are flying back. Their nests are right where they left them last fall.

And a little barn swallow just moved in, said another one of the boys. You could hear it whooing last night.

And one of the stray cats had kittens. Four of them, said another one of the boys. Their eyes aren't even open yet.

There's no way this old Swayback can stand for another year, said one of the men.

Barn years aren't horse years, said one of the boys.