Night is settling over the farm, and my milking shift is almost up. I hunch my shoulders inside my dust-filmed jacket, dipping the tip of my nose below the collar to warm it momentarily before turning to the paddock and the few goats still awaiting their turn in the milk shed. I fill the feed buckets with molasses-sticky grain, unlatch all the headlocks, and then duck down the ramp to open the gate.
I count them as they hurtle past me—one, two, three, four—then slam the gate shut, pivot, and leap up after the goats onto the cement platform. Edging behind the last pair of haunches, I notice the shaggy hips, the honey-colored fur—and feel my stomach clench. Portia. I squeeze my eyes shut and inhale. You will not lose your temper, I instruct myself. Exhale. Then I open my eyes and swing myself down over the railing to the hay-strewn floor.
I grab the rubbery tubes of the milking machine and begin to work my way down the line. Shllup, Shllup. The first one’s in. Shllup, Shllup. Got the second one. Schll—CLANG!
I peer between the legs of the third goat and catch Portia’s slit-pupiled sideways glance. She’s knocked her already-empty grain bucket to the floor. You will not lose your temper, I tell myself again, and finish hooking goat number three to her milker. Then I retrieve Portia’s bucket.
By the time I get back around to her rear, she’s dancing, prancing her feet and shifting her hind legs back and forth, transforming her low-hanging udder into a moving target. I jab between her legs attempting to connect tube to teat, but she kicks my hands away. I grit my teeth. You will not lose your temper.
I pull myself up onto the platform, straddle her rippling girth, and reach for her udder from above. She darts. I reach again. She kicks at the tubing. Tears prick my eyes. You will not cry. I reach once again. This time, she bucks, jolting me backwards.
“Stop. It!” I grunt. Portia knocks her bucket to the floor with another tremendous clang.
I feel my shoulder tense, my arm rise, the whoosh of air as it falls, the sting of my palm against her flank. The sound of the slap reverberates off the cement.
I look up. Gail is standing in the doorway. Gail, my boss. Gail, who kisses the doelings goodnight, shoots coyotes from her porch, and names all her goats after female literary figures—Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Shakespeare’s leading ladies (because I haven’t read “The Merchant of Venice,” I assume that Portia is named for the ugly stepsister in “Cinderella,” instead). Gail holds her hands up like a traffic cop, eyebrows arcing to meet the fringe of her disheveled crop of grey hair.
The shame washes over me in a hot wave. “I—I’m sorry,” I stammer, frozen in my straddle position, Portia still skittering beneath me. “I’m sorry.”
I arrived at Caromont Farm utterly unprepared for what I had gotten myself into. Mine was an urban childhood. I knew how to jaywalk, coordinate dinner reservations for eight, and navigate the metro system with my eyes shut. I could write essays and speak in public and schmooze with the parents of my prep-school friends. I was confident. I thought I knew a lot of things.
The September after I graduated from high school, I moved from my family’s brick Cape Cod in the outskirts of Washington, DC to a 1970s-era KountryAire trailer on Gail’s property in Esmont, Virginia. Wall-to-wall shag carpeting, purple paint job, and a remnant disco ball in the closet. No running water. I cleaned the dead crickets out of the nonfunctional sink, unpacked my suitcase, and headed to the barn to learn how to milk.
My days on the farm go like this:
Wake up. Make coffee, toast toast, trek bleary-eyed and still chewing up to the dairy. Set up the milking shed, strap on my headlamp. Call in the goats from the still-dark woods. Milk the forty animals as light gradually saturates the pines and leaks into the shed between the cracks in the siding. Filter the milk and set it to chill. Scrub everything down.
Drink my second cup of coffee. Feed the dogs, the pigs, and the cow in the lower field. Muck out the barn and the paddock. Cart wheelbarrows full of wet hay to the compost heaps. Pause to catch my breath and look out over the hill sloping down to the creek, the kids in their pasture, the trees stained at the edges with orange and yellow, the clean morning sunshine breaking over it all.
Change into clean clothes. Drain yesterday’s cheese. Make lunch and eat it in the office while checking my email on the only computer. Drink my third cup of coffee. Fill the pasteurizer with milk, wash cheese molds for a couple of hours, set the dairy timer for sixteen hours—this is when the chèvre will be ready to drain tomorrow. Drink my fourth cup of coffee. Package cheese for markets and delivery.
Feed the animals. Say hello to the evening milker, shower, change into clean clothes, call home.
Shuffle down the hill, up the farmhouse steps, past the crowded porch (muck boots, balls of twine, broken plastic crates, a half-empty bag of feed, large terra-cotta planters of thyme and rosemary) and into the kitchen. Set the table with earthenware plates and cloth napkins. Pour glasses of cider like champagne. Eat—lemon-roasted chicken with carrots and onions; an enormous salad of roasted vegetables topped with crumbled chèvre; second helpings for dessert—thrown together by Gail, former chef, in thirty minutes at the end of a fourteen-hour workday.
Trudge back to the trailer. Climb into bed. Open the tattered copy of My Antonía I brought from home.
Fall asleep, book in hand.
I wasn’t strong enough—to sling hay bales into the loft; to hoist a five-gallon bucket of whey in each hand and make it from the dairy to the pigpen; to tug a determined goat away from the tantalizing bellows of our stud, P. Nut Butter, and back to the milk shed. I wasn’t old enough—to know which tasks to prioritize; to communicate my needs to my boss; to build true friendships with the people I worked with and met, so many of them twenty or thirty years my senior. I wasn’t tough enough—to face the exhaustion; to face the loneliness; to face the constant evidence of my incompetence. Everything was hard, and everything ached. Desperately, I wanted to quit. But quitting would only confirm my inadequacy, so I stayed.
Tuesdays are my day off, and the choice between catching up on sleep and relieving my exhaustion, or driving into town and relieving my isolation, is always brutal. Today I choose the latter.
In order to get anywhere it takes at least an hour. Esmont is barely a town, tiny and remote. The roads are narrow and steep, winding up over ridges and down through hollows, along the fenced lawns of manicured estates and past mobile homes long-since immobilized with add-on porches where people sip beer in lawn chairs and big dogs pant in the road.
One hand on the gearshift and the other on the wheel, third coffee of the day clutched between my knees, I try to keep myself from falling asleep at the wheel by memorizing the landscape out the window. Here is the ridge with the black, woolly cows. Here is the dip in the road that fills with mist on damp nights. Here is the gas station with the sign out front advertizing today’s special: chicken gizzards. Here is the stretch of highway where the trees hang over the road like a canopy. Here is the part where the canopy opens out and suddenly I see the layered ridges across the valley, blue and hazy and rumpled like fabric.
In Charlottesville, I park the turquoise Ford pickup on a side street and walk down the hill to the movie theater. Inside, the light is dim. I buy a ticket to “Never Let Me Go” from a girl wearing cat-eye glasses and red lipstick, then make my way to a seat in the second-to-last row. Three older ladies file into the row in front of me. We are the only ones in the theater.
The opening sequence has barely finished, and I am already in tears. It’s a sad movie, but this is something different—a release. They run down my cheeks in hot streaks, funneling along my nose to pool in the divots beside my nostrils. The ladies in front of me can’t hear well, and keep shout-whispering “WHAT?” into each other’s ears. They don’t notice me. Silently, I cry through the entire movie. It feels so good to cry for a reason other than frustration. To cry about something other than myself.
By the time I get back to Esmont, dusk is coming on, the light fading away, shadows settling thickly into the pines. I turn left off of Old Green Mountain Road onto the long driveway. Climbing out of the truck, I catch sight of Gail and Nelson crouched over by the fence. Nelson is one of our herd dogs, white coat dyed red by the Virginia clay. He sleeps under my trailer every night.
“Look at Nelson’s trick!” Gail exclaims. “Sing, Nelly,” she commands, tilting her head back and puckering her lips into an O.
“Awooooo,” she howls. “Awooooooooo!”
Nelson looks up at her, swishes his tail, and wines.
“Come on, Nelly—awoooo!” Gail encourages. Nelson spins in a circle, and then lifts his snout toward the chill velvet sky. He opens his mouth.
“Wooo, woo, awooooooo!”
I tilt my head back, too. The stars are beginning to come out—diamonds on velvet. Hard and bright and cold and clear. Tomorrow, I will start moving at 5 a.m. and not stop until the day sinks back into its velvet robe. But right now, I can pause. I can be still. I close my eyes and listen to Nelson sing.
Sophie Mendelson is still farming, and still trying to get back to the Virginia Blue Ridge. Send her an email email@example.com.