Mr. Nolan gutted trout on the workbench. Sawdust freckled their skin. He placed the fillets on butter-drubbed foil, sprinkled pepper, onion powder, and salt, and then spread the wrapped fillets across the grill. Colin and I liked to watch his father prepare the trout but hated watching him cook. He told the same story about snagging his line on the roof of a sunken shanty in Lake Wollport. Or sometimes he yelled at us for getting too close to the snapping charcoal.
He told us to get plates from the kitchen. Blue plates. Second drawer to the left of the sink. We took the long route so we could pass the barn. I pulled on the door but the wood shook. A copper padlock hung from the latch.
“Why’s this locked?”
“The nest.” Colin led me along the side. I asked if his father could see but he said no. “He’s focused on the trout. They burn fast.”
“Then we don’t have much time, right?”
“Not much.” He stopped in front of a window, the sill half a foot above his forehead. He knelt and rummaged through grass clippings clumped against the planks and pulled a red-handled screwdriver from the pile. He dragged over an old tire, propped open the window, and we climbed inside. A pitchfork leaned against the haymow. Tack lined the walls. The attached stable was empty and locked. In January, during an elk hunt, the Nolan’s Appaloosa was attacked by wolves and was lost.
We followed molted feathers toward a corner of the barn. A barn swallow’s coffee-colored, cup-shaped nest sat in the rafters. Small, sloped heads of nestlings rose and fell above the edge of the nest.
I looked back at the locked door. “How’d they get in?”
Colin pointed toward the left end of the barn. “Dad made a hole in the gable.” Colin leaned a ladder against the wall. “I want to look.” His step on the lowest rung was loud but a second sound caught our attention. The lock clanked, the barn door opened. Mr. Nolan stood in the opening. His form took away our light.
Mr. Nolan ate all of the trout. He drank bronze-colored beer brewed by the Clements down by Canyon Pond. He even dribbled a bit of the drink along the browned fillets. He made us eat mashed corn, potato chowder, and bread. He said that was the kind of food old-time farmers ate, and it would get us ready for the rest of the day.
I looked at Colin. Rest of the day? We had plans. We’d found an untouched vein of Penn Creek. Willow branches swept low and shaded the shallow bottom but I could still sneak a clean cast. After Colin finished his chores we’d gone there before dusk and found a johnboat, hull stuck in the shore. Splintered oars staked in the mud. Catfish darted around the curved bottom. One snapped our line. I was ready to go back.
“New plans,” Mr. Nolan wiped his hands on his pants.
I never saw Mr. Nolan hit Colin, but his son moved with that fear. He merely put Colin to work, and the hours of labor were enough consequence. Back when they had the Appaloosa Mr. Nolan made Colin walk behind the tractor and inspect the shorn grass for holes in the ground where the horse could break an ankle. Now he made Colin sand and stain the long fence that curled around the empty paddock.
After he stacked plates in the sink, Mr. Nolan walked us to the Wyandotte coop. He handed us pitchforks and rakes and pointed to the straw bales. “Clear out the old mess and spread the fresh straw. Don’t bother the chickens.”
Colin looked relieved. He speared the pitchfork into the bale, shook, and lifted a clump. “This isn’t bad. Just don’t let them bite you.”
I never knew when to believe Colin. Sometimes his claims were ridiculous, like when he said worm fences were invented by a drunk farmer who couldn’t keep his posts straight. Others were possible, like how his father cried when he found swallow nestlings dead on the barn floor. Supposedly male swallows sometimes attacked nestlings out of envy. I hate when people guessed the intentions of fish or birds, but Colin made it sound real enough.
The chickens scattered when we entered, their yellow steps lifting the straw like a soft wind. They shifted their necks with each cluck. Their rose combs looked like small tongues. I kept the rake low in case Colin’s warning was correct.
We finished the job in no time. When Mr. Nolan walked out of the barn Colin stuck the pitchfork back into the bale. “Don’t make it look like we’re done.” He nodded toward his father, who offered a slow wave before starting the tractor. Colin said his father went into the barn to make sure we didn’t mess with the swallows. He said his father typically checked on them twice a day. Morning, and again before dusk.
“Sounds like they’re his babies.” I spread and rustled the straw. A Wyandotte hopped near the teeth and I pulled the rake back.
“I guess.” Colin leaned down the pitchfork. “Look.” Two swallows sprang from a willow and glided toward the barn’s roof. They twittered while scuttling along the shingles. After a minute they swooped overhead, and although I’d seen them a thousand times before, that time I noticed them new, their forked, cream-spotted tails shuttering in the air. I watched the pair disappear into another willow, hoping they’d come back out.
At least Mr. Nolan waded rivers and fished in the current. My own father never stepped foot in the water. He bowfished from shore and let the carp drip dry before he touched them. Mr. Nolan could do whatever he wanted with those swallows. I could hate a person and still like how he fished.
Colin missed a few weeks of school in May. First I heard he was sick. Then that his father sold the farm and moved to the coast. I learned the truth from Colin’s own mouth: the Wyandottes had gotten Marek’s disease. The chickens weren’t as much a source of money as they were of pride. Colin told me how his father showed him the bleached whites of their eyes, the blued pupils. They died within a week. Mr. Nolan locked the coop.
When I finally went back to the farm Colin was fixing a paddock rail. We talked about the senior who got busted driving drunk near the ridge, the teacher who set a stack of papers on fire in the bed of his truck and sped down the county road, the windblown embers falling like snow. Colin claimed his cousin won the half-mile at sectionals in 1:53. That he’d gone to Peen Creek and saw a muskie as long as his arm flopping in that johnboat. And then Colin told me his father went into the barn and found that the nestlings had been attacked again. He walked outside and pointed his rifle at one swallow that dipped across the paddock. He followed it and primed his elbow, as if he was going to take it down. Colin mimicked the motion, his outstretched hand tracing a line across the horizon.
“How’d he know it was the one?”
Colin didn’t know. I helped him finish the rail and then we watched Mr. Nolan on the tractor, clunking along the hard-worn lines of dirt and sparse grass. Behind him a swallow stooped over the wobbling blades before rolling away. Mr. Nolan’s eyes followed it as if he heard the bird cut through the sky. I wondered if he’d finally unlock the barn.
Nick Ripatrazone is the author of two books of poetry, Oblations and This is Not About Birds (Gold Wake Press 2012), a forthcoming book of criticism, The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature (Cascade Books 2013), and a novella, This Darksome Burn (firthFORTH Books 2013). He graduated from the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark, where he was a Fiction Fellow. Visit www.nickripatrazone.com.