Jan Corey Arnett

The Christmas Penny Barn

Jan Corey Arnett - The Barn Lady

The Christmas Penny Barn


Farming has its routines. At milking time, cattle plod along beaten paths to the barn. The farmer puts grain in the mangers, opens the door and the cattle come in. Each cow moves to her own stall, buries her muzzle in the ground feed, and the process begins. Every morning. Every night. All year. Christmas, too.

But since his wife died and their only son was sent to Vietnam, nothing seemed the same to Floyd, though chores still had to be done. Gray, the barn cat; Bobby, the farm dog, and a dozen Guernsey cows were about all the company Floyd had. Conversations were pretty much one-sided.

"Look at it blowin' out there," Floyd said to his companions, lowering his arthritic frame onto a wooden bench behind the cows. "You girls can be glad you're stayin' in the barn tonight. Helluva Christmas.'" Gray leaped onto Floyd's lap for a backrub, surprisingly gentle for the man's gnarly old fingers. "Ah-yup, gonna be a dandy storm."

Floyd rested against the wall and sighed deeply. The pressure in his chest was worse than it had been earlier in the day.

Body heat from the dozen round-bellied cows took the chill off the basement of the small barn. A barn like that warms easily in the winter and stays cool in the summer. Its west stone wall was built into a hill. Cut fieldstone formed the north and south foundation walls. Only the east wall was wood, securely nailed to pegged, mortise and tenon posts and beams set on a solid sill plate.

Floyd Collier was the fifth farmer to work the land and tend cattle on what had begun in 1837 as the Miller homestead. The story went that Miller had befriended local Native Americans. He had come not with an air of superiority but with a heart of humility, willing to learn from those who knew every hill and hollow, woodlot and wetland. Never once had he challenged their spiritual beliefs or way of life. From them, he learned to thank the land as he planted and harvested his crops.

"Come on," Floyd said nudging the cat from his lap, "Let's go upstairs and put down some extra hay for the girls. It's Christmas. They deserve a treat. Then I've got to get to the house. I ain't feelin' so good."

Gray and Bobby bounded up the steep steps to the main floor of the barn ahead of Floyd. "Meow," the cat sang as Floyd switched on lights mounted to hand-hewn posts. The old man ran his hands along a post, bearing the adz marks of the builder. "You're a fine barn," he said, "Ah-yup. A mighty fine barn. Where would I have been without you all these years?"

Thoughts of the barn stirred the old farmer's memories. He sank wearily into a mound of loose hay and pulled from his pocket, a threadbare handkerchief holding a single penny. Gray nestled into his lap. Bobby curled up by his side, as if knowing they would be his only audience for a Christmas Eve story.

"See this penny?" Floyd began. "My father gave me this penny in 1925 when he turned the farm over to me." He cra-dled the coin reverently in the palm of his hand. "My father told me this penny was special because on the day this barn was completed in 1889, the penny was blessed and given to the homesteader's son."

Gray purred, rubbing his whiskered cheek against the sleeve of Floyd's tattered jacket. The farmer's voice was weak but soothing.

Floyd gazed lovingly at his animal friends. "You're all I got this Christmas Eve but some day, on Christmas, this penny will belong to my An..."

But the old farmer never finished his sentence. His shoulders slumped, the handkerchief and penny slipped from his hand, and, as if he had simply fallen asleep on the bed of hay, he was gone.

It was there on the hay in the center of the mow floor that a neighbor found the farmer late that Christmas Eve, his friends still by his side. He'd seen lights on in the barn long after chores should have been done, an almost certain sign that something was amiss.

Floyd's son Andrew returned home to tend to matters. "Are you interested in buying the farm?" he asked the neighbor, after Floyd had been laid to rest. "I'd make you a good deal"

"Naw," the neighbor shook his head. "Farmin's changin', and I'm prob'ly gonna get out soon. But the Jackman boy? Now, he might be interested."

The younger farmer was eager to work the land. "I'll take care of your dad's cat and dog too," he offered. "Floyd was a good man."

Without cattle to warm it or someone to maintain it, a barn suffers. Raccoons moved in upstairs. Saplings began to take root near the foundation. As 1970 became 1980, saplings became tall trees with cruel branches gnawing at the shingled roof.

Leasing the land worked well for Andrew, who, after his tour of duty, went into banking. Now and then he stopped by, but farming had never been in his blood. The home place had no hold on him, surely not the kind of hold that it had on a complete stranger, a 30-something woman who had moved in just across the 80 acres in the autumn of 1989. For her, the barn stirred fond memories.

Horseback riding one afternoon, she spotted Jackman cultivating a field. When his tractor approached, she waved, urging her horse into a canter.

"Hello!" she called out as the tractor came to a stop. "Would it be all right if I rode along the edge of your fields and visited your barn? I promise to stay off the crops," she grinned. "I grew up on a farm„."

"Sure," Jackman said, tipping his hat. "Thanks for asking first!'

Sue set off along the fence line. The vacant barnyard was lush with grass, rich from all the years cattle had lingered there. She let her horse graze while she stepped into the barn's basement, passing lonely stalls where Floyd's cattle had been milked and the bench where he had rested. Cobwebs hung thick and a critter scurried for cover as she made her way to the whitewashed stairs and climbed carefully to the main floor.

The trapdoor was latched open, making it easy for Sue to climb onto the main floor of the barn. Slender shafts of golden light were everywhere; a million miniature spotlights.

She was instantly, completely captivated. Her great grandfather had built the barn on her family farm, bigger, but no more beautiful than this one. Sue stood transfixed, in the center of the barn, near a mound of dusty hay, studying the beauty of the posts and beams, bracing and boards.

"Grand old barn, you are a thing of beauty," she whispered aloud, bending to pick up a faded handkerchief lying on the hay. "There is spirit here. I feel it!'

By the time Sue returned to her horse, Jackman had stopped at the back of the barn. -You have a wonderful barn," she said.

"It's not mine," he replied. "I just lease the land. Nobody's used the barn since around 1970!'

"It's okay though, if I come here?" Sue asked.

"Sure," Jack nodded. "Just be careful."

As often as she could, Sue visited the barn, sometimes spending Sunday mornings there, her pew, the mound of hay in the center of a sunlight-strewn sanctuary.

"I wish I knew your story, dear barn," she said, wistfully. "Why do I feel such peace here?"

Years passed. Jackman farmed the fields and trees grew around the old barn. Shingles blew off, boards loosened, a crack opened in the foundation. Sue took anxious note of every change.

On a crisp Christmas Eve day, 1998, she spotted someone working near the south end of the barn. He had felled a walnut tree, the branches of which had been tearing at the barn.

Sue eagerly tromped through the snow, expecting to find Jackman. But the man who greeted her was Floyd's son, Andrew.

"Getting ready to repair the barn?" she asked hopefully.

"That old thing?" he fairly spat. "I don't have any use for it. ...don't want it"

Her words came in a rush. "May I have it?"

The man looked at her in disbelief. "You want that thing? The barn?"

"Yes I do!"

"It's yours and all the junk in it!" Just like that, Sue owned a barn. And on Christmas Eve no less.

"Just what are you going to do with an old barn?" Sue's husband asked that evening, not sure what to make of her jubilant news.

"I don't know yet!'

"And where are we going to get the money to save a barn?" he pressed.

"I don't know... but we will"

Sue spent more time than ever in the barn, always drawn to the same place in the center of the haymow as if guided by an unseen force. "There is something about you, my friend," she would say aloud to the barn. "You are lifetimes and longings. You are labor but you are also love!'

Bit by bit, Sue cleaned clutter and old hay out of the barn, all the while mulling over ideas for what new life her old barn might enjoy. Then, one day, broom in hand, a vision leaped into mind. She could see it - a kitchen in this corner, the living room over there, and stairs leading to a loft studio! They could move the barn and make it their home!

At first her husband greeted her proposal with skepticism. "You want to live where?"

But before long he was sketching floor plans, working in harmony with the placement of the posts and beams, girts and purlins of the barn's solid frame.

Time was taking its toll. Sue's beloved barn was in trouble. Water was coming in at a corner of the roof. The foundation was shifting. A vandal had kicked out boards and was leaving suspicious litter. Could they keep the barn safe until they could dismantle and move it?

"You have got to stand strong for another winter," she whispered to the barn visiting it on Christmas Eve, a full five years to the day since the barn became hers and one hundred years since it was built.

Sue wrapped her left arm around a hand-hewn post and laid her head against it as if nestling to the shoulder of a friend. Gently she laid her free hand on the same place that Floyd Collier had touched so lovingly the last night of his life.

As the afternoon light shifted, sun-light poured through the open door. A coppery glint on the floor boards caught her eye. Sue knelt to find a single penny lying in a slight impression in a board as if cradled in the hollow of a hand. How could she have missed it until now?

She stood, tucking the penny in the pocket of her jeans. "Thank you for the Christmas present," she said aloud to the old barn as she turned to leave. "Stand strong!'

Later, Sue handed the penny to her husband. "Look at what I found in my barn today. Money to save it!"

"Nice start," he said, with a chuckle, reaching for a magnifying glass, "One penny!'

Long fascinated with coins, he studied the coin for what seemed an eternity, then, slowly pressed it into his wife's hands, wrapping his around hers as he did.

"Sue" he said, "This is no ordinary penny. It is one of the rarest pennies ever made dating to the late 1800s. You said there was something special about that old barn, well, it has just given you a penny that can save it!'

Somewhere, an old farmer smiled. "Merry Christmas, my answered prayer," he whispered to the woman who loved his barn. "Merry Christmas!

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