In a Montana Hayfield One Summer. by Abby Ripley

Standing in the field early in the haying season
Filling my lungs with the musty, dusty, earthy
Smell of drying alfalfa
Is a childhood memory alive within me today.

Each summer the realization of the hard work
That lay before me was redeemed by the first
Gulp of warm air I inhaled
That infused every cell in my body and brain.

Fieldwork also brought beauty to my eyes
Making windrows of turned hay in the meadows
Sitting on a hay rake,
Tripping the tines in perfectly measured intervals.

It was a jarring ride, like the road into the ranch
Sitting on a cast iron seat too high for my legs
Relying on the tripping lever
To keep me from falling off and being shamed.

Dad pulled the rake with our orange Case tractor
At high throttle that forced my attention
And created stress and fatigue
He wanted to be done with it before he started.

He was a rancher, preferring a horse to a machine
But the winters were harsh, and hay was needed
To feed the livestock
So we sweat under the scorching sun of August.

After a few seasons I grew up, earned my Dad’s trust
And graduated to the tractor so he could mow,
Using a gray squat McCormick
I worked alone, pulling a rope tied to the rake’s tripper.

Making rows was trickier now, my timing not exact
It took me longer but soon the rows were parallel
Perfectly parallel and pleasing
I took pride in my machinery skill, in my work of art.

At day’s end I viewed my dust-furry arms and legs
As an honor badge, and showed them off to my sisters
Who ran from me
Repelled by their older sister who worked like a man.

I took care of my “field horse” and when it ran hot
I cooled it off with a coffee can of irrigation water
When I got hot
I drank from a striped flannel-covered canteen.

The hay rake was exchanged for a buckrake
Its wooden teeth extending out in front
So I could run up the rows
And bunch the hay into miniature stacks.

Each mound of hay was loaded onto the teeth
Of a weathered, gray wooden haystacker
Which my mother raised
By a jeep with a steel-wire cable attached.

It was the last day of a good three-week’s work
My father had stacked the hay singlehandedly
We were anxious to be done
After another lunch of Velveeta-Spam sandwiches.

I pulled out the throttle and attacked the rows
A tow-headed twelve-year-old without a hat,
Rushing along toward fate
By putting together the largest and last load.

I balanced it beautifully on the stacker head
My father yelled down to me to take it off
I saw no reason to do it
Pretending I hadn’t heard him, killed the motor.

When mother had it halfway up: crrraaacckkkk
“Stop. You dumb sons-of-bitches,” he yelled
I felt stupid and sick
“Get down and pitch off every blade of hay.”

I didn’t move quickly enough. Down he slid
Running at me with doubled-up fists that
Struck me in the face
On the ground he put his hands around my throat.

I felt my air being choked off when above his head
I saw my mother swing a pitchfork handle
And the blood went flying
“You’ll kill her,” she screamed and stood back in shock.

She had cold-cocked him. Without a word and
Blood spilling down his face onto his shirt collar
He walked to the shade of the stack
Mother unhooked the jeep, and we drove away.

She said loudly, “Let him cool off and think about it.”
We began to think about it, too, and she turned back
He was wandering in a daze
Not dead or raging as we were sure he would be.

Instead of going home, he drove into town to get
Mail and tell the postmistress his wife had hit him
The dried blood as proof
Mother and I felt embarrassed and fearful.

There never came a payback time at least not
For that instance, and months later I learned
The stacker already had a crack
Had I known, well, that wasn’t Dad’s way.

Fifty-two years later when I was videotaping
My Dad’s life stories, I took him back to that day,
Asking, “Do you remember…?”
He looked away, grunted; I prodded again.

“You lying son-of-a-bitch. Just like your sisters.”
He stood up from his chair and left the room
I recoiled, stunned and stung
It hurt worse than being knocked down.

I had given him an opportunity to say he was sorry
But his shame was so great he denied it altogether
That was my interpretation
Maybe it is one of my life stories, not one of his.

Abby Ripley is a seventy-eight-year-old who has had a very rich and varied life. Her first effort at writing poetry was in the eighth grade about which her teacher wrote: “Who have we here? Another Walt Whitman?” She knew it was a compliment as she had memorized his Song of Myself as an assignment. Abby has spent most of her life as a student, but also as a Peace Corps volunteer, a travel agent, a life insurance field agent, an editor, a fine art photographer/exhibitor, a painter, and now a writer/poet. She is currently self-editing a historical novel but finds writing poetry a time-out because the editing goes on and on! She has been named a poetry finalist for three successive years by Adelaide Literary Magazine, and recently her poems have appeared in The Rye Whiskey Review, Opine Magos, Oprelle, and The World of Myth Magazine. 

Look for my debut novel, From Pass to Pass: A Tale of Adventure from Wyoming to India, next year, 2022.