It’s dark and eerie in the barnyard at 4:50 a.m.
The unblinking stars watch me from above, and a golden crescent of moon squints on the horizon…but it does nothing to dispel the gloom shrouding the barnyard. There can be no more dismal start to a day, yet this is the hour when the muddy wheels of farm life begin to turn.
Across the heartland, farmers pull on their boots—ignoring yesterday’s aches and pains, trying hard to forget their disappointments. The lingering drought. The cow that died. The grim outlook for the small American farmer.
Just the other day a farmer’s pregnant cows mired themselves to death in our bog. I remember well the bleak look on the farmer’s face as he stood amid the smoky haze of the campfire, staring at the carcasses of his cattle.
“It’s like the Gates of Hell, here,” he said. “…Like the Gates of Hell.” Then taking out his gun, he shot the last suffering cow in the head. He turned to go. “People don’t know what a farmer has to go through to get a steak to their tables,” he said. “They have no idea.”
I think about that now as I trudge toward the darkened goat barn. The old barn looks decrepit even in the starlight—leaning hard toward the east as though longing for the resurrection. This barn’s seen many generations of our family come and go, and I always suspect that the spirits of my grandparents may be lingering here, watching me do the family chores that we’ve done for endless decades.
I peer inside the barn cautiously, not sure what I’ll find. The dim light of the warming box shines on tiny goats lying in the straw… Triplets born just yesterday. Their bodies are motionless, and I catch my breath sharply.
They’re dead. Every one of them.
Oh you wretched Gates of Hell! Why, oh why—
Suddenly, I see movement. A furry, little face appears from the tangle of bodies. Then another and another. I can’t help but laugh out loud. “The-Gates-of- Hell-Shall-Not- Prevail!” Sleepy eyes blink at me and I feel a rush of joy as I scoop the babies into my arms. I can sense my Grandpa grinning at me from the shadows— proud to see me sitting out here in the goat dung at 5:00 a.m.
Retrieving the milk bottles, I start to feed the babies, listening to the scuffling going on in the adjoining pen. Angel and Sissy and Buddy Boy…the restless ones, no doubt. Never content, always fussing.
“Hey you! Give it a break!”
The scuffling continues unabated. Amid the rustle of goats, I can almost hear the sound of laughter, wafting on the night breeze—drifting through the cracks of the old barn. Phantom echoes…bits of conversation wending their way past the wall-hung tools…Muddy tools, their handles worn down by the calluses of several generations.
My kinfolk worked themselves to death right here in the barnyard. Just a few feet from me is where my Great Uncle Harvey collapsed and died while feeding cattle. Died with his boots on. Grandma, too, suffered some fatal attack not far from here. The old timers half-killed themselves trying to make a living on this old home place. Oh, the stories these barn walls could tell! All the sweat, the tears, the heartache…
…And the visions of stalking death angels.
My dad says he could sense the death angel near Grandma that last day she spent in the barnyard.
I quell a shiver and peer out the doorway, glad to see that the darkness is beginning to lift. Day is coming. The crescent moon slips beneath the covers of the western horizon. The watching eyes of the stars grow faint and sleepy. Soon, they blink out altogether and the sun bursts forth to stand guard in their place.
There’s a flurry of activity at the farmhouse. A door slams and a cheery voice calls.
Stiffly, I get to my feet, placing the baby goats back in their warming box. Stepping outside, I stand gazing across the rural countryside. A brilliant sun eases higher on the horizon, gilding the fences and windmill with gold…pure gold. The country roads are paved with it, too, and the leaning barn looks like a shining mansion on the hilltop.
Heaven on earth—these Barada Hills.
Some might call them the Gates of Hell, but I hardly think so. They look more like the Gates of Heaven to me. I sure love these old hills and the life I’m living here…Well, most of the time, anyway.
I look back at the goat pen. “Angel…! Got your halo stuck in the fence, again?” I sigh.
“Hey—you there, Sissy!” Sissy is outside the pen, as usual. And farther on, the lusty Buddy Boy is hard at work, chasing his siblings with incestuous abandon.
I stretch my stiff muscles and yawn. It’s going to be a good one, all right…a good day in our corner of the heartland. ‘Cause the Gates-of-Hell-Shall-Not-Prevail.
Not here in God’s Country….!