When I’m coming home, I turn onto our bumpy country road once I reach the cemetery. That’s the first sigh of relief. I pass old farmhouses and brick ranch style homes, cows and chickens in pastures and yards and the occasional cat darting across the road at the sound of my vehicle. It’s all comforting; slipping back into the zen of my ‘happy place.’ The place where the humans and creatures I love so dearly always return to. That enveloping calm begins at the beautiful old cemetery, but it doesn’t fully take hold until a hill dips down and our barn comes into view.
On Saturday, Feb. 20th I spent the day in Battle Creek with two of my best friends. One of their older does appeared to be going into labor, and an extra set of kid-turning hands were needed. We followed Glinda around for most of the afternoon, scratching our heads while she ignored us or darted around our attempts to catch her and check the positions of her kids. For such an old girl with such a huge belly, she’d suddenly developed ninja-like reflexes and super speed. We finally admitted defeat, declared a successful fake-out, congratulated Glinda on upholding The Doe Code of Honor and I headed home.
It was 9pm and dark when I turned right at the cemetery. I couldn’t see our barn when I crested the hill and the landscape parted, but my soul knew it was there. The chores had been done in my absence and everything was quiet; 16 inquisitive chickens, one flamboyant rooster, 7 annoying ducks and a several fat barn kitties. Our pair of Great Pyrenees guardian dogs had decided to be buttholes and were asleep on the porch instead of out with their charges. The main residents, 24 dairy goats, were fed and fast asleep. 2 stinky (but lovable) bucks, 1 cantankerous wether, 3 resting does, 3 expecting does, 1 yearling doe, 5 mamas and their 9 bouncing fluffy babies. They were between 1 and 3 weeks old; a set of triplets, two sets of twins and two fat, spoiled singletons.
At some point during the night, 4 year old Alarik followed his usual habit of wandering downstairs to sleep on the couch. He told us that he woke up to the sound of loud knocking on the front door. Being 4, as well as quick to disregard pretty much every cautionary lesson we try to instill, he unlocked the door and let his new friend in. She asked for his parents, and he led her up the stairs. Justin and I were startled awake by pounding on our bedroom door and an apprehensive voice calling “Hello? HELLO?”
He answered her, while I tried to open both eyes. Her response jolted us both completely awake and had us leaping out of the bed simultaneously; “Excuse me, your barn is on fire.”
Everything after is a blur. I ran to the window and pulled the curtain back, to the sight of flames lighting up the skylights in the roof and licking out from the edges at the base of the barn. Smoke poured from every crevice and crack. I threw yesterday’s clothes on and informed Justin that I was going out there.
The mysterious woman was gone. The appearance of a strange voice in the house at 4am had awoken our daughters in their downstairs bedroom. The sound of three horrified screams met me at the top of the stairs. Justin had since looked outside and ran after me, told me to call 911 and let him go out instead. He told me later that he knew with one look that nothing in that inferno was alive, but he understood me well enough to know that if I went out there I would be going into the barn regardless.
Calling 911 was made even harder by our sketchy cell reception, but the pertinent info made it across. Our rural township is serviced by a volunteer fire department, and the operator had to keep assuring me that they were indeed on their way. All 6 kids were now awake and clustered around the window in the upstairs hall, sobbing. 10 year old Sadie and 9 year old Ivy had shared my immediate reaction to run to the barn, to save our precious animals, and had been firmly commanded to stay put.
I was standing in another window watching for the fire department when a deafening squeal of metal on metal drowned out the 911 operator. I dropped my phone and ran back to the south-facing window, just in time to see the roof of the barn collapse. The house shook and the flames leapt up into the dark sky. From out in the hallway, the kids screamed; a haunting, tortured sound that dropped me to my knees. The north wall of the barn folded inward with another hellish scrape.
Dropping the phone had cut off the call to 911. I raced down the stairs, planted my feet in my rubber boots so fast that I didn’t notice they were on the wrong feet, grabbed my work jacket and flew out the door. Justin met me at the bottom of the porch stairs; he’d taken our old railroad lantern out to the mailbox and set it to flash, a beacon for the firemen. I pushed through his arms and raced for the pasture. The blast of heat and blinding cloud of smoke knocked me sideways, but didn’t slow me down. I’d caught sight of a few of our doe goats clustered at the farthest corner of the pasture fence. They were wide-eyed with terror, almost trampling each other to somehow scale the fence and get as far away from the flames as they could, but they were alive.
I threw myself over the fence, shredding the leg of my fleece pants (and the skin beneath) on the strand of barbed wire at the top. 6 goats surrounded me, shaking. I tried to think of who had been put to bed where, and if any other survivors could exist. I looked at each terrified face and took note of who had made it out. There had been 5 females in the main doe pen who had access to that pasture, and each had escaped. The numbers were wrong and I was counting heads again when Justin reached for me through the fence, pulled me to my feet and helped me back over the barbed wire.
The fire department finally arrived. The sun was just starting to come up. Justin went back to the front yard to talk to them and 16 year old Cailin appeared behind me, grabbing onto my arm as we used each other to stand up. The same thought struck simultaneously and we set off at a run, circling the pasture at the outer perimeter. The little herd of terrified does ran with us on the other side of the fence, screaming, begging us not to leave them.
The south wall of the barn was ready to fall, a jagged sheet of metal swaying with each blast from the fire hoses. The buck pasture was smaller; a perfect rectangle extending just past the barn walls on either side, completely shadowed by the tall wall in the early mornings. If any of the boys had survived, they were in danger of being crushed at any second.
Cailin and I ran though the blinding smoke, holding each other by the elbow while I dragged my hand along the hot metal fence of the pasture to keep our bearings. In the very back corner of the fence we found Charlie, Roscoe and Leo. They were crouched on the grass with their faces together, backs hunched up to create a barrier to the smoke. They coughed with each breath and shook so hard the fence was quaking. I pulled Cailin around me and out of the path of the smoke. We thrust our hands through and held onto their faces in an attempt to keep them calm; goats are prone to shock and even heart attacks at extreme levels of stress. I dropped my face to Roscoe’s and touched his sweet, stinky nose with mine. The metal screamed again. I mustered a calm voice and told Cailin to hold on, but she’d read my mind already. We reached further and grabbed their fur, digging our nails in and bracing against the wire. The wall folded, the top edge almost touching the ground, then the metal split apart and hit the ground. It sent a shower of sparks and billow of smoke into the air, and a waft of cloud of dust and debris into our faces. The smell of burning wood and plastic, hay and straw and hair, as well as something else; the smell of the goats trapped inside, our precious newborn babies and their mothers, cooking in the flames.
That was the end of coherent thought for me. We left the boys in the corner of the pasture, the smoke already clearing under the relentless streams from the fire hoses, and circled back around to the front of the house. A crazed chicken wound through Cailin’s feet and almost tripped us. Justin stood with the fire chief and a police officer, watching the firemen. I broke into their circle and was immediately grabbed in a big hug by the officer. I spent the next 5 minutes with my face buried in his coat, blubbering and gasping and getting spit, snot and tears all over his uniform before i looked up and recognized him as our family friend, Mike.
Justin assured me he’d checked on the kids. They had remained rooted in place at the upstairs window, holding each other and watching in shocked silence. Mike led me inside with a firm arm around my shoulder, grabbing Cailin as well. He sat me on the couch and made a pot of coffee while I relayed the news to the kids, that everything inside the barn was destroyed and all of our mama goats and babies were gone.
Mike took the 5 youngest kids to their grandparents’ house. I sat on the couch, drinking my coffee and absently petting the two snoring mounds of white fluff who were curled up on the couch beside me. Hunter and Piper, our Pyrenees pair, had been pulled into the house on Justin’s initial exit, and quickly discovered the couch. They were muddy and dusty and smelled like smoke, but I let them sleep.
The same friends whose farm I’d spent the previous day at volunteered to take in our surviving goats. Frank arrived in a pickup truck to help us transport them. He greeted us with hugs and tears and the words we were all thinking- “What the fucking fuck, man?!”
We cut the fence and let the remaining does out into the yard. They darted out and then back in; confused, desperate to get away yet reluctant to leave their last remaining piece of home. As we rounded them up to load into the van I remembered, and counted them again. Six does had survived. They had been five in the doe pen at chore time he night before. It didn’t make sense. Looking at each of them, it suddenly hit me. Rosie.
Rosie was one of the first two goats we got. The tiniest Nigerian Dwarf I’ve ever seen, she stands barely knee high. Being so little, she was always on the lower end of the totem pole amongst the does in our herd. She was pregnant and often got butted away from the grain, so I’d been letting her stay in the central part of the barn with our yearling doe, Scarlett. The pair often let themselves out in the morning to graze in the yard. Rosie had gone to bed where the fire was the worst, and somehow managed to get into the doe pen and then out into the pasture. Not even two feet tall, very pregnant, the smallest goat in our herd… And somehow, she scaled a 4 1/2ft wall of plywood-covered pallets in order to get to safety. Had there been a way out of the main doors, crafty little Scarlett would’ve found it; she’d done just that many times before.
We loaded everyone up into the two vehicles. Two bucks, Roscoe and Charlie. Our other Nigerian buck, Bombur, was out to stud. Our lovable jerk of a wether, Leo. Our Alpine does Cinnamon and Hazel, both pregnant. Our mini-Nupine doe, Pixie. Three Nigerian Dwarf does- twin sisters Tuesday and Toby-Mae, and Rosie, the goat with wings.
The ducks survived, and 8 of the chickens. They went to stay with the daughter of a neighbor. Our friend Mike took Hunter and Piper to his house in Benton Harbor since he has an outdoor kennel not being used right now. We’ve caught glimpses of one barn cat, the others reappeared briefly but haven’t been seen since. The cleanup process began. Two days later, the news of a friend’s sudden death resulted in an impromptu road trip to Kentucky. As heartbroken as I was over my own misfortune, a lot of things came into perspective. The fire was devastating, but it could’ve been so much worse. So much of my world was gone in a flash that night, but the very center of it had remained untouched- my family.
The fire inspector was able to determine where the fire started, but not exactly how. Everything was destroyed. The corner of the barn where it must’ve originated had several rototillers, a push mower, a snow blower and two electrical outlets. The circuit breaker box was there as well. No heat lamps were on; it had been 55 degrees the day before and the overnight low was a balmy 35. It’s possible the unseasonably warm weather cooked off a damp spot in the hay. I’d been horrified to realize several of the mama goats’ charred torsos were visible in the wreckage when the smoke cleared and that I was powerless to bury, or even cover them. Sheets of twisted metal still stood balanced on perilous beams, creaking in every breeze and crashing into the ashes one by one. We couldn’t enter the area until the fire inspector came anyways. I joined Justin out by the ruins for his verdict. He looked me in the eyes and said he wanted me to know that, in his experienced opinion, none of the living creatures taken by the fire had survived the first five minutes. The smoke would’ve taken them so quickly that they probably didn’t even wake up. Scarlett, who knew how to open the large sliding doors, doesn’t appear to have tried. Many of the chickens could’ve easily escaped, yet didn’t- it happened that fast. The bodies of the mothers were curled around the ashes of their babies, in the exact places they usually slept.
The skeleton of our barn is almost completely cleaned up now. The crew used their backhoe to dig a grave out in the doe pasture and we laid 15 tragedies to rest under the tree. We plan to rebuild, and to bring our survivors home as soon as possible. We have insurance, and so far they’ve been wonderful. We’re taking things a day at a time.
The kids came home later that night, once we’d gotten the goats relocated to Frank and Emily’s. We talked, we hugged, we cried. I tried to emphasize the fact that some had survived, including three pregnant mamas. I asked the girls about Rosie and Scarlett, since I hadn’t done chores with them the night before. They confirmed that both had been fed in the central part of the barn. We marveled at Rosie and the miracle of her survival, all except for Sadie. “Well, of course she made it,” Sadie told us. “Rosie was Nana’s favorite goat. Nana knew what was happening, woke Rosie up, and gave her a boost over the wall.” Nana, my mother, passed away suddenly in 2013.
Thank you, Mom.