Playing in the Aftermath

  
I don’t know if it’s global warming, chemtrails, El Niño or answered prayers. It could be voodoo for all I care. All I know is that it was 70 degrees that day. The sky was full of birds and I had to swat some insects. I could barely get Alarik into the house long enough for me to put on actual pants once the preschool bus dropped him off; it was nice out, and he needed to climb some trees. Immediately.   

A trip to a dairy in Zeeland on Saturday resulted in two little faces taking up residence in the kitchen. Two Alpine doelings, dubbed Ginger and Sienna, are tiny little sisters born in a set of triplets. A week old today but already part of the family. Our daughters, 10 year old Sadie and 9 year old Ivy, cried happy tears when I agreed we could take them home. I outfitted them in sweaters and brought them outside for some sunshine and their first taste of life without walls. 

  

   

We followed our usual circuit of climbing trees, the swings and then the trampoline. I left them playing on the slide to go make the babies a quick bottle. When I came back out I found both boys and both baby goats standing at the exact place where the huge doors of our barn used to open. They were silent, motionless. The crunch of my feet in the brittle grass startled them; they knew they weren’t supposed to get close to the burnt, muddy square where our huge pole barn once stood. Alarik spun around and smiled the sheepish, gap-toothed grin that could only mean he’d been caught. “Just looking at it, Mom. See?” 

   

I parked myself on the dead grass to get the baby goats fed. A wet butt was a small price to pay for the warmth on my face and the chance to get all 5 of us out of the house for while. The baby goats (who, as always, fought for the bottle like they’d never been fed) while my own babies continued pointing out different objects sticking up out of the rubble. Huge pieces of hardware that used to brace the massive beams in the roof were now twisted, jagged crescents half buried in the mud. I could almost see the wheels turning in Alarik’s brain. He loved to climb to the top of the stack of hay bales and watch the birds nesting in the rafters, stretching up on his tiptoes and reaching his little hand high in an attempt to touch the massive beams. Those simple metal triangles had been as unattainable as the moon to him; now he stood taller than they ever would again.

Alarik pulled an old rubber garden hose out from under the porch. He dragged it up to the edge of the wreckage and aimed it into the center. “I’m a fire fighter!” He cried, smiling. 2 year old Eivin picked up the other end and copied him. 

  
I wanted to snatch them up and get them away from there. I could barely look at it, the portrait of so many of my dreams that had been eaten by the flames. I didn’t want to look at the spots where the bodies of my mama goats had been scraped up from the blackened dirt. The whole area still stank of burning hay, melted plastic and scorched metal. I wanted to hide my face and cry without my boys seeing me. 

  
Alarik threw the old hose aside and declared that the fire was out. He dusted his little hands on the seat of his jeans, planted them on his hips and surveyed his handiwork. Ginger the baby goat wandered over to him, butting his calf and nibbling a fold in his jeans. In the blink of an eye he had scooped her up and carried her away down the gentle slope towards the house. “I saved the baby!” he told me proudly. “I saved her, Mom. She didn’t burn up in the fire.”

   
Images of our other babies- their nine precious faces, all of whom I’d held and kissed and tucked into my coat in the moments after their births, each with a distinct personality and a few who had already been chosen by new families- flooded my mind. I stood up, told the boys we were going inside and started towards the house. Alarik immediately screwed up his face, clenched his fists and stomped his feet; the prelude to an epic tantrum, the last warning shot before he unleashed all the fury his 4 year old self could muster. 

“We didn’t clean it up yet, Mom!” He howled. “We gotta clean it up so we can build a new one!”

  
So we stayed outside. I marked an area on the edge of the spot with the toe of my shoe after inspecting it for metal, and ordered the boys not to cross it. When I sat back down in the grass I positioned my body at an angle that allowed me to keep watch over the boys out of the corner of my eye rather than directly facing the scorched mess where so many good memories had been. Eivin’s beloved wagon, which had been left in the garden the night of the fire, was pushed up to the edge of the site and quickly filled with debris; charred fragments of wood, bits of the concrete the corner posts had been embedded in, clumps of hay that hadn’t been consumed by the fire. A team of local guys had brought out a backhoe and trailer two weeks before and removed almost everything else. Alarik brought me four landscaping bricks that we’d used to hold plastic water founts out of the shavings when we’d raised chicks. They were blackened, but intact, and exactly where we’d left them the following spring. 

  
The boys kept working, filling the little wagon again and again. They were fire fighters, baby goat rescuers and clean up crew twice more. Then Alarik lifted a piece of wood and found a small bone underneath. 

He picked it up and brought it to me. I couldn’t take it from his outstretched hand; my heart instantly sped up and sweat broke out on my forehead. Memories exploded through my head again. It was our mama goats this time, two of whom I’d delivered myself before helping them pass into their own motherhood a year later. 

He placed it on the grass against my knee. I picked it up and turned it over in my hands. Such a sad remnant of a creature so cherished by our family. Alarik reached out for it again and carried it to a big hole left by the concrete footing of one of the beams torn up from the ground by the backhoe. Slowly, reverently, he laid down on his stomach and placed it at the bottom. 

  
His little hands pushed dirt from the outer edges down into the hole. He worked silently, meticulously, his bright blue eyes sad but calm. Slowly the bone disappeared, laid to rest by a solemn little boy intent on fixing the heartbreak that had struck our family that night like a tornado. My tears had already started and the impulse to run away, to go inside and bury the memory of my son burying that bone, was surging through my body like electricity. That was when he started singing. 

It was a song I often sang to Eivin at night, a lullaby. I couldn’t remember ever having sang it to Alarik, or even around him. I swallowed the lump in my throat, sat on the edge of the hole and helped him. He started the song at the beginning, and I joined him. 

“Sleep, little baby, sleep ’til the morning comes.

Mama will keep you from all harm. 

Sleep, little baby, under the western sky

I’ll sing you a desert lullaby.

Sleep, little baby, sleep on your mama’s knee

Don’t call the wolf or coyote

Sleep, little baby- hush, baby don’t you cry

I’ll sing you a desert lullaby.

Dream, little baby, dream of a valley green

Far over mountains by the sea

Dream, little baby, one day no more you’ll roam

Then you’ll awake and find a home. 

Sleep, little baby, sleep ’til the morning comes. 

Mama will keep you from all harm. 

Sleep, little baby, under the western sky

I’ll sing you a desert lullaby.”

  
When he was satisfied with our work he dusted his hands again, his face pleased. Ginger, the more inquisitive of the two baby goats, bounded over to inspect things. Alarik scratched her head and booped her nose, sending her hopping back towards her sister. He returned to the old green hose and the sound effects began. Imaginary water putting out imaginary flames as a little boy recreated a terrible event that had brought so much sadness to his family, only this time he was saving the day. 

  
A history of trauma has left me with the instant urge to withdraw or lash out in anger at the first sign of emotional distress. That’s my coping mechanism, imprinted as firmly in my DNA as my thick, wild hair and my mother’s dry wit. I didn’t stop to consider that maybe my children, even the youngest two of the tribe, would be compelled to face their own heartache head-on. That they’d need walk through that horrible night step by step, but with a different outcome. That they’d need to face what had made them feel helpless and play the part of the heroes in order to put their own pain to rest, like the goat bone we’d tenderly buried beneath the place its owner had once called home. Finding their own peace through repetition and ceremony, laying their pain to rest along with with it. 

 
The irony of our new baby goats playing in the aftermath of what should’ve been their home made my heart ache, but brought its own peace. An ending and a beginning in one snapshot, death and life sharing common ground. I’m amazed at the strength of my little sons and their insistence on facing what I had refused to; their intuition to heal in their own way, so much more positive than mine. 

  
Alarik decided it was time to go inside for apples and jelly beans, not necessarily in that order. I gathered the baby goats’ bottles. As we walked back toward our house he wrapped his arms around Ginger and held her to his chest, whispering into her soft fuzzy ear; “I’ve got you, baby. Everything is gonna be okay. I’ll keep you safe this time.”

   
 

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