COLUMNISTS

I'm not inclined to believe in ghosts and such, but moldy hay is another thing

Justin Isherwood
An old barn filled with breathing, moldy hay accompanied by a tale of horror sent chills down the spine of these rural residents.

Any necromancer can testify that hauntings are conditional to their place of origin.  A Norwegian ghost is not the same article as a Highland witch who in turn is not the least comparable to a vampire from Transylvania. All of whom when removed from their natural setting are not much of a ghost.

In like manner farmers are haunted by things that do not, can not haunt a villager.  A droughty summer or a cold wet August will spill more goblins, torture more nights in the township than the same stretch of bad weather within the city limits. 

It is this hypersensitivity to haunting that renders farmers susceptible to the creepy crawlies as accordingly miss the general public altogether. Of all the hallucinations applicable to farmers, the very worst is moldy hay. 

Cemetery ghost and taunting spirit have no better accomplice than hay as should have dried another day. Problem being, of course, every farmer commits the sin of moldy hay, out of desperation to fill the haymow with browse, out of anticipation of the weather, and because cattails and lily grass were not intended to be put in a hay bale in the first place.

Moldy hay comes in several models. The kind surest to cause haunting is low pasture hay, in actuality closer to a lily pond than a hay field. A place never intended by creation to ballast the haymow. Hay whose protein value is more from the corpse of smushed toad and baled garter snake than any worth of the fodder. To call the result hay is to propose feeding cows wood pulp and broomsticks. As said, desperation has everything to do with the onset of a good and woeful haunting.

The second ingredient to a proper metaphysical haunting is wanton behavior. This is why Norwegian ghosts are oft sighted singing Methodist hymns, as wanton an act as can be asked of a Norwegian spirit.  A Scots goblin by the same rule is like to be seen drinking coffee. For farmers, making hay of bulrushes and tag alder is the sufficient insult to incur a haunting.

The third requirement is distaff architecture. You can not have ghosts without spooky castles, creaky stairs or cobwebby catacombs. Barns are excellent examples of this generally scary construction and old barns even better. Modern agriculture is an amalgamation of deserted farms conjoined under the banner of sheriff's auction and bankruptcy, in itself a swell inducement to a haunting specter whether or not the barn has been filled with quackgrass and cattails. 

The distaff and forlorn byre does not enjoy the same application of paint and window putty as does the primary barn and as result becomes the advertised menace to society. Whose id is too haunt farmers that there is here a roof to spare and they best fill it under with hay, surplus hay, if they are themselves to avoid the sheriff’s cruel hammer.  In this phantasm barn is piled away the hay from the bottom pasture better left to bobolinks.

The last, most vital ingredient of every haunting is personal injury; no ghost ever arrived at its station without suffering partial physical disintegration. Common routine injury simply will not do; stroke, AIDS, heartache, influenza, cancer do not a good ghost make. The occult is very specific on this issue, the injury must satisfy proper and rigid standards of gore. 

Such as Alistair MacNeil who married Adolf Oblewski's daughter who was Roman Catholic...that Alistair is now a ghost of legendary proportions in the township is due to the gruesome fate suffered by this ploughman. The community is divided whether the injury was from marrying a Catholic in the first place or because MacNeil died in a silo-filler. 

Died when his overalls caught and the silo-filler did what it was trained to do, the resulting funeral not of the open casket variety. In fact, the lid was screwed down tight to prevent Widow MacNeil in a fit of grief from kissing Alistairs lips one last time, his lips being mixed with the tossed salad of his remains.

Had Alistair died in bed or in a car crash, his derelict barn on the marsh road might have passed into quaint obscurity. Going as he did in the more poignant manner resulted in the MacNeil barn becoming a centerpiece for the local occult.

Dying in the silo-filler enthused the township's literary passions. Every farmhouse, every feed mill, every  crossroad tavern and barbershop had a version of MacNeil's disjointed departure. Some even had what was rumored to be an official memento. Mementoes actually. The toe of Alistair in a jar of vinegar on the back wall of the Moore Barn tavern.  Bobbing in the jar like a good toe ought. Found the morning after the coffin lid already screwed down tight. 

There was no way Alistair MacNeil's ghost could just plain retire to paradise with now such manifold expectations on him. Not to mention the rumored bits and pieces of him hanging around neighborhood taverns. Which is fame of a sort you can’t get without some mechanical advantage. Like a silo filler wound up to PTO speed and howling like a banshee as has gotten into the rhubarb wine. 

MacNeil's end to this juncture is however only interesting if we are curious into how many pieces a standard-size person can be rendered. While mathematically intriguing it is not particularly haunting, especially to farmers who are accustomed to being chewed up. Real haunting takes more than haphazard dismemberment. The ingredients must gel and coalesce properly.

What we have here are very good ingredients, now only to be well stirred and indecently marinated, and when altogether create a cosmic dose of the creepy crawlies. But to now add one late October night. A cold, marrow-chilling night. Add the essence of moldy hay.  Add now the portent of that peculiar barn on that most peculiar back road that follows a crooked path through a very peculiar marsh. Stir into this Mister Alistar MacNeil, chopped into little pieces.

This author does not believe in ghosts, goblins or spirits, thinking them the product of lesser minds who are easy prey for the paranormal. That said, I will not traffic the road going past Widow MacNeil's barn any time after dark, knowing some neighbor filled the old barn with hay better left to kit fox and turtle. The very one where Alistair met his disassembling fate. 

And knowing as every farmer does moldy hay has one more as yet unmentioned attribute. Baling hay is one thing, baling willow bark and bobolink is another. Moldy hay is fermenting hay, it is warm and sweaty hay; it heats up, it pants, it respirates, it breathes.

Forget Frankenstein. Moldy hay breathes a thousand breaths. A fog on a cool night is spawned of this breath. A fog indiscernible until the cold nacht of October. A tomb-scented fog that is both warm-blooded and sticky.  A fog able to perambulate, to slink and crawl and hide behind trees. This the fog emanating from a derelict barn on a back road across the dark moor. Where once lived in one piece one Alistair MacNeil.

But this is only to suggest moldy hay is sorta creepy ... what makes it truly scary is the sound. Moldy hay whimpers. The hay was too wet to bale. When fermentation started the twine holding the bales together reach a point where they kinda hum. A low eerie note. Barely audible. The bales having expanded torque the old barn beams.

Wood grain grates against wood grain, the low almost growling sound can sometimes be felt in the ground for those are big barn beams. Alistair’s haymow whines together in an altogether and terrible, demented chorus; a muttering, moaning dirge crudely mixed with whistles and whinnies. All this from a drear barn on a back road on the back end of October during the backside of the moon. Explanations from science for the behavior at this point are of no comfort.

On Halloween I would borrow my dad's pickup truck and load it with dubious friends, all of them doubters and heretics, village kids who didn't have any notion of moldy hay though they by now had heard the stories of Alistair. I'd take the town road which city folk find uncomfortable enough, much less when I switch roads below the second bridge taking the route across the marsh that slips ever so much further from the lights of village, then disappears completely into the obscuring murk. 

We cross the old plank bridge, a startling sound any time much less in the dark that moors have. The road to MacNeil's barn is on a tilt so I switch off the engine and let the truck drift eerily toward the foreboding bulk. Extinguish the headlights. All quiet except the crunch of gravel beneath the tires rolling suspiciously of their own accord. 

The barn seeming to rise from the ground, looming larger as we are drawn toward it.  Closer. Closer. From a broken pane a wisp of fog is seen, a transmortal fog that acts alive. Another slithers at the cow door, a bank of the same creature straddles the road. My friends cease their glib banter when they smell the horrid, rank odor and how it seems to cling to the bumper and creep a ghastly severed hand over the tailgate. Then they hear for the first time the whimper of moldy hay. 

The conversion of heretics is a remarkable event. Doubters but an instant before, now screaming in unison as I hit the starter and spin the tires, and leave behind the lonesome spirits of MacNeil's barn.

I do not remember whether MacNeil's barn burned or just plain fell down. Widow MacNeil died in the nursing home a few years back so I guess there's no way to prove any of this happened the way I'm telling it. Which is the problem with ghosts and hauntings. Like I said, I'm not inclined to believe in ghosts and such, but moldy hay is another thing.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.