Fresh hay smells like hot summer days and sunscreen, sticky, sweet and fruity. If you look carefully at each tawny prickly brick you’ll spot the rough pale green baling twine that acts like a corset holding each bale in shape. These camouflaged parallel lines of order and control are wrapped round each bale by the rust coloured baler. In a whir of industry the machine sweeps up the loose hay from the neatly raked rows, compacted dry grass is spat out onto the stubbly paddock in rectangular parcels. The baling twine is the handle the haymakers use to lever their dirty gloved hands under so they can pick up each bale and swing it back and forth before letting momentum help it up onto the trailer.
Dad studies the weather and decides when to make hay. He does the cutting, raking, turning and baling. He also drives the tractor towing the trailer full of hay back to the barn. Dad can back a huge trailer full of hay between the doors of the barn without hitting them despite the tower of hay blocking his vision and the narrow gap between trailer and barn door leaving no room for error. Dad is better with machines than he is with people.
Packed away in the barn the prickly blocks of summer soon gather dust and spider webs, and then the hay descends toward staleness and disorder. The smell of old hay is like cold winter days and wet yellow PVC over-trousers, greasy black mildew and decay. Inside the barn’s grey corrugated iron walls the bales are tightly stacked so there are no gaps. It is possible to tell where the bales are by feel but individual blocks are indivisible from the whole, an impenetrable wall of grey. Inside with the hay you can’t hear what is outside, the hay muffles all sound. No noises and no light except through tiny pin prick sized holes in the thin sheets of iron. These pin holes permit feeble strands of light to puncture the darkness with faint speckles of light. It’s as if an ant army is patrolling the barn perimeter with their head torches on but the ants hear me breathing and freeze like statues listening, trying to figure out my location in the shadows. I try really hard to breathe quietly and deeply, to keep calm.
In the place where bales are missing, near the doors, hay lies abandoned like a shredded rug. The hay that has worked free of the bales but remains trapped in the barn reminds me of the feathers of dead hens plucked in preparation for eating. Most of the hay gets dragged out and fed out to the hungry cows now that it is winter and it is colder and raining all the time. The cold stops the grass from growing and the constant rain combined with the trampling of heavy cow hooves converts the grass to mud. Everything turns to mud in winter, but the vivid green grass is the first to surrender and lose colour. Winter grass is a similar shade to the Jersey cows. While the grass is changing colour and consistency, shrinking away, practically vanishing overnight, the cows, all of whom are pregnant with baby calves are getting bigger and bigger. As the cows swell they get hungry and moody. So hungry they eagerly wait for and demolish with relish the dry, brittle hay. So moody they run after us and moo impatiently when we take too long to cut the baling twine and free the hay.
As winter progresses the barn gradually empties of hay, it feels less dense but the smell of dust and decay is stronger, more urgent. The tractor lives in the barn too. If you linger long enough your eyes adjust to the murky darkness so you can make out its shape. The red tractor has faded after years of summer work and it has a coating of oil. The hay sticks to the oil so the tractor looks like it has grown spiky hair, sharp to touch. Long, tangled hair, the kind of hair you get when you go to sleep with your hair wet and you toss and turn all night and run your hands through your hair and wake up and your hair is standing up in random places and it won’t sit flat unless you comb it and even then it looks crumpled. This is the kind of hair that monsters have, big red and black monsters with big black and white eyes and gleaming white teeth.
When it rains and you’re inside the barn the hay cannot muffle everything, there is a loud vibrating and drumming, like a monster beating its chest, boom, boom, boom. The sound is so loud the ants can hear the booming too, it is much louder than my breathing and no light is coming from the ant army’s head torches. The thick darkness makes it impossible to see your hand in front of your face. It’s just me entombed with the dusty, prickly hay bales, the faded red hairy tractor and the monster.
I shut my eyes tightly, take deep breaths and imagine fresh-cut hay. I can smell the calm order of summer, the fragrance of hope.