Structural Memories

A Farm Written Through its Buildings


Burn all barns and mills and their contents, salve and drive off all stock in the region, which is difficult in a Virginia town built from stone.*

The miller, when he discovered his business would be the spoils of war, offered the Union soldiers a meal, but after they had eaten his bribe and wiped their hands on their pants, they burned the mill anyway. As the flames caught, the miller’s shoes warmed by his fireplace across the road. I have traced the outlines of smoke on the mill that sits on my road, imagining the shadows of heat on the faces of the soldiers, on the townspeople, on the enslaved.

Those enslaved by the miller were walking home when the smoke rose up over the hill. They remembered years ago when the main house’s kitchen burned down and their family member climbed on the roof to put it out with buckets. He lost his footing and slipped from the roof and when he hit the ground he heard the miller’s laugh. I imagine the family looking out the streamhouse window dreaming of the flames catching the hay and the fields and illuminating everything but the stream. The war waged on and the settlement of Confederate soldiers slept in between the rows of hay their family had harvested the year before.

The town never recovered from Sheridan’s Burning Raids in 1864. My family lives on Burnt Mill Farm, and we drive away for work. We buy bread in plastic and milk from states away. We live in history, like we live in stone, but I still don’t know who lived on the farm, and where their descendants live, or why my parents, childhood friends from a Maryland suburb, bought the house in the 1990s. These historical memories are pulled from conversations with neighbors who stay for coffee, from the annual campfire at the mill, and from the knowledge of wrinkled farmers who leave town when the housing developments rise from the fields, like crops that won’t spoil. This is truth mixed with the imagined, for I only know of the buildings that I played in as a kid colored by these unanchored stories. I trap my memories in these historical places and watch them mix. I have searched the internet and local history organizations for any documents about the different communities in my area, and I haven’t found much. There is only mention of the movement of the Union troops, of the roads they took, of the history of the millers, of the cost of land.

But I am from there, and now it is my history too. Perhaps it would be easier to not tell it, but that would be a further silencing, a deeper burying of the stories that aren’t told. Stone doesn’t keep secrets, but water has stained the walls where the wheel once was. The crumbling structure of the stone mill, a dead language, is the largest remaining structure from the raid. As a child, I played in the tall grass in the falling outline of the mill and walked the labored stonewalls, ignorant of Virginia’s dark history, of the screams of ripped backs, of the secrets of a farm town 20 minutes from Harper’s Ferry.

Chicken Coop

Last December, before I left for Spain, I watched our headlights illuminate the willows and extend toward the coop, filling wire and forming grazing shadows. I sat in the car as my brother walked towards the dark shapes of the farm, locking the coop for the night, closing the day.

And if the door wasn’t closed, nothing left but matted feathers, sometimes a bone or two on the roosting boards. The foxes dug under for the taste of flesh, taste of chicken. And the door was left open, over and over again. It’ll prepare them for death.

But most mornings, I climbed over fences and collapsed stone walls. The squawking of chickens, quiet down ladies, and when the door opened a full effusion of thank yous and out the door. They are getting too bold, we thought it but didn’t say it. They once ate two cans of cat food on our porch. I chased them off because the cats couldn’t. What kind of order have we created?

Don’t drop an egg. The foxes develop a taste for them and then every morning a massacre of egg shells in their laying boxes: yolks rotting in the cracked sunlight. It seems we can develop a taste for anything.

As I sat in the yard, yellowing grass and black boards, chicken feet stamping into my arm. Hold them like this. Then walking back with the eggs warm and hard against my abdomen, secured in the extra fabric of my shirt.

The repetition of closing and opening doors, like a meditation. Foxes scream like hysterical women, desperate. Blood smeared on the wooden boards. Every morning, we count.

There was the time, my brother, age four—limited by his categorical understanding, usually realized through triangles and circles, oranges and apples—placed the chicken in the horse bucket, waiting for it to swim and instead it sank like a metal clip. Ducks say quack, Peter. Upside down and rippling.

Twine tied to wire and in the evening around the nail on the door to keep it closed.

I didn’t like walking out to the chicken coop at night. I felt presences of lives gone: soldiers, farmers, chickens.

Once when my dad was working on-call in the hospital and no one closed the coop, the chickens closed the door themselves. Code red, shielding themselves from night.  

I dreamt of a swallow, and when I woke up the swallow was slamming itself against my window. In the heat of the morning, I felt the memory of stone steps and opened the coop door. One of the chickens flew out the door. I forgot they could do that.

And again, like every night, the chickens are magnetically pulled back to their boards, still like ornaments on a mantel, their feathers balled into motherly heat. They look down at the hay-strewn wooden floor that has seen so much death, and life too.

Bank Barn

The smell wafted all the way to the door. Her stomach was fat with life and now the vet pulled out only limbs. He dropped the rotting pieces of the calf into the bucket, yelling “bitch” as the cow fidgeted, tied to the pole in the musky bank barn.

In our freezer, we have pieces of other cows wrapped in plastic and labeled—hearts, livers, and muscles, locked with a key.

The smell was inescapable. My dad reminded the vet, this is my daughter’s favorite cow, but the vet ignored him and stuck his hand up into her uterus to search for the calf’s head.

We knew she miscarried from the hooves extending from the uterus, reaching for what it never could be.

Stream Bank

Down the hill, there is the stream whose muddy bottom holds only a sole, tattered and slithering with the current. My siblings and I would go down to the stream bank holding jars and buckets. We would wade through the thin streambed, legs and single shoes lost in the mud, and then we continued on barefoot, the mud soft in our toes. Sometimes, we saw our Merrells or boots float down the stream, but we couldn’t get them in time. All our different shoe sizes, from all of the years at the stream, floated out to the Potomac and then the Atlantic, now in the Pacific, six sizes too small.

When I read “Hamlet,” I imagined Ophelia’s final scene in our stream. Her body swollen, surrounded by flowers, willow branches, and children’s shoes.

Hobbling up the hill with a single cold, bare foot, I was satisfied with the salamanders and frogs in our buckets. We left them on the stone steps all day and all night. Put them back in the stream before sunset. We punctured holes in the jar lids for the creatures to breathe through, like holes in the ozone: the sun magnified through glass. Returning in the morning to our steps, the salamander, like a pressed flower, was dead on the jar floor.

Red Shed

The red shed received a new coat. It had been years. Inside, baby strollers covered in spider webs and broken plastic swimming pools littered the floor. My mom dipped her brush into the red and pulled it out. A cluster of slick black cows watched in disgust, only looking away for another mouthful. I used to hurl rotten tomatoes into the field, the cows smashing them with their prehistoric jaws, red liquid dripping down their muddy lips. Sunflowers hunched and speckled in old age framed the newly painted shed.  Grapes that were too puckered to eat died and then sprouted on the same vine. Yellow flowers, like ghosts, appeared in the mill in the spring. My mom’s hands were crusted a brownish red. She looked at the blinking telephone pole that her children used to think was Mars. Thinking of her children, she harvested the seeds from the sunflower, brushing the face of the dead: the flower’s skeletal shapes, a graveyard. Now, the grass is dry, the cows bony, the paint chipped.

*Burn all barns and mills and their contents, and drive off all stock in the region—This is an excerpt from Union General Sheridan’s order for the Great Burning Raid of 1864. The raid was meant to destroy all supplies that could aid the Confederate Mosby’s Rangers in Loudoun and Fauquier counties in Virginia (Mosby Heritage site).