I estimate the number of bound blocks of hay that lie scattered in the field where they have fallen from the baler. I try to figure the time it will take to load them, for it is already hot and already the back of Mitch’s shirt is dark with sweat. I jolt along behind him in the old Ford truck with what he calls the suicide clutch. He stands up at the wheel of his daddy’s John Deere, which spits along on its kerosene. The wind swirls the loose hay on the flatbed that will haul the bales, and I squint through the exhaust and the hay and the sunlight at the mown hayfield, and the unmown fescue in the field beyond, and the creek.
The scents of new-mown hay and spring do not change with time or place, uniting them across the miles and years. Mitch’s daddy stood at the wheel of his brand new tractor when I, a schoolboy, stood behind the team of Billy and Farmer Davies’ borrowed carthorse, hauling the huge dray to the hay field. The horses took their time, knowing where they were expected to go despite their blinkers and my work at the reins. Grandpa Harper and Farmer Davies sat and smoked on the dray for now, knowing I could do no harm nor influence the old horses who had learned the route and the pace long ago. Returning was a different matter, the horses straining with the towering, swaying load of hay, me lying on the top now, Grandpa Harper working at the heads of the horses, pulling Billy’s bridle, Farmer Davies standing on the front of the dray urging the horses by snapping the long reins along their backs, urgently keeping some forward motion to the heavy metal-rimmed wheels of the hay cart.
A whiff of new-mown hay—all it holds of the memory of warm, heavy days, the hum of flies, and birdsong—carries me back, too, to the straining necks of the horses; Grandpa Harper’s grunted curses and the smoke from his hand-made “cigarettes”; horses’ teeth and slavver and even red patches on the asphalt from the shoeless front foot of Farmer Davies’ big white carthorse; grating wheels and the snap of long leather reins; sweat and the dust and prickle of hay as we toss it from the dray in armfuls for Farmer Davies to press and fashion into the shapely stack, big as a barn, that will slowly diminish through the winter. (Under its huge tarpaulin, I will tunnel out secret holes and dens, where with flashlight, and apple, and books, I will spend many a dusty hour.)
Mitch on his John Deere, and I in the truck with the suicide clutch, jolt along the streambed, and I breathe again, relieved that I have not stalled the motor. I halt the truck along the edge of the field among long grasses and flowers—common working field flowers, pale-gold evening primroses, white and yellow oxeye daisies, purple vetches, and the pinkish white of bramble blossoms. Mitch is ambling the tractor and flatbed slowly between the untidy rows of bales.
We dismount to load. At first, I carry a bale in each hand to the flatbed, gripping the tight twine and feeling strong as I easily lift the bales. Mitch, smaller, stronger, and more used to the work than I, manages one at a time. He is wise and I am not. Slow and steady is the game on a hot morning in the hayfield, and my muscles will remind me in the morning.
I drive the truck with the suicide clutch back to the storage barn behind the swaying tower of hay bales on the flatbed. I am insulated from the throaty pop-pop of the old tractor and can only imagine Mitch standing at the wheel. In the hay shed where we stack the bales, Mitch is up top receiving, as old Farmer Davies used to receive our armfuls, pushing and shaping the stack, the dogs snuffing around for mice, and the dust from the hay rising thickly along the shafts of sunlight that enter through the openings between the walls and the tin roof.
I would like to come back here tonight with a flashlight, an apple, perhaps a book, and hollow out a place in the hay, a place of my own amidst the dust and innocent fragrance that return me to sunny new-mown fields and simple strong old men and horses that knew the way, never for a moment fearing that the hay and the fields and strong hands would be gone tomorrow, fading into memory and dust.