Kristi Schirtzinger

 
 

Subsistence

The first time I saw our little homestead on the Internet, for sale at the right price, I knew it was the only balm that could heal us. I tried to approach it with detached pragmatism—crunching the numbers, figuring the costs of improvements, considering the location—but every time I looked at it again, I had to will my pulse to stop racing. When the girls and I visited the aging hippie, who could no longer keep up with it, there was no doubt in my mind it was the answer. Before we left, I memorized the weathered slats of the tiny house, the little rise on the east where a lone oak tree grew, the vines along the fence heavy with wild raspberries, and the perfect red barn in the back. I could swear I’d seen it in a dream. Standing on the front porch, I felt newly hatched into a bright, familiar land—vatic and joy-addled—learning how to breathe again.

Those heady nights leading up to our move, when the three of us gathered cross-legged on my king-size bed hunting down bargains from Craig's List and studying The Prairie Homesteader, were some of my favorites. I took Tess’s hand-drawn greenhouse plans out of my closet yesterday, just to run my fingers over them and remember. I loved watching her at the kitchen table as she worked and re-worked them for a month until every angle was true, every detail accounted for. And there it stands in the yard, converting sunlight into food. How many fourteen-year-old girls can say they designed a working greenhouse? And our golden comet hens that produce a dozen eggs a week— Claire's pick, after hours of research with the extension office and the local hatchery. How many fourteen-year-olds can say they ran a successful agri-business? The month before our move, Tess prepared the required homeschool documents like she was drafting a case for the Supreme Court and Claire quietly planned the gardens and the fences. I had some of my best dreams when the three of us simply fell asleep on top of each other, exhausted by the output.

When their plans produced a living, breathing farm, I think they were flabbergasted. I wasn’t. Not by that. Not by them. What utterly surprised me was me, my ability to secure a self-contained haven for the three of us. The only thing I ever decided from that obnoxiously large house on “the Boulevard” was what type of counter tops for the second kitchen remodel, granite or marble?

Of course their father couldn’t wrap his small mind around it. He couldn’t fathom the three of us refusing the world he lived in and opting, instead, to build our own world that required neither his money nor his permission. He did the expected: threatened to take me to court.

"You can’t just quit your job and homeschool them, Rachael. That’s neglect.” He paused for a response he never got. “I'm not increasing my child support so you can live out in the sticks and play all day."

"Keep your child support. We don't want it."

"Now wait a minute. I want to support my children, but you have to contribute too."

I laughed at this. “You don’t get it,” I said, and perhaps I was screaming, not laughing. “I don’t want your money. I want a better life for my daughters than the plastic one you offer. You’re living your dream, with a new wife in a new state, why would you deny us our dream?”

Dead air on the phone. Then, "So what's your game plan?"

And that was the end of it, as I knew it would be. He was too encumbered to spar with me in an out-of-state court battle. His checks that came in the mail went right out to Feed the Poor, Inc. The twins and I enjoyed our monthly shopping sprees from their catalogue, where we chose items to help impoverished people live self-sufficiently: rabbits, goats, well pumps, beehives. We had been putting a little back each month to buy a single-family dwelling for someone this Christmas. The money’s still there, in the cookie tin under my bed, collecting dust for now. Maybe someday I’ll find a useful purpose for it, but I can’t imagine what that would be right now. Right now, I’ve got too many chores to do.

As I walk into the barn, the swallows flee through the gaps in the roof with a flurry of irritated cries. Our war over whose barn this is rages on. I’ve tried everything, from self-feeders to another barn cat, but nothing keeps them out of my hens’ feed. I’ve got nothing to lose by trying the method featured in this month’s Prairie Homesteader— hanging old CDs from the rafters. I had to go through three boxes before I found any, but when I came across the ones he’d made for me, I could think of nothing more perfectly symbolic to use. They would be destroyed by bird shit and dust within a month. Of course, if this worked the way it was supposed to, I wouldn’t have any more barn swallows in here, shitting on everything and eating all my hens’ feed. According to The Prairie Homesteader, it works because they fear their distorted, metallic reflections. I find that symbolic too.

The hens peck at my ladder as I set it and squawk dramatically when I step on their feet. "Get out from under-foot, then," I warn, but they only blink up at me from their black, witless eyes. I climb up, pull a pre-cut length of twine out of my pocket, and thread “To My Girl.” The CD was scratched and smudged worse than the others. A memory of me curled in the fetal position, in a bed I never seemed to leave that year, flashed then faded. This CD had played in the background through most of it, as I recall. How satisfying to use it for something productive now.

The ladder sways and I steady it before I attempt to loop the twine over the beam. I hear my mother's voice: "Be careful doing all that stuff on your own. Are you sure you're alright? Do you and the girls need groceries?" She still says this when I go to town once a week and give her a call on the pay phone. Except for "the girls" part, of course.

The rooster eyes me from the corner of the stall. He and I have an uneasy relationship, but I need him to make new chickens and he needs me to supplement his diet and provide him with a harem. "You leave me alone and I'll leave you alone," I tell him, but the words are to calm me, not him. If he takes the notion, he'll come after me as soon as I climb down. I set the ladder, climb back up, and pull out the next CD: “Our Wedding Day.”

The reception was at his parent's country club, but it could have been behind a Super Walmart for all I cared. I was just happy to live in the implausible reality that he had married me. Even on our wedding day I wondered if I was chosen simply as an affront to his parents, who had in mind a pedigreed, sorority legacy from their circle. Was I an act of rebellion he never meant to take this far? I wasted a lot of years trying to answer that question, and I'm embarrassed by it now. All that money wasted, too. An ungodly amount, from the wedding clear up to the divorce. I try not to be too hard on myself. Affluence offers so many options, and it’s tempting to absorb the other flavors in the wok like a lump of tofu.

The alarm on my watch vibrates. It's nine, the time I used to head in to begin the girls' lessons. This aching space here, this empty pocket of memory that shouldn't be, is perhaps the worst part. They're fourteen, the age of absolute vulnerability, and he’s thrown them into the cauldron of prep-school absurdity. Who does he think will teach them how to be women, the wolf he lives with whose nails are the color of a house fire?

I can only hope that the lessons of those early days, when the girls and I worked side by side marveling at each new seedling, each new chick, each new Mason jar of sustenance stacked in the basement will combat the toxins of their new environment. Tess is stubborn enough to forge her own path, despite the lure of prep-school indoctrination, but Claire is fragile. I think she wanted the farm more than I did, if that’s possible.

I carry the ladder across the barn to another stall. There’s no rush to get into the house, so I may as well stay out here, where it’s not so quiet. My 30 broiler chicks lounge around a feeder the size of a tire, torpid in the cool of the barn. In a month, they'll be big enough to slaughter and put in the freezer, but until then I have to keep them growing. I peek in my grain bin, which is running low. "Get out there and eat bugs," I tell them. They just pluck at the feed and chirp. I set the ladder, trying to avoid the chicks scrambling beneath me, and climb back up.

I pick out a CD with the words “Hear Me Out” scrawled across it and thread it with twine. The same jagged handwriting on those checks I get every month hangs in the air like the writing on the wall I ignored for 16 years. This sappy collection was his attempt to grovel after I discovered his first indiscretion. It had worked, not because I believed him, but because I wanted to. It swings through the air among dust motes, straw, and microscopic bits of our twins' hair and skin. How it survived the subsequent year of tantrums (mine) accusations (mine) and appeals for forgiveness (his) is a mystery. It seems the most obvious object for someone in my situation to smash, burn, or slash her wrists with. Yet instead of a dramatic exit, I opted instead for the slower death of stalwart commitment. I taught school, he climbed the corporate ladder, we vacationed with other couples, and I pretended not to notice his low-grade flirtations at every social event.

“Divorce him,” my mother advised. “Between your job and his alimony, you’ll be fine. It won’t be like us, Rachael. I had no work skills and your father was a mechanic. I had no choice but to stay with my asshole. I had you to support.”

Telling her I loved him would only have elicited disbelief. Who in their right mind would live their life as an apology?

I hang the last CD. The shiny discs dangling everywhere look like miniature disco balls throwing off spectrums of light. I take it all in, ceiling to floor, this little barn I dreamed of. I watch a single piece of straw, ignited by sunlight, spiral slowly through blue air and rest on the barn floor among the million bits of wool and feather and flesh. I see the shadows from up here too, the ones I’ve sensed all my life - sometimes darting at the periphery, sometimes bearing right down on me - but I’ve stayed one step, half a step ahead them.

Breathless.

But now I've reached a place of exhaustion, and I wonder just how restful that darkness might be. Perhaps it feels like velvet and not the terrible nothingness I’ve always imagined.

Down below, Maureen bleats for attention. "I miss them too," I say from the ceiling, even though I know she just needs milking.

"We named her after you, Grandma," the girls had said proudly when Mom came to our homestead for the first time. "We have to milk her every morning."

"That's going to be hard before school," Mom said, skeptical of this "extreme" lifestyle we'd adopted. She eyed me warily, as if drinking goat's milk were akin to drinking the Kool-Aid.

We had been protective of our plans, keeping them to ourselves until we moved. Now they were faced with the prospect of telling their grandmother a bold-face lie. Not their style.

The only thing I could do was let them explain.

"You can't be serious," Mom hissed at me, wresting her sleeve from Maureen's teeth.

"I've never been more serious," I assured her.

The girls jumped to my defense. Tess assured her that our closely guarded savings would buy groceries until we canned the vegetables from our garden that fall. Claire waxed eloquent about her hens, their prolific egg laying, and the clientele she already had coming weekly to buy them. Tess explained how our farm provided the type of rigorous education in business economics and science that public schools couldn’t come close to offering. She explained our mineral rights and the natural spring that allowed us to live almost completely off-grid. Yet there was no convincing her that we knew what we were doing or that we weren't going to starve to death. We felt sorry for her, but there were chores to do.

She came about once a month with the same distressed expression on her face, clutching bags of groceries. "These are going straight to the food bank in town," I'd say, "to people who need them."

February was the first time the girls asked me if we could keep the groceries. Provisions were low, it was true, but that was to be expected in winter. The obstacles we’d had those first six months, when half the hens were wiped out by foxes and the green beans got a blight, were the problems every homesteader faced. In a way, I was grateful for the opportunity they provided to test our grit and to show us we could carry on without falling back on outside resources. I reminded them we still had hens laying eggs, a goat giving milk, and dried fruit in the cupboard, but I agreed to keep the flour and sugar from the grocery bags. All the other stuff, processed poison in boxes and cans, was going to town. I made them sweet pancakes that night and they went to bed full and rallied.

When I took Mom’s groceries into the food bank, I called her from the pay phone. “Visit without groceries or don’t visit at all,” I said. “I’m teaching them important lessons here.”


"I'll be down soon," I say to Maureen, whose black pointy tongue is pathetically extended toward me with every cry. I know I have to make a decision soon, but my mind keeps rearranging the options. And Maureen keeps reminding me that there are still creatures depending on me here.

I pluck the rope from the little hook on my ladder and tie one end securely to the beam. The rope was an unexpected find when I went hunting for the hole that thieving foxes were using to get into my barn. There it was, coiled like a sleeping snake in the corner. It was frayed, but not too frayed, left there by the previous owner. I pulled it out. Set it aside. It watched me and I watched it each morning and evening as I went about my chores. It seemed to rattle at me especially loud in the evenings, as the weight of twilight pressed down more and more each day.

Yesterday when I called Georgia to talk to my girls, he answered.

“Are you doing OK, Rachael?”

As if I would buy that.

“They’re adjusting well. Settling in.”

As if I would buy that either.

I heard Claire's laughter lilting across space and time in the background. I waited for her disembodied essence to come to the phone. I doubted this optimism about her “settling in,” but her voice would tell me.

“Hi honey. I miss you so much.”

“I miss you too, Mom.”

“Your hens miss you.”

A breathy sound between a laugh and a sigh.

“Are you adjusting to school?”

“It’s surprisingly tolerable. I joined FFA and Dad is getting me a goat to raise for the fair.”

The pressure in my ears shifted and the sounds of traffic went silent for a moment.

“Mom?”

“That’s great, Claire. I’m surprised your dad’s wife will allow you to have a goat, though. Is there enough space there?”

“Candy has a friend who will let me raise it at his place.”

“Mom?”

“I’m here. Where is your sister tonight?”

“Out on a date. Some boy from biology class. He's president of the debate team.”

I heard voices in the background. Voices of people I don't know, who get to breathe the same air as my daughters.

“I love you, Claire.”

“I know you do, Mom.”

“Mom?”

Of all the things I learned in the year preparing to homestead, I never learned how to tie a slipknot. I had to teach myself, and that was no easy task without scouting books or computers on hand. But now that I have it down – loop, wrap, pull, tighten – I estimate it to be about one of the handiest skills I have in my arsenal. I run my thumb over its course fiber. I feel its pulse. Or is that mine?

The last time Mom came to visit, right before she called Georgia, the girls confessed to calling her and telling her we needed groceries. I regret my volatility now. My instincts were right, but my responses were wrong. Even a life lived on your own terms, ordered to your own rituals, can feel like a heel of oppression when you're hungry. It's hard for children, even exceptional ones, to keep pushing toward a better future when daily life feels like a self-imposed struggle. I would argue that self-imposed struggles are the only kind worth having, but that's where she and I disagree. Homesteading is hard, but not in the way most people assume it is. Most people can handle, and even come to embrace, the physical labor of it. But it is hard in a visceral, beautiful way, the way that flying on a trapeze with no net must feel like. You get no breaks. Nobody's going feed your animals on a day off. Nobody’s going to deliver bread to your door so you can eat. Your subsistence depends solely on you. No one can give it to you. No one can take it from you. People who don't live it can mistake it for poverty.

I test the workings of my slipknot. I picture myself dangling among the CDs, sparks of sunshine bouncing off me until the light fades. Maureen bleats again, as if channeling her namesake from far below me.

I'll never blame the girls, and that's the part that keeps stopping me. How will they know that I don't blame them? The struggle I have now is anything but self-imposed. As a matter of fact, it's the same struggle I've been having my whole life, and I've grown tired. When you can’t tell the difference between the battles you choose and the battles you don’t, what’s the point of fighting?

I’ve rehearsed for this: the rope, the ladder, the fight for oxygen that’s going to happen. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that rehearsal for an outcome doesn’t equal that outcome. Perhaps this will be the same thing. Then again, how will I know?

“Mom,” Tess had said. “We all wanted this to work. It was our dream too.”

Claire simply sobbed.

“Promise you’ll take care of yourself after we leave.”

I wanted to speak but couldn’t with the rumble of his Lexus racing toward our sanctuary.

“Promise us,” Claire had insisted.

“I can take care of myself, girls. I’ll be fine.”

“Mom, there’s nothing to eat here. Promise you’ll leave if it gets too bad. You’re more important than the farm.”

I ask myself what’s worse for them, a question that never gets answered or an answer that never gets questioned.

I untie the rope from the beam. The coiled snake drops to the floor, sending up dust with the weight of its dead inertia. Vertigo steals me for a moment, and I don’t remember taking two steps down, but here I am. I must steady myself. I must rest my head before I climb one way or the other. The cool of the rung, its grooved metal, absorbs the sudden, frenetic heat pouring out of me. I hang on and hang on and hang on. Long enough to gather the strength to climb down.