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The Farm

by Christopher Seymour 8 months ago in Short Story · updated 8 months ago
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Ted can’t shake off the influence of mother-in-law

Ted Watkins looked at the paddock alongside the Susquehanna River with satisfaction. He had a fine herd of sheep, the pasture looked perfect, and the ewes were all pregnant. He had worked hard over the past ten years improving the herd, weeding out the poor performers. He had kept careful records of the lineage of each sheep, and careful records of how fast the lambs had grown. He knew he could count on reliable growth to bring the lambs to market within four months of birth.

He had personally laid out the electric fences and the passageways to allow easy management of the herd. He had supervised the pipe laying to ensure water was available in every separate paddock. He looked beyond the sheep to the apricot trees beyond. He had done a lot to improve that orchard too. Laying in irrigation, taking a more scientific approach to fertilizers, removing the low yield trees and consulting with the state outreach office to overcome a fruit fly infestation five years ago.

All in all, he felt he had made huge improvement to Dragavei Farm over the last ten years. There was just one big fly in his ointment. He did not own the farm that was his life’s work.

He had come to work at the farm twenty years earlier after leaving high school. His employer, Alexandru Dragavei, had been a tough demanding boss. He had lost other employees because of his sharp tongue, but Ted had responded to the harsh treatment by working even harder. Little by little Alexandru had warmed to Ted and had taught him everything about the farm. Alexandru had even sponsored him through agricultural college. At work or in the evenings Alexandru would demand to know what Ted had learnt in class, and they would discuss how new ideas could be applied to the Dragavei Farm.

The Dragavei farm had been in the family ever since the 1840s, when the Dragavei family had migrated to Pennsylvania from Romania. There were family members scattered through Pennsylvania and Ohio, and occasional gatherings would be held. Alexandru’s wife, Mihaela, was a more recent immigrant. She had come out to Pennsylvania from Romania after the war. At home the family still spoke Romanian.

The scariest day in Ted’s whole life was the day he decided to ask Alexandru for permission to marry his daughter. Alina Dragavei was an only child, and she was beautiful. Ted and Alina had worked closely together on some of the tasks around the farm and they had formed a deep attachment for each other. Even Alina though, did not know how her father would react to news of their proposed union.

To the surprise and delight of both of them, her father had approved of the marriage. He even asked Ted what had taken so long. There had been an elaborate ceremony at the Romanian church in Hazleton followed by a large gathering at the farm. Few of the guests were friends of Ted – he had come from a broken family. Alexandru had allowed Ted a week off work for the honeymoon.

Four years after the wedding, Alexandru passed away from a heart attack. Management of the farm passed to Ted.

As he made his way back to the white farmhouse, Ted rehearsed in his mind what he would say after the evening meal was over. He wanted to diversify the farm by building a battery hen operation. It would give them year-round income, and they would not be dependent on just lambs and apricots. Their two children were growing, and Ted wanted to put money into their college funds. And the fruit fly scare had shown how dangerous it was to rely on just a few sources of income.

But Ted knew that his mother-in-law, Mihaela, would not approve. She had her own chicken run with a score of hens, that she fed every morning. She disapproved of intensive animal management.

The evening meal was pleasant enough. Alina had cooked a traditional lamb meatloaf. Mihaela was unusually reticent in criticizing the children’s table manners. The conversation turned to the loud hooting they had heard over the previous few nights.

Twelve-year-old Marius said, “I think it’s a Great-horned owl. They are the biggest owl found in our state, and the loudest”.

Alina said “last night it was definitely very loud. I could hear it for a long time as it flew away.”

Ten-year-old Elena asked “What do they eat? It sounded so scary last night.”

Marius replied, “Little girls – they swoop down with their big talons and”.

“That’s enough.” interrupted his mother. “Any more talk like that and you are straight to bed. And owls eat rats and nice – just small stuff”.

“Still, I am a bit worried about the ewes,” said Ted. “Those horned owls are very big birds and they could cause a miscarriage”.

“In my district in Romania the old people say that after we die, we may come back as owls” said Mihaela.

“That could mean a lot of owls,” said Ted.

“You can sneer” responded Mihaela “but there is a lot the old people know. And only the good come back as owls. Some people”, and here she looked at Ted “come back as foxes”.

This ended the conversation The dishes were cleared and the children packed off to bed. Ted told Alina and Mihaela he had something important to talk about.

Ted laid out his plans for the battery house. He had already explained everything to Alina, but it was all new to Mihaela. She listened in silence as Ted explained the different features of the facility and how it would work. He told them he already had a draft contract with a supermarket chain to sell the eggs.

When he had finished Mihaela asked “And how much will this cost?”. “$240,000” said Ted, “and I have an appointment with the bank manager in Sunbury tomorrow to raise a loan. I have already shown him the plans and the bank has agreed to lend the money”.

Alina said “Mother, please consider it. Ted has worked so hard on this and other projects to secure our future. Please”.

“All right, just for you I will come and listen, but I don’t promise anything.”

The next day the three of them were in Jack Ridley’s office at First National. Ridley was in charge of commercial loans.

“This was an unusually well put together proposal,” said Ridley. “Our loans committee in Pittsburgh were impressed and had no hesitation in approving this loan, especially since Ted has already negotiated a draft sales agreement with Golden Chain supermarkets.”

“So, what do you want from me?” said Mihaela.

“Well, we will require a lien over the farm,” said Ridley. “Since you are the sole owner listed on the deeds, we need you to sign the documents”.

“I need to see what I am to sign “ said Mihaela.

For the next hour she poured over the documents asking questions here and there.

“What’s this clause 15c(i)” she said.

“It requires you to keep insurance over the facility” said Ridley “and you must send us a copy of the insurance certificate each year. It’s a standard clause”.

At the end of the hour Mihaela looked up and said “No”.

“What do you mean no” said Alina “Ted has worked so hard on this. You can’t just say no”.

“I can and I have” responded Mihaela.

They drove back to the farm in silence. Ted was deeply depressed. He felt his life’s work was controlled by this woman. What else could he do?

He went back to working on the farm, making improvements here and there. Conversations with his mother-in-law were very limited.

Spring passed into summer. The lambs sold well and the farm had a record year. In the fall there was a bumper crop of apricots.

There was also a flu epidemic. Mihaela was one of the victims. She spent a week on a ventilator in hospital before passing away.

Ted dreaded the reading of the will. He felt sure that Mihaela would have left the farm to some distant relative in Romania and his whole life’s work would have been for nothing. But his fears were ungrounded. Mihaila had left the farm jointly to Alina and Ted. Ted felt elated that finally he would have something to show for his efforts.

Alina sensed his mood. She mourned for her mother, but she said to Ted “Let’s go and see that bank manager in Sunbury”.

Construction took place over the winter. In early spring twelve thousand chicks populated the new facility. Ted was busy night and day between the hens and the pregnant ewes.

Then one night they heard the owl’s hoot again, loud and echoing across the river valley. In the morning Ted went down to the riverside paddock. Three of the newborn lambs were dead – their necks pecked to pieces.

The next night was the same, with another three lambs dead.

On the third night, he left the house after dinner, taking his shotgun. “You can’t use that,” said Alina. “it’s illegal to shoot owls and what if”. She left the sentence unfinished but Ted knew what she was thinking.

“I don’t believe in old wives’ tales, and I’ll just use the gun to scare it off, whatever it is”.

He sat by the paddock and waited. At midnight a half moon rose in the sky. It cast a dim light over the country. An hour later he heard the beat of huge wings. An owl settled in the tree across the paddock from Ted. It was a Great-horned owl alright. Ted knew the horns were actually just feathers, but it gave the creature a devilish look. Ted stared at it again. Was he dreaming? It seemed to him that he was looking straight at the face of Mihaela.

Ted felt a shiver of fear run through him. Surely this was not possible. Then he remembered the dead lambs and his anger and frustration overcame him. He lifted his shotgun and fired. The creature fell dead from the tree.

When Ted got back to the house Alina asked him what had happened. She had heard the shot. He told her that he had seen the owl and had fired a shot in the air to scare it off. It had left. He told himself he would take one of his trusted employees to the paddock in the morning and bury the owl. Alina would never know.

In the morning he went over to the battery house to ask an employee to accompany him. The man was grim faced.

“What’s up,” said Ted.

The man explained that somehow a fox had got into the battery house. It had overturned some of the cages and released others. Quite a few of the young hens were dead, and the place was a real mess. “I had just arrived, and it ran out of that door,” said the man. “And the strangest thing happened. It looked back at me and laughed. And I could swear it was the laugh of an old woman.”

Short Story

About the author

Christopher Seymour

In my career as a mining engineer, I have lived in California, New Mexico, South Africa, Australia and the UK. I am now retired in Australia

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