“Make sure Mama Kitty gets plenty to eat. She’s looking pretty thin,” Dad instructed me one afternoon in late March. I stared at the floor for a moment. She was not thin last night when I fed all the cats.
Growing up on our South Dakota farm we learned about the birds and the bees at an early age. Storks and pumpkin seeds? We knew better! So, if the mother cat was suddenly skinny, it could mean only one thing.
The folks always told us to leave baby kittens alone or the mother cat would move them. I knew they would not approve of me climbing up into the haymow, so later that day when Mom was in the chicken coop and the men were doing hog chores, I slipped into the middle door of the barn.
Our haymow (rhymes with cow) covered the whole barn and served as a storage place for bales of alfalfa, brome hay and straw which were stacked in the middle. When needed, we dropped the feed or bedding to the livestock below through strategic openings in the floor.
I gazed up at the three one-by-four boards that were nailed across the barn framework and served as the ladder to the upper level. The boards were spaced for legs much longer than mine, but I managed to pull myself up to the first one and then one-step the rest of the way. At last, I scrambled onto the rough wooden floor boards. A light switch hugged the side of the ladder post. I flipped the switch, and a huge room emerged from the darkness.
Dust motes danced through the light above. The musty smell of hay and straw blended with the animal odors from below. My breath rose, a cloud of steam in the cold air.
I scanned the area for a potential pediatric ward. A small pile of bales remained in the center of the room. In the far corner where the barn roof curved down and the space narrowed, a few old bales remained from previous years. Thick blankets of cobwebs drooped from the ceiling to the hay. As I moved closer, I heard a tiny mew.
In a triangular opening, Mama Kitty sat with her tail curled around her. She looked up at me as I peeked over the bale, then went about the bathing-the-babies business. Her rough tongue lifted the kitten bodies off their straw bed. I watched in fascination as tiny heads bobbed about searching for Mother. Eyes shut, they mewed and tumbled over each other, finally finding nourishment. Purr button on high, Mama Kitty lay down, stretched out and closed her eyes. I reached in and petted her soft gray head. Then I rubbed one finger between the bitty ears of a kitten.
Suddenly, I heard scuffing noises as someone climbed up the vertical ladder. I was miffed that I would have to share the secret of the baby kittens, and I figured he would tell.
My brother Delmer sidled up next to the old bales. “How many does she have?”
“How old are they?”
“Just born last night.” For several minutes we reveled in the scene. Then my brother glanced up at the spider webs. He said it was a good thing the old bales were still there for the kittens. A couple years ago a distinct odor of skunk kept anyone from moving the bales. Then no one wanted to tear into the webs, so the old hay remained.
“The good hay will be gone in a couple weeks,” he said as he got up to toss down feed. “Then Don and I will sweep it out and play ball up here. It’s the best part of having a haymow.”
He carried a bale, and I rolled one over to the opening above the bull’s pen. Pushing one knee into it, he pulled off the twine and tossed chunks of hay down the opening. I stepped right next to the edge of the hole and looked down. My stomach lurched as I saw two pairs of curled horns twist about as the Hereford bulls tore off tufts of hay. Then Delmer told me about last spring when he and Don had been bouncing the basketball against the haymow wall. It had rolled down into the bull enclosure. He had to go down below and rescue the ball. My stomach lurched again.
We moved to the south side and dropped two straw bales. My brother tossed off his coat as sweat beaded on his forehead. He and Don had sweated plenty when they filled the haymow last summer. Not a breath of air stirred in the room above the barn on the hottest day of the year. They brought a load of bales from the field and unloaded them onto the elevator that carried them up through the big door on the front of the barn. Then they stacked them again, ready for winter feed and bedding.
Delmer finished chores in the haymow, and I followed him down the ladder.
That night at supper Dad asked if I was feeding Mama Kitty. I nodded. “Yup, I’m taking good care of her.” I sneaked a glance at Delmer, but he didn’t say a word.
The next night when Mom was in the chicken coop, and the guys were doing hog chores, I slipped into the barn…. I peeked over the old bales. I watched the miracle before me, and I knew for certain — THIS was the best part of having a haymow.
DeAnn Kruempel grew up on a farm near De Smet, SD, the sixth child of Harrison and Mabel Wolkow. She attended school at Erwin and De Smet. Married Vicar Robert Kruempel and lived in Benedict, ND, Toeterville, Akron, and Missouri Valley, IA. The author now resides on an acreage near Logan, IA and is employed as Children's Librarian at Missouri Valley Public Library. DeAnn has written a series of five books, "Promises to Keep," which are available at Amazon.com.