The new year rolled in with gusto, bringing with it sustained winds that threatened trees and power lines. They roared through like a locomotive, but closer, and constant – from one end of the night to the other. The sky flashed odd bouts of lightning to the west, leaving behind a lavender glow that made my stomach queasy. Last spring we had a downburst that ripped the roof off a winery just south of us, and ravaged much of the local peach crop for the year. This wind felt much more ominous.
Our power went out once but caught its breath and kicked back on, giving us a friendly beep in the middle of the night to let us know that all was well. But we wouldn’t be convinced until morning. The coyotes wailed at a higher pitch than normal, adding their falsetto voices to the uncomfortable chorus. We spent the night holding our breath.
We opted to stay in that new year’s eve, although in truth we opt to stay in every year, as we tend to enjoy each other’s company far more than that of boisterous strangers. We cranked the wood stove until it became almost unbearable and then feasted on homemade pizza and beer. And then we went to bed at a most sensible hour and lied awake until morning.
The rooster crowed his new year’s greeting at 4:00 a.m., pleasantly later than normal. It was almost as if he was being kind to us, though we knew better. He was probably praying the roof wouldn’t blow off just as we were, and didn’t dare make a sound until the world had settled. It finally calmed down around dawn, and then everything became so utterly silent you could hear a pin drop.
Alan let the chickens out that morning and came back with the report: You aren’t going to believe this, he said with a shrug, but everything is still standing. The only thing he could find amiss was that the tarp had blown off the outdoor clay oven. He wasn’t sure how that had happened, as he’d wrapped it tightly around its surface and secured it with two separate bungee cords. Both the tarp and the cords were removed, and neatly placed next to the wood pile as if someone had put them there on purpose.
The only other small piece of the puzzle out of place was a suet cake that had blown clear out of the bird feeder. It landed in the mud in our front yard where the chickens and ducks soon discovered it. They eagerly munched it down while Alan made us a grand breakfast of dutch baby pancake and sausages and the dogs devoured treats of leftover pizza crust. My dad used to say that what you do on new year’s day is a sign of what’s to come, and it looks like we’ll all be feasting.
The peach pie we’d made the previous year while being snowed in became a new year’s tradition, and earlier that year we’d frozen some peaches especially for the occasion. We bought them from a nearby orchard just after the downburst, pocked with bruises from the hail but otherwise perfect. Half off, they told us, because they aren’t as pretty. We took them up on their offer.
We added blueberries to the pie this year, tweaking the tradition we’d barely established. Change is good, we insisted, as we waited impatiently for the pie to cool. We dished out slices and reminisced about the bygone year – the wood shed we’d built, my studio addition, the big accomplishments and sad losses. We’d lost four chickens that year to the mink, plus two female Rouens, likely to a raccoon. They had taken to staying at the neighbor’s house during the spring nesting season, and then one day didn’t return, leaving nothing but a mess of crushed egg shells behind.
The Rouen who had been nesting in the neighbor’s fire pit hatched an adorable little duckling, dark around his back and legs and pale yellow on his belly. I don’t know how he got out of the fire pit; it was made from cinder blocks stacked sideways four high. Then again, I don’t know how she got in. But that’s the magic of an obstinate creature, I suppose. Or perhaps a tenacious mother.
She’d take him to our pond every day to go swimming, walking all the way down our neighbor’s driveway, up the long road, and back through the winding path to the water. I wanted to tell her that there was an easier way – the southern edge of our pond and the neighbor’s fire pit are nearly adjacent to each other, separated by only a wire fence that we were happy to bend to her needs. But the duck waddles differently than the crow flies, and there was no talking such sense into her.
We’d watch excitedly for the tiny parade every morning, hoping to spot the little duckling on his journey. We’d see him swim across puddles as the mom looked on patiently. And then they’d disappear into the tall grasses until next time.
Then early one morning we heard a wail that was unmistakable – the painful mixture of anger and sorrow. The loss of a child. The Rouen’s cries could be heard all the way from the neighbor’s, and we felt our hearts breaking with hers. The little duckling was gone.
The Rouen returned to the flock a few days later, but forever changed. First she was angry, then bitter – vocal, like we’d not heard before. And then she began to physically change. Over the next few months her tail started to curl, usually a tell-tale sign of a boy. Her dark brown and black feathers lightened until their tips were nearly white, and she traded out the thick blue female stripe on her wing for the neck band of a male. She transformed into an old man right in front of us, forever different inside and out. It surprised us at first; we didn’t know ducks could change gender. But then again, loss changes you – sometimes completely.
Loss wasn’t limited to the animal kingdom that year. Alan lost a relative, an uncle he’d been close to as a child. We heard the news and sent along our well wishes to the universe; he was the last of his generation. We were surprised to receive a check in the mail several months later, a tidy sum shared among the disparate offspring. We pondered the most reverent way to spend it.
His uncle had been a farmer, so we used a portion to join a conservancy that protected farmland. We weren’t close enough to hear what had become of his farm, but we hoped it had stayed in the family. We used the rest much more locally – to buy a plot of wooded land just south of our neighbor. Our own land conservancy, to preserve the earth just as it ought to be.
The earth movers roared during those cold winter mornings, clearing the trees deep in the woods behind us. We tried not to listen, not to imagine the earth being torn apart only to be paved over to build some new road or development. But the sounds of loss made us ache, the silent cries of Mother Nature. The ability to protect our small plot of trees gave us a sliver of hope and control.
The couple who previously owned the land asked what we’d do with it, and Alan shrugged and said simply: Nothing. We meant to leave it well enough alone, for the birds and creatures to enjoy. We later learned that that won us the sale, as other buyers had hoped to develop or drill for gas. We had no intention of doing either.
The couple used their newfound cash to buy a camper. They had originally intended to build a small home on the property, but their son had just graduated, and they’d just paid off their mortgage, and the thought of adding a new economic fetter was just too much to bear. They traded their in tethers for their newfound freedom, and as we signed over the check, they were so excited they could barely contain themselves.
The sky was clear that night, and still. The empty spaces between the constellations filled in their gaps with ever smaller clusters of stars I’d not seen before. The winds that once ravaged the peaches now sat perfectly still. The cold air that carried the sounds of a mother’s loss across the land now carried the contented splashing of ducks in the distant pond.
As I looked at the sky I thought briefly about what a tether-free life would look like: no farm, no animals, no house, no debt. It sounds freeing, until you realize it also means no place to call home. I gave Alan’s arm an extra squeeze for wanting the same tethers that I did. They may seem confining to someone on the outside, but enough of the right threads woven together become as comforting as a blanket.
As I was staring at the stars, I remembered a conversation from years ago when my daughter was little. Her great-grandfather died when she was too young to understand, and as I sat holding her in the back seat of a car trying to explain the unexplainable, she looked out the window into the star-filled sky and pointed to the brightest one. If the stars were in the heavens, she reasoned, and her great-grandfather was now in heaven as well, then the new star must be him. I couldn’t disagree.
Perhaps all the stars I could now see from the fields of our farm were more familiar than I’d realized. A star for a great-grandfather, and one for an uncle now lost. A cluster of stars for the chickens and the ducks. A pale yellow star for the tiny little duckling. A constellation of relatives we’d lost in the past. A milky way of clear-cut trees and battered peaches. Perhaps our earthly loss is the universe’s gain, a growing multitude of tethers being slowly set free.
Loss changes you, after all. Sometimes completely.