By Alexis Metso
I wake up but I don’t open my eyes. The air is chilled because I left the window open. I can smell freshness pouring in. It smells like wet grass with a faint hint of manure.
Much to my dismay, I can hear the mice scratching in the ceiling. This house is a mouse trap. They are everywhere but haven’t bothered me by showing themselves. The reasons why are crawling up my stomach, lying on my legs, and snuggling into my neck. One is missing. He is probably on the windowsill bed.
I open my eyes and look at the one nestled on my chest. The black and white pattern, which our family nicknamed “Holstein” because of its resemblance to a milk cow, covers the small kitten. He matches his fluffy brother, who lies asleep in the window just as I suspected, and the large, gentle tom cat who has deadened my legs.
Marble Rye, the runt of the litter who sits on my chest, blinks at me with kitten- blue eyes. Noticing that I am awake, he mews and crawls up farther to stop right in front of my face. He nuzzles his head against my chin, and before I can react he bites the tip of my nose. It hurts but I am used to it; it is the sign that he is hungry. He forgets his hunger and pounces on Brownie, the gray kitten lying in my hair. They roll off the pillow, biting each others’ ears and growling playfully. I maneuver Tooter the tom cat off my legs, stand up and stretch to greet the day.
Home of Many
The house where I now spend my summers is in most of my childhood memories. It was my grandmother’s house. The thing I liked best about this house was that it shared a yard with my parents’ house, the house I grew up in. I could go to Grandma’s all by myself before I was four years old. Of course, my mother and grandmother watched over my journey even though I didn’t know it. The house stands on a 246 acre-plot of land that was once a logging camp along the Soo Line Railroad. It is not the original house that was on the land. The first was moved to the town of Kettle River sometime in the 1920s or 1930s. Before this final house was built, the previous family lived in the sauna to the west of the house. Can you imagine living with a whole family in a sauna no bigger than a camper/RV? Me neither.
My great uncle Hugo bought the farm from the Kettalas in the 1940s, my grandparents bought it from him in 1951, and my dad and mom bought it from them in the 1970s. Since my grandparents wanted to continue living on the farm, they made a deal, and my parents built their own house about fifty yards away. The only thing they asked for was help working the farm, but my grandpa insisted on paying some of the bills as well. On our farm and the Metso homestead that my great uncles Harold and Harry ran just up the road, my family milked many Holstein dairy cattle. It wasn’t a large operation, but it was enough to need our own milk truck.
Give Us Our Daily Bread
I walk to the bathroom and hear the thud, thud, thump, thud behind me, followed by the pattering of sixteen paws on the cold, hard floorboards. I can’t go anywhere in this house without an entourage. It doesn’t help that most of the doors in the house do not shut completely because of the shifting of the foundation, so trying to close the door on cats to avoid an audience is impossible. They follow me all the way to the toilet and sit patiently while I do my business. One of them—Oreo, the black and white fluff of a kitten—finds the litter box to do the same.
I wash up, brush my hair, and scoop Tooter some food. He is already perched on the clothes washer that stands in my bathroom. I have to feed him up there so the kittens do not eat his senior cat kibble. The little shits keep trying to climb up the litter box and onto the dryer but have yet to succeed. I fear Oreo may be close, though; he is the biggest kitten.
The three follow me to the kitchen where I lay kitten kibble in an old pie tin. They all stick their front paws into the food, trying to block the others from getting any. Marble usually ends up eating more because he can be quite mean to his bigger brothers. My alarm-brewed coffee is ready, and I pour a mug and watch as the sun rises higher, casting away the shadows from the multiple rose bushes that guard this house from my childhood home.
Birds and Roses
My grandma Esther Metso always loved birds and flowers. She made it a point to feed the birds every afternoon, and tend to her rose and lilac bushes throughout the spring and summer. The house is literally surrounded by plants. Along the east and north sides of the house are rose bushes of some sort. There are two white and about eight pink, wild rose bushes, and two sets of lilac bushes. Pine and spruce trees stand all around. She tended them all, even sawing off low branches from the massive trees in her late seventies. When it came to plants, she had the greenest thumb around.
I get dressed and, without putting on shoes, open the door and walk outside. I turn and call to the kittens. They come running and tip their full bellies over the threshold to follow me. Tooter is the last. He can’t hear, so he waits until he sees the kittens run. I shut the door behind all of us and watch as the kittens nervously look down the three steps to the grass.
I step down and walk along the small gravel path I call my driveway. I don’t walk in the grass. Because the trees’ needles cover the yard, they hurt worse than the rocks, so I take the easiest route. I call for the kittens to follow. They are scattered in a five-foot radius, sniffing the grass and pouncing at things too small for me to see. They perk up when they hear me and come running. They know already where we are going, and they run and jump on each other the whole way to the other porch. Tooter mosies on behind them at his old man pace. It is hard to believe he will be twelve. His momma, my sweet baby girl Melody, would have been fourteen. I open the screen door and the heavy winter door, and the three kittens push each other in; I hold the door open, waiting for Tooter.
“Close the door!” my mom shouts. “You’ll let the bugs in!”
“Just waiting for Toot.”
He gets to the door almost on cue.
“I brought your four extra grandbabies to see you,” I tell her.
My mom coos the kittens to her, and Marble is the only one who goes. He always wants to be held. Tooter isn’t far behind.
I crawl over the baby gate into the kitchen. Dog likes to eat cat food, gate keeps dog out; enough said. I open the fridge to see what’s good. I’m not like most teenagers. I can actually see the food that sits unprepared.
“How does French toast sound, Ma?” I shout over the wall that separates the kitchen and living room.
“You read my mind,” she quips. It is one of her favorite breakfasts. Mine too.
It is May. It’s cold for the month but because it’s Minnesota, we expect the unexpected. The long grasses of the field behind my house are still brown with only hints of green here and there. The beef cattle bay as my dad drives a flatbed load of hay out to the three round hay bins. The horses run around impatiently as they wait for him to come with their bale. These bales are dingy looking from the winter weather. In two months we will make fresh.
July and August are the best months to make hay in Minnesota because they are the driest months. They can also be the most dangerous. One little spark on drying hay and a whole field can go up in flames. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it is devastating to the farmer relying on that crop.
The area we live in is a Heinz 57 of topography. There are places that are completely flat or extremely hilly. There are swamps and forests that go on for miles. We live right in the middle of all of it.
A stream cuts through our property, and to one side it floods over and makes a swamp, while the other bank leads to a forest. A beaver likes to build a dam in the wider part of the stream, and it backs up our fields with water for weeks.
As a child I went out on the four-wheeler with my dad, and we had to park in the field and walk through dense underbrush to the bank of the stream. We wore long, rubber boots because the beaver flooded the path. My dad turned and pointed to a pile of sticks and small logs in the middle of the water.
“That’s the beaver dam. It’s where he decided to build his home this spring,” he told me informatively.
I looked but it did not impress me. It looked too wet to be a home.
In a hushed tone, my dad said, “Look! There he is!”
I looked hard at the water and then I saw the beaver, too. A little nose moving through the water. He rose a bit so I could see his head, but then he must have seen us because he quickly ducked under water and vanished.
“I see he hasn’t fallen for the traps yet,” my dad admonished in a gruff voice.
I knew he wasn’t mad at me but at the beaver.
“Guess it’s time for the gun,” he said.
We walked back to the four-wheeler and headed out of the field and down the road to the house. I followed my dad inside and watched as he went down to the gun locker to get the rifle. I didn’t know what kind it was—he kept it locked away. He carried the gun in a case when he went back out to take care of the beaver. I was not allowed to go with him because I was too little to be around the gun. I stayed in the house with Mom until I heard the four-wheeler come back.
Manure and Plants
I put the last dish from breakfast into the drying rack and drain the washtub of the dirty water. I give my mom a hug and kiss and a “see you later.” I call the kittens and have to carry Tooter out the door. He doesn’t like to leave someplace comfy. The kittens plop down the steps and run for the cover of my parents’ minivan. I keep walking and notice that my dad has started the next job of the day, spreading the black manure dirt over the garden plot. It is one of three gardens we have, but it is the only one that he can use the tractor and manure spreader on.
The garden is 150 by 50 feet long and is home to our corn, potatoes, carrots and peas throughout the summer. We try to grow as many different vegetables as we can that we use on a daily basis. Fresh is always better than bought. We have planted veggies ever since I can remember and ever since my siblings can remember.
Our apple tree is famous in our neighborhood. One tree equals about 500 pounds, give or take. It all depends on what the weather is like in the year. We don’t even know what kind of apples it produces—all we know is that you can use them for everything.
Every fall I brought multiple Walmart bags full of apples on the bus for the driver to make pies, crisps and cakes out of. A neighbor would take the smallest apples and juice them for her health guru lifestyle. My family would peel, chunk, and dice hundreds of the apples and stash them in the freezer to use later. We also used fresh apples to make our own batches of delectables.
I walk past my summer home to the sauna that still stands to the west. I open the door and step onto the dilapidating floor boards of the warming room. When I check the wood box, I see there are hardly any logs inside. I open the stove and clean out the ashes into an old pail. I go inside the sauna room and flip the garbage can/water heater over so it will be ready to fulfill its purpose.
Tooter has followed me in here and sits on the second bench supervising my work. I pick him up and sit him down on the outside step. I slide open the heavy wood door to the connected wood shed and set up my splitting stand. I check the blade on my double-sided axe and double check the room for animals (cats mainly) before sliding the door back into place and getting to work. I aim and swing and the axe goes where I want it to. I don’t let my dad cut the wood for me anymore.
“I can do it,” I say to no one as I swing the blade again and feel the first ache build in my back. I throw the log into the split bin and place another whole one on the stoop.
“Sisu,” I mutter, just like I told the physical therapist when he told me to stop doing things that strain my back. I take after the ones that came before me. I don’t like others doing my job most of the time.
Alexis Metso is a sophomore at Bemidji State University majoring in elementary education. She likes to write, watch Netflix, and cuddle with her best friend Melissa’s cat in her free time. Her favorite thing ever is Mator from Disney’s Cars. She also enjoys spending time outdoors.