By Abigail Dunlap
The evening air, scented with freshly mown clover, clouds thickly around us as I pull Livvy out of her car seat. Sheep bray in background, mothers calling out for offspring to return to their side for the night. My daughter babbles and points at my childhood home, a model Midwest farmhouse with green trim, the gem of the forty-acre property for three generations of Hardestys. A modest red barn and accompanying tractor-shed peek around the side of the house. There’s even the requisite spreading oak complete with a tire swing gracing the front lawn.
None of it has changed a lick in the months I’ve been gone.
The farm evolved from diverse subsistence farming with a smattering of animals, fields, and orchards under my great-great-grandfather to a monoculture of sheep under my father. The nature of the economic landscape forced him to transition to a niche market when I was little. We nearly foundered seven years ago, but then Korey earned my parents’ permanent respect as a junior in high school when he came up with the idea of marketing local, grass-fed only lamb to restaurants in Indianapolis. Very quickly, the plan generated interest from high-end dining establishments across the state and even in Chicago, Louisville, and Cincinnati as well as a burgeoning number of direct-to- consumer sales.
The irony is my dad has all but entirely pastured his sheep for the past twenty years. In effect, there was very little practical change in farming methods. Only a switch to grass-finished market lambs and the implementation of intelligent marketing techniques. If Korey wasn’t so sold on the idea of following in Dad’s footsteps as a farmer, he’d excel in business school.
The sharp crunch of gravel catches my attention. Dad lumbers toward me from the barn, stained IU ball cap in hand. Livvy clings to me, unsure of him. “Hi there, Olivia Jane,” Dad says to Livvy, emphasizing Jane, as it’s the name of his beloved deceased mother. Mom prefers to call her Ollie after her mother. Livvy buries her face in my shoulder when he waves. She’s only met him once before, six months ago at Christmas. A lifetime for an almost 2 year-old. Dad half-smiles at her before wrapping me in a side hug, careful to not scare his granddaughter. I reflexively breathe in the familiar musk of his sweat-dried t-shirt.
“Hey, Nutmeg,” He rumples my hair, signaling an end to the hug.
“Korey called earlier and said he’d asked you to come this weekend, so your Mom’s got your room ready. We pulled out the crib from the attic. Got anything I can carry in for you?”
I gesture to the backseat of my Civic, full of everything a toddler might need for a weekend with the grandparents she never sees. He gamely bundles it up. “How’s work?” He asks as though we’d last spoke a week ago instead of half a year ago.
I slide Livvy to the ground and prod her to follow him and we amble toward the house. She does so, in spurts, glancing back at me every few feet. “Mama?” “Yes, I’m coming, Livvy,” I reassure her before answering my dad. “Work’s fine. There’s never a shortage of people needing legal help.”
“You can always come back here if you get tired of answering emails and phone calls for an attorney.”
We both know this isn’t true.
Livvy pauses on the top step of the front porch and starts poking her finger into a large knot in a support beam.
“Find anything interesting in there?” Dad crosses his arms and leans against one of the porch posts, amused by Livvy. He’s slowly nurturing a healthy paunch along with a rapidly receding hairline. His hair seems grayer and more absent since Christmas. Livvy stops poking and stares at him until he opens the screen door. Then, she darts inside.
Reluctantly, I pursue her, throwing one last look behind me. Twilight deepens, bringing forth flickers from the stars and fireflies. I yearn to curl up on the front porch swing, listen to the crickets, and will my oppressive thoughts to steal away like bandits into the darkness.
Mom pulls a casserole dish out of the oven as I catch Livvy in the kitchen. “Can you set out the drinks, Alvin?” she calls out, her back to me.
I hear Dad washing his hands in the bathroom. “I’ve got it, Mom.”
Steam wafts up as she peels back the tin foil from the dish, fogging her glasses.
“Oh. Meghan. You’re finally here. Where’s Ollie?”
Ignoring her tone, I grab some cups and notice six settings on the table. Livvy trails me, shy again. “She’s here. Are we expecting someone?”
“Korey’s picking up Kelly from work,” Approval fills Mom’s voice.
Kelly Long is my brother’s on and off again girlfriend. Since junior high, maybe earlier. I don’t know if it’s because their first names start and end with the same letters and have the same number of letters, or that they have compatible life goals: Korey to be a farmer and Kelly a production animal vet. Blond and brawny, they are poster children for Hoosier Today and they are inseparable. Well, for several months, and then sworn enemies for the next few. After Kelly found Korey sharing a caramel apple with Jessica Nickels at the Musgrave’s harvest party two years ago, they were off. Permanently, I thought.
Mom sets out the tuna casserole along with buttery, home-canned green beans, and corn pudding Korey’s favorite. On cue, Korey and Kelly burst thru the front door, giggly and glowing.
Korey rushes to engulf me in a quick embrace. “Hey, Megs!” He dwarfs Dad in size, he’s so huge. “Thank you so much for coming. I know it’s hard between you and Mom, but it means so much to me that you’re here tonight,” he whispers. Mom screams with joy.
I shove Korey aside and see why he has asked me to come. Mom bends over Kelly’s hand which sparkles as much as from the tears spilling from Mom’s eyes as it does from the diamond.
Livvy clings to my side, startled by the commotion. I pick her up, stunned by the ring myself. My usually reserved mom fawns over it, gasping how excited she is to have another daughter.
The last bit pricks my heart. I know I am not quite the daughter they’d always hoped for, no matter how much I try to play the role of the good, dutiful daughter. You don’t know the personality of the kid you’re adopting until after you’ve lived with them. I guess it’s the same for biological children. But maybe biology makes love easier? I don’t want to believe this, but my bond with Livvy, the only flesh and blood I’ve ever met is stronger than any bond I’ve ever had with my mom.
Then again, Mom has never gushed over me like she is over Kelly.
Dad slaps Korey’s back, the pride radiating from his face nearly blinding. I draw Livvy closer to kiss the top of her russet head. Observing the mutual lovefest between my family and Kelly, all matching in temperament, coloring, and pursuits, I feel out of place with my contemplative demeanor, curls the color of muddy autumn leaves, and decidedly un-rural habitation. Nevermind that Korey’s adopted too. He clearly fits.
The festivities pause when Korey spies the corn pudding. Breaking free of the circle, he gives Livvy a high five before claiming a chair. Kelly shimmies down beside him, while Mom portions out food for everyone before sitting down herself. Korey immerses himself in consuming as much food as possible. My parents, on the other hand, barely touch theirs; they are mesmerized by the diamond that keeps Kelly’s hand elevated at an unnatural height. I focus on feeding Livvy, who insists she feeds herself, despite half of each spoonful dripping onto her bib before sliding into her lap. Eventually, I give her over to her mess and scoop up a bite of casserole for myself. When Kelly’s jewel glints, distracting me, I chomp down on the side of my cheek. Mumbling an excuse, I head to the bathroom. Swigging back some water from a paper cup, I rinse the blood out of my mouth. Two minutes. I just need two minutes away from everyone. Livvy will be ok for that time, right?
Closing the lid of the toilet, I plop down and study the dried wildflowers woven into a wreath arched above the mirror. One of my mom’s many handiworks. Between flowers and wool, she can create anything. Maybe that explains why we often don’t understand each other. She is content, sensible, orderly, and concretely artistic. I am abstract and analytical, ever searching for my elusive rainbow. Mom doesn’t display any of my Sunday School craft projects. Not even the barely recognizable hand-print turkey I’d labored over for hours as a Thanksgiving gift for her when I was in first grade. When I return to the table, I find that Livvy has reached her tolerance for strangers, emitting worried whimpers as Korey tries to distract her with peek-a-boo. Mom flickers a critical eye over to me as she dishes out dessert. Hummingbird cake, Dad’s favorite.
The cake diverts Livvy. With a gleeful cry, she crams eager hands into her piece, harvesting smiles from everyone, including Mom. Savoring a tangy spike of pineapple in my bite of cake, I wonder if Kelly will move into Korey’s room after they marry. He’s an equal partner in the farm so it would make sense for them to stay here. But where will the passel of grandkids go that Mom wants tumbling around her? Did Dad plan to build a cabin for him and mom on the back pasture, leaving the main house for Korey? I can’t
see them ever leaving the farm.
Sometimes my parents are like the sheep they tend, ewes that need to be in constant visual contact with their offspring to feel secure.
“Are you feeling poorly?”
I turn towards Mom. It is the first emotional acknowledgement I’ve had from her all evening. Scrambling around for a reply, I simply shake my head and shovel more cake in my mouth.
“You haven’t eaten much tonight.”
Coming from Mom, this is more a complaint than an observation. It harkens back to the days leading up to my pregnancy reveal. I wonder if she thinks I screwed up again. I doubt she’d ever accept the truth of what happened.
“I’m just tired from the week,” I say after swallowing a mouthful of cake and malice. Neither settles well on my stomach. Livvy, amped up and overstimulated, is obviously fighting sleep. She hadn’t napped on the drive over. “I’m gonna see if I can get Livvy to sleep.”
Forcing a congratulatory grin, I add my happy wishes to Korey and Kelly before tromping upstairs to my room with Livvy on one hip, her wails filling the house. She knows it’s bedtime.
I give her a quick bath and she zonks within five minutes of nursing. Then I settle her into the ancient crib my parents set up in my room. I crash myself the moment I pull the covers over my head.
Hours later, I awake, wired and on edge. Cracking open one eye, I’m met by the yellow Glo-worm stickers that still cling to the ceiling where Dad and I stuck them when I was eight. I try to relax, but little fuzzy stars hover on the inside of my eyelids when I close my eyes.
Livvy rustles in the crib. In the shadows, I see her arms outstretched toward me. I roll out of bed and scoop her up. She lolls her head against my shoulder as I pace around my tiny room. After a few minutes, I attempt to lay her down, but she fusses. Sighing, I fish the turquoise mai tai wrap from my luggage, the one I’ve used the since she was a colicky three-month-old. She snuggles down, half-asleep as I sneak downstairs. Korey snores from the sofa in front of the flickering light of the TV, his bottom jaw slouched open to one side. I nearly turn it off, but figure that the lack of images will wake him up.
Stepping onto the back porch, the screen door shuts behind us with the tiniest whine. The air, cooler than before, still retains the humidity from the day, promising rain soon. The approaching dawn streaks colors across the dark sky reminiscent of the limestone endemic to the area: milky grays, sallow yellows, riffs of coral. My dad will likely be up to check on the sheep soon. Maybe he is already.
A sheep shuffles in the nearest pasture, ripping grass out as she moves. Shuffle, rip! Shuffle, rip! Another one grunts as I pass, causing several others to skitter toward their shelter. Bleats from hungry bummer lambs penned in the barn layer to form an incessant cacophony that surprisingly does not wake my daughter. Livvy has drifted back to sleep, swayed by the cadence of my hips, a dance she memorized while in my belly. The noise grows as I approach the barn as do my memories of pulling the early shifts of feeding the handful of lambs each season that were abandoned due to maternal death, rejection, or mastitis. I grit my teeth in anticipation of bruises from the headbutts of imaginary lambs.
But I also feel akin to these lambs.
I’ve rarely wondered about my birth mother, generally suppressing these thoughts as they serve no purpose. Unlike my adopted brother, Korey, I have no family to know. Korey’s dad might be in jail and his mom a drug addict, but at least he’s met them. He knows where he comes from.
All I know is the answer my adoption paperwork provides. “Sally Ford” had no ID on her when she stumbled into the Fulton County hospital in the throes of labor. Two days after my mother gave birth to me at the hospital she disappeared, and I was placed into state custody. After a stint with a foster mother, I was adopted by the Hardestys at 9 months old.
I might as well have been delivered by stork or hatched out of a cabbage like my favorite childhood doll.
My daughter will always know where she came from. She will always know she is wanted and loved. I want her to know that she belongs.
At the entrance of the barn, a tortoiseshell cat runs out to greet me, her swollen belly swinging in the moonlight. She marks my legs, chirping. I can’t exactly pick her up, so I beckon her on top of a nearby stack of hay bales. There I stroke her body, cooing to her as I pull bits of hay from her fur, telling her she’ll be alright soon once her litter arrives. All the while she purrs and attempts to burrow between Livvy’s and me.
“Do I hear you baby-talking that cat?”
I step back, feeling silly. “Morning, Dad.”
He walks up, carrying a pail of milk, eyeing Livvy’s carrier as though we were a two headed monster. Mom had never carried us this way. “You’re up early.”
“I could say the same for you.”
“Got a lot to do today. Jolene is coming over to help with hoof trimming. Between the three of us, hoping that we can knock out all four herds by Tuesday. Korey might be a bit distracted though. Care to lend a hand?”
The decaying smell of hoof rot suddenly settles on my tongue—the memories still strong—reminding me why I left the farm mentally years before my pregnancy made staying here untenable.
Dad reads my face. “Never mind,” he chuckles. “I’m just glad you’re here. Come on, I’ll introduce you to this season’s batch of bottle babies.”
He flips on the barn lights, the familiar hum and gradual brightening of the vapor bulbs above, oddly grounding me. Soon, as the sun crests above the horizon, dust fairies will dance in the beams. I’m glad to witness it again as it was one of the few pleasurable memories I had of being in the barn as a child. 4-H and fair ribbons mostly in hues of blue and purple cover a large cork board on the back wall, a testament to Korey’s showmanship. The sole green participation ribbon near the bottom is mine. I follow Dad to a corner pen where about seven lambs cluster excitedly near the gate, the bleating evaporating at the sight of him. Their coats run the spectrum from ivory to caramel to a burnt umber, often with spots. As they are Katahdin-Dorpers, their coat is hair, not wool, meaning most of the herd shed their coats seasonally, saving my parents the cost and labor of shearing.
Dad pushes into the pen, rushed by a force of sharp tangly legs, bounding up trying to climb him as he carries the pail of milk replacement above his head. Dad curses when one of the flying legs wedges down inside his rubber boots. He divides the milk between the two feeders, each with four teats. The lambs latch with ferocity, gulping greedily, their rat tails wagging, but then yank off to jostle the neighboring lambs to switch teats.
As I watch my dad work, I see the tenderness on his face. Despite his annoyance with the lamb’s frenetic energy, he genuinely cares for them. Even if their mothers have rejected them, their shepherd cares for them. At the right time, he’ll incorporate them into the flock. They will belong.
“Well,” Dad climbs out of the pen, dropping the empty bucket to wipe his hands on his summer-weight coveralls. “It’s really good to see you back here, Nutmeg. Been missing you.”
I fiddle with the ties on Livvy’s back, sensing more.
Dad picks up the pail again and we walk outside to a concrete spraying pad to rinse it out. “Your mom is worried about you. We don’t hear from you much.” He might mean he is worried. The gulf between us is small compared to the chasm between me and Mom. And despite his initial reaction to my pregnancy, Mom is the real reason I left. Dad is just caught in the crossfire.
“You don’t hear much because I didn’t feel welcome here anymore.”
Dad clears his throat. “Your mom . . .”
In the wake of his words, all I can here is my mother screaming, “You don’t get pregnant after one time! You’re a slut, just like her!”
I flinch at the hesitant touch of my dad’s hand on my arm, but it returns me to the present.
“I’m sorry, Meghan.”
Meeting his eyes, I see deep regret.
“She should have never said those things. I think she regrets it now but doesn’t know how to say it. She—we, tried to have a baby . . . for years before we brought you home. I think she was jealous.”
There it was.
My mom assumed that because she’d struggled to conceive a pregnancy, I must have been as crazy as a barn cat in heat in order to have produced Livvy. She couldn’t accept the truth. That it had been my first time, that alcohol had washed away months of long resistance. And that my boyfriend had left me once he’d gotten what he wanted.
“I should have never let you leave,” Dad says, blinking hard.
“I had to.” I cut in fiercely. “Eventually, I had to leave, Dad. Even if I hadn’t gotten knocked up, I would have left at some point. I don’t belong on the farm.”
He stares into a pile of matted hay nearby, poker-faced, his thick, stubby hands deep in the pockets of his coveralls.
“No,” he finally drawls, his chin tucked down into his chest. “You’re meant to do something else.”
His admission surprises me.
“But that doesn’t mean you don’t belong with us. In this family. I love you as much as if you had been born to us, Meghan. You are my daughter, no matter what,” he says.
Hope muscles through my despair. Maybe there is a place for me here. Even with the rift between my adoptive mother and me, perhaps a part of me does belongs here, in my own non-farming way. I’d never be a blond sheep farmer or a crafting homemaker. But I didn’t need to be. Those people already happily existed, and they needed me to be something else. Myself.
As though he can read my thoughts, he adds, “Don’t you ever doubt that you belong, Nutmeg.”
With uncharacteristic gentleness, he pulls me into a hug, trying to not squish the sleeping toddler between us. The space between us disappears and in the first slant of early morning sun, his hug warms me.
About the Author
After growing up on both coasts and in-between, Abigail Dunlap married a Virginia boy and put down roots in the shadow of the Shenandoah mountains to raise their family. She loves stories exploring the intersections of faith, family heritage, and culture as it relates to how we define ourselves. Abigail has published essays in Fathom Magazine, and Bible.org and also writes at her substack-https://atlasdaughter.substack.com. She is (slowly) working on a seminary degree focusing on New Testament backgrounds and enjoys playing board games in her free time.