The sweat is dripping off me, I blink to keep the dust out of my eyes but to no avail. My hair manages to stick to my face in strands even though I’ve tied it back with a piece of twine. There are blisters on my hands, yet I am continuing to rake. I’m thirsty.
I get out of the way while O’s daughter passes with her pitchfork loaded with hay. With a sway and a grunt it lands on top of the pile. Surely it cannot get any higher than this. I had no idea hay could be stacked this high. She is defying gravity. It is pointless trying to get her to listen though. She’s not going to listen.
O’s daughter is younger than me but she behaves as if she is older. There is something masculine about her, androgynous, but it suits her. I am forever envious of her because she knows exactly what she is doing. If the village was the mafia, then her nickname would be The Brain. While I am struggling to come to terms with haying, to her it is a Nike advert: Just Do It.
“Isn’t this enough?” I suggest. She ignores me.
Earlier I helped loading some hay, it was doable when the pile wasn’t that high yet and as long as I ignored the screaming muscles in my arms, but when the pile got high I found it pretty much impossible. Even though hay looks fluffy and light, to get it on top of a pile requires skill. It makes you rethink the answer to what is heavier, a kilo of lead or a kilo of hay. A kilo of lead would be a damn slight bit easier to load, that’s for sure.
Instead of loading the hay I’m now raking all the hay together, which they cut with machines earlier this week.
“Isn’t this enough?” I repeat while I am catching my breath, savoring the views over the hills in the distance. Hazy.
And then it hits me.
I am having one of those I’m doing this moments.
That realisation you are doing something you’ve wondered about so long, that something you have wanted to do for so long.
One of mine was haying.
Ever since I’d read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina I had wanted to get in tune with my inner peasant, totally taken in by Tolstoy’s description of haying, the scenery, the process, the tranquility, and how the character Levin felt about it, his feeling of homecoming and belonging among peasants.
My moment of bliss lasts exactly three seconds. Then donkey has seen a piece of grass he wants to get to, setting the yet unsecured hay mountain in motion (the cart itself is no longer visible) and everyone screams.
”Hold him!” The nearest bystander makes a dive for donkey and manages to stop him, the hay behind him a jelly mass, making me fear it’s all going to land on top of him and we’d have to dig him out. At least finding a donkey in a haystack wouldn’t be that difficult.
”Sure this is enough.” I mutter when relative peace has returned. O’s daughter regards the pile and nods.
“Where are the ropes? Please tell me we didn’t leave the ropes on the cart?! Some swearing and general panic follows until I spot the ropes lying by the side of the cart and point them out.
It takes several attempts for the ropes to get over the pile, it is that high, eventually they manage, and they secure the ropes on the sides. After lots of pulling, sweating and yet more swearing they are content with the result.
Only donkey’s front half is visible, the rest of him has become hay, it’s an odd sight. I was unsure he’d be able to pull this load, but he does.
I hope we’ll make it back in one piece. On the way here O’s daughter had chosen a hazardous route ”yeah we can go past here, no problem!” causing the cart to nearly topple over. It was nothing short of a miracle that it bounced back on its wheels.
When we get back to the house she parks donkey right in front of the big shed, the hay will have to go on the top floor.
I climb the this-would- never-pass-health-and-safety-standards-in-the-UK wooden ladder. The hay shed is already half full. “Careful, the floor is rotten in a few places!” shouts a voice from down below. Now they tell me. A Flashback from when I was a kid back in Holland, walking on frozen canals, fearing it would crack all around me any minute. I make it to the opening of the shed unscathed and look down, O’s daughter has her pitchfork ready. ”Make sure it goes in the back!” she shouts. I nod. The first load of hay lands at my feet, I stab it with my pitchfork and move it to the back. This is easy.
I’ve been at it for a good ten minutes when a frantic fluttering thing whizzes past me, narrowly avoiding my face. I shriek. What was that? That wasn’t a bird! What was it? I shriek again, just in case.
”Are you ok? What’s happened? Are you hurt?’ A unison of voices from below.
More fluttering around me. Bats. I’ve disturbed a nest of bats, they fly in and out of a slit in the stone wall. I shiver. ” I’m fine!” I shout, unconvinced. “I just got scared by these…things flying here!” I don’t know the name for bats. I step back to the edge of the shed opening, worried faces looking up at me; ”birds?”
“No, they have wings though and they.. never mind. Let’s continue!”
At that moment donkey decides he’s had enough of being tied to the cart and kicks it, the sound of splintering wood, followed by utter mayhem.
While I watch the scene unfold down below, it dawns on me that this haying is nothing like Tolstoy promised it to be.
And I decide I’m loving every minute of it.