Aunt Helen’s barn was old and weather-beaten and not used much anymore—except by us children as a refuge from boredom all during the spring and summer. The old rope swing tied to the ridgepole provided hours of excitement in our contests to see who could swing the highest and farthest. The barn’s many nooks and crannies offered great hiding places for games of hide-and-seek. And the old straw and hay gave us soft nests to curl up in while we shared secrets, desires, and dreams.
We thought of the barn as ours during the warm months. But when old Jack Frost started to paint the leaves on the mountainside each year, Aunt Helen would start acting mysterious. “The barn is closed now till spring,” Aunt Helen would state matter-of-factly, but with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Aw, Aunt Helen. Please just let us play in the barn after school,” we would beg.
“That old barn needs a rest after your playing in it all summer,” Aunt Helen would state firmly, and we knew not to ask again.
What’s Aunt Helen’s mystery? I wondered. What does the old barn have to do with it all? This year I was curious enough to decide to find out!
To get to the school bus stop, I had to walk right past the lane that led up the hill to Aunt Helen’s house. From the bottom of the lane, I could see her house and the old barn just beyond it.
Each morning and afternoon I routinely stopped to study both buildings. The first few days I saw nothing out of the ordinary. On the fourth day, while coming home from the bus stop, I noticed something that made me stop and stare: Mr. Rice was driving his hay wagon with a full load of hay up her lane. What’s Aunt Helen doing with a load of hay? I wondered. She doesn’t have any cows or horses to feed. Now, I knew that Mr. Rice had just built a huge new hay barn to put his hay in. He wouldn’t need to use Aunt Helen’s old barn for storage too. Why all the hay?
The next day was Saturday, bread-making day for Aunt Helen. Since Mom thought that it was well past time for me to learn the art of bread-making, I had no trouble persuading her to let me go over to Aunt Helen’s for the morning.
Aunt Helen was pleased to see me and tickled that I had come to help make bread. Soon I was up to my elbows in flour and dough. It was always fun to be with Aunt Helen. She liked to hear all about what I was doing at school. And she had funny stories to tell and interesting things to discuss. As we kneaded the dough and talked, I said as casually as I could, “I saw Mr. Rice coming up your lane yesterday with a load of hay.”
“Oh, did you?” was all that she said.
Her answer threw me off. “Why do you need hay?” I asked not so casually.
“A barn isn’t a barn without hay,” she said, adding abruptly, “It’s time to put the dough into the pans.”
This is going to be tougher than I thought, I realized as I put the dough into pans to rise.
Now, Aunt Helen had been a schoolteacher for over thirty years. And since she knew everything there was to know about anything, she was the most likely person to ask when I needed help with my homework. So after school Monday, instead of just passing by Aunt Helen’s lane, I walked up it. I made my mind up to become Aunt Helen’s shadow until I had solved the mystery.
“Hi, Aunt Helen,” I said as I walked up to her in the flower garden, where she was pulling weeds. “We were given a really tough assignment in English today. Would you help me with it?”
“Oh, I think so—after you have some cookies and milk. One can’t do tough homework on an empty stomach,” she said with a big smile.
Each day after that I spent the afternoon with Aunt Helen. She’d help me with my homework; then I would help her with whatever needed to be done. Sometimes some of my other cousins would stop by for help or to visit, but most of the time, I had her all to myself.
One very cool afternoon I found Aunt Helen in her vegetable garden, digging carrots. “Hi,” I said. “No homework today. Wow! You sure have a lot of carrots,” I remarked, looking at the three huge baskets full of carrots. “You must really like them.”
“No, actually I don’t,” she said with a chuckle.
I bent down and helped her dig some up. Is this another clue to the mystery? Hay and carrots … hay and carrots … what’s the relationship? “For someone who doesn’t eat carrots,” I said, “you have enough to feed an army!”
She just chuckled, but I thought I heard her say softly, “No, not an army, just a small herd.” When we finished digging up all the carrots, she said, “Run and get the wagon, and we’ll load these baskets into it.”
When it was loaded, Aunt Helen pulled it while I pushed. We headed for the old barn! I’m finally going to get a look inside the old barn! I thought. I just knew that I was going to solve the mystery that very day. But when we unloaded the carrots in the old side storage room, it was completely empty except for a few baskets of carrots already stored there.
I was able to catch a glimpse of the main part of the barn, but it was just as we’d left it weeks before, except that there were stacks of hay scattered around. It did seem strange that the hay was stacked only a few bales high—most hay is stacked as high as the barn rafters.
As we walked back to Aunt Helen’s house, I was desperately trying to piece everything together. “My, you’re awfully quiet,” Aunt Helen observed.
“Oh, I’m just thinking,” I replied, and I saw that mysterious twinkle in her eyes again.
Soon the leaves on the mountainside were a blaze of color. One afternoon as I went into Aunt Helen’s house, I overheard part of a telephone conversation. “Yes, Howard, I’ll need at least ten bushels of apples this year. Yes. Two bushels for here at the house, and the rest can be put into the barn’s side storage room. The end of the week will be fine. Thanks, Howard. Good-bye.”
Apples in the barn? Hay, carrots, and now apples? This is getting more and more mysterious!
After my homework was done and I was eating homemade bread and jam, I said, “Dad says that it’s going to be an early winter this year. He says that he can’t remember a year being so cold so early. I bet he and the boys freeze their feet off on the deer hunt next week.” I started to chuckle. “It serves them right, too—grown men chasing and killing helpless deer like that. It’s totally disgusting!”
Aunt Helen laughed, too, but it was a mischievous laugh. “Yes, it would serve them right. I bet they don’t get any deer around here again this year.”
Saturday, the first day of the big deer hunt, was indeed cold, and there was a biting breeze. Aunt Helen had asked me to come over that morning. She hadn’t said why, but she had had that mysterious twinkle in her eye when she’d asked. So as soon as the breakfast dishes were done, I ran over to her house.
I found her sitting on her back porch, watching her barn with that funny little smile on her lips. “Hello, dear. Come sit down for a minute,” she said. “Well, you were right about the hunters getting frozen feet today.”
We sat for a couple of minutes without talking. I studied the old barn. Nothing seemed to have changed about it, but I knew that something was going on inside. I could just feel it.
“Rebecca, do you know that you are the only one of the children who realizes that there is something secretive about my barn in the autumn? And that is why I’m going to share my secret with you. I know that I can trust you and that my secret will be safe with you. Come on.” With this she took my hand and started walking toward the barn.
About halfway there, Aunt Helen stopped and pointed to it, saying, “Shhh. You must be very quiet now.”
Just inside the barn doors stood a beautiful deer. Her fawns were not far away, and apples and carrots were scattered on the barn floor. I could see at least six more deer inside the barn, lying in the soft hay or eating. I just stood there with my mouth open.
After about five minutes of watching, Aunt Helen pulled me away. I was speechless until we sat down in her warm kitchen. “How?” was all that I could say, even then.
“Well, Rebecca, I hate the killing of the deer. About ten years ago, just before the hunting season, I saw a doe and her fawn eating out by the barn. I said to her, ‘Go into my barn. Go into my barn with your baby. You’ll be safe there.’ And she did! She stayed there with her young for about two weeks. Then she just left. I think that somehow she knew when it was safe to leave.
“Since then, about this time each year, a number of deer come to my barn. I make sure that there is food for them—hay, carrots, and apples. Then, when the hunting season is over, I tell them that it’s safe to leave. And they seem to understand and leave. But when we’ve had winters with lots of snow, the deer come back to feed in the barn. They know that there will always be food for them until the snow melts enough for them to browse for their own food.”
“Safe in the barn!” I exclaimed gleefully. “Safe in Aunt Helen’s old barn!”
Each year now both Aunt Helen and I become a bit mysterious in the autumn because we share and enjoy the secret in the old barn.