You could see the barn from the highway, but you couldn’t hear the gunshots.
My wife and I were driving through Indiana, one of those glowing Midwest afternoons when you can almost taste the sunlight shining from the cornstalks. From the passenger seat, my elbow hanging out the window, I caught the glow of the steeple peeking up above the crops. I motioned to my wife to pull over.
“What is it?” she said.
“I’ve been looking for a good round barn.”
I grabbed my camera and we both hopped onto the bed of the pickup for a better view. With my foot on the edge, I peered through the viewfinder and zoomed in. I couldn’t see more than the steeple, but I noticed a dirt path cutting through the corn that might lead us there.
“We’d have to walk onto private property to get a good look,” I said.
“Private is a relative term,” my wife said. “Come on, let’s check it out.”
Before I could protest, the woman I married had already started skipping down the dirt path toward the barn.
We walked between the two walls of corn, which were high enough to obscure the barn that stood just beyond it. My wife grinned all the way, embracing the adventure. I could see the distance in her eyes – behind them her mind must have been sliding back to her tomboy days of sneaking into abandoned houses and getting lost in the woods just for the thrill of finding her way out. That barn steeple might as well have been a lighthouse, beckoning her to stray down a dirt path just one more time.
The path ended all at once, dropping us onto the back end of a farm that seemed to stretch on forever. I lost myself staring into the distance, looking for the farmhouse, when my wife nudged me and pointed to the round barn right before us. I was about to snap my first photograph when a loud pop broke the country silence.
A gunshot, unmistakeable, crackled in the air. I grabbed my wife by the hand and told her to freeze.
A puff of smoke rose from the tall grass a hundred yards from the barn. Then the unmistakable shape of a rifle extending from the green stalks, aimed right at the wall of the barn. It fired again, causing a puff of debris to evaporate from the wall, the deep red paint shattered into a splinter of dead wood.
In the silence that followed, my wife started giggling. I tried to pull her away, to sneak away down the path before the shooter saw us.
“Who’s there?” a man’s voice called.
The man rose from the ground like a commando on ambush. He held the rifle close to his chest, in front of the cutoff black t-shirt that clung to his gut. Beneath the baseball cap his red face held a menacing shadow, even when he smiled.
“We came to look at your barn,” my wife said.
“It’s my grandfather’s barn,” the man said. “And it’s my target practice.”
“How old is it?” I asked.
“Old.” The man snatched a can of dip from his pocket and packed his lower lip. “Does it matter? We don’t use it anymore.”
“What are you practicing for?” my wife asked.
“Trespassers.” He laughed and then spit behind his shoulder. I guessed he might be fifty, and I caught the SEMPER FI tattoo on his bicep. “To be honest sometimes it just feels good to let loose on something big.”
My wife humored him, asked him questions about his .22 and whether he ever sees groundhogs, and I drifted back with my camera to snap a few shots of the barn. I couldn’t get beyond its size, its magnetism.
“You a photographer?” the man finally said.
He led us around the entire circumference of the barn, his hand on my back the whole way. His great grandfather had built it sometime around the start of World War I, and that was all he knew since he inherited the farm after his uncle died. At the front he made sure to point out the bullet holes, the clusters of shots that attested to his accuracy. He stuck his finger into one of them and ripped off a splinter.
“Here, take a piece of it home.”
He handed it to me with both hands, like an offering. From the moment I put it in my pocket I didn’t hear another word he said. My wife nodded and pinched her chin as he explained his lineage, traced it back to the first pioneers who broke from the colonies, but my mind had set itself on the round barn, rising board by board while the world tore itself apart overseas. I decided that his great grandfather must have laid the foundation the day of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, a perfect foil to the beginning of war. The structure had survived it all, had bounced back the echoes of battle-cries and bullets, had stood silently while a led barrage zinged at it from the trenches.
I managed to snap a few dozen photos that day. I took them all from the side of the barn where the paint still shone red, without any bullet holes.