The Old Dairy Barn

For this month’s writing packet, my mentor asked that I try to write one of my childhood ghost experiences into a fiction piece. It was hard…

The subject matter happens to coincide nicely with this week’s writing prompt at The Lightening and The Lightening Bug.


She stood on the porch gazing in the direction of the big barn, her eyes slightly squinted while she absently bit her lower lip. The girl was eight years old, she was petite with a head full of long brown hair. Her jeans were tucked into a pair of black Wellies caked with mud and her fingers worried hem of her sweatshirt. The barn she was looking at was one of four on her family’s farm.

They called it the Big Barn because it was truly enormous. It was three stories with a lower level that was the dairy of a farmer who worked the farm in the 50’s, but the girl didn’t know this. Now, the barn simply held hay, a chicken coop and the new brown and white calf they’d named Emil. The girl instantly loved him; Emil and his soft eyes framed in beautiful lashes so long they tickled when she reached out to touch them. Like butterfly kisses from a cow. The thought made her giggle.

The bottom floor of that barn had never been one of the places she enjoyed exploring. The other barns, and even the house, still held remnants of the prior owners. Broken farm equipment, wagon wheels, abandoned feed bins that she loved to discover. But the Big Barn’s abandoned dairy was dark. Even on the days when the sun shone bright and farm teemed with new life – chicks and piglets and foals – the air in the dairy was too still. The sunlight that entered through the high windows danced with dust motes before the gloom swallowed it all. The old stone walls and concrete alley echoed, amplifying any sound. The worst sounds came from the far end where the first floor had caved in to the dairy long ago. She never went there.

To her parents, it made sense that Emil’s pen should be in the old dairy and twice a day, and the girl was responsible for feeding him. He’d arrived on the farm needing to be weaned, so she happily mixed his powdered milk and dutifully taught him to drink from a bucket using her fingers. Staying with him until he’d licked the bucket clean, she’d fling her arms around his neck and hug him. He’d lick her face and frolic around the pen making her laugh. Is it possible, she wondered, to love a cow?

Going into the Big Barn each afternoon to feed Emil was something she loved to do. Her family was never home after school. Emil was her comfort. He made the gloom in the Big Barn tolerable while the sun came through the windows and the dust motes spun through the air. But then the days grew shorter and autumn turned the sky gray.

Now, she stood on the porch and stared at the barn, pulling at the hem of her sweatshirt and wondering how dark it was up there in the dairy. She was trying to work up some courage and map out the process so she’d get through it quickly. Then Emil’s faint hungry cry forced her Wellies off the porch. 

She made her plan while she walked. She’d prepare his food just outside the door where it was light, then run to the light switch, then cross to Emil’s pen, then back to the light switch, back into darkness and she’d run.

While she mixed the milk and prepared his grain, her eyes kept returning to the open door of the dairy. Inside the frame, the room was dim. Her muscles tightened and she fumbled the powdered milk. The barn, or something inside, didn’t to want her come in and she almost didn’t, but then Emil cried for her again. A soft hungry moo that she couldn’t bear to ignore.

She stood at the entrance judging the distance to the light switch. What was it, five maybe six running steps? Emil mooed once more, startling her into a run. The milk sloshed in the bucket and soaked her jeans by the time she reached the light. The dim bulb barely illuminated to the old dairy. The crumbling stones and concrete and weathered wood only seemed enhanced by that single naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling. If she had known what the inside of a mausoleum looked like, she might have been able to make the comparison. The silence and that feeling she wasn’t alone was hard to ignore; then she remembered her calf and turned. His eyes soothed her.

In his pen, she held the bucket so he didn’t spill the milk and as he settled into his meal she relaxed. Behind her, the sound of metal striking metal broke the silence. Her heart skipped and the hair on her arms rose in response when she turned to see who was there. She scanned the dairy, looking to the other end. The room was empty. She desperately tried to ignore the feeling of being watched but she knew it was real, so she turned back to Emil and willed him to eat faster. Her eyes fixed on the calf, but she wasn’t watching him, she’d entered that state of concentration that helped her see what her eyes couldn’t. She didn’t know how it worked and wasn’t old enough to question it, but she trusted her intuition. She knew when she concentrated like this, the ghosts grew stronger. The ghosts knew she could sense them.

This ghost in the dairy proved himself with another jarring clash of metal on metal. The sound of stanchions being moved into place. With the sound came the vision of the farmer moving through the afternoon milking. He was moving down the alley, securing his cows. He knew she was there but he was a farmer bound by the schedule of his cows. He’d deal with her when the last heifer was secure in the stall closest to Emil’s pen. 

She willed Emil to eat more quickly but a calf can’t be rushed. The ghost of the farmer got closer and his energy grew stronger, demanding to know who she was. Her mind filled with his gruff voice, “What are you doing in here?”

Meekly, she responded, “I’m just feeding Emil,” hoping to satisfy him.

“Get out of that pen!” he yelled. “Go on! Go home now!”

She startled at the force of him. His order was shouted but she knew that no one else would have heard it. Emil wasn’t showing any distress.  Momentarily, she tried to calm herself. It’s just your imagination, it’s just your imagination… 

“I said get away from that calf!”

Her fingers fumbled with the gate, trying to pull the latch open. The ghost farmer angrily marched toward her, ready to chase her or grab her by the shirt. Her hair stood on end and her pulse marched more quickly. Forgetting the latch, she climbed over the pen and hurled herself toward the door. He was bearing down on her, his boots landing with a hollow whomp on the alley floor.  She noted his bow-legged walk, his face pulled into an angry challenge and she ran.

She didn’t think about the turning the light off, she just sprinted, pushing her little body toward the view framed in by the dairy’s entrance. Out there the sky still held the late afternoon light. A black bird flew across the rectangle patch of sky she was desperately trying reach. She threw a glance over her shoulder, knowing she wouldn’t see him there but feeling his proximity anyway. He wasn’t shouting anymore. He was intent on chasing her from his barn and he was closing in. 

She threw her body forward, nearly stumbling when her Wellies landed on the gravel strewn path and she kept running until she realized that he was gone.

He couldn’t follow her from the barn. 

She stopped short, breathing heavily and hunched over with her hands on her knees. Gulping for air and relishing the freedom from his glare, she straightened and turned to look back.  The dairy, dimly lit by that single hanging bulb, was empty. Standing in the last light of day, she realized that she’d need to do it all again tomorrow.


  1. Oh, my gosh! What a lot of responsibility for an 8 yr old child…even without menacing ghosts complicating things. Not sure how much is fictionalized, but did you have an adult to talk to or did you shoulder this alone?

    • This did actually happen to me as a kid. The cow feeding and the ghost in the barn. Mostly, grown ups tend to chalk this kind of stuff up to childhood imagination. It only took them 30 more years to believe me 🙂

  2. I loved reading this. The sensory imagery was exceptional. I am a city girl, but as a child I had to go to the dingy, dark basement of our house to do laundry. I was always so scared, imagining ghosts of long ago waiting to greet me. Great job.

  3. Ooo, the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I can believe you had to deal with this repeatedly. Yikes! This story really reminded me of a children’s picture book called “The Ghost-Eye Tree” . . . something about the barn, the fetching of milk, etc.

  4. Kelli, this was fantastic. Not only did you scare the living daylights out of me, you wrote it all so wonderfully. I could picture every second of the tale perfectly. And I REALLY want to give Emil (heh!) a huge hug. Excellent job. I’m thinking your mentor will be very, very pleased.

  5. Hey – great post. Loved the pic too.

    I wanted to share with you that there’s a new writing challenge/linky in town. Every weekend I’ll share a PROMPT and every Wednesday everyone can link up there (poem or short story 500 max)response at the Storyteller Linky. This weeks prompt is a Picture. Check it out. 🙂

    I also have a spooky book review and the weekend blog hop right now too!

    Love to have you on bored, but have a great weekend either way. Shah.X

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