The heart of the black heifer pulsed between my thighs and the heat of her leeched through the denim into my own skin. I stroked the conical face and fingered the skull that they draw pictures of in books, smoothed the coarse hairs from eyes to nose. Her ribs heaving with breath shook me in time with them, and the pickup lurched through potholes and over frozen mounds of feces. The leg would be splinted, powdered colostrum mixed and poured down her throat until she learned to suck the cold rubber nipple. She would grow, and stand, braced by blue plastic and duct tape; she would take ill, and die, within two months.
. . .
The old man had lived for long years after his wife who tried her damndest to outlive him passed. He shriveled away in the depths of Juniper Village, a block down the street from the brick home he longed to return to. He was quiet, and proud. They let him keep his pride as spittle dotted with Copenhagen leaked from his aging lips, as granddaughters explained who they were each time they came. His blue eyes grew bulbous with that watery red tint that only old blue eyes attain, the irises faded with cataracts. Always the unanswerable questions, queries of dead brothers and wife, the wish to go home, the tender admission that he never knew why she stayed with him for more than fifty years. When the throat cancer was discovered, it was decided quietly in the hallway that no action be taken. It took cancer short months to complete a task the nursing home spent three years delaying, drawing out indefinitely with pills and powders and opinions, and he passed quietly, alone, in a room with plain walls and ugly linoleum, shrunk to two-thirds the height of his youth, alone. Alone, with no witness to life’s final insult.
. . .
When the bald-faced cow did not come for hay is when he worried. A bull with a sore shoulder sat yards away from her, a hypochondriac as only a one-ton bull ruled by testosterone can be. At his approach she strained upward, panicked, but her hindquarters failed her, and she sank with a low sigh. He pulled her tail the next time she tried, he pushed and encouraged and sweet nothings fell on her dumb ears, and both conceded. She was watered and left for the night, returned to the next day with a steel jaw to clamp to either ileum. Hydraulic power groaned against the weight of her and pulled the hind end upward, where she found she could not get her front feet under herself. Three struggled with her, pulling her ears, pulling the spotted white head skyward, pleading and encouraging, and she quit. She quit and lay the dirty white of her face nose-down in meadow grass. Two hundred faces like hers watched wide-eyed, and it was pondered whether a bovine knows humility, to distract from the metallic sounds of the slug sliding into the chamber, the snap of the butt meeting the barrel, the insidious clicking of the hammer drawn backward.
The shot is never as loud as is expected, and in a moment blood seeped from her nose. She was lowered, and freed from the hoist, and as her feet were chained to the Dew-Eeze arms the calf in her womb could be seen in its death throes. It was remarked that her last offspring was rather puny, anyhow, and the corpse of the wasted black white-face was piled in the filled-up pit atop fifteen calves that succumbed to disease.
. . .
It was in the dark with the doors closed that the conclusion was reached, the time arrived at. Having lived always on his own terms, he saw himself as a producer, a doer, not one who is done for; not a burden. Alone, with no witness of struggle, no slow descent into living decay, no pain, no pride lost, a final prayer, the sound of nightmares: the subtle metallic slides and clicks and snaps of the pistol, steel that is ever cold laid against skin. In the morning his wife who was ever in poor health slept late, awoke to silence, and merely peeked through the door she cracked.
Weeks later the information would arrive from people experienced in examining the dead that the heart was approximately two minutes, give or take, from a massive heart attack; she was meant to find him departed that day one way or the other. His way saved himself considerable pain, perhaps…
Perhaps more painful than loss is the remembrance of what was. If one were to forget, or to cease dragging dead things to light, as a net dragging a lake for corpses and lost weapons, but let the things that no longer speak or think rest quietly in God’s grace, in His peace, the heart might cease to tremor. After all, the dead things no longer feel pain, but the living do.
. . .
When he asked why we must leave, I thought it was reason enough that there are too many dead things here, but how does one explain that? Perhaps if I spoke the words he would feel the same, and we would move on to a place where the air is not clouded by remembering. The world here is haunted by ghosts alive and passed.
Kate Larsen hails from Colorado’s San Luis Valley. When she’s not surrounded by cattle or her lovely little family, she is diligently working on the next great American novel or attempting to train one horse or another.