by Maria Burns
In a corner of the cow pasture, a plume of blackbirds went up. Aaron followed to the place where the cornflower weeds pressed into the frosted ground. He found there a ring of blood and the remains of a newborn calf. Its limbs were scattered and its skull had been picked to bone. Nearby lay the calf’s mother, a black and white thing moaning and rearing her head, calling to the dead newborn. She followed the boy with her strange obsidian eyes and then looked up at the birds waiting in the trees. She was bleeding from the neck and her mouth and her back-end. Her giant udder wasted pools of milk on the ground.
The birds gathered around her again. Aaron ran after them, his hands waving to chase them off. They came from nowhere; he had never seen so many of them at one time. They became bolder and hopped closer to the cow.
“Skitum!” he cried, though he was not sure how he knew this word, where he’d heard it before. It seemed to work, though. “Skitum!”
The birds flew out in every direction and perched in the trees. Aaron knelt beside the cow. He put his hand in front of her muzzle to feel her breath, which warmed his hands. She raised her head and made a low panting sound, calling to her calf. The animal seemed enormous, much bigger than he remembered.
He collected the calf’s bones and hid them behind a bush. The skull seemed too big to hide. He tucked it beneath his shirt so the cow would not see that he was taking it. He didn’t know if animals registered things like that, but he wasn’t going to take the chance.
The birds began to circle again. Aaron ran to fetch Carl. This was early March, three months after Aaron had come to live with Carl in his wood-paneled house with its small pasture and its single cow that now lay dying. He had just turned eleven and was a miserable hand with the farm. So said Carl. Aaron held the calf’s skull up for Carl to see. It left an imprint of stale blood and hair on his chest, but he didn’t want to wash it off.
Carl called the vet, and as he did, Aaron went to his bedroom and hid the skull under the bed.
“The vet will come soon,” Carl said.
“That’s good, right? That she can come so quickly?”
“I don’t know. I need to see what kind of shape the cow’s in.” Carl stood still, looking
out the screen door of the kitchen. He was a small man, made smaller by the way he slouched and kept his hands in his pockets and his head bent down. Aaron avoided standing next to him. The two were the same height and, while Carl had never mentioned it, Aaron got the feeling that he ought not bring attention to a man’s stature.
“Should we go then, to see her again?”
Carl stood still.
“But we should check, right? To see how she’s getting along?”
Aaron had never seen his guardian unmoving. Carl had the small man’s need of constant motion, and this stillness worried him.
“So . . . we should go then?” Aaron heard the whine in his own voice.
Carl turned to look at him, shoved the screen door open and let it slam behind him. Aaron followed him to the pasture, about thirty yards behind, a safe distance.
The blackbirds were everywhere, and buzzards had joined them. The pasture itself looked like a thing black and alive. Carl walked right to the cow while Aaron chased the birds away.
“Dogs,” Carl said. Dogs had attacked the cow as she birthed, and Carl figured it was the neighbor’s three, which had always been a nuisance and threat and now this. He sat down and took the cow’s head in his lap. She snuffed, reared her head, ran her legs back and forth and then collapsed with the effort. Carl forced her head down and glared past the boundaries of his property towards wherever the dogs might have gone.
“They always sniff around, here, you know?” Carl seemed to talk to no one, and Aaron was unsure of whether or how to answer. “And they’ve bit her before, you know?”
Aaron did not know, but he nodded his head.
“And they travel as a pack. When they gang up then there’s no chance. A pack is an animal . . . do you know what I mean? A new animal. And it can divide itself. And she’s only one, you know?”
Aaron nodded again.
They went to the shed where Carl kept a store of hay. They loaded Carl’s pick-up with bales of it, and drove back through the field. Carl seemed to be trying to run over the birds, so erratic was his driving. Aaron thought he might need his seat belt but knew better than to put it on. They stacked hay bales around the cow, a semicircle three feet high, though Aaron didn’t know what good it would do if the dogs came back. But the wall made the animal a queen in a sweet-smelling chamber.
The vet came. She was taller than Carl, and her slim waist was cinched with a man’s
leather belt. She tucked her reddish hair beneath the collar of her shirt and began to work. She produced what looked like a tackle box, from which she chose two small vials. These clinked softly in her hand. From the vials she drew the liquid into a giant syringe, held it up, and squinted one eye. She flicked the syringe to settle the liquid and when she was satisfied took a fistful of cow’s hide and struck. She did it again.
“Who’s this?” she asked, motioning to Aaron.
“Town foster kid. Helps with the farm.”
“The farm? Do you mean this one cow? And what’s his name? What’s your name, dear?”
Aaron did not answer. She looked at him from behind her glasses as she worked over the animal, her long fingers massaging. The cow’s breathing relaxed even as the vet straddled it and lifted its head. In one movement the vet was on the ground again. She put the cow’s head in her lap, and they relaxed into each other. They stayed that way a long time. Carl began to pace around the bales of hay. He cursed the dogs and spat.
No one expected the animal to live.
As the vet rose to leave, Aaron stepped forward and announced his name. She smiled politely, nodded, and looked at Carl. “I’ll come by tomorrow to check on her.”
When she’d gone, Carl said the dogs must be killed. He did not bother going to the neighbor. Carl and Aaron gathered meat from the storage freezer to use to lure the dogs. Big slabs of it melted on the counter tops throughout the day, and, by nightfall, the rot had produced by some magic a plague of late winter flies. Carl dressed in dark colors and stood in front of the door with a rifle. He stuffed a burlap sack full of meat and dragged it behind him, careless about the mess. He turned to Aaron at the door.
“I could use help but then I doubt you can handle a gun.” He seemed to be hesitating. He was tossing his usual insults, but Aaron saw that look from the morning, the look of someone settling into paralysis.
And Aaron did know about guns. It seemed that nearly every foster home he’d been in had had one or two or sometimes many more. He’d once lived with a rich man, a hunter, for four months, and the man hired helicopters to shoot wild pigs. The man insisted Aaron come on these trips, had given him a rifle and taught him how to aim from a moving vehicle at a moving target. Aaron learned a lot from the hunter. He learned that you can hear a pig squeal over the sound of a helicopter. Killing those pigs was the worst thing Aaron had ever done. To atone, he refused meat, though no one seemed to notice. He was glad when the rich hunter found a girl who wanted children – new ones – and Aaron was passed on to the next family.
And sometimes, Aaron knew, it’s better to confirm people’s suspicions: “No, Sir. I’ve
never handled a gun. But I might try.”
“Just watch the house and don’t go about. Something’s getting shot tonight.”
The door slammed and Carl and the sack of meat thumped down the stairs. Aaron watched the pink drippings from the meat leak down the counter. He noticed a strange stillness outside the door and realized Carl had not moved, that he was in the yard staring at the moon.
Aaron opened the door. “I might string the meat for you. Don’t you think we ought to
string it from a tree?”
Carl nodded, and Aaron ran quickly out the door before his guardian changed his mind.
In the pasture, Aaron worked. It was ugly business. There was too much meat, for one thing, and it had started to smell. The thin blood was everywhere. He used the twine from hay bales and pierced the meat with Carl’s Swiss Army knife. Carl stood next to Aaron, not helping, looking over as if to ensure things were done properly, though no such thing had been done by either of them before. Aaron had to tie yards of the twine together, climb a tree while holding the meat, and string it low enough for the dogs to try for it, but high enough that they would stay in the spot just long enough to get shot. What kind of farmhand would Carl say he was now? Would this change his mind? Aaron thought of the vet, how she might do things. He thought of her with the vials and the syringe. The way she tucked her hair away. That kind of careful could be learned, and he wanted to learn.
When he climbed down, he smiled at his work.
“It’ll do,” Carl said.
They waited behind the same bush where that morning Aaron had hidden the calf’s bones from its mother. He lay on top of the pile before Carl could notice. He meant to bury the calf properly at some point. They waited for an hour, the bones poking Aaron’s stomach and legs, but he did not stir.
The dogs came. Instead of going for the meat, they went to the cow. They sniffed around the hay and then charged her. The wall Aaron and Carl had built to protect her now seemed like a trap.
“Son of a bitch,” Carl whispered. “Son of a bitch!” He seemed to be watching the scene as someone watching a TV show. Someone attached but helpless.
“Skitum!” Aaron yelled as loud as he could. He stood up and ran towards them. “Skitum!” The dogs whined, came out, separated, and began sniffing the ground.
When Aaron turned around, Carl was in front of him. The two stood eye to eye. Had it not been for the dogs, which seemed to be forming their pack again, Carl would have hit him; Aaron was sure of it. He’d seen the look before, and he’d been hit before.
“Do you even know what you’re saying? Those are hunting dogs. Skitum like Sickem means attack, you little idiot.”
It seemed like Carl had wanted to say something like that ever since Aaron arrived, and now that it was out, Aaron felt his time with Carl and his one-cow farm drawing to a close.
“Get to the house,” Carl said.
That was the thing about being in foster care. People said “Go to the house,” not “Go home.” Aaron walked towards the cow. He had an urge to curl up with her and feel her hot breath and smell the hay all night. He wanted to sleep that way, just once. He had a wild sensation that that kind of thing would last him his whole life.
“I said go to the house.” Carl was talking through his teeth.
The dogs found the meat and began leaping for it. Carl raised his gun, and Aaron turned to walk away. The dogs went still, watching Aaron. As he walked, he had the feeling of all eyes pointing at him - all eyes and the barrel of a gun. He walked quickly.
He took his time cleaning the mess in the kitchen, sopping up the pink meat drippings with a dish towel, wringing it out slowly, and then starting again. He waited to hear the sound of three shots.
From Carl’s liquor cabinet, Aaron took two shot glasses. He opened a window, set the calf’s skull on the sill, and began to roll the shot glasses in his hand. He was trying to produce the sound of the vet’s medicine vials, the clinking sound, but he could not make it work. For two hours he waited for the dark to make some noise, but all was quiet.
That night he slept with the calf’s skull next to him, and by morning it had attracted the flies. While Aaron fixed his toast, Carl sat at the table with his head bent low over his breakfast. His hands were filthy.
“Did you shoot the dogs?”
Carl said nothing at first. “Don’t worry about it,” he said finally, not looking up.
So, they were still alive, and though Aaron knew he would not have to worry about them anyway, he would have liked to have had some assurance.
The vet came and they went to the pasture. Aaron followed behind, spellbound by the length of her reddish hair swinging freely. As she approached the animal, the vet began to loop her hair and tuck it beneath her shirt. She held the tackle box like a mechanical arm.
They found that the animal had begun to stink. The sores on her throat oozed a pale green mess; her eyes were slackened; her mouth was frothed in yellow. Aaron rushed to her but did not know where to put his hand.
“You’re nice with animals,” the vet said. She was being generous, and it did not suit her.
She knelt beside Aaron. “It might be your business one day.”
He was not sure what she meant, but he knew that he was being coaxed away.
She stood, impatient.
Before she could speak, Carl said, “You might do it like she was going to sleep.”
The vet frowned. “That’s not … practical. There are easier ways.” She bent down to get something from the box, and on her chest Aaron saw freckles like pebbles beneath a brook rushing away. “Here. Use mine,” she said, and handed Carl a pistol.
Carl put his hands on his pockets, looked at the thing as though he’d never seen one, and
then looked away. His eyes were dark and furious.
She went to Aaron, and he thought she might ask him to do it. He inhaled to gather his courage. He believed that he could do it. He could show Carl how to do it. But instead the vet took Aaron’s shoulder and moved him gently around so that he could not see the cow. She treated him like a child, and he felt at once shame and gratitude. He plied the earth with his foot and forced himself to see the cornflower weed’s interior. He remembered to bury the calf.
The shot blast made him jump.
Then they set her on fire. The hay bales made the whole thing rage. She burned and would not stop. If the vet said goodbye or waved, Aaron could not remember. Anyway, she was gone. Gone through a haze of smoke as clean as white as dry as bone.