One of my reader friends, Crash, wrote elsewhere, and with some dismay, that recently I had shortened the length of my blog entries. The reasons are legion, yet not all of the voices are foreboding. I’ve had a couple writing assignments, so the cobbler’s children have gone without; there is a list of maintenance minutiae with my name on it regarding preparation for time away from the homestead; throw in a smattering of art-related matters as well; and then there’s always that dagburn poker demon (you can call it them the poker gods, I don’t).
Tired of the variance that comes with Omaha, I went back to where it all began and played some NLHE, doubled up in quick order, quit out, did something else (wait for it), went to Poker Academy, tripled up, and then watched my favorite cartoons, “Metalocalypse” and “Squidbillies” on Adult Swim. Just another night of entertaining distractions, except for the “something else.”
While in Portland this past weekend I picked up a copy of a small publication, “bear DELUXE” (#29). I was familiar with the magazine because of a writing contest the publisher holds. I had thought about submitting an older piece for the current contest (#30), but then let the deadline pass. Maybe I’ll get around to it for #31, but, I thought, in the meantime it might be good to see what the writing is like, and thereby partially determine if I would make a good fit. Reading the winning story “Winter Count,” by Justin Blessinger, was, indeed, something else. An amazing, riveting short story.
The story takes place in the cold, godforsaken North country of Montana. Blessinger opens with a school bus and the last few students at the end of the day.
Hers is the last stop. She doesn’t care that the older girl is still riding. Very little remains mysterious, least of all the impatient squirming of the older girl and the furtive flicks of the driver’s eyes into his mirror. He’s not checking on her safety.
The dark-haired girl waits without anticipation for her stop. With a resigned but effortless shrug, she heaves her book bag up onto her shoulder and walks with barely a sound to the front of the bus. She can feel Mandi’s excitement crescendo as the door opens. Christ, she’s all but panting. But it doesn’t matter, and she steps off the bottom step and into the dark and toward the dark house where her father and she live. Alone.
They live on a cattle ranch. We are never told the main character’s name. If I may, alone doesn’t need a name.
The door bangs open, and her eyes snap back open. The news was still on. Her father fills the doorway, a mass of layered coats and hoods and a heavy, fur-like hat. The door thumps closed behind him, and the pressure concusses her ears. She stands quickly, snaps off the TV. “I just got in.”
“You got a cow down.” His too-big glasses had iced over in the sudden heat, giving him mean, insectile eyes.
286 was Madeline.
The girl bothered to name the cows. It gives them dignity.
Madeline was calving in February, way too early. Not because she was early; she had bred early. The calving does not go well. The calf puller is ineffective, the attempt verbalized.
A sickening, loud pop punctuates the exchange, and for a moment, everything is still, and the barn is silent but for the heater. Then Madeline emits a long moan that ends in a grunt, and drops her head.
“Pelvic bone. Split.”
The father is then able to remove the calf, dead, but the afterbirth does not follow. When the father reaches up into the cow to retrieve it, he finds a twin.
“Lift her hip. It’s keeping me out.”
Grasping Madeline’s leg, she begins to lift. “That’s it,” her father says, satisfied. His arm slides easily all the way up to his shoulder. And that’s when Madeline bolts. With astonishing force, she heaves her forelegs under her, twisting her rear end, forcing it to follow, despite the fact that her rear legs refuse to hold any weight. She lurches almost halfway to a standing position, her rear still low, and her father still buried ridiculously deep inside her before she slips and crashes backwards, her rear legs collapsing under the pain. There is another bone-snapping pop but she stills for a moment, her eyeballs rolling up and back as if trying to spot the girl, who stands with her weight on one retreating foot, as if she might run from the barn, from the farm, from Montana.
Her father’s arm is broken in two places, and a compound fracture in his forearm has “fish-hooked” into the cow’s innards. The bulk of the remaining story details the girl putting the cow down with a rifle, and utilizing a chainsaw and knife to extricate her father’s arm. It is graphic, and a milder temperament might find it difficult to read. Yet, given the situation in which the characters have found themselves, nothing is out of line.
His daughter is still hovering over the cow, intent. She had always been attached to the animals. He steps forward, and then realizes she is cutting the opening in the cow larger still. He begins to speak, to tell her to stop, when he sees something move inside the cow. A black hoof protrudes from the wound. The other calf.
Aside from the excellent writing, I suppose I am moved by this story on several levels, the first being the isolation of country life and the independent spirit that is required and tested; and the second, part of the first, certainly, is the cycle of life and death on the farm. (Even mine. One false move, one distracting moment on or near the tractor and I end up like a distant cousin, long dead from a rollover.) Yet, it also reminds me of what is sometimes necessary in managing the life and death of those animals we steward.
I married a city girl. Six years on the farm has seen her change, grow, buck up when a duck has to be put down or a feral cat needs to be dispensed. Our life is considerably more comfortable than that of Blessinger’s characters, but we want to be of the same ilk. A stern blend of compassion and fortitude.
After reading “Winter Count” I contacted Mr. Blessinger to tell him that I liked the story. In that I had a link to my website in the signature of my email, he took it upon himself to have a look and wrote back some very nice words about the “Field Burns” and “Lawnmowers across America.” I thought I’d return the favor with this post. I just wish there was a link I could provide that had the complete story.
And, Crash, is this long enough for you?