by Ryan J. Burden —
Hem thinks time is like a river. Though it always flows from source to outlet, it has no course that he considers natural. Years ago, he was a licensed vet, with his own practice and his own way of doing things. Now, he is miles away from home, and on his way to see a cow.
Despite some early showers, the day has turned out to be sunny and exceptionally warm. Hem walks in front of his son and their dog, Sonny, on a narrow plank bridge.
They found the dog a week ago, cowering inside the barn—wounded, bleeding, hollow-eyed. He must admit that if the dog had not appeared the way it did—if he had seen it in a local shelter, or if it had been admitted to his former practice, he would probably have put it down instead of suffering through the pain of watching suffer through the pain that he would have to force on it to make it survive.
He reaches down to help his son scale up the muddy bank. Up on the ridge, the dog whines and disappears.
“I don’t see Sonny,” Trevor says. He slips and slides in rubber boots at least one size too big.
“He’s gone over the hill,” says Hem. They continue up the path together, fingers swaying, touching one another now and then.
“He’s a good dog,” Trevor says.
“They’re all good.”
“Not the ones you killed.”
Hem stops. If he were honest, he would say that this was different—that he didn’t save the dog because he thought it in the dog’s best interest, or the family’s, or his own—he saved it because, in that moment, there was only one.
Instead, he reaches out instinctively toward his son, who flinches.
Trevor trudges on, and for a while both are silent.
Hem says, “We’ve talked about this. Animals can’t be bad. Only people.”
He can see his son’s thoughts moving, and is proud of how he thinks. It doesn’t matter that he never seems to come to fast conclusions. These will come in time.
They cross the ridge into a wash of sunlight. On the far side Hem can see George Eubanks’ farm, covering the valley. All green grass and tiny buildings, every one of them built with a clear and simple purpose. This is what Hem thinks he wanted—life that is inevitably true and honest, where the natural world is a thing to fear and to revere—where all the stakes are set, and do not ever move.
Scanning carefully, he finds the dog crouched at the tree-line, its attention focused on the Eubanks’ cows.
“There he is,” he says. “Let’s go.”
As soon as they start down the ridge together Sonny breaks his cover. When it is apparent that the cows don’t see him, or don’t care, he slows and starts to slink around them in a ragged circle.
Hem leads Trevor out across the field, along a path that runs beside a drainage ditch filled with runoff from the mine. Its orange color makes Hem feel, for a moment, as if he is living on another planet. Sonny and a Guernsey cow are staring at each other in the middle of the field.
“Call him,” Hem says, and Trevor does. His voice is shrill, but gains authority from being an anomaly in a broad field of silence. Sonny pauses for a moment, staring down the cow, then turns and starts back toward them. He is running all out, and Hem feels a kind of comfort at the sight of all that gather and release of wild muscle, at the locomotive huff between caged teeth.
The dog runs straight at them until he is halfway across the field, then plants his feet and cuts off to the right, in the direction of the Eubanks’ house. George’s daughter, Mica, has just stepped out on the patio. She holds a cardboard box in one hand and a pair of heavy garden shears in the other. When she bends down to say hello to Sonny, he ignores her and goes straight for the box.
“Must have something good in there,” Hem says as they walk into the yard.
She wears beige canvas trousers and a faded men’s shirt. Her eyes are on Sonny, who sits down, panting hard.
“I’m sorry,” Hem says, “We haven’t had the time to train him.”
“That’s all right.”
Mica is Hem’s daughter’s age, and he has never noticed until now how similar youth makes them. Despite the many differences between their personalities, there is no way to ignore the same uncertain flicker in their eyes, the same wary arrangement of their neck, shoulders, and hips. He feels a startling attraction to this girl, a fluttering in answer to the slow flash of her lashes. He carefully shutters it away.
“We found him,” Hem says. “He’s still thin. He’d eat anything about now.”
“Not tomatoes,” Mica says.
She takes a tomato from the box and holds it up so Hem can see.
“Maybe smaller,” he says.
She laughs and kneels down with the box. Her hair falls down around her face. Sonny takes the tomato from her hand and eats it.
Trevor says, “We came to see the bull.”
Mica looks up at him, smiling. “Eustace?”
“He’s in the barn.” She glances at Hem. “But I think my dad’s inside. I’ll send him over when I find him.”
George keeps Eustace in a shed beside the house, separate from the long, steel-sided barn in which he keeps his cows. The shed is painted fire-engine red with white trim, colors George says makes the bull feel most at home.
Trevor runs ahead with Sonny, leaving Hem to stroll along alone. He is imagining the scene when Mica finds her father, maybe in the milk barn, mixing feed or helping clean the hoses. George will be a little tipsy, but not worse for wear. He will ignite the chaff between his palms into a sudden golden blaze, and swagger to the shed, where Hem and Eustace wait. He will be thinking of simple things—the early summer heat, the foreign car he saw in town, some local gossip he has heard—things that he will want to talk about before he ever gets to cattle, before he evencomes around to what is wrong with his prize bull.
But now, the shed is silent. Hay spills from a small loft overhead and various tools hang neatly on the yellow walls, interspersed with oil paintings of the bull’s forbears. They are identical apart from the occasional brown forelock or black nose. Eustace stands inside his pen, uninterested in his own distinguished ancestry.
“Come here,” Hem says to Trevor. They stand attentively, watching the big bull’s chest heave.
“See the eyes? That’s where you’ll first see something wrong. People only look for cloudiness or cataracts, but there’s more to it than that. You have to look more carefully.”
“Did you see Sonny? He ran off.”
Hem runs his palms over the bull’s neck, then over its shoulder and down the prow of its chest.
“He’ll turn up.”
Trevor moves to the other side of the shed, where the glossed doors stand open to the breeze. He sticks his head around the jamb and calls the dog. They hear a whine from far away. Trevor sets off after it, still calling, though he knows it will not help.
Hem continues his examination. By the time George arrives, he has already circled twice around the bull and stopped beside its head again, considering his own reflection it its murky brown eye.
George Eubanks is a big man, and his size is overstated by his brash and crowding personality. He holds a plate of thick ham sandwiches in one hand. From the other hangs a pair of long brown bottles.
“The doctor finally arrives! I thought you’d at least hit the gas for old Eustace.”
Hem straightens up. “You didn’t sound too concerned.”
George laughs and sets the bottles down on the edge of the bull’s pen. “Not like he hasn’t been sick before. But you know how I love him.” He squints a little as he lines the bottles up beside the sandwiches. “I brought beer. Forgot you had the kid with you.”
“He ran off after the dog.”
“You got a dog?”
Hem grimaces. “Some bastard tried to neuter him. Looks like he got sloppy with the knife, or whatever it was he used.”
“Terrible,” says George, clicking his tongue. “Though I can tell you that my father did do the same to more than a few.” He takes a bottle and tips it toward Hem. “Never got sloppy, though.”
Hem looks away, back into the bull’s heavy-lidded eyes. He says, “You only lose their trust that way.”
George drinks his beer. When he finishes, he wipes his mouth and sniffs. One nostril, jutting sideways, slowly widens. “I guess maybe he got tired of feeding pups. No vets around here anyway. Not until you showed up. Then again, there are people who just don’t take care of their animals.”
He nods toward the bull. “Poor boy doesn’t look at me the way he should. His eyes are all muddy.”
Hem’s bag is open on the railing of the pen, and he already has the long digital thermometer in his hand. “I think he has a fever.” He hooks the wand into the display box and holds it like a radio while he probes the bull. The thermometer reads a full degree too high. “Liked to think that it was just his allergies. He always gets them this time of year. Then I let him out one morning and he starts circling. You can’t move the old boy straight unless he’s being led.”
George drinks with one hand while the other spreads out like a caul across the bull’s forehead.
“We just call it circling.”
Hem digs a bottle and a syringe from his bag. Eustace stomps and snorts when he feels the prick of the needle.
“That’s right, sissy,” George says. “Let Hem fix you up, now.”
“Once a day for a week,” says Hem, handing him the bottle.
“All right.” George nods seriously. “You think he’ll make it?”
“You know as much about it as I do. You could have treated him yourself.”
“I don’t take any chances with Eustace. Let his line die out and I’ll have my father’s ghost to deal with.”
Eustace swings his head toward George’s voice, pulling the halter taut. Hem drinks, watching dust drift through a shaft of pale light from the open door. There are no ghosts except for those we choose ourselves.
“Hey,” George says, “There’s that dog of yours.”
Sonny comes into the shed at full speed, skidding as he tries to change direction on the hard floor. Trevor runs in after him, laughing, all of his attention focused on determining which path the dog has taken.
“Stop!” Hem yells.
But maybe it is never possible to be entirely at peace. Perhaps this is the nature of the universe in which we live—a universe in which all things are constantly in motion: dust motes falling in the light and hay-straws twitching in the breeze, the sudden shudder of a wooden slat as Eustace kicks it in frustration, and the muffled snap as he kicks out again and catches Trevor on the shin. Now Hem knows that nothing in existence ever truly stops. It all keeps reeling forward, in a gradual decline into disorder.
Just before the bull kicks through the slats, Hem curses his son’s blind obedience. Trevor’s eyes widen and his mouth trembles and distorts into a scream. Then his body falls, despite him, like a puppet losing tension in its strings.
George throws a rope around the bull and pulls him to the front of the pen. Hem sees him staggering against the animal’s weight; catching himself on the railing as he slips into the hay.
“He caught?” George shouts, and Hem does not reply because his brain has taken over where his mind once ruled. All he knows is that his son is badly hurt. Trevor’s calf is swelling, rising tight against his jeans.
“How bad?” George asks.
“Just get the scissors from my bag.”
Hem holds his son’s leg in his hands as George kneels with the bag, scrounging among the instruments and looking much too long at everything that he pulls out before he drops it back into the bag or to the side.
“Scissors!” Hem yells. George picks up his pace. He finds the scissors.
“Keep your head on,” Hem says, and begins to cut the jeans away from Trevor’s leg. Halfway the scissors slip and touch the swollen skin. Trevor screams. He starts to struggle.
“Hold him,” Hem says. Then, to Trevor, “Listen, let me get this done. I’ll get this done, and then we’ll fix the pain.”
“Okay,” says Trevor. He is sapped of strength and full of rage. His eyes roll wildly at George, who holds his shoulders firmly to the ground.
Hem keeps on cutting Trevor’s jeans away up to the hip. The leg has gone pale, though not quite as pale as Trevor’s foot, which has been twisted up until it almost points directly at the ground. Hem touches it, and Trevor does not seem to notice.
“Can you feel that?”
Trevor’s breath comes faster. He shakes his head no. He has bared his teeth like a dog—small ivory chips clenched so tight his breath whistles as it tries to pass them.
“Eustace didn’t mean it,” George says, returning Trevor’s white-eyed stare with a red-rimmed one of his own. “He didn’t mean it. Don’t move, now. You’ll be all right. He was frightened, that’s all.”
Hem believes he feels the foot turn cold. It gives him the sensation that it has already left his son, that it has died and been reborn into a new life as an object. He imagines Trevor standing in the barn one-legged, horribly off-balance, while his phantom foot lies cold and bloodless on the floor.
“Just frightened,” George says, “that’s all.”
Hem digs in his bag, searching for a bandage suitable enough to make a splint. There is a rustle as the dog comes creeping back into the barn. Lying low, he pokes his nose past George’s heels and flicks his tongue at Trevor’s sweaty hair. George pays him no attention. All of his is given to the bull, which looks serenely back at him over its shoulder.
Trevor’s teeth part and he says, “Dad, I can’t feel it.”
“He’s so sorry,” George says. “Aren’t you? See, he’s sick with it.”
Hem starts to wrap the leg as tightly as he can. He starts up at the thigh and works his way down. “George,” he says, “Can you call us an ambulance?”
There is a wretched look in the eyes of men who no longer believe in justice. George’s face folds inward at the eyes and mouth as though he is attempting to collapse it, as though he intends to use his outward flesh to fill some void within.
“George!” Hem says.
“Hospitals?” says George, and shakes his head. “It’s just a little break. It’s too far. Too expensive.”
“Jesus, George! Just call an ambulance.”
“You’ve set how many legs? Just set this one—what do you think you need to do with hospitals?”
“It’s different and you know it. Trevor’s not an animal.”
George laughs. His face unfolds and he acknowledges the situation with his eyes—from Trevor’s sweating forehead to Hem’s trembling knees.
“You want to tell me what’s different?”
Trevor turns his head aside, raising puffs of hay dust with each breath. “Look,” Hem says, “Just go in and call an ambulance. I know this may be how you do things way out here, but my son—”
“Shit, ‘your son’. You think you’re good enough for working on my animals and not your son. That fucking bull is worth more than your son will ever be.”
Hem shuts his eyes and breathes deep. When he opens them, he sees Sonny looking back at him, and George staring down at Trevor, who stares wide-eyed at the bull, and he is filled with the awareness of a unity of minds. He sees the dog’s in Trevor, in the way he grits his teeth and waits for what will happen, and in how he strives to twist his body out of George’s grasp as though, if he could manage it, he would run into the brush, to nurse his wound alone in wild growths of bramble. And he sees the bull’s in George, and George’s in the bull. George has spent so much time in this barn, drunk or tired out, rubbing at the bull’s broad head, kissing its cold snout, his arms around its neck the way he cannot ever hold a woman’s—openly, unencumbered by emotion.
The foot lies stiff in the hay. Its skin is blue and marbled; a corpse’ foot. It would have not been here if it were not for Hem’s innovative moral compass, for the thoughts and visions that have led him and his family here, so far from their past lives in Providence. But it is here; this foot; his son. He digs into his bag and fills a clean syringe with Telazol.
George bends down to set his head against Trevor’s. “You be brave,” he says. “There’s worse than this. You’ll see.”
Hem has no trouble finding a good vein. He gets the needle in and out, and in a minute Trevor’s head is rocking absently aside. A minute later, and his jaw goes slack.
“All right George, hold him.”
George locks his hands on Trevor’s arms and looks at Hem, who nods. They both rock backwards on their heels, George hugging Trevor’s body to him and Hem pulling on the leg, stretching it until he feels no give. Then he cries out as he rolls his shoulder and directs his son’s leg back into the place.
The foot is in its proper place now and already Hem can see the flush of life returning. While he kneels there, breathing over it, George goes into his bag and finds some tape to make a splint. Hem is tired, but ecstatic. He believes that there is nothing he cannot do.
When the splint is done, he asks George for a ride back home. He is already thinking of the cast that he will have to make.
George frowns, stands up, and shuts his eyes tight.
Hem does not think he can carry Trevor across the field alone. He knows that he should call his wife, Lorraine, but he believes that she will only make a mess of things. This is, of course, his finest moment; she will never understand.
It may be only a coincidence that Mica enters just now, having heard their screams. She pauses in the doorframe, gasps, and says, “I’ll call an ambulance.”
“No!” George is already back to doting on the bull. “He didn’t know what he was doing. You don’t have to be afraid.”
“That’s okay,” Hem says, “I set it. It’s okay now. But we need a ride home.”
Mica stares at George. “Alright. I’ll get the truck.”
George and Hem try to carry Trevor without moving his leg. It is impossible to do so across the broken field, but Trevor is too drugged to protest. George says “Sorry, Hem” again and again. He says, “He wouldn’t have kicked out like that if he weren’t so afraid of dying.”
Mica waits for them beside the truck. She does most of the loading, climbing up into the cab and guiding Trevor over all the bench seat’s lumps and tears as though she is well-used to this task.
“I’ll go get the dog,” she says. “You just hold him still.”
Hem nods and climbs on to the passenger seat. He places Trevor’s head on his lap and waits.
It is quiet inside the truck. Hem is wildly impatient, turning every second to look out the window, willing Mica to return. But every impatience has its limit. It is like a storm which, having spun itself away into oblivion, disperses all its energy into the wind.
After a while, Hem stops looking out of the windows and begins to notice things. There is a spot on Trevor’s forehead where his sweat has plastered two fine strands of hair in parallel, down toward his nose. He wipes these to the side, and Trevor does not move. In Hem’s mind, he relives, as best he can, the setting of the bone. He thinks that Trevor will be pleased when he wakes up, to find out that his father is the one responsible for saving him. Everyone will have a reason to be proud of him. He has done an awful lot of saving lately.
Twenty minutes pass before Hem hears the scrape of Sonny’s claws behind him on the truck bed. Mica slams the tailgate shut, climbs on to the cab and starts the engine.
“What took so long?” Hem asks.
Her eyes keep straight ahead as she backs down the drive and guides them out to the road.
“I had to make sure Dad was all right.”
By this time the sun has dipped behind the hilltops to the west. The road is stippled with a brake of red and yellow beams.
“I’m sorry,” Mica says, “But you should never have allowed that dog to get so close.”
The trestle bridge across the creek sounds like the clattering of armor as they speed across it.
“Slow down. There’s no rush, now.”
“Of course there is.”
“Well, your father’s a drunk.”
The hillsides are all ragged, black and tan. Hem knows that George has found his bottle and will take it with him to the barn, where he can be alone with Eustace. They have lots to talk about: the bull’s illness, all the cows that are now scattered across the fields, the bull’s sheer power and his lack of human sentiment; stupid dogs and slow kids, the whispering of rats, chipped paint, the break, what happens when one comes to life, and anything but what might happen when one leaves it. They will talk of these things, but they will not ever get around to talking about George.
“I’m sorry,” Hem says.
“It’s all right.”
The truck sways as it slows, and they continue in silence. There is gray mud on the windshield and on Sonny’s nose, and there is gray dust suspended in the hair that fills his ears.
“Sorry,” Hem says again.
“It’s all right.”
Sonny sticks his head through the back window, into the cab. His tongue unfurls like some indecipherable alien flag.
Ryan J. Burden is a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the former Managing/Fiction editor of Four Way Review. He is the winner of Redivider’s 2016 Beacon Street Prize for short fiction, with work appearing in or forthcoming from Crack the Spine, Foundling Review, Gulf Stream, and JMWW, among others. He is currently a doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he is finishing his first novel.