I live on the outskirts of Farfield, about ten miles away from anything anyone else would call “convenient.” I raise cattle. Then I send them down Route 77 to be slaughtered at Eddie’s. It isn’t a pretty business, but I’ve been doing it for about a year now and my dad did it his whole life. He’d name every one of those damn calves and run his rough hands over their small velvety ears as he fed them out of bottles.
Late one night when I was little, I followed him across the dead grass, out under the stars, and stopped in the barn to peek through a broken slat. He was kneeling on the straw, light pooling all around him from his flashlight, while his hands ran over a three-year-old heifer. Her big brown flanks heaved up and down while white frothy spit foamed at her mouth. Still, my dad stayed there, calm and steady, his hands drifting up and down. I stood there and listened to him whisper to the heifer. Like she could understand. He called her Lucy, after my Ma, on account of her eyes being big, round, and dying.
I learned near everything I know from my dad. I know about feeding and watering and fixing what’s broke, but the thing I never realized back then was that once all that feeding and watering and fixing is done you also have to go about living. Just seems like there isn’t near enough time in the day for all those things.
It takes a lot to keep this ranch going. Got near thirty acres out here, eight or nine cows at a time, and one Mexican boy that lives in the loft above the animals. His name is Sandro, or something of the sort, considering it’s hard to understand him most of the time. He has a daughter about thirteen, but he’s real good about keeping her where she belongs. Sometimes I see her looking out the circle window in the loft, her nose pressed up against the glass. I can feel her eyes the entire time, watching me, while I check the cows over for disease and it makes me wonder if my dad, on that one moon-slick night, could feel mine.
Sandro stood in front of me, his brown eyes gleaming. Sometimes I wonder if God gave some of his children brown eyes or made some folk dark so they could be connected to the earth and always have some place to go back to. Somewhere safe. It’s a peaceful-like image when I think about it, but then I remember God died the same month Ma did, in the fire that ate up the old barn.
“El camión está delante de su casa. Un envío? A…ship-ment?” He motioned to the house that was all but dwarfed by the large grey clouds that swept across the sky in waves. Storms came like that in Farfield.
“Ah. Comprendo, mi amigo. I’ll go.” I suppose the cows would be safe in the barn whether or not I watched them.
“Espara. Puedo traer a mi hija a su casa? Ella ha preparado la cena. La cena, señor.” I looked at the boy, blinked, and waved my hand in a “do what you may” type fashion on account of I had no idea what he had said.
A few minutes later, when me, Sandro, and his daughter were all walking back up to the house, I had a bad feeling this was something I aught not have gotten myself into. I had never had much interaction with his kid before, but Sandro had already run up to the truck and his daughter had already sat firmly down on the chipping paint of the front porch steps. Her being there was a little disconcerting, but Sandro and I set about unloading the truck he had driven up anyway, leaning the parts for the new barn door up against the house, so I could work on them tomorrow morning.
I have to say I’d never really taken a good long look at Sandro’s daughter before, but maybe that was because she was so young and she looked decidedly like a boy. Her limbs were long and bony, stretched out like someone had pulled them clear to the breaking point, and her face was small and angular. Just about the only thing that made it clear she shouldn’t be outside helping her father was her long black hair. It hung down her back in waves from the braid she had picked out while we worked.
“Se llama?” I asked, jerking my head towards the girl.
Sandro paused for a moment, wiped the sweat from his brow, and said, “Se llama Adelina.”
I nodded and walked past the black haired girl, gesturing everyone inside. Before closing the door, I gazed out over my land, following the dips and mounds of the flat earth that converged so seamlessly with both the gentle purple light from the setting sun and the blackness that drove all else away in the distance.
The girl had put a pot on the stove to heat, so we all sat down in the living room together, blue light seeping onto the floor through the curtains. I could see them both trying not to stare, but sometimes even that was hard for me considering the wallpaper was peeling in most places and picture frames with no pictures lined the walls of my house.
Dad had told me that photographs did nothing but ruin the memory right before he had built a bonfire and burned them all. It had been close to three in the morning and the smell of whisky and gasoline had suffocated the life out of the air. My small hands had shoved pictures and the past into the flames while dad had taken up Ma’s old bible and held it over the flames that shone off his shined boots.
“It’s all in here, son. Everything you’d want to know. She promised me.” His shadow trembled with the movement of the flickering light and the book fell from his hand and into the waiting fire. It came open and I could see Ma’s small spidery handwriting packed in between the lines. I wanted to reach into the hot sticky mess of the fire and save Ma and maybe God too, but all I can remember now is the heat from the fire and my fear as I watched Ma’s face shrivel up and turn to ash.
If I didn’t know better, I might think that something huge was lost in that fire, something that I needed, but I’ve come to learn that everything I need is right here, on the outskirts of Farfield.
“The stew is nearly ready, señor.”
I switched my eyes back to the black haired girl and stood up, sinking my hands deep into my pockets.
“My father would like us to pray.” The girl stated, her mud-colored eyes not blinking.
I smiled and listened to the rain as it started to fall on the roof. We had had this huge wooden cross that used to sit in the kitchen when I was little. It had been carved out of dark mahogany wood and my small fingers had explored the many vines and leaves that ran over the smooth surface that they were still imprinted with the feel of the cross.
Once, when I had been trapped in the stifling confines of a freshly pressed dress shirt and the sun had caused everything to die, my dad and I had visited the cemetery where that same cross is now. My dad had bent down, low, his black pants soaking up the scant morning dew and pressed his hand against the cool wood of the cross above Ma’s name.
“Your mother….” My dad had begun, but he never finished. Instead, he had paused and the yellow grass had moved under the dull blue sky.
Ma used to drag me out on the porch, when the air was heavy with water and the world smelled fresh, so that she could sit me right between her frail translucent legs and recite: “I am his; he browses among the lilies until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the rugged hills” from her black bible.
She would hold the book tight to her chest and draw words from a place that no cattle rancher could go as she watched my father work. He would listen, while his hands bled from mending fences and the dirt clung to his pants. The knotted muscles of his neck would loosen and he would smile, his hands performing the task while his body strained towards the porch.
He never turned around though.
Ma used to spend just as many hours outside as my dad did. She would hug me and whisper words to me that I don’t remember as she picked flowers in the blue bonnet fields.
“Do you know why it rains, honey?” She would say, the hint of a story creeping up in her voice. I didn’t even have to answer before she laughed and scooped up a handful of dirt.
“It rains so the world wont feel so heavy. So the weight of it all won’t come crashing down.”
Even at the dinner table, sitting with the Mexican boy and his daughter, I can still feel her words forming against my ear as if her breath and her warmth were still at my back.
“Señor? Are you okay?” Sandro’s daughter sat straight backed in her chair and let her dark black hair fall in piles around her.
I smiled again and was about to reply when the window filled up with a blinding light and a violent crack was heard from outside. Sandro’s daughter jumped and her small hands clutched at her dad’s pant leg like I used to do with Ma.
“Los vacas, Señor. We check.” Sandro stood up quickly.
We grabbed our raincoats and threw the door open to see the sky blackened and the parched ground pooling sheets of water into small ponds. An old barren tree that I used to climb as a kid was split open from lightning and its dead branches creaked as the wind whipped through them. Storms in Texas come as fast as the wild horses that used to run in packs across the plains, but they are about as rare at times as well, so they usually spook the cows. Not wasting a moment, Sandro and I ran right down to the barn and wiped the water from our eyes only to see the gate knocked clear off its hinges and cattle scattered and running frantically into the pasture.
We worked for near two hours atop our horses before almost all the cattle were padlocked back into the barn, their feet stomping anxiously in the mud as the rain fell through the wooden roof, giving the beasts a sheen in the light. All but one of them was accounted for and I went to go check on the girl while Sandro rode back out looking for it.
When I came in, Sandro’s daughter had saved the dinner she had prepared for us and put it in to the oven. I slipped my hand in my soaked jeans and ran my thumb down the rough skin of my cheek, looking for a bowl to serve up the food in. Maybe I would ask Adelina something later, something of interest to a thirteen year old that wasn’t about heifers or sows, so I could hear the girl’s voice once more. It had been a long while since I had had a conversation with a kid though, so the silence stretched between us like a taunt rope.
I could talk to her about flowers maybe, about the evening primrose that bloom next to the house and the quick crunch of dead blue bonnets among the ash. We used to have vast fields of flowers about a mile from our house, spreading out in carpets of colors. But my father burned most of them and we never made the trek out past the cracked dirt to see them again. It was as if their persistence in blooming each year only succeeded in killing my father little by little, but he forgot the plants names and Ma’s laugh the day of the fire.
The Mexican girl stared at me for a long time and I could not help but think there was still a pane of glass between us.
I looked at her the same way I had peeked out of the back window when I had been her age. When the old barn had been the same color as a sunset lily and my father’s shadow had grown long and jagged in the smoke.
I had found him unconscious on the ground the next day, his face so black with ash that it was like he was sinking into the ground. It had been strange to feel like I had been the only living thing in that place, because it had made me feel old and unprepared for the crushed blue bonnets under my feet and for a life with only a cattle rancher.
Maybe that is how the Mexican girl feels, trapped here with only her dad and the heifers she sometimes whispers too. Averting my eyes, the two of us eventually sat down to eat, Sandro’s daughter across the table, when the sound of boots tramping hard across the porch made me get up.
“Señor. Vaya. Ayudame.” Sondro stood in the doorway, drenched in blood and mud, while I pulled my boots back on to follow him. Sondro’s daughter stepped forward, smoothed her dress down, and began to talk rapidly to her dad in Spanish.
“He says a calf is hurt, Señor. Bleeding real bad by the east fence. It was caught in the wire….” She trailed off as I pulled my rifle out of the closet and walked out the door with Sandro.
By the time I got there, the calf’s belly was all cut up and bleeding while its leg twitched uselessly at an odd angle. It didn’t even make any sound anymore. I paused. The girl saw what I was going to do though and she put her hand on me, stopping me, being better than I ever was, but I still cleared her out of the way. I stepped back and I raised the gun.
I had been about to leave the barn, so many years ago, when I heard my dad begin to weep. He had held that heifer’s head in his arms and rocked her back and forth, his head bowed like he was at prayer.
“God… oh God…” he moaned, the wind and the night answering his grief with silence.
The cow began to shake or my dad did, as I watched his tears mix with the dirt. We each stayed where we were, each frozen, until sunlight began to travel in lines across the floor and up my dad’s back. I don’t know why I never moved or went to him, but I remember that he finally got up and the glint of his gun sparkled in the light. His hands shook and his wedding ring made the only sound in the barn as it clicked against the metal of the muzzle. The heifer looked up at him, its big brown eyes glassy, before its head fell to the ground along with a shell casing.
“Son?” Dad fell against the wall for support while I huddled in my hiding place.
“Why’d you do that?” I stammered, my eyes stinging.
There was a long pause and my dad dropped the gun, his head laid back against the wood and his chest heaving.
I suddenly ran out into the open and stared at him.
“Why did you do it!?” I screamed, looking at the cow and then back at him.
My dad let himself slide down the wall and put his head in his hands. “Sometimes there ain’t nothing else you can do, son.”