Doing What You Have To Do was first published in the Soundings Review in the Summer of 2015 issue.
It's included in the short story collection An Unsated Thirst available for PURCHASE.
The boy sits on the tailgate of the pickup, dangling his feet and kicking them back and forth, pretending the furtive motion pushes the machinery and metal forward on its slow journey up the road. He sucks in a deep breath, feigning to take a drag from an imaginary cigarette, and blows out, his breath steaming forth through the frigid air. A soft bump on the rough road jolts him slightly. He clutches tighter to the precious cargo sitting on the tailgate next to him. The feeling of it makes his skin crawl. His hands feel dirty and he desperately wants to wash them.
An old black angus cow walks behind, steam intermittently blasting from her nostrils. The cow walks with her head low, her ears drooped, and her shoulders slumped. When they had found her in the pasture that morning she had been standing in the same spot for some time, refusing to move from her place of grief. Even now she feels drawn back towards it. She stops moving, and turns to look back up the road from which they had come. The boy lets out a soft low, a plaintive cry that is carried by the wind. The cow turns back and her body regains some of its old shape and stature. She lets out a deeper copy of the boy’s call, a pitiful moo tinged with hope. The boy lows again and the cow raises her head and trots to catch up, her oversized bag flopping between her legs, her great belly bouncing with each lumbering step. The boy feels bad for tricking her.
The pickup drives through a gate into a small pen. The boy jumps from the tailgate to the ground slowly passing beneath his feet, and quickly steps aside to let the cow pass before moving back to close the gate. He lifts the loose collection of three wooden posts held together by four strands of barb wire and stretches them across the pen’s entrance. His small skinny arms strain beneath his coat as he struggles to loop a wire over the end post to secure the gate. The wires groan and stretch, but not quite far enough. The boy’s father gets out of the pickup and calmly walks back to his son at the gate. He reaches over the top of the boy and helps push the post close enough to drop the loop of wire to over it. He turns around and signals for the boy to follow.
The boy walks behind his father, his face red with shame and embarrassment, glad that his father is not looking back at him. He is eleven now, he should be able to close the gate without help. His father steps beside the tailgate of the pickup, his face expressionless, and reaches for the precious cargo, grabbing it by one of its legs. The boy rushes forward to help, grabbing the other leg. He has to prove that the gate was just a fluke. His father gives him a look. The boy knows his father does not want him to be there. The boy ignores the look and together they pull the mass from the tailgate. The dead calf falls to the hard cold earth. Father and son drag it towards the nearby barn, its grieving mother following, mooing softly.
Calving season is one of the most beautiful and magical times on the ranch. The baby calves are dropped unceremoniously into a strange new cold world which they explore with delight and wonder. Despite all the new hardships of life outside the womb they frolic and play, delighting in just being alive. The boy smiles at the thought of the calves playing, a yearly reminder of how special and miraculous life is.
But life can be cruel, and things can go wrong with neither rhyme or reason. The calf they drag through the snow had once been just like all the others, full of life. Now it lays dead, its body stiff and cold, its once shiny black coat matted, its tongue hanging from its jaw, its eyes staring without sight at the world around it. Maybe the calf had become sick and they had failed to notice until it was too late. Perhaps the calf had been born with something wrong with it, a genetic defect for which nothing could be done. The boy hoped that it was the latter. It was best not to contemplate the guilt of knowing that you had failed something that depended on you. These things happen, there is little that can be done, but the boy knew his father would still blame himself for not doing enough.
The pair deposit the dead calf on the dirt floor of the barn’s shadowy interior, the only light from the big doorway, and move away from the corpse. The cow moves past them and stands over her lost offspring, sniffing at the thing that once was. She lows softly and her grief crosses the divide of animal and man.
“Wait here, I’ll get the stuff and be right back.”
The boy’s father walks out of the barn and back to the pickup. The boy waits, looking out at the steely clouds marching above the gray hills covered by the dark shapes of junipers and dirty white skiffs of snow hiding in shadows that the sun does not touch. His eyes shift back to the dead calf and saddened mother. The cow looks up at him and her eyes seem to communicate a desperate plea to make things better, a hope that in her ignorance she is mistaken, that things can be set right. The boy looks away back out the barn door, watching the dust motes dance in the muted sunlight.
His father comes back with several lengths of bailing twine. Together they grab the calf by its hind legs and drag it into a small side enclosure, shutting the gate behind them so the cow cannot follow. She paces back and forth, unsure. Both man and boy take off their warm cotton gloves and heavy overcoats. Stripping down to the hay covered sweatshirts they wear underneath.
The boy’s father pulls out a large pocket knife and opens it. The blade does not gleam in the dim light from the barn doorway, it’s too old and worn, covered in rust and grime. He takes a rod of steel from his belt and rubs it along the knife’s edge, honing the blade, bringing back some of the old sharpness. The boy pulls out his own knife, feeling the weight in his hand. He pulls out the blade slowly, careful not to cut himself on the razor sharp edge. It is bright and shiny, flashing in the soft light. He holds the knife like the treasured item that it is, a Christmas present from only a few months ago.
The boy’s father leans over the dead calf and with a quick thrust creates a hole in one hind leg between the tibia and fibula. The boy watches as his father puts the bloody knife on the ground and loops the twine several times through the hole. A knot secures everything together. The boy’s father stands and, reaching above his head, throws the twine over a low rafter. The boy grabs onto the other end as it falls back to earth. Together they pull the calf upwards until it hangs completely off the ground at eye level. The boy’s father holds the calf in place and the boy secures it with a few twists and knots around a nearby post, his hands moving slowly, nervous under the watchful eyes of the older man.
The man picks up his knife and moves back to the calf, he looks at his son, and the boy can again feel that his father does not want him to be there, does not want him to witness what comes next. With deft sure strokes of the blade he cuts the skin just below the knee of each hind leg. He yanks downward on the loose skin, pulling it away from the muscle beneath, his knife cutting the sinew and tissue. The boy moves forward to help. His father stops his work.
“Be careful to not cut through the hide.”
The boy nods. Together they slowly peel the skin from the dead calf's legs, a morbid fruit hanging in the barn. Things feel dark and grotesque, a macabre scene. The body of a young victim slowly mutilated as its worried mother stands on the other side of a gate. The boy has helped skin and dress deer and elk before, but this somehow feels different. There is none of the joy of the hunt in this moment, no elation in this desecration of the dead. The boy tries to tell a joke he heard in school. His voice sounds small, the words far away. His father only grunts and points with his knife.
“Make sure you cut so the tail is attached to the skin, it only works if you have the tail.”
The boy nods and the two continue working. In his left hand the boy grips the hide, one side cold and covered in black hair, the other side warm and slick. He pulls the hide downward, away from the body. The boy’s right hand holds his knife, which separates the hide from the muscle and fat with slow slicing strokes, applying enough pressure to cut sinew, but not enough to cut through skin. Naked, the calf is a yellowish white, streaked with the red of veins and exposed muscle. It stands out starkly in the shadows of the barn. Blood does not flow from the body. It has been too long.
The boy does not want to be here, he does not want to be part of this terrible spectacle. He keeps his mind blank, his hands working automatically. He does not want to think about what the thing he is skinning once was. He does not want to hear the soft and worried lowing of the cow just outside the gate. His eyes concentrate on his work, each cut steady and careful. He does not want to screw up the job, does not want his father to think that he can’t handle helping. His mind retreats and his brain stops thinking. This has to be done, even if he doesn’t want to do it.
The boy looks up at the man next to him. His father’s rough and scarred hands move with a deftness that the boy cannot hope to match. The skin is slowly pulled downward as if by a machine, the sinew attaching it to the dead calf sliced as though it is butter. The boy’s father’s mouth sits in a hard line, and his eyes watch both the boy’s work and his own at the same time. His father’s eyes see everything, but it is as though they are looking from a long ways away. The boy does not want his father to have to face the unpleasant task alone.
The skin hangs down from the calf, like a woman’s skirt if she was hung upside down by her legs, revealing what lay hidden beneath. When the knives reach the front legs they are skinned up to just below the knees before the boy’s father cuts the hide loose from them. The same operation is done as they reach the neck. With a final jerk of the blade the hide comes completely loose. The boy’s father holds the skin, not letting it touch the ground, and reverses it so the soft black hair is once again on the proper side. He hangs the hide from the fence, and cuts a hole along the belly. He lifts it once again and hangs it across his shoulder.
The man nods at his son who cuts the twine where it is attached to the post. The skinned carcass falls to the ground, straw and dust sticking to the exposed muscle. Man and boy clean their knives with straw, close them, and put them back in their pockets. The boy’s father gestures with his free hand.
"Go ahead and drag it back out to her."
The boy opens the gate and drags the skinless mass back into the main pen before returning to his father. The cow watches in silence. She walks forward tentatively, sniffing deeply at the skinned corpse. She sniffs again and backs away. This is not her calf, this is not the little miracle she once carried in her womb. The cow does not recognize it anymore, she does not know the smell.
The boy closes the gate behind him and follows his father into another smaller enclosure. Inside a calf lays in a bed of straw beneath a heat lamp. The calf is a bummer, the unfortunate runt in a pair of twins. The calf’s mother could not produce enough milk to support both him and his sister, so he was taken away. An orphan of unfortunate circumstance, surviving on powdered milk from a bottle. A kind hand and pseudo-milk, no matter how well given, is never a substitute for a mother’s nourishment and a mother’s love. He is unlucky, but maybe today his luck will change.
The man and boy grab the calf with gentle but firm hands. The calf struggles at first, frightened by the change in his daily routine, not understanding what is happening. He is not yet big enough to overpower the man and boy. The boy’s father forces the cold wet hide over the calf’s head, and bends his legs through each of the holes. With the deed done the bummer calf stands shivering in fright, a grisly spectacle dressed in a sweater made from the hide of his fallen brethren. The boy holds the bummer between his knees and softly whispers promises to it that everything will be all right.
The boy’s father opens the gate and walks back into the main part of the barn. He grabs the skinless carcass and pulls it back into the small enclosure as the cow watches, her black eyes following his every movement. As soon as he is out of the cow’s sight he signals to the boy with a nod. The boy pushes the bummer forward into the main pen and closes the gate. The man and the boy crouch next to each other and peer through the fence.
The bummer is unsure of what to do. He stands next to the closed gate, shivering in his stolen hide. Miserable, he lets out a plaintive moo. The cow's ears jerk in response, a soft low escapes her mouth. The bummer moos again and walks slowly towards the cow. She lows back as he moves closer and lowers her head, sniffing him where the tail and back come together. The cow seems confused, not sure what to think. The smell is familiar, close to something that she had thought she had lost, but also somewhat different. The calf and cow both stand still, not sure what to do.
Minutes tick by, the man and the boy keep quiet. The calf tentatively walks towards the swollen udders of the cow. Her sources of nourishment, aching with unclaimed milk. Both the man and boy hold their breath. The calf’s soft black nose nuzzles a teat and his tongue slowly licks the end as he draws it into his mouth. The cow gives a slight jerk, then turns her head to sniff at the calf again. The calf begins to draw down deep drinks of milk, some running out of his mouth as frothy white drool. The cow sniffs the calf again. One hind foot rises slightly. The man and boy will it to fall. The cow hesitates and lets her foot drop.
The boy and his father grab their coats and sneak out of the barn, dragging the carcass behind them. With a grunt the two grab the legs, the man on the hind and the boy on the front, and throw it back into the bed of the pickup. It will be taken up a nearby canyon to provide a feast for coyotes and crows. In two days the hide will join the carcass, its use no longer needed. The boy’s father climbs into the cab and starts the pickup while the boy walks across the pen and with a strained grunt opens the gate, always easier than closing it. The pickup passes by and he pulls the wires and posts back to the loop of wire that will hold them tight and closed. His face contorts and turns red and sweat beads on his brow as he tries to force the post over far enough to allow the loop of wire to drop over it.
The boy hears the pickup door open behind him. He strains as hard as he can. Not this time, not twice in one day, he can do it. His arms are tired from his efforts with the calf. They strain as hard as they can, a final desperate push towards victory. So close, just half an inch more, so close. The post falls back from the loop of wire, a retreat as his weak eleven year old arms fail in their exertion. Footsteps, leather boots on frozen earth. His father reaches over him and closes the gate with what seems like an invincible ease. The boy does not look at his father. The man puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder for a moment, and then walks back to the pickup and climbs in. The rumbling of the engine is strangely loud in the still cold air. The boy looks back at the barn, the sun starting to sink towards the horizon behind it. Inside he can imagine the calf and the cow, both amazed by the strange miracles of the world. The boy smiles, turns, and walks to the pickup.