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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: July 13, 2019

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Submitted: July 13, 2019

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Joined

Growing up, I thought goddamn-goat-farmer was one word.  I also belted out, Hark the Hairy Angels Sing at Christmas, and was sure that girls, like cows, could only get pregnant when they were in season.  God, was I a stupid kid.

For my twelfth birthday I got a Swiss Army Knife.  I thought it was the coolest thing in the world until I realized it wasn’t hanging on my hip to impress my friends.  It was a tool for me, the new farm hand.  Shackles had been clamped on.  Chores, acres and acres of them waited for me to wake each day.

Saved by a scholarship, I strapped Penn State on like a pair of wings.  I come home only to throw hay during peak season.  Home has changed.  There used to be nothing but farms and every crossroad had a stop sign.  Now, there are sub-divisions everywhere with sterile names like Stone Bridge and Whispering Pines.  I knew them as Josh Bean’s Hog Farm and County Dump.  We have stop lights, traffic circles and orange construction crews everywhere.

People get pissed when I drive the tractor on the hardtop.  They blow horns and flip the bird as they swerve around.  It shouldn’t bother me, but it does.  Dad just grins and waves his pincer at them. He thinks it reminds them of the sacrifice of farming, but I know they don’t give a shit.

Eleven years ago the baler ate two of Dad’s fingers, baling one and squirting the middle one out of the chute.  A flying fuck if there ever was one.  Brother wrapped Dad’s hand in his sweat rag and grabbed the middle finger.  Dad never did go to the hospital.  The finger remains in the freezer to this day.  Wrapped in a plastic baggie, it lies among the frozen peas and ham hocks.  He says he would have gone if it hadn’t healed up so smooth on its own. Our barn cooler is a mini pharmacy.  A host of antibiotics and liniments lay in wait for the next emergency.  He treated his wounds as he would treat any other, like an almost schooled veterinarian.

There is one constant during haying season, that being the total meltdown of any shred of strength you may have started the day with.  Every inch of my body reeked with remnants of grime, bits of hay, and the salty remains of my sweat.  A long, hard day behind us, Dad and I rocked slow out on the porch, a gallon pitcher of iced tea set between us.  We could hear the dishes clinking around in the soapy water behind us.  WKIK’s total country countdown was in full swing.  The sun set with all the reluctance of an August evening.  Long lazy shadows reached across the yard.

Tires skidded off the hard top and into our gravel driveway.  Brother’s rust bucket, an old Chevy pick-up, headed towards the house.  Chickens scattered in front, a cloud of dust billowed behind.  The mules raised their heads, pricked their long ears, only to resume grazing.  Brother never creeps up on us.

“You boys up for a night?” he asked.

Brother is not my brother.  He’s more like a generic, friendly uncle.  His eye sockets run deep and hollow, but somehow his eyeballs still don’t fit. They pop out all surprised like he’s just been goosed.  His beak looks nearly like a nose, and his chapped lips give way to Coke stained snaggleteeth.  I’m always happy to see him.  He’s a fixture around our place.  He works down at Mickey’s Garage, but somehow always has time to lend a hand.  I don’t even know his God given name.  Everyone I know just calls him Brother.  When I was a kid, he always had red-hot fireballs in the cab of his truck.  I didn’t have to ask; I could just climb in there and grab my fill.

“God Almighty, Brother, we’ve been at it since five this mornin’.”

“Well it might interest you to know the goddamn-goat-farmer’s been setting traps again.”

Fifteen years ago this guy bought seven acres and set up his dream of being a goat farmer.  He makes cheese and shit, but he doesn’t understand farming.  He buys all his feed, so how he can consider himself a farmer is beyond us.  Worst of all, he lays fox traps.  He sets traps because he says that the foxes eyeball his goats.  He says that when the goats get nerved up, they don’t produce the milk like they ought.  Tell me please if there’s a soul in the world who cares if there’s a little less goat milk to go around.  

I’ve seen Dad and Brother go out before.  They stay gone all night and come home bleary eyed and stinking of hops in the morning.  One early morning in particular, I remember Dad striding through the kitchen after a night out on ‘trap posse’ as he calls it.  He grabbed his middle finger out of the freezer and shoved it out the window.

“Take that ya goddamn-goat-farmer,” he roared out into the dawn.  A real Don Quixote meets Grapes of Wrath type moment.  Then he winked at Mom and headed to the milking barn.

“You know, Brother, m’boy here is about old enough to join us.  You mind?”

“Hell no, it’s about time we expanded our posse.”

“Don’t worry, boy, there’s no initiation like your candy-ass fraternity.  We just fill you up on Old Milwaukee and you join in the fun.  You feelin’ like a man tonight?”

This was the first time since I turned twelve that my father had come close to referring to me as man.  Even then, though, he only said it to grease me up for hard labor.

There was no refusing the offer and I knew it, even though I wanted nothing more than to have a slice of pie and head off to bed.  Where the hell did these old men get their energy?

“I’m in, you crazy old farts.”

Brother’s lips tilted a sideways grin to my Dad.

“Hot damn!” he said, clapping his hands together.  “Be at my place in an hour.  The beers are already cold, and I’ve done some recon so we won’t miss a trap.  Finish off that tea, boys, you’ll be glad for it.”

The red foxes around here are as much a part of our life as the livestock we keep fed.  When the crops are in, and a chill comes to the air, we call the hounds and get ourselves a fox hunt.  Not some bug-up-your-ass Virginia hunt club.  We’ve got shaggy ponies, scrawny hounds and sandwiches in our pockets.  Sundays were the only day set apart for fox hunting.  When I was a kid we only had to go to church on rainy days.  Beautiful, sunny Sundays in autumn were for galloping the field rims, jumping in and out of trails, drinking the wind.  I named my favorite foxes.  There’s Patch and Joiner; they run the north woods up from the winter wheat fields.  Then there’s Jilly and Plume, they keep their territory to the east of the farm, near Brother’s double wide.

There’s no greater feeling than when that first hound catches the scent and brays long and happy.  The horses, the hounds, all of us get flush with the hunt.  The foxes love it too.  They keep the hounds just out of sight.  They play the game, running a big figure eight with their den in the center crotch.  They run and run just for the pure joy of making fools out of the hounds. Joiner’s a smart son of a bitch.  He lays false trails, then doubles back to confuse the hounds.  I once saw him sitting high on a rock, I swear he was grinning, watching those hounds circle each other trying to figure out where the hell the scent went.  They run till they get bored or tired, I’m not sure which, then hole up in their den till another day.

The moon was high and bright that night.  We came up on Brother’s double wide around 9:30 p.m.  The first three beers went down quick.  Shoving the rest in our coveralls, we set out.  Our mission was still a mystery to me, but they wouldn’t clue me in.  They just walked on saying, “You’ll know soon enough,” and talking about the impatience of youth.  

Across the hardtop, and a few yards into the woods, the first trap lay in the moonlight; hard steel and teeth.  Hungry and cruel.

“OK, what now? Do you want me to spring it?”

“Don’t be stupid, the goddamn-goat-farmer will just re-set it.”

“What then? What the hell do we do?”

“Piss on it, boy.”

“Huh?”

“Piss on it.  Never in a million years will a fox go near a trap smellin’ of human piss.”

Brilliant.  They don’t teach you stuff like this in school.  I pulled out my hose and washed that steel trap down.  I wonder if that goddamn-goat-farmer will ever figure it out.

Brother said the next one was on the other side of our soy field, so we walked the edge next to the woods.  The air was still as death.  The fields were wrapped in a midnight glow.  Sometimes it seems like all that light isn’t coming from the moon, but from the earth itself, like it’s gathering so much energy to grow our crops that the light just bursts through the furrows.  Dad and Brother don’t say anything about it, but I know they see it too.  All the sweat of farming is just a joke if a man can’t feel the mystery.

Trying to keep stride with my father is a task even now.  He lopes like a damn Yeti.  A Yeti with a crab pincer clamped around his beer, feet like pontoons.

More traps waited up on the north end of the farm.  I had probably five beers by now.  Over the crest of the hill, we all stopped short; mid stride.  Our home was laid out in the folds of the valley.  The barns, the machinery shed, the old farmhouse glowed as bright as the moon itself.  They cast long shadows over the yard like fingers stretching out for help.  Past the farm, the freeway snaked along with the red tail lights glowing one way, and the white headlights glowing the other.  It looked fast, hungry and circled just beyond our farm.

“God Almighty,” Dad spoke, “She looks as fresh as a baby.”

I knew what he meant.  Lacking the money and labor, the buildings have weathered the years alone.  Each year the paint gives way, revealing another layer; exposing a time long gone, when the place was in its prime.  A few spots have peeled to the wood, and I know it’s hard for Dad. Still, there glowing in the moon, it all looked new born, fresh and right.

“I’d like to propose a toast,” said Brother.

“To all the goddamn-goat-farmers, developers, freeway planners and suburban slugs.  May you wake to find your table bare, your wife joined to another, and your children run off with Mr. Hare Freakin’ Krishna.”

“Amen Brother!”  Dad cheered, can raised high.

“Amen,” I said.

Dad’s face was looking a little pinched.  He had yet to relieve himself.  We moved off that quiet hill and towards the next trap.  Along the tree line, and across a little creek, we skirted through a patch of woods.  Brother was the first one to see it.

“Goddamn,” is all he said, then turned away.  Joiner lay still as the night with his left front twisted in the teeth of that trap.  He panted fast and shallow, his small body mangled; damp eyes pleading.

I did not hesitate.  Grabbing my knife with one movement, I knelt next to my old friend and swiped the blade across his throat. Instantly my hands were drenched in the sticky blackness of his blood.  It was everywhere; covering the grass, leaves, my boots and leg.  I wiped the sweat off my lip, then dammit, it was in my mouth and it tasted just like mine.

Joiner, the slickest fox in the territory, done in by a goddamn-goat-farmer.  His head rested between my knees.  The moon caught the rim of his russet fur, causing it to glow.  A wild halo.  Seasons of the chase came flooding into my head.  I wiped my hands on the grass, on my coveralls, and stroked his body.  Still warm and soft as a new calf.  Gone from here, forever.

“Get him out of this fucking thing,” I said.

With easy strength, Dad sprang the trap and released the fractured leg.  It held to the fox only by a few stringy ligaments.  Instead of letting it dangle, Dad sliced it off at the break, re-set the trap, and pissed all over it, mumbling between clenched teeth –

“You stupid, ignorant, goddamn-goat-farmer.”

I hoisted Joiner on my shoulders and headed towards home.  Dad and Brother followed like mutes.  A fox that true, that goddamn good at being a fox, deserved to be buried.

There was a spot, a shaded alcove I used to play in when I was a kid, before I turned twelve.  My spot was on the other side of the house, past the paddocks.  I called it Willow Hollow; it called me often.

“He’ll go here,” I said, poking a shovel into the loamy soil and gently lowering the fox.  We dug a respectable hole in silence.  The moon threw a light down between the trees.

“Gentlemen, I’d like to propose a toast,” said Dad, his pincer still clinging to the paw.

“To Joiner.  May fox heaven have slow rabbits, and slower goddamn-goat-farmers.”

“Glorious,” said Brother as we all reach towards one another, beers held high to bless the toast.

Heading towards the barns, I saw shadowed figures moving to the door.  They knew morning was coming on.  They knew because their udders were full and uneasy.  So they approached the door knowing he’d be there.  Every morning Dad is there at 5:00 a.m. to ease their pain.  He doesn’t know any other way to live.  He rolls open the doors, letting in another day; shouting at the slow cows, and heading off the ornery ones.  Not thinking of the freeway, the contractors or the goddamn-goat-farmer.

In the kitchen, the coffee is ready.  A plastic baggie is wrapped around a chestnut paw.  I’m watching him carefully, hardly believing.  He tucks the paw right next to his own frozen finger, among the peas and ham hocks. He turns to me, and I expect something clever, but there is nothing. I mean nothing. He just walks through the screen door, and it bangs behind him.

School starts in three days.  Part of me, the soul of my boyhood, has been buried deep.  A slow mist creeps across the fields, and soon it will swallow this little alcove.  Walking towards my truck, I swear I can hear the hounds.  Hovering weightless in the mist I scan it all; the barns, the baler idle by the fence, our porch wide and welcome.  Light and surreal, like any moment it could all just rise up and float away.

 


© Copyright 2019 Bonnie Linder. All rights reserved.

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