Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Mauren Stead

Eli Mauren was a patient man. A war, 60 years of farming, and 17 grandchildren taught a person to be still. He waited outside milking barn in the late afternoon light leaning on his cane. He was staring at one of his favorite jersey heifers standing alone in a field. She was about 300 yards away on a gently sloping hillside. A brown figure surrounded by clean snow at the forest's edge. The heifer had not moved in the fifteen minutes he had locked eyes on her. She did not flick an ear, swish her long tail, or lift a hoof. For a healthy young milker to be standing so still was concerning him, but he did what he always did when an animal acted odd: observe. He remained still as a perched kestrel, watching without so much as a blink. Terrified that if he did he'd miss the movement that would wash him over with sweet relief. The heifer remained a statue in the snow. Something wasn't right at White Creek Farm.

He first noticed her away from the rest of the herd when chores started at dawn. He usually liked to have his morning work completed before Sun Up, but today had not allowed the habit. He had risen at the chimes of his brass alarm clock at 4:15, just as he had every morning since he took the farm over from his father after the war. He'd married his girl, had six children, and watched his family blossom here in the Battenkill Valley while he tended his beloved cows. The children were grown, and his dear wife had passed from the flu last winter when it spread through the county like wildfire. He truly believed it was the cows that saved him. That so many years outdoors among the rust, woods, blood, milk, and dung had build an immune system no sickness had touched since he laid in a hospital bed after the horrors of Cold Harbor, so many lifetimes ago...

He got dressed in a heavy wool Aran sweater, flecked with hay and ash, and his favorite fur-lined cap. Humming an old, familiar fiddle tune, he started the coffee while he fetched a lantern from the hook on the wall. He set the globe aside and looked around the room. The soft fire in the old fieldstone chimney was burning bright and cheery. His dinner of potato soap and bread was warming in a Dutch oven hanging by a chain over the coals. While lighting his favorite black table lamp in the kitchen he was thinking about how much he liked his oil light, how he hated the harsh gas lights of those new Colemans every other dairyman was raving about. Talking to himself as he shook out the match, he turned for his lantern when the world exploded before him.

He slammed to the ground from the force of air that pushed through the farmhouse door, cracked it in half and blew out all the glass panes. The rage came from nowhere and shook the entire home, knocking cans off the shelf and rattling the windows. The fire in the kitchen's hearth spat and howled as the howl caused such a strong draw it shot flames high and filled the room with orange light turning blue. Bits of sawdust and tinder lit all over the floor and walls, red and orange streams of burning coal moving in the cracks of the old wooden floor like blood poisoning in veins. Soon the room was nothing but fire and air. Mauren panicked, but remembered his wits and crawled on his belly towards the open door, praying he could make it before the heat took him. Outside a torrent of snow screamed across his valley farm. It had come as fast and hard as the wind that threw him down. He tried to go outside, to leave the burning house, but didn't make it five feet outside his door before he felt nearly lost in the white out. He fell to the snow and turned around towards the nearly diminished light of the house. What snowstorm could hide a house fire? It swallowed everything.

He crawled to the barn with all his strength, moving by instinct instead of sight. When he felt the old wood of the barn door he pulled the sliding door open just enough to crawl inside. He slid the door behind him and sat up, finally catching his breath in the safety of the windless, flameless barn. A dozen Jersey heifers lifted their head to regard him and then returned to eating. The cows had no concern for the intruder or the storm. He then tried to listen by pressing his ear to the door he’d just shut but he couldn't hear anything but cloven air and angry branches breaking from the force. He prayed that the herd was near the barn, taking shelter in the sturdy walls his great grandfather built when this country was new. He remained on the floor, and let himself rest his eyes while it blew and fussed behind the three inches of maple that made his barrier. Without meaning to, despite the urge to remain awake, he fell asleep.

When he awoke it was dawn and the farm seemed strangely unaffected. During morning chores he was calmed at the sight of his girls by the old red barn. They huddled near their feeders and water trough. He fed them fresh hay by the pitchfork, and noticed they all seemed more skittish than usual. Their eyes showing more of the white than he cared to see. As he pitched the hay his body could afford—slowly and with much strain—he raised his scratchy voice in a loud, "Home, Girls! Home!" hoping to round up all the stragglers near the tree line. He couldn’t blame the wanderers. A wise cow takes the closest cover, be it forest or barn. A few heifers probably took shelter in the woods. He waved and whooped and slowly brown faces emerged from the forest. His beautiful milkers, came down to the barn in their ambling, eager way. Nearly, all. The brown heifer he was watching when the storm struck him was still standing in the same place? And as he called, watched her, and went about she remained standing.

And so now it was an hour since he first saw the girl on the hill, and he stood near his barn afraid. His son, who lived on the opposite end of his property—a mile away near the main road into town—would not be here to start morning milking with his sons for another hour. Mauren decided to investigate. He could not wait through the suspense, and if something was wrong he would need to know so to properly convey it to his son. He fetched his shotgun, walking cane, and a few medical supplies into a shoulder satchel and slowly started up the pasture’s icy hillside.

Crows watched from high in the birch branches as Mauren slowly climbed the hill. He stopped twice, to look around as much as to catch his breath. Curiously there were no prints in the snow, no disruption at all on the entire hillside. Yet he could see the trails through the powder plainly on the other side of the barn where the cattle ate. He could follow them to places in the forest a half mile away, but not over here? This stretch of snow was virgin ground, save for the tracks he made behind him.

Now, just fifty feet away from the heifer he could see she was dead. Dead and frozen where she stood. He had heard stories of this happening, but never saw such a thing in his own life, nor knew anyone who had. As he gained on her his curiosity grew. She was, without a doubt, dead as a hammer but she had actually died mid-stride. Two hooves were off the ground reaching forward, and her face placid as a calf's. But something was odd about her front left foot. It was black. It seemed skinnier too? He stopped walking, not ten feet from the animal, and looked harder. It was bone. The front hoof was nothing but black bone reaching out trying to step. It was clean as glass. No sign of blood, sinew, or skin? Then he noticed the same from the back left leg, planted firmly into 5 inches of snow but also nothing but black clean bones. As he stepped closer, he unintentionally held his breath. His heart was pounding in his temples, his eyes wide and mouth agape.

As he turned the corner on the giant animal he clasped his hand into a fist and shoved it into his mouth to bite into it. An involuntary reaction he hadn't succumbed to since his the War. The drastic lurch made him drop his shotgun and even then he flinch when the buckshot exploded into the dead cow in front of him. Half of the beast was gone. The half facing the forest was missing as if a surgeon had come in the night and sawed the animal in two. A perfect division right down the spine left one side flesh and the other just black bone. It looked as though the animal had frozen in place and some giant hand picked her up and dipped her sideways into deadly acid that perfectly consumed the flesh to the water's level. The muscle and organs that had been spliced were frozen too, not a drop of blood nor a sick smell filled the air. The bones on the flesh side seemed white, normal. But the bones facing the old farmer were black as if charcoal. He composed himself, reached out to touch the bowl of the shoulder blade expecting soot on his fingers. He recoiled at the shock of their metallic firmness. Never had he seen such a sight. Not in wartime, read in books, or gaped at in side shows. This was an abomination.

He reached a rattling hand into his coat pocket, searching for his rosary. He found it—solid ground at last—and started chanting Hail Marys as he stared into the cavern of the heifer's ribs. Something caught the light, a flash of gold. He leaned forward and saw that hanging from a black ribbon was a golden locket. He prayed louder, as if to scream sense into the moment, as if to tame the experience into understanding. As he shouted, HAIL MARY, FULL OF GRACE. OUR LORD IS WITH THEE..." He reached into the black ribcage to remove the small pendant from the bones. It came away gently. It looked just as it didto the last time he saw it. His wife’s locket she was buried with.

Shaking now, covered in a cold sweat, Mauren took the locket into his cold hands and forced it open. If this really was his wife's jewelry their pictures taken in New York City in Central Park would be inside. His hands were clumsy, cracking, and starting to bleed from the cold but he persisted, his rosary dangling around the black ribbon in his hands. Inside on her side of the locket was his wife. She looked just as he remembered the photo, smiling under a flowering dogwood tree. Then he stopped his persistent prayer. Stood silent in the snow.

His photo was gone.