by John Oliver Hodges
The man maneuvered the 55-gallon drum onto the tailgate and tipped it. The molasses poured out grainy and sweet, splashing first then boiling quietly in the bin, black and reeking of good health. Come next week the man would bring out some heifers from his other fields. Until then, old Quib would lick the wheels by his lonesome mass of bull self, making sure to lick all three wheels in case some unexpected goodness turned up on a different wheel. There were similarities, the man thought, between bulls and men.
The man had at times imagined old Quib to have a regular store of human emotions, something that had emerged over the years through their friendship, a give and take between man and beast. Old Quib supplied the man with calves, not to mention the enormous pleasure he felt in merely watching the muscular black miracle of a body traverse the field, all that proud weight pounding the earth under the sun and clouds—it was a marvelous spectacle that glorified God’s ingenuity and wisdom. In exchange for these gifts, the man treated Quib with fear and respect, a caring that he supplied in a measure equal with what he bestowed upon his daughter. The man was a Christian, and proud of his sense of fairness.
The man hopped down from the tailgate and secured the three-wheeled lid back onto the molasses bin. When he stood up straight, he saw that Quib had approached and was staring hungrily at the wheels, his black nose dripping snot into the grass. The man laughed. Quib looked at him quizzically, and the man laughed louder, for the snot gave Quib away, pointing out to any casual observer that the beast’s vanity was beastly only, not human. Humans do not, unless they are girls with unscrupulous parents, come to dinner with dirt smeared over their faces, certainly not with snot dripping out. If bulls had been given appendages with which to groom, they would spend no less time before the looking glass than the man’s wife and daughter did. Quib’s nose snot looked insufferable to him, and he rolled his black face around as if to say quit noticing my nose.
‘Not a thing in the world you can do about it, Quib,’ the man said. ‘Best to stop you fussing.’
Now to check Quib’s wire, see was it live. The man picked a blade of grass and touched the wire with it, drew his hand closer until he felt the pulse. The man then went to check on his daughter who all morning had been throwing things out of the old trailer into a pile, making it ready to burn.
The girl would graduate from high school in a few years, and be gone from him, another woman let loose into the world to make babies. The man felt strange about this, indeed, that she would be going to college one day, though he tried not to dwell on it. It was a situation, he thought, similar to the snot in the nose of his bull.
The man drove across the field, stopped at the gate, unlatched it, drove through, closed it, and pulled up beside the barn, where his daughter was finishing her lunch in its shade. The man clapped his hands together and said, ‘Workage,’ and the girl grabbed the rugpole and bucket and followed him to the pile, which had been stacked high with all manner of junk: curtains, rugs, rotted tables and chairs, a baby crib, heaps of plastic bottles, busted lamps, and old books and . . . what’s this? A bunch of magazines with naked ladies in them had been thrown onto the pile, their pages peeled apart in display of the lewd pictures. The man scratched the back of his neck. ‘Did you get those from the trailer?’ he said, without a single gesture as to what ‘those’ might be.
The girl said, ‘I don’t know where else I would’a got’em. I just threw’em on there. I didn’t think you wanted’em in the good pile.’
The man ignored this remark.
The man circled the pile, dousing it with kerosene from a large rusted gas can. He lit a rip of Wheaties cereal box with a butane lighter he found on a sidewalk in town, threw the rip on the wet spot, and the flame sucked around the bottom of the pile, and climbed it, whistling up into a bright flame that reached for the sky. The heat spread into the yard, overflowing, blowing against them and scorching their faces.
‘Don’t just stand there,’ the man said, and the girl dunked the rugpole into the five-gallon bucket of water and flapped the ground around the fire, where it was spreading out into the yard. When the pile’s exterior had been burned away, and the flames had stopped raging crazily, the man told the girl to keep throwing things on because there was still plenty of stuff in the trailer that needed to be burned. ‘Yes sir,’ she said, and the man left to get things ready for burning the nearby field.
The girl stripped the trailer’s interior bare, throwing everything into the fire. In the smoke and ash and flames she observed the wheels of a child’s skate, an incandescent jar lid, a melted bottle.
By the time the fire had settled down and the flames lapped gently at the air, nibbling it, her face was sweaty and smeared with black ash.
When the man returned from the field, he clapped his hands and said, ‘Workage,’ and the girl followed him around the barn to the dead field where thousands of humps of long tan grass spread out before them amongst scattered patches of green. Like hair, bunches of old wigs fallen from the sky. A bunch of rickety dead trees were at the end of the field, neck high, black and silver in the sun.
The man made her drink Gatorade. The man made her touch her toes ten times, then breathe deeply for half a minute. The man licked his finger and held it up, oscillating it, detecting the subtle flow and consistency of the breeze. Once satisfied as to which was the most strategic spot to start the fire, the man clapped his hands together and said, ‘Workage.’
The girl dunked her rugpole into the five gallon-bucket of kerosene. The man did the same with another rugpole. He lit the rugs then, and the rugs flamed up. They each walked away from each other toward opposite fences, dragging the burning rugs over the brittle grass, leaving trails of crackling fire behind them. Then they cut diagonally towards the middle of the field where they met up, and where the man poured more kerosene onto the girl’s rug. The man then walked back to his truck where he had business to attend.
The flames merged behind her, moving on the breeze her direction, a crooked wavering orange arm with stabbing yellow tips. She moved into the brush at the end of the field, where fresh artillery awaited her, more rugpoles and some five-gallon buckets of water strategically placed by Daddy himself. The small dry trees around her started burning, and she imagined herself as a Christian soldier, stamping the flames with her pole, her sword. She knocked down flaming, crackling trees with her boots, karate-kicking them and breaking their branches, killing them.
The girl was all in a blissful rage at the flames, and shouted unknown words in the whirling smoke everywhere. ‘Achooheeesah pakata!’ she roared, and cut off Daddy’s head in one single stroke. The head tumbled through the ashes amidst small flaming trees. Before Daddy could fall backwards due to his gone head, the girl swung the rugpole around and skewered him in the gut. Then he reappeared from behind her and she quickly slit his throat, watched him fall, then made corpses of several other men whose faces all looked the same.
But the flames were getting out of hand. An unexpected wind flew in from the north to fortify the enemy. Smoke singed the girl’s eyeballs, her lungs, everywhere, the smoke was coming in, assaulting her hotter. The winds whipped up twisters of burning ashes, and she started shouting at the flames: ‘No! No! No!’ She stomped the flames with her work boots, kicking pieces into the air, and began coughing awfully, like she was going down. There was too much smoke. She dunked her rug, flapped the ground with it, spreading the wetness around, but the flames were jumping at her arms and legs from the fiery trees. Her rugpole wasn’t working anymore, the rug was on fire. She ran to the nearest bucket to get a new rugpole, but when she reached down to grab it she felt a searing pain in the small of her back. Her shirt was on fire. She quickly removed it, still coughing. Too much smoke. She had to get out of this place. There was only one way for her to escape. She sized up the fence and ran, grabbed a post and hurdled herself over the barbs into the field as Quib’s black shape galloped through a smoky veil. Everything went quiet, black snowflakes falling.
Quib brought his head down into the girl’s belly, lifting her off the ground and throwing her a dozen feet by a single sawed-off horn. Quib then stomped over her, his hooves missing her body as she buckled up, trying to breathe. Without fully regaining her breath she got up and fled, Quib hopping along nonchalantly behind her, taking his time. She quickly climbed back over the fence, avoiding the electric wire, and collapsed on the burnt ground, clutching herself, coughing, then laughing. ‘You bastard!’ she screamed, and looked at her stomach, which had been ruptured, not deeply or deadly too much, but it had been torn apart by Quib’s short blunt horn, and was bleeding pretty badly. ‘You black bastard!’ the girl cried, and took off her work gloves in order to check her wound better. She could still see her father’s head rolling through the flaming ashes and coals, and a panic, almost liquid in its realness, filled her chest. Surely, she was being punished for having cut off his head, punished for her bad thoughts, the thoughts that would turn her into the gold ring in the pig’s snout, or girl who walks a crooked path without realizing it.
The flames were now fallen into a pattern of relaxed dying, and the girl, curled up on her side, saw through the smoke her father’s Ford rolling over the field her direction, a streaming black cloud rising up behind it, the truck weaving between flaming crowns.
‘I got struck by a bayonet,’ the girl said, as her father rushed to her side. ‘A bull bayonet,’ she said, and moaned from the pain, trying to make him think she was dying and did not have much longer to live. ‘Your damn bull tried to kill me,’ she went on.
The man was about speechless, but he’d learned long ago how stupid people could be. He just looked down at her, shaking his head with pity as his daughter turned onto her back, looking dreamily up at the sky now, one hand held over her heart as if she was pledging allegiance to the flag, blood all over her. ‘Cover yourself,’ the man said.
And to the republic, for which it stands . . .
The man knelt beside her, lifted the bloody hand off her chest and set it down in the ashes. He then took up her work gloves and covered her nakedness with them, one for each small breast. He began checking her wounds, pressing the flesh of her stomach and gauging her pain-responses in order to discern the severity of her condition. She seemed to have broken a rib, she was foolishly burned in several places, and her stomach had been ripped apart.
The man said, ‘I could stitch you up, but I think all you need is a good dose of gauze. First, you got to get off the damn ground though and quit acting silly. What’re you waiting for?’
The girl stood, the gloves falling away.
The man ignored this defiant gesture and walked to the truck, the girl following behind. He pulled down the tailgate for her to sit on, then went up front and retrieved his First Aid kit. Without further ado, he cleaned the girl’s wound, gauzed it, taped it, the girl now back in working order. Some blood and sweat had seeped down into her jeans, and it looked as though she had wet her pants. It was a terrible eyesore, but there you go, more snot in the nose of the bull.
Quib had not meant to overly hurt his daughter, the man knew this. The man knew that Quib may well have wanted to gouge her deeper, scoop out her intestines and drag them across the field, but did not, out of deference to the man. It would have caused the man pain. Quib was smart enough to know this. Quib may well even have been, the man sometimes thought, smarter than the girl. Yes, the man and his bull shared a mental and spiritual connection. Had Quib pounded the girl with his hooves it would have been a direct attack against him, especially in light of the newly given molasses. The man would have had to alter the relationship they had built over the years, punishing the bull in the same way he would have punished his slaves, had he been born back in the old days and owned slaves like his great grandfather had. No, Quib, with his beastly emotions, did not want to be punished, did not want to experience the humiliation of submission. Quib did not want to be reminded that his life was subject to the whims of the man.
Which was a good thing, because the man dreaded ever having to do something mean to Quib. Quib had supplied him with countless calves, had given everything asked of him, nothing more and nothing less, which was a thing that could not be said about a lot of humans, that was certain. The man himself had only been able to impregnate a woman once in his life, and what he got for it was a girl, one measly girl and nothing more. Look at her. On the tailgate of his truck she looked like a damn orphan child with black smears of ash all over her. She doesn’t even take the time to try and wipe her face up and be clean, he thought. All that snot in the nose of the bull. ‘I’m not driving you home like that,’ the man said. ‘You’re going to have to show some modesty.’
‘I’ll put my hands over them,’ the girl said, reaching up and using her hands as a bra, grimacing all the while, as if that cracked rib was splintering into her flesh from the inside. She began to weep, but the man had not time for this. The man opened the front door of the truck for her and she climbed in. As he drove the Ford across the burnt field, he saw old Quib at the molasses bin, working the wheels, his fat purple tongue reaching out blissfully as the gravy soaked his mouth.
John Oliver Hodges teaches creative writing at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City. His stories have been published in The Texas Review, Red Dirt Forum, New World Writing and a hundred other journals. His three published books are War of the Crazies, The Love Box, and Quizzleboon. Check out John’s photography and nonfiction work at: