by Pamela Ryder
NOW THE BRINK of the coldest season.
The tribulations of winter foretold in the autumn arguments of crows, in the industry of ants and the devil-may-care of grasshoppers, in the fields lately emptied of corn, and in the autumn mishaps of the harvest. Suffocation in a grain silo. Skewering on the tines of a hay tedder. Emerson Sweet decides to give the barn a good mucking-out before the first snow obliterates the path to the manure pit but is kicked in the head by one of his Holsteins, stumbles into the shit-trench, and succumbs to the pit gas. Calvin Newcomb, while peening a scythe, misjudges the hammer-strike and slices his thumb clear though to the thigh bone. The harvest done, farm folk set aside the implements of agriculture and ready their firearms while the forest trails are still snowless. The trees are bare, the underbrush reduced to leafless sticks and brambles. The woods are open. The hunted are revealed. The sound of gunshot and rifle fire is heard day and night. Mayhem ensues. Bloodshed on both sides, as it has been since antiquity. Misadventures at the very outset. Deke McGraw at the log pile sets down his axe to give his nose a good honk or two and has it blown off by Maddie Wellworth mistaking his white handkerchief for the rump of a buck. Ellie Vonderstone misplaces her spectacles and takes her husband Nuggie for a turkey. Zeke Oxenard cleans his gun and for no good reason peers down the wrong end of the barrel. Men talk of rut, points, racks. In the same trees where recently hung the family hogs to be rendered for human consumption, mule deer now hang by their hoofs. So begins the sharpening of saws, axes, hatchets. The deer decapitations for later display. Dangling tongues replaced with plaster and painted. The lashed and luminous eyes to be replaced with glass; the moist black noses to be shellacked over. The amputation of hoofs to be turned to hat-racks. Missus Hooper at the backporch door hollers Suppertime Bailey! to Mister Hooper on the upswing of his axe just as he is bracing the foreleg of a doe with his foot, and in turning his head ever-so-slightly to shout back Coming Dear loses all five toes midfoot on the downswing. Whetstones, grindstones, sparks. Lester Findleman spies a rusted hatchet that has been hanging on his toolshed door for the past twenty years at least and for no good reason decides to set it sharp and on the first spin of the granite grindstone takes out his left eye with a sizable chip. Lymon James takes Little Lymon ice fishing out on scenic Lake Dark and chops a hole and drops his hook and line where last winter he pulled up an twelve-pound pike. A beautiful spot directly across from a stand of spruce on the shore and a cluster of white boulders on the bank. Easy to remember, easy to find, when the men come out with grappling hooks and ask Little Lymon to show them just where it was his father went under. The hole and surrounding crack and crater being refrozen and requiring additional axing; the men with the grappling hooks leaving the scene without the corpse of Lymon James, though they did pull up a nice-sized pike where Lymon James had dropped his line. The Arkansas River still flows, but ice has formed stone to stone along the banks and further out at gravelbars set sideways to the current the backflow and ice jam makes ponds and lakes. Martin Otis tells little sister Molly Jean how safe it is to walk on ice if you slide your feet along like skaters do instead of taking steps. The cattle drive to the slaughterhouse on the Arkansas River brings the same moans and mooing as they animals are whooped and whipped along the boards and down the chute, and the heat of their breathing and their bodies builds as clouds above the rumbling throngs of them, and the cast-off pieces of cows not heading on to Abilene keep flowing from the big pipe and even as the pieces freeze and the ice turns a watery pink, the birds—the buzzards—are there, some tugging at what pokes up from the ice, some hunched on overhanging limbs or river-bank rocks and considering what choice parts to pluck from Molly Jean Otis who turns dreamily in the eddy with the pieces of cast-off cow, and blanched though she may be, the bovine blood around her lends her a rosy hue.
Pamela Ryder is the author of two novels-in-stories, Correction of Drift about the Lindbergh baby kidnap case and Paradise Field, depicting a father’s drift into infirmity and death (both Fiction Collective 2), as well as the short story collection, A Tendency to Be Gone (Dzanc). Her work has been published in many literary journals including The Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Unsaid, Alaska Quarterly Review, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, Tyrant, and Conjunctions. Ryder is at work on a novel about the boy desperado, Billy the Kid. Her website is www.pamelaryder.com.