Read Guest Editor Juan Martinez’s introduction
The medevac choppers usually stopped coming when the snow vanished in spring. The ski resort behind us was rundown — the lift towers, the buildings, nothing had been retouched since Daniel and I were too young to know who was President. This was Wisconsin — the slopes attracted either beginners from the state to our south, or moderately skilled locals who were drunk before their first run of the afternoon. That part of the year, between taking care of our daughter and bringing the farm back to life, I didn’t have much time to watch out the kitchen window as they transferred the injured and pre-anesthetized from their gurney sled to the helicopter. The warm-weather hikers were more sure-footed but less entertaining.
I stood at the sink, looking out the window, up along the abandoned slopes. A pair of hornets circled outside, and I tapped the screen to scare them elsewhere. It just gave them the wrong idea, that they could attack me through the wire mesh. The noise of their building frustration crescendoed as it blended into the ominous cough of helicopter blades.
The rotors pushed the laundry tang of spring air through the open kitchen window. The turbulence from the chopper accomplished what I couldn’t: dispatching the two hornets. I looked out to the fistful of Douglas firs that sat midpoint between our house and the normal evac landing area. The trees obstructed most of the view, making it hard to tell how serious the injury had been. The chopper slid overhead, turned to face the house, then landed softly behind the trees.
Daniel planted himself next to me at the sink. He carried with him his nice, going-into-school smell — like Dial soap, even though I couldn’t think of the last time we bought Dial soap. It wasn’t quite late enough in the year to abandon the prospect of teaching his class something new. His brief contact with the kitchen counter made him recoil — the pooled dishwater threatened to soak into his shirt. He steadied himself with his hand against the small of my back, and I gave a little sigh I didn’t intend.
“Do we know what happened yet?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said. “Same as usual. This dude’ll just have a bumpier ride down with no snow.” I sniffed. “Poor fucker.”
After a few minutes, the helicopter lifted back over the trees. It was quieter than on approach, solemn out of respect for the injured. I wondered if they were taking him to Sauk, or if things were bad enough to warrant a trip all the way to Madison. The chopper usually meant Madison — surgery or a CT scan.
I flinched when I heard a bang against the front room window. I looked over my shoulder, trying to get an angle to see what it was. “Fuck,” Daniel yelled. I hadn’t realized he’d snuck in there. I rushed in and over to his side, just as he hit the glass again, softer this time. “Don’t look, Elena,” he said, but he must have known that to be an unreasonable request.
There in the front room, a picture window filled one wall, framing the County Road. Daniel stood, hands now at his side; his handprint still visible, steamed onto the glass. I couldn’t tell what he was looking at — our barn, the ski resort, the road — till I edged closer to him. I gasped when I saw. One of our goats had been run down, strewn across the blacktop. The two of us stood, frozen in appreciation, like looking at a fucked-up, grisly Renaissance painting.
I’d never thought about the hidden anatomy of a goat, what parts went where. I took for granted they had one of everything we did. Looking at the asphalt, I could see no discrete signs of the parts, organs, mechanisms I assumed to be necessary. Just shades of pinkish-red, tufts of hair, tender things exposed and intermingled. I wanted to be sick but doubted my body could handle it.
“I think it was the mom,” Daniel said. I called her Anabel. I knew it was her before he said so but hearing him say it gave me a feeling like something cold and hot — simultaneous — was burrowing its way down my esophagus. I shook my head and heard Daniel as he counted aloud to four, and I realized: through the window, he was inventorying the rest of the goats in their pen.
“Fuck,” said Daniel, again. He looked over to the stairs. “Will Fay come down?” he wondered, probably just to himself. “I guess don’t let her see outside for a while,” he said. I hadn’t yet heard the baby, who was not quite a baby anymore. Daniel worked the buttons on his dress shirt, getting it halfway open before I figured his plan.
This time of year was the start of the lull. The hardest work of planting was done, and I spent my time playing my tricks to ensure we’d have anything to harvest when the time came. Days spent cross-pollinating the squash plants if the bees had spurned them, mixing compost back into dry soil beds. I watered, watched the sun beat down, and hauled barrows of soil back and forth, unsure what would bear fruit later. Anabel usually followed me while I did all this, and the other goats followed her. Without her, they might ignore me. Without her, next spring, this inheritance of ours might not feel like it should continue to be a going concern.
The goats all got loose now and again, but we caught them by the time they made it to the road. If not, cars slowed to a stop and honked their warnings, till the goat trotted back up the berm to safety. Whoever did this, they’d broken that unspoken compact. Daniel liked to grumble that we had the only goats too particular to subsist on tin cans and boots. But he chased them down when they wandered off, and now? He was out there in boxer shorts and work boots, scraping Anabel’s carcass up with a hard rake and a burlap sack.
A noise from upstairs pulled my attention away from the scene out front. It was like two 2×4’s banging together. I knew it was Fay ramming against the bars of her crib. For a sec, I wondered if I’d been too distracted by the grisly accident to notice the upswing from normal “Momma”’s to louder “Hey!”’s to this nuclear option of noise. This was how she operated. This was a child, after all, who the nurses said she fought like hell just to be born. On her way out, she made sure my insides couldn’t handle another one. The doctors said it more scientific than that in the recovery ward. But we needed to know, to hear it again, and by the time they sent us home, they just took to ignoring us, about whether we could have another. They felt that question had been answered.
Downstairs, Fay and I faced off across a highchair tray strewn with turkey chunks and half-grapes. It was a real chess match: her faking a bite, dropping food onto the floor, me stealing what remained on the tray to show how it’s done. Amidst all that, I missed Daniel coming back inside from the carnage.
I heard him run the sink, followed by the rustle of his shirt as he got dressed back up for school. I knew he wouldn’t leave without some comment on what happened to Anabel, but I couldn’t think of anything he could say that I wanted to hear.
I looked up to ask, “You get it taken care of?” as he dried his hands on his pants-leg. He then eased his arm into the second sleeve, slow like he was sore. He noticed a missed button but redid it without me pointing it out.
His pace suddenly quickened, and he began to retuck his shirt tails with a kind of violence. Each time he withdrew his hand from his waistband, he half-undid the previous tuck.
“You’re mad,” I said.
“I’m not,” he almost-yelled. “I mean, not at you. I just, I wanted to be gone by now.”
“And I wanted to run it by the burnpile.”
“Run what?” I asked, then shook my head and waved a hand to shut him up.
“I don’t want you to have to do it,” he said.
I looked up at him, my head tilted a few degrees off-center. He was sure I knew what he meant. I knew, but he had no reason to be sure.
“Please leave it till I get home,” he said and leaned in close to my head. I gave a little Marge Simpson hum, and he pulled back to look at me. He’d called Anabel an ‘it’ — twice — and I was sure he hadn’t realized it. He gave me a slow nod then kissed the back of my head.
From the porch, I watched him drive off in our small car. He’d parked the truck midway down the drive, leaving a buffer between the burlap sack in its bed, and me and Fay. I could see a film of dust on the windshield, kicked up when the medevac came and went. There was also a smell drifting up towards the house, something piney and insistent. I didn’t think it was emanating from the truck. Something else was out there, its body giving way to mold and rot. I wasn’t sure I needed to know what it was — it could have been anything — but I walked from the porch to the road, back to the truck, and over to our garden, trying to define the boundaries of the new smell.
As I took my next step, my phone buzzed through the pocket of my robe, against my hipbone, It was Daniel. I held him to my ear.
“What were you thinking of doing with it?” he asked.
“With Anabel? She wasn’t going on the burnpile, I’ll say that.”
Daniel went quiet, and it became clear we’d be on the phone much longer or much shorter than the situation warranted.
“What were you going to do instead?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “To properly take care of her? There are only so many real options.” I slid my toe out of my flip-flop and rubbed my big toe against the flaked wood of the porch, waiting for a splinter. I knew I wanted to find the right spot to bury her on Blue Bluff.
He sighed. “We can’t do this every time…hold on,” he said, before cutting out then coming back. “We can’t bury everything that’s…” he paused. “We can’t…” The phone went silent, a vacuum of noise through the earhole. I realized he wasn’t struggling for words. He had instead driven into the dead spot over on the other side of the ski hill. Of course, for people over on that side, we were the dead spot. When his voice didn’t come back, I hung up. I stood for a minute, listening to the truck noise, sighs from the far-off highway. It was a light rustling, like Daniel – or your husband, your bedmate — turning fitful under the duvet next to you.
I walked over to the pen and counted for myself which goats were left. I didn’t think Daniel was wrong, I just needed to see. Still four of them. I kicked at the fencepost that usually came loose, providing their escape hatch. It held in place, and I couldn’t figure how Anabel had gotten out.
Most of our tools were in the barn, in a little shed towards the front. I walked over, glad I didn’t have to go far inside for what I needed. There were parts of the barn that gave me the creeps, and I tried to stay out.
The shovels were mixed in with odd junk: a fencepost digger we’d never used, a garden weasel under-qualified to do much of what we needed, and a bow and quiver of arrows hung on a hook. There was a paper target impaled on the same hook, and it appeared to be riddled with BB gun holes. I grabbed the shovel and headed back to the house.
As I walked, I heard buzzing again, my hand automatically going to my pocket. It wasn’t my phone. I squinted up towards the porch and saw a mouth pressed against the inside of the screen door, right about knee height, blowing and blowing raspberries, surrounded by a silhouette of curls. I tried to remember if I’d let Fay out of her crib — I hadn’t, but here she was, waiting for me.
I held the door open for her. “You got this far,” I said. “Come on the rest of the way.” She worked herself backwards down the steps, not watching to see when she reached the bottom. When she did, she tripped trying to take an extra step. She pushed herself up to fours then straight up, before making a direct line for the pickup. As I listened to her little hands beat the sides of it, the word plunk rising up into the air like a cartoon, my eyes drifted out over the truck’s roof to the fields beyond.
There was a creek that cut through, under the boundary of the high tension lines. It ran crooked down from the hilltop where the ski lifts converged like a rail depot. There was a little oxbow curve right before the creek straightened out past our property, and it struck me as an ideal spot to bury Anabel. We hadn’t planted out that far because we weren’t sure if it was our land, but looking at it now, it had to be.
We’d never had to discuss it before, but it felt like Daniel thought death should go unobserved at Blue Bluff. Maybe that was how his Uncle Tim handled it. It made sense given how much more active a farm it was when he owned it. This level of fuss and grief would have no place. But I also wondered, if I dug in the right spot, what beloved creature’s mourned remains would I find.
I parked the truck out by the creekbed. That made Fay — next to me in her carseat — realize we weren’t going for a real ride. The initial playful slaps of her bare feet against the dash turned to violent stomps, and her belly strained against the seatbelt straps. I wasn’t sure how guilty to feel since I hadn’t told her we were going somewhere fun. I patted her curls, turned on the radio to calm her and climbed out to grab the shovel and Anabel’s body from the back.
Fay paused her cries when she felt the weight shift as I hoisted myself into the truckbed. I could see her turn to watch me through the back window of the cab. I braced myself to lift the sack, but it was way lighter than I expected. I had to overcorrect, hugging the burlap against my side. Something hard and substantial inside it poked me, and surprised, I let the sack fall out onto the ground, less delicately than I wanted. I vaulted back out and fell to my knees alongside it, readying myself to dig.
It hadn’t rained for weeks. The first stab with the shovel was good, but after that it didn’t go anywhere. Right away, my arms burned and felt like they’d shrunk an inch. My head was light like at the dentist’s, and I blinked slow to steady myself. I realized then that Fay was yelling at me, loud, and I wasn’t sure for how long. I dropped the shovel and went over to pat her scrunched, red face, optimistic but not certain that she wouldn’t bite me. I grabbed my phone from the seat.
My mother always wanted to be my first call in situations like this, but I was already typing out Can you come be with Fay to her sister. Sissy lived down in Lodi with their other sister, my aunt. I don’t think there was a real rift, but I saw the aunts more than my mom. They were better at helping without needing the full explanation why.
Her typed response Is she OK? came through.
Some dipshit, I wrote.
Ran over one of our goats.
I hadn’t meant them as separate messages and imagined her curiosity about who the dipshit was and what they’d done. I was about to type and explain more, but she wrote On way before I could push another letter.
Twenty minutes later, she was parked alongside the pickup, careful to not block my way.
“Did you take the ferry up?” I asked as we hugged hello.
“Didn’t want to take a chance on missing it and waiting,” she said. “Tell me again what happened with Anabel,” she said, bending down to pick up Fay.
“I didn’t really tell you,” I said, then proceeded to catch her up from the morning.
“Seriously, he thought you all would just burn her body?” she asked. I shrugged. “So then what?” she asked.
I explained my plan, gesturing out to the burial spot. Sissy nodded but didn’t say anything. I knew that meant she didn’t agree with me either, but I couldn’t imagine what compromise option she had in mind — if anything. And I didn’t ask.
“You gotta do what you gotta do,” she said. “Is the dollhouse where we left it?”
When Fay turned toddler, my mother brought over an old Fisher-Price dollhouse of mine. A gift, if I remembered right, from her sisters when I was that age. Mom wanted Fay to have it but didn’t trust her to play with it without breaking it. We cleared a spot on our hall closet shelf for its safekeeping after every visit. I honored my mother’s wish because it was easier than dealing with the alternative. I was sure Sissy, one of these times, would leave it out when she went home, just to spark a reaction from her older sister. None of us — my mom excepted — thought even Fay could do serious damage to a Fisher-Price toyhouse. Before Mom knew it, Fay would be too old to care.
I don’t know. We inherited the farm in such a bereft state. It took more than we were capable to restore how Tim had it. At its heights, he had half a dozen cattle, a couple donkeys, and a full chicken coop — and it was just him. But when Uncle Tim got sick, he sold everything off to help with hospital bills. Then, he never got well enough to replace anything – either animals or equipment. The tractor, he sold when money stopped coming in, leaving us a machine shed with no machines. The other farmers around town had taken it all off his hands at dirt prices.
They wanted him to sell them the land, finish dying, get lost. Some of the fuckers around town snuck off with smaller equipment, shit that just plausibly walked off on its own: kerosene, bales of wire and stakes for fences. Theft was tough to prove, but no one would clue us in about who the perpetrators were anyway. Me and Daniel weren’t townies to the actual townies. We were intruders to them — college kids who never should have come back here.
Back at the creekbed, I rested my foot on the shovel blade. It wasn’t possible, I didn’t think, to take your shoveling seriously if that wasn’t your starting position. I’d told myself I’d gotten further along in the digging than was true. I stabbed with the shovel, my grip wrong. It sent electric currents and failure signals up the nerves in my arms. The impact killed the heel of my hand, and rendered my thumb inert. My now-leaden hand couldn’t keep hold of the shovel, and I dropped it at an angle where I couldn’t catch it with my good hand.
I leaned against the truck to steady myself and right then felt my back pocket buzz. I pulled out my phone with my wrong-but-working hand to see a series of messages from Daniel. Between the digging and the back-and-forth to the house, I’d missed them.
How’s everything going
Hope you’re OK about A
Don’t want you to worry
About finishing what you’re doing. Will get it in a few hrs
It was a little haiku about what he thought was thoughtfulness, but the syllable counts were all wrong. My thumb hovered as I discerned if he wanted or needed a response. His only question didn’t have the right punctuation mark. And after all that, he still called Anabel an ‘it’.
I typed back, Should be taken care of in no time then waited.
Don’t overdo it, he replied and followed that with a smiley face.
I wondered if we would ever agree about where my limits lay. He still didn’t believe I’d recovered enough from Fay’s delivery and its associated trauma. But it went further than that, though he’d never admit it. He thought himself as agriculturally capable as his uncle, a delusion I truly loved about him, but I don’t think he thought the same of me, even though I’d been doing this just as long as him. On top of that, those bookend months of the season, when farm shit counted most, he was still in school most of the week. I was fully capable of doing whatever Blue Bluff needed. But on the other hand, I was the one trying to hoist myself into our truckbed with faltering legs and a fist I couldn’t quite make into a ball.
I made it onto the tailgate but had to steady myself against the bed before I stood up. Hand to my eyes, shielding the sun, I could see up to the porch. I looked at Sissy as we both watched Fay move the plastic plugs of people in and out of the toy house, and I wondered if something was missing. I was sure Fisher Price made a helicopter, just to add to the realism. I wondered if I needed to eBay one for Fay.
Seeing my daughter up there, wondering what she was making the little stump people say to each other, made me want to walk back up. By the time I got to the porch, the two of them had gone inside. They’d left the dollhouse out, though, presumably to play more. I stood at the foot of the steps, leaning each hand on the bannister in turn as I took my boots off. I chucked them up by the door, then loudly made my way to the porch couch and slumped onto it. Whatever noise I made wasn’t enough to attract their attention back outside. After a beat, though, I could hear Sissy’s voice through the open kitchen window. Her tone was too involved and earnest for her to be talking to Fay; she was clearly on the phone. I assumed it was their third sister, Nell, even though I was sure Sissy knew other people too.
“It’s not like it’s a dog everyone loved,” I heard her say, then waited for a patch of silence to clear. “I don’t want to help dig,” she went on, “but I might have to just to get out of here close to time.” She uh-huh’ed a couple times then clicked off.
The screen door popped open and out she came. “Oh,” she said when she saw me. She looked over her shoulder at the open kitchen window. “How much you hear?” she asked.
“It wasn’t bad,” I said. “You’re fine.”
She crossed the porch and sat in the chair opposite me.
“I wouldn’t ask you to help dig,” I said. “I know I’ve kind of made this problem for myself.”
“I’d do it if you wanted. You want me to?”
I shook my head. I’d already told her how I felt. I nodded towards the door, towards Fay. “Is she alright?”
“I mean, she’s not eating for me. She just thinks she’s being funny.”
“She do her trick where she fights you for the spoon?” I asked. Sissy nodded. It was reassuring, but I still felt defeated, just for a moment. “I don’t think this is gonna happen, Sis. I think I’m going to wind up waiting for Daniel.”
She leaned forward, wiping her hands on her pantslegs. “And just burn the body, like he said?” she asked.
I walked over to the window to spy on my daughter. She was calm in her chair, I didn’t know why, for a child who’d possibly pulled a crib escape earlier and couldn’t stay cool in her carseat just a while ago. “If she’s not going to eat,” I said, “might as well get her out.”
Sissy looked up, then over to the burnpile. “A good fire,” she said, “can still accomplish what you’re looking to accomplish here.” My expression gave away that I wasn’t sure what she meant. “Think of the Vikings,” she said. First thought was she meant the football team, which just confused me more. “What do you got around here to get a really good blaze going?”
I nodded. “Check the machine shed. Fay and I will grab some stuff from the barn,” I said.
A half hour later, we met back at the foot of the front steps. Fay was dressed up in a Cinderella costume too big for her. She didn’t know what we were doing, but she still wanted to wear something different, and she didn’t have much else formal. We’d also taken flowers from the garden, fashioned her a headdress, then made more half-ass versions for ourselves.
While I’d been inside getting Fay dressed, Sissy had readied the burnpile. From where I stood, I couldn’t really tell with what. I could see more of the flowers we’d used in our hair, strewn around a nest of old cardboard and sticks. She’d managed to get Anabel’s body free of the burlap sack and in the center of the pile. The burlap was still draped over her, partially obscuring the view.
At my feet were the bow and the only three arrows I’d found in the barn. I’d also grabbed a rag, which we’d splashed with tractor oil we’d found in the tractorless machine shed. I picked up what I needed and lined up the shot. Fay was banging two pans together she’d insisted on bringing from the kitchen. From the corner of my eye, I could see Sissy herding my daughter back behind me, out of the line of fire. I pulled back the bowstring but pressed it too hard against the heel of my injured hand. I sighed in pain as I released. The arrow stayed low and left, burrowing into the grass short of the burnpile. I waited for it to ignite before realizing, in the commotion, I hadn’t lit the rag, and Sissy, with her eyes on Fay, hadn’t noticed either.
I knew—but did not know how I knew—that I was a better shot than that. I notched a second one, waited as Sissy wrapped the rag just behind the arrowhead, then lit it with a plastic Bic from her capri pockets. She didn’t smoke. If I asked why she’d had the lighter, she’d say something like “for just such an occasion,” so I didn’t ask.
She nudged the bottom of my arm, and I raised my aim, realizing as she did, that the rag would weigh the arrow down. I spread my fingers and waved them in the air like I was wiping dirt off them, and damned if that second arrow didn’t hit square, right in Anabel’s belly, still more meat on her than I expected. The fire went up like curtains around her body, giving her a measure of privacy so she could dissolve back to the soil below.
The smoke rose above the treeline. I looked down at Fay. She still beat the pans together, but her cadence had slowed. The fire was strong enough to glint back in her eyes. If she was old enough to have more words, she might have asked what we were doing. But she got to dress up, she saw a big fire. Not today, but soon, I’d explain what happened to Anabel in that slowed-down voice we use for the young and otherwise-impaired. For today, though, I wanted everyone in town to look this way, to see the plume of smoke, and to wonder — the day-drinking townies with no land of their own, the trucker hats down at the farmers’ co-op, my mother, whoever. They would figure out what savage things we were trying to do here just as soon as we did.
Mike Prask is a fiction writer whose work has appeared in HAD and Rejection Letters. He also has self-published an essay called “The Big Deal” about his family’s experience raising a daughter with Rett Syndrome. He lives and works in Highland Park, Illinois.