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An Ordinary Late Winter Afternoon

If only she hadn’t brought the damn dog. All the old farmers would tell you, always leave the dogs at home. But they were stupid, so so stupid.

Not just about the dogs. About other things too. Like burning green wood. Or taking Sundays off. Bad things happened if you worked on Sundays. Especially if you also burned green wood.

Like the fire that destroyed the commune. Because they’d been burning too much green wood and hadn’t gotten around to cleaning out the chimney properly. That was on a Sunday.

Like the time Sam nearly cut his own brains out when they were building the place and he was sawing the end off a beam over his head with a chainsaw, and it kicked back and caught him right in the forehead and he nearly died. Because he did, like, five stupid things at the same time. That was also on a Sunday.

Or like when Pete went into the woods by himself to just clear a few logs from the path and the chainsaw kicked back and caught him in the bicep and he nearly bled to death staggering back to the house. Yup, that was on a Sunday too.

Eventually they did learn to take one day off a week. It turned out it didn’t have to be Sunday, it could be Saturday if you were Jewish, but you really did have to take a day off and do nothing but feed the animals and yourselves. More than six days in a row of actual farm work was just dangerous. They worked hard and they worked long hours, really long hours, hard, physical work. They were all in fantastic shape, and they were young. But even so, the body can only take so much before the mind stops paying enough attention.

That and the pot. But that’s a whole other story, although it does enter into this story, which was not on a Sunday, but on an ordinary mid-week afternoon on a crisp, cold day in late winter, before things got really muddy but after the worst of the storms. Let’s go ahead and call it a Wednesday afternoon in March, mid-March, a couple of weeks before Easter that year, a couple of weeks before Sara’s dog ate all the hot cross buns that were rising under the airtight wood stove in the living room (because it was too hot on top of it, obviously), a couple of weeks before one of the neighbours had finally had enough of her rampaging killer of a dog and had put it to them baldly: you put it down or I will, next time I see that dog I will shoot it, even if it’s not in my yard killing my chickens.

This lovely afternoon was before all that. The sun was high in the sky, the morning’s work done, lunch done, and Maddy was itchy to get out for a bit. So she pulled on her boots and barn jacket, slapped a hat on her head, and strode out to the dark green half ton sitting in the driveway. She was about to get in when Ginger sashayed over to her as only a golden retriever can sashay, and sat right in front of her, soft liquid eyes begging to come for a car ride. Ginger loved riding in the back of the truck, letting her long blond hair flutter in the wind, and Ginger was really so well behaved, and she was just sitting right there, feathered tail thumping hopefully in the snow, so really, how could Maddy say no?

Now she wished she had. She so so so wished she had. She so wished she could turn back the clock to that moment in the driveway, when the tiny still voice inside her head said, Leave the damn dog at home, she’ll get over the disappointment.

But Maddy wasn’t so wise yet, wasn’t as wise as she would be just a few hours later, and so she looked at Ginger and Ginger looked at her, and Maddy said, Okay, girl, up you go, and opened the truck gate so the dog could jump in. Maddy wasn’t so wise yet, and so she ignored for a second time the little voice that said, leave the dog at home today, this doesn’t feel right. The little voice was entirely drowned out by distraction and desire.

And now, now ten grey geese were dead or dying (ten!), drops of crimson blood flowering on the pristine fresh snow, flowering where the dying geese had flapped their way down the hill into the cornfield, foundering on the forlorn grey stubble that poked up through the dusting of white that remained on that field. The flock was literally decimated, ten of the twelve geese gone, and thank god Tom was out of town right now or he might have just shot both dogs right then and there. As it was, Maddy wasn’t sure he’d be any calmer about it when he got home a few days from now, and planned on keeping Ginger indoors for the foreseeable future.

Not that it was really Ginger’s fault, really. On her own, she never chased anything but cars. Not like Sara and Tom’s own stupid dog, Patches. Patches, oh my god that dog was dumber than a doorknob, and to top it off he was a killer, through and through. But even so, he had never gone after animals on his own turf before, so maybe Ginger did have something to do with it. Who was the instigator? Who knew? The dogs always had such a good time together, rolling around in the snow or the mud or the cow pies, depending on the season, just rolling around the way dogs do, black fur and golden fur flashing as they ran at each other, stopped and feinted this way and that, barking and growling, pawing at each other, sniffing each other’s butts, and grabbing each other by throat, teeth digging into the thick fur there, all in good fun. Until today.

What had happened, what had shifted, what had gone through the dogs’ minds, while she and Sara sat at the kitchen table, smoking pot and drinking tea, complaining about their spouses? How did the dogs get from doggy socializing to chasing geese, while she and Sara smoked some more and giggled their way up to the big bed Sara shared with Tom? Where afterwards, they gazed languidly out the front window, and then suddenly they both saw something grey flash by right at eye level, which was a little weird, but not as weird as the second time it happened, and then when they saw it as third time, it finally registered that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

Ten grey geese were dead or dying, and now Maddy and Sara had to deal with the aftermath. Chasing the ones who were tearing around frantically, trailing broken wings or dripping from mortal chest wounds, catching them, slaughtering them even as they clung to life, in terrible, terrible pain and beyond repair, but still clinging, as life does cling to life. Hanging them by the feet from the clothesline to pluck them all, boiling the water to loosen the feathers, again and again and again, scorching the pinfeathers with a small propane torch until their own throats ached with the stench of burning hair, racing the clock now as the sun began to set behind the barn, hands stiff with the cold, with being wet in the cold, so stiff they could hardly move.

Oh, oh, oh. They were so very, very stupid. They were young, they were quietly in love, and that was all they knew. They had no business being there, city kids going back to the land to grow their own food, build their own houses, all without a clue about how to do any of that, then getting a couple of chickens for the eggs, maybe a cow or two so they could sell the cream to the dairy for butter, and the raw skim milk to the neighbours, who would let themselves in and help themselves to a gallon and leave a dollar in the jar by the big fridge. Hippie kids moving to the country to drop out and turn on. And when they got there, playing at farming, giving the livestock names as if they were pets, then joking about it as they ate their way through the freezer over the winter (Are we having Ernie for dinner? No, this roast is Frank, we finished Ernie last week.). City kids playing at farming, until something bad happened and they finally got it that it wasn’t a game. They had no business being there. But there they were, and they had to figure it out.

And the dogs? They said that once a dog got the taste of blood, it was ruined as a farm dog. Unless, maybe, you could teach them to be sick of blood, to be afraid of blood, to abhor being near the livestock. They said if you tied the head of the creature a dog had killed around the dog’s neck and left it there for a matter of days, just letting it rot there, that might cure the dog of the bloodlust. And while it was still ruined as a farm dog, because now it wouldn’t go near the stock, at least it wouldn’t kill anything again.

Maddy hoped it would work.


Photo credit: Copyright © 2018 Tunde Nemeth

#dogs #farm #grief #love

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