Selected by Guest Editor Chauna Craig
Followed by Bio and Q&A
Roy’s truck almost stalled out as he slowed nearly to a stop passing the Whitney farm, searching the field for the three calves he’d seen the day before. There they were, again, skipping and kicking, happy as could be. Roy smiled, but at the same time, his throat tightened up. That had been happening lately. Why? Hell, he didn’t know. He grabbed a few gears and shifted his eyes back to the narrow road, careful not to sink a tire in the berm, and he thought about when they might tar and chip it, if they’d properly clear the ditch line first, put down a better base, crown the road. By the time he let himself look into the rearview to find the calves again, he was too far gone.
He was coming up on fifty; his only son would be sixteen in three months. Legs lengthened, voice deepened, chest broadened. Roy wanted nothing more than to teach him how to be a man who could handle what life threw. But he wanted him, also, to be free and light and open. He feared his son would inherit from him the maintenance and heft of this border around his heart he was constantly buttressing and closing off to guarantee hurt would not breach it.
“What am I even feeling?” he’d ask himself each day when anxiety nettled him, or worse, when it clamped off his air and made him dizzy. If he could only see where it started, its foundation, or find a crack, take a sledge to it, and bar it free.
He headed down Hogback Hill and something in the way the wipers trembled against the glass, the shimmying rattle of the truck and the growl of the retarder, the way the trees looked like they were whizzing past, tightened his throat in the worst way.
Through the dip the truck took off, and halfway up the other side of the hill it creeped. Roy flicked on his four-ways.
He was relieved that his son hadn’t seen all he had seen because he feared it would take him out. How to both ready him for and protect him from those things? Roy’s father had only taught him to push through, avoid, ignore. Put out fires, work hard, dig deep, build fences and walls to man what you have.
As strong as he tried to be, creeping up hills in the truck, the roar of the motor when it geared down, especially the dashboard lit up with the intermittent flashing of the four-ways, never ceased to make him half sick in the stomach, half ready to bawl his eyes out. Most days he just breathed through it. Today was different. Today he let himself go the whole way back to when he was sixteen. Back to the steer.
When Roy was his son’s age, their steer found a gap in their fence. Got out. Somehow made it to the highway, crossed over. Likely chased down by traffic, it got itself turned around. The neighbor down the way called and said he’d roped it, no worry, had it there at his farm tied up good.
When Roy and his dad made it to the neighbor’s place, they saw the steer fastened to an oak, just past a row of crabapples in full bloom. Roy took in a quick breath and grinned.
Roy’s family lived just off of the main route north to the mountains and their back yard had become a small hobby farm to his father. They had laying chickens, a few goats, and this steer that Roy hadn’t let loose. He had nothing in it. It just wanted to eat, got free of the fence, and then lost. But somehow Roy’s father had made him feel guilty, responsible for what had happened.
Of course, they couldn’t load it in the pickup, but they could “walk it back.” His dad tied the rope to the bumper of the truck, and at first it did pretty good keeping up. Roy sat in the bed of the truck, watching it come along, watching it tugging at the rope every few seconds.
It was a Friday evening and mountain traffic lined up behind their pickup as they made it almost to the top of the hill where they’d have to turn left off of the highway and make the last leg home. Roy hoped the drivers wouldn’t start their honking and scare the steer more. The pickup’s four-ways blinked red in the steer’s eyes.
Since Roy didn’t have his driver’s license yet he had to be the one in the back, the one to watch the steer come along. It was so tired now from all its running, and as he watched it he felt something like anger—toward what? The steer? His father? Himself? And he felt something else, too. Deep fear and panic. His eyes filled up with it and he could see it in the steer’s eyes as well. Desperation, too, as he realized what was coming. In fact, he’d seen a glimpse of it as soon as his father snugged that rope to the bumper, saying, “Well, serves the damn thing right. It’ll learn its lesson. Won’t run off next time. It ran itself this far; it can run itself back.” He’d seen it coming as soon as he realized the steer might not have the gumption in it to make it the whole way home.
When his father turned left off of the highway, the steer wasn’t ready for the turn and stumbled. The rope tugged at its neck and it swung its head left, right, up and down, to get free of it. Its front hooves folded under and it went down, onto its side, and his father dragged it the rest of the way. Roy wanted to turn away, put his head down, but he couldn’t. He watched its body bounce, its head sliding against the road. He’d learned how to calm the steer by rubbing its cheek and neck. He’d watched its ears come down in comfort. His grandfather taught him that. Its ears were not beagle dog-soft but coarse, filled with prickly hair. Still he knew nothing could hold up to the asphalt’s scrape. He was right. One ear had been ripped loose.
Roy heard his father’s warning again in his head. But Roy knew the steer couldn’t figure any of it out. It couldn’t know cause and effect. Roy knew, as its body slid over the asphalt, all it felt was burning pain. All it wanted was to free itself from that rope. All it wanted was not to hurt.
Roy watched it lie there in the driveway on its side, panting, froth pushing out of its mouth and nostrils. Dark red blood rose up through the road dust on its coat. His father left him there and walked to the house to call Byler’s meats from up over the hill.
He couldn’t remember now the type of gun they used, or the men’s faces, but he could still hear the shot, and he could still see the wheels of the rendering truck, how the paint was chipping, how they were pitted with rust. He could still smell the diesel exhaust—his dad said, “They’ve a leak in their manifold.” He could still see the light pink crabapple petals stuck to his tattered boots.
But Roy put that steer’s heaving limp body, its eyes, the sound of its breath, deep into the muddy mortar around his heart and felt it stiffen and hold.
Now Roy couldn’t seem to catch his breath. He pulled off onto the berm and sat still in the idling truck. He stared at the small map of gears on the stick and that line that was nothing but neutral.
He picked up the phone and dialed his wife. Said her name.
“You okay, Roy?” Her voice soothed him. That she could tell he might not be okay just by the way he said a few words comforted him.
“Yeah, sure. Hey, I meant to tell you, there’s new little calves at the Whitney farm. Cute little things.”
“Yep. Cutest little things,” he said again.
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Jolene McIlwain's writing appears or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner online, River Teeth online, Atticus Review, Fiction Southeast, The Fourth River, and elsewhere, and has been twice selected finalist in Glimmer Train's contests. She's the recipient of a Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council artist grant and her work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected semi-finalist in both American Short Fiction's Short(er) fiction contest and Nimrod's Katherine Anne Porter Prize. She’s an associate flash fiction editor at jmww and is currently working on a linked collection of stories and novel, both set in the Appalachian plateau of western Pennsylvania.
Writing “Steer” helped me deconstruct and clarify the sometimes violent and confusing acts and images of the community in which I was raised. It’s a complicated world of farmers, hunters, trappers, and anglers where gorgeously colorful ring-necked pheasant and rainbow trout are stocked for harvest in our woods and streams, where whitetail deer hang from barn rafters or tree limbs before they’re slaughtered and smoked, before their antlers and whole busts are preserved, fixed to our walls, and passed down through generations, and where steers are called, simply, feeders.
You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?
I’d name a planet Anyte, for the Greek poet from Tegea who’s best known for her laments and pet epitaphs. One of her pieces (an inspiration for the descriptions in “Steer”) was written about Damis’s war-horse, killed in battle by “gory Ares.” It’s “black blood bubbled through his stubborn hide, and he drenched the earth in his sore death-pangs.”
What is your dietary pleasure?
Raspberries! They’re fun to find, delicious, and genetically complex, as fruits go. Also, I love that they’re in the same family as roses and they’re cancer-busters.
Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?
I used to answer summer-without-a-doubt to that question. Now I’d say spring. I love gardening, and spring offers such a sense of hopefulness after the long winter. I understand more of what e.e. cummings says to us in “in Just-” about spring being “puddle wonderful.”