Short Story January/February 2005

A Record Book for Small Farmers

Had her father been a coward all these years, his reticence a cover for things he was afraid to say?
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In the few hours since she'd arrived, Lucy had already learned to categorize farm sounds. Some were dark—the full, low voices of the cattle, the groan of the pipes when she turned on the heat. Others were light—the scraping of the gate on its hinges, the ping of the leaky pump against the metal bucket. And there was a windy sound, a thin swish followed by a crisp and hollow contact. Lucy didn't seek it out right away. She was moving slowly today, still a little shell-shocked from the news and tired from the journey. She walked among her father's cattle, looking in their blocky faces as they huffed and chewed. A dead man's dog goes into mourning sometimes, curling up in its master's chair with loyal, grieving eyes. But the cows' eyes were like polished stone. The cows seemed more like landforms than animals.

After he retired, Lucy's father, Skye, had bought the ranch with the idea of starting an organic farm. He wasn't a whimsical man; for forty years he'd sold insurance out of the same office in Williston, Montana, so the new passion was something of a surprise. He and Lucy spoke on the first Sunday of every month, a system they'd established after her graduation from high school, ten years earlier, and when he told her he was going to make cheese, she had nearly laughed out loud. But he was not the kind of father you could laugh at.

"Artisanal cheese," he'd said. "It's the next big thing. People pay top dollar."

He'd already bought a herd, the milking equipment, books called Your Organic Farm and Good Food From the Good Earth. He'd hired a man from town to help him with the animals; problems with his heart in recent years would keep him from lifting heavy loads.

"Are you sure this is a good idea, Dad?" Lucy remembered asking.

"First," he'd said, "we're going to make Gouda."

But no Gouda ever materialized. Nor did any other cheese. First the cows got mastitis, and Skye tried every homeopathic treatment he could find before finally resorting to antibiotics. That meant no organic certification that year, and very little milk. The next year, when he was ready to begin again in earnest, the cows started dying.

The sound came again, a whistling and a final thwack, and no cow so much as raised an ear. Lucy waved a hand before the face of a big sleepy roan, and it blinked before returning to its cud. They deserved their fate, Lucy thought as she left their pasture. They were so oblivious.

The source of the sound was the hired man, and Lucy stopped for a moment when she saw him. In the morning light he looked like a vengeful god. He raised a machete over his head long enough for it to catch a glint of sun and then brought it down against the tall grass with a quick, hard stroke. Only when she came close did she see that his shirt was dark on his back, and that underneath it he was as skinny as a bug.

"I'm Lucy," she said, obviously startling him.

"Malcolm," he said. He almost offered her the knife; then he dropped it and gave her his hand instead. "I'm … I'm sorry about your dad."

"Me too," Lucy said. In the few days since she'd heard the news, this was the best response she'd developed. "Were you with him?"

Malcolm ran a hand through his hair; the sweat made it stand on end. "I came to the hospital. But during the surgery he …"

"Right. That's right." Malcolm was much younger than Lucy had expected. The beard that stubbled his cheeks was still patchy, sparse. He had nervous eyes that flicked across Lucy's face and flicked away, making her uneasy.

"Listen, you don't have to do this." Lucy pointed awkwardly at the half-cut grass. "I know you must be looking for other jobs."

"It's my fault," he said. "I let it go too long, and now it's a big mess."

"Don't worry about it. I mean, if you need the time to find another place." Looking at his skinny arms, she added, "How old are you, by the way? Are you in school?"

"I'm nineteen. No more school for me." He picked up the knife again. "I got time to get this done before I go. I kind of owe him one."

She realized with mild shock that Malcolm, working beside Skye every day for a year, might have spent more time with him than she had. During Lucy's childhood summers, when her mother would drop her off at her father's door and then drive away without looking back, Skye had worked all day. When he came home at night, he might talk to her about the firm, explaining the nuances of a claim or the difficult personality of a client, just as though she'd been an adult. Or they might sit in his living room and read. They were comfortable together, more so than she had ever been with anyone thereafter. Certainly more so than she was with her mother, who had a wheedling way of making statements that were really questions, casual remarks meant to burrow under your skin and get at your soul.

Lucy and her father might have talked more had she been a boy. She'd had a close male friend, Donny Maslin, who had visited her at Skye's house outside Williston the summers she was fifteen and sixteen. Her father had taught Donny to shoot a gun, and the two had gone hunting together, setting out in the mornings before Lucy woke up. They behaved almost like father and son, even physically—through the window on a windy morning she once saw Skye smooth the hair back from Donny's forehead and let his hand rest there, as though testing for a fever. When she asked Donny what they talked about, he shrugged and said, "Guy stuff."

She didn't feel jealousy then, only the tight, restricted feeling of looking in an atlas at a place to which she would never go.

"Well, you did good work," Lucy told Malcolm. "I know he appreciated that."

Malcolm nodded, opened his mouth to say something, and then failed. They both stood there for a moment, Lucy feeling that more talk was called for, Malcolm boring the blade of the knife into a clod of dirt.

"Did he take it real hard when you lost the cows?" Lucy asked finally.

"First time," Malcolm said, "he didn't let on. He just went out the next day and bought a dog. Next time he walked around the whole day cursing that dog. 'Useless animal,' he called it. 'That damned useless animal.'"

Lucy was embarrassed. She had never heard her father curse; the information was too intimate. Now that Malcolm had started talking, she wanted him to stop. But he was on a roll.

"I said it wasn't the dog's fault. Some breeds just aren't guarding breeds. And the one we got, it was just an old mutt. It looked big, but anybody could've scratched its ears and made it roll over."

"I see. Well …"

"After the second one we got the Rottweiler. You know, Tim, the one chained up in the tool shed. And when the third cow … went, he couldn't understand how somebody got past both the dogs. But the reality is that anyone with a pound of steak can keep a Rottweiler quiet. I told the police that when they came, and they said it's true, they've heard of cases where you can shut a Rottweiler up with hamburger, or even a salami."

"Wow," Lucy said, at a loss.

Malcolm dug his machete farther into the dirt.

"But yeah, he took it hard. Third time he broke a pitchfork with his hands."

"Wow," she said again. She could only vaguely imagine her father's acting with such violence. She could see his hands as the tool snapped, but not his face. She had the sense that Malcolm had all along been talking about another person.

"You kind of look like him," Malcolm said. "You've got those quiet eyes."

Lucy cleaned. She heard Malcolm working in the fields, saw him occasionally as he hauled off a stack of broken boards or a dead tree branch. She'd offered him a generous sum to help her ready the place for sale, and he had actually haggled her down. Now she stayed out of his way; seeing him at work, skinny and baby-faced as he was, made her feel a little guilty. So she chose projects that kept her near the house, and that offered the comfort of repetition. She was washing windows when the police came. She saw them saunter across the other side of the glass, a woman and a man, the woman stopping in front of the door to scrape something off her shoe.

"I hope we're not bothering you," the man said. His name was Officer Gooding, and he explained to Lucy everything she already knew about the cows. He had a sleepy face and an air of someone going through the motions.

"We have just a couple of very brief questions," he said. "Shouldn't take more than a moment of your time."

"Sure." Lucy squeezed her sponge into its bowl of water.

"Ms. Halpern," the woman, Officer Kern, asked, "did your father tell you about the incidents?"

"He said somebody had been killing the cows. He told me after the first time and after the second. I didn't talk to him after the third."

"Did he have any idea who might be responsible?"

"He thought probably a drifter. He said they shut down the asylum over in Nyman a year ago, and a lot of people are on the loose that shouldn't be."

Gooding nodded wearily at Kern. Kern continued, "Anyone who might have wished your father ill?"

Lucy wet the sponge again and wrung it once. "Nobody but Mom, and she passed away four years ago. Plus she was a vegetarian."

Lucy's mother, Denise, had been hit by a car when Lucy was twenty-four. In the years before that she spoke of Skye rarely but always in the same way, so by age ten Lucy was able to stop listening.

"I don't mind a quiet man," she'd say, "but I want one who speaks his mind. I wanted to slap him sometimes, just so he'd say ouch."

Apparently she never had. Skye never spoke of her with any anger, and Lucy didn't get the impression that they'd fought. Denise had left the marriage quietly, during the night, and he had agreed quietly to all the provisions of the divorce. Skye had never raised his voice with Lucy; she could not imagine his doing so with anyone.

Donny was another matter. The summer she was sixteen, Lucy had come down one morning to find her father eating oatmeal and Donny gone. Skye's eyes had darted up at her; his expression was hard to decode—perhaps regret or anger. Then he explained that he and Donny had had "a political disagreement." She pressed him for details, but he wouldn't elaborate. Talking about arguments was in poor taste, he'd told her once, like gossip. Still, she could imagine how it must have gone. Her father was very conservative, almost reactionary. And Donny read Marx, had a youthful socialism and a hot temper.

"Did you fight with Dad?" Lucy had asked him over the phone.

"We had a disagreement," he said in a strange, dry voice. "He just had some ideas, and I … look, it was my fault."

Donny seemed deeply embarrassed, and Lucy thought perhaps he had said something really unkind to her father. Now, though, she wondered if it might have been the other way around. She could no longer ask Donny. She had completely lost track of him after that summer.

"We'll be in touch," Officer Kern said. "And I'm sorry about your father."

"Yeah," Lucy said, "me too."

After the police left, Lucy realized she'd forgotten to ask them the only thing she didn't know about the cows. Observing her father's sense of delicacy, she'd never asked how they had died.

The room where Skye had lived was almost bare. His bed lay unmade, the blankets probably disarranged by the paramedics. Lucy had never seen him leave a bed unmade. She stripped the sheets and put them aside for Goodwill. She made a point of doing this quickly, preoccupied as she worked by the phrase "airing dirty laundry." Above the desk, where she had half hoped to find a snapshot of herself, was instead a black-and-white photo of a wide river flowing between pebbled banks. On the floor, as though hurriedly cast off, was a hat—a trucker's cap, with a bill, a kind she had never seen her father wear. Across the front was stitched "Williston Tigers"—a high school team, she thought. Around the inside was a stripe of white salt.

She found Malcolm downstairs in the kitchen, cleaning the broiler pan of the stove. He was doing a rather bad job, scraping at caked grease with a soft and grimy sponge.

"Is this yours?" she asked, holding up the hat.

"Oh, yeah. Where'd you find it?"

"In my dad's room, on the floor."

"Oh." He stopped scrubbing, and appeared to concentrate on the water in the pan. Lucy started back up the stairs.

"It must be from that time he borrowed it," Malcolm called after her. "Because I never went up there."

From the desk drawers Lucy removed paper clips, a checkbook, jars of Bag Balm and Vaseline. Except for these everything was labeled—a folder called "Accounts," another "Recipes," another "Investment Data." A box containing stamps, envelopes, and a pen bore the label "Correspondence Materials." Lucy remembered his folding invoices in thirds and addressing them to clients, his hand calm, precise, and thorough. He had taught her cursive; she still had his crisp ss and sure capital Is.

In the top drawer she found his logbook. It was bound in imitation leather, its cover stamped "A Record Book for Small Farmers." Inside was an ad for some sort of organics consortium, followed by dated pages arranged in columns. Skye had filled the columns with weather reports, and with numbers of which Lucy could make little; occasionally he had added a few notes. Some mentioned repairs, several referred to the mastitis crisis, one recorded the presence of a stray dog in the upper field. Then Lucy found the first death.

The date was May seventh. The weather was fine. In the "Notes" column Skye had written, "Found Sally today. Upper field, throat slit. Dead for hours."

The delicacy of the first sentence against the bluntness of what followed made Lucy cringe. She thought of shutting the book, and then she went on.

The next death was three weeks later. This time the note was simpler: "Berta found, same as Sally."

And the final one, a full four months after the initial kill: "Dicey lost, just like other two. Buy barbed wire for the fences."

He hadn't gotten a chance to put up the wire, because his heart had given out three days after the third cow. On that day Skye had written, "Fresh hay in the back stalls. After dark, a ring around the moon."

The police had arrested a suspect. His name was Tyler Norb, and he had indeed been released from Nyman. He was a paranoid schizophrenic, and had been discovered skinning a dead dog by the railroad tracks. He said its name was Satan. The police had found a number of mutilated squirrels in a bag he carried. They hadn't found any large weapons on him, but he did have an array of broken bottles and pocket-knives. When questioned he readily admitted to having killed "lots of animals," and could not remember if that included Skye's cows or not.

"Given Mr. Norb's state," Officer Gooding explained, "it's unlikely he'll be found fit to stand trial. So we're not going to get that 'case-closed' kind of satisfaction here. But he'll be moved to a high-security facility, and I doubt you'll have any more problems."

Lucy thanked the officer. She could tell he was eager to be finished with her father's case, tired of protecting the property of a dead man. He'd probably seen her ads in the town paper; he knew she was selling off the herd. Even if Norb wasn't responsible, she wouldn't have any more problems. But of course there was no reason to doubt it had been Norb. She thought about the mechanics of slitting a cow's throat with a pocketknife or a piece of broken glass. Just because she couldn't imagine it didn't mean it couldn't be done.

Lucy walked by the tool shed to pick tomatoes for dinner. She hated going this way; whenever she passed the door, Tim snarled bloody murder.

After she had eaten, and washed her dishes, and put all the plates and silverware away in cardboard boxes, she went to look for Malcolm. For some reason she thought he deserved to hear about Norb from her. She found him leaning against the barn, with a bottle of something in his hand.

He seemed startled to see her, and then regained his composure. "You want some?"

"You're not old enough to drink that, are you?"

He laughed nervously. "You gonna call the cops?"

She accepted the bottle and took a small sip. Wild Turkey. "This was my dad's favorite," she said.

"Yeah, I know. On the rocks, with a splash of water."

Lucy smiled. "Or with vermouth, on special occasions."

"When you smile," he said, "you don't look like him anymore. You look like that woman on the mantel."

"My grandmother. She and my dad were close." The bourbon warmed Lucy's skin.

"She was a pretty lady."

Lucy wondered if he was coming on to her. She had nine years on him, but it was still possible. His face had a sweet callowness she liked, sort of unspoiled. She tried to steer the conversation back to safer territory. "You ever going back to school?"

"Nah," he said. "That place was bullshit." She could hear the booze make its way into his voice. "They just feed you something, you spit it back, like a baby. And the girls are all the same: same clothes, same—I don't know—hair, same voices when they laugh."

"You ever have a girlfriend?"

He took a quick drink. "Sure, lots of times. But like I said, they're all the same. What about you? I bet you've had lots of boyfriends."

She wasn't used to answering such questions, but his tone was so ingenuous that she forgot to be offended. In fact she had had lots of boyfriends. The first had been in junior high, an older boy with a scar down his back. She never knew where he got it, or anything else about him, because the only place they met was down by the wash behind the bowling alley, and the only things he said to her were hello, good-bye, and "I won't be coming here anymore."

Then there were three in high school, quiet ones whose mothers she never met, whose middle names she never learned, whose rooms were mysterious countries full of objects that never became familiar. She knew such tiny shards of these boys' lives that when she graduated, and the one who loved her came around, she was overwhelmed. Lucy had always felt a translucent but impenetrable barrier between herself and everyone else in the world; when suddenly it was breached, she was disoriented, dizzy. And when he left her for another, she was oddly relieved to close that breach, to look at herself crisp-faced in the mirror and say, well, she had never really known him at all.

To Malcolm she said only, "A few."

"Good guys?"

"Not all of them."

"I'm sorry." He offered her the bourbon, which she accepted, still careful not to take too much. A breeze blew and disarranged her hair; Malcolm reached out and smoothed it back, letting his fingers rest a long moment on her skin. Lucy recognized this gesture, and took only a second to place it: Donny and her father, a windy morning after hunting, she behind the window glass, irrevocably removed. And even though it meant nothing now, the little warm spark between Malcolm's hand and her forehead, it made her conscious of a thing she must have known all along: the longer that touch lingered, the less fatherly it became.

"Want to see something?" Malcolm asked.

Lucy was suddenly eager for distraction. "Sure."

He led her out into the upper field, still clutching the bottle in his left hand. At night the assembled cows looked ancient and immobile, like Stonehenge. Malcolm went up to one and scratched it behind a soft ear. It looked up, big wet eyes catching the moonlight, and let out a throaty sound like an expression of sympathy.

"See?" Malcolm said. "She's a talker—aren't you, Minty?"

Malcolm scratched again, farther back, and this time Minty let out a low moan like a foghorn.

"She makes different noises depending on how you scratch her. After a while you can almost understand what she's saying. Want to give it a try?"

Lucy tickled the cow on top of her heavy head. Minty groaned.

"What's she saying now?"

"She's saying she'll miss me," Malcolm said. Then, whispering to the cow in that silly soft voice people use for pets, "I know, Minty; I'll miss you too."

A sentimental thought crossed Lucy's mind. "Do you think they miss my dad?" she said.

"When Minty got sick, they gave us this herbal stuff to put on her. You were supposed to do it every hour, but the guy said we could let it go at night. But Skye didn't let it go. He put a sleeping bag up in the field, and woke up every hour to rub her down. I went out there once, and he was singing to her, just like a baby. He was singing 'Kookaburra.'" Malcolm took a drink. "I guess they ought to miss him."

Lucy asked, "Do you?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Lucy saw a hot resentment flicker on Malcolm's face. "Nothing," she said. "Sorry."

They sat on the ground in silence. Malcolm kept on drinking from the bottle, and Lucy pulled up blades of grass coated with cold dew. The air was moist, and water vapor made a pale, soft ring around the moon—all signs pointed to rain.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Malcolm said after a long while.

Lucy felt herself entering a conversation she would rather avoid.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean now. I don't know where I'm gonna go." His anger was gone, and his voice sounded choked, like that of a child trying not to cry.

"Do you have family?"

"Just some cousins over in Boise. Dad's in jail. Mom has this boyfriend who's a dealer, so they move around …"

"I'm sorry."

"I'd join the Army, but I got to wait another year."

"I thought you were nineteen."

His face in the moonlight, with its soft, uneven growth of beard, answered her before he did.

"Nah, I'm sixteen." He raised the bottle to his lips again, drank deeply, rocked his head back, and repeated himself: "Sixteen. One. Six."

The numbers pinged in Lucy's brain. She had the unwelcome sense of a curtain's being lifted away.

"Did my dad know how young you were when he hired you?"

"No," he said, his voice tightening. "I told him later, but it didn't matter." He stabbed his thumb into the earth and pulled up a little divot with grass still attached. "Nothing made any difference to him except the stupid cows."

He threw the divot in Minty's direction, hard but aiming to miss. The cow stirred and groaned softly. In a moment she was still again.

"I'm sorry," Malcolm said.

Lucy turned away from him. "You don't have to apologize."

"Yes," he said, "I do."

Malcolm opened his mouth to speak again. Lucy had never been more sure what someone was going to say. She knew why the dogs had been quiet—not just the old mutt but the big Rottweiler who snarled even at Lucy. Norb could have killed a cow with a pocketknife, maybe, but a machete would have made it much easier. She remembered her mother's clockwork complaints, the fury that made her want to hurt Skye just to break his silence. How much greater must Malcolm's fury have been, the boy sixteen and terrified, craving a reassurance that was repeatedly and cruelly withheld. Had her father really been a coward all those years, his reticence a cover for things he was afraid to say? She thought of his expression the morning Donny had left, the one that looked like anger or regret. After Malcolm spoke, it would forever look like shame.

Lucy braced herself for what was coming. And then she did not let it come. "They caught the killer," she said.

Malcolm shut his mouth and opened it again. "What? They did?"

"His name is Tyler Norb, and they found him by the railroad tracks, skinning a dog."

Malcolm looked confused.

"He's from Nyman," she said. "Just like we all thought."

"Yeah," he said after a moment. "Just like we thought."

He looked at her with an expression she decided to take for gratitude. Lucy stood and brushed the dewy grass from her jeans.

"You know what I think?" she asked, her voice crisp and authoritative.

He shook his head.

"I think you should go get some sleep. And in the morning you can look up your people in Boise."

Malcolm said things, good-night wishes perhaps, things to which Lucy did not carefully listen. Then he walked off across the grass, and Lucy did not follow him, did not watch his skinny, shivering form recede in the moonlight. Instead she stayed in the field for a while. The breeze had died down, and the night was clear. The ring around the moon was gone. Perhaps it wouldn't rain after all. Lucy walked over to Minty and stroked her warm back. She thought of Skye sleeping beside her, waking every hour to give her medicine and sing her a song.

"He took good care of them," she thought, and she knew this thought for what it was: the first of many defenses that would grow together until they covered her, heavy and soft, like a blanket or a layer of earth.

Anna North is a senior at Stanford University. This is her first published short story.
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