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 …"

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