Fiction Fiction 2011

The Great Zero

All this—the dust, the tarantulas, the deaths—had not come naturally. “We’ve used the land wrong,” I once heard a farmer say while I spied on my father and his Communist friends.
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A farmer stood in the center of a field that was really no field at all with his hands in his pockets. Close to him lay a bawling cow half covered in dust. It had no muscles, no fat. The noises it made were abnormal, sort of muffled and pinched, as if scores of insects were crawling across the sound. We had left the Ford at the edge of the road, two wheels inching off into the dirt, the car’s original metallic gloss long blasted to a scratched and cloudy rust. The car didn’t seem to fit and didn’t seem to belong, certainly not in a desert, and my father had often lamented his purchase and cursed the man from whom he had indirectly purchased it: Henry Ford, the capitalist. My mother had said that she thought that however horrific a man he might be, he certainly made a car good enough for my father to drive every day. She said it hoping to get a rise out of him, but failed, as she inevitably did, for he had by that point stopped even listening to her. She would just leave us, retreat into the tiny bedroom, and lie quietly on the bent, sunken mattress in her blotched dress, her throat heaving heavily in the heat. We could hear it through the thin walls.

The farmer did not see us at first as we walked toward him. The cow had stopped moving. My father stopped too. “Look there,” he said.

“What,” I said.

“It’s a waste. He should’ve called me earlier. It’s too late. I can see what’s happened already. See there? The thing can’t even stand up. Starvation. Maybe encephalopathy. It’s finished. But he still thinks it might survive. So. Our job now isn’t to save it. Our job is to let him know the truth about it. I’m sure the stomachs, everything, they’re all filled up with dust. The lining’ll be dried out, worthless. The spiders are probably already at it. But we’ll let him know. Okay?”

“All right.”

“I told you I don’t want any ‘all right.’”

“I mean ‘yes.’ Yes.”

“And why?”

“What?”

“Why will we tell him?”

“Because he’s a … pro-le, pro-la …”

“Proletarian. The government’s already lied to him enough. We can’t add to it. When we get closer, look at his fingernails. That’s how you’ll tell a worker. Remember, not everybody has had the chances you and I have had.”

My father rubbed his eyes. The morning dust had stopped blowing, but some still floated around in the air.

“Look at his clothes too,” he said. “Look at him. He is praying to his god.”

“Why?”

“Because he never heard anything else. It isn’t his fault; he just needs to be taught. Take a lesson from this. Watch everything, now.”

“Okay,” I said. And I tried, like he said, to watch everything. But it was hard. I wanted to tell him it was hard, but I was young, and he wouldn’t tolerate arguing.

We moved closer until the farmer finally looked up. My father strolled through the dust and shook the man’s hand, displaying no inkling of the unfortunate events that had brought him there. I looked at the farmer’s fingernails: they were black in the center, reddened around the edges and bottom.

“Hello, sir,” said my father—sounding a little bit like some salesman, I thought.

The farmer nodded, and glanced down at the motionless cow, its eyes bright in their final lightness, and I could see the little bit of life fighting within the sick thing flit and bound like a firefly, switching on and off from shine to dark.

“She’s had enough,” the farmer said. “I prayed for it, but nothing helped. She got sick one day and fell and didn’t get up again. I don’t know how it goes where you are, but we haven’t had rain for two months out here.”

“It’s the same our way,” my father said.

“Sorry to hear that. Well anyhow, I tried to save some of the water when it came before, but it got mixed up with dust in the bucket and got us nothing but mud,” the farmer said, spitting the words out like locusts, his eyes dry and red from years of invasive airborne dirt.

My father knelt and touched the cow’s neck. He had his small black leather bag with him, but he just laid it on the ground and did not take anything from it. He opened the creature’s mouth, drew his head back briefly in mild disgust, and looked down its throat from a distance, his eyes blinking and watering—probably the first water this dead land had seen in months. The cow’s tongue was black and dry, like the sole of a shoe. A pale vermilion froth leaked from the side of its mouth and around its neck, only to dry on its hide into a pinkish patch of paste about an inch across: thin, parched, and never to touch the ground. After a few moments my father wiped his stained hands on his dirty tan trousers and stood up, his eyes blurred to near-invisibility behind spectacles speckled with dust like a miner’s shot glass.

“It’s done. No water, nothing can live without water. You know that. You shouldn’t have prayed there, old-timer. You should have let me know earlier. I would have brought something.”

“Well, sir, my pockets are empty.” The farmer turned them out in a cartoonish, almost frightening gesture, and they flapped in the wind, a couple of bunched white flags. “No pay, you know. I couldn’t really give you anything for it.”

“So why you sending me out here now?” my father asked, to no response. “I’m sure you had something. Any little bit you had would have been fine,” he said, checking and rewinding his watch, squinting in the blinding sun. “Anyway I guess money doesn’t matter now, does it?”

“Well I got nothing. This cow here, I mean, that’s all.” The farmer seemed distracted, his voice coming from somewhere far away. “I don’t have anything much and like I said, I prayed about it.”

Something changed in my father’s face. I had seen it before; this look had come over him when he listened to the President on the radio or spoke with the men who came to our house and talked about Communism, their voices sharp as knives, whispering in the pidgin Russian they’d learned from secondhand dictionaries as they brandished old hardcover books spattered with Cyrillic and thrust them toward one another while proving some point. I was allowed to sit quietly and listen before bedtime, and sometimes I would grab a volume at random from the bookshelf and put it above my head and yell, “Long live the Workers!” I was not supposed to speak, but my father always laughed and rubbed my hair, even though he probably knew I didn’t really know what I was saying at the time.

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