I watched a tractor some distance off as it backed up to a large round hay bale just inside an open gate, spearing it firmly at its center. The farmer drove out of the enclosure and dismounted to close the gate. He climbed back on the elderly tractor, drove into the field, lowered the bale to the ground, and pulled a few feet away, using the ground to drag the heavy bale from its giant skewer before he dismounted again. He pushed the bale down a slope, unrolling a sheath or two of hay. I stopped completely as the previously tranquil herd collected itself, the cows stampeding in front of my car and toward him. The cows were mostly black, with occasional white markings, and somewhat lean. They arrived at the tractor just as he remounted, and I thought after observing his chore, how very little hay it took to feed quite a number of cattle.
The ad had read: Upstairs room for rent, private entrance, nice view on small farm. It had not listed a price, just gave a number to call. The man I had spoken with asked that we meet on Saturday at ten a.m.
It was ten minutes before ten, when I braked on the long, narrow driveway to give way to the stampede. I could see a sizeable brick house up ahead, one story except for the garage, which was two stories. The man on the tractor reached the house at the same time that I did. He looked to be around sixty but moved with great ease. He was dressed in black from head to toe, dust and hay powdering his shoulders and filling his shirt pockets. He shook my hand and invited me in to the kitchen. His hands felt more like tree bark than the hands of a warm blooded man.
“I’m Bernard Leftwitch,” he said.
“I’m Catherine, Catherine Lawson,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
He got right to business. “The room is three hundred and fifty a month,” he said. “You don’t mind, being a woman?”
To this I said nothing.
“Living out in the country alone?”
“Oh. No, I don’t. I’m quite used to it on my own.” I did not add that it was hardly alone, since he’d be right downstairs, not wanting him to think that I’d be relying on him for anything. Especially since I had to admit, from his age and the fact that he was probably a lifetime rural man, I imagined that I already knew his opinion of women. I was careful to hide my surprise at the low rent, and I doubted the place would be anything I could tolerate, as the mentioned rate was cheaper than that of the worst apartments I had looked at.
He led me down a long hallway. Some rooms along the hall were bare, and others full of furniture, tools, and faded, generic paintings of vases, fruit, and ocean tides. What I noticed was the age of things. Nothing in the place was new. The extent and age of extra tools, extra boxes, and extra linens, gave me the impression that he feared a future need of something, and liked to keep extras on hand. Not quite a hoarder, and too young to have been a child of the Great Depression, he could perhaps have been the child of a child of the Great Depression.
The view the room offered me via floor to ceiling windows was beautiful. “I’ll take it,” I said.
He turned to me in surprise. “Well, don’t you want to hear about it first?”
“Oh, sure. Please, go ahead.”
I looked it over while he talked. The upstairs room proved to be the neatest place in the house. A simple kitchenette, a bed, and a mammoth dresser, a small sofa, and a television stand. The dresser had two large drawers and an even larger drawer at the bottom. If I’d wanted to, I could have fit myself neatly inside that bottom drawer, I thought. One wall closet and a small bathroom completed the tour.
“Like I said, three hundred-fifty a month. You’ll get your own electric bill up here. If you need a phone line…”
“I wouldn’t. I just use my cell.”
“All right. You pay for half the propane when the tank gets filled. And sometimes the water gets a little rusty. I’ve got an iron separator on it, but it gets backed up and I have to work with it. You just let me know if you see much orange in your water and I’ll work on her. You’d be welcome anywhere on the place. There’s one hundred and twenty-five acres. My land ends at the fence all the way around. Just don’t get around the machinery and be careful of the cows.”
I smiled at the thought of needing to be careful around cows. I’d been raised on a small farm of chickens and pigs in North Carolina. Next door on both sides of my home had been hundreds of cows. I’d grown up in close proximity to the creatures, and other than a bull or a mother with recent newborn, they were no trouble. I looked out the window; thirty or so cows were gazing at the house. It occurred to me that he had just fed them. I opened my mouth to ask why they would be staring in our direction, but from the look on his face, I realized he was now waiting for an answer even though I felt I had already given one.
“Sounds good to me. I’d love to stay away from town in a place like this. Do you have something in writing I can sign?” I asked.
“Well, I guess I could write it down if you want.”
I followed him back down the stairs which gave me another opportunity to look at his things: a roll top desk, an old pie-safe, all manner of rough furniture, more like pieces from an Appalachian cabin than the Biltmore Estate. From a shelf and next to a large jar of pennies, he pulled an old notebook of yellowed paper out and wrote down precisely what he had said to me. I signed it, and he folded up the paper and put it in his shirt pocket. I would have preferred a second copy for myself, but it didn’t feel appropriate to ask after he’d taken such time in writing out the document in his crooked print. I got the feeling that as long as I paid my rent and paid on time, that I would never hear a peep from him. He didn’t ask about my profession and did not appear to care for small talk anymore than I did.
In the case that he felt too uncomfortable to ask, I offered the information anyway. “I work at the university, in the Center for Injury Biomechanics.”
To this he only nodded.
“When can I move in, Mr. Leftwitch?”
“Today if you want. And you can call me Bernard.”
“All right then. How about tomorrow? I can wrap things up with the hotel and get my belongings.”
“Did you have a renter before?”
“I did. He moved out a couple weeks ago.”
My separate entrance was a stairway that went down into the garage. It was apparent that the garage too, was used for storage. Four stairs up from the garage floor, the stairs passed by a door that opened into Bernard’s ground level. There was a car port in front of the already full to capacity garage and one space was mine, the other was for an aging Ford truck that resembled the contents of his house. The yard was separated from the cow pasture by a handsome, if weathered, old fashioned rail fence. There were two entrances into the yard, both open but lined with a cattle guard.
I paid in cash for the first installment, and he handed me a key. It struck me as funny that both of us knew so little of the other, but it seemed the perfect arrangement, so I moved in on Sunday what little I had with me. I bought a television since that was the only thing lacking in the room. The rest would come from storage later. I could not believe my luck or the price. I did not mind a short drive out of town, in exchange for this realm of woods and fields and the sun rising over the edge of mountains of red and orange. The world looked on fire in the morning and then was put out with wet fog by evening.
It was October. One month into the semester, I’d been transferred from my position as a research engineer at the Center for Injury Biomechanics at Wake Forest University in North Carolina to a new position at Virginia Tech. The transfer included a promotion and a pay raise. I was twenty-eight and felt I had been in one place for a little too long. After satisfactorily noting the envy in my mostly male colleagues, I had moved as fast as I could reserve a hotel room in the southwestern Virginia town of Blacksburg and begun watching the classifieds.
I saw surprisingly little of Bernard. Perhaps because the weather was turning cooler, he was inside quite a bit, but also I was quite preoccupied with work and getting to know my new coworkers. It did not hurt matters that I was female in a male-heavy ratio of colleagues. I was single, and I enjoyed making new acquaintances. It wasn’t until I came home one evening with Chris, whom I’d met at a reception for the company sponsoring our current project that it occurred to me how this might appear to Bernard. Now certainly, it was none of his business. After all, I was the renter, not a relative or even a friend.
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling as I went upstairs with Chris and proceeded to have a few drinks and then on to other things, that I was somehow doing this all one floor above my own father or grandfather.
He wasn’t my father, of course, so I made every effort to push that thought out of my head. It went easy enough, and Chris and I moved our fun time from the sofa to the bed. I had previously relocated the bed from a corner to smack in front of one of the windows because I loved the view. And it was indeed perfect for this night too. The moon was full, stunningly bright, the kind of night when you want to walk outside because it is in some ways better than daylight. It was the black and white light of dreams, and Chris and I took several pauses in order to prolong the fun and because we were both half drunk, to look outside and marvel over the fact that we could see down to the single blades of dried up brown grasses in the field, though they were silver in this light. Chris whispered in my ear and I was drawn back into our play. It was heating up quite nicely, and I was on top when I noticed movement outside the window. I saw the herd of cattle, which, Bernard had explained, all told amounted to fifty-five, “give or take,” as he put it. They were moving slowly toward the house, evenly spaced, each step clearly defined by the moonlight.
“What’s wrong?” Chris noticed my distraction.
“The cows. They’re coming.”
“What?” His tone was a little put off. I slid off him and he rolled over on his side.
They kept on until they surrounded the yard, right up to the rail fence. They didn’t make a sound. They stood perfectly still, each large body aimed directly at the house. The fence was only twenty feet out, and I could clearly see the black eyes, shiny and wet. Several, I was certain, stared right at me.
“Well, that’s eerie,” Chris said. He moved to try to capture my attention again. He succeeded, and I enjoyed the evening mostly, but I was never quite able to forget that black eyed stare from those large bovine heads.
Later, I asked Chris if he would mind not staying the night, as I had to get up early for work. The truth was, I was a light sleeper and preferred to have the bed to myself after sex. He left around two a.m., and I watched him get into his car. The herd was still around the house and I was not positive, but somehow they seemed leaner than on the first day I had seen them. They weren’t quite bony, but they certainly weren’t overfed. As Chris drove off, several of the herd began to chase his car. He disappeared over the hill that led back to the main road, and I considered calling him to see if he’d had any trouble.
Just as I was starting to dial his cell, the cows in chase returned to the top of the hill and joined the rest of the herd around the house. I put the phone down, turned off my lights, and after a while they dispersed. I spent a restless night despite the quiet.
The next morning as I got ready, I made a mental note to ask Bernard about the herd’s behavior, but it would have to wait because Bernard’s schedule had him out feeding cows when I left for work each morning.
Two weeks after my new position began, I was told that I would need to take over the supervision of another research project already underway in the next building. I was flattered yet somewhat apprehensive about the number of hours this might mean. A subgroup in our center had received a grant to work on a project that involved testing the impact of automobile crashes on the human body. While the tests were similar to those which I had been administering, this one involved using cadavers instead of dummies. The group had been working for months on the preparation and I would be supervising the actual crash tests.
This included preparing the Impact Crash Sled and the cadavers, with the help of two assistants, and then examining and recording the damage to the bodies afterward with the help of several medical students.
Despite the prospect of long hours, I was intrigued by the upcoming assignment. The first was to be a double cadaver test, a middle aged adult and teenager in the front seat of an SUV. The bodies were coming out of their third day of defrost when I arrived to help set them up. In gloves and a mask, five of us prepped the bodies by attaching various wires and metal mounting plates. Lights and video camera were set up. The smells were the most difficult and I worked to breathe through my mouth. The dummies had been made of indifferent material. These two had hair, faces, and even a set of standard clothes to simulate reality. I found myself wondering about these people as I hooked the clasp on the adult cadaver’s bra. The teenager had blonde hair and wore jeans.
When the high impact crash sled hit, the airbags sounded like a shotgun. Afterward, the defrosted cadavers hung limp and irregular. Assistants scurried into position to begin recording data. I left the building and sat in my car. The work was crucial at this point, but it didn’t matter. I sat in my car and replayed the flop of the heads, and then the sight of the woman’s mouth ajar, and the teenager’s head bent unnaturally to her chest. There was no way I would look at these mutilated people, smell them, and feel them, every day. I argued for the rest of the week with my director about whether I could remain a supervisor and not work with cadavers. He argued back that this was where the money was coming from, and there would be more cadavers before there would be less.
“You’ll get used to it,” he said.
Friday was my last day. On Saturday I came home alone after a dinner with Jason, a professor in another department, around ten o’clock. He taught botany. How I wished that I had studied plants, instead. I had been venting about my sudden jobless state, and I was worn out from the week and wanted nothing more than to sleep. I got in bed and looked out the window. The moon was now only half full, but just enough brightness showed me an empty field. Then a cloud covered the moon and the night went dark. I thought over ways in which I could cut my living expenses until I found another job. Eventually, I fell asleep. I awoke to a sound I assumed was thunder. I rolled over, but a few minutes later I heard it again. This time I noticed that the sound lasted much longer than thunder. There was a short break and then the sound began again. I rolled over to face the window. All was dark. Then the clouds parted and with the light of the half moon I could see the entire herd of cows racing around the house, hind legs kicking the air, tails held high and stiff. Finally, all ran over the hill and out of sight. I sat up and considered calling downstairs to Bernard. But what would I tell him? Your cows are running? As odd as it was, it sounded silly. I waited a while, and when I saw no more of them, I lay down and eventually fell back to sleep.
On Sunday I woke late and watched as Bernard fed the cows right on top of the hill. From an enormous round bale he yanked off a couple of layers of hay, spread them out and then drove back toward the house. Granted, feeding cows was beyond my expertise, but it seemed to me, again, a very small amount of hay put out for fifty-five cows.
Later that morning I set out for a walk and saw Bernard on his front porch.
“Good morning,” I called. “How are you?”
He jumped at my voice. I hadn’t spoken to the man in more than a week. He seemed a little surprised, as if he’d forgotten I might be about.
“Fine. Are you still enjoying your room?” He squinted into the sunlight.
“I am. I think it might be the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived,” I said truthfully. I was not ready to share about my loss of employment.
“Glad to hear it.” He nodded.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something. I’m curious about your cows. I’ve noticed they often surround the house, and I saw them running around it in the night. Do you know why they do that?”
He put his hand up to shade his eyes and look directly at me. He had clear blue eyes, though somewhat reddened and puffy.
“Well, in the winter they get hungry. They don’t have the grass to eat all day so they’re probably just wishing I’d hurry up with their next feeding.”
I considered this answer and looked around. A barn was a good three or four hundred feet away from the house, which made sense in a fire hazard sort of way.
“How come they don’t circle the hay barn then? Why the house?”
He cracked a smile, which I believed I hadn’t seen before that moment. “Cows are smarter than you think. The hay barn may be over there, but the feeder sleeps in the house. They know we’re in here.”
“Oh,” I said, but I was taken by my inclusion in his remark: they know we’re in here.
“I have something for you,” he said.
This surprised me too. He went inside and came back with a pint jar of yellowish liquid. “It’s an overdue welcome present,” he said. “Every now and then I still make it like they used to. If you drink, that is.”
“Well, I do from time to time. Thank you very much. That’s kind of you.”
I was touched at a present from this man who had made no other effort to befriend me. In fact, I felt guilty at not having reached out more myself. Whatever was in this jar felt like a very big deal.
I took the jar upstairs, unscrewed the lid, and leaned in to smell the liquid. The pungent, almost chemical odor reached my nose and my head snapped back. I put it away, smiling to think of who might enjoy sharing such a powerful, homemade drink. Then I went on for my walk, feeling more unsettled than before.
Bernard’s property had many facets and varying portions of valley and ridge, field and river. The North Fork of the Roanoke River ran through the back fields, surrounded by old sycamores that leaned over the water, the roots rising up out of the ground, gnarled and complex. A swinging bridge hung from cables high in the trees. I crossed to the other side of the river and wandered through the woods along cow trails. It was just now the middle of November and despite the dreariness of the month without any snow, the woods still maintained a certain beauty. I came back refreshed and relaxed and was about to start my laundry when I realized that during my walk I had not seen a single cow.
I started to hand wash a few blouses in the sink. When I ran the water, I noticed it was light orange at first and soon darker. I left the blouses in the sink, hoping they were not ruined, and went down the stairwell to Bernard’s door and knocked. In a few minutes he emerged.
“I just thought I’d let you know the water is orange,” I said. “You mentioned that might happen and that I should tell you.”
“Oh, yeah. I think the sand in the system needs to be replaced, but I’m hoping we can make it to spring on what we’ve got.”
I was not sure if I understood this correctly. “You mean…it might be this spring before ….” I left off.
“Oh, no. I can turn the system so the water cycles through more often and is cleaner, but it may not be all clear until I can redo the thing. That reminds me. I had them put some propane in the tank because we were almost out. Let me get the bill so you can pay your half.”
He disappeared into his house and came back with a bill that I had to look over twice to believe.
“That’s it?” I asked. “For my half of a tank of propane?”
“Well, I don’t like to fill it up. I just get enough to get by. I got us a quarter of a tank. That ought to get us to spring.”
I was glad about the small bill, for sure, but wondered how cool it might get upstairs if a quarter of a tank didn’t last to spring. I decided to let it ride for now. “Okay, I’ll get it right down to you.” And I did.
Two nights later, I woke up to silence. Even less moonlight than before, but the cows were there again, less discernible, but definitely there. They bunched together front and center to the house. All heads in our direction. Again, I was sure some of those glossy black eyes watched me because when I moved, their heads moved ever so slightly. But something else caught my eye. Their leanness had intensified. Perhaps it was the light, but I was certain that their bones were more pronounced. There was something hungry looking even in the shapes of their heads. I would have to look them over in the morning to be sure, but this was something, if it were so, that I could not tolerate. I considered the fact that I might have to report Bernard to whomever you reported this sort of thing.
I lay there for a while trying to understand why Bernard might not feed his cows as much as they needed. He had plenty of land, so it was hard to imagine he was destitute, especially considering his passion for using and reusing everything he owned rather than buying new. I had met a neighbor on one of my walks who had shared with me that Bernard had retired from the railroad and had farmed his entire life. If this were true, he possibly had a pension and the occasional sale of calves. I spent another restless night.
The next day I began a part time job bagging groceries at Food Lion, partly for some kind of income, and partly because I didn’t want Bernard to notice I was not at work anymore. I hoped to find another position at the university before long. Over the next couple of weeks, I observed the cows, and they were indeed losing ground. I went home for the Thanksgiving holiday, during which time I talked myself out of saying something – and back into it – several times. I didn’t tell my parents about my work situation yet, either. I still felt like there was some hope for getting my position back, minus cadavers, or a lower position in another department. I did finally make up my mind to speak to Bernard about his cows, whatever the cost. When I returned on Sunday evening, I went around to the front and knocked on his door.
“Is everything okay?” He was in a dark blue work shirt and dark jeans that looked black until he came out onto the porch where a lone bulb lit the night.
“Bernard. Mr. Leftwitch, sir.” I was not quite sure how to approach it. “I’m worried about something. Your cows. I’ve noticed that they are growing rather thin.” The minute the words came out of my mouth I realized something else. Bernard had grown thinner, too. I could see the outline of his shoulder bones and clavicle underneath the thin blue material.
“They do. They get that way in the winter.”
This I knew was not true. Cows could get thinner in the winter, but not if you fed them well. Any cows I had grown up near were fat and happy all year long.
“Well, they are… uh, awfully thin. Is everything okay? I mean, do you need help?”
“Help? No, I don’t need help.”
“I could give you a little more on rent, if you’d like,” cringing inside as I said it, considering my current income.
He scrunched up his nose. “They’ll fatten back up in the spring. Now really, that’s not your business. You tend to yours…” and with that he swung his head in a bovine-like manner toward my upstairs room, and for some reason I imagined he meant my boyfriends, “and I’ll tend to mine.”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry if I have offended you.” I said it, but I didn’t feel it or mean it. Whatever was up with the man, nothing could persuade me to watch animals go hungry. I went upstairs and looked outside. The moon was full again, but heavy clouds passed from time to time darkening the fields. Even when I could not see them, I knew they were there. I could feel them watching me. I was somewhat irate at having reached a brick wall on the subject and I was out of Xanax, so I got out the pint jar and opened the lid again. I held my breath to get a sip down, and it burned all the way. It was strong, and after a second sip I put it away. I felt more relaxed, though. I accomplished a few tasks before going to bed, determined to come up with a solution the next day.
I woke sometime in the night. I heard the thunder sound again, but this time I knew without rising what it was. The sound grew louder, and then I heard wood splintering. The angry bellowing sounded more like rasping foghorns and the shrieking that comes from trains when they brake. I got up but was afraid to turn on my lights, so I retrieved the flashlight I kept at my bedside. Then I heard something crash into the garage door. And then another something crashed, and
I heard the ripping of aluminum, the busting of two-by-fours, and finally there was a loud tromping on the stairs. There was a heavy, heavy stomping along Bernard’s hall. Then Bernard’s screams. I ran to my door, but stopped there, paralyzed. Could cows really get up four stairs? Could they do more? It had to be the cows from the sound, the largeness of the creatures romping and tearing. I stood still wishing I owned a firearm or at least a tazer or Pepper Spray.
The clambering went on for quite some time until it reached a lull.
I turned the knob slowly and barely opened the door, just a slit. On the midway landing outside of Bernard’s now open hall door, a large black cow stood with foam around her mouth, her sides heaving. She kicked backwards leaving a hole clear through the dry wall. Her udder swayed violently. She looked me in the eye, and I was sure I recognized her face from the group that had watched me before. She bellowed, her slobber making a string down to the floor. I slammed the door, locked it –for all the good that would do – stood back several feet, and waited.
Eventually there was no more noise. I grabbed my phone and the flashlight and went to the door. Unlocking it and looking down the stairwell, I saw only a pile of manure at the bottom of the steps and brown streaks on the white walls. I went quietly down the stairs to the landing to look down Bernard’s hall. The cows were gone, but the wall in the hall was streaked of brown and here and there sections were busted in. I looked back at the gaping hole in the garage door. My hands shook as I walked down Bernard’s ancient hall. A portrait loosed from its hook sat on the floor, leaning against the wall. Jesus looked up from the frame in a pleading way, his hands reaching outward, a supplicant look in his blue eyes.
“Jesus,” I whispered, and then, “Bernard?”
At the far end, I entered the kitchen. The table was smashed. Manure was everywhere and hoof prints tracked the floor. Bernard lay just before the open space where the door had been knocked off its hinges and forced outward onto the porch. Cold air rushed in and I could see even from where I stood that the indentations of curved hoof prints went very deep into Bernard’s back. His body was already beginning to swell, and he looked twice the size of when I’d last looked at him. Where his shirt was ripped, his skin was blue and black and pink.
I started to dial on my phone. I had the nine and the first one, when I heard the thunder again. The noise was coming in the garage again and down the hall. I jumped onto the kitchen counter and dropped my phone just as the first cow pushed by. Each cow came through kicking and smashing. Most landed at least one hoof on Bernard. I stayed on the counter next to the toaster oven as still as I could. After twenty cows or more went running in the kitchen, through the living room, and out the front door, things were quiet once again. I did not move.
I looked at Bernard on the floor. One arm was completely separated from his body. I forced myself to climb off of the counter and bend over to touch his swollen neck for a pulse. There was none.
The kitchen table was broken and slanted to the floor. Piles of papers had slid off and surrounded Bernard’s body. Many were indiscernible, smeared and tracked, but not all. I noticed several bills. Then more bills and overdue tax notices. It appeared that Bernard may have been about to lose the property. There was a framed photograph, crooked but still clinging to the wall. From the facial features, and the dress, I knew it had to be Bernard’s father, and the setting was clear. I had seen the very rock at the river that the two figures, a man and a woman, had sat on, holding hands.
The door of the refrigerator hung partially open, one hinge stove in, the other bent, no doubt from a hind leg kick. Inside, there were three eggs, a jar of peanut butter, and the tail end of a loaf of bread. I was about to open a cabinet when it occurred to me that the cows might not be through with him. Hay. They needed hay and fast. I took one last look at Bernard’s poor body, still swelling, and went for the door. I was still in a thin T-shirt and flannel pajama pants, so I grabbed one of Bernard’s overcoats hanging next to the door. I ran outside in my slippers, passing by the tractor. Bernard’s tractor looked like something from a museum, and I was not about to bother figuring it out. I went with my flashlight to the hay barn and opened every door and every gate as wide as possible. If I was going to feed them, it would be buffet style.
I had just flung open the last gate to the barn when I heard the thunder again. I clawed and climbed up those round bales like a squirrel up a tree, with
energy my body had never known before. I made it to the highest bale and turned to watch below. The cows surrounded the barn and entered all the open gates. They tore and ripped and ate like the starving darlings they were. I looked back at the house, realizing I didn’t have my phone. The clouds parted and that beautiful moon, full once more, granted a dreamy view of the scene below. The cold began to creep into my skin, despite the heavy coat. The coat! It had a musty odor, of work and Bernard’s sweat, and barns. I yanked it off and hurled it out into the open over the chewing mouths, seeing as I did, my last salvation disappear as the moonlight bounced off a small, shiny revolver that slipped from the coat pocket midair and also fell below.
The stored hay was three bales high and maybe ten by five wide. Several bales from the second layer had loosened and one rolled to the ground. The cross beams and supports of the enormous barn were well out of my reach above. I crawled to the center of the pile and slid down into the small space at the corner of four bales to ward off the cold, my supervisor’s voice echoing in my head as I did. You’ll get used to it. The cows continued tearing below me. As my pastoral world grew smaller and smaller, I listened to the snorting and chewing, a sound I’d found pleasant as a child.
Photo by Myles Smith