When little Billy Bowden was learning to crawl, he would pull up and scale the walls of his crib in an attempt to lower himself down over the rails like an escaped convict. His mother, Nellie Bowden, weary for sleep, decided to take a little rope, tie it to the crib post then slipknot it around the boy’s ankle. To keep him tethered. Keep him safe at night. A trick her mama had shown her. In this way, she had kept Nellie from her own inevitable escape. Or death.
“I’m right on this, Claude,” she’d told her husband. “He’ll fall out if we leave him be, and that’ll be that.” She understood that she was a young mother and that it may appear, at times, she was not the most maternal woman. Still, she was wicked tired of folks giving her advice on things. She knew when she was right, and assured her husband of this many times over. She reminded him, again, that her own mother handed down this unconvetional technique. Her mother didn’t mess around with prudent matters, when the price of failure was so high.
Well, Claude knew all about Nellie’s mother and knew he should just agree on this one. When her mother had caught Claude bird-dogging Nellie that first summer, she’d whopped him so hard in the back of his head, he’d seen her face around every dark corner in his mind for days. But that didn’t stop Claude; he was driven by some heat down low in the belly. For he had first witnessed Nellie squatting on a stool, milking a heifer. He was only a hired mucker at her daddy’s farm, stealing glances at her as a young girl, cloaked in layers of black skirts and smocks, all hiked up, pulling the teats with a skill that would make any boy run hard down his thigh. But the sight that drove him forward, made his chest swell, was a small hole in those black stockings just at the girl’s left thigh. A shocking white sphere like a secret full moon shone only for him. Some space his finger could touch. His tongue to taste.
Claude, he hounded the girl, just fourteen, for a good year. Brought her ham hock and wild flowers. Promises and lies he’d felt to make true. Finaly, Nellie’s father gave her up like some fine bitch at an auction. Claude, he felt like a man who had found his destiny, won the prize. He’d do right by it,too. And Nellie, she was big with child and saddled by wonder at fifteen. Claude continued to bring ham hock and wild flowers – to Nellie’s mother, in payment of some silent exchange not unbeknownst to Nellie.
But Claude Bowden untied the child one early morning when he saw signs of rope burn. He gently rubbed salve into the boy’s skin and then left for work at daybreak. That afternoon when he returned home from the fields to find Mrs. Bowden rocking a bloodied and screaming Billy, she told him that she had been right. She screamed, “See? I know some things. I knew he’d fall!”
There had been no one else in the house besides Mrs. Bowden and Billy, and she said she had been in the kitchen, or she would have stopped him. Of course she would have. She told the doctors that her husband had been warned and although she hadn’t seen the child fall exactly, she certainly heard him hit the wooden floor, heard his head give. Heard it crack like an egg to spoon.
When their son was diagnosed as “slow” at the age of five, Mrs. Bowden blamed Claude all over again. She would cry at night and remind him that she’d known a few things and she had been right about the rope. Old Claude felt bad and said on many occasions that his family was simply a wounded bird that he’d like to mend and see fly again. As if gauze and a Popsicle stick ought to do the trick.
And worse, not long after the bad news, he’d slid his hands up his wife’s flannel nightgown and whispered in a bourbon stupor, “We can have a zillion more babies, Nellie. It’ll be all right, darlin’.”
She curtly informed him that she was past birthing age, though she was not, and stormed out to a cot on the sun porch where she listened to a horsefly beat itself senseless against the screen all evening.
It was the drink talking, because that is what Claude used to do — drink bourbon while she grieved over their tragedy properly by praying to God for a little more brain power in Billy. They had not been carnal since long before that night, either. Three years to be exact. For her defense, Mrs. Bowden said she had heard that abstinence is biblically validated somewhere in the Old Testament: Fornication should be enacted solely for procreation — or something along those lines.
Claude has said many times since, “Well, I’ll be damned, Nellie,” to which Mrs. Bowden has replied, “Well, I won’t, Claude.”
And now Claude didn’t have enough in him to even drink like he used to. He got sober and figured if the boy had his very own animal to care for and raise that it would solve a world of hurt. Maybe give Billy some experience on the farm and get him out of the house where Mrs. Bowden said she was tripping on him like a loose bootlace. Against Mrs. Bowden’s advice, Claude bred his best Gurnstein, Daisy, and told the boy the calf would be his very own.
“That heifer is too young yet, Claude. No way a calf can make it through her pelvis.” But he wouldn’t have any of it.
Months later, just after midnight, Mrs. Nellie Bowden’s young son appeared at the back doorway like an apparition behind the screendoor. A bald bug light swung slowly from a twisted cord, streaking yellow light across the boy’s body while his face stayed in the shadows. His chambray work shirt and overalls and clenched fists were blood-soaked, and she knew, she just knew that Daisy was about done for.
“Oh, Billy,” she groaned and raised a fluttering hand to her throat. “What, baby? What is it?”
“Papa needs you to call the vet, Mama. Oh, Mama!” he wailed. “Daisy girls in mire straits. Call him now, please, please, right now!”
“Mire straits?” For Lord’s sake. She fought the urge to correct him. For he was breathless and there were tears in his voice and she felt a familiar sickness when he placed his face flush to the screen, like a little porch dog. While his lazy, lima-bean eyes stayed in soft focus, he drummed eight fingers slowly over loose wet lips. His dark hair was slick with sweat. She turned and waved him away. The boy vanished and the cries went on and on. She’d told her husband — mark that. She’d told him the boy’s cow was too young to breed, but he wouldn’t listen to her. She’d told him. Mrs. Bowden had been raised on a dairy farm. He wouldn’t have any of it, though.
The heifer bawled and bawled and would not be comforted. The sound of it traveled through the barn doors and up into the old farmhouse windows. Mrs. Bowden did not close the windows; she opened them wide and turned up the AM radio in her kitchen and boiled water for sweet tea to drink. Now there was gospel coming from the TV in the sitting room and gospel coming from the small radio and the heifer bawled.
She sighed long and settled at the worn harvest table to sip from her fine china cup shined high. Closed her eyes, tapping fingers to hymn, but the strained cry of that young heifer made it through the music and now, even Mrs. Bowden’s tea began to taste bitter with it. It was good for the boy to enjoy the outdoors and have something to do besides hang on his mother’s hip all day. And now, now the cow would most likely be gone by morning. By morning, he’d be back on her hip — her poor boy would be heartbroken, too. Just crushed. And know she was in the right.
Mrs. Bowden shook her head slowly, rinsed her cup and dried it carefully, then went and stood on the back porch to listen. The heifer would get weaker — Mrs. Bowden knew. By the time the vet arrived, it would be too late. It would be too late and cost them too much to call on him now, just to pronounce the heifer dead.
She stood on the stoop and waited. The night was lovely. The moon, a perfect brass cymbal against night skies. And the stars, well, Mrs. Bowden imagined God himself had tossed a handful of diamonds down to the floor of Heaven so they’d scattered across and cluster in the north. Just lovely. The heifer bawled. A star fell. Mrs. Bowden didn’t believe in such nonsense, she’d never admit that she ever did such a thing, but she made a wish. And the bawls soon rose to a kind of tribal crescendo, never ceasing, then the pitch changed to guttural to smothering and finally slowing and finally quieting and then, quite suddenly — nigh. Stillness.
Mrs. Bowden sat down, clutching the hem of her black dress, rocking gently. The heifer gave, and a silence filled the cool evening. They must have lost the calf as well. She pushed herself up and went back inside, shaking her head, clucking her tongue. Then she heard it: The pull of the cord and the distinct hit of blade to flesh. The chain saw.
Claude had sent his boy out to the fields to gather bales to cushion the bed. He’d slit the heifer’s throat with his straight blade. Let her bleed out just long enough and cut the pelvis wide, freeing the calf to pull out, still in its sack.
An hour or so later, her husband hauled the boy over his shoulder like a load of meal up the narrow stairwell to his room. Mrs. Bowden followed. They pulled off his bloodstained clothes and boots while the boy slept atop the wool blanket. Then his mother ran a damp, warm cloth over his body, trying to cleanse him of the blood and dirt. He was such a small boy for his age, so pale and thin and weak. She gently washed his frail arms and legs. He looked like a wounded angel lying there so limp and naked and crimson.
“He’ll stain the sheets,” she whispered, when her husband began to cover the boy before she was through.
“It’ll be alright,” he told her and gently pushed her hand away to cover the boy with soft white cotton. “Nellie, let’s just let him be now.”
Mrs. Bowden sighed and smoothed her son’s hair from his face and kissed his forehead, kissed his eyelids and whispered that she was sorry, very, very, sorry. The boy’s eyes opened just a slit, pinning her to him with a look that stopped her breath. He mumbled something she could not make out.
“Lord Almighty,” she hissed and pushed back. The boy’s eyes closed.
“He was dreaming is all, Nellie,” her husband whispered and guided her by the shoulders toward the door.
“Did you see that look? That, that look was pure darkness,” she told him. “Did you see it?”
He shook his head.
They stood in the doorway and heard him whimper in his sleep and waited a bit longer, then switched off the light. Mrs. Bowden followed her husband to their bedroom mumbling, “He’ll stain the good sheets.”
When her husband was through bathing, she kneeled in the center of their bed and stared at his wet back and wide shoulders as he sat on the edge and threaded his hands through his damp hair. He smelled of Calamine soap. She reached over to his shoulders and dug her thumbs into his flesh, kneading and working it like dough to rise.
He rested his elbows on his knees and held his head. “I just don’t understand why you didn’t call the vet, Nellie. I’d told the vet we’d be needing him. He was ready to come. Christ, I just wanted the boy to know I’d tried everything. So he wouldn’t feel bad.”
“He’s going to feel bad, Claude, no matter what,” she whispered. “I heard the heifer. I knew she wasn’t making it and the vet wouldn’t have gotten here in time.”
“At least he’d of known I tried,” he said. “Tried everything.” He stood up and leaned naked against the windowpane where the moonlight was strongest. The whole room was colored a thin blue. He leaned against the glass and it clouded with heat. “I tell you, this place has some bad luck to it,” he said.
Her husband was a superstitious, silly man. He had not wanted to buy the old farmhouse because it had been vacant and finally fell into foreclosure. Right into their laps. The owner was a drinker who ended up losing everything to his vice; lost his land, his family, and eventually his life to it. Mrs. Bowden wanted it. She wanted the farm and it was perfect for their little family. Billy would have lots of open space to run and get strong, and for the price, she’d said, for the price, they couldn’t go wrong. “The price was right, Claude. It was a steal.”
He looked out the window and said. “I just never felt right making good on someone else’s loss.”
She reminded her husband that the man chose the vice. She felt no sympathy for a man like that. “Oh, Claude. Bad luck, bad juju — pooh. There is God, and right and wrong. You lost the heifer because she was too young to birth,” she said. And then a little softer, “I’d warned you about that. It’s no big mystery, honey. He’ll understand someday. You did your best.”
Her husband nodded, “I figured she was ready, or I’d of never bred her. I figured with her line and size, she’d give the boy another fine calf,” he whispered. “You were right, Nellie. Christ, I feel rotten.”
She knew it was a sad night. Knew it was a hard, sad night. But Mrs. Bowden felt filled with dauntless energy. Her husband turned and looked at her. So sad, she thought.
“Come to bed, Claude.”
“I’m not tired, Nellie. I can’t sleep a good damn wink tonight.”
“I’m not tired either,” she told him and sat back on her heels. “You see now. Don’t you?”
And he nodded, emptied and hopeless and unearthed.
She smoothed out her nightgown, then took the pins slowly from her hair and shook it down. He watched.
“I just feel like lying down,” she whispered and unbuttoned the neck of her gown, then motioned for him to come over, come lie with her.
He stood still in the moonlight. The calf lay stunned and motherless in the artificial light of the barn. He’d go down before sunrise and take his boy to nurse the orphan, in hopes that he’d understand the price. Understand it was the only choice he had.
Nellie reached down to the hem of her gown and lifted it over her body, over her head and let it drop to the floor. A sob caught in her husband’s throat and she held her pale arms out to him as he went to her, weary and beat. And she accepted him. Righteous.
Dani Sandal’s stories are published or forthcoming in Raleigh Review, Adirondack Review, New Orleans Review, Puerto del Sol, Monkeybicycle, Camroc Press, Mad Hatter’s, PANK, THRUSH Poetry, Stirring, and others. She’s celebrated in Wigleaf’s Top 50 shorts of 2013, holds an MFA from GMU, and raises the coolest kid ever, Holden.