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Archive for the ‘Serial Fiction’ Category

Harold Shaw felt his arm tingle. That was the first sensation he had.  Before he opened his eyes he was aware of stillness, and how it felt empty.  He bent his arms, legs.   They scratched against the earth.  Opening his eyes, Harold found himself spread wide, his face in the bank of the crick.

He laid where the water leaves the gully, where the woods stop.  Rocks scattered across the pasture where there weren’t rocks before.  The tornado’s history was recorded by broken trees and scattered limbs.  Some branches slumped towards the ground.  The sky acted like it was afternoon and that it passed a mild shower.  After the sheer might that tore through the valley, everything around Harold was painfully usual.

Harold lifted himself off the ground.  He flexed his legs and rubbed his kneecaps without thinking about it.  The tractor lay on its side in the stream.  Water brushed along the tread of the tires.  Harold’s only thought: how to get that thing up.

Harold walked along the pasture.  He passed a clump of trees the dry cows used for shade.  Twigs spread around them like chaff.  There was something in front of Harold, a pile maybe, but when Harold saw hooves and the angles of an animal, he thought he lost a dry cow.  But that wasn’t it.  The body of 71 had been lifted from the bank and returned to the pasture.  Her hair was crusted in dirt and the coloured shapes on her body paled.  She laid with her feet apart and tail out, as if she had been running moments ago and simply fell over.  She didn’t look like the cow that Harold put a milker on twice a day, and he knew it wasn’t the dirt, the branches around her, or the scrapes that didn’t bleed.  She didn’t have her neck tag anymore.   Even though she had been dead for hours, Harold hated seeing her there.  He wanted to say something aloud, but he didn’t.

The next Sunday in church they said a prayer of thanks that nothing on Harold’s farm was damaged, nor anything else in the valley.  He told May that he went out there to make sure the dry cows were safe, and she might never let it go.  Milking that night, he thought a little bit about the tornado, about how loud and fast it was.  He thought a little bit about 71.  The cow lying in the grass, rolled along the ground, tossed in the air like something small.  That’s how he saw it.  It seemed pitiful.  It was a reflection Harold could imagine someone crying over.  But the next morning he got up and milked again, fed the cows, and spread the manure.  He tried to guess how long before the milk inspector would be back and how many phone calls from bill collectors he could get that day.  And then, Harold Shaw thought little about the cow while he fixed the watering bowl and mowed hay.

This ends this segment of Harold Shaw.

Fiction

When you first become in debt everything feels delicate: the tractor hitch, the fresh cows, the pipeline, as if everything is about to break down or bust into hundreds of pieces in the final moment that loses the farm.  It’s harder to get up in the morning like that.  Harold Shaw felt like that for a while.  But eventually he realized that debt was not month to month but a new way of living, that bill collectors would always call during lunch.  With the loss of hope comes a sort of strength.  But, as Harold know, it is not a noble kind.

Every barn has two things: cats and a radio.  The cats are dropped off by town people, or are descendants from cats dropped off and live detached and autonomous lives while the radio plays on.  It used to be that Harold sang along to every country song, no matter what he was doing, because, he was sure, they were songs about him.  Now his country has turned into what used to be pop and he seldom sings.  Only the cats don’t care.  The last few days have been the local deejay’s dream- they filled the space between songs with giddy warnings of the imminent tornado, joking, speculating, repeating safety precautions.  May asked him to stay in the house all day with her so they can immediately run into the cellar- the storm centre by radio language- but she knew he couldn’t do that.  If anything happens he’d be in the cellar before she was, he promised, and she didn’t ask anymore.

“It can be the most powerful force this area has ever seen,” the radio muses.

Harold looks into the haze of the dead cow’s eyes and sees his wrinkled face and moppy hair, distorted.  71’s mouth is almost open, the ridges of her teeth showing: she’s looking upward, waiting for him to breathe life into her again.  He takes off her neck tag and hangs it on a nail to use it for another heifer someday.   He will miss the cow but he does not cry.  He can’t cry.  He will notice that she is gone, and that is something.  He fits the chain around her neck and loops it over the skidsteer bucket.  Instead of crying he drags her out of the barn, her body sliding quietly over the concrete.

An explosion of clattering. A hundred fingers tapping on the barn’s aluminium roof.  Harold first thinks that a flock of pigeons landed, but the rattling doesn’t stop.  Outside, with the pitchfork in his hand, he looks into the black sky and feels ice snap against his skin.

The hail doesn’t hurt, but falls as something revealed from the atmosphere.  Shadows of clouds blend together to commune and brood darkly.  Wind resonates from the horizon and grows, airy and melodic, bringing with it languages Harold never heard before but thinks he understands.

And there it is.

It emerges out of the gully, hovering above the crick bed as if the crick bed is its life source, getting wider and fully majestic towards the top.  Even far away, Harold can see it bend and dip, slowly, assertively, performing with unimaginable confidence.  Its magnetism is apparent and seductive, pulling everything towards it like a greedy lover.

Harold’s cloths build moisture, his arms, cheeks, taut and radiant.  Something catches his eye.  May.  She stands at the cellar door.  She waves at him, the other elbow tucked over a pile of recipe books.

“Harold, get your ass in the storm centre!” she shouts.  But through the hail and spirited wind and dark skies her voice pales and feels like a dream.

It is a wonderful counsel of shifting colours, leaves and dirt, stones turning over in weightless fluid as it floats deliberately towards Harold.  Harold takes a step towards it too, and then another.  Each step is easier than the last until he is jogging in the cool bright sleet.

“Harold!” May yells, but Harold doesn’t hear.  He strides, the pain in his joints dissolving, the top of his boots slapping against his shins in sturdy rhythm.  He passes the John Deere.  He turns around.  The tractor sits gallant, steady, faithful.  Harold mounts the steps like a much younger man.  He turns the key and the seat beneath him vibrates with life.  The knobbed levers are cold and slippery, but he climbs up the gears with fluency until the machine is skipping, nearly gliding over the wet grass of the pasture.

Lightning bleaches everything.  It absorbs this radiance and glows.  Harold feels the barren distance between them disappearing, turning to liquid, it coming to claim him in mighty sanction and he meeting it, in an unearthly marriage of spirits.  Before it even happens he feels himself lifted off the seat, gently, like a maternal gift, perfectly weightless forever, and freed.  And people would gather and exclaim “He was just carried away,” everlastingly taken.  He can imagine it passing through him, filling him, and passing through his barn, dissolving the affinity between a board and a brick and suspending them around his floating body until he is absorbed into the wreckage, peaceful, indistinguishable.

Its persuasive whisper beckons on Harold’s skin.  Harold Shaw is close now.  The commanding power of wind screams the hot breath of a thousand trains exploding by, surrounding him.  Everything it is carrying is melted into colours, shadowy, broken images flashing through him.  Pressed against the seat cushion, wrinkled, gangly fingers clutching the steering wheel, harder now, he can only squirm, until he cannot move, disappearing into the tractor, the deafening wind, the colours blinding.

Check out the Serial Fiction archive for previous installments of Harold Shaw.

Harold Shaw sits at the edge of a bank that overlooks the dry cow pasture.  He chews an unlit cigar until it becomes grit at the bottom of his gums and looks at the pasture, farm, and haze beyond the silos.  He tells May that for these ten minutes everyday he comes here to check for cows in heat, and that’s what he does, because that’s what farmers are supposed to do.  If a cow stands to be mounted by the cows around her Harold will breed her that evening, by artificial insemination if she’s good.  What he doesn’t tell May is that he chews the cigar and leaves it wedged between two gangly branches before he goes back.  It is his secret, one that he is both surprised and pleased and feels guilty that he kept.  The dry cows clump together, lying in the grass.  They chew their cuds mechanically, faithfully, flick their switch at flies that rest on their back.  One Holstein is by herself, standing by the fence.  Her udder is hard and swollen, and Harold knows she is restless to calve.  If a tornado does come, Harold wonders what the dry cows will do, if they can anticipate enough to get away, break down the wire if they had to.  He pictures cows picked up one by one and swung through the air, and he laughs out loud.  Harold wonders why he isn’t worried about the tornado, if he is sure that it’s not coming, or hoping that it is.

Harold likes his ten minutes away to himself, but he has been starting to question why he has never brought May there to sit with him.  He could never give her much time; when they were young the moments they spent together was her riding in the tractor or following him around the shop or feeding calves while he forked hay.  She had to be active in fulfilling her needs that way, and Harold regrets that.  She quit riding with him in the tractor.  He suspects she quit needing.

He couldn’t afford to give her anything nice or special.  There was barely money for feed.  But he never let her see how bad things were, not on his face.  He kept that from her, and it’s likely the most exhausting thing he does every day.  She knows how much the farm suffers, but he hopes he has kept the worrying to himself.  In this way he is able to be good to her.

Harold spits out the grizzle in his teeth and lodges the cigar back into the branches.  They droop with the weight and hang limp in front of his face.  Sometimes, standing on the bank overlooking the dry cow pasture, Harold lets himself wonder what he is doing here.  He is the only farmer left in the valley, the only one that hasn’t sold out or been found dead.  He allows himself to realize that it is hard.  That it’s killing him and has been killing him for a long time.  But then he must cut hay and change the oil filter on the manure spreader.  He has to fix the watering bowl.  Harold Shaw just hopes that after he’s gone and the farm is sold, May can buy something nice.

Harold has sat in the same spot at church for more than three decades: the end of the last pew.  May won’t sit close to him because his fidgeting distracts her.  He feels comfortable in this space because the red cushion, plank floor, and wood hymnal stand have not changed much.  It is one hour of the week he is not plagued with what he has to do and what he should do, and more than that, he doesn’t have to feel guilty about it.

He is not as intent as May on swallowing every word the pastor catapults in his bouncy optimism.  Much of what is said blows by and Harold picks up what he does.  A picture hangs in front of him on the wall and he stares at it often.  It’s Jesus and he’s laying outstretched on the ground.  He’s lousy with cherubim-looking demons straining towards him and touching him with the tips of their fingers.  Harold Shaw likes this picture because it secretly makes him feel better that someone had it worse.

Harold’s hand slides along the cushion and creeps towards his wife’s inner thigh.  She sees it and slaps it away like a bug that could sting.  She hates when he does that.  A little boy behind him starts giggling.  Harold winks at him.

The pastor is young and enthusiastic because he is fresh out of seminary and not beaten down by the world yet.  But no one holds it against him.  Harold hasn’t been paying close enough attention to pick up a message, but when he hears the name Elijah, he realizes he’s heard it before.

“And Elijah knew the time was coming when he could be taken from this forsaken earth.  He knew he did all he could on this forsaken plane and that his time on this forsaken world was almost up.  But he did not make a simple exit, oh no.  He did not grow old in a rocking chair breathing until he could breath no more and he did not get gray and wrinkled and cramped and die of old age in a nursing home.  No, no.  Suddenly, it was time and suddenly, the winds began to stir and the heavens opened up with chariots of fire and a giant, I mean humungous whirlwind came down right down on him and carried him away.  And that’s how Elijah was taken.  In dignity.  In honour.  Redeemed from the act of dying first, redeemed from the power of eternal death next.”

Later, everyone chats at coffee hour while Harold still sits in the pew.