Cherry liked watching the pretty bulbous eyes of the Santa Gertrudis in the kill chamber until they went blank. She stood at the stunning machine, a great metal barrel large enough for one head of cattle per round. The steer’s head protruded from a hole in the barrel, where there was a shelf for it to rest its head. She pushed a large red button and an electrified steel plate moved toward the steer’s nose. It pressed against its snout and sent a jolt through the entire animal. Then Keith slit its throat. A curtain of blood gushed into a trough below, rushing to an unseen basin to be bucketed and sold.
Her job was to maneuver that arm back and forth for eight, sometimes ten hours a day, as men in butcher hats and white aprons performed their tasks on the killing floor. It was hard to fathom how much blood came from a single cow. Once, she bought ten gallons of milk and poured them out onto the linoleum floor in the shack she shared with her husband, to demonstrate. Kiln’s crooked sneer shot despondency through her. “Disgusting.” Perhaps if the milk was red, or if it was mud, or red clay from the hills, he would get it.
The disconnect between Kiln and Cherry began in his harshness. It rose like a cliff before her. At first they were in love, then they drank and drank, then somehow a child was there. Kiln was the first to go sober when Cherry crumbled. He moved closer to town, away from the river, to live in a real house. Kiln got a new woman, while Cherry sent their son to school in mildewed polo shirts and khaki shorts as they settled the divorce. The new woman was a true believer, and she folded Kiln into the architecture of her Church, which taught something about praying beneath the dirt. Cherry thought they worshiped the grave. She had always wanted to be cremated anyway.
Across the river the Santa Gertrudis slept in the fields. Cherry walked through them toward the slaughterhouse each morning, while Hardy woke alone in the empty shack, cold eggs on the counter, dusty black sneakers by the door. She touched each bull on the backs of their necks, conferring peace. Before work this morning, she noticed one of the bulls asleep in the morning sun, laid out oddly on its side.
Orange light grazed withered blades of grass as she approached. The bull’s body was a shadowy slip instead of the familiar, oblong hunk. She turned its head over by the ears, then dropped it fast. The head hit the grass with a thud. The face was skinned perfectly around the mouth and eyes, revealing clean, cream bone. Inside its jester’s smile the tongue was missing. The steer had lost its bloat, a skeletal raft against the cool grass. Where was the blood? She was somewhere between grief and curiosity. She patted its stomach, finding it wrinkled and empty.
The official divorce proceedings took place not long after. Cherry looked out of the courthouse windows, not really listening as the judge split up their property. She saw a black dead tree against a sea of beige scrub in the small rural downtown and sat on her hands til they were numb, while the lawyers collected their papers and whispered to each other. The new woman and other members of the church sat as witnesses or whatever. The usual shit. Escaping Kiln was not what she had hoped. The freedom was supposed to be a rebirth, but the new her was only what the town saw: a divorced woman obsessed with _____. Now Keith was at the stand taking Kiln’s side, describing the jaundice in Cherry’s wide eyes when she’d come screaming into the abattoir on the morning of the mutilations. The judge let her keep custody of the boy, but wherever she looked, it was obvious who she was now. Pitiable. Pathetic. The courtroom looked like a TV set, staged and surreal, a dollhouse full of plastic people poised in their perfection. Too sober, like it was a lie. Everyone had at least one vice. She’d never visited the Church of the Belowdown, but somehow…
Downtown was thick with people, slivered eyes shielded against an angry sun. Skin cooked sweet with sweat. Seeing the crowd, she thought of blood moving through a heart, then gushing fast from the cattle’s necks. The rest of the herd was still living, and Schaefer Meat trucks came and left, bringing in new steer, carting off what was killed, but to where, she didn’t know. She really didn’t know—like she’d been thrust into the middle of a classroom, called on to answer some question she’d missed. And she was staring at herself as if from a very high distance, cheering herself on, hoping she could come up with the answer. Looking back before the divorce, there was a lot she hadn’t been present for. Where was her son?
She shook the brain from her hair and laid her head on the lacquered bar.
“Need a refresher?”
Miriam, the barkeep, was an atheist, Cherry guessed by the tattoos on her arms and hands.
“Of what?” Miriam nodded at the empty lowball.
“Whatever,” Cherry said, and put her head back down.
That night Cherry trudged through town, toward the shack. A young couple avoided her on the street as they smoked cigarettes. “I, too, love to judge others at a level of cleanness I can’t pass myself,” she growled. The couple returned their gaze to each other, and she eyed them, a bitter pit cracking through her stomach. She wished she still loved Kiln the way people love in new relationships, ruefully obsessed, with fullness and a blind eye to any former cruelty. Why did every notion of him being with someone new make her want to die? She hated so much about him. Her sour turned to pity as she hit the dark trail home, imagined the couple ten years from now in the place she had just left: fucking each other out of routine, the corpse-kiss of jilted vulnerability. At the end of her marriage there had been nothing beneath their flesh when they were making love. Just the cold, torpid sack of her body giving Kiln what she thought he wanted. It hadn’t worked. Long relationships just end up this way, she thought. Better to be alone. Though she wasn’t really alone; a distant drunken memory of Hardy, playing a handheld video game at the kitchen table when she got home, was lodged in her dreams. She never saw him enough. She held him while he slept, the curve of his head making a deep ache within her. He’d never comprehend her love—with every year, the purity of his need would fade.
Cherry dreamt of childhood. A board and batten farmhouse near the Bolt Guns. The inside papered in yellow roses. Her father had built it on credit, then lost it to the bank when the USGS shuffled out of town. The night he moved her and her mother into the shack she now inhabited, the farmhouse burned down. In the dream, Cherry dug through the chalky rubble until she hit dirt, looking for keepsakes of childhood. Photos, baby blankets, early drawings of people with stick legs and flat, uninterested potato faces. All ash. The memories flitted in her mind as dappled blots—then, beneath it, she uncovered the lips of a child, then unearthed cheeks, eyes, Hardy. She scratched at the compacted dirt around his face, frantically trying to free him, until he was released, rubbing and clawing at his tongue to clear his mouth caked in dust.
She screamed and woke. In bed, she checked him for marks. He coughed a little and rolled onto his back. Dirt beneath his nails, like her mother. She thought of love as a thousand tiny barbed hooks tied to nylon lines that tugged her body in one direction. At his mouth, the smallest bit of spit turned black. She pulled the covers over herself and tried to sleep, unsure if she could. Then dawn came, and she was gone again, toward the fields. That same steer still lay dead, unbothered, like time hadn’t taken anything from it.
At the carcass of the Santa Gertrudis, her muscles tightened. A sparkle rose from the steer’s body like a lens flare. She knelt and thought of Kiln and the times she’d carried things alone, knuckling around inside the ribs. So this is agony. Feeling sorry for the spear in your side for eternity, she thought. A quartz the size of her chest rolled from the steer onto the grass, with a hole as big as her fist. Inside was more lumpy rock. She gripped the rock inside, then she emerged into full bright light, her body lifting from the earth like morning fog. Ascending felt the same as falling, like a body to the rocks, with no bright gash at the end. Her mind felt flawless. She could look through it with precision, something a thousand-thousand carats large, polished and set on titanium prongs. Was duty a weakness or a strength? She knew the answer now. What was the next dream? A time when Kiln had asked her: Love or loyalty? She said love. “I would have thought you’d choose loyalty.” She explained her decision, and he didn’t respond. Maybe you will start to see how we are different, she’d thought. You won’t love me now, you’ll see the cracks in the fantasy you’ve made of me. Maybe you’ll see how this won’t work out. But in it she still wanted him, and had fantasized their family and all of it had come to fruition, even the devastating end of it. He never came to a single doctor appointment, only saw the ultrasound pictures. The years passed and she’d chosen loyalty after all.
Visions moved: she watched her son dig holes as big as bulls, coughing ash, then chunks of coal. He cried then slapped his chest, complaining of being squeezed, as though being compressed from inside. He took a rock to his face until it was no longer perceptible as human. Instead, roses, blooming deep, wrapped in ribbons. The arms kept striking anywhere that flesh remained. She let the visions play until he was just a pelvis and ribs, the lungs sclerosed. The secluded heart became hard and clear, a faceted gem.
Through its light she saw Hardy again: this time clean and older, healthy. He was in a hospital room next to a bed. Cherry thought, His wife! Their child! But in the bed was her. The crystal heart began to hum—and oh, how it hummed!—as she drew closer to this mirror. The arms were strapped to the bed with leather. Scarred petals scraped outward from her cheek and mutilated her nose on the left side. Her fingernails were removed. Only the softest skin remained, nervous at every breeze. She drew closer to it—the cure—the vibrato of the bovine heart louder with each breath—and inside her bedridden chest, too, was quartz, rutilated black and red, held open with silver speculums. She felt a lump in her throat. Her hologram hand reached down toward her. She was on the edge of something big, could feel it building in her core. The son touched her cheek, the real her, the one in bed. A tear black as blood slipped from her eye. She swallowed hard, then looked above her, somewhere far away. This next bit was meant for just her son to hear. She came to find, at every corner, everyone was cruel. She would always remember kindness.
Featured image by Kelly Harmon.