The Snow Field
by Mark Scheel ©2007
First one jungle boot, then the other. Slowly, in the blackness. Deliberately. His hands tap the rubber heel against the landing mat, then invert the canvas top. Empty. Both empty, of slitherings and crawlings. From beneath the poncho, turning, he inserts one naked foot, then the other, into the cool, damp leather. Stands. The olive-drab boxer shorts loose about his taut bladder. Then steps. Steps against the wet, resisting tropical air. Out from the dark, sandbagged metal walls into faint morning pinkness. Step. Step. The only sound a distant clanking of an armored tread along the berm. Then a sudden whine. And the white flash. And the ringing in his ears. All at once his shoulder is cold. And again the ringing. The icy cold spreading down his back. And the ringing! And he knows now he’s been hit.
He bolted upright out of the dream. Soft light from the window suffused the bedroom walls, early morning sun reflecting off snow. The comforter had slid partially off the bed and he felt cold. His shoulder ached. Then once again the ringing blasted in his ears—the phone on the letter desk in the adjacent room.
He pushed the sheet back and swung his feet onto the chilly hard-wood. The alarm clock showed 6:45. Rising, he sensed immediately the pressure to urinate. Goosebumps formed on his arms as he walked across the throw rug and out into the dining room. With an urgent persistence the phone rang once more before he could lift the receiver.
“Yeah,” he mumbled, still clearing the fog of sleep from his head.
“Did I wake ya?” his father’s voice asked through the earpiece. There was a worried edge in the old man’s tone.
“That’s okay,” he replied, after a pause.
“Well . . . I got some trouble out here.”
“Trouble? What’s wrong?”
“You know that spotted heifer? Started calving last night. I checked’er this morning and something’s hung up. The calf’s not coming.”
“There’s a foot showing. That’s all. An’ I called awhile ago and Doc Grimsley’s outta town.”
“Who? Oh, the vet.”
“And I was wondering . . . when do you teach that class up to the college?”
“What time? Three-thirty.”
“Maybe you oughta come out. I think we’re gonna have to pull that calf.”
“Yeah . . . sounds like it.” He paused, trying to focus everything in his mind. Trying to assess the situation. Then, “How much snow did we get last night?” he asked.
“Well, now. There’s another problem. It ain’t the snow, it’s the ice. It started with freezing rain and we got power lines going down. The electric’s been off here for an hour.”
“Yeah? Well. Okay. Give me a few minutes to eat and shave. I’ll be there.”
“Take it easy on the roads. Don’t know what you’ll run into.”
He replaced the receiver in the cradle and paced back through the bedroom straight into the bathroom. Standing in front of the toilet bowl, he could feel a cold draft drifting up against his naked calves. He washed his hands and threw some water on his face, then stepped back into the bedroom. The dull ache in his shoulder was growing stronger, and he reached up and rubbed the puckered shrapnel scars. Damn, he hated cold air!
* * *
Stepping down off the back porch, his overshoes crunching the icy crust, he was surprised but undeterred by the world that met him. The chill, bright, white silence. The layer of snow like granulated salt topping the ice-glazed landscape. Spirea bushes bowing to the ground. Limbs drooping leadenly from all the trees, some broken and dangling, some lying below. The rays of sunlight keen off the crystals like a laser.
He took a few steps toward the garage. The cold air stung his nostrils. The snow was no more than an inch deep, but the walk beneath was solid ice. Luckily he’d pulled the car in last night.
The old Chevy Bel Air started with no trouble, and he cautiously backed it out into the alley and pulled ahead toward the street, the rear wheels spinning at the slightest overacceleration. As he swung onto Twelfth Street, the car spun out and slid across the lanes, the tires nudging the opposite curb. He muttered to himself, righted the vehicle and edged on ahead. All along the way, the scene was the same—limbs lying broken, overhead lines drooping precariously. At least, he mused, the traffic was sparse.
When he reached the highway heading north, he was relieved to see that it had been plowed. But the glassy ice patches on the blacktop still looked treacherous. He held his speed down to 20 miles per hour. When he came to the steel bridge across the river, he slowed a little and nearly coasted across. It looked as though it had been dipped in clear, shining syrup and dried hard.
He remembered driving this highway every day last summer when the heat had baked the foliage brown and dust-coated the weeds in the ditches. Driving on the way to the nursing home where, standing in the small room by the air conditioner, the cold air freezing the metal in his shoulder, he would look into his mother’s face, hoping to see some remnant there of recognition. Some momentary retrieval of the linkage to “son.” But the quiet process of the malignancy had kept doing its work, honey-combing her memory, appropriating every last familial connection. Until, near the end, in one last mocking gesture, it would leave her a babbling infant, holding out her arms to the white-uniformed aide and crying, “Mama!”
He looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a red pickup truck coming up rapidly. It caught up to him as he reached the first of the rolling hills, then began to tailgate him impatiently.
He slowed further as he approached the next crossroad and signaled right, edging over to allow the truck to pass. It sped by with a roar, fishtailing as it steered back into the right lane, and vanished over the next hill. On these roads he wouldn’t chance that speed on a bet—and in a pickup yet! As he passed the crossroad, he looked both ways and saw the telephone line running beside it had snapped. The snow on the roadway was still unbroken.
He held his speed steady and topped the next rise and there down below was the red pickup, slid rear end first down into the steep ditch. The driver’s door was open and a man in a jean jacket and Levi’s was climbing out. It didn’t appear anyone was hurt. He contemplated the mishap as he drew even with the truck. A heifer in distress, he told himself, should take priority over a damn fool any day. He continued on up the next rise.
* * *
Turning into the barnyard, he spotted his father standing by the corner of the cow shed. He pulled the car up beside the corral, shut off the engine and got out. The black and white heifer stood in the middle of the lot, equidistant from the shed and the perimeter fence, watching the two men suspiciously. Clouds of condensation rose from her nostrils; a single small hoof protruded from beneath her tail.
“Looks like nothing’s changed,” he commented to his father as he walked in and shut the gate.
“We’re gonna have to try an’ rope her, then see what we can do.”
His father lifted the lariat off the fence post and opened out the noose. They began ambling toward the heifer, the frozen crust on the mud cracking and breaking with every step. The heifer tossed her head back and bolted for the opposite fence.
The two men followed, spreading apart, moving methodically. Trying as best they could not to spook her further. The old man held the rope, loop at the ready. “Here bossy. Here bossy,” he coaxed gently. The heifer started and ran down the fence line past them, back toward the shed. They hurried across the snow after her, angling for the far corner.
She ran into the corner by the gate, then spun around to face them. Eyes wide with panic. They caught up and stopped a few yards away. The heifer lowered her head.
“Move up on her slow,” the old man said. “I’ll try to rope’er when she comes out.”
“I think she’s gonna charge.”
“Naw. Move up slow.”
He began moving ahead in a semi-crouch, arms out. The heifer charged. He turned sideways to avoid the blow. Her shoulder caught his chest as she passed. His feet slipped out from under him, and he went down hard in the snow. Lifting himself on one elbow, he saw that his father had dropped the loop over her head, but the force of her motion had jerked the rope from his hands. Now the heifer was running away toward the other end of the corral trailing the lariat in the snow.
He got to his feet. His father was starting to chase after the rope. “Dad! Wait a minute,” he shouted. “The last damn thing you need is a busted hip or a heart attack. Let me.”
The heifer spun around when she reached the far corner, then darted down the fence line past the water tank. As his father tried to follow behind her, he struck out running at an angle he hoped might head her off into the shed.
She followed the fence line out from the corner and broke across in front of the shed. Then turned, just beyond the middle support pole, and retraced her path. He plunged forward and grabbed the trailing rope and got it half-wrapped around the pole before it jerked tight. He dug in his heels against the pull and held it until his father drove her back. She ran into the shed, and he quickly took up the slack and wound it onto the pole. When she ran out on the other side of the support, they had her fast.
More pulling and shoving and maneuvering got her head near the pole, and they tied her there securely. His father brought a second lariat from inside the shed, and, standing one on each side, they began lacing it around the heifer’s midsection and back to her hips. That done, together they pulled on the end, drawing it tighter and tighter against her flanks until the paralyzing squeeze collapsed her legs. And she went down on her side.
“Now, let’s see what we got,” his father said, moving around and squatting by her rear. “Well, judging from the foot, at least it ain’t breech.”
They tied the loose end of the second rope to the small foot, hunkered down in the snow with their feet against the heifer’s rump and began to pull. A sharp pain stabbed down his arm and he caught his breath.
“That shoulder?” his father asked.
After several minutes of effort had yielded few results, his father stood up and dropped the rope. “What we need is a come-along,” he said. “Maybe that old wire-stretcher with the pulleys will work. Get that and the tractor an’ bring’em over.”
He walked over to the shop, fit the drawbar on the tractor, hung the wire-stretcher on the lift lever, and drove the tractor over to the corral. He backed it up behind the heifer, and they rigged the wire-stretcher to the drawbar and the calf. Then his father began to crank the tension. Gradually the calf’s leg extended further. Then a second foot appeared.
“Now we’re gettin’ somewhere,” his father declared.
They transferred the wire-stretcher to the other foot and pulled that leg out. A nose appeared. Next they tied the wire-stretcher to both legs and applied more tension. The heifer had relaxed and was intermittently straining on her own. “If we can just get the head out, we’re halfway home,” his father said. They cranked once more and suddenly the line on the pulleys snapped and the wire-stretcher collapsed in the snow.
“Damn that rotted line,” he said. “And we were getting close.”
“Yeah,” his father replied. “But you smell that stench? That calf’s dead. And been that way awhile.”
“Probably swelling up. Maybe that’s the problem.”
“Well, we’re down to savin’ the heifer now. Gotta make room for that head.”
“How we gonna do that?”
“I saw a vet do this once. I’m gonna try cuttin’ one leg off the calf to give clearance.”
His father took out his pocketknife and opened up a blade. Then he knelt down and worked his fingers into the birth canal, feeling for the shoulder. And with his other hand he inserted the blade and began slicing.
Squatting beside his father, the odor of death in his nose, he studied the old man’s motions. “Don’t cut her,” he cautioned. “And watch your fingers.”
After a few minutes, the leg pulled away, and he took it from his father and placed it to the side.
“Now,” his father said. “I think she’s dilated good enough. We’re gonna have to try an’ use the tractor. You start it up. Go real easy on the clutch. I’ll work down here. We don’t want to tear her rear end out.”
They looped the rope over the drawbar and tied the end to the foot. Then he started the tractor, shifted into low gear and gently eased ahead. The rope went taut. The heifer moaned. “Easy on that clutch!” his father warned. She slid a little in the snow, and his father checked the rope around her neck. “Easy,” his father called out. He edged further ahead. Suddenly the calf’s head emerged, and the shoulders followed and the body, wet and mucus-slippery, slid smoothly from the canal out onto the snow. And there the small, black, lifeless form lay steaming against the white earth.
He shut off the tractor and got down and walked back to where his father stood. “Well, we saved the heifer at least,” he said.
His father took out his red bandanna and wiped his hands. Then he stepped around and loosened the rope from the pole. All at once the heifer shuddered and strained again and began to expel a watery, bloody, fleshy, membranous mass. As they watched, it kept coming, spewing out, almost as large as the calf had been.
“Oh, no!” his father exclaimed.
“What the . . . ? That’s more than afterbirth!”
“The stress was too much. She’s expelled her uterus!”
“Her uterus! Son-of-a-bitch! Now what?”
“We’ll have to put her down.”
“We can’t shove it back in?”
“Naw. She’d get infected. There’s nothin’ more to do.”
He looked at his father and then down at the pool of flesh and at the heifer gasping for air. So, she must have known all along, before they had, what the outcome would be. That she carried the seed of death wrapped in her belly, and no matter how fast and far she ran, there’d be no escape. Still, she fought it to the end.
His father walked to the shop and got the sledge hammer and walked back. He stood, feet apart, by the heifer’s head. “Sorry, bossy,” he said, “we done what we could.” And he raised the sledge hammer high in the air and brought it down hard between her eyes. She jerked and trembled and her tongue flopped out the side of her mouth. A tricklet of blood traced down the white hair of her nose and dropped onto the snow. And she lay still.
* * *
“The dead wagon ain’t gonna come out in this weather,” his father said. “An’ we sure can’t bury her. Guess we might as well drag’er up on the pasture hill and leave’er to the coyotes.”
“That’s the best we can do,” he agreed.
They unwound the ropes and wrapped a log chain around her hind legs and fastened that to the clevis on the drawbar. His father spread a burlap sack across the tractor hood, and they heaved the stillborn calf up onto that and headed out.
Standing on the drawbar behind his father, holding onto the fender, he looked back at the thin trail of blood in the snow. They drove past the feedlot, where the other cows peered out curiously, down the slope and over the creek crossing and back up by the edge of the ice-coated woods. Birthing a calf, he thought to himself, should be a simple thing. Like a new moon or the opening of a flower. But there were times when in a godless universe nature got crosswise with itself. When the intentions of the process all became tangled, and the only way for it to right itself again, to get going straight, was for something to die.
He’d known that was so since that morning years before when he’d parted the vines with the barrel of his M-16 and discovered the dead Viet Cong. Ants were crawling all over the tattered black cloth; the exposed bone was bleached white as polished rice. The back of his head had been blown away, the empty eye sockets staring skyward. And a sprig of green vegetation had taken root, sprouting up out of the gaping mouth toward the sun. Growing as if from a planter.
Nature didn’t entertain pleas. Nature didn’t bargain or compromise. Nature simply took what it needed for the process and moved on. For a long time, he’d known that was so. Yet he still felt a stab of resentment deep in his gut each time he saw it happen again.
When they’d abandoned the carcasses at the crown of the hill and started back down, his father turned half-around and called over his shoulder: “Ya know, it may be awhile before we get the electric back. Maybe you could help me move the old stove in from the woodshed. I can cook off of that if I have to.”
“Yeah. No problem.”
It wasn’t quite noon yet. He had only four student papers left to grade before class. There was still time.
The sun was intense and directly overhead now. They parked the tractor in the shop and walked up the lane toward the house. The ice on the trees had begun to melt and break loose. Crystalline shards were falling beneath the trees like hail, and the snow in the lane was beginning to turn to slush.
THE SNOW FIELD was initially published in a different version in Swill magazine.
Mark Scheel was born and raised on a farm in rural, east-central Kansas. After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1967, and spending a period "on the road," he served overseas with the American National Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, Germany and England. He later took graduate studies and taught at Emporia State University. More recently he was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. He now writes full time and has served as a volunteer on the editorial staff of Kansas City Voices magazine. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines such as Kansas Quarterly, The Midwest Quarterly, Cincinnati Poetry Review and The Kansas City Star, and he is coauthor of the book OF YOUTH AND THE RIVER: THE MISSISSIPPI ADVENTURE OF RAYMOND KURTZ, SR. His most recent book, A BACKWARD VIEW: STORIES AND POEMS, won the J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award from the Kansas Authors Club. He is presently a member of the Kansas Authors Club, National Writers Union and The Writers Place as well as a charter member and officer in 5th Street Irregulars writers group and a former member of the Board of Directors of Whispering Prairie Press, 2005-2006 as well as Library Liaison and member Board of Directors of Potpourri Publications Co., 1991-1995. His bio appears in the Directory of American Poets & Fiction Writers; International Authors and Writers Who’s Who; Two Thousand Notable American Men; Who’s Who in America; Who’s Who in the World and Who’s Who in U.S. Writers, Editors & Poets. He has conducted numerous readings, media appearances and book signings, 1988-present. Selections from his writings appear on , and as well as other Internet sites.
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