My attention is on the men.
“Number twenty-three?” Beef snarls, looking up from his notebook. “Speak up, George. You got rocks in your mouth?”
“I said twenty-five!”
“Well, shout it out.”
“Fuck you! It ain’t easy pulling on a cow’s ear while reading a metal clip.”
“Do they always go on like this? The brothers?”
“Yeah. They’re a quarrelsome bunch. You get used to it.” Cora pulls the pack of Pall Malls out again and lights one, then pinches the wooden match head to be sure it’s not hot before flipping it across the barn floor.
“So, you think I could still have a baby even if Aran’s an old man?”
“How old is he? He looks fit.”
“I would say yes. Does he want to be a father?”
The woman smiles shyly and blows smoke over her head so it won’t get in my eyes. “Yes, he does. Is there anything special I should do?”
“Goddammit!” It’s Earl, the bald one this time, the one who looks like Beef without hair. Things are getting tense, and there are still eight more cows to go. So far all the injection sites are negative.
I turn back to Cora. “Well, you want to eat a lot of healthy food, milk, meat, vegetables, corn bread, and beans. Then you want to have relations often.” I don’t know why I don’t say intercourse. It’s not like Cora is a church lady or something.
“Like every day?”
“No, three times a week would be fine. Also, don’t drink moonshine.”
“Not at all?” Cora asks.
“Women who drink too much alcohol have funny-looking offspring and they’re not too smart.”
“What should I drink?”
“Milk. It’s good for your baby’s bones and, also, the midwife says, raspberry tea. You can pick the leaves now if you can find a stand of berries, then put them in a tea ball or a little bag of gauze to steep in boiled water. Do you have a tea ball, one of those little metal things on a chain that you dip in your cup?”
“Aran will get me one.” The woman’s pale face lights up. “He loves me that much!”
“Last cow,” yells Hester. He leans over her flank, studying the area that he’d shaved three days ago. “Blum,” he calls. “What do you think?”
“Why the fuck are you asking him?” Beef complains. “You’re the vet. He’s just a walking vegetable.” The whole group is tense because they know if there’s one positive result the cow will be sent to the slaughterhouse and the rest of the herd quarantined for a month.
“The doc doesn’t speak but that doesn’t mean he’s dumb.” Daniel defends his friend with a jaw as tight as a steel bear trap. “He’s given the Mantoux test to hundreds of soldiers at Walter Reed. This animal has a red spot that’s almost five millimeters.”
The barn is silent. Even the cattle have stopped mooing. Blum leans over and stares at the mark while we all hold our breath, and then shakes his head no, meaning it’s not reactive.
“Woo-hoo!” the brothers crow, and throw their hats in the air.
“I’m getting cold. Are we almost done?” I stand and do a fake shiver, ready to get us out of the Bishops’ barn before a real quarrel starts.
Daniel takes the hint. “I’ll send the forms into the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. Clean bill of health for your herd, Aran. Congratulations, everyone! They look good.”
“Thanks,” says Earl.
“Sorry we gave you a hard time,” offers Walter.
Beef just turns around and plods away. There’s something familiar about that walk, a discouraged look, and I wonder if Beef is troubled by nightmares of explosions in trenches, men crying, and blood.
November 9, 1934
Working with Daniel is a comfort to me, and I wonder at the ease between us, an ease I haven’t felt for a long time. We work for the most part in silence and that’s part of it. I’ve been mute so long, my tongue is frozen in place, and words only come out when there is some kind of pressure.
At times, it seems to me, the loss of Priscilla and the death of the drug detail man on the same day were my undoing; one I thought I loved and one I knew I hated. The confluence of those feelings propelled me into such horror that I just shut the doors on life and went away. It’s easy enough to do. Easier than suicide.
It’s a raw day as I head for the camp and I’m surprised as I pass Mrs. Stone’s place to see a line of trucks and horse-drawn vehicles heading into her drive. Curious, I decide to follow them. At the gate there’s a sign: FARM AUCTION. MOUNTAIN FEDERAL BANK.
Since my grocery deliveries have dried up, I haven’t visited the old lady once in more than a month and now my heart freezes. How could I have let this happen? If I had been Patience, I would have raised holy hell about the gas company’s harassment. I would have driven to Charleston and picketed on the steps of the State Capitol until I got justice, but now it’s too late.
I park behind a cart with two mules and wander over to the barn where a crowd of fifty men has churned the grass into black mud. These neighbors, I think, are like vultures, here to take advantage of Mrs. Stone’s weakness. I don’t exactly know how these sales work, but I figure someone’s about to get Mrs. Stone’s property for a song, and it probably involves the gas company.
Near the barn door, the old lady stands next to the auctioneer, a stout fellow with a wide face, wearing glasses and a bow tie. She’s dressed smartly in a gray coat with a gray lambswool collar. They consult a document laid out on an old wooden table. Standing over on the porch of the house is Sheriff Hardman and two suits from the bank. The sale begins when a man in a denim jacket brings out a nanny goat and two frolicking kids with droopy ears.
The auctioneer steps up on a podium. “We’ll start this tax sale with the stock, then the machinery, then the land, and lastly the contents of the house. What am I offered for this good milker, a purebred Nubian that gives a gallon of milk a day and her two offspring, all in excellent health?
“Do I hear three dollars? Three dollars, now three, now three, will ya’ give me three?” I’m surprised when the crowd stands silent and no one raises their hands. The auctioneer is confused and the bankers seem concerned.
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