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Suicide no. 53: The Last Heifer
–by Derek Alan Wilkinson
The muzzle shot rang out across those endless and snow-shod plains, burying itself into the heart of a thing that yelped. It fluttered for a moment, magnificent in its struggle, then wilted and lay still.
“Silver fox,” muttered Uncle, as I inched my way toward him in nearly waist high, icy white blankets. His white and amber beard cracked, soaked with the tobacco-laden frost: his frozen breath. “Head over to the stables, sweetheart, and build a fire before that last heifer freezes to death.” He heaved the bloody animal—its dark pelt clinging to its hungry ribcage—over his shoulder, and went away to gut it.
I pressed toward the manger, eying the bones of every last horse and bull we had. Their corpses lay strewn across the barnyard—picked nearly clean by northern Idaho’s starved wolves and gluttonous wolverines. Uncle was nearly out of bullets either running off those scavengers, or skinning the mangy beasts for yet another meager meal. Low rations meant trying to milk our last cow, yielding mere drops that froze upon carrying the metal bucket twenty yards through the snow and into an otherwise starved kitchen—its bare cupboards the only thing more hollow than our bellowing stomachs.
Father, Mother, and all three of my brothers headed south into town almost a month ago to the end of this, another, wretched and cold day. In a silence only pierced by tormented wind and the howling of bloodthirsty canines, I’d spent the last several weeks watching the horizon along the roadway, praying to see the smoke or glimpse of a campfire off in the distance—knowing full well that, if their bodies weren’t the frozen husks fed upon by the same packs of mangy wolves, the snow storms would’ve impeded their wagons to a dead halt.
“They’ll be back any day, now.” Uncle would comfort, his words easing me into a restless sleep for these last several nights.
After cracking the ice off of the molded, wooden door that sealed the barn’s entrance, I swayed the door slightly open and crept inside—making sure to seal it behind me, as Uncle always warned. I lit the lantern we kept by the entrance, dusted the snow off of me, and slowly made my way toward the trough where an animal easily spooked normally fed. Horror gripped me as solid as my disbelief—the cold in the air the only thing holding me back from screaming to the top of my lungs.
The heifer was dead.
She’d starved to death, no doubt—her soft, black eyes glazed over with frost. As I turned to exit the barn, I heard three more gunshots.
“Stay inside the barn, girl! You hear me!” Uncle’s voice crept in from a distance. “Don’t you dare come out here, no matter what!”
I stood still, shivering in the terror and cold—neither of which could be shaken off—for minutes that turned into hours, as I watched the sun set through the crack beneath the barn door. As the darkness came, I finally grabbed a pickax and a shovel to dig a hole in the middle of the barn—preparing myself to sleep there for the remainder of the night. As I gathered straw and planks of wood to build a fire, I heard the growling of the wolves again.
Only this time, their endless hunger was satiated by Uncle’s screams of agony.
I could not run off to save him; my fear, combined with the utter helplessness of not holding a rifle in my nearly-frostbitten, numb hands, kept me still and safe. With nothing left to do but weep as silently as I could, and shiver through the night with tears frozen to my face, I curled up in a ball beside the dead heifer and eyed the multitude of jutting ice sickles that hung from the rafters above me—knowing that the fire I’d built would melt them loose enough to put an end to the growling in my stomach before the clawing and barking at the barn door finally made its way inside.