Suicide no. 53: The Last Heifer

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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.

 

 

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35 thoughts on “Suicide no. 53: The Last Heifer

    • After having one of the worst winters we’ve had in years here in West Virginia this year, it wasn’t far-fetched for me to imagine how much worse it would’ve been further north in earlier days when people still travelled on horseback. Thanks for reading, and grab yourself some hot chocolate.

  1. Wow, that was both heartbreaking and terrifying. It was very well written and completely believable. I pray the girl is able to feed off the heifer, and that she somehow survives. I’d love to read the rest of the story.

    God bless you,
    Cheryl

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response 🙂

      I’m often hesitant when writing tragedy–especially with children involved–because some may think I’m completely heartless. I’m not. I think the main reason I do isn’t because I enjoy getting a knee-jerk response for my entertainment, but because its good to provoke the kind of empathy that makes me feel closer to other people–as opposed to what I’ve spent many long hours doing: working the kind of customer service-type of jobs that force one, daily, to put on a fake smile.

      That, and re-reading a tragic work that I’ve written when I’m having a bad day makes me think to myself: “Hey, things could be worse. You could be holed up in a cold barn, next to a dead cow, in fear of being eaten by wolves.”

      • Thank you for your response, Derek. Your story was written with too much empathy to come from a person who is completely heartless. 🙂

        Blessings,
        Cheryl

    • Thank you. When I took the prompt, I thought to myself: “If you’re going to use THAT line, the rest of the story better read like prose–none of that punchy, two-word-sentence, Chuck Palahniuk type of stuff.” I kept re-reading it, hoping that the prompt line, “It fluttered for a moment…etc.,” blended in well enough not to look obscure upon reading it.

  2. Wow. This is haunting and horrifying, but so beautifully written. I love all the details and I love the narrator’s voice. Seamless use of the prompts too.

    Thanks so much for joining us at the speakeasy this week! 🙂

    • Thank you. I can’t remember where I read it, but there was some study done on languages in which the results seemed to point to most words are simply the result of other words–words that used to mean something different, many taken from other languages altogether.

      The proponents of the theory derived from the study argued that most words are metaphors for other words, which were once themselves metaphors.

  3. Your depiction of utter despair, without a glimmer of realistic hope is total. She is looking for smoke on the horizon but she knew she was grasping at straws. Well done. Like an eclipse – dark!

    • Thanks 🙂

      Dark, indeed. While I tend to focus on dark themes–especially having drawn on the concept of suicide for several of my stories–most of my other tales, I feel, are actually light in comparison (for an example, see the pejorative Suicide no. 19: Would You?). On this one, though, I felt the need to dive to the bottom for some reason.

    • Oh no! Don’t do that! The other ones pale in comparison!

      Just kidding. Although, I’ve slowly began to realize the difference between “forced” writing, and writing that comes to you. There’s a steady balance to maintain. I feel that Suicides no. 23 and 25 are my best ones (especially 25), although no. 19 has certainly become a crowd favorite. There’s a few in there I’d like to either edit or remove, but you can’t make every story the “best.”

      • I know exactly what you mean, although I’m beginning to gather that the reader can’t tell how hard it was for you to write the piece, so if you get there in the end, that’s all that matters. I’m definitely going to check out the ones you recommend. Thanks, Derek!

  4. Wow, this was haunting and very believable. Made me feel guilt, munching on my chicken wings in my warm den, reading this story of frozen starvation. It doesn’t seem likely that she’s gonna come out of this one, so if the icicle does fall, I hope it is a quick and clean death. Much better than being eaten by wolves. Nicely written.

    • When writing it, I felt like everything “cold” had to be put in place–like, if you missed it, then it seemed like the story lost weight. So, some of those details got added in after I’d finished the first draft or so.

    • I was hoping that I didn’t venture off of the action when I went into the description of the barnyard. Nothing I hate more than starting off reading what seems like a good tale, only to find myself going, “Now, wait…what’s going on now? Seemed like a good story, but there was some description of something I had to re-read because I got bored.”

  5. I really enjoyed reading this. I read your intro to the Suicide Stories and was disturbed. I had to go back and read this again. It came across as a different type of suicide (motivationally speaking), one I didn’t expect. What a chilling setting you made. Loved it!

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