The Family Farm
Death isn’t uncommon on a farm. In the basement bathroom that reeked of milk replacer formula and the tawny scent of afterbirth, we would open the shower door and see the still form of a lamb that had died in the night even after it had been brought inside and bottled.
If the ground wasn’t frozen, my father would use the Bobcat to dig a hole by the tree line, rolling the bloated corpse of an elderly ewe inside. In the winter, lambs who died from being trampled by their mothers or from the cold—even beneath the heat lamps that dangled from the rafters by a chain and orange extension cord—were stacked in a heap beside the barn door like it was some kind of concentration camp. When snow came, we only knew they were there because of the small mound that would sometimes be added to.
I can’t say it made me sad; death was natural, whether it was from natural causes or not. For every lamb that died, three stood bleating by their mothers, their tails waggling as they nursed. We pinched the lambs that were shunned by their mothers between our knees, our backs and thighs cramping as we craned over them to force the bottle’s teat into their mouths.
I would stand beside my father, our chests covered with loose hay, and we’d watch the sheep around the feeder, listening to the munching sound that replaced the hungry baaing. “Feels good to take care of something,” one of us would say.
As a child, I had hated kicking the ice out of frozen buckets and how my gloves would freeze to the metal water hydrant. Now, as snow patters against the barn’s tin roof, caring for something brings a quiet joy.
For the majority of my life, I put others’ needs above my own because I found it easier to live a life of willing and sometimes absent-minded subservience instead of discovering what I needed. When my mother asked if I could tell my younger brother to take care of a chore, I’d go into his room, see him lying on his bed with earbuds in, then go outside and do it myself.
It didn’t feel wrong because I chose to do it. When I was home for winters and summers from university, I continued in this way, carrying a sharpened coal shovel and leather gloves, or my mother’s .22 Ruger handgun.
I used to think death, especially on a farm, was something I was numb to. Sometimes a stray coon found its way into the coop, mutilating but hardly eating several chickens before escaping. The following day, the survivors wandered the yard clucking confusedly, and we’d rake the feathers into a plastic bag and bury the bodies. Three of our dogs have been run over, two of our cats got into rat poison, and another showed up dead in our sandbox one spring. I watched from the kitchen window as my father drove across the pasture with our old mare in the skidloader bucket, her head lolling to one side. When my brother and I would play in the woods, we’d edge around the quietly reeking mound of dirt she was buried within.
My father used to do the killing. He’d go outside in boxers and ratty t-shirt, and I’d hear a muffled pop as I ate my cereal. Later that day, I’d struggle to pull a raccoon’s stiff, fly-covered corpse from the cage before burying it in a depression in the corner of the pasture. On hot days, the putrid, sweet scent swept up across our hayfield, mingling with the scent of clover and freshly cut grass.
At some point, my father got too busy or I got old enough. One summer day, I walked into the kitchen, wearing boxers and my bed’s blue comforter, my chest covered with the red lines of heavy sleep.
“Morning,” my mother said, already cooking. “Dad was rushing this morning and didn’t shoot the coon. Can you do it?”
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I told her I would. I grabbed my shoes and the gun and went out back. If I had refused, I’m sure my mom would have done it. She loved to shoot gun, at one point taking potshots across the yard at a possum who had become too familiar with our chicken coop, but she was the only woman in our old-fashioned household. Even if she had wanted to, I still would have done it. My brother simply refused to kill, unable to stomach the thought of murder, even if it was a pest or an animal that needed to be put out of its misery.
“I just disagree with it,” he said. “They were here first, so why should we kill them?”
“Because they eat all our bird seed,” my mother responded, “and I don’t want raccoon shit on my deck.”
Before I put on my khakis and dress shoes for work, I’d load the Ruger with a single round, dropping a spare into the pocket of my oppressively yellow Pikachu-print pajamas. The raccoon would hiss and spit at me as I crouched beside the cage. I learned to click my tongue to get its attention; as soon as it looked at me, the barrel would line up with its forehead, and I’d fire.
As the summer drew on, I started needing the second bullet. I came inside to my parents sharing a cup of coffee at the table, and they looked up at me.
“What? You miss?” my dad asked, an eyebrow raised.
I’d shrug and disappear down the hall to grab another round from the purple Crown-Royale bag where my mother kept the bullets. When I came back through the kitchen, my parents asked me to refill their mugs because I was already up, and I went outside to finish off the raccoon. It was that day I began needing the second bullet, a tremble creeping into my hand each time I pulled the trigger
This responsibility soon extended to a less-talked-about aspect of farming: if it didn’t produce, it was wasting; if it was going to die, you didn’t wait for it to. We would wring the necks of hens that were too old to lay or were sick with an avian disease that reduced their circulation to a crawl and turned their combs blue. That way, the sick wouldn’t infect the other hens, and by getting rid of old hens, the new pullets wouldn’t find themselves at the beak end of the pecking order. On one occasion, I got home from work, and my mother told me that a hen had started pulling its intestines out of its cloaca. I changed out of my slacks, broke its neck, carried it down to the depression, and cut its head off with the shovel I had dug the hole with to be sure that it wouldn’t spontaneously reanimate.
This was because I once wrung a chicken’s neck, throwing its corpse beside the wheelbarrow that I had I cleaned the coop into. She was an old hen, came with the house when we bought it, and was long since dry. When I dumped the first wheelbarrow of shavings, I didn’t realize she had disappeared. When my father got home, he asked why a chicken was out. I looked outside and saw that same hen, clucking around the barnyard. I was tempted to laugh like my dad as mom explained what happened, but I was silently horrified. I’d heard bones pop, tendons snap. I’d held it as its eyes bugged and it gagged for breath.
After that, we kept it as a pet, letting it free range unlike the rest of our chickens. It slept in the barn at night, eating the grain that fell to the floor until one winter night when my father came in ruddy and runny-nosed from chores.
“Don’t know where she is tonight. Hope she makes it.”
We found her body by the barn door the following morning, lightly dusted in white crystals. Its passage was marked with the estranged pity of dead stock animals, distanced further because it had already defeated death in an unexpected resurrection.
“And she was so fun too,” my mother lamented.
I began to whisper apologies each time I pulled the trigger. I stopped answering my parents when they told me a coon was in the trap or a chicken was dying, instead pulling on the leather gloves with seams that bit underneath my fingernails. I’d come back inside, covered with a thin layer of sweat, and wash my hands up to my elbows. When my mom asked how it went, I answered with, “Well, it’s dead” and that was it.
After killing three raccoons in the same week, my mother looked up from her coffee when I came into the kitchen after waking up. “We got another raccoon.”
“Alright.” I turned to get the gun.
“You don’t have to do it today,” she called after me. “I can have Dad do it when he gets home if you want.”
I came back with the gun and three bullets. “I don’t want it sitting in the sun all day. I’ll just take care of it.”
“I’m sorry, honey.”
“It’s whatever,” I said, cocking the gun and flipping the safety on. “And for future reference, can the first thing you say to me in the morning not be, ‘Hey, can you kill something for me?’” She apologized, and I went out the screen door, barefoot on the dewed grass.
I never used to feel squeamish toward blood. When I was eleven, I had walked into the kitchen after feeding the chickens. Droplets of crimson on the brown tile led to the back room where we kept our shoes, and I found my brother leaning against the door. In his bloody hand, he was clutching a partially peeled orange and a paring knife. I called him an idiot while cleaning the wound, telling him how he should have waited for me as I pressed the flap of skin back into place and applied a bandage. Some days he points out the odd ridge on his thumb, caused by the wound not healing up perfectly straight.
Whether I was created or made a caretaker, it doesn’t matter. I stood in Wal-mart buying my freshman brother mouthwash and groceries because he forgot his wallet. He said he felt bad because, months later, he still hadn’t done anything for my birthday. I told him not to worry; it’s what brothers do. Whether or not I had what I needed, the world still moved. Things still needed killing, fixing, or a little of both.
I only used two bullets when I shot the raccoon that day, mildly sick at the sight of blood. That was the day I began praying that I wouldn’t see war in my lifetime.
During the final summer I spent in my parents’ house, I walked into the kitchen, the bottom of my jeans soaked by dew, and told my mother, “That ewe’s not moving.”
She dried her hands on a towel that was decorated with the word “FARM” that featured a cow, pig, and chicken standing on each other’s backs that I had bought her the previous Christmas. “Let’s go take a look,” she said, and we both came to the same conclusion. The wool on its right side was wet, so it had been laying there since the dew accumulated, and a mound of pebble-like droppings was piled behind it. I pulled it to its feet by digging my fingers into its wool, but it quickly toppled over.
“Maybe we should bring her water,” my mom said, standing several feet away.
“She’s too weak to even walk. She won’t be able to stand and drink.”
“What about food?”
“She’s lying in a field of it, and none of what was next to her head was eaten.” I looked at the animal. I’m not my father, so I couldn’t say why, but I knew this ewe was old. Something with her face and bowed legs. It was the same feeling I got when I’d stare across the pasture at a yearling ram, knowing it was good stock. My father would say from behind me, “Look at the way he stands. He’s ready for show.”
I’d nod. “He’s got a nice back.”
“Nice and long.”
A sheep, like most animals, will wander away from its herd so its corpse doesn’t attract predators. I could only assume that’s what the ewe had done. “She came up here to die. Why else would she be in the farthest corner of the field?” We stared at her for a minute before I said, “It’s going to be hot today.” With the humidity at 70% and no rainstorm in sight, the heat index was going to be a suffocating.
“We could wait until Dad gets home.”
I shook my head. “We can either shoot her now or leave her in the sun all day and Dad shoots her when he gets home if she’s not dead by then.”
She frowned, scrunching her face. “Call your father.”
My mother returned to the kitchen to check the bread maker, and I called my dad as I stood in the field. Over the sound of the crackling signal and wind whistling outside his company car, he told me he had expected her to die this week. “Take care of it. You know how to do it?”
I had seen him shoot a sheep earlier that summer because its broken leg was bad enough that it couldn’t be reset and splinted. “She’s not that old,” I said to him that day. “You could ship her.”
He had frowned, his mustache bunching as he loaded a single round into the chamber. “I don’t have the time this weekend, and it can’t move.” He pressed the barrel against its forehead, and as I turned to go inside, he fired. Two hours later, my mother and I heard another shot. When we asked about it later that night, he told us that the first bullet wasn’t enough and it wasn’t bleeding out.
To be sure, I looked up how to kill a sheep, following the Humane Slaughter Association’s advice to aim “just above the eyes and down the line of the spine into the bulk of the body.”
I went outside with the Ruger and six bullets. I loaded one into the chamber, already sick from the heat and the prospect of slaughter. Kneeling, I whispered an apology and pressed the cool metal against the ewe’s forehead. As I stared into its almost alien, w-shaped pupils, I realized I’d never killed anything that large before. The biggest I had done was a roly-poly sow of a raccoon that lunged at me through the cage, and even that was so much smaller. The ewe laid panting softly in the tall grass, free from feral instinct as if it had already accepted its death and was willing to do it slowly.
I pulled the trigger, and my ears rang. I backed away, shaking as blood trickled from its forehead. It began to wheeze and choke, and blood began pouring from its mouth onto the verdant grass, still damp with dew. I began to beg it out loud to die, but its spasming didn’t stop. I fumbled to load another round, horrified that the first shot wasn’t clean enough.
I aimed higher this time, pressing the gun against its skull to steady my hand, and fired. The body jerked, and a tendril of smoke escaped the barrel as I withdrew it from the grey ring left on its white wool. I watched as the ewe’s legs continued to spasm in a running motion as it laid on its side, but I didn’t reach for another bullet. I recognized true death throes. Sludge began to drool from its nostrils.
Then it stopped.
I then understood the scenes where a character continues to fire into or beat the corpse of their antagonist. In that quarter of a minute, I fought the overwhelming need fire the remaining bullets into the animal’s head to make it stop moving sooner. I didn’t, though, knowing it was a waste of bullets and that the blood would have only made me more sick than I was.
When my brother returned from work, we buried the ewe beneath a patch of stinging nettles in the upper pasture. He used the Bobcat to dig the majority of the hole, and we took turns with the shovel until it was deep enough that the corpse wouldn’t break through the ground when it bloated.
In the hours that the sheep had been outside, it was ripe enough that my brother refused to touch it. After using the machine to drop it beside the hole, I pulled it in, holding my breath against the smell. With that done, we watered the rest of the animals, scooped eggs from beneath the breast of a broody hen, and went inside to take a shower.
When my father got home from work, he asked me how it went. I told him it took two bullets and that it was the most blood I’d ever seen in my life. He thanked me, but I knew what he meant was that he was sorry.
When I emerged from my bedroom the next morning, my mother was at the kitchen table playing solitaire. “Morning, honey. How did you sleep?”
I answered with the usual and joined her at the table.
“Before I forget,” she said, laying down a queen of hearts. “Can you bury the raccoon at some point today?”
“It’s dead already?”
“Dad took care of it before he left.”
I threw on a pair of jeans and gloves, burying it in the depression before the sun brought the smell out of the body and the flies found it. As I turned over the soil, I uncovered bits of wool, feather, and bone. Our border collie Murry stood at the edge of the hole, watching as I pushed the raccoon inside with the shovel.
It wasn’t until years later I realized that my father had performed an odd act of mercy in killing the raccoon, taking back the responsibility that had briefly passed to me. Now, I wonder if he felt the same relief when I put the ewe down, knowing that someone else shouldered a burden he’d expected to bear on his own. I wonder whether he would be as he was now if there had been someone to wake before him, dressing in the early morning dark as he had done for me.
I’ve since joined my brother in asking that the raccoons be tolerated, but I know that a farm often demands more than what one voice can comfortably answer. My father’s seeming callousness is compromise between the farm’s endless needs and the hard lines of his own time and energy. We will be talking on the phone, and when I ask how he is, he sometimes will sigh say that the grass is long and the sheep are limping, again. And more and more, I find myself saying, “I’ll be over this weekend to help,” and I feel a weight pass from him to me, except this time it’s one I can more easily carry.
When I had finished burying the raccoon, I made my way up the hill, dragging the shovel behind me, Murry already waiting halfway up the path. I hosed off the cage, and the water, stained mahogany with dirt and blood, rested on the flagstones before it ran into the iris bed where small stands of peppermint and lavender grew. After I was done, I tucked the cage behind the AC unit and watched Murry dash through the tall grass of the field, searching for mice and the ball he’d lost the previous day.
I called him, and he came to my side to press his nose against my thigh before bolting away. I reached for him, but my fingers only grazed his back as he turned, running up the driveway to lick the ears of the ewes who stuck their heads through the fence to eat the fresh, green grass.