forest clearing

Cruelties

In the August heat, sweat soaked through my blouse, trickled between my breasts and turned the waistband of my blue shorts dark navy. I never climbed to the ridgeline in back of our Pennsylvania farm during the summer – too hot, too many mosquitos. But that day, three weeks before I left home for art college in Philadelphia, I knew I had to get the hell out of the house.

My sturdy leather shoes crunched along the ridge road. The track wound up the mountain and creased the granite hilltop where decades of horse-drawn wagons, then tractors and trucks, had chuffed their way upslope to fields of barley and wheat. Resting at the high point, I scraped sodden hair from my face and stared down at our stone farmhouse, bank barn, and stock pens. A Sherriff’s patrol car turned off the state highway, pulled up our driveway and parked, its ruby lights flashing. Two beefy deputies wearing peaked caps climbed out, hustled up the back steps, and knocked on our kitchen door.

I had escaped the house to get away from the shrieks coming from the tenant apartment. Buppa Zetlemoyer beat his wife regularly while his little girls screamed at him to stop. They lived in the clapboard addition to our home, built sometime after the Civil War when tenant farming became more popular. Dad had called the County Sherriff out several times during the past three years. But this time, I didn’t want to stick around to hear the drunken confrontation, the whining pleas for forgiveness, then the muttered threats, and Brenda’s quiet sobbing.

Dad joined the cops and they disappeared around the front of our house. In a few minutes the police led Buppa in handcuffs to their cruiser and stuffed him in the back seat. In the quiet heat the car motored away down the valley toward town and the state highway. In my mind, I heard Mom’s sharp voice repeat the conversation she had with Dad every time the police were called.

“Charles, you’ve got to get rid of that man.”

“I know, I know.”

“Well for Christ’s sake, why the hell don’t you do it? Every time he beats poor Brenda your own daughters are scared half to death.”

“It’s not that easy. Buppa has a lease until the end of the year and he hasn’t harvested his crops.”

“You know damn well there will always be something. Are you going to wait until he kills that woman? Is that when you men finally catch on, finally get it?”

“No…no of course not. But if we evict them, where will his family go?”

That last question usually shut Mom up. She knew that the Zetlemoyers didn’t have a pot to pee in and that Brenda would never press charges against her husband. Mom could only comfort and befriend the battered woman while Buppa worked the distant fields, away from the house.

I sat on a granite outcropping, fanned my face with my sun hat, and stared into the valley. Across the state highway and through the trees, the creek glimmered in the afternoon light, flowing strong even in summer. I could just make out the farm kids fishing the deep pools under the maples and box elders. Peace returned to me. I sucked in a deep breath and shuddered myself still.

But the unrelenting heat forced me to move. Rather then retrace my route along the farm road, I continued across the ridgeline until the track ended in thick woods. I turned downhill. Clouds of gnats attacked my face and I waved them away. After securing a walking stick, I crept through the undergrowth, watching out for poison ivy, sumac, and for copperheads and rattlers. The cries of crows echoed through the trees, competing with the high screech of the hawks. As a little girl, I had collected their feathers and made a headdress to wear at school when playing Queen of the Indians. But I hadn’t entered the woods in years.

Two thirds of the way down the mountain I came to a rocky clearing. On its far side, a doe and her yearling grazed. At dusk, the deer would come out of the trees and drink from our fire pond. Dad wouldn’t let hunters come onto our property. I sat cross-legged in the shade at the edge of the clearing, opened my sketchbook and began to draw the deer, creating a composition and value study for a future painting. By the time I finished, graphite covered my hands and the sun had dipped behind the far side of the valley. The deer slipped into the deepening shadows. I shook dirt and nettles from my shorts and strode across the clearing, heading downslope toward home.

Something white glowed in the dusk. I approached a collection of bones, free of flesh and bleached by the sun. I recognized part of an animal’s ribcage. But it was the skull that stopped me cold. It had two huge curled horns. I crept toward it and knelt. Reaching forward I picked it up to get a closer look. Three clean holes punctured the beast’s cranium, right above the eyes. I dropped the skull in the dirt and backed away.

~

I had just turned fifteen when Buppa Zetlemoyer and his family moved to our farm. He immediately began working the land, planting barley, wheat and feed corn on the upper fields, and using the lower fields to graze small herds of dairy cows and sheep. He repaired the barn and stock pens, cleaned out the pond and fixed the pipes that joined it to our mountainside spring. For the first time since I’d moved to rural Pennsylvania when I was five, the land and water were being used for farming. But while Buppa worked hard from dawn to dusk, success seemed to elude him. Some of his best cows died and others produced hardly any milk. The winter wheat failed and his first lambing season was a flop. The wife beatings started and became vocal and vicious.

I had left the house early that day, wanting to sketch the far ridge of the northern Appalachians in the morning shadows. As I approached the barn I heard swearing in a thick Pennsylvania Dutch accent. It seemed to be coming from one of the ground-level pens. I peeked over the top rail but couldn’t see anything. Opening the gate, I moved inside. In the far corner Buppa stood with his back against the boards. In front of him stood his prize ram with its huge curled horns.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“None of your damn business. You best get outta here. Say, you’re Margaret, the older one aren’tcha?”

“Yes.”

“I see ya in the upper fields paintin’ and such. Whatcha doin’ that for?”

I stared into his eyes and shivered. “I’m an artist. But what’s going on here?”

“Nothin’ you need ta worry about, doncha know.”

“I’m not worried about anything, just curious.”

“You know what happened to the curious cat.”

I did know. I’d seen him drown kittens in the stock pond last month.

“So what are you doing with the ram?”

“Well if you must know, I’m trying to get ’im inta the lower field.” Buppa pointed to the open gate that led to the herd of grazing sheep.

“Can’t you coax him with some food or something?”

“Naw, this one needs to be taught who’s boss.”

Buppa’s fists opened and closed in quick spasms and his legs shook, as if terrified by the ram facing him down. I had seen it before when he’d tried to shoo his bull that had wandered into the cow pen and caused a ruckus. Mom had come out from the kitchen to investigate and had chased the bull out of the pen with her broom while Buppa looked on, sheepishly.

“If you just leave that ram alone, it will eventually wander into the pasture,” I said.

“I don’t have time for such nonsense.”

Buppa edged sideways along the fence. The ram followed his every move, bleating deep in its throat, a low guttural sound. In a flash the animal rose up onto its hind legs, ducked its head and charged. Buppa dodged to the left and the ram smashed into the fence, shattering one of the planks. The farmer’s face turned crimson. The ram circled the pen and again stood in front of the farmer. Without warning, it charged. Buppa grabbed a pitchfork that leaned against the fence. He lunged forward and stuck it into the ram’s forehead.

I yelled, “What, what are you…”

“Shut your mouth,” Buppa growled.

The ram stood in front of him, its dark eyes staring him down. The quivering pitchfork protruded from the animal’s head. Its legs began to tremble and it went down on its front knees then rolled onto its side. Buppa moved to the animal and stared as it took its last breaths. Then he turned on me.

“You don’t need to be tellin’ nobody about this.”

I tasted acid in the back of my mouth and swallowed hard.

“I warn ya. You’ll end up like that ram if ya do. Now get the hell outta here and let me do my work.”

For weeks after that, I dreamed about charging rams, Buppa’s sweaty face, his lunging forward with the pitchfork, almost like a matador with his sword. I vowed never to be alone with him after that day.

~

From down the mountain I heard Mom push open the squeaky screen door and yell at me to come in for dinner, her voice echoing down the valley. The trees blocked most of the sun’s final rays. I stepped forward and picked up the ram’s skull. It had wide-spaced eyeholes and a narrow pointed jaw. It looked like something from another planet. I shook it to dislodge most of the dirt. As I approached our house, I draped my sun hat over it and held it behind me.

“Where’ve you been all afternoon?” Mom asked. She stood at the stove, stirring a pot with her back to me.

“Up the mountain, sketching some deer.”

“Why don’t you show it to your father? He’s been stuck in his studio all afternoon, working on those damn greeting card designs.”

“Maybe I’ll show him later. I’ve got to wash up. I’m filthy.”

I hurried upstairs to my room, placed the skull on my closet floor and closed the door. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but somehow it seemed important.

At the dinner table, my sisters Nancy and Carolyn recounted their day in town and how nice Mrs. Knoxstead had been to give them rides to and from their end-of-summer distractions. The boys at the malt shop had looked oh so cute, and John Shueman had bought a sexy ’56 Chevy and could take them into the city and away from the small town doldrums. Dad sat at the head of the table, staring at his plate and working on a third martini. The guv’nor, our Grandpop Colgrove, slumped in his seat and appeared to be asleep.

Mom and I cleared the table. We served dessert, spumoni that Uncle Alf and Aunt Astrid had brought to us on their last visit from New York City. We ate our ice cream in silence. Mom fanned her red face. A low rumble rattled the front windows and she went to investigate.

“It’s the police,” Mom called. “They’ve brought Buppa home.”

Dad muttered, “Bloody hell, couldn’t they at least keep him overnight?”

“Whose fault is that?” Mom shot back. “If you would just ask that farmer to leave and–”

“Not now, Edith,” Dad growled. “Not at the dinner table.”

I sucked in a deep breath. “You know, I…I found something in the woods today.”

“What did ya find?” Nancy asked.

“Wait a minute, I’ll show it to everyone.”

I scrambled upstairs, retrieved the ram’s skull and covered it with a bath towel.

I approached the supper table. “What do you have there?” Dad demanded.

I set the skull in the center of the table and removed the towel. Carolyn’s scream woke the guv’nor.

“What on earth…” Mom said.

“Bloody hell,” Dad boomed. “What in God’s name gave you the idea of bringing that repulsive thing into the house?”

I thought the skull actually looked beautiful, resting on the white linen tablecloth. But the eyeholes and pointed jawbone with the twisted horns did gave it a sinister, almost satanic appearance.

“When I found this in the woods, I remembered something,” I said.

“What?” Mom demanded.

I recounted the story of how Buppa had killed the ram. I ran my hand over the skull’s forehead. “You can see where the pitchfork pierced the bone and caused its brain to bleed. The poor thing died quickly.”

“That’s…that’s disgusting,” Carolyn said, her face still white after the scream.

I nodded. “Buppa threatened me if I told anyone.”

Dad’s face reddened. “What did he say?”

“I…I don’t remember exactly, something about doing something to me if I told anyone.”

Mom reached across the table for Dad’s hand. But he yanked it away from her and shot to his feet. He charged out the kitchen door into the quiet night. I knew he wanted to murder Buppa. His anger rose like a scalding geyser that burned anyone who stood too close. The back of my neck tingled. What had I done? What had I stupidly unleashed? A loud banging sounded from the tenant apartment. Then the shouting began, but it didn’t last long. The night silence returned, broken only by the rasping songs of the cicadas, field crickets and katydids. I sucked in a deep breath. Mom glared at me and shook her head.

By the time I left for fall term at art school in Philadelphia, Buppa and his family were gone, the animals sold off, as well as the harvest rights to the standing crops. The day before I left home, I took the ram’s skull and hiked up the mountain to the clearing in the woods. I left it there in full sunlight.


Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife and one skittery cat. He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. His work has appeared in numerous literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and Conclave: A Journal of Character. He is a two-time Pushcart nominee.