by Paul Luikart
In the morning, the creek water, clear, slid over stones fuzzed with moss and weeds that trailed in the water and the wide, cloven prints of the cows that’d passed by on the bank the previous evening were deep in the mud of the bank. A calf lay half-buried in the silt with its nostrils and muzzle sunk in the mud and the water piling against the calf’s head in a rolling, silver crescent just below the clouded eye. Shining bottle flies had already found the carcass and swirled over the skin in manic figure eights and high above, the vultures in the updrafts steered themselves in braided flights and beyond them, the endless summer blue.
In the night, coyotes found the calf and scissored open the belly with their sprung jaws and shoved their snouts into the waterlogged fat and muscle and snapped at one another and wound themselves in the guts. Then, at some deep, moonlit hour, as though their departure came at an agreed-upon signal—a frog croak, a dead limb crash—they scattered, slathered in viscera from their snouts to their bellies, fur matted by mud and blood and water. The creek held the stars and glints of the moon and the mud the coyotes kicked up settled unseen along the bottom of the creek and sometime much later the grip of darkness began to loosen and the light seeped through the silhouettes of the trees.
Midmorning, two boys, one older and one younger, rumbled along the creek in an ATV, bouncing over the bone-white stones by the bank. When they came to the calf, they stopped. The carcass had sunk further into the mud and paw prints of dried mud crisscrossed the hide and a single, glistening rope of intestine the color of fog streamed lazily from the belly. The boys looked at the calf for a long time. The older spit, then the younger.
“We tell the old man?” the younger boy said.
“What’d be the point?”
“You reckon a cotton mouth?”
“A bite on the snout might could’ve swelled her windpipe shut.”
They stared a few minutes longer. Both spat again. Then they drove off.
In the next month, the creek dried completely and wouldn’t flow again until the following spring. By Thanksgiving, the calf was bones still strapped together by sinews that’d been toughened in the sun the rest of the summer. Her ribs were filled with rocks of different sizes, some chunks the size of softballs and an uncountable number of pebbles, and silt and sand too. By Christmas, her skull was gone. Half-way through the first month of the new year, the older boy returned in the same ATV to the spot where the calf had lain. He stopped and turned off the ATV and got out and stood in the dry creek bed. His breath was like smoke, and he booted the gravel and stood for a long time with his hands in the pockets of his field coat.
“Sure ain’t nothing worth nothing,” he said, “He who says different’s got a sack full of horse shit where his brain ought to be.”
The boy stooped and picked up a flat stone and slung it across the creek bed into a hollowed-out hackberry tree. It hit with a thunk and the splinters and pieces of bark dove away and everything afterward was quiet and still.
* * *
Paul Luikart is the author of the short story collections Animal Heart (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016), Brief Instructions (Ghostbird Press, 2017), Metropolia (Ghostbird Press, forthcoming in 2021) and The Museum of Heartache (Pski’s Porch Publishing, forthcoming in 2021.) He serves as an adjunct professor of fiction writing at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He and his family live in Chattanooga, Tennessee.