From Gunslinger (Excerpt)
Note: Tandeta’s Epiphany issue included an excerpt from this novel that takes place in the adulthood of character Randall Strong.
Randall Strong, 5 years old, sat in the dirt and chaff on the barn floor, listening to the stamping and shuffling of the cows as they waited to be milked. Watching the evening milking through the slats of the milking parlor wall was the highlight of his day. He was not much interested in the cows themselves. He found them mostly dull and dumb, different from each other enough to have personalities but not so different from each other that he could find one more worthy of his attention than another. Their eyes did not seem to have expressions beyond content, confused, and shocked, and they seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time being confused and shocked.
It was the fact of the milk itself that fascinated him. That it came out of a cow. His father, often his mother, and the three farmhands seemed to make magic happen, udder by udder, teat by teat, squirt by squirt, 50 cows, and all the squirts collected into buckets and then buckets into cans, the cans placed in the cooling pond under the windmill until morning and then some to Mr. Drury the cheese maker, some to Providence, some for the farm, and some for neighbors for miles and miles. Equally magic then was what it turned into—some into hard cheese, some soured for cottage cheese around the house, some clabbered, some separated and churned into butter and buttermilk, which he disliked and which his mother made him drink. He watched his father and the farmhands prepare the cows, washing and inspecting the bloated pink organs.
A harvestman caught his eye as it snuck down the wood slats. The entirety of it including its long jointed legs was bigger than his hand. He lifted up his hand to it and let it crawl into his palm, and then brought it up nearly to his nose, observing its round body and two tiny raised eyes. He counted eight jointed legs. At first he thought the legs sticking up from the body made triangles at the “knees,” but then he realized there was another joint. He didn’t know what came after triangle except square, but the legs did not make squares, which are perfect. He would remember to ask his father. He knew a harvestman was an arachnid because of the eight legs, and he remembered it was not a spider because that’s what his father told him, but he could not remember what made it not a spider. He transferred the strange creature to his left hand, and with thumb and forefinger of his right, pulled off a leg and watched the detached limb twitch. He had chosen the second leg from what he determined was the rear of the creature, presuming this was the leg it could most spare. The creature itself didn’t seem to mind as much as the leg, still twitching between his fingers, did. He let it down to walk away, still fully functional and only slightly unbalanced.
The pinging of milk into buckets had begun in earnest, and he returned his attention to the mystery of the bulging udders that would be empty shortly and full again in the morning.
And so, some years later, Randall listened intently to his parents arguing one morning over eggs and toast.
The doctoring of animals had always been the subject of rows between Randall’s parents. They were both soft-hearted, but in their own ways. His mother always wanted the animal to live, if it could have a decent life down the road, no matter what it went through; it was a dumb animal, and when it was healed, it would live in the moment. It was, she said, one of God’s great gifts to animals that they had no memory of pain to keep them from true joy. She believed this with all her large heart. His father felt the opposite: a dumb animal had no moral lessons to learn nor eternal salvation to pay for, and it was Man’s obligation to limit its suffering, which it could not understand. He believed this with equal fervor.
His mother had a way of winning more battles than she lost, but it was always a fight. And so the household and barn was home to any number of collected three-legged dogs and one-eyed cats and tailless squirrels, and rabbits that had been orphaned by the dog’s need to pull the mother out of her scratch and away from her brood. There had been a crow with a broken wing that learned how to talk before it finally flew away. Or was eaten by one of the cats. They were never really sure.
His father, on the other hand, had dispatched many a creature that might live, but that he couldn’t bear to see suffer.
One of the older milk cows had stumbled in the field and cut her shin some number of weeks ago, probably on one of the rocks by the high-banked stream that was a water source and gathering place, and the injury was infected beyond what any poultice could draw out. His father had let him look at it closely, and Randall examined it carefully and with great fascination. Muscle and flesh had pulled away from the bright bone for more than an inch and oozed large amounts of pink pus with red streaks. In addition, a clear, thin liquid seeped out of the wound and dripped down the front and sides, drying in a thin film over the lower part of the shin.
The day came when his mother and father argued about what to do, over their eggs and toast. Randall listened intently.
“I want you to save her,” said his mother.
“Sweetheart, it’s too far gone. The infection is down to the bone.”
“Just as it was with that calf two years ago, and once she turned the corner she became a fine animal.”
“That was a young animal. They heal differently.”
“You didn’t say that then. I want you to get Gale over here. He can save her.”
“Maybe, but how much will she suffer? And for how long? She will be in her own Hell, and will most likely succumb. She is a dumb animal. It’s not right. There are other cows, just as fine.”
“She is a dumb animal and she lives in the moment. When she is healed, she will never remember it.”
“And if she makes it, you’ll never let me forget it.”
Later that day, Dr. Gale—the best of two or three local vets—came with his doctor’s bag for the big animals. Young Randall sat on a milk stool and watched the vet work, first taking out his tools and organizing his materials: various knives of steel and ivory, a steel brush, glinting scissors, a pail of water heated to boiling, towels, and finally a can of kerosene. He could tell by the smell the moment it was unstopped. The cow was secured as if for milking, and then doubly secured, and then three hands were called in to hold and steady her as best they could. The vet began by soaking the towels in the hot water and cleaning out the infection, pushing and pinching and squeezing, the animal shuddering in pain and bellowing, pink piles of pus on the floor melting into the hay and dust. Then he doused the leg with kerosene and went to work with the steel-bristled brush, scraping at the flesh. The cow had by now collapsed within its restraints, its eyes rolling, its heavy sides heaving; the hands held it up as best they could, lest it totally collapse and asphyxiate itself. Finally, the boy watched, transfixed, as the vet took various sizes and shapes of scissors and cut away any ragged flesh. The wound was clean and pink and exposed much bone. It was beautiful, in a way.
Dr. Gale ended by wiping the wound and the rest of the leg with a last saturated rag of kerosene. The cow had resigned itself to the torture and was quiet, its chest heaving. There was only one helper left, now, and though he was visibly upset he seemed to need to stay with the animal, patting and cooing and distracting it. The others had slipped away once the beast had regained its legs, unable to listen to its protest and pain.
His father had left a short while ago. Randall could hear him vomiting around the back.
Randall still watched, captivated, as the vet wrapped the leg with loose gauze. The last hand left. The young Randall and the vet kept vigil, the animal still in restraints, late into the night, until it could be let down to sleep in the straw without fussing.
Some years later, the young Randall, still a boy with a bedtime but now disposed to falling asleep much later, listened from the top of the stairs to his parents’ hushed voices.
He had been in bed. They had been talking about him. He could hear his name interspersed with other words: “Randall… Randy… the boy… the school children…” but he could not make out what they were saying, so he slipped out of bed and tiptoed to the landing. He could hear now, and they kept talking, so he settled into his familiar listening-spot on the top step with his head resting on the wall.
“He is just so… strange. The boy is strange. I don’t know what to make of some of the things he does. It makes me afraid for him.” This from his mother.
“He is just bright, dear. I think he’s exceptional, as a matter of fact.” His father.
“Yes, he’s very intelligent. He’s even intellectual. But he’s not like other kids. You know. With people.” His mother.
“You know sometimes intelligent children can be a little different.”
“Look at David. He is about as odd as they come, and yet he is dear to us, and we are to him.”
“David is kind, though. Randall has no… compassion.” His mother.
“David was not always so compassionate. In fact, he was ornery.”
“I do remember, of course. And David is different in the extreme, but he is kind in the extreme, as well.”
“I’ve known him for a long time. He was late to mature, and even more late to be kind. But he has known loss. His brother died in his arms, you know. That changes a man. Randy is just a boy. He will change, when he becomes a man. Just, maybe, not as soon as other children.”
“He was burning ants with the magnifying glass.”
“Oh, Heavens! I did that. Most boys have done that.”
“Little boys sometimes, but he is too old for that. I’ve explained to him how wrong it is, but he says it’s interesting, and that bugs are different. And he’s rough with the cats.”
“He hasn’t harmed them?” This from his father, with alarm.
“No, but… he opens their mouths to count their teeth, and he pinches their tails because it makes them jump. He tosses them off the porch to watch how they land on their feet. He told me he threw one into the pond to see if it could swim, because he had read about cougars swimming.”
“He would never let a cat drown.”
“That’s what he said.”
“He’s just a boy, dear. Boys are rough.”
“Bill, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There is no one with a stronger stomach than I have, and no one more willing to be rough if the situation calls for it, and I’m a woman. This is not about just a boy being a boy.”
“Okay, he’s different. He doesn’t have much… much sentiment. But he’s not a bad boy. He behaves, he’s polite. Our friends are quite fond of him.”
“Other children don’t play with him.” His mother.
“Maybe he just connects better with adults. Single children can be like that. I think maybe I was like that. And he loves us. Can you not tell he loves us?”
“Yes, he does love us.” His mother.
“He wants nothing but to please us. And he absolutely dotes on Sparks.” Sparks was the collie mutt that chased away the coyotes and kept the cows from ranging to the far, far ends of the pasture where it was hard to call them in.
“We’ve got to do something. When he does something wrong, or strange, we have to do something.” His mother.
“What can we do? We can’t spank him. I won’t allow you to hit the boy.” His father.
“It’s something he would understand. I will not have a monster for a child.” His mother.
“He’s just precocious. He’s just different.” His father.
“He has a good spirit. We just need to coax it out a little more.” His father.
“We’re not going to solve this tonight.” His father.
At about this time, after hearing enough, the boy stopped listening and started to think. He loved his mother, and his father almost as much. And Sparks. And that was it. It wasn’t that he hated the cats; they were interesting to him. He didn’t hate the cows, but he didn’t like them, either. The horses were all bays, and he couldn’t tell them apart, and couldn’t tell why his father had a favorite. He thought about how easy it was for him to watch the animals suffer while Dr. Gale vetted them. Of course, Dr. Gale was strange, himself. Everyone knew it, except Gale himself.
Now Randall wondered what was wrong with him. Maybe he was too smart. Maybe his brain had crowded out something else.
Maybe he was a monster.
He was tired. He was tired from chores. He was tired from school. School was boring, and being bored took all of his energy. He wanted to be exploring; he wanted to be outside in the sun and the wind and the cold. He wanted to watch the bands of passenger pigeons, migrating in flocks that cast undulating shadows over field and forest. He did not care about the kids in school. He didn’t even know their names.
He fell asleep against the wall with tears he hadn’t noticed running down his cheeks.
This is how his father found him some time later. His father was a large, strong man, and gentle, and even though Randall was no longer small, his father lifted him carefully and carried him to bed.
Some years later still, Randall Strong, nearly a young man, sat at the top of the stairs again.
Randall (he preferred Randall) was, like so many children before and since, sitting in his spot at the top of the stairs listening to his parents entertaining below. It was late summer, and no particular holiday, except that Mr. Emerson–a childhood acquaintance and adult friend of his father–was in Providence for a few days, and this was occasion enough.
A few times each year, Mr. Emerson or another friend of his parents would visit the farm–this time for only a day plus the next morning. More than once, some other interesting character would stay for a week and even two in the small cottage a half mile behind the main houses and barns, which had been the original homestead. These guests were not to be disturbed.
But usually, with a visit from Mr. Emerson or one of these friends, a dinner party was involved–with lively conversations of raised voices and deep silences and great laughter. Randall was treated like an adult on most of these occasions, and he relished them.
Mr. Emerson, Randall knew, was quite important and famous. Randall himself preferred the gentle Mr. Alcott, who had a way of making him feel like the brightest, most popular person in the room, even if he didn’t say a word.
“Oh, let Randy come down! William, Sarah, please! He’s certainly old enough to partake of the adult conversation!”
“My God! He is old enough to partake of the wine!”
“Yes, Bill. Don’t you think? Let’s have him down!”
“Since he’s sitting on the landing listening, anyway! Yes! Do let him join!”
Randall did not realize until then that he’d been discovered, but he was glad for it.
He had not changed into his nightclothes as directed, and he would not under any circumstances share a bed with cousin Jacob, as Jacob was still liable to wet the bed. He would rather sleep on the floor. But what he really wanted was to be part of the adult party downstairs, where he was accustomed to be.
He was still dressed from dinner earlier, which he had eaten in the parlor at the “children’s table”—“We need you there to keep the youngsters in line, dearest, or you could join us”—and done his duty with as much grace and good humor towards the little ones as he could manage.
For having such illustrious sets of parents, the children were not the brightest bunch, and they had tested his patience to its cool, angry limits. He had missed Mr. Emerson’s lecture, he had missed dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Emerson and the odd Mr. Thoreau and almost all the Alcotts—even the pretty May with her husband, and the dry, observant Louisa were there—and the dour Mr. Longfellow and his wife Fanny, who made her husband laugh in spite of himself. Then he had been sent to put the children to bed, and now they were tucked in, drooling peaceably. He had done his duty.
And now he had been found listening. He figured he was too big to run off to bed as if he’d been “caught,” when they all knew he was right there. He also knew they were talking “business” this evening—in other words, slavery and war—and this was what he wanted to hear. Since the episode on the landing so many years ago (which he had barely understood and almost entirely forgotten) he woke every morning with the conviction that with enough practice he could be just as normal and lovable and un-monstrous as any other boy—if he paid attention, and if he practiced.
Slavery and its abolition were something his parents had always been passionate about, and so he had become passionate, as well.
The subject appealed to his sense of logic, and it required balance and fairness. While he found he did not love—with the exceptions of mother, father, dog—he had an innate and fierce sense of justice. That Negro men from Africa (who, he knew from experience, were as good as any other men), Negro men who ate and drank and shat (and loved, and therefore were objectively better than himself), could be held in bondage for the sake of white men’s wealth and ease, made him nearly vibrate with the sense of injustice he felt. And it was a feeling! He felt it in his heart, as well as his brain.
If the country were to go to war over slavery, he would need to determine whether that war was right or wrong. He would need to determine if he should go to war himself, which would require him to kill. He didn’t know if the killing would bother him or not; he suspected not, which was all the more reason to make sure it was the right thing to do.
He also wanted to enjoy the party, what was left of it; but he needed—he craved—the discourse on right and wrong.
So he straightened his shirt and fluffed his ribbon tie, and stepped down casually to the hale and hearty greetings. He listened carefully to what was right and fair, and used his logic and sense of balance and justice, and considered what would please his parents, whom he knew he loved.
What he heard made him determined to go to war as soon as there was one, and as soon as he was old enough, and if his mother would let him—which he knew she would have to do, or be a hypocrite.
It never came to that. She was dead before the war began, of a fast consumption.
~ Greta Ode ~
Table of Contents
Not Richard Rolle
Not McMurtry, and Not McCarthy
Not Safe for Work