I once watched a young cow die. The humiliated animal was shot to death after a rodeo in Utah. Thick red blood oozed from the bullet hole as the calf lay dying in the dust behind the barn. For months afterwards, I saw that hole and the worn and bewildered look of the calf every time I closed my eyes.
I'd gone to the rodeo with Joel after we were engaged. It was his father's idea; he bought the tickets and accompanied us. It was the first time I'd been so close to large animals. Dr. Adams also brought May along. She drifted around the grounds like a ghost with vacant eyes, startling people with her sudden appearances and disappearances. "Watch the animals," she said in her small raspy voice as we took our front-row seats. "You can learn a lot from the way they act."
The energy of the restless livestock mixed with the hunger of the crowd, causing a general air of anticipation. The rodeo started just before sundown with music blaring from speakers mounted on poles. Girls in short skirts and sashes that glittered with rhinestones and sequins rode bareback into the arena. The horses’ hooves kicked up mud and manure as they paraded around, stimulated by deafening applause and the sting of the girls' spurs on their flanks.
All I knew about rodeos came from magazine advertisements, which usually showed a man in boots and spurs, hand wrapped around the leather of the reins. He hung on with one hand atop a bucking bronco. The other hand was always straight up in the air, symbolizing victory over the animal's will. Despite my unfamiliarity with rodeo, the mood was contagious. I found myself on my feet with the rest of the crowd, cheering riders on as they introduced the evening's agenda.
"First event, bull riding," a man called over the loudspeaker.
With a clang, a metal gate opened and a snorting animal wedged itself into a metal stall. A tall, calm rider mounted its shoulders while it was held unmoving. A bell rang and the gate in front of the bull disappeared. The rider dug his heals into the bull's sides and they shot out into the muddy arena. I held my breath for the next eight seconds. Man and beast moved as one, hurtling, thrusting and gyrating in some crazily choreographed dance. The man's body turned into rubber as he moved with the bull, his face a mask of determination and terror.
Then it was over. The man lost his grip and launched from the bull's shoulders through the air and into the muck with a thud. He got to his feet slowly. The bull panted and the stands rang with whistling and stomping. A young boy entered the arena to guide the exhausted bull back to its stall. The other cowboys welcomed the rider with high-fives and pats on the back as he stiffly scaled the fence and took his seat. I watched him wipe his sweat and dirt onto his jeans and imitated him, wiping my own sweaty palms against my thighs, surprised at the relief I felt.
"That was great, wasn't it?" Joel yelled. He was on his feet, clapping, and his eyes shone with excitement.
Before I had a chance to respond, the next rider was ready, the bell rang, and everything started over. Entranced, I couldn't pull my eyes from the scene in front of me. The rodeo was exciting and gruesome at the same time. I wanted to hide under the bleachers and wait for the noise to stop, for the sounds of heaving, squealing animals to end, but I couldn't stop watching. It was as if the very act of watching kept everything in balance. I was almost sure that if I didn't keep my eyes on the action, something terrible would happen.
As daylight faded, humming halogen bulbs flickered on. Shadows that added depth to the faces in the crowd were eerily absent in the false light, adding to my sense of unease. Pairs of riders were roping cattle. The first rider aimed his rope for the head and the second roped the hind legs, pulling them out from under the calf. For an instant, the calf was strung above the ground between the ropes, and then it slid into the mud. The event was nearly over when the gate opened in front of a particularly feisty calf. A bell rang and it bolted from its stall. Riders and horses stood restlessly, awaiting their signal.
"Come on, come on," Joel chanted in time with the rest of the crowd. The metal bleachers were a drum for the steady rhythm of stomping feet. The very air seemed to surge with energy.
"It's not fair," I tried to tell Joel. "They're giving that calf a sense of freedom only to rope and humiliate it." Joel paid no attention to me.
A second bell rang. The riders took off in pursuit, ropes spiraling through the air above them. Without warning, the calf ground to a halt and then headed straight for the riders. Caught off guard, the first rider reined his horse to a stop and clumsily hurtled his rope toward the calf's head. It landed harmlessly in the mud. Then—startlingly— the calf charged. In a single violent effort, it rammed into the horse's left front leg. The arena was silent. The liquid sound of flesh colliding with flesh was almost tangible as the animals collapsed into each other.
Everything happened in slow motion. The horse toppled into the mud, the rider still perched on top. The calf cried as it wobbled to its feet and then stumbled around dizzily. The crowd was on its feet with a single, multitudinous gasp, booing the animals and calling encouragement to the rider as he disentangled himself from the knot of broken limbs.
The halogen light transformed the arena into a dream world. Natural colors were washed out and everything shone with larger-than-life translucence. I stared at the people around me searching for something real, for an explanation behind the raw bawling sound of the injured calf. My heart made that same sound and it began to echo in my head. Faint, I grabbed at Joel's hand.
That was the first time I knew something was wrong. He looked at me with a mixture of pity and disgust. His eyes, instead of offering compassion, grew full of hunger. I dropped his hand and staggered through the crowd and out of the arena. "I'll be back," I said. "I need some air."
Steadying myself with one hand on the fence, I made my way toward the back of the arena. Once there, I ran until I couldn't hear the noise of the crowd or the crying of the calf. I ran half a mile before I stopped, gasping for breath, at a small cluster of barns where restless livestock snorted and pawed the ground. That’s when I noticed I was crying, too. I wiped angrily at my eyes and turned toward the distant light of the arena. Joel was approaching, silhouetted against the night. When he reached me, he pulled me into his arms. I let him lead me into the looming darkness of the nearest barn.
"I followed you," he stated obviously.
I looked into his eyes and saw that the hungry look was gone, but I didn't recognize what was in its place. I pulled back.
Joel asked softly, "You know why the calf acted that way, don't you?" When I was quiet he continued, "It's because cows are red meat. They’re violent by nature and have to be forced into submission." When he talked his face became animated and he seemed distant, almost like he was back in the arena tying down a calf himself. I took a step backward, but his grip tightened around me.
He asked harshly, "Have you been eating red meat?" I could feel his warm breath on my cheek. Goose bumps pricked up on my arms and I struggled against his grasp. "Answer my question," he demanded.
"I — I don't know what you mean," I stammered.
My ignorance infuriated him. "Red meat makes people violent, too," he said. "Then someone has to force them to submit."
He clenched my wrists and twisted them sharply. I whimpered in pain as he forced me first to my knees, and then pushed my head down to the ground, positioning his knee between my shoulder blades. I cowered beneath him. My heart was beating so hard I could taste the blood. The cool, loose dirt was soft on my cheek. The thick smell of manure and the cooling night air filled my nostrils. It was a smell that, at any other time, might have been sweet.
With one hand around my neck and the other tangled in my hair, Joel flipped my body over. I let myself go limp like a rag doll in the hands of a spoiled child. With his hands encircling my arms, Joel pinned me again to the dirt. Then he dug his fingernails into the softness of the insides of my wrists as he lowered himself on top of me. The air rushed from my stomach in a gasp, startling me. I stopped breathing.
Joel pressed his mouth, cold and hard, over mine. His lips were familiar but his violent kiss was one of deep, unsatisfied hunger. He forced his tongue into my mouth. I choked and turned away. He moved his hands callously across my body, teasing and caressing my skin. I lay still. So this is how it's going to happen, I thought. If I don't do something, he’s going to rape me.
But I couldn't make my mouth move. Instead, I thought about our wedding plans. I remembered the sound my wedding dress made as it brushed the floor while I twirled in front of the boutique mirror and later, when I modeled it for my father. I pictured Joel and me hand in hand in the years ahead. I saw myself greeting him when he returned from work, falling asleep in his arms, waking with my head resting on his chest. I thought about our children and the tender way we’d raise them.
A twig snapped. Even in the softness of the dirt and hay outside the barn, the footstep was audible. As suddenly as it had started, the violence was over. As Joel yanked me to my feet, he said into my ear, "I'm no better than you if I take you this way."
My hands stung and I rubbed my wrists to start the blood flowing again. I staggered, and then followed Joel to the door of the barn. He didn't touch me. A man was guiding a truck with a trailer as it backed toward the barn. In the trailer, the injured horse lay silent and dejected on its side, his broken leg sticking unnaturally into the air. The bone protruded through the skin and shone white in the moonlight. The horse's other legs convulsed slightly and irregularly, clattering against the trailer bed. The smell of blood stung my nostrils.
On the opposite side of the trailer was the calf, bound together with cord. It whimpered, kicking at the side of the trailer, hooves scraping metal.
The truck eased to a stop just feet from where Joel and I stood in the darkness of the barn, and the horse raised its head. Its eyes were vacant like it was already dead, or had at least resigned itself to its fate. The night was suddenly alive as four or five men appeared and circled the trailer. Some had flashlights and all seemed eager for blood. One jumped onto the trailer and started nudging the horse and the calf with the toe of his boot. The impact made soft, sickening thuds, and the men joked about the injured animals.
"He moves slower than your mother did last night," one of them called to the man on the trailer.
"Shut up, Ned," the man snarled, kicking the horse again. It raised its head and tore at the slippery metal with its feet as it pushed itself off the bed and into the dirt.
The driver got out of the truck with a rifle. I recognized him as the horse's rider. I'd last seen him in a twisted heap in the middle of the arena. The man slammed the cab door and walked to the back of the truck. "Hurry up, Dick," he called to the man on the trailer.
"Sure, boss," Dick said. He nudged the horse in the dirt one last time and went back for the calf.
The boss cocked his rifle and took aim at an imaginary target in the distance. "Pow," he said, jerking his head back. "Right between the eyes." Then he aimed at the horse and shot it twice in the head. The sound of the shot bounced off the back of the barn wall and hit me in the back, reverberating in my head. I put my hands over my ears too late and watched in horror as blood filled the holes in the horse's head and spilled to the ground. His eyes had been closed and he hadn't moved. He'd given up before he'd even had a chance.
The calf was next. Two men picked it up by its feet, still bound together, and laid it struggling and crying against the dead horse. Its eyes, wide and fearful, flickered in the glare from the flashlights as the man took aim. "Come on, give it to the bastard," someone said.
My hands still over my ears, I watched the man aim the barrel right between the calf's eyes, watched like someone watches a train wreck, unable to take my eyes off the crazy half-lit scene. The moment stretched on and on until I was sure the man had changed his mind. Then he shot, hitting the calf right where he'd aimed. The bawling stopped mid-squeal like an interrupted sentence. Thick blood oozed from the wound like toothpaste in a heavy, coagulated string, but the eyes stayed open, staring at me.
"Bastard," the man said, and he kicked the dead calf. "He cost me a horse and the chance to go to state." He kicked the calf again, harder. The men piled silently back into the truck without a single backward glance at the carnage. They left the dead animals sprawled out in the open like little boys leaving their broken, forgotten toys.
Joel still hadn't touched me. I stared at the dead calf as its eyes started to glaze over, and wondered idly what its last thought had been. Joel finally nudged me and motioned with his head toward the arena. The blues, reds and greens of fireworks were lighting up the black air. I hadn't noticed. The cheeriness of the arena was a rude and confusing contrast as I followed my boyfriend to his car.
Later that night I lowered myself into the bathtub. Ugly black, blue, red and green bruises were forming on my arms and my hips. I could still feel Joel's rough hands moving across my bare skin, his taste in my mouth. I gagged, wanting to scrub until the dirty, betrayed layer of skin peeled off, until I could no longer feel Joel on me or even remember lying under his gaze.
I picked up a razor and pressed my finger to it. A bright red drop of blood formed next to my fingernail and trickled down to my wrist. I put the blade against the inside of that wrist, on the spot where Joel had dug his fingers into the soft flesh. Then I pushed in.
I read once that when a person bleeds in the bathtub, the water turns pink. It must take a lot of blood to make pink water. All I got was a sick shade of orange. I watched the blood fill the thin red cut, then bubble and spill over the side. I turned my arm from side to side, making the rivulets of pain cascade over my hand, dripping off the points of my fingers into the water. When I got tired of watching, I grabbed a wad of toilet paper and pressed it to my wrist to make the bleeding stop. Then I put a band-aid over it and went to bed.
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