Writing: Where I’ve Been — An Introduction to This Series of Unpublished or Published-but-Uncollected Work
My current project is writing a diary of a year on this ranch nearly 30 years after my first book, which is a diary of a year on this ranch. In this new work, I’ve necessarily looked back at journals I kept, letters and journals from my relatives and others who lived in this area, and at writing I did during that time, when I was searching for my writing voice.
Much has changed. I’ve worked as a journalist and a college professor. I’ve been divorced and widowed. I’ve settled down in several places for several reasons.
But always, I was writing. Much of what I wrote during the past will remain private, though— following my own advice— I rarely discard a draft because I never know what insight or information it might contain that will be of value to me now.
But re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.
Who knows when, where, how or even if I might publish another book that will enable me to collect past writing? My book Between Grass and Sky was a wonderful gift of that nature from the University of Nevada Press but the world of publishing has changed as well; I may not get so lucky again. Besides, publishing a book means promoting a book and these days I enjoy making sales pitches less and less.
So I’ve decided to self-publish some writing via this blog. The writing that will appear in the category “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.
Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.
I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.
No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own.
Introduction to “On the Range”
This is written in third person, because I was intent on fictionalizing my true experiences. For that purpose, I said here that my parents were dead, though in real life they had started going to Texas in the winter, leaving me in charge. My husband and I had come back to the ranch to try to “repair our marriage,” but his behavior had led me to file for divorce, so I was alone on the ranch.
This story was published in Colorado State Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, Fall 1979.
All photos were taken on my ranch.
On the Range
Two. What was I getting up for? Oh, the brockle‑face heifer.
She threw the covers back over the gray oval of the sleeping cat and put her feet down on the cold concrete floor. The shock helped her wake up.
Lucy, let’s be honest. At least when you were teaching you didn’t have to get up at two in the morning to take care of the little dears. They weren’t any smarter than cows, but they weren’t part of your job at night.
Her shirt, jeans and socks lay on the trunk beside the bed, and she put them on as if she had to think about each move.
Seems as if I’ve been doing this forever. And I’m not half through calving yet. Is it Wednesday?
She padded upstairs by the glow of the bedside light and slipped on the heavy boots. Out the window she could see snow falling.
Damn. That’s no good on those babies out in the pasture. They didn’t predict anything last night. I should know better; father always knew when a storm was coming.
Stiffly, she pulled on the heavy coat, jerked the stocking cap over her ears, picked up her gloves and flashlight. Standing on the porch, she looked up at the sky, crowded with flakes. A little wind was blowing and the snow had started to drift.
Damn. Damn. Damn. Wet snow, too. Most of those calves are old enough to live through it though, and I don’t think anything else was going to calve tonight. But I should have gotten them all in.
She turned the light on the thermometer beside the back door.
Twenty. Dropped ten degrees since midnight. Shit. The snow will get them wet, and then freeze. Damn. I should have gotten them all in the corral; even a little windbreak would help keep them warm.
She used the flashlight going into the dark tunnel of the barn’s entrance, and on the narrow path between the pickup and stacks of bagged cattle cake and salt, then switched it off and stepped silently up to the gate. She listened to the heifer’s raucous breathing for a minute. When she turned the light on, the heifer’s eyes rolled wildly, flashing light as she stood and turned. Two yellow hooves stuck out, shining in the light. The ground was torn and wet. While Lucy watched, the heifer lay down again, stretched her head out, grunted and began to push. The hooves emerged a few more inches, jerked and retreated. Above them she saw briefly a nose and a long black tongue which quivered when the heifer strained.
Lucy sighed, turned on the overhead light, turned off the flashlight and took off her coat.
At least it’s coming right this time. I hate that reaching in there groping around, trying to figure out what’s head and what’s rump while the cow tries to strangle your arm with her vagina muscles.
The heifer was unafraid, tamed by a month in a small pasture where Lucy scattered feed every day, talking quietly to them to get them used to her voice and presence. But she didn’t like the rope and bawled angrily when she was tied to the stanchion. Lucy moved the gate over to pin her against the side wall and fastened it. The heifer stood for a minute, head hanging, then lay down again.
That’s right, girl. Lie down and stay quiet, and it’ll be easier on both of us. All three of us.
She took the smooth chains and thick, looped handle from a nail on the wall, and glanced at the feed bunk: the rest of the calf puller was there, ready for use. She moved quietly up behind the heifer.
Take it easy, honey. You just concentrate on what you’re doing and I’ll give you a hand here.
She patted the heifer on the flank and slipped one end of the chain around the little black leg of the calf as far up as she could reach. Once she’d only been able to get it around the tiny hooves, and in pulling, had pulled them off. The calf staggered around for three days on the stumps of his front legs before dying.
She held the chain, blood and urine flowing over her hand, while she fumbled to fasten the other end around the other leg with her left hand. The heifer turned her head, rolled her eyes, and began to struggle against the rope.
Here now! Take it easy. Just lie down there and get busy. Easy, girl, easy.
A spasm shook the heifer and she laid her head back again. Lucy fastened the handle at the middle of the chain and leaned back, pulling as the heifer pushed. Again and again the heifer strained, and the woman threw her weight into the pull with her. The calf’s nose came further out, but the bulk of the head remained hidden by the cow’s body. When the heifer rested, Lucy reached inside her and felt the calf’s head carefully.
Pretty big. But not so big it shouldn’t come. Maybe I’m rushing things.
She wiped her bloody hand on her jeans, and knelt.
I wonder how this happened. When the folks were killed, it seemed perfectly logical to come back here. One day I was looking at sophomores’ faces, and the next day at cows’ behinds.
The heifer began to push again, and the woman pulled with her, then rested.
It didn’t take me three seconds to make up my mind. Of course, I can still sell the place, and find another job. Everybody’s short of teachers these days.
The heifer grunted, gasped, and stopped pushing again. The woman rested.
On the other hand, I’m almost through the winter; if you can make it through a winter out here with most of your cows and your sanity, they count that as a success.
The heifer pushed again, and the woman braced her foot against the heifer’s leg and pulled.
Come on, baby; we can do it. Come to think of it, the cows’ behinds look a lot like the sophomores’ faces. If I am insane, I don’t know it, which is the same thing.
She wiped the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve and looked at the mounds of straw piled against the wall, the clean bundles scattered over the floor. She’d spent four days collecting it from a neighbor’s field after the harvest.
Warm, clean, looks so nice in the light. Can’t even feel that wind.
She leaned against the heifer’s warm flank, shaken with her rough breathing.
I don’t know why I don’t just sleep right here. Some of the neighbors do, I guess. Might beat dragging myself up those stairs four times a night.
The heifer pushed again, and for awhile the two of them gasped and pulled and pushed together, but the head remained stuck. When the heifer rested again, Lucy stood up slowly, knees cramped.
Well, girl, I guess we’ll have to get the machinery.
She unhooked the handle, laid it aside, and moved to a stall across the barn. The calf puller was ready, a new one her father had gotten a few years before he died.
How in hell would you ever figure out how to work one of these things if you didn’t already know? They don’t come with instructions.
She giggled, picturing some novice reader of Mother Earth News confronting a calf puller for the first time in a dark barn in the middle of a blizzard.
The neighbors forget I grew up here; they mutter about that fool woman trying to run that ranch alone. Wonder what happened to my husband. Wonder if I’m going to find another one.
She put the canvas strap over the cow’s back, pulled her tail through, and braced the curved metal frame against her rear end, hooking the chain. The long handle stuck out and she gripped the crank.
Now, take it easy, honey, and stay down. I don’t want you slamming me against the barn door like the last one. I’ve still got bruises. Easy now, easy. It’s almost over.
The heifer took a deep breath and pushed, and Lucy began to crank. Once she started, the calf had to come out or the heifer’s vagina would throttle it. She cranked as hard as she could.
Easy, baby, easy. We’re getting it done now.
Easy now, got to slow down for the shoulders. God, his head’s bigger than I thought. Bull calf, I’ll bet.
The cranking grew harder. The cow bellowed with pain and anger, and began to struggle. Her legs thrashed wildly, striking the sides of the stanchion as she tried to get up.
Easy honey, easy. I can’t help hurting you. Damn it, don’t get up.
The cow’s head slammed against a post and she lay still. With a sloshing sound the shoulders passed, and the calf slid forward until only its hips and back legs were still inside the cow. The membrane covered him, and he twitched as the umbilical cord snapped.
Lucy cranked hard, knowing she didn’t have much time. Suddenly the hips passed and the calf burst out onto the floor with a gush of blood and urine and membranes.
How the hell do you meet men in a community like this? Maybe if I accepted some of those women’s invitations to coffee, they could give me some hints.
She unhooked the chains, threw the calf puller to the side, grabbed the membrane and pulled it away from the calf’s nose. He gasped and snorted out a gob of mucus.
But I don’t want some guy who can’t talk about anything but the price of beef. Hell, why do I need anybody?
She stuffed the calf’s purple tongue down his throat, and swore as one of his knife‑sharp teeth slashed her thumb.
I’ve never understood why the cows’ tits aren’t cut right off when the calves gnaw on them.
He coughed, shook his head, gasped. She knelt, watching him closely, then pushed on his ribs as his breathing seemed to stop; she could feel the heart flutter beneath her hand. He wheezed, then began breathing regularly, gurgling a little. She pulled him a little away from the cow and sat back on her heels, breathing hard. The cow was inert, blood running from her and pooling on the hay. Lucy sighed, wiped the slime on her pant legs and stood up.
You should have thought of this when that bull made his move, honey. You have to make some decisions for yourself.
She cranked the calf puller back down, so it would be ready for its next use, and replaced it. Then she picked up the chains and handle, dunked them in a bucket of water and disinfectant and hung them on the wall.
Got to change that water tomorrow.
The cow still lay unmoving, except for the slow heave of her breathing.
Damn it, get up.
She kicked the cow in the flank once; twice.
Get up, damn it. You aren’t through. You have responsibilities and it’s snowing. Get at it.
The cow groaned, stumbled to her feet, and turned around with the afterbirth hanging out of her. She sniffed the calf suspiciously, then grumbled a little in her throat. The afterbirth plopped to the ground. The calf’s white head was up, his black body slick and shining in the light. She began to lick him, throwing the little body from side to side with the force of her tongue. His ears began to stand up, and he shook his head repeatedly, throwing mucus out of his nose. Lucy stood in the light a minute, then patted the heifer on the flank.
Guess you’re all right. Take care of him.
The cow turned away from the calf and began to eat the afterbirth, her long tongue wrapping around it, drawing it up into her mouth along with bits of straw. The calf was trying to get up, pushing his long legs out in front of him, the soft yellow hooves shining in the light.
Another live one, and he wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t gotten up. Probably have lost her too.
Lucy put on her coat, picked up the flashlight, turned out the light, stepped out to darkness and whirling snow. She turned when she came out of the barn, and went into the corral, where the other twelve heifers lay in white bundles, blinking at the light and the snowflakes in their eyelashes.
Well, maybe the others are bedded down like this, and there won’t be any trouble. Maybe it’s just a flurry and will stop soon. Anyway, I can’t get the others in tonight.
She looked at each of them, shining the light at each end of each heifer. One stood up, stretched, looked at her and then lay down again in the black spot her body had kept from snow.
All quiet. Well, ladies, why don’t you let me sleep until six?
Once inside, she hung up the coat, and kicked the boots against the wall, then pulled off her jeans. She hung them over a chair, and padded down to the bathroom, and turned on the hot water, staring at herself in the mirror.
Dad always said ‘Don’t count the dead ones.’ He said a lot of things, but I wonder what he’d say about this? He was proud of my being a teacher; he knew I couldn’t teach and run the ranch too. Too bad he didn’t have a son. They’d probably have fought. Too bad I couldn’t find a husband who liked ranching, instead of one who just liked other women.
When the water was almost scalding, she scrubbed her hands hard with Lava soap. She washed her face, too; dried it on the towel.
I look like a hag, older than thirty‑four. Maybe it’s the light.
She left the shirt on the trunk and slid in under the quilt, moving the sleeping cat over a few inches. The cat raised her head and murmured, then curled up again. Lucy set the alarm for six, and lay back, willing herself to relax.
It could go on like this until you’re eighty, like your grandmother, struggling with these cows. You could grow to hate spring’s rebirth while you lie here barren, yet getting tied closer and closer to this land, being responsible for it. Is it worth it? What are you going to do?
In the dark barn, the calf struggled to his feet and found a teat, began to nurse. His tail flopped back and forth in rhythm, and his mother turned and licked his back and murmured to him. In the pasture, the wind howled, piling snow around cows with baby calves nestled against their bellies, sheltered.
The cat stood up, stretched, and curled up beside her ear, purring. Lucy smiled in her sleep.
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(c) 1979, reprinted 2015 Linda M. Hasselstrom