Writing: Where I’ve Been — Educating Cows

CattleBrent2014

Most folks who work receive their paycheck weekly. Ranchers get paid only once or twice a year. Most workers can quote their hourly wage, perhaps negotiate or strike for more if they’re unsatisfied. The rancher’s income is set by the buyers of his product on a particular day; the rate may rise or fall the next day. This nerve-wracking experience is the rancher’s most important connection with the economy that affects us all.

In the days before the sale, we select our best yearlings, bring them close to the ranch corrals and loading chute. On sale day, we get up early and stand around getting more anxious while we wait for the truck and driver.

After the cattle are loaded, we may take a hasty shower or just wash our faces and change clothes before driving eighty miles too fast. At the sale ring, we walk along alleys filled with bawling beef until we find ours, and check to be sure they have feed and water.

Then we go inside, march up the bare concrete steps to hard benches, and begin waiting. Usually, we arrive at the sale ring before noon; if the sale is a large one, with dozens of ranchers independently choosing to sell, our cattle may not enter the ring until nearly midnight. Once bidding begins, we can either refuse the price and take our cattle home, or keep quiet. Often within five minutes the cattle are sold, and we head home with a check that may, or may not, represent a profit.

During the long hours of waiting, we can hear sale ring employees in the alleys shouting, snapping whips, cursing, slamming gates as they move thousands of cattle by small bunches toward the sale ring, and then out to waiting trucks. Bunch by bunch, cattle run into the central ring, often terrified, eyes rolling wildly, bellowing in fear. Dust and noise pour into our ears, noses, mouths. Such treatment can damage our product before it is sold; a running yearling is losing weight with every step.

An alert rancher who spots an injury a calf didn’t have when it left home may collect an insurance payment from the sale ring. But if cattle stand for nine hours without feed or water while waiting for the sale, shrinkage can amount to hundreds of pounds, weight for which the rancher is not paid. All sale rings provide feed in waiting pens–and deduct its cost from the rancher’s check–but frightened cattle often do not eat.

amarillo-livestock-auction-01

A cattle sale ring.  Photo found at http://AmarilloLiveStockAuction.com

The sale ring floor is a scale; the number and total weight of each bunch of cattle flashes automatically above the heads of the auctioneers, along with the average weight. Two ring men, one often on horseback and one on foot, snap their long whips, making the cattle move around the ring so the buyers can look them over, and cull out any that are sick, or below the average weight; culls will be sold separately, usually for less. A tricky buyer can delay a sale by demanding calves be cut off, ultimately costing the seller considerable cash.

The auctioneers chant, enticing the buyers in the front two rows to bid.

Behind the buyers in their neat three-piece suits sit rows of wrinkled, sun-browned ranchers, sometimes with their wives and children. Some smoke, some visit with friends; others simply settle in one spot, clenching and unclenching their scarred hands for hours, waiting to see how their cattle will look and sell. Owners need not be present, but most of them are; it’s a ritual more demanding than religion.

A few newborn calves always interrupt the flow of well-fed yearlings and elderly cows. Perhaps their mother has died, or borne her calf in winter, and the rancher wants all his cows to calve at the same time, producing a uniform bunch of calves later in the year.

Whatever the reason, watching the ring men handle the babies is always intriguing. No one complains when they whip adult cattle, though if they’re too eager, they may drive a nervous cow into a dangerous frenzy, or injury.

Once, I saw a cocky ring man hooked by a cow’s horn and tossed into the lap of a portly buyer. Another time, a cow leaped the five-foot barricade, scattering buyers like pheasants at hunting season. Bawling, the cow shook her head and flung snot over half the crowd, then charged up the steps. Women shrieked and dived, clutching their children. Men cleared each other’s cowboy hats in the delirium of escape. Any notions of chivalry in the ranching fraternity disappeared as the cow dashed around emptying the bleachers, finally slammed through a door, and crashed down the steps into the corrals outside.

Such situations only seem to encourage the whip wielders, but a baby calf baffles them. At one sale I watched a man get behind a two-day-old Hereford heifer to boost her to the center of the ring; she decorated his clean jeans with a creamy yellow flow and then stood still, bawling plaintively. Bidding was slow– most professional buyers want cattle old enough to eat without help– but within five minutes a man in the upper rows had bought the calf for his young son. The boy would feed her on a milk bottle, perhaps raise her for show or as the start of his own herd, learning responsibility.

Then the ring men tried to evict the calf. None of them wanted to get behind her, so they grabbed her ears and tail to drag her. The calf set her feet, hunkered down and resisted. We could hear the men muttering.

“Watch your language, boys; that little lady shouldn’t learn those words yet,” warned the auctioneer.

One man who’d just gotten his hand too close to the calf’s posterior, wiped the gooey results on his pants, and said, “If you don’t think we’re doing it right, come on down here and show us how.”

The other jabbed the calf’s flank with the butt of his whip, then flicked the popper against the calf’s hind legs; the calf planted a hoof on his kneecap so hard we heard the report in the top row, and the man collapsed, clutching his knee and trying not to whimper loudly enough for the crowd to hear.

A few people chuckled. The auctioneer said, “Come on, boys; calf can’t weigh more than fifty pounds. We’ve got a thousand cattle to sell!”

Then a door on the far side of the arena opened, and a girl about twelve years old entered. The crowd stilled as she walked without hurry toward the calf. I thought of explanations: her father had sold her calf against her objections, and she was about to protest, or attack the ring men.

She patted the calf’s nose in a friendly way, then held out her hand. The heifer wrapped its tongue around the girl’s fingers and began to slurp loudly, its skinny tail swinging in rhythm. One backward step at a time, she quietly led the hungry calf from the ring.

For a long moment after the door shut behind her, the ring man with the injured knee stopped brushing dirt off his pants; the crowd didn’t breathe. My father nodded, and looked me in the eye to be sure I understood, and remembered his frequent saying, “It helps to be smarter than the cow.”

Then the auctioneer said, “OK, boys, we’re here to sell cattle.”

*  *  *

cattle sorting whip

A cattle-sorting whip has a stiff handle with a short length of braided fiber and a popper on the end.  Photo from http://www.QCSupply.com 

My father always handles cattle gently; he doesn’t like to ride a horse, and calm cattle are safer for a man sorting them from the ground. In addition, cattle that are handled as kindly as possible from their day of birth will be less frightened of humans, and less likely to go crazy and hurt us. We always carry whips into the corral to sort cattle, but rarely hit them. To get a cow through a gate, my father gently touches her nose or flank with the whip, and steps away from the gate, out of her way. He trained me to use a combination of slow movement, and placement of my body in relation to each cow to move them through the corrals. Occasionally, one of us will tap a cow lightly with the whip; more often we use the whip as a pointer in the direction we want the cow to go. I don’t entirely understand why they usually go the way we point.

To watch my father sort cattle was like watching a slow and dusty ballet, or a conductor leading an orchestra playing a stately promenade. His whip would float gently through the air, touching a nose to make a cow back up, brushing a shoulder to make one go ahead. Sometimes he’d stretch his arm ahead of him with the whip held like a cavalry officer’s sword, and five or ten cows would trot obediently, one behind the other like school children going to the library, out the gate. Only if a cow was about to knock him down would he strike her hard. He used the whip like a deadly weapon: ready, loaded, but never fired.

My father only once used his whip in a way that frightened me. I’d sneaked out to the corral to watch a stallion breed one of our mares. My father was sitting on his tall Tennessee Walker, Zarro, watching. When I made a sound, he wheeled the horse and charged at me, whip arm up, yelling at me to get out of the corral. I was almost too paralyzed with fear, shock, and surprise to jump the fence. I think now he was more concerned that frenzied stallion might hurt me than with the quantum leap in my sex education; he never tried to keep me from watching the bulls mount the cows.

*  *  *

I was more than forty years old the day my father said, “I’d like you to count and sort the cattle onto the truck today.” That was his job; he’d never allowed anyone else to do it. Automatically, I followed as he walked to the garage, trying to figure out if he was suggesting it was time I take more responsibility– at last– or if he was having another of the series of strokes I suspected. His face was pale, bluish, and his breathing uneven.

He reached up into the rafters of the garage and took down a black whip with the price tag still on it, a more expensive model than the cheap ones we kept in the pickups. He turned, held it out, and said smiling, “I think you’ve learned how to use it.” I felt more elation at that moment than when I got my MA degree in the mail. And the whip represented more work, untainted by politics.

*  *  *

Most folks who use whips, feel compelled to wield them with enthusiasm, snapping and slashing until the cattle are hurt, angry, frightened, and dangerous. Perhaps the same impulse affects powerful or well-armed attackers in the presence of those who are weaker, or unarmed. I know a similar condition afflicts drivers; put a mild-mannered man in a pickup truck or a four-wheel drive, and he may turn into a swearing, gesturing road hog, careening around the landscape as if he was driving a tank. Back in his Honda on Monday morning, he’ll be a model of deportment.

Calves in corrals 1988

Sorting calves in the corrals, 1988.

Once when neighbors helped us bring cattle in to brand, all of us familiar with my father’s methods grew increasingly upset with one neighbor woman. Traditional wisdom dictates the pusher get close behind the calves and shove them up the chute; keeping one or both thighs flat against the calf’s buttocks prevents it from getting enough leverage to kick your kneecap off. Novices who try to stay back far enough to avoid streams of excrement usually get kicked hard enough so the alternative begins to seem pleasant.

 

This neighbor was using her whip, staying a long way behind each calf, whacking each one with the whip repeatedly. Not only did it take her longer to get each calf to the branders, by the time it got there it was mad with fear, and kicked the rest of us harder than usual. Several times I said mildly, “Our calves aren’t used to the whip; you’re making them wilder.” George was mumbling something unintelligible every time a calf kicked his hand as he tried to castrate it.

Then she leaned her whip against the corral fence and turned away to get a drink. George grabbed the whip before I could breathe, and threw it overhand. Several of us watched it arc up over the eight-foot fence of the corral we were in, and turn gracefully as it dropped butt first into some high weeds in the next paddock. Then he calmly removed the lid from his Skoal can, took a fresh dip, and smiled sweetly. She looked for her whip several times during the afternoon, while scraping calf shit off her jeans, but she never found it. In fact, George and I hunted for it the next day, thrashing weeds for an hour before we gave up; we’d planned to tell her we found it later, so we wouldn’t be guilty of the theft of a good whip. We never found it either.

“I was pretty sick of her waving it around,” George said, “maybe I put a little too much power behind it.”

*  *  *

A man I’ll call Aaron, a trucker who regularly drove for us, carried both a battery-operated prod pole designed to jolt a cow into movement, and a whip. We asked him several times, politely, not to use either on our cattle before they were in the chute leading to the truck. Sometimes a properly-timed electric jolt could inspire a cow to take the last step into the truck instead of running back down the ramp.

One day, when we were hauling heavy cows to winter pasture, we noticed a spooky black heifer, pregnant with her first calf. She kept looking over her shoulder at us, and pushed to the front as we moved twenty cows into the corral and toward the open back of the trailer. Moving slowly, and murmuring reassurances, I separated ten cows and eased them toward the trailer; gates would confine them in the front and another ten in the back, so they couldn’t rush from one end to the other and unbalance the trailer.

LMH cattle loading chute 2009

The cattle chute used when loading cattle into large trucks.  If a trailer with a low bed is used, the cattle step into it from the ground.

As we moved up into the narrow lane behind the trailer, the black heifer paused, letting the other cows pass her. As the first cow stepped into the trailer, Aaron and I moved closer to the rear cows. Once a cow or two steps in, the rest must follow quickly, before the leaders discover they are in a trap, and turn back. But too much noise will frighten them all enough to turn and run over us in their haste to escape. Aaron tapped the cows’ backs with his prod pole, but his finger stayed away from the shock button. I spoke loudly, and smacked the butt of my whip against a cow’s flank.

The black heifer took a step back, then another, until her rear end was against Aaron’s chest. He shouted and began to hit her back rhythmically with the prod pole. “Easy, cows! Easy!” I said, trying diplomatically to remind Aaron to speak quietly, make no sudden moves. The other cows were moving steadily ahead; in another moment, she probably would have followed them. Instead, she stepped on his foot, and he screamed, jammed the prod pole against her bag. I clearly heard its electric buzz. Before I could grab the fence, the heifer bellowed in pain and pivoted like a ballet dancer, knocking Aaron sideways. Her opposite shoulder grazed me, and she was gone. Aaron had stumbled, leaving a gap; as he straightened, the next cow, alarmed by the heifer’s beller, lowered her head to my chest level and slammed into me. With one hand on the fence, I didn’t fall, but the pain was intense enough to make me gasp for air. The other cows galloped down the lane and past us.

The black heifer wasn’t finished. When she reached the end of the corral, she put one hoof on the second rail of the fence, and began to climb. Deftly, she tiptoed up nine feet of thick boards as if she were going up a ladder. When her upper body tipped over the top, one back leg slipped between two rails, and I expected to it snap. But she jerked it free, stumbled to the ground, and ran across the neighboring corral.

I turned, finally, and looked at my father. His lips were drawn tight in what some folks mistook for a smile. As Aaron ran toward the gate, father said quietly, “Let’s load the rest and let her quiet down a little. Aaron, put the prod pole in the truck.”

We loaded ten cows without incident, then strolled into the next corral. The black heifer, head up, watched us alertly, but walked through the open gate and joined the nine cows left. As Aaron shut the gate, she rolled her eyes, and trotted toward the fence she’d climbed.

“Easy,” my father called. “Don’t use your whip Aaron; in fact, come back here, behind me.” Father and I pushed the cows gently toward the chute, but as they entered the narrow lane, Aaron must have felt left out. He stepped up beside me. The black heifer was last again, right in front of me, but moving quietly, nudging the other cows, showing every indication she’d follow them up the chute. I put my arm out as if to hold Aaron back, but his arm came down and his whip struck the heifer’s back, hard, punishment for his injury.

She whirled, head lowered, butted him against the barn, and climbed the same fence again, faster this time. Cursing, Aaron started to climb after her.

Father snapped, “We’ve got cows to load. Let her go.” We pushed the other cows into the trailer, and shut the gate, then turned to look into the adjoining corral. The black heifer was circling it in a graceful run, head up, measuring the distance to the top of the plank fence, clearly thinking of a career.

“We’ll never be able to haul that cow anywhere,” I said with sudden conviction.

In fact, in the four years since Aaron trained the cow to climb the fence, we’ve brought her to the corral once or twice each spring. Each time one of us approaches too close, she climbs a fence and gallops off.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Afterword to “Educating Cows”:

This piece was written as part of a book intended to explain what the cattle business is all about, as a response to some of the anti-cattle rhetoric environmentalists were churning out in the 1990’s. Slogans aimed at getting cattle off public lands included “No Moo in ‘92” and “Cattle Free by ‘93.” According to my notes, I started the essay March 10, 1993, expanded it to 2,047 words the next day, and in July of that year expanded it yet again. In my journals I’d recorded the various incidents of how people handle cattle, and my notes refer to the specific dates where I located those journal entries while writing this piece.

At that time I was involved in many meetings as I attempted to bring the rancher’s point of view to environmental groups with which I had connections. Since many of those with whom I met were hostile to ranchers, these meetings were often acrimonious. Environmental literature against cattle and ranchers was full of half-truths, illogic and false information presented as fact. In 1998, in one Wyoming county, while ranchers waited out three days of rain to finish branding their calves, trespassers who called themselves “Islamic Jihad Terrorists” cut barbed wire fences in hundreds of locations on both public and private land, allowing the unbranded cattle of seven neighbors to mix. Notes left under rocks called the ranchers “welfare cowboys.” Besides doing $100,000 in damage to fences, the thugs made rational discussion between environmentalists and rural folks much harder to arrange.

Notes on one essay about ranching economics note that I wrote it “after a F.R.E.E. conference.” I no longer remember what those initials stood for, and an Internet search brings up useless and irrelevant information, suggesting that the organization is defunct.

At some point, I made a decision to stop going to meetings and spend more time on my writing. Through a successful book I was likely to reach many more minds than through dozens of meetings. I also stopped calling myself an “environmentalist” because the term had come to denote possible criminal behavior as well as abysmal ignorance to my ranching neighbors.

Still, I carefully moved the COW book folder, containing fourteen essays, from one computer to another, so I may complete the book at some future time. I haven’t submitted the essays for periodical publication since they are interdependent.

Book Cows Save PlanetMeanwhile, though, other people have been writing useful books about cattle and ranching. My COW folder also contains a file of quotations from Laurie Winn Carlson’s excellent Cattle: An Informal Social History published in 2001 by Ivan R. Dee. More recently, I’ve found considerable quotable material in Cows Save The Planet And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth by Judith D. Schwartz, published by Chelsea Green. I find the book particularly relevant because Schwartz is aware of the unwillingness of many readers to credit cows with any benefits to the planet.

While both books address our relationships with cattle through the ages, neither is written by a working rancher who has lived and worked with cattle her entire life. Most ranchers are too busy to write. So my COW book would undoubtedly still be relevant.

 

For more information on eco-terrorism against cattle in 1998:

http://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/20/us/in-new-wild-west-it-s-cowboys-vs-radical-environmentalists.html

http://www.rangemagazine.com/archives/stories/spring99/cut_burn_kill.htm

 

Writing: Where I’ve Been

The writing that appears in this 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.

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.

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

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Advertisements

Writing: Where I’ve Been — The Squirrel on the Fire Escape

I touch the brakes as a squirrel races across the highway. He flings his tail forward like an oar, propelling himself to safety in the rabbit brush well ahead of my tires.

My Westie, Frodo, lunges over the back seat and stands with his paws on the dashboard, barking. He’s never caught a squirrel, but in the city they taunt him from treetops, so he’s sure they are legitimate prey and therefore can be yapped at.

To distract him, I reach for his bag of treats but it’s empty. Without looking away from the highway, I find trail mix in my grocery sack and give him a peanut while I eat an almond. He eyes me suspiciously, surmising that what I’m eating is better than his snack. But if I gave him an almond, he might behave like a squirrel I once corrupted.

Columbia

A photo of me taken close to the time period of this story. Was I flirting with the photographer? I’ll never tell.

In my senior year of college, facing graduation, I knew I’d have to decide soon whether to go back to the ranch to marry a local boy or try to make a life for myself in the competitive world where most people live. I worked then as a reporter on the night staff of a daily newspaper, watching the news from Viet Nam and assessing my nerve to see if I had enough to be a war correspondent. I didn’t, but I entered a marriage that proved nearly as unpleasant in the long run.

Each morning I drove sixty miles from my upstairs apartment near the newspaper office to graduate classes. Each afternoon, I drove back to Sioux City, Iowa, the biggest city I’d ever seen, population one hundred thousand people. I lived in an old Victorian mansion that retained a few traces of its former elegance, like a beautiful old woman wearing a ragged velvet gown. From my apartment on the top floor, I looked out on a broad avenue where the city’s blue bloods first reigned. When the children of these aristocrats fled to the outskirts of town, a medley of humbler citizens moved in, including my Jewish landlady who rented the top floor after her husband died and her son moved out.

In my apartment’s one large room, faded wallpaper was embossed with red and gold roses. A couch and two worn chairs defined the living room by sitting with their backs to a bed tucked under a roof slope so steep the ceiling touched my head when I read in bed. When I lay down to sleep, the attic came alive with shuffles and squeaks. Though I knew from experience the sounds were squadrons of squirrels cavorting among the resident bats, I pictured a different scene. My landlady had said that during the Twenties, when a bootlegger owned the house, her beaus spoke softly of visiting these rooms to get illicit liquor. They whispered of lovely women who may have sold their favors on the side. As I drifted into sleep, the thumps and whispers in the attic became a dream of soft music and slim women in short fringed, the beads and the ice in their drinks clicking as they danced in the shadows. A secret back stair in the closet had been closed off years before, because it was too narrow for modern safety standards.

Sioux City Stately House

Though not the actual house I stayed in, this old house in Sioux City is representative of it.

The tiny kitchen created by walling off one corner of the room was efficiently fitted with oddly-shaped cupboards. One door opened into a dining room with polished oak floors, a battered but aristocratic buffet, and double doors opening onto a porch big enough for one chair. The porch topped an ugly fire escape required for apartment buildings by federal regulations, attached like an abscess to the house’s facade. One evening as I sat on the tiny porch above the wooden stairs, eating peanuts and tossing shells over the railing, the squirrel entered my life. She clung to a tree branch overhead and screeched while I whispered sweetly, trying to lure her closer. When I went to work, I left a few peanuts on the railing.

Each evening after that, I left a few nuts on the porch. And every day, while I stared into the refrigerator hoping to find better food, she scampered back and forth on the railing, chattering.

Timing her arrival to mine was harder than it sounds. I drove to graduate classes at the college sixty miles away every day. I came home each afternoon to rest or study before bicycling to the newspaper where I worked from five p.m. until one in the morning. The squirrel soon identified both my vehicles. I’d often see her a block away, scampering along a high branch toward the porch to wait on the railing until I got inside.

On my days off, I put peanuts out each afternoon, shut the door and watched as the squirrel approached, advancing one hop and retreating three, until she could snatch a peanut and leap to a branch. Success or winter made her bolder. By the third month, she’d grab her peanut while I stood inside the open door. By spring, she’d sit on the railing beside my chair, eating from my opened palm.

When summer arrived, with memories of mowing hay on the ranch, I grew homesick and feverish. Walking sleepless along the river late at night, I could picture snow melting on high mountains in the north, knowing the winter’s heavy snowpack would soon come roaring down the river. The Corps of Engineers had squeezed the river between artificial concrete banks. Looking north along the walkways was like looking at a big woman who insists on forcing her ample shanks into a maiden’s corset. A flood could burst the concrete stays, flooding the low streets in the valley. Heat magnified the existence of one of Sioux City great attractions, “the world’s largest pile of manure.” Scooped from the busy stockyards, the pile loomed beside the river, bubbling with heat and broadcasting its odors for miles. I imagined a flood dismantling the mound and scattering it over the fields while the smashed remnants of the river walls washed up in downtown New Orleans.

Squirrel 1983

In spite of having a job, I was still a penniless college student, barely paying expense from living off campus and driving back and forth with my night job. Unable to afford air conditioning, I ventilated my attic space with open doors and windows. One evening when I was scrambling eggs for a sandwich, I glanced up to see the squirrel in the dining room. Moving slowly, I placed a peanut on the polished floor. She gobbled it, then sat up and chirped at me. After that, she’d run along the porch railing to rattle the door knob until I let her in.

Keeping my old car running cost more than I’d reckoned. By January, I was eating oatmeal twice daily. With no peanuts in the budget, I rationed a can of mixed nuts from Christmas, doling out one peanut a day until they were gone. The next time the squirrel knocked, I picked out an almond. The squirrel put it down on the floor and looked up. She sniffed it, skittered to the door and back. Finally, she ate it. I fed her the rest of the nuts, mostly almonds because I’d eaten my favorite, the cashews, first.

The day my paycheck arrived, the squirrel pounded at door knob while I was climbing the stairs with my grocery bags. I grabbed the bag of peanuts off the top and knelt in the doorway holding one. She advanced, flipping her tail and looking over her shoulder to check the escape route. She sniffed the peanut on my hand and sat back on her haunches. Then she advanced jerkily to sniff again. I picked up three more peanuts. She marched forward and rummaged among the nuts with both paws.

Just as I realized that she was looking for almonds where none existed, she fastened her teeth in the most almond-like object she saw and ran. Her teeth were locked in my finger. Her running paws scrabbled and slipped on the waxed floor. She dangled from my hand, eyes rolling.

Calmly, I mentioned her error. As her teeth broke through my skin and she tasted blood, I spoke less calmly. She executed a midair somersault, and zipped into her tree. For an hour she sat on the railing beside a pile of peanuts, chattering.

I sat on the couch thinking, feeling every hot pulse in my finger and wondering if I needed a rabies shot. I’d tantalized the squirrel with treats beyond my budget and beyond her ability to fend for herself, taught the squirrel upward mobility. She grabbed an almond and ran on air, confused by the shower of blood. Just like a human.

In the years since, I have applied what the squirrel taught me to my own life. I refuse to covet or buy gadgets without considering the costs and the consequences. Will the item, I ask myself, fit not only my financial budget, but my environmental account?

© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

++–++–++–++

Afterword to “The Squirrel on the Fire Escape”

When did I write this, asked my assistant Tam, as we discussed putting it on the WordPress site.

Hmm. Since I am, like many writers, something of a packrat and descended from several generations of people who hold onto things, I was able to find the metal file box in which I tracked my nonfiction submissions until about 2001– before computers.

While flipping through it looking for the squirrel story, I spotted the category labeled “Old Manuscripts: not quite dead but on life support.” Behind that divider I find a piece titled “A chocolate éclair with spiders in it,” a 5000-word essay written in 1969 and submitted once. I can’t recall what that was about, but wish I had a copy so I could find out. Another piece was “Overdue Inventions,” written in 1985 and rejected by the Saturday Evening Post and Christian Science Monitor but now lost. I dismantled “The Consequences of Fame,” and used part of it in another piece. I suspect that “Down But Not Out in the Fine Arts Capitol of the World,” written in 1974, might have been about my literary magazine and press. “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy: the best food in the West,” was rejected by both High Country News and Northern Lights, magazines which regularly accepted work from me.

But my writing wasn’t all failure; the “published fiction” section of the box includes notes on several pieces I called fiction but which were actually written from my experiences. I incorporated several of them into later nonfiction work.

See how easily a writer is distracted?

In the S section of the Nonfiction Submissions, I find that “The Squirrel on the Fire Escape,” at 1100 words, was rejected by High Country News in 1994, by South Dakota Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, and Reader’s Digest in 1995, then revised and submitted to High Country News again in 1999– and then I apparently stopped submitting it.

The history of this little piece probably demonstrates how I learned about publication success and failure. I suggest to the writers with whom I work that they not submit always to the most popular magazines– like Christian Science Monitor and Reader’s Digest; while the rate of pay is good, those magazines get thousands of submissions and their readers must always be overworked. Instead, look for good publications in your region, where you might build a relationship with an editor and gradually become a respected contributor to the pages.

Persistence did pay off with Christian Science Monitor, which accepted several of my essays. I worked with an editor there I liked, and doubtless the publications helped when I submitted to book publishers. But I developed a closer and longer (still going) relationship with High Country News. One of its editors, Betsy Marston, often wrote concise and useful comments on my work, helping me to revise pieces that she later accepted.

I’ve never been back to Sioux City to drive by the house where I lived, though now I realize that it must have been a four-square, like our house in Cheyenne. I remember my landlady very well; she was an elegant woman with a clear understanding of how hard it was to be young and poor; she was very intelligent and very considerate of me. So when I dropped the glass shelf from my refrigerator and slashed open my wrist, I wrapped towels around it until I realized that I couldn’t stop the gushing blood. I also knew I couldn’t drive, so I called an ambulance– but asked them not to use the siren so as not to alarm her. After I got home with my stitches, she came upstairs several times to be sure I was OK.

I’ve never tried to feed a wild animal again.

++–++–++–++

Writing: Where I’ve Been

The writing that appears in this 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.

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.

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

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

#  #  #

© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

Writing: Where I’ve Been — Dressing for Success in the Soggy West

Rain in the West is always an occasion for celebration, and this year we have a lot to celebrate.

People say, “How much rain have YOU had?” with their teeth gritted. To complain about moisture would be Against The Code of The West. Heck, the Code doesn’t let us complain about broken legs, either.

Several neighbors casually mentioned that they’d greased the haying machinery in May and by late June they hadn’t cut a blade of hay yet. No hay means no winter feed for the cows unless they go out and chew it off the hillside which might be difficult if we get the usual deep snows and brisk winds.

“I’m not complaining,” though, they all said heartily with a glance upward. “Maybe this will end that drought.”

Ranchers are always nervous about weather and we learn early not to count on anything. One day when the rain paused, two neighbors were trying to pull a truck out of thigh-deep mud. One observed, “This could be the first day of the next drought.”

When the rain stopped, everybody started chopping down hay with any machinery available. Tractors so rusty their original color is impossible to discern are chugging along the fields, hauling haying equipment made for hauling behind horses. One rusty rake I saw was towed by a sedan, with a passenger leaning out the window yanking on the rope that lifts the tines and dumps the hay in a windrow.

The foliage is so tall we can’t see the tractors, only hear the motors. A couple of guys started mowing our big hayfield three days ago and haven’t reappeared. We hope they didn’t run out of gas and try to walk out. The creeping jenny is so strong and lively that if you walk into a patch, it wraps around your ankles and drags you down.

Yesterday the dogs ran into the greenery and didn’t come when we called, though we could hear them yip. We hacked a path with a machete and found them so tangled up in creeper they couldn’t move. Of course, they’re small dogs; a Malamute might have gnawed his way clear.

And then there are the mosquitoes.

BugHats

Mosquito veils also help protect the face and neck.

I dress in the morning as knights of old prepared for battle, laying out each piece of armor that may protect myself from West Nile virus. Only one case has been reported this year, but like most people, I don’t want to be second.

First I don long, heavy socks; then winter sweat pants too thick for the proboscis of most mosquitoes. Boots laced up over the pants. Two turtleneck shirts. Since commercial mosquito repellents make me break out in big red blotches, I mix natural oils with unscented hand lotion and smear the mixture over my hands, face and neck. (Equal parts eucalyptus, lemon and citronella in a base of unscented lotion.) I rub lotion on the shoulders of my shirt and on a big scarf tied under my chin. Sloshing more lotion on my floppy hat, I jam it down and step outside.

A breeze helps deflect the mosquitoes, but as soon I walk, I sweat, and mosquitoes rise from the grass in squadrons, regiments, phalanxes. Their low humming sounds like the Hells Angels, on their way to the Sturgis motorcycle rally starting the end of July.

With a garden to tend, I march to the pump house, turn the appropriate handle, and gallop to the garden. There I dive into the heaving, throbbing mass of creeping jenny, hoping I’m not stepping on a rattlesnake, and grope around until I find the end of a soaker hose. I snap the supply hose into it and stagger out to the tilled area. Behind me, a black swarm of mosquitoes rises, and my arms and legs are covered in a moving veil of wings as the critters probe for an opening.

A swarm of mosquitoes rises from the underbrush howling a war cry: ZZZzzzzzzZZZzzzzZZZ. I swat a mosquito that has sucked most of the blood from my right ear. When I feel a throbbing at my jugular vein, I mash it, spurting blood. I laugh like Margaret Hamilton, Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz. Imitating her banshee laugh was one of my first attempts at drama, and is today one of my few talents. Uttered at the back of a slow herd of cows, it moves them into a brisk trot. And it once got me out of a rather tricky situation in the dating game. But it has no effect on the local mosquitoes.

Economists are always urging Western ranchers to diversify. “Take in tourists who will pay to sleep in the bunkhouse! Make tourists pay to help fix fence!” So we have a diversification plan. As soon as we find the branding irons– we’re sure they’re inside the barn or under that tangle of weeds– we’ll brand a few of these monsters, and haul them to the sale ring: the new red meat.

*  *  *

© 2010, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Originally published in “Writers on the Range,” July, 2010

Afterword to “Dressing for Success in the Soggy West”:

High Country News, the fine Western magazine, published this short article in “Writers on the Range” (a syndicated opinion column about issues that affect Westerners) in July of 2010, when we had a soggy spring. Even then we were concerned about West Nile virus and the story is accurate: so far this unusually wet year only one case has been reported in South Dakota.

Writing: Where I’ve Been

The writing that appears in this 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.

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.

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

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Writing: Where I’ve Been — Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry

Writing: Where I’ve Been  —  Introduction

The writing that appears in this 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.

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.

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

++–++–++–++

Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry

LMHwriter06For years, I wasn’t sure I was a poet, because my poems were about cows and grass instead of Big Ideas and Philosophical Stuff.

Similarly, while I firmly believe in higher education, people who stay in college too long begin to believe that physical labor— like pumping gas, cleaning houses, or growing corn— is humiliating. Some college graduates regard any job requiring a desk as distinguished, no matter what effect it may have on society; wearing glasses and balancing a paunch over the belt indicates an even a higher degree of achievement. But I digress; studying too much causes digressions, too.

I now believe that my writing is about large issues cleverly disguised as small ones.  I have always admired poets who can write overtly political work— Poetic Paean to a Political Activist or Sonnet on Saving the Planet— but I can’t. In addition, while a writer struggles to rhyme “pollution” and “oil spills,” he isn’t acting to stop pollution. Writing can become a respectable and secure alternative for sticking your nose out where someone who disagrees with you can poke it. It’s uncomplicated to sit behind a computer, logically consider all views, vote “no opinion,” and do nothing. Or to sit behind the computer, logically consider all views, and pick one to malign and ridicule; it’s rare that one side or the other doesn’t offer rich fuel for satire.

But it’s harder to be detached when you’re up to your knees in muck hauling a sick otter out of the bay, or sitting through a county commission meeting, only to be called a Commie Pinko Pervert when you state what you thought was a compromise.

I see parallels between political inactivity and academic poems: perfectly formed lines composed between classes in an air‑conditioned office about perfectly formed lines constructed between classes in an air‑conditioned office. Naval‑gazing. Speculations on the Nature of Matter, Especially As It Relates To the Poet’s Love Life. Documented Dialogue With Dead Poets By a Poet Who Never Lived. It is possible to be intensely philosophical and accomplish nothing.

Good poetry does emerge from academia; I confess I don’t often write formal verse because I can never remember that the rhyme scheme of a villanelle is A b A’, a b A, a b A’, a b A, a b A’, a b A A’, and after I look it up, frankly, I don’t much care.

PoetrySoftware GroupBut others have solved this dilemma; poetry software has arrived. The user, who will not be called a “poet” if I can help it, chooses, for example, to write a Shakespearean sonnet. Fourteen blank lines appear on the computer screen with the stress and accent pattern of iambic pentameter clearly indicated. The operator fills in the rhyming words first, then “connects the dots” backward to create the poem. That’s a direct quote from the manufacturer: “connects the dots.” If the user is too intelligence-challenged, busy, or lazy to operate a rhyming dictionary, rhyming software is also obtainable.

These developments are a giant leap downward in the art of writing; I predict batches of the miserable stuff will soon flood an already‑saturated market, while users of the software dash off letters hotly defending it as “real poetry.” Dissenters will be scorned as Stone Age writers. Since I intend to be among them, I’ll say I think a fitting remedy for poor writing would be to carve a poem in marble with a hammer and chisel.

Another reason I have trouble writing Important Political Poetry is that I digress, and therefore am, and therefore write about things like planting gardens. The more I do physical labor, the more important I believe it to be, and the more I write about it. Frustration awaits one who fights sloppy writing or pollution by writing letter to the editor, or by refusing Styrofoam, mulching newspapers, and taking short showers.

LMHjuniperLC91Attempting to reason with legislators and other elected officials is even more daunting. Picture yourself listening to the news at day’s end, exhausted from hard conservation work. A drunk driver, hired by a careless company that is incredibly rich because millions of us insist on driving large cars, just dumped oil over the finest wildlife area in the nation. You may feel your meager efforts have been in vain. People who have spent the day planting trees, or growing safe food are less disheartened because we can see what we have done, even if we only preserve the patch of ground we inhabit.

Academia has many benefits; young poets should study the history of their language to learn ideas that will reverberate in rhyme, myth, or the music of their work. But academics often view anything that gets dirt under their fingernails as beneath their dignity, and anyone with muscles as a moron; those jokes about the intelligence of football players didn’t originate in a locker room, and there is more Walter Mitty in most people who teach than they would care to admit. I’ve been a spy in the academic camps often enough to speak from experience; I quit teaching whenever I can no longer stand to spend five working days explaining to engineering students, for example, why they should be able to write English with moderate skill. Nor are legislative action and political meetings worthless; choose your torture.

Concerted political action often leads to the spectacle of a champion hotly defending freedom from censorship in principle, while cringing at the specific piece of art that caused the problem, like a cross dunked in urine. Meanwhile, opponents screech about pornography and misuse of public money. Unnoticed, artists create, and polluters defile, making a lot of progress while we chatter.

In the end, I believe one writes, and acts, as he or she must. The sooner you stop feeling as though your subject is not worthy of poetry or prose, the less time you will waste, and the better your work will become.

*  *  *

© 1991, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Originally published in slightly different form as “Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry,” New Letters, Vol. 58, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 45-48.

Afterword to “Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry”:

The idea for this essay probably began in the late 1980’s, when there was a lot of discussion about writing political poetry, with overtones suggesting that if a person was “just” writing about love or death or marriage, one was not Doing One’s Duty as a Poet to Prod the National Conscience.

Exxon-ValdezOne of the inspiring incidents, of course, was the Exxon Valdez incident of March, 1989, referred to in the essay.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

#  #  #

Writing: Where I’ve Been — A Writer’s Best Friend: The Faithful Editor

Writers complain about editors as reliably as the sun also rises.

Here’s my secret: how I learned to be happy in a world full of editors.

After all, I’ve been writing for fifty years. I could do workshops on How to Be Happy In Spite of Writing. Can’t you just see the promotion? I’d favor banner headlines in red:

Learn How to Be HAPPY  —  In Spite of Writing
ONLY $289.95 or a MERE $29.95 a month for fifteen months
Instead, this secret is yours, FREE
No obligation. No guarantee, 90-day or otherwise.
If you are overcome with gratitude, I will accept gifts.

Once upon a time, I’d write an essay and revise it ten times, thirty times, maybe forty. Then I’d send it off to a magazine. And wait. And wait.

Months or years later, I’d receive comments that the editor had jotted down in five minutes, including reading time and making herself a martini.

I’d pore over the scribble for days. Even doctors write more legibly than editors, most of whom are too young to have learned penmanship by drawing millions of OOOs on a Big Chief tablet as I did.

Once I knew what the editor had said, I’d smack myself with The Compact Oxford English Dictionary until the ideas began to make sense.

Chicago Manual of StyleThen I would revise the essay exactly as the editor suggested, and send it back to her.

Invariably, her next set of observations would contradict the first.

I’d swear and throw The Chicago Manual of Style, narrowly missing my faithful dog. To express slight annoyance, toss a thesaurus; reserve the forty-pound Manual for expressing serious fury.

Still, following the editor’s suggestions, I’d revise again.

Thus for many years I humbly followed the advice of every single editor who deigned to supply it in my Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope, returning the revised piece until the editor rejected it. When–and if–the essay was accepted elsewhere, I noticed that the accepted version often resembled my first submitted draft written years before.

Meanwhile, I noticed that I was getting older, and editors were getting younger. If we talked, many would burble, “Oooh, I just graduated from The State University of South Iowindialabama.” Several had never heard of the Chicago Manual.

Gradually, I stopped believing that editors are giants in the earth, though I understand that, like most writers, I learn something every day from a writer or editor.

?????????????????????????But these days, when an editor rejects my latest masterpiece, I don’t snarl and howl. I remember that not all editors are equal.

The minute I spot that rejected manuscript in the mailbox, I start my deep breathing exercises. Whistling to my West Highland White Terriers, I head for my reading chair.

Short dogs with thick necks and skulls, Westies are endowed with almost as much self-esteem as the average teenager, and with considerable more justification. They gallop into the room and sit, tails straight out behind them, heads tilted, gazing at me with big brown eyes, pink tongues dribbling. Closing my eyes, I inhale and visualize the editor sitting beside them, pink tongue lolling. I remind myself that I love the dogs in part because they think I am a better person than I know myself to be. I open the envelope.

Few editors can leave a line of manuscript unmarked.

FrodoPee94

Frodo the Westie marking his territory the way some editors mark up a manuscript.


Reminds me of the way The Bad Breath Boys behave on our rambles in the park. They lurch from side to side, sniff, yark, pee, yipe, pee, snort. Hmm, better sniff that again, yep, needs more; another squirt. Intent on making their mark on every foot of territory, they are one with the trees and rocks, one with the Great Leveling Moment of Peedom, unconscious of anything else in the universe. They don’t know their lives are short, don’t remember doing the same thing in the same place yesterday. Or maybe they think it needs doing again.

Just like an editor invading the brave new world of a manuscript.

No use telling the dogs they are minor characters, that their comments on tree trunks will be covered by the memoirs of the next leashed canine. Like many editors, they have no concept of the forest, because they are too busy demonstrating that this tree is theirs. And this tree. And that bush.

When I let the dogs inside in wet weather, they ignore my pleas to wait on the rug and gallop across the kitchen, scattering blobs of mud.

Just so, an editor’s remarks may obliterate the clean lines of the prose beneath, showing a blissful disregard for the meaning of a sentence or an essay.

When the dogs dig up my flowers, I remind myself that they are creatures of ancient instinct, unlikely to change their ways. I could yell at them and call my anger “training,” or put up more fences to make their world even smaller. But a Westie’s nature includes stubborn persistence; their ancestors dragged Scottish badgers out of their dens.

The same persistence serves a writer, or an editor, well in the long, long life that writing requires.

I also remember my father saying, when we couldn’t corral a difficult bovine, “It pays to be smarter than the cow.” If I cannot bear to lose the flowers, I move them to a part of the yard where the dogs do not go.

Similarly, when an editor misses a point, I no longer attempt to explain. I rephrase the idea, tucking it in somewhere else. Like the dogs, the editor may be so busy admiring or dozing in the hole he’s dug, he’ll never notice.

The dogs snap at each other when they disagree over who sits on my lap, whose treat is larger, and for a dozen other reasons, but they sleep piled together.

Similarly, editors display jealousy and distrust until a writer gets famous; then all of them use the same phrases to sell the next three or a dozen books by that author or a half dozen others.

The Westies are pretty ferocious when a Rottweiler strolls past, as long as they are safe behind their chain link fence.

Editors talking to writers from their own offices make a lot of racket and a lot of promises. When a writer is inside that office, the noise level drops precipitously.

So living with the Westies has taught me to lower my expectations about editors. The dogs, for example, aren’t wise enough to be afraid of cars, so I keep my instructions simple. “No!” I bellow at street corners.

When an editor told me to take the women out of one of my books, I used the same word at roughly the same volume. I hear he is now editing something on the Internet, not books.

If I speak harshly to the dogs after they have misbehaved, their ears droop. But their attention spans are short.

When an editor demanded changes I couldn’t stomach, I gritted my teeth and inserted them. Then I deleted them when I read the galley proofs. So far, he’s never noticed.

Watching my dogs lick each other’s ears makes me wonder if the shortage of well-bred editors is coupled with the way male dogs attempt to establish dominance over one another.

While I have not spent enough time in the company of editors to be an authority, I have noted that they seem to spend a lot of time whispering together at public gatherings. Their reasoning, I suppose, is that there’s no sense talking to writers, because fresh, naive ones are always available.

When my dogs sniff each other’s private parts, I realize that they can’t help it. Their inbred behavior requires deportment completely alien to humans. Well, almost.

Dogs Pursue Idea  Like Editors

A good editor will dig into your manuscript, uncover errors, and improve your writing.


Still, all writers need good editors to polish their written words, so it’s important that we understand how we can help create the editors we need. As all owners should understand, a dog’s most annoying behavior is likely to have been caused by the way humans have treated him. Editors, too, are abused not only by writers who should know better, but by the reading public.

Just as a canine’s feelings are easily hurt, and an apology may not restore its confidence, so it is with editors.

I’ve seen no obedience school inviting writers to bring editors, properly leashed, for remedial training, but let me carry this comparison one more step. Dogs learn best when they are handled with patience and rewarded with affection. A beloved and respected canine is capable of a loyalty we humans rarely find elsewhere.

So pay attention to editors. Take time to thank them for catching the errors you missed. Remember, a good editor’s labor improves your writing– and therefore your income, and your joy in life. The satisfaction you’ll derive when a good editor understands and improves the point you were trying to make is nearly as good as snuggling with your favorite Westie during a blizzard.

(c) 2015 by Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Afterword to “A Writer’s Best Friend: The Faithful Editor”

This previously unpublished essay emerged in the late 1990s after a particularly frustrating round of revisions and rejections. As I recall, I had submitted an early draft of Feels Like Far to a publisher who shall be unidentified but with whom I had a working relationship based on other books on which we’d worked. After the submission, I was able to meet with the editor, who said I was a good writer but — and here she patted my knee– “We’ve heard enough about your dead husband, dear.”

ReadingDogsI have no idea what I answered, or how the interview ended, but I revised the manuscript as she suggested, taking out elements she suggested omitting. After several months she rejected it again, and this time she suggested adding some of the material she had suggested I take out, making clear she had no recollection of her original suggestions.

At that point I resolved to stop submitting manuscripts to New York editors, and turned to regional publishers who might be more familiar with the ideas and attitudes of the West, as well as with my writing. That book was subsequently published by the University of Nevada Press in 1999, but not without more rejections, revisions, and discussions.

Besides feeling vindictive as I worked on this essay, I was feeling clever, so it’s full of plays on words referring to writing– “as reliably as the sun also rises,” and “giants in the earth.”

And I was cynical about the get-rich-quick writing schemes that were beginning to flood the market: How to Write a Best-Seller from someone who never had done so, for example.

But because I am a teacher at heart, the essay is not just cynicism; it’s full of suggestions about useful references, and includes good advice about dealing with editors. Far too many writers get angry at editorial advice and resolve never to send that editor another word. In so doing, they may lose the help of someone who could have helped them become a far better writer.

I enjoyed sly digs like my reference to being smarter than the cow, but once I hit on the dog comparison– no doubt because my then-Westies Mac and Duggan were staring at me from beside my desk– I felt I’d found the perfect vehicle for humor.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

#  #  #

Writing: Where I’ve Been — On the Range

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

Barn window tree 2015--3-5The alarm slammed her out of a dream and left her clinging to the shelf over the bed. She switched on the bedside light. She’d been dreaming of a black calf so tiny it lay in the palm of her hand.

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.

Barn stall panel 2015--3-5Her arm hurt. The heifer moaned low in her throat as the calf’s head slid into the light. The woman coughed with exhaustion.

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.

Cow&Calf2014--5-16 - CopyGoing to be busy tomorrow; check all the calves, make sure everything’s sucking, get feed out. Hope the truck will start. Hope this doesn’t kill the blackbirds and meadowlarks.

The cat stood up, stretched, and curled up beside her ear, purring. Lucy smiled in her sleep.

#  #  #

(c)  1979, reprinted 2015  Linda M. Hasselstrom

Writing: Where I’ve Been — Moon Meadows Road

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.

#  #  #

Moon Meadows Curve 2015--2-28

Introduction to “Moon Meadows Road”

This is a true story and I have written it as nearly as possible in the words of the man who told it to me.  All names— except the name of the road— have been changed.  This piece has never been published until now.

All photos were taken along Moon Meadows Road in February, 2015.

++–++–++–++

Moon Meadows Road

Moon Meadows Sign 2015--2-28I’d run out of cigarettes just at dark, and was heading for town, taking the shortcut across Moon Meadows. I should have given up either the cigarettes or the shortcut years ago. Now I’ll have to, because I can’t drive it without remembering.

I should have been soaking in the tub instead of driving to town, with the highway already starting to ice over as the sun went down, and the clouds hanging low and wet. Should have quit working sooner, but the woodpile was getting low, and I wanted to get all the trees I’d cut this morning limbed and dragged up into the clearing where I could cut them up tomorrow.

I’ve cussed the old shortcut for twenty years, but I always took it rather than drive down the new highway past the country club and the ugly blocks of condominiums. Broadmoor Estates. Wildwood. Copper Moun­tain Homes. Innsbruck Acres. Where the hell they think they are? Certainly not a bare hillside in South Dakota. Maybe when they get inside their glass palaces and pull the fancy little blinds it seems like Aspen.

The old shortcut was Harry Adams’ pasture road a few years ago, and a lot of the land up on top of that ridge is still pasture. No cows in it now; he pastures it later, usually June. Always loses a cow or calf from some asshole trying to drive too fast. He had to sell off the west end, close to the hills, when he had a bad spell a few years ago and ran out of money. That’s when it got the name Moon Meadows; some developer thought he’d make a bundle putting houses up there. I suppose he hasn’t done too badly; the whole west end of the ridge is covered with them, and every time I drive across there, it seems like another one is going in.

Moon Meadows Warning 2015--2-28Adams hung onto the east end for pasture, and he’s a tough old bird, around eighty. He’ll probably be around another twenty years, and until then, the road won’t improve because he made them sign a deal to follow his old pasture road and he only gave them enough easement for a narrow trail.

That made him laugh, but it was a mistake, because there wasn’t enough space for a decent shoulder. The gullies cut so deep into the ridge from both sides if you drop a wheel off you’re going down sixty, eighty feet into a steep‑sided draw.

The snow was falling harder by the time I was halfway across the Meadows, beginning to look like a real April blizzard. I’d be lucky if it wasn’t too deep in the morning to take the truck to the clearing where I’d stacked the logs. I could always chain up the tractor, though, and drag them right up by the house. This morning it was so warm I almost thought I could ignore the woodpile and do something else; that’s how these spring blizzards sneak up on people and get them killed.

Anyway, I saw the damn fool’s lights coming up behind me just after I’d got past the first batch of houses. If I’d seen him sooner, I’d have pulled off and let him pass, but I’d run out of driveways, so all I could do was just go along slow and hope he saw me and got past me. The snow was coming down hard. When I tried to accelerate a little, the rear end of old pickup swung out slow, like a horse nudging you with his hindquarters, getting ready to casually mash you against the side of the stall while you put the saddle on.

The guy popped over the hill behind me, his headlights glaring on the rear view mirror so all I could do was squint my eyes and hunch over, ready for the smash. But he swung out somehow, and got around me, skidding and sliding all over that road, horn blaring, tail lights flashing, making the snow look red as blood for a few minutes as he pumped the brakes.

I straightened up and breathed again, and kept on. Should have quit smoking, then I wouldn’t have to go out in a storm for something that was probably killing me anyway. I felt in my shirt pocket; I had most of a pack, but I’d smoke those tonight and then have to go out in the morning anyway. And the storm might be worse.

I never wanted to live until I got old and sick; used to say I’d shoot myself when I got to be fifty, but I made it in January. Might as well move it up to sixty.

Or I could have taken the other road. It’s straight and wide and they plow it about six times a day all winter; can’t have the pretty people sliding into the ditch on the way home to condominium heaven. There’s a convenience store right at the bottom of the hill, but I like the old store over on the other side of Moon Meadows, where I’ve been buying beer and cigarettes and bread since I moved out here twenty years ago. Same bent old man behind the counter, propped up on a shelf reading the paper.

The wood stove would be red tonight. The tourists that wandered in there always think the stove is quaint, but it leaves the corners of the store chilly in the winter. Old Ben won’t buy a furnace. He lives behind the store, and judges cold nights by how often he has to get up to stoke the stove. On winter nights, a few old boys are always gathered around it bitching about how the country is going to hell.

Most of them still have their places, but their wives are gone, their kids all studied to be lawyers and moved away, and they just rattle around feeding a few old cows. At night they come into the store for something for supper, and to ease the loneliness. I keep seeing myself ending up like that‑‑hell, I already have, I guess, only I just get my stuff and go instead of sitting down. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ben keeps the stove and the ugly chairs on purpose.

I’d almost forgotten about the car that passed me when I saw the light off to my right, just a single column of white light shining straight up into the darkness. Been watching too much TV I suppose, because my first thought was to glance up and see if a space ship was coming down, lighting its way. Then I shook myself and realized the light had to be coming out of one of those deep gullies.

???????????????????????????????I stopped the pickup right in the road; no choice, and put on the brakes and blinkers before I crawled out. The road was so slick I had to hold onto the pickup to keep from falling down, and I skidded off the edge of the road and looked down.

The car was upside down, but the front end was tilted enough so that light shone up, or I’d never have seen it. By morning, at this rate, it would be covered with snow and the light would have burned out. I stood there a minute, looking down, feeling the snow piling up on my hair, and actually considered just driving off. The son of a bitch had damn near killed us both, and it would serve him right.

Then I got my flashlight from under the seat, hitched my coat up around my ears and started down. The slope was slick, and if it hadn’t been covered with sagebrush I could hang onto, I’d have started sliding and never stopped until I bounced off the car. It was wedged into the narrow bottom of the gully, belly up like some beetle. I could see fluid trickling out of the gas tank so I pushed my cigarette into the snow and slid down toward the driver’s side.

The window was either down or smashed, because the first thing I saw was a bleeding snowdrift. I brushed the soggy stuff away from his head, but I saw pretty quick there wasn’t much sense in it. His forehead looked like a couple of pounds of hamburger, and the steering column was driven about half through his chest. A little blood was still running out, but it looked like it had flooded out at first, like his heart had been punctured.

I couldn’t see past him, so I scraped snow away from the back windows and shone the flashlight in. I could see about a five year supply of beer cans, but no bodies.

I struggled around to the passenger side, stopping once for breath and to look up at my pickup. It seemed as far away as the moon, and the blinking lights were faint through the snow. I couldn’t believe I’d come down that steep slope without breaking my neck, and I had no idea how I was ever going to get up it. Maybe the crazy bastard would end up killing me anyway, if I froze to death down here. The way that gas was trickling, though, I could always toss a match in it and warm myself up that way.

The woman was lying with her head out the window on the passenger side, her shoulders in the snow. She looked peaceful, her arms over her head the way some people sleep. I brushed the snow off her face and she opened her eyes. They were a deep, dark blue for a minute before she blinked and I moved the light.

“Gary?” she said in a kind of gasp.

“Take it easy,” I said, wondering what the hell that was supposed to mean. What else could she do? “I’ll get you out of here in a minute.”

I shone the light down her body. She was lying across the window sill, and the top of the car was crushed down against her just below her breasts. I leaned back and shone the light through the back window. The roof of the car was tight against her upper body all the way past her hips. Dark blood ran slowly from her chest down over her body. One leg went off at an angle, and blood was dripping there too.

I squatted in the snow and thought it over. Even if I got her out alive, I couldn’t see how I could get her back up that damn hill without killing her. “Gary? You got a cigarette?” she murmured.

“I’m not Gary. You’ve been in a wreck; I’m going to try to help.” I patted her shoulder without really thinking about it.

Maybe I ought to leave her right as she was and go for help. There was no telling how long it might be before someone came along the road, and even if they did, they might think I’d just stopped the truck to take a leak or puke. And even if they didn’t think that, how many people these days stopped to help?

“Don’t leave me!” It was like she’d been reading my mind. Her hand caught mine, and held on tight. “Give me a cigarette, will you?”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. There’s gas leaking out of that tank; we might blow ourselves up.” But I wanted one too.

It seemed to me I could hear the snow plopping heavier on the upturned belly of the car now. Christ! What was I going to do?

“My coat’s in the back seat,” she said. “There’s cigarettes in the pocket.”

I shone the light in the hole where the back window had been, and saw a bundle of wool. I brushed snow off a rock and set the light so it shone over us, making a little pool of brightness. When I’d wrapped the coat around her upper body and tucked it under her shoulders she smiled, and I realized she wasn’t just a kid, like I’d thought. She was maybe thirty, or even a well‑preserved forty. Her wrinkles were the kind that come from smiling, and her smile was enough to melt ice. She was lovely, but I couldn’t look at her face without seeing the blood dripping in the darkness of the car.

“Gary’s dead, isn’t he?” She said it so quietly, so sensibly, that I nodded before I thought.

She sighed. “I should have left him a long time ago. I kept thinking things would get better, thinking he really would quit drinking and . . .  You ever do that? Just keep hanging onto people even though you know you’d be better off without them?”

“No.” I shook my head, and then decided she needed more than that. “I did it the other way. Never held onto any of them long enough to think about losing them.”

“That’s too bad.” She looked really concerned about it. “Listen, I can’t feel my legs. It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?”

I didn’t know what to say. She moved her arm out from under the coat and reached up and squeezed my hand as if to comfort me.

“Yeah, it’s pretty bad. But someone will come along soon, and we’ll get you out of this. It’s probably not as bad as it looks.” As I said it, I realized she was breathing like someone who has asthma, in uneven gasps. Maybe a rib had punctured a lung.

She moved her head a little, looking up the slope behind me. “I kept telling the son of a bitch to slow down. You came down that? Listen, why don’t you just light me a cigarette and then go on back up there and go for help. I’d about as soon blow up as lay here any longer.”

She gasped then, a low, ragged sound, and her hand tightened on mine. “Please.” I could see drops of sweat on her forehead. “Please give me a cigarette.” It was a whisper.

I stepped away from the wreck a little, cupped my hands and lit one, and put it between her lips. She inhaled deeply, and then let the smoke trickle out the side of her mouth. She coughed a little the next time she inhaled, and reached for my hand again. I took a drag on the cigarette; I could have lit another one‑‑ two was no more dangerous than one‑‑ but it seemed right to share it, almost as if we were in bed.

“Isn’t this ridiculous?” she said, a little louder. “I always figured the cigarettes would kill me, but I guess not. I ought to be able to quit when I’m ten minutes from dying anyway.”

“You’re not going to die. Look, I’d better get going.” I stood up. “I’ll leave the flashlight here, and I’ll be back before you finish the cigarette.”

“Wait. Please. Just another minute or two.” She spoke rapidly, rattling out as much as she could between those harsh gasps. “Tell me your name. I’m Sally, Sally Barker, only since I married him I guess I’m Sally Brooks. Please, tell them‑‑ you know that kid that rolled here last week and hurt that girl? He said he was forced off the road? They’re charging him with drunken driving, but it was Gary that did it. It was just like tonight. He was driving too fast, and drunk, and he came up fast behind the other car and blared his horn and the kid jerked the wheel and went off. Gary wouldn’t stop. Tell them, so the kid doesn’t get put in jail.” She was struggling to breathe, holding her hands against her side as if she could hold her lungs together. “Will you do that?”

“Yes. Yes, I’ll tell them, but you’ll be able to tell them when I get an ambulance here. I’m Joseph Brown; I live on a little ranch back in the woods about three miles. Look, I’d better go for help.”

I was turning away from the look on her face when I heard something from up on the highway. Somebody was parked behind my truck, and then I heard a shout.

“Down here!” I bellowed, using the voice I used for driving cows out of the trees. “Down here!” I grabbed the flashlight and pointed it at the other car and waved it around until I saw a man peering at me from the edge of the road. “Get an ambulance! Get help! A woman is pinned in the car.”

Moon Meadows Embankment 2015--2-28 - CopyHe waved, then yelled back, “I’ve got a CB; I’ll call it in.” I flashed the light at him, then squatted back down by Sally.

“There!” I said cheerfully. “Won’t be long now.”

Sally smiled weakly up at me, and made a little motion with her arm. Her eyes got wide, and she turned her head a fraction and spit the cigarette into the snow. “I can’t…I can’t move my arm. Oh Joseph, I’m scared.”

I took her hand and began to rub her arms, thinking if she was just cold I could get the blood running again. “Probably just chilly from the damn snow,” I muttered, showing my teeth in what I hoped looked like a smile.

“Tell me something warm,” she begged, and the blue of her eyes seemed to start blood circulating in a part of my mind that had been cold and paralyzed for a long time.

“Like what?” All I could think of was the warm blood flowing out of her in the darkness of the car, and the still warm body of her husband beside her.

“Do you have a fireplace in your cabin?”

I shook my head. “Wood stove. Fireplace makes the corners chilly, because the heat’s all sucked up through the chimney all the time. But in my place you can curl up on the couch in the living room, and open the fire door, and stare into the fire and be cozy. Lots of times I sleep in there instead of in the bedroom.”

“Ever been married?” Her face was pale in the light, and her breath whistled in her throat.

“No. Probably should have been, but I . . . well, I guess I was afraid of what it would turn into.”

She tried to chuckle and choked, and I saw sweat break out on her forehead. “Tell me about your place. Do you have cows?”

“Yeah. Only about fifteen, and a couple old horses that are retired. I used to manage a place for a rancher up north, and bought this place by doing that and working construction. Then when I figured I had enough money to get by on, I moved down here and built the cabin. I still manage construction jobs once in awhile, if it’s working for somebody I like. The rest of the time I work in the garden, or the woods, or travel.”

I glanced up toward the road, hoping to see somebody, and saw only the lights of the town reflecting off the clouds. Down there people were laughing and drinking and having a good time; it seemed unfair she should be lying here dying, and I should be crouched in the snow trying to figure out what to say to her.

“Chickens?”

“Old red hens; they lay brown eggs with yolks so yellow some people think I dye them.”

“Our chickens did that, on the farm when I was little. I like chickens.” She gasped a little chuckle again, and clucked once or twice. “I used to talk to them. I had one that would let me scratch her back. She’d squat down in the dust and close her eyes.”

“I’ll tell you what we’ll do in April, Sally Barker. You’ll come out to my house. I’ll make coffee‑‑”

“How do you make it?” she said sleepily, like a small child.

“I get a pot of water boiling, then put a handful of coffee in it. When it’ll float a horseshoe, I throw in some cold water and a couple of eggshells.”

“Good. That’s how my dad made it.” Her eyes closed. “Tell me the rest.”

Somewhere in the distance, I thought I heard a siren.

“Everyone who comes by for coffee with me has his own cup, so you’ll have to have one. I think yours should have blue flowers on it, to match your eyes. I’ll get it down off the rack and take the cups and the coffee out on the porch, and we’ll drink coffee. The yellow roses around the porch should be blooming then, and the baby rabbits will be under them, eating the weeds. The birds will be at the feeder, and if you don’t know them, I’ll tell you which ones are which. And maybe the mother turkey will bring her babies by for a drink; I made a little concrete basin for her. We’ll listen to the birds and drink coffee.”

The siren was definitely getting closer. “Will it be very warm?” she asked.

“Very warm, but if we get too warm we can go to the part of the porch with the roof, or take a walk through the trees. I cleared a spot down in there and planted raspberry bushes, and we can stand by the bushes and eat raspberries.”

“I’ll bring a cake. I make very good chocolate cake.” She sighed. “Joseph. What a nice name. Thank you, Joseph.” Her hand quivered in mine as though she was trying to squeeze and couldn’t, and I squeezed hers. On the road, I heard shouts, and saw more red lights flashing.

“They’re coming now, Sally. Everything’s going to be all right.”

“Yes, Joseph,” she said dreamily. “Will you come see me in the morning?”

“In the morning.”

“Quick,” she murmured, “tell me some more. Will you put on some music inside so we can hear it through the windows?”

“I’ll put on Elvis Presley‑‑ or are you too young for him?”

“‘I Did It My Way,'” she said. “‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ ‘Jailhouse Rock’ ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ Do you have any Judy Garland?”

“Sure.”

“Play the one from the Wizard of Oz for me, would you? ‘Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why can’t I?'”

I held her hand until the ambulance men, cursing and staggering, got to us, with two silent firemen who moved efficiently up to the car. I gently put her hand back on her chest. Her eyes were closed, and she was smiling.

I turned away, and walked down the gully a few steps, but I still heard her scream when they lifted the roof of the car. When I turned back, the two men were strap­ping her to the stretcher, and the firemen were by the other window. The stretcher men started back up walking, but they kept slipping, and the stretcher would clang against a rock; I could hear them swear under their breath, but Sally never made a sound. After a minute or two, one of them went ahead and started towing the stretcher like a sled while the other one stayed behind to guide it. They’d only gone a few feet before the snow hid them. I started back up the hill.

By the time I got to the top, of course, they were already gone. A policeman asked if I wanted to go to the hospital, but I shook my head and told him about the wreck, and what Sally had said about the one the week before. I felt as if I’d been cold for a long time. He said he’d make sure the word got to the right place.

*    *    *

A month later I sat on my porch in the warm sun and watched the rabbits and the baby turkeys and the old red hens. I had coffee, but it was pretty well flavored with whiskey. I told Sally the names of all the birds, and sang “I Did It My Way” along with Elvis.

#  #  #

(c)  2015  Linda M. Hasselstrom

Moon Meadows Ravine 2015--2-28