THE BOY WHO WATCHED CATTLE

by

Thomas Rindt

Overhead the unmerciful sun wound tightly spilling webfulls of rays down in corkscrew spirals which seemed to drill into the parched ground of the old man's garden.  Meteor like showers of heat waves whirled past his face, made him feel dizzy; which, in turn, was the immediate cause of his dropping a handful of bean sprouts, some of which fell into the cracks of parchment.  These he could not retrieve at all, as they were not truly sprouts but tiny seeds which quickly disappeared into the ground; the others, those which were also seeds but had not fallen into the cracks, he managed to retrieve by licking his thumb, pressing the moistened thumb onto the seed, then quickly replacing it in his palm, which he then clenched tightly around it; the actual sprouts, though even these were pitifully tiny, he simply picked up and replaced.  With his free hand he dug a little hole, placed from a tin cup a little precious drop of water down the hole, put a single sprout or a seed, by allowing it to seep between his fingers, down into the drop of water, finally covering it over and marking it with a little stick, or in the case of the sprouts, letting them be their own markers.  This operation was repeated as many times as there were sprouts and seeds to be planted, hard work under the huge white ball of light tentacled in menacing rays, and hard work for so old a man in a climate whose harshness generally permitted the attainment of nothing beyond middle age.  Longevity was, here, something one read about in accounts of family history; it was not a thing as a rule ever experienced directly anymore.  The last several generations had for some unexplainable reason witnessed the gradual ascent of the great mountain range to the east, only a few feet, but just enough to all but eliminate the yearly rainfall from the great weather systems generated far out in the ocean.  No cataclysmic force had caused the mountains to rise, they simply rose, gently and peacefully, eighths and quarters of inches at a time, year by year, until they succeeded in blocking the storm clouds from passing.  Sometimes one could look up at the mountains and see just the tips of clouds peeking over, especially in spring, when the heaviest rains used to come, as if an eternal reminder of the hardship wrought within this peaceful, once vibrant valley, now virtually a desert.  In time perhaps the hard cakes of ground would crumble apart to become desert sands; till then they remained flakes, like chips of slate which one could almost peel off the earth as if removing the scales of a dead fish.  Little would this constipated ground yield to its inhabitants; whatever it did, only at the greatest effort.  The old man worked the live long day getting from it enough to keep himself and his grandson alive: worked, when he yearned, with an aching almost beyond endurance, to get inside, away from this awful heat.  Yet endurance - his endurance - was precisely what nothing, no force within him or outside of him, no force in all existence, could go beyond.  Not a thing existed of a more tenacious or unyielding nature: not by his choice was this so, but because the universe seemed intent upon wresting from him this one lowly plot of ground, his only and his last.  "I surmise," he reasoned once, with absolutely no assurance save intuition, "that this universe is infinite; still, with all that, it wants this piece of ground too.  If it were just me, maybe I could surrender it - but the boy."  He had looked a quick glance up at the sun.  "But the boy," he repeated, shaking his head as if in defiance.  Though not really defiance; he did not defy the order of things, he merely attempted to survive - which in a harsh land may have looked for all the world like defiance.

Presently a hush seemed to befall the old man's garden, something beyond the eternal stillness of parched ground unable to support birds or small rodents or dogs or cats or any other animal life: they had all died off or else gone into the mountains.  This was caused, this hush, by the entry into the garden of the old man's grandson from the broken gate at the north.  Something in the manner of a fence made its way around the garden, a structure so ancient that only its existence hinted at its antiquity: a time had actually witnessed, in this valley, the need to keep stray cattle and deer and sheep and other creatures from ravaging the people's gardens, so long ago a time though that most people, were it not for the curious dilapidated old fences still standing here and there, would have taken it as mere legend.  The fences gave credence to these tales, for no conceivable need existed otherwise for fencing: no one here needed a fence to respect his neighbor's land, and no earthly fence could keep out those from across the mountains, from the coast, should they choose, when they chose, to raid this valley.  It was the boy's manner, not his silence, which cast a hush across this his grandfather's garden.  No birds were ever heard here, no frogs at night, only an occasional cricket, but even they were dying out or leaving.  No other species found itself tied to its home the way the people who lived here seemed to be.

"William," his grandfather asked, "is something wrong?"

The boy nodded that no, nothing was wrong, while holding his head bowed, in that curious way the young have of lying with their neck muscles while unable to lie with their facial muscles, which must therefore be hidden from view.  The boy wore no shirt and only a pair of baggy gray pants some two sizes too big for him, drawn at the waist into pleated puckers at each belt loop by a blue tie belt.  He held his hands in his pockets, and kept his elbows very close to his body.  His blonde hair, though oily with dust and therefore stringy in appearance, was long enough to cover his ears and the nape of his neck, and was of an almost golden hue.

"Do you wish to go play with your friends?" his grandfather asked.

Again the boy only nodded that same no, he did not wish to go play with the other boys, his friends in the small village.  Still his head was kept low, so that his eyes could gaze upon the streaks where the hard ground had cracked and separated, as though he had undertaken a search for the bean seeds his grandfather had dropped earlier, though of course he could not have know about that, having just arrived.  His grandfather looked up at him from his kneeling position in his garden, trying to look into his face, but the boy turned away from him.  He looked at the boy's back and his skinny young arms, and especially at the dark blotches on his skin, which he knew to be also on the boy's face, and which were ugly and raw, some broken open and running like sores.  The old man sensed that they were caused by the harsh sun, and he prayed to God the boy would not become sick and die from them, as his father had done, with his skin wasting away till his very muscles themselves began to rot and wither.  He knew though that this is what would happen, since there were no trees, as there had been in his own youth still a few to protect the boys with shade as they played.  The last tree had given up its leaves over a decade ago, its last bit of life about to be given up too.  And the boys would not wear shirts when they played: they said it was too hot.  Please save him, the old man prayed, he is named for you, lord.  Please save him.

Six feet of garden, in a rich land, would have been sufficient to feed a family of two, its yield a bounty; sufficient too, but sadly, were six feet in a poor land's garden, where not even six miles held potential bounty for two, so it made no difference how small or how large the garden was: an enigma of nature, inexplicable outside the scope of humanity.  One made do.  In a poor land bare sustenance could be as easily scratched from almost nothing as from everything, as six cultivated feet of garden, by perhaps as many in depth, demonstrated in the rear of the old man's house: in a poor land nothing and everything were one, six miles and six feet of bean sprouts both fit inside one's palm.  Having been cleared of stones, which were abundant; having had the cakes of soil worked as if by scouring pads into mounds barely visible; having been intrinsically free of weeds and insects, it yielded enough to support two lives, this garden.  The rear of the house, which was the narrowest point in a strange tapering wooden structure with sun bleached gray painted slats, was no wider than the garden.  The boy's room occupied this minute space, but fortunately he was small, just over five feet in height though fourteen years of age, a circumstance pondered by his grandfather, who stood almost six feet high: would he ever grow, the old man wondered, without taking the time or expending the effort to evaluate the matter.  His house, his garden, his entire plot of ground, seemed but a growth, like a mushroom or a mole, on the vast boiling horizon which knitted the earth into a unit with itself, like an afghan, smoldering, smothering, stifling all life.  There were no such things as clouds, there was only impenetrable haze, of a sort which threatened to disintegrate polarization itself.  The sky, this sky, could melt glass if it chose, as easily as it burned malevolently into the skin and the muscle and bones of human bodies.  To the east, the mountains blocked the sun, reflected back the light, encased the unfortunate valley in perpetual haze.  Blue had not been seen in this sky in several generations.  The mountains were jagged, the foothills too steep and narrow where they plateaued to permit habitation, at least by humans.  No houses, even the tiniest shacks small enough to house the boys, could be built at any save the altitude of the valley floor, where all the heat settled.  A few animals lived in the foothills, grazed; and up high in the mountains were goats and, some said, strange half human creatures with claws half an arm's length, teeth the shape and sharpness if not the size of rapiers, and appetites insatiably ravenous - but creatures which, thankfully, could not endure for so much as a breath the heat below their habitat, otherwise they would long ago have devoured the populace, the old men and the boys, the girls being always taken eventually beyond the mountains by the coastal dwellers who came from time to time across the high mountain passes, unquestionably at great peril of being devoured by the Icemen, as those awful creatures were known.  Were it not for the taking of the girls, all those at least who could not be hidden in time, and the other dreadful activities, the pillaging, the warfare games practiced upon the boys when they were caught, and for the sense of constant terror induced in the populace, they would have felt keen apprehension for the safety of the coastal dwellers when they crossed the mountains.

The boy wandered about the backyard, just outside the garden's periphery, while the old man, not for lack of concern for his grandson but out of simple necessity, turned his back on the boy to get on with tending his garden.  The boy's steps seemed to grow, by turns, lighter then heavier, as if he were debating between anger and sorrow, or hatred and love, till finally his step grew so light his grandfather looked up, half afraid he had vanished into the haze overhead.  He caught the boy's downcast eyes with his own, for the first time since the boy had come home.  This was all that was needed to overwhelm the boy.  It was apparent to the old man that his grandson had done something which filled him with guilt, and he longed to comfort the boy, but would wait till he was asked.

"Grandfather they're gone!" the boy cried out at last.  He stood there trembling as if caught up in the vortex of some great air mass, being ripped apart by winds; and his eyes were as big as bird's eggs, robin's eggs, on balls of cotton, with a hole punched in the center where the eternal lineage of eggs, one behind the other, awaited generation.  Then he burst out crying, overwhelmed by fear and shame and disbelief and heartache, and his tiny body flew into his grandfather's outstretched arms, which enfolded him, the old man's bulky sleeves covering almost the entire of his back.  The boy cried, long and hard, till so many tears alighted on his grandfather's shirt it could no longer be determined where was the sweat of toil, where the sweat of anguish.  Neither the old man nor the boy spoke for a long while, not till the boy had calmed down, and only then did the grandfather's arms begin to unfold the boy and his lips begin to move, lips dried and parched which at first stuck together and had to be forced apart from where they had puckered.

"I know," the old man finally said.  "I know they're gone.  I hadn't the heart to tell you, boy, I'm sorry.  I hadn't the heart.  I know you loved them, just as if they were human.  I know.  It broke my heart to see you go this morning, knowing what you'd find; but I had to let you go.  I couldn't bring myself to tell you.  I'm sorry William.  I'm sorry, my precious love.  So sorry."

"How could you have known I would fail them?  Am I so bad I don't have to sin first, grandfather?  You just know I will?"  It was difficult for the boy to imagine the enormity of such words, they seemed to delineate so overwhelming an evil, a consequent guilt of such intensity, he had but one thing to wonder: how he could stand to go on living.  That, his one thing to ponder in life, though, was known to him already, from the moment he received visual confirmation of what, on approaching the foothills, he had sensed.  His pasture was empty, his small enclosed pasture, at a height just above the base of the foothills; not one of the pastures on high ground where, though the grass, owing perhaps to the thick fogs which came of a morning to settle up there, was richer and thicker, the slant all but precluded the accommodation of cattle, the older boys and even the few grown men still alive maintaining their herds, if watchfully, with one eye on their cattle, the other on the mountain paths leading to the other side; but, rather, his small pasture, one of those just above the first dip of hillside from the valley floor.  The great mountains helped cast some bit of shade across these foothills which, themselves, seemed like herds grazing at the base of the mountains, so it was possible for grass to grow, though not much.  Everyone who could, raised cattle in the foothills.  It was known that from time to time the cattle disappeared, whether having wandered off or having been taken away - and, if taken away, perhaps by the Icemen for food, even though it was known that the heat even in these foothills was too much for them, the contradiction of their being carried off by creatures which could not possibly have come for them less troubling to these inhabitants, herdsmen, of the valley than the thought of their having simply vanished, which was the very thing young William feared most.

There were no fences - who could build them?  The cattle were free to go, but why would they and where to?  Never did there exist a danger of pilferage: no herdsman wanted his neighbor's herd, he had his own and it was all he could do to care for it.  If anything, cattle were given away from neighbor to neighbor.  If one herdsman saw that he could not care for a certain amount, he would go among his peers canvassing, sometimes pleading with them to relieve him of his burden, lest the cattle wander off, farther up, and fall to their deaths.  This was how the few carcasses on the valley floor were thought to have gotten there: from cattle falling off the mountainside.  It never troubled them that these carcasses might lie miles from the foothills; the cattle had fallen, pure and simple.

Rumors - of Icemen, of plunges from mountainsides, even of miraculous ascensions into heaven when the cattle were of an exceptionally gentle demeanor, and seemed actually to smile at their keepers and had, it was sworn, a halo about their heads: even these remarkable instances of divine intercession - were never meant by anyone to transpose truth.  Everyone, of a certain level of maturity, accepted these fantastical tales as just that; they all knew the real cause of the strange, inexplicable disappearances of cattle.  They knew they were taken, and by whom, for they knew full well how they arrived there to begin with and why they were being kept, for what end they were kept alive.

No one in the valley ate meat.  No one could even imagine such a thing.  They ate whatever grains, fruits and vegetables they were able to grow.  Meat was a food for the tables across the mountains, on the coast.  They knew what fate was in store for their cattle; they knew as well the pain of their own complicity, the guilt of raising these animals only that they might be taken off, butchered and eaten.  It was almost too horrible for them to think about, that they were made to do this: to fatten creatures which, to them, were like friends, for the kill.  No one was unscarred by guilt.

"If I had not fed them, grandfather, they could not have been taken," the boy confessed, as if his sin were beyond absolution.

"Did you ask for them?" the old man asked.

"No," was the answer.

"No," echoed the old man, "they were brought to you, set at your very doorstep.  Would you have let them starve?"

The boy nodded that no, he would not have, while the tears once again protruding from his eyes, on his lashes, like beads of dew on feathers, said not only that but he could not possibly have refused them care.

"You fed them because they needed to be fed, did you not?" asked the boy's grandfather.

The boy this time nodded yes, he did just that, for just that reason.

"Your goodness was made to do evil upon the very creatures you sought to do good for, was it not?"

To this question the boy only shrugged.  He turned away from his grandfather to gaze off into the distance, to the great mountains some five miles away, to the peaceful foothills he could barely see from here, and to his own small pasture in the low ground which he could not see at all now.  It made no difference to him what could and could not be seen, his eyes could focus as well in either direction; if what existed eluded him, there was the past to recall.  There, his cattle dwelt, they still grazed there, still could be seen there, in his tiny pasture in the low ground, not a very green pasture, an overgrazed pasture, watered only in fits from melting snows which after tumbling from so great a height left little to water these foothills, the crags and crevices of the great mountains diverting the snows into vast underground reservoirs which led, so it was surmised, out to the sea.  There was said to be a great river, rising in these very mountains, cutting deep channels across the coastal lands to empty into the sea.  It was named, by these people, the Luxor, for having been given birth in the great mountain range, named the Clara Lux by these people of the valley, who had no idea what either was named on the other side, or for that matter what they themselves were called.  All that was really known to be held in common was that they worshipped the same God, after whom every male child, on either side of the mountains, was named, though no one knew where God's name originated.

The boy thought of his God and of his cattle.  God had given them to him.  Such, at least, was the supposition whenever these cattle mysteriously turned up at one's home.  It was thought an act of divine intervention into human affairs, God having placed these, or any such, cattle at his doorstep, that he might care for them so that God, in turn, might come later to reclaim them, once they were fattened.  Nobody believed this though; as with the suppositions surrounding the disappearance of cattle, their mysterious appearance was only a rumor, known not to be truth.  Everyone knew the people from the coast brought them, everyone knew  the people from the coast returned to carry them off, the fact that they always went peacefully and quietly proof of their affinity to the coastal people, their true owners.  To be slaughtered, and cannibalized.

The cattle bleated inside the boy's head, as if begging him to save them.  They grew frantic, he saw them grow frantic.  He reached out, or saw himself reach out, to stroke them behind their ears, which calmed them.  He saw them snuggle close to him, gently so as to do him no harm.  He heard his voice speak to them, he called each by the name he had given it, each in turn coming closer to be petted then backing off to let another come forward.  Their black pelts glistened, except at their foreheads where the hairs were thickened into whirls of tufts; patches of white gleamed, most prominent just between the eyes and down the sides of their faces sometimes, some only a sliver, others a large streak.  He walked among them inside his head, he could feel the vibrations of his steps upon the pasture ground clear down to his feet, a good vibrant feeling.  He regarded his cattle as brothers and sisters - or no, perhaps cousins, some distance removed in lineage, but related certainly: of this he had no doubt.  He need only picture the tenderness their eyes held for him to become convinced of his kinship with them, though their eyes were black while his were blue, his the color of robin's eggs, theirs of the sky at night, the soft glimmer in their eyes like the stars.  Nowhere did they exist but inside his mind any longer.  They were now pieces of black furry meat on some boy's dinner plate: being black and furry outside, the boy reasoned, must they not be so inside too?  They were gone from the real world, they were sitting in little pieces inside some boy's stomach, getting tangled up with peas or corn.  Where were their eyes though? he wondered.  Buried, surely.  Surely buried.

"I couldn't let them starve," the boy whispered to his grandfather.  The boy then looked up at his grandfather and asked "Does God love them as He loves us?"

The boy's grandfather assured him that God did, which seemed to satisfy the boy somewhat, though still a look remained on his face of being unconvinced.  Then he thought to ask another, more pertinent, question: "Does God love those who eat our cattle?"

"They are not ours," the old man made haste to point out.  It seemed a kind of relief to him to be able to say that, after which he went on to admit that, as he surmised, yes, God did love the cannibals too.

"He shouldn't," the boy said.

"Perhaps they need His love more," the old man pointed out, though his words felt like icicles on his tongue, not a good feeling for a man to whom only heat was known.  The boy seemed not to have heard this last statement, for which, upon reconsideration, the old man was grateful.  The boy turned to do some gardening, still mumbling to himself something about them being his friends.

"You needn't do that," the old man advised the boy.  "There'll be plenty of time for gardening."

"I have nothing else to do, now," the boy said.  His mind was still on his lost cattle, not on what he was doing.  He inadvertently uncovered three bean sprouts already planted by his grandfather, which act he failed to notice, as he overlooked the tiny sprouts upturned.  The old man saw, but said nothing, even at the cost of losing the three sprouts.  Still, he could not allow the boy to do further damage.

"I want you to go play," he advised his grandson.  "This is no time for a boy to be working.  Please go among your friends, play, forget what happened."

The boy looked up, puzzled by such a statement.  "I can't forget," he exclaimed, "I watched over them.  I can't forget.  But I will go play."  With that the boy got up and left, trying still to catch sight of his little pasture in the distance, which, owing to the haze if not the distance itself, he could not do.  He saw in his mind the dark haired, dark eyed people from across the mountains coming to trespass, saw them herding his cattle, saw them leading them away, up into the mountains, through the treacherous mountain passes, and down the other side to the coast.  He saw in his mind his cattle's gentle black eyes searching every step of the way for him, heard their mournful bleats, felt their desperation at being left abandoned.  And he saw their black furry flesh, in his mind, being carved, being set upon plates, being devoured by boys, like him, only with dark hair and eyes.  He saw blood on those boys' lips, he saw it drip down their chins onto their hands.  Last of all he saw, in his mind, himself too upon those boys' plates, felt his body being carved, felt his flesh being devoured, felt the sharp vibrations throughout his body, numbing him as if an anesthetic.  He was in a daze, barely aware of his friends' company as they sat playing.  His mind was still on the cattle he had watched, and was still watching, and would continue to watch as long as God chose to let him live.  A wind, a kind of wind, seemed to stir up the dusts, what few dusts there were not already packed down onto the parched cakes of ground.  In the distance was dust being stirred, but his mind was elsewhere.  It was where it would never leave, roaming his pasture in the foothills, rooting among the grasses and stones as though it, too, were grazing, as though it had begun, had had to begin, where his cattle left abruptly off.  Beneath the sky full of warm haze the boy's mind filtered through to the past, where it chose to loiter in the mountain's half shadow, behind the approaching dust storm.