Animal Husbandry, fiction by Jeff Fleischer

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“Nothing about it’s right,” Herm Dublin said, smiling at his friends while still regarding the animal in his arms with a sense of horror.

(“Animal Husbandry” first appeared in Printer’s Row Journal)

AT AROUND TWO in the afternoon, on an otherwise unimportant Tuesday in June, Herm Dublin’s prize heifer gave birth.

It happened the way such things normally did. She’d been heavy with a calf for some time, and Dublin looked forward to the birth the way all small, organic dairy farmers did. A pregnant heifer was a heifer who’d soon be producing a lot of milk, and a calf meant a potential future source of even more milk. Dublin’s farm was hardly in trouble, but a successful birth was always welcome. When the time came, the heifer began to grunt loudly, and several minutes later she’d expelled her offspring onto the ground behind her, a trail of vibrant red afterbirth still hanging off her flanks.

One motorist driving by honked in a salute of congratulations, and a semi passing the other way did likewise. Herm Dublin smiled and tipped his broad-brimmed hat. Word usually traveled fast between the farms in that part of the countryside, and it wouldn’t be long before some of his neighbors would stop by to see the new addition to his herd. Herm looked over toward his heifer’s scion, who was still covered in the mother’s blood and taking a while to get upright. Dublin couldn’t get a clear view from where he was weeding on the other side of the paddock, but the amount of effort the heifer put into cleaning and nudging her offspring worried him that the calf might be stillborn. Still, Dublin knew his way around cattle, and knew to give her some space until the baby was standing.

Dublin’s friend Jim O’Hara, who owned the soybean farm down the road, came strolling by, whistling a familiar sea shanty. He was dressed for the field, in his overalls and mesh cap, and had long ago mastered the ability to whistle clearly even while chewing a large plug of wintergreen tobacco. “Looks like you got a plenty big calf there,” he called out to Dublin.

“Yep. Fresh one, too,” Dublin said, ambling over as the younger man hopped the painted-wood fence. The two clasped hands, and O’Hara offered Dublin a chaw, which he declined as always with a wave of his hand.

When Dublin looked back at the calf, however, something seemed off. The heifer had given up her quest to make it stand, and instead grazed near some of the other cows. The young animal wasn’t stillborn as Dublin had initially feared, as it moved against the ground on its own, but its mother hadn’t bothered to finish cleaning it. A cow giving up on a living calf was something neither man had ever seen before, and they knew there had to be a reason. They discovered it quickly.

The calf had fully formed horns on its head. They were still in proportion to the animal’s size, but it usually took the better part of a year for a Holstein bull to grow horns like that. Then, there was the body. Which wasn’t calf-like at all, but almost human. Covered in bristly black and white fur, sure, and with hooves. The torso, though, was definitely humanish in the tightness of its ribs and the curve of its spine, and the front shoulders were set so that the front legs could hang on the calf’s sides. Even the animal’s head was wrong somehow. He – and both farmers could see it was a he – had the big black eyes of a cow, only they faced forward with the binocular gaze of a hunter, rather than sitting in sockets on the side of the head, the way the eyes of a prey animal should.

O’Hara let out a long whistle, and nearly swallowed his plug of tobacco. “I’ll be darned. Looks like you got yourself some kind of cow boy. Only time I ever seen one of them was back in Davenport when I was a kid.” He was thinking of a traveling sideshow that his parents had taken him to see on one of their summer driving trips through the Midwest. “Thing weren’t much bigger than this one. It was all like preserved, in a big jar. Didn’t look this real, though…. Hadn’t thought about that in years.”

Dublin wasn’t nearly as calm about the situation, but tried to match his friend’s ease on the surface. “This ain’t natural,” he said, shaking his head. His mind had already made the required, awful jump. If this cow really was part boy, or if it was a boy that was part cow, then that meant his prize heifer had the kind of encounter he didn’t even want to picture. All he knew for sure was it wasn’t his own doing.

The calf, or whatever it was, still squirmed in the way of a newborn child, and started to cry. It wasn’t the wail of a normal human baby, but it also wasn’t the sound of a regular calf. Instead, it was something otherworldly, guttural and pained.

O’Hara was a grain farmer by trade, but grew up in a dairy family and still maintained a keen interest in animal husbandry. “Better get the cow boy out of there,” he suggested. “It keeps on bawling like that, it’s gonna spook the others. Can’t have your milk getting sour.” Herm thought the point well taken, and grabbed an armful of towels from one of the clotheslines he kept near the fence. While his friend continued to pontificate, he began to dry the blood from the writhing animal. “I remember my old man telling me about the time that coyote came around. Said the howling scared the whole herd, they was on edge for days, twitchy. Maybe a whole month’s worth of milk must’ve gone bad….”

Herm Dublin had dried the calf – he still wanted to think of it as a deformed calf, rather than the monstrous hybrid it so obviously was – and swaddled it as gently as he could with the remaining clean towels. He held the animal a short distance away from his body, which proved wise as one of the horns grazed his right shoulder and left a stinging but unserious scrape. He carried it over to the fence where O’Hara stood. His friend examined the animal closely, at once fascinated and repulsed by its oddity, but the animal cried when he tried to touch it. Jim spat out some tobacco juice and tried not to stare at the hybrid’s cold, black eyes. It continued to cry, and both men felt shivers as they heard that unnatural sound up close.

Not knowing what else to do with it, they decided to show the animal to Old Zed, the country veterinarian, who lived only about half a mile down the road. Zed had never much cared for the telephone – “If it’s important enough to bother me, it’s important enough to come find me,” he always said – and the two farmers figured he’d deem this important enough to bother him. Besides, finding him was never that hard. Zed rarely left his plot, unless it was to make a house call in the area. He was never gone long, and usually came home straight away.

Sure enough, they found Zed in the handmade rocking chair on his porch, reading an old detective novel while his bloodhound Jolene slept at his feet. “Hey boys,” he greeted them. Zed’s bones creaked nearly as much as his old chair, and O’Hara and Dublin were next to him before he had time to get up. He tipped his fishing hat to them and leaned back, starting the chair to rock again. Before he could say anything else, the bundle in Dublin’s arms made a plaintive noise, and Zed’s hound dog jumped up. The old girl turned, pushed the swinging screen door to the house open, and darted inside as the door slammed behind her from the motion. Zed laughed a bit, and looked with interest at the cow-headed boy his friend carried.

“Well, I’ll be,” he said with a broad smile. “Looks like you boys got yourselves a minotaur. I never seen one of these in the flesh before. How’d you come across it?” Herm Dublin told the old man how he came to own this unusual beast, and how he wasn’t sure what exactly to do with it, and how he didn’t want to chance spoiling his year’s yield by spooking all his cows. “Nah, that’s just one of them urban legends,” Zed said, as O’Hara looked surprised. “I reckon they’ll be fine, just maybe a bit confused.”

As he spoke, the old vet instinctively began to examine the hybrid infant. He held his index finger against its dewlap to check the heartbeat, then moved the finger slowly in front of the eyes to make sure the animal tracked its movement properly. The only time the vet registered surprise was when he opened the animal’s mouth, and found a cow’s thick tongue in a mouth full of primate teeth. “Now that’s right strange,” he said. “These teeth are too sharp for grazing, and with the body the way it is, I’ll reckon the stomach’s not got all the right parts anyway.”

“Nothing about it’s right,” Herm Dublin said, smiling at his friends while still regarding the animal in his arms with a sense of horror, a sense that this minotaur was wholly unnatural. Herm Dublin wasn’t the most pious man around – he hadn’t gone to church in years – but he figured nothing good could come from anything this humanish with horns. His younger friend, however, continued to regard it with curiosity, like this cow boy living and breathing among them was no different than the deformed bull fetus in a jar of formaldehyde at the sideshow. “Why’s he keep yelling like that?” O’Hara asked when the vet removed his hands from the animal’s mouth and received another wail in response.

Old Zed pondered the question for a minute, then laughed. “That’s an easy one. Poor thing’s a couple hours old already, and ain’t had anything to eat.” He went into the house for a few minutes and returned with a glass bottle of raw milk. The minotaur cried hysterically when he saw it. He tried to reach for it the way a human baby would reach for a bottle, but his hooves stopped him from gripping and holding it. The vet took the swaddled animal in his arms and poured the milk into the oddly formed mouth, where the minotaur’s thick tongue lapped it up.

The screen door swung open, and Zed’s daughter Angie joined them. She was only in town for the summer before heading back to school come September. Angie had always been a bright girl, the first of Zed’s long line of offspring to go off to college, and still had a whole mess of books up in her room. “What you got there, Daddy?” she asked. “I didn’t know anybody around here was expecting….” She stopped mid-sentence when she saw the horned child.

“I was just expecting a calf,” Herm Dublin said somewhat apologetically, wondering if this animal would feed the same way a normal calf did, and again thinking how wrong that would look. “Just a plain old ordinary calf. Instead, my cow gives birth to this here minotaur. Not quite sure what to do with it; figured your pa might have some ideas.”

“I might. I read about one of these in one of my classes,” the girl said, noticing that Old Zed beamed with pride at hearing his daughter sound so smart. “I’m not sure it’s a minotaur. I think that’s if a woman, like a person woman, has a baby with a bull. Sounds like a man had a baby with your cow.” Everyone laughed at that, except Herm Dublin, who didn’t like being reminded of it. “Tell you what, I think I got a book about ’em. Hold on.”

The girl went back inside for just a few minutes, while the cow boy finished his milk and the three men continued to regard the animal’s odd face. The minotaur had stopped crying, but there was still something in its eyes that made Dublin uncomfortable. A sense that, even when its appetite was satisfied, it had a feral, inhuman quality. Herm Dublin had lived around animals his whole life, and he knew that all of them – especially dogs and cats and pigs, but even cows – had a softness in their eyes, a look that told you something about their individual personalities. This animal didn’t have that.

Angie came back with a book, and handed it to Dublin. It was a ragged, used textbook she had left over from a high school literature class, with a bunch of pen markings all over it, and a few visibly torn pages. “There’s a story in here all about a minotaur that used to live in Greece,” she said. “Figure it can be like an instruction book for you, all about how to raise one. Been a while since I read it, but might have some good pointers.”

Dublin thanked the girl, while O’Hara took the cow boy from Old Zed, and the two of them walked back to the Dublin farm. The rest of the cows – or rightly, Dublin figured, all the cows, since this wasn’t really one – were still grazing, but it was getting late in the day and he had to start milking. He and O’Hara made a pile of straw in the barn for the minotaur, a place where Herm could keep an eye on it while milking the others, but where it would otherwise stay out of sight of the other animals. While Herm busied himself with his work, Jim took the textbook home to read up on how to take care of a minotaur, promising he’d return the next day with some ideas.

By the time O’Hara showed in the morning, the minotaur calf had started to find its wobbly legs. It could only get up on them for a few seconds before falling down, making it still a lot slower than a normal calf, but still far ahead of the pace for a normal human baby. It was comfortable enough that it could sometimes stay upright for a few minutes and lick up raw milk from a short-rimmed bucket Dublin had left for it, but it spent most of its time moving about awkwardly in the pile of straw the farmer had put together.

“How’d your reading go?” Herm Dublin asked his friend, as they cooked eggs and potatoes in skillets on his back porch. “Think we can get a handle on what to do with this here minotaur?”

Jim O’Hara took a deep breath. Sure as his word, he’d gone home and read everything about the minotaur in the book, and now he was starting to share his friend’s suspicion that this thing wasn’t just unusual but flat out wasn’t right. “Now, I don’t rightly know how much of this book is true,” he began, spitting before he continued. “I never read nothing else about them, but some of this just shouldn’t be.” Dublin nodded, urging his friend to keep on, but O’Hara seemed nervous about continuing. “Thing is, according to this book, a minotaur…well, a minotaur eats people.”

“That don’t make sense. It’s got a cow’s head, and a cow don’t eat people, or even eat meat,” Dublin said. He knew some of the bigger, non-organic farms did feed their cows a bunch of cheap feed that had ground-up cow parts in it, but he knew that wasn’t right either. “And the other half’s a person, and people don’t eat people.”

“Book says it does it cause a minotaur’s unnatural, and it has to do unnatural stuff. Lots of unnatural stuff. Says the minotaur’s supposed to live in a big maze that he can’t figure a way out of, and you’re supposed to feed him seven men and seven women.” He continued, with a severe look on his face. “They gotta all be virgins and they gotta go into his maze alive so he can kill ’em himself. Book says every nine years, but then there’s another part saying it might be every year. Doesn’t seem rightly sure.”

“I reckon it’s gotta be every year. It can’t go nine years without eating…” Herm Dublin trailed off, and O’Hara wasn’t sure what to say either. The two farmers ate their eggs and potatoes in silence, but both were thinking the same thing. They couldn’t in good conscience feed people to the minotaur. Maybe there were some criminals who might deserve a fate like that, but neither of them knew of any criminals who were virgins. Around their part of the countryside, folks still had children pretty young, and just about everyone left school with at least some experience. The ones who didn’t tended not to be the criminal type.

Herm Dublin did have one idea. “Maybe it’s best if we kill it,” he said with an air of resignation. “Can’t rightly let fourteen people die every year just to keep one person alive. Especially if it’s only kind of a person.” Even as he said it, he wondered if it would be murder – if the act would count as slaughtering a bull or killing an unarmed boy.

O’Hara’s face fell. He’d been troubled by what he’d read in the book, but he also found it interesting. He knew he didn’t want to let anybody die to feed the minotaur, but he also didn’t want to kill him. Like that one in the jar, this animal was different, was special. While his friend couldn’t escape the idea of some strange man creating this outcome, O’Hara wondered if the minotaur hadn’t come from something else, like some next step in evolution or some new part of creation. Didn’t seem right to get rid of it, at least not yet, especially if it was the only one. “For now, he’s only drinking milk,” he began, noting that he called the minotaur him when he talked, while Dublin always used it. “Reckon it’ll be a while before he needs, well, solid food. No reason not to see what happens natural.”

Dublin nodded, and Jim O’Hara knew he’d bought the animal some time. For the next few weeks, the minotaur continued to live in the farmer’s barn, drinking raw milk, growing larger, getting more comfortable on its legs. All four at first, but by Indian summer the minotaur had started to walk on two legs, hunched, but mostly upright. Old Zed would drop by from time to time to check on the minotaur’s health, and Angie would hand feed it apples or carrots, stroking the animal’s broad, cold nose. There was too much cow in the minotaur for it to speak properly, but both Dublin and O’Hara grew to know the meanings of its grunts and moans.

Herm Dublin realized after some time that he’d somehow grown attached to the beast that once horrified him. He still saw no look of recognition in the minotaur’s black eyes, but he often found himself patting its coarse fur and starting to think of the animal, if not as a friend or even a pet, as something different and special. Like O’Hara, he started to think of the minotaur as him, and the idea of killing him gradually moved to the back of the farmer’s mind. By the end of September, however, the minotaur had grown to the size of a healthy human teenager, and it became clear even to Jim O’Hara that the question of the animal’s future would have to be decided soon. The time for that decision came without warning on a cool Monday evening, when a boy from the local high school came by to haul away some scrap metal for a few dollars.

Dublin wasn’t entirely sure what happened, but the boy must’ve cut himself pretty bad on one of the rusty sheets of corrugated as he threw it on the back of his truck. Almost as soon as the blood started running down the boy’s arm, Dublin could hear the guttural cry of his special hybrid from the barn, as if he smelled and wanted what must have been virginal blood. Within seconds, the minotaur broke out of the barn and ran at the young man, who stood too frozen in shock to react as the creature charged toward him with the speed of an enraged bull and the bloodlust of a feral man. The farmer could only watch from the window as his strange charge ripped the boy apart, with both horns and hooves, and began to consume him in a frenzy. Dublin knew there was nothing he could do, as his fear of interrupting the chaos overwhelmed his curiosity and kept him an observer at the window. The animal ate quickly and without a break, as if it had gone days without food. Once done, the minotaur got up and walked to the barn with the calm gait of an accomplished and satiated man, leaving behind a grotesque pile of bone and meat.

Still not quite believing what he’d seen, Dublin eased out his back door and ran down the road in the direction of O’Hara’s soybean farm. He was careful to stay in the shadows, making sure he was never in the sightline of his own barn, and trying to avoid the attentions of any passing drivers who might have seen something. O’Hara’s farm was barely a mile away, but the run seemed to Dublin to take forever, between the physical stress of the run on his ample frame and the mental stress of having no real plan of action.

He found his friend reading the newspaper in his hammock, and O’Hara nearly jumped from the sling when he saw Dublin drenched in sweat and shaking from terror. After catching his breath, the dairy farmer recounted the horror of what he’d just seen, realizing its reality as he described it aloud. Neither man could deny that this turn of events wasn’t right, and that it was time to do something drastic. They drove O’Hara’s pickup down to Old Zed’s place, sure he would know what had to be done, and easily found the creaky veterinarian asleep in his rocking chair.

When the three men arrived at the Dublin farm, they could hear that the minotaur was asleep in the barn, breathing heavily from the weight of its overfilled belly. The cattle had clearly been spooked by the whole ordeal, as nearly all of them had taken their sleeping stances along the far end of the paddock, as close to the fence opposite the barn as their instincts could get them. The poor prize heifer seemed particularly troubled, still awake and absently turning herself in circles against the fenced perimeter, seeming not to notice she was repeatedly scraping her side on a loose board.

Zed was the first to enter the barn. His movements woke the minotaur, but the animal didn’t show any aggression, or move much at all. It just looked at the vet with the same neutral expression the men had all come to know. “There, there,” the vet said as he took a long needle from his gunnysack and proceeded to give the tired animal a shot of tranquilizer. It was a large dose, enough to put most animals under, but the minotaur’s body was unusually thick and strong. “Reckon this will do the trick, but he might still be awake,” Old Zed said. “Now’s as good a time as any to end this.” Unable to watch the inevitable, the vet placed a hand on the dairy farmer’s shoulder and headed out to the road. He hummed to himself as he walked home, unconsciously trying to drown out the sound that would come any second, as he thought about what he’d say about that evening the next time his daughter called him from school.

Once the old man had departed, Herm Dublin took down the rifle he kept on hooks inside the barn wall, the one he usually used just to scare the coyotes away. He loaded the gun in the usual manner, pumped it once, and prepared to farewell the calf he’d so anticipated not that long ago. Dublin looked into the animal’s black eyes, which showed no sign of the comprehension he’d see in a dog or cat or pig, or even a cow. He raised the gun, but he just couldn’t do it. This just wasn’t right.

He and O’Hara knew they had to take some action soon, as the tranquilizer would only last so long, and neither knew what would happen once the powerful animal came to or if it would comprehend what they were doing. After whispering to each other for a few minutes, the two farmers settled on a plan. It was one O’Hara had mentioned in passing several days earlier, after he’d reread the key sections of Angie’s textbook. He wasn’t rightly serious when he’d suggested it, but he did note it was a solution that would prevent them from having to make a terrible choice. The way he’d put it was that maybe the minotaur was supposed to live, and maybe that meant it had to feed, but that didn’t mean they had to be the ones to feed it.

Jim O’Hara had thought about the maze in the book, the one where the minotaur lived but couldn’t find a way out, and how there was a maze like that not all that far from them. The Davidson farm the next town over was the kind of farm that didn’t actually grow anything anymore, but got passed down through a family that liked living in a big farmhouse and having the land to themselves. The old owners had planted their hedge rows in a tricky pattern, and over generations the maze had become a tourist draw for the whole county. The Davidsons added more layers every few years, until the thing took up quite a few hectares. Just about anyone who ever wandered in had to call one of the Davidsons to help them find their way out, and the whole thing was fenced in so that the family could charge admission during the summer.

Dublin figured that was where the cow boy belonged, in as close to his natural state as such an unnatural animal could exist. He and O’Hara carefully dragged the sedated minotaur from the barn, past the spooked cows in the paddock. With great effort they lifted the animal into the back of Dublin’s truck and strapped it down, just in case the tranquilizer wore off too soon. They drove in silence through the dusk, across the quiet county line, eventually coming to the Davidson farm’s maze. Knowing that they couldn’t exactly ask permission for what they were doing, they carefully lifted the animal from the truck, dropped it onto a wheeled flatbed O’Hara kept in the backseat, and took a spool of fishline with to help them find their own way out of the maze.

Together, the two farmers maneuvered the sedated minotaur through the brackets and twists of the thick, metal-framed hedge rows, trailing the fish line behind them. They made sure to double back, to take wrong turns, whatever they could to further disorient the pitiful but powerful cow boy, on the off chance it was paying attention. When the spool showed they had run out of line, the farmers slid the minotaur off the flatbed and onto the soft soil in the midst of the hedges. O’Hara was too sad to do more than tip his cap to the unique animal, but Dublin bent down, rubbed the calf’s nose and took one more look into the eyes he now thought of as unmarked rather than blank. While the minotaur was still too drugged to move, the two men followed their line back to the end of the maze, winding it back on the spool as they went. They packed up their supplies and prepared to leave, but Dublin realized they had one more task at hand. He ripped a page out of the road atlas in the pickup’s glove compartment and scribbled a thorough note to leave on the Davidsons’ door, anonymously warning them about their horticultural creation’s new purpose and the true nature of its new resident, and urging them not to enter the maze anymore. After all, it wouldn’t have been right not to warn them. Neither Herm Dublin nor Jim O’Hara ever went back to the maze, and the two men vowed never to tell anyone else about the minotaur or what they did with it.

Dublin never found out how or why his heifer came to give birth to that calf, or how long the hybrid animal survived on its own. There were rumors, from time to time, that a high school boy who reckoned he had something to prove had disappeared in the maze, or that farmers sleeping out on a hot night had heard the guttural cry of the minotaur, or even that the warning note – and the story it told – was just something the Davidsons had cooked up to stop teenage couples from using their property for extracurricular activity. Those rumors lasted a long time, a whole lot longer than most cows ever lasted. Dublin never knew if it was the minotaur itself, or just the fear and curiosity its cries had inspired, that was keeping the rumors alive.

Each time one of his heifers grew heavy with a calf, Herm Dublin feared another minotaur was about to enter his world, even as part of him shared Jim O’Hara’s hope of getting another glimpse at another oddity. Each time a calf was born, both men had to admit, even if only to each other, that they were a little disappointed by the animal’s normal form. Both knew that feeling just wasn’t right, but it also felt sort of natural.

© Jeff Fleischer, 2012

 

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than a dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post, Steam Ticket, Pioneertown and Crossborder Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence,” “Rockin’ the Boat,” and “The Latest Craze.” He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.

 

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