The farmer had taken it out into the field and shot it, right between the eyes. The old bull was arthritic and sluggish and, once led to the edge of the woods, had lowered himself to the ground gingerly, first his forelegs bending and then his haunches, so that he sat and let his heavy head bob down to touch the sweet green grass. In this way the bull was already on its knees when it died and remained there, peacefully waiting and appearing deceptively alive at the edge of the woods. The beast was too heavy to move and dispose of easily, the meat tougher than the butcher, so the farmer had left it there until it could be hauled away. I saw it happen, watched from the woods as the scene unfolded and I folded my laundry down from our clothesline.
Lincoln and I have been travelling for over a month now. By bus, by train, by the bed of the truck of the farmer who was kind enough to pick us up from the side of the interstate and let us camp on his property until we found a new destination. We’d pulled away some crawling kudzu from a clearing in the woods beyond the farmer’s fields and set up our battered tent. It’s been three days and Lincoln and I can’t seem to agree on which way to travel. He wants to head west, to chase the sunset. I cry and say I want to go east, though, east until our toes are dipped in the Atlantic. I don’t have a lot of memories from my childhood but I remember going East with my family and standing along the icy beaches watching the white waves break and feeling nothing. Neither of us have ever had deep roots and the place we had called home was more of a long layover, tethered there by a short-term apartment lease and some part-time jobs and an unfinished nursery. But there is nothing to hold us to that home any more.
We’ve been moving with the steady faith of an Israelite around the walls of Jericho, saying we’re alive but just going through the motions until our self-proclaimed prophecy comes true. But the walls haven’t fallen- they haven’t even shaken.
Her name was Phoenix. An unusual name, yes, but we weren’t ‘usual’ people. We were young and unafraid and sustained by untested faith. We held our breath for 9 months but when Phoenix arrived she was already gone. I think she took a part of me with her, but I haven’t told Lincoln that. We don’t talk about Phoenix any more. To us she might as well really have been a myth. We had set out on the road for an adventure, a distraction, the fulfilment of an old dream. We’ve been moving with the steady faith of an Israelite around the walls of Jericho, saying we’re alive but just going through the motions until our self-proclaimed prophecy comes true. But the walls haven’t fallen- they haven’t even shaken. Our days are long, our nights longer, and I’m beginning to wonder if we’re walking in the wrong direction or with the wrong person.
Our relationship isn’t very different from that dead steer. Separately we are young, but our collective “we” seems wrinkled beyond its years. We too were once so solid that one can’t quite believe it when they press a hand to the wall of bovine muscle and feel it give. Our candy-coated eyes are dazed and milky blind. There is nothing wrong with our relationship, no disease or worm that ate it away. Our relationship simply grew up and up and up until the impossible happened, we died of old age; expired. To now remain in this shared body, to pretend as if we aren’t dead, would be downright morbid.
Tonight I slip out of the tent and tie my backpack on tight. I unfold the newspaper I found curled in his satchel, a battered copy of the New York Times, and shred it as kindling for the fire to replace my warmth by his side. Tiptoeing through the grass, now white and smelling of first frost, I walk a wide circle around the dead bull. I make my way towards the road, pause, and turn to face the bull’s bowed head. The sun is rising, the first notes of peach symphony stirring the feathered sky. The old bull’s head has fallen so as to tilt to the side, quizzical. I stand for a moment, chewing my lip and staring into the animal’s sightless eyes, then notice a spot of red where the bull’s horn touches the earth. It’s not blood, as I’d first thought, but a wildflower. I don’t know its name, or species, or if it would be judged more weed than flower, or how long it will grow until winter prunes away its little life, but there is life there nonetheless. New life. I bow ever so slightly, paying my respects to the old steer, and turn to the road.