Day Zero

From my kitchen window, I no longer look to the sky or the field. In fact, I try not to look outside, and if I do, then I try not to think of what it is I am seeing. I busy myself inside the house, sending Tom to town for any groceries we need.

I’m putting the last cookie sheet into the oven when I hear Tom come in. Good timing, the coffee perk is just finished. He sets the mail on the table, gives me a hug.

“I picked up Trooper and brought him home. He was halfway to the other farmyard.” He pours our coffees, grabs a cookie from the cooling rack and we begin to sort the mail.

“Trooper doesn’t understand why we have no work here,” I said. My heart is in the same boat. My head can barely understand. It’s the drought, I think, as if one more acknowledgment is going to make it palatable.

“Yeah. Dogs can’t read, so no sense sending a memo.” Tom’s words are light but I think of how that memo might be worded. ‘Operations are suspended due to unforeseen circumstances. Your employment is no longer necessary.’ A pink slip, they call it, and I picture the sale bill for our cows. It is our pink slip.

We open envelopes and scan the newspapers in silence. Trooper will return to the other farmyard, he’s gone back and forth the mile between our farms, all his life. The pathway between is written in the soil itself but now there is a detour on that path. My sister Bridget and her husband Vince did not choose to sell their cattle, instead they have to find feed somewhere, both pastures to get them through the summer months and then feed for the winter.

Trooper is the only member of our work crew that feels free to go to both farmyards and that’s instinctive. He will be where a cattle dog might find work. But Trooper is our cattle dog. It’s like the post pounder. It’s ours too, but Bridget and Vince are using it. Then I remember that the mobile loading chute belongs to them and is still sitting at our corrals where we used it to load our cows and their calves onto the waiting trucks that hauled them to the auction mart. Until this drought year, we never gave ownership of post pounders, chutes, or dogs much thought.

I can smell the cookies, and so I busy myself at the far end of the kitchen, quietly pausing to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. There may be no moisture coming from the skies but it’s a different story with my tear ducts. I tell people it is from the dust that hangs in the air, and in a way that isn’t a lie.

“Vince has Bridget fencing the ditches now.” Tom takes another cookie. “Nice they have a post pounder to use. There’s a real flurry of fencing in the countryside, let me tell you, Lisa.” He doesn’t stop chewing to add, “Yep. Anybody who has held on to their cattle is in for the scramble now.”

I’ve heard that statement before. In fact, it has turned into a mantra for Tom who needs to do his daily drought report, but for once, let something else be the topic. Chocolate chip cookies. The arrowheads I found in the pasture. Anything.

“Maybe, since we don’t have cattle to chase after, we could go for a little getaway. What about Little Fort?” I hear a tiny tremor in my voice, though a mountain fishing trip itself isn’t that important to me, but getting away from the ‘drought of ’02’ would be wonderful. Tom raises his eyes to me then.

“I’m sorry. This isn’t easy on you either.”

I blink rapidly as I find my oven mitts, the pan of cookies is almost ready.

“Have you talked with Bridget lately?”

“I can’t imagine what it’s like for her. She knew. They should have sold their cows, same time as us. I showed them the math.”

The timer buzzes and I place the hot sheet of cookies out to rest for three minutes.

It’s a gamble, a sort of bet with the skies. If it rains, then there will be feed. If it doesn’t…Vince and Bridget decided to keep their cows. We decided to sell ours. The roots of the grass will not sustain repeated grazing. Tom and I have put our resources into defending the grass, our basic unit that we hope to keep intact for the time when this drought passes. Vince and Bridget have worked hard to build their purebred Simmental herd’s reputation and quality. In their mind the animals are their basic unit.

“Nobody can tell Vince what to do. Nothing new about that.” Tom’s hand hovers over the cooled cookies, then he stops himself.

“But she’s the one that pays for it.” I can feel the history of my sister’s stress as if it were my own. “Bridget’s too deep in work to say much, although she has big regrets.”

“I’m glad you two have each other.” Tom sits back down at the table, unfolds the newspaper and is about to open it when he senses the need for something else. “And I’m glad I have you beside me in this.”

I glance out the window for a moment. This is unheard of. Coming on for several years, the slow drying of the earth, the below average snowfall, the rains less than adequate; this is a drought. Of the century, some said.

Short of drawing all the drapes, sliding the verticals, and not looking outside, I couldn’t help but see the drought. I could bend my head over my baking all I wanted, but eventually I would look up and see the scabbed-over depression that once was a water source, see the dark but colorless grass and know the drought all over again.

I look at Tom and see he’s still watching me with concern.

“Never mind me.” I said. “I just wish…that Bridget had someone like you.”

“Instead of Vince? Amen to that.” He opens his paper, then his head shoots back up. “Jeez, the coffee shop story is that Vince phoned the pound about a stray steer in their pasture.”

He looks pleased to share this tidbit although he’s not one of those. The way we left it with Vince and Bridget has left all of us wanting to prove that we are right. Stress plays its hand in bizarre ways.

“Bridget is the one who phoned about the steer. She had already talked with the owner twice. Who knows how many times she talked with Vince,” I said.

It’s the unvarnished truth and I’m glad to set the record straight. People will get it. When there is no grass for animals you own, there certainly isn’t any for someone else’s.

“Could be their turn next. Their cows are really pushing the fence,” Tom says as he begins to read the paper. In the past he would have said our turn. He’s distanced himself from those days of partnership. But at least he isn’t sarcastic enough to call the cows Vince’s precious purebred herd, too good to sell.

I’ve already told Bridget that Vince isn’t going to move their cattle into our pastures. We sold our cattle to save our grass. So why would we allow it to be grazed down to the roots now? From the look on Bridget’s face I could tell that Vince has been working on just that possibility. She swallowed her desperation without a word to me.

“Should we go get the post pounder or return their chute?” I need to know if this plan is in the back of Tom’s mind. Tom shakes his head no.

“They’ll come around, and by next year when the drought is over and we buy back cattle, we can pick up the partnership. Maybe get a few more things down in writing.”

“Lots of ifs in that plan.”

“The drought will end.”

I look out the window to see if there are any signs that Tom is right, perhaps a rain cloud forming in the sky. I look to our bale yard, and know there is a winter’s worth of feed, as Tom has always aimed for two years’ supply when the feed is plentiful.

I see Trooper slip through the shelterbelt. He’s on his way to Bridget and Vince’s yard, and as I listen carefully, I pick out a faint whistle above the sound of Vince’s quad. No wonder Trooper keeps leaving our yard. It is in me to not tell Tom why the dog has left again. It is for the good of our relationship with Bridget and Vince, I tell myself. It’s my sister who needs help and more than just a dog. I think of all of those things and more. When I picked up the dog the last time, Bridget told me that after three days of setting up electric fencing to complete the surrounding of a quarter section of burnt out crops, they then had to pound a ground rod six feet deep in, just to have enough moisture so that the electric fencer would work. They gain five days of grazing for the cattle. It is hard work but the cattle will starve. Their grazing has to be approaching day zero. Zero days of grazing ahead for their cows.

I’m glad to remember that our cattle have homes. Although they may well be on the auction block again, some of them were sold into areas still without rain. They might just be on their way to one of the slaughter plants that we’ve heard are running around the clock. I steel my heart against sentimentality. We are harvesting grass, as much as we are raising cattle. No grass. No cattle. There is a firming in me that will get me through the next little while. Until I hear a cow bawl, or I see their misery again. I already know better than to look at the grass.

“I think that Vince has just called our dog. Maybe their cows have broken out,” Tom says, and I follow him out of the house.

But the cows, as we drive past, gather at the gate, where they bawl for the longest time before they go once more around the fence line looking for overlooked grass. Their heads push through the fence, their tongues reach and their shoulders push hard until they gain a mouthful. We follow the sound of Vince’s quad and we find him in their barnyard setting up corral panels.

“Good. Just so you know. I’ll be coming for our chute.” Vince barely looks up as he wraps wire around a corral post and the bar of a corral panel that Bridget is holding in place.

“Hang on. I guess you’re trucking the cattle somewhere but this isn’t going to hold ’em.” Tom puts his hand onto one of Vince’s posts and it sways inward, the corral panel moves unsteadily, while the next panel adjoined swings off the ground.

“I’ll make it work. I’ve got more panels; I can drive a couple of solid posts and tamp them in and it’ll work. If you’re not going to help, then let me do my work.”

Tom steps back, his face a dull red, he looks at me and lifts his hands in a helpless gesture. Vince bends back to his work, tying more wire around the panel and around another loose post.

As we watch Vince, I come close to Tom, my hand first on his forearm and then slid around to hug his shoulder.

“I’ve got truckers lined up,” Bridget tells us. “They’ll be here at eight, tomorrow morning.”

Vince looks up then, with a sigh. He wipes his brow. Nobody has to say that there isn’t enough time to make the old corral sound. Vince and Tom have built the new one at our place. There is a pause, and it seems while we are all knowing that the corral to use is at our place, someone has to be the first to say so.

Trooper appears with a stick in his mouth. Inviting us to a game of fetch. I throw the stick and Trooper speeds off in a playful rush.

“Where are the cattle going?” I ask Bridget. “Not to…” I can’t say to slaughter, I can’t.

A breath escapes Bridget. “No. No, they’re not. I’ve been phoning.”

She tells us of how she heard of a purebred breeder in Manitoba died in January.

“I didn’t know what was happening, other than his cows got sold right away. But the land is tied up until the kids decide what to do with it. They’re going to let us pasture there, and put up the hay as well. I don’t even know what it’s going to cost, but we don’t have to sell the cows.”

Trooper returns with the stick and Bridget smiles because he has dropped it at her feet. She picks up the stick, fakes a toss, and then sends it high into the air.

Tom clears his throat. “You might as well bring the cattle over to the good corral.”

Vince drops his fencing pliers and straightens his back to look at Tom, then me and finally at Bridget. She doesn’t hesitate.

“I’m getting some beer, Vince. Stop working on the corral and talk with Tom. And Tom, talk with Vince. Shake hands, whatever you have to do.” Bridget turns back to the farmhouse.

“Amen to that,” I say. I give Tom a wink and he returns my smile. Trooper has come to Vince with his game stick. He passes it to Tom. “Your dog wants to be friends.”

“He’s pretty smart,” Tom said, and Vince nods. “Maybe he’d like a beer too.” Tom throws the stick; it arcs into the dusk and drops from sight while the dog races after it.

Tom and Vince open their beers and sit on the end gate of the truck. Bridget brings me over to her peonies; their scent fills the quiet air. As the light creeps away from the land, the hills become profiles of dark against the setting sun. The signs of the drought sneak into the shadows and once more my heart finds peace.

Bridget and Vince spent three weeks on that ranch in Manitoba before Vince rolls his quad. We do whatever we can, travelling the miles too, as Vince is treated, as the pastures hold out, as the feed for winter is put up, as we all learn the extent of Vince’s brain injury. Bridget holds a dispersal sale in November, by that time the drought breaks and some feed can be found, so there were buyers. Bridget’s connections in the Simmental Association, and the quality of their cattle, meant they come out of it fairly well. Vince understands it had to be done. We buy back cattle ourselves, only to have the prices plummet due to BSE and the U.S. border being closed. The cattle industry recovered slowly but it did recover. We survived. So did the grass.

But that scene, where the hills lay in the half-light of dusk, the dog helping us to play, the low voices of the men as their conversation is punctuated by a swallow of beer, the scent of the peonies and my sister enjoying her flowers beside me holds true. I see it now not as a scene from the drought, but as a picture of our team, as a realization of our humanity.

Liz Betz resides in rural Alberta, Canada, where she enjoys her retirement hobby of fiction writing. Her short stories have been published in numerous publications, most recently Pif Magazine and Spadina Literary Review.

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