My palms burn from the small cuts that tear into them. It’s the middle of November. The sky is dark, grey, and sits heavy on my shoulders. Everything is covered with a thin blanket of ice, including us. The trees that surround our tiny farm look like they’re coated in glass and the thin blanket of frost on the ground makes a delightful crunch with each step we take.
We’ve been out here for hours trying to get this barbed wire fence up before sunset. My back is sticky and cold with sweat and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to lift my arms tomorrow morning.
I’m dreaming about a hot cup of coffee while my father madly sledge-hammers a post into the frost-cracked soil. A new curse word erupts from his throat each time he hits a rock — about every four seconds. This could have — no, should have — been finished weeks ago when the weather was warmer and the threats we faced were quieter. I bring a section of my palm to my mouth to soothe the sting. The post my father is attempting to plunge into the earth falls to the side with a pathetic thunk. He swears again and wipes the sweat from his brow. He looks like he’s losing a game of Whack-A-Mole.
“Dad, how much more wire do we need?”
I rub my palms together; the friction drags the tears in my skin out further. I wince.
“Just a few more feet.”
He picks up the post. My face scrunches up at the thought of having to unfurl more barbed wire. My hands continue to burn.
“Janey, will you hold this up for me so it don’t fall no more?”
I do as I’m told, as I always do.
“Grip it tight. I don’t wanna hit you on accident.”
“I got it, Dad.”
He raises the sledgehammer and lets it fall gracefully toward the top of the post. I feel the earth crack and give. He smashes the post one final time and it nestles comfortably into its newfound home in the dirt. As my father admires his work, I spot Wilbur, our bull, absently plodding toward us. My brow furrows and I point to him. My father spins around and swears. He turns back; his eyes could burn a hole through me.
“Did you leave the barn open?”
“I locked it like I always do.”
He takes off running.
I sprint after him, but he’s fueled by a desperation I simply can’t match. I come to a screeching halt at the barn. Inside, the walls have been painted crimson- the smell of iron knocks me backward. For half a second, the new macabre décor doesn’t make sense until I see her — Winnie is sprawled on the floor of the barn. Her intestines look like shredded ribbons and have been carefully draped over her side. The rest of her organs are scattered, untouched, near the big slit in her belly. Not a single part of her has been devoured and there are no teeth marks save for the jagged gash in her jugular vein. Vomit creeps up the back of my throat. I swallow hard and steady myself on the doorframe. I finally see my father, silent, on his hands and knees. The other two cows mindlessly chew their cud.
“Dad. I didn’t — ”
“I know. There was some rotting wood on the base of the door. It must’ve torn a hole and — ”
I help him to his feet. He’s trembling beneath his jacket.
“The fence’ll have to wait. We gotta get this cleaned up.”
My father doesn’t spend much time in panic mode, he sees it as a weakness. I’ve inherited this quality from him.
I fetch some brushes, the mop bucket, and a big bottle of bleach. We scrub the walls and floor until the sun goes down. The bleach seeps into my shredded palms and makes my eyes water. I hide from my discomfort and scrub until the barn looks brand new.
My father is quiet during supper, but I can see his mind humming like an engine behind his eyes. He’s thinking about the fence; about Winnie. He’s laying traps. He’s thinking about Mom and how he wished she was here to soothe him. We don’t talk about how much I know he misses her because he can’t seem to stop spinning his wedding ring. I don’t mention it when I notice how he fidgets to fight the thought of her, or how he checks the phone messages every morning to see if she’s thinking of us too. Loss brings people together in strange ways, and I know my father like I know every blade of grass on this farm.
Finally, my father’s gruff voice slices through the silence between us.
“Gotta put that fence up tomorrow.”
“I’m at school tomorrow.”
“No, you ain’t. I need help, Janey.”
“My class is only until noon. We can work then.”
He stares through me again. My eyes flick to the pile of untouched past due bills that lay in a neat pile next to the coffee machine.
He nods. We settle into familiar silence and finish the rest of our food.
5:30 a.m., a gunshot cracks through the air. I think about rolling over and going back to sleep but I hear my father scream, wild and unhinged.
“WHERE ARE YOU? WHERE ARE YOU?”
I bolt downstairs to find the front door wide open and rattling against the side of the house between icy gusts of wind. My father is standing in the middle of our field, illuminated by a battery-powered lantern. His face is twisted into a vicious sneer. I watch him spin madly in a circle and turn to face me. I sprint toward him and then I see it — our tormentor — a hulking grey wolf emerge from the darkness. I can only see the bone white stripe on its snout and a pair of large amber eyes that glow like flames.
The trembling in my voice matches the chaotic rattle of the front door against the house. My eyes are locked with the wolf’s as it tilts its head to examine me. I can’t tell if it’s my paranoia but I can feel it staring at the vein pulsing in my neck, calculating the seconds between us. Muscles I didn’t even know I had freeze in terror.
My father pulls himself up to his full height. He towers over me and slowly turns to face the wolf. It seems to huff mockingly in response to his size and begins to circle us. Each footstep delicate and deliberate; its eyes never leave us. My head spins as the wolf moves around us like smoke. I fix my eyes onto the back of my father’s neck and try to find as many details in the back of his dress shirt that I can to distract myself from the imminence of the beast’s pounce. It passes me on my right and I hear a huff from behind me. My father raises the rifle and aims. I hear a click. I wait. Another click. I take a breath, and then another, and another. Nothing. I can no longer feel its presence. I no longer hear the crunch of its paws on the ground as it circles us. I wait until I feel it’s safe to move and glance around. It’s gone.
My father whips around and manically points the rifle in random directions. I put my hands on his forearms.
I stay home from school to keep an eye on my father and finish putting up the fence.
At dinner, we eat in silence (again); I watch my father as he stabs, frustrated, at his grey, overcooked chicken. His fork slips on the slick, pale meat and scrapes against the ceramic, making it scream. I let my fork drop with a dramatic clang.
“Dad, what’s wrong?”
My tone sharpens on the tension that fills the space between us.
“It shoulda killed us.”
“We got lucky.”
“Janey, I’ve lived on this farm since before you was even a thought. I’ve dealt with these things before.”
“It’s just an animal, dad.”
I leave him to finish the rest of his meal alone.
The next morning, I’m at my desk, hunched over my textbooks and a cup of cold coffee when I hear my father howling my name from the barn. An earthquake rattles the windows, his voice.
When I get to the barn I notice the new grotesque paint job right away, and this time I’m prepared for the flooding smell of iron. I control the urge to lean over and vomit at the sight of Wilbur’s mutilated corpse. His intestines are not draped neatly over his side like Winnie’s. Instead, they’re strewn about the room, along with bits of bright pink muscle and sinew. He’s been torn apart by teeth and claws- calculated rage. My father is slumped against the wall, weeping openly while our last cow gazes, glassy-eyed, past us. She’s splattered with blood and when I examine her massive frame, I discover that there isn’t a single scratch on her.
It’s just an animal, dad.
But animals kill for food.
I turn to fetch the bucket and some brushes to start the cleanup. From the door, I see the wolf sitting on the other side of the barbed wire fence, cleaning the blood off of its paws. Its snout is still stained rust-brown.
“Dad, get out here.”
My father appears beside me, sniffling. The wolf looks up and gingerly places its paw on the frozen ground. It studies my father and tilts its head. I swear I see a bemused glint in its eyes and I begin to think that I should have taken my father more seriously. He stares at the wolf blankly. There’s no rage in him; no desperation. He’s a man I barely recognize. I open my mouth to tell him I’m sorry when I catch movement in my peripherals. The wolf extends its massive paws and stretches. Razor claws scrape the frozen earth. Every muscle pops and lengthens beneath its starved frame. Its eyes refuse to leave my father. The wolf scratches its ear with its back paw and sniffs the fence a few times before finally slinking away into the morning fog. Content, monstrous.