Cows

Photo: © S. Bertrand. All rights reserved.

Cows are more human than we think, and maybe humans are less humane than we allow ourselves to realize—at the very least, I would argue both creatures are animals that have souls. The color of those souls, that’s all yet to be determined. In the throes of Appalachia, I know I’ve met a person or two with a black soul, or maybe with a red soul hotter and angrier than the color of hellfire.

The cow that died in front of me, I don’t remember its name, or if I was even privy to that information. I do remember that my grandfather returned to this place, this life and death portal, time and time again to witness the demise of one cow or another by shotgun. This was at some meat market in Whitley County. He parked just over the hill each time, befriending the market owner to make his actions more acceptable.

There was that one time he decided I should accompany him.

He said, “It’s like they know they’re going to die. Isn’t that something? One minute they’re here and then they’re just gone. Isn’t that something, though?”

The meat market was impossible to find if you weren’t a local. I couldn’t find this place again, now that I’m older. To be honest, I’m not even sure I could find my way back to the state itself without a GPS.

I don’t know if there ever was a real sign there to mark the road that in some roundabout way led us there. Maybe there was and somebody mowed it over in an accident. It’s also possible the road was always just marked by the barn and its message, giving new meaning to, “You can’t miss it.” At some point, somewhere down the line, somebody took it upon himself to paint DEVIL’S CREEK on the side of that barn. An outsider would have found the scrawl of words spooky, like an incantation or a warning. People from the area knew that this was just the name of the road.

The winding road before us and behind us was empty but still, Joe, my grandfather, clicked the turn signal when he turned down a small road near Devil’s Creek. Somewhere past that road without a sign, and past the moonshine distillery in that dry county, was the meat market. It was indeed of the backwoods variety—and I would venture to say the people who owned it are either dead or out of business for unsanitary practices. In the same area, a local restaurant made national news and was temporarily shut down for bringing road kill into the kitchen.

The meat market was a small cement building. When our car pulled into its small gravel driveway, dogs barked. Dogs always barked and jumped on you in that county. A dog was better than any rich man’s alarm system, and more predictable than a shotgun. BEWARE THE DOG—in other words, you’re about to get shot for trespassing, but the dog will warn you to get out of there first.

This was back when I wore a training bra, experienced the occasional pimple and was homeschooled for what was cited by my parents as religious reasons, but my dad was also anti-government in a lot of ways. When we moved to what really felt like the middle of nowhere, about twenty minutes outside of town, we left the trailer park where my dad was in the militia with a very nice man who was later arrested for stockpiling automatic weapons.

As for the meat market, my mother often counted hands-on learning to be a perfectly acceptable alternative to a day staring at books, and sometimes a regular day was suddenly spring break or something like that so I could disappear to my grandparents’. This day was either spring break or hands-on learning—probably, it was both.

Stepping out of the car, calling to me, my grandfather said, “Let’s go, Sunshine. Let’s buy us some meat.” To this day, I can’t decide if my grandfather was a little insane or thought I could learn something valuable about life and death. Maybe he just wanted to freeze himself into my adult memory, this moment and this man like a chunk of beef behind the cubed tray of ice, mostly forgotten with freezer burn.

Outside the market, it smelled like car oil, blood, death and fresh air. Inside, it just smelled like death and blood. There was a slab of cement beneath my feet and a slew of animal corpses hanging above me from hooks in the ceiling.

“Yooo,” Joe said to the man who ran the place, a man with a face I don’t really remember, and I couldn’t tell you what he was wearing. I do remember that Joe said, “Yooo,” like a rapper, as if it were a normal greeting.

I don’t remember what my grandfather bought from the butcher, but I remember it being wrapped up in white paper, and I remember Joe later telling me, “You don’t want to eat that.” My grandfather threw it away. He did stuff like that—he bought things from local places that were struggling, but they weren’t always things he used.

My grandfather introduced me to the butcher as his granddaughter, just like he introduced me to the man who owned that hidden holler moonshine still as his perfectly safe, non-narc of a family member. Though the conversations at the market have faded from my memory, I know he had to somehow tell this man he was about to stare him down while the butcher killed an animal.

To the meat market owner, I see my Grandfather nodding, saying something like, “You shootin’ that cow today?”

He said something like, “I reckon, yeah.”

My grandfather must have gripped his traveling coffee mug. Maybe he wielded the walking stick he wrapped with electrical tape and on it, in red permanent marker, reverently wrote, “Buford Pusser,” in honor of the hellbent Tennessee sheriff who carried a stick in favor of a gun.

Then, he probably said, “We’ll be over the hill. Just going to watch.”

The older you get, the more you understand the people who raised you, if you let yourself. If you look closely, your grandparents start to look less like grandparents and more like regular people who aged. The longer you pay attention, the more you see yourself in your wrinkled, weakening memories of them.

A few years ago, I bought a tattered sign from a homeless girl on Carson Street. It wasn’t for sale and she wasn’t asking for any money.

Just a bum,” her sign said. It was ripped from the lip of a cardboard box. She’d taken the time to make it into unexceptional street art, bolding the words and penning an anarchy symbol in the place of the A.

“Can I give you twenty bucks for your sign?” I remember being afraid of her rejection, maybe of an outburst of random anger, and honestly of her telling me no.

She was young, very skinny and hazy high. She leaned in, trying to see me through her substance-induced state, while cuddled up against the travelers she came with, a tribe of those modern hippies unwashed, drugged and peaceful enough. “My what?”

Sinking into myself, bursting with fear and adrenaline, I said, “Your artwork. I really like it.”

“Oh,” she said. “Sure.”

My boyfriend eventually threw it away, thinking it was gross to keep someone’s sign, muddied and tattered from the streets, inside our home. I’m honestly not sure why I kept it for as long as I did, seeing as I didn’t even really like it.

Maybe my grandfather bought the meat not out of the goodness of his heart, but as a bargaining chip and a front row ticket to the cow’s demise.

My grandfather had no religious beliefs that he expressed, other than a mere philosophical disposition as an existentialist who didn’t think it made sense to pick just one religion. Unless you consider the United States Navy a religion. In that regard, he was a very religious man.

Of course, it wasn’t until he was gone that I started to understand what he’d meant by there being too many religions to choose a single one. He told me that when I was super young while he sipped at his dry white wine, slurring some. I’d been conditioned with the wildfire of the Holy Ghost from age seven through my teenage years—and that takes time to fade—so I just told him I’d pray for his immortal soul to stay out of Hell. Now at thirty, I’ve joined his soul, in that regard. I am also an existentialist with spiritual notions, but no commitment to any structured, bureaucratic organization.

Though existentialism wasn’t a word he used, maybe even knew? That’s what he was.

We parked across the street from the meat market, just at the top of a hill on a one lane road, and we opened our doors to stand on the street lined in Kentucky’s signature savage shrubbery and tangled wildflowers.

The cow, brown and shiny, was led into a cage. The old man who owned the market limped out with his shotgun. He pointed it at the panicked and emotional cow, who tried to duck out of the way, scooting backwards until against a wall. The cow did whatever it could to avoid the bullet that eventually entered between its eyes.

True to what my grandfather obsessed over, the cow collapsed harder than anything I’d ever seen, from terrified to lifeless, a lump of a corpse piled on the ground.

Looking back at the twinkle in my grandfather’s eye, I think he knew that I’d leave Kentucky, and that I’d look back on these strange moments he gave me as part of a heritage that is equally bizarre, painful and wonderful. He’d lived his entire adult life in the Navy. He knew the world was bigger than the hills and mountains. This landlocked island of Appalachian culture handed me who I was. It was a way of life that seeped into my blood and cells, and I was drunk on the invisible, yet loud and bold, spiritus of moonshine, cornbread, meth, love, pinto beans and survival.

Grandpa knew.

Even when I mutated into someone somewhere else, I’d remember. I’d remember Devil’s Creek, Dog Slaughter Falls, the toothless people he talked to in the backwoods convenience stores, the way he fought to keep loving and caring for his drunk brother, the diners he took me to for hot dogs and the long drives through the mountains.

He was also a little crazy, I think—certainly an Appalachian flavor of avant-garde. When he was diagnosed with the prostate cancer that killed him, his life insurance wasn’t applicable to natural death and he often drove by guardrails and cement blocks by the side of the road, once a cliff, and talked about how he should just drive his car into one of those. My family was poor, often dependent on him for basics like a heater that worked, and he knew without his support, our family would buckle.

He didn’t kill himself, though, and settled into a nursing home, where he called me from his deathbed. What I still don’t get is what he meant when he uttered his string of final words over the phone: “I’m going home! I’m going home!” He didn’t believe in anything beyond the grave, as far as I could tell, but he referenced death as home, which has always haunted me. This was all followed by a breathy, discombobulated, “I love you,” to me.

There are no calls to action here. No morals of the story. Just the truth about where I come from, where we are mostly poor, high, covered in fryer grease and collecting government assistance to sling cheap burgers pumped with fillers because a paycheck isn’t enough to live off of—and where a lot of us are probably certifiably insane by the rest of the world’s standards.

It merely was what it was, I merely was who I was and so was he—a horrifying and beautiful stranger with a heritage drowning in the moonshine and creek water that I smelled but never tasted. I was and am all the things I’ll never know and all the places I’ll never go because of where I came from.

You should probably just liken me to a cow, really—one that has never stared down the objective barrel of a shotgun, but I have kissed and licked the end of a figurative one in the form of facing the world by myself. That I’ve certainly done. I have had many a person attempt to hand me a casual low ball assessment of my worth, usually with a basis in the jobs I took in restaurants that served cheap meat, all while trying to get somewhere else, somewhere different, somewhere not caged in by poverty and limestone cliffs.

I often liken my life to a cage built by inopportunity, inundated with the student loans from a mediocre university—the loans I took out to survive, but will likely not live to see the end of. It is a cage dripping with the thickening rent I already can’t afford, the unformed children I will probably never have, the parts of the cars that always break down at the worst places and times, and the palpable, persistent fear of failure and falling back into the poverty that defined my life until recently. My cries for mercy, the ones that often make me feel as if I have more in common with that old cow than with my peers, they’re all drowned out by the clucking voices of all the people who always warned me not to get too big for my britches, or above my raising, or to stop whining because so many people have it so much worse.

I love you, my grandfather always said, I love you, Sunshine. He bought me the dolls my mom couldn’t afford for Christmas, dolls outside of my social class, and he sent me Hitchcock DVDs. He encouraged me to recognize my worth, worthy if only because he loved me and believed I mattered.

Worthless and a burden, the system deemed me, a statistic of just another smart kid who never stood a chance, while I fought my way someplace safer than the places I lived in Kentucky, while my parents’ house was foreclosed on, while my mother suffered a mental breakdown that nearly led to her successful suicide, and while she grappled with the subsequent hospitalization. I moved from the trailer parks to finally a neighborhood without gunshots. I moved from a free-and-reduced lunch kid to a household on food stamps to eventually buying my own groceries without my parents’ government assistance. Eventually, I was living without stigma. Eventually, I was just living.

To that? Cows, I say, cows, cows, cows, cows.

Rebecca Kirschbaum is a writer with a heart for Appalachia and the poor. She (most importantly) writes to represent the underprivileged and a culture of American poverty that is frequently forgotten. Her objective is to give voice to her first ever home and the human beings who make up her soul fiber. Her work has been called modern Southern gothic, boundary-bending and compared to that of Flannery O’Connor. Her writing has been published by Still Point Arts Quarterly, Adelaide Literary Magazine and more, as well as seen on stage in San Antonio and San Diego. She is the recipient of a Write Well Award and holds her MFA from Cleveland State University and the NEOMFA.

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