[ToC]

 

LET ME SEE THE COLTS

Nat Baldwin

 

 

I must not blink with hammer in hand.
     Sometimes when I blink I miss the nail and hit bone. Once I split my thumbnail into little pieces, lost in the gravel.
     I drive the spikes deep into soil.
     Bolt an anchor to each corner of the frame.
     When the floor-frame fits I set the wood on top. I must not bounce on the floor when I walk.
     I reach for a nail in the bucket.
     Grind my teeth to scrape.
     When there are no more nails in the bucket I walk to town. The center of the town is where they keep the nails.
     They expect meat in exchange but I have no meat with me now.
     Before I walk to town I must find the nails in the soil or gravel or back of the barn.
     When I wash the bodies at night I check for lumps that sometimes grow inside the stomach. If lumps get inside the stomach there is no way to tell til the day I find the body collapsed on the floor of the stall.
     In the bucket I must keep track of the nails.
     I must hammer the nails sticking out of the wood that catch on skin.
     When bodies collapse in the stalls they are hard to pull out in one piece.

*

I flip my boots upside down so the bottoms face the sky. The tops of the boots sit flush with the soil. If they do not sit flush there will be enough space for a snake or rodent. There are more rodents in these woods and the grass and the barn than I know how to name. When I find them in boots there is no way to tell just by bones or teeth. I scoop them out and wash my feet in the creek. When a rodent or snake gets stuck in a bale they shoot out through the shredder. When they shoot through the shredder the meat and bones and teeth mix with the feed. I try to keep critters away but there is no way to know if they are chewed up and spit out til I open the door to a body on its back. I know colic when I see it. No matter what I must check the color of the mucus in the mouth. Touch insides to feel my way around. If I move too quick the skin will tear. I must slow down. Slide my arm in slow. I have seen them kick through a stomach. The nose twitch clamps to the upper lip with a chain, ring, rope. I must wait for the skin wrapped tight around my arm to relax. For the skin to let go. I wait for it to empty itself out.

*

I strap the feed bag to my back.
     The hammer hangs in its holster on the belt. I lock the gate latch, the slide bolt on the fence. The meat sits in a bucket on a brick of dry ice.
     The dirt road runs into the center of town. I must return to the barn before dark.
     If they refuse the meat I will slide the hammer from the holster.
     I pull the picture from my pocket.
     Black wires coil around the belly and throat.
     A loose stack of bricks leans against a broken sink.
     White foam forms at the mouth.
     Shattered bottles soak in puddles of curdled milk.
     Stained yellow ribbons hang from pipes.
     A body stiff on its back, a bag of sand.
     I trip on a metal sign half hidden in dirt. I read the words the sign says but no sound comes out.
     I kiss it on the mouth.

*

The boys keep their mouths shut. The one with the limp drops a strap. I hang to one side above a broken bottle, a puddle of oil. He dusts off the chair in front of the window. Sets bricks in place of the missing legs. Bites the wire between his teeth, tears at the cloth. I put my hand to my cheek and feel bone. The sting of it shoots through my skull, down to my toes. They stuff my mouth with a handful of cushion. The boy with the chain holds up scissors. On his hands, instead of thumbs, are little black stumps. The boy with the limp scrapes the blade, cuts the cloth, sets it on the sill. The steel chain drags on wood. They lift me by the straps. Wires cut into the skin of my back. I spit the cushion back out. They hit me in the teeth with the hammer, push my face to my lap. They rip wires from the chair, dump nails from the bucket. The wire wraps around my mouth and down my back, thighs, ankles, feet. A piece of loose skin gets pulled from my wrist. Palms up, thumbs out straight, the nail drives through skin in one strike. The blood dries in thick lines before it puddles. They wet the claw of the hammer with their mouths. The boy with the limp looks me in the eyes, bares busted teeth. The other boy puts his fist in my mouth. The black stump tastes of milk and spit. They drag their tongues up and down my stomach and chest. Suck the cuts on my ribcage clean. I see my face in the glass, cracked and boarded up with wood painted black. On the sill the scraper sits. Skin hangs from the bone of my cheek. The hands with the stumps lift the bag to my face. They dump feed in my lap. The feet on the bodies are cut. The bellies bloated and burned, the eyes do not shut. The boy with the stumps cups a body in his palms. The other boy opens the scissors, rests them on the neck, snips. I hear the twitch of my eyes in their sockets. When I swallow, the skin on my throat gets cut.

*

When the skin tears, it sticks to wood.
     Skin sticks to broken glass and puddles.
     Skin sticks to the bucket in my hands, my own face and mouth.
     The dogs leave nothing in the stomach. No bones for them to suck. They lick the eyes and nose, mouth and throat. They each take a leg in their mouth, tug until it splits. The legs hang loose from their teeth, drip in the dirt. The one walks with a limp, the other drags a chain from its foot. The front door cracks open, the dogs slip inside. All I see behind the door is blackness before it shuts. When the latch locks, I walk to where the body is. No bones, no skin, no meat. All I find is an old blade, a razor, studded with rust. I slide the blade in my mouth between my tongue and teeth. The chain hits the wood behind the door of the house. Boards on the windows shake. The sound stuck in a throat. There are no nails in the bucket. No hammer hangs from my holster. No meat on a brick of dry ice. I fill the bucket to the top with rocks. Reach between my teeth and tongue and pull out bone.

*

I watch the birds twitch in the dirt. The pipe tied tight to my pocket. If the sound does not stop I drop them in the bucket, tear a piece off the cloth. Stuff it in their mouths, then kick them in the ditch. Like this the bucket fills up. If the birds still twitch I carve a name upon their stomachs. I lie down in the dirt, cup the holes in my chest. Tear a nail half off with teeth. Grip the claws, line the pipe up to the eyes. The meat of my tongue hangs loose from this mouth. The birds flap. I cut my own stomach up. Fill both fists with this mud. The birds land claw-first on my hair, forehead, eyebrows, nose, cheekbones, lips, tongue, chin, neck, chest.
     The birds fill their mouths with mud.
     They scoop eye-meat from the sockets.
     Grind up tissue in the tongue.
     Uncoil rings below the eyes.
     I choke on nail, cloth, bone.
     Choke on claw, teeth, mud, milk, spit, fat, meat.
     Maggots crawl from the wood.
     The lumps inside the stomach split.
     The stomach, what burns inside it, kicks.

*

The man points to tools hanging from hooks. Blisters cover his knuckles. He scratches a rash on his wrist. The rake I slide from the hook. With the back of the hammer he digs. Takes a step closer, makes a slow sucking with his mouth. Light shines through glass. I see nothing through the skin on his face. His knuckles white with puss. I toss the rake to the dirt.
     He speaks this from the gut.
     The stalls in the barn, he says.
     The walls, grills, gates.
     Wood, nails, he says.
     Bone.
     From his neck the cloth hangs.
     He wipes his mouth. The hair on his skin in patches. The rash cracks around the base of the throat. I look back at the hooks.
     He says the tarp is laid out flat.
     He says chains, straps, twine, bucket, rope, tractor, hoe.
     Shovel, he says.
     The sun glints off the steel of blade.
     In a day, maybe two, the muscles will relax.
     A tight fit, he says.
     With the hammer he scoops puss from his knuckle. Spits.
     Says open your mouth.
     When I open my mouth he rips a nail from the wood.
     This is what happens, he says, when you unlock the latch.
     He lifts the blade from the hook, touches his tongue to the rust. Hands me the handle, the nail. Drops the hammer to the dirt.
     His fist—he shoves his whole fist in my mouth.
     Time to scrape, he says.
     He steps away from the blade. The rust tastes muddy. The rag he rings out in the bucket.

*

The boys take turns. Back and forth in their hands they pass the cart's wood handles, the hammer and blade. Birds line the path along the creek. No cloth covers my skin. When the birds' bodies twitch, one of the boys lifts the hammer. The handle of the hammer is wrapped with ribbon, the steel covered in rust and dried-on mud. The boy's hand has no thumb, just a black stump where a thumb should be.
     With the bodies of birds the cart fills up. The claws and bones dig at my neck, throat, ribs, stomach.
     Both boys have hollow, black eyes, busted teeth, thick scars on their chins. One walks with a limp, the other drags a chain from his foot. My eyelids seal shut against the heat.
     They push and drag the cart in the dirt up and down the ditch and back up the hill and past the broken fence to the red barn. Sounds in the barn sing from the baler and the shredder, the pulley and rope. The wire loosens from my mouth, the chain hits wood. With a rusted nail they peel my eyes back open.
     Limbs laid out flat on the tarp.
     Pitch fork, rake, shovel, sickle, scythe, grinder, clippers, cutters, pipe.
     The men turn their backs, straps hang loose from their belts.
     Light floods the stalls.
     My eyes stick to the tarp.
     The door again slams shut.
     The one with the limp climbs the ladder. No bales or bundles between the floor and peak, no straw or hay to tie with twine.
     The shredder sits at the base of the baler, its circling teeth.
     The one with the black stumps shoves a wet rag in my mouth. The rag tastes of curdled milk. The boy drags the chain to the tarp.
     The birds in the cart twitch.
     Light creeps in through cracks in the barn.
     I keep eyes locked on the tarp, spit the rag in the dirt.
     The one in the loft says—let me see the colts.
     Before this boy with the black stumps reaches for the tarp, the birds in the cart rise up to the top of the barn. They swarm and sing—these birds—mouths full of meat. I drop to the dirt, crawl to the tarp. The red barn shakes. The boy reaches down and fills both fists with muscle and fat. From the hook I lift the shovel. Dig a ditch next to the tarp. From the dirt I pull wire, cloth, bone, boots. In the ditch I lay down, open my teeth for the meat. I hear the pulley and rope, the sound of rocks shooting through the chute. Dirt hits my face, neck, chest, gut, groin, legs, feet. The birds' song cuts right through it.

 

 

 

 

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I wrote this story after spending a week in Amherst, MA in a workshop with Noy Holland. Who was it that said we should write what we're most afraid of? Noy really likes horses. The title is taken from a Smog song from the album A River Ain't Too Much to Love. This story is for Noy.