You've Got to Read ThisContemporary American Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe
PerennialCopyright © 2004 Ron Hansen
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060982020
A Mother's Tale
The calf ran up the little hill as fast as he could and stopped sharp. "Mama!" he cried, all out of breath. "What is it! What are they doing! Where are they going!"
Other spring calves came galloping too.
They all were looking up at her and awaiting her explanation, but she looked out over their excited eyes. As she watched the mysterious and majestic thing they had never seen before, her own eyes became even more than ordinarily still, and during the considerable moment before she answered, she scarcely heard their urgent questioning.
Far out along the autumn plain, beneath the sloping light, an immense drove of cattle moved eastward. They went at a walk, not very fast, but faster than they could imaginably enjoy. Those in front were compelled by those behind; those at the rear, with few exceptions, did their best to keep up; those who were locked within the herd could no more help moving than the particles inside a falling rock. Men on horses rode ahead, and alongside, and behind, or spurred their horses intensely back and forth, keeping the pace steady, and the herd in shape; and from man to man a dog sped back and forth incessantly as a shuttle, barking, incessantly, in a hysterical voice. Now and then one of the men shouted fiercely, and this like the shrieking of the dog was tinily audible above a low and awesome sound which seemed to come not from the multitude of hooves but from the center of the world, and above the sporadic bawlings and bellowings of the herd.
From the hillside this tumult was so distant that it only made more delicate the prodigious silence in which the earth and sky were held; and, from the hill, the sight was as modest as its sound. The herd was virtually hidden in the dust it raised, and could be known, in general, only by the horns, which pricked this flat sunlit dust like little briars. In one place a twist of the air revealed the trembling fabric of many backs; but it was only along the near edge of the mass that individual animals were discernible, small in a driven frieze, walking fast, stumbling and recovering, tossing their armed heads, or opening their skulls heavenward in one of those cries which reached the hillside long after the jaws were shut.
From where she watched, the mother could not be sure whether there were any she recognized. She knew that among them there must be a son of hers; she had not seen him since some previous spring, and she would not be seeing him again. Then the cries of the young ones impinged on her bemusement: "Where are they going?"
She looked into their ignorant eyes.
"Away," she said.
"Where?" they cried. "Where? Where?" her own son cried again.
She wondered what to say.
"On a long journey."
"But where to?" they shouted. "Yes, where to?" her son exclaimed, and she could see that he was losing his patience with her, as he always did when he felt she was evasive.
"I'm not sure," she said.
Their silence was so cold that she was unable to avoid their eyes for long.
"Well, not really sure. Because, you see," she said in her most reasonable tone, "I've never seen it with my own eyes, and that's the only way to be sure; isn't it."
They just kept looking at her. She could see no way out.
"But I've heard about it," she said with shallow cheerfulness, "from those who have seen it, and I don't suppose there's any good reason to doubt them."
She looked away over them again, and for all their interest in what she was about to tell them, her eyes so changed that they turned and looked, too.
The herd, which had been moving broadside to them, was being turned away, so slowly that like the turning of stars it could not quite be seen from one moment to the next; yet soon it was moving directly away from them, and even during the little while she spoke and they all watched after it, it steadily and very noticeably diminished, and the sounds of it as well.
"It happens always about this time of year," she said quietly while they watched. "Nearly all the men and horses leave, and go into the North and the West."
"Out on the range," her son said, and by his voice she knew what enchantment the idea already held for him.
"Yes," she said, "out on the range." And trying, impossibly, to imagine the range, they were touched by the breath of grandeur.
"And then before long," she continued, "everyone has been found, and brought into one place; and then . . . what you see, happens. All of them.
"Sometimes when the wind is right," she said more quietly, "you can hear them coming long before you can see them. It isn't even like a sound, at first. It's more as if something were moving far under the ground. It makes you uneasy. You wonder, why, what in the world can that be! Then you remember what it is and then you can really hear it. And then, finally, there they all are."
She could see this did not interest them at all.
"But where are they going?" one asked, a little impatiently.
"I'm coming to that," she said; and she let them wait. Then she spoke slowly but casually.
"They are on their way to a railroad."