At the end of a very hard winter, a winter so brutal even the old admitted that it was as bad as any winter they had known, a farmer named Doug Rutledge shot all but one of his one hundred Holsteins one by one with a rifle, then shot himself.
Back in December, he and his banker at Pearl County Farm Credit had decided the only option they had was to sell the herd in the spring. Milk prices had dropped so low that the cost of keeping his herd was almost double the profit he was making, and only by selling the cows could he keep the bank from foreclosing on the farm. The hope was that, in a few years, he might be able to build the herd back up, but when he asked the banker if he knew of any farmers in Pearl County who’d resumed milking after selling off their herd, the banker admitted that such cases were pretty rare.
They had already found a buyer, a man who had visited the farm a month before, in the worst of the weather. Leaning on the gate, he told Doug that he’d seen a lot of cows in the past few weeks and these were by far the best-looking Holsteins he’d seen, which was impressive, considering the winter they were having. He said he was prepared to write a check right then and there, but Doug shook his head and said he wasn’t ready to sell yet. When the buyer asked if it was a matter of the price he was offering, Doug said it wasn’t that, just he needed some time to think, was all. Two weeks later, it was the banker who called the buyer to tell him he had a deal. Doug couldn’t bear to make the call himself.
The morning he did it his wife and daughter weren’t home. He’d sent them off the day before on an overnight trip to Chicago. For the past few weeks he’d been insisting that they go, though Maureen didn’t understand why they couldn’t wait until the cows were gone so they could go together as a family. They’d never once taken a vacation. In fact, she’d gotten so used to having to stay home that she didn’t really want to go to Chicago anyway. The thought of going to the city made her nervous, and she assumed it would be wincingly expensive exactly at the time when they most needed to save money, but she finally gave in because her daughter, Judith, had been looking forward to the trip. When she mentioned to her teacher that she might be going to Chicago with her mother, he told her they absolutely must go to the Field Museum to see the mummies.
And so, a week before the cows were to be driven out of the milking barn straight onto three semitrailers and driven up to their new farm in Wisconsin, where they would be milked by a crew of migrant laborers, Doug drove his wife and daughter into town to the bus stop at the Holiday Inn. She would wonder later whether the reason he wanted them to go to Chicago was so he could be on the farm alone. If so, then she had been living with a man who had already decided when and how he was going to die. She would try to remember later if there was something different about the way he said goodbye to them that morning as the driver took tickets. She couldn’t. He told her not to spend too much money, gave Judith a kiss on the top of the head, the usual things. He didn’t wait to watch the bus pull away, as one would assume he might have had he known he wasn’t going to see them again. Instead, she watched him striding off towards his truck like he had chores to do, which he did. Based on this paltry evidence alone, she would go on believing for years that he hadn’t planned on doing it. That he’d risen out of bed that morning and sleepwalked through the slaughter.
It was the milkman who found them. Rutledge’s was one of the first farms on his route and he was there just before sunrise, oblivious to the horror that the barn was holding like a breath. He was still half-asleep (it always took awhile for the coffee he picked up every morning at the Mobil station in Black Earth to kick in) and was going through his rote, priestly motions. Pulling the hose across the gravel, shoving it through the little door in the wall, flipping switches to start the pump pumping. The barn cats milled around his feet the way they did every morning, begging for milk. There were cats on every farm, but he had never seen so many cats as at Rutledge’s. The milkman didn’t especially like cats, and never gave them a drop, even though he drove around with a whole tank of it behind him. Today, as on every other day, he kicked them away gently and went in, somehow not noticing the note on the doorknob, though he cupped it in his hand for a brief moment. The police found it later, affixed with a little strip of duct tape. It said: Don’t come in herecall the sheriff.
The milkman knew that something was amiss when he checked the stainless steel tank in the milk house. It was half empty and the metal was cold. He felt its temperature lower and lower down, as if he were checking his son’s forehead for fever. There was milk in the lower half, but the metal was cold there too. The tank should have been full and warm at that hour from evening and morning milking. The milkman would say that his first thought was that Doug had had a heart attack as he was going out to get the cows. It happened to a lot of farmers. It was the stress that did it. Their hearts just gave out. It was only a matter of when and where. The milkman had heard the gruesome story of a farmer out near Lanark who’d had the bad luck to have a heart attack in the hog shed. Before the first man found him he’d been half-consumed by his own hogs.
Doug Rutledge didn’t keep hogs, but the milkman assumed he would find him on his back in the pasture, an astonished look on his face. There was simply no other excuse for why the Rutledge cows hadn’t been milked yet. It was as if the milkman had been hurled into a time after the herd had been sold. He went into the parlor.
The dark and clean of it disturbed him. And then he smelled it. He knew the smell, being a hunter: as soon as he picked up the faint peppery whiff of it, he identified it as the smell of gunfire. When he pushed through another door that led to the long shed where he expected to find the un-milked cows standing in their stanchions, there was another smell. Something in him made him keep going, down the alley formed by gates wired together to form a chute, until he came to the long hall of stanchions. And then he saw them.
The sheriff of Pearl County had just retired that winter, but the dispatcher decided to wake him rather than the new sheriff because she didn’t like the new sheriff, and didn’t think he’d handle the situation as sensitively as the old one would. And so the old sheriff, who’d assumed he was retired, was the one who woke up cursing and reaching over his wife’s body for the phone and saying, “What?” harshly into the receiver. He had to ask the dispatcher to repeat herself three times but he finally got what she was saying, and told her he’d be out to the Rutledge farm soon. In the meantime the police should rope off the lane and leave everything as it was so evidence could be taken when he got there.
“But what about the one cow?” she asked.
“What one cow?”
“There was one cow that lived. They wanted me to ask you could they lead her out of there?”
“Well, yes. Sure, have them do that.”
He hung up.
Into her pillow his wife mumbled, “What happened?”
He told her it was none of her concern and went back to sleep. As always, his dreams after first waking were much more vivid than whatever dreams he’d been dreaming before the phone call. They had nothing to do with Doug Rutledge. But they were strange dreams, full of images that tugged him down like kelp about a swimmer’s legs. He woke with a start.
What was he doing sleeping? Of course he had to get down there before the new sheriff did. If it was some kind of strange homicide arranged to look like a suicide, he would have to come back from retirement. He half-hoped for this. The sheriff had entered law enforcement with visions of Sherlockian crime solving and Wild West style shootouts, but his thirty-odd years had passed uneventfully. He’d become more involved in politics than in police work, and he had grown fatter, so fat that he was embarrassed when he did go on a call and had to confront the fact that his obesity had become debilitating, like the time he was trying to chase two men who’d just robbed the Radio Shack and got so out of breath that he had to lie down on the ground, making the second cop on the scene believe for a moment that the sheriff had been shot.
But today, as he drove out of Pearl City towards the Rutledge farm, he felt needed, and felt sure that he would find something that would have gone overlooked had he not been called. He’d only been to the Rutledge farm once, twenty years before. Someone had come in the night and stolen all the tools from the machine shed. He remembered Doug as a boy, standing back in awe of the gun the sheriff wore on his narrower waist while his father fumbled with figures, struggling to estimate how much the tools were worth. Doug’s father was writing the names of the tools and their value in black marker on the empty workbench. In the end he threw up his hands and said, “Oh, they were priceless. What’s the use? They were priceless.”
When the farm came into view it seemed to the sheriff that it had already acquired that particular look of farmhouses where some tragedy has occurred. It would never be the Rutledge farm again. It would forever after be known as that place where the guy shot all his cows, or almost all of them, then himself. When word got out about what had happened, the cars on that stretch of highway would slow in passing. Heads would turn and brake lights flare. These were the last moments of its anonymity. As he neared the mouth of the lane, the windows of the east-facing farmhouse flashed like cards being turned over and the sheriff felt a chill. It was as if the place was greeting him.
The young deputy who volunteered to take the cow out of there had done so because he felt sick, and didn’t want to throw up in front of the other cops. He was a new hire, and the new sheriff had even said at the end of the interview that they were taking a chance on him, and that his first year would be provisionary. The irony of his becoming a cop was that he’d spent much of the last five years being arrested by them, for nothing serious, just fights at parties and one attempted break-in. His desire to become a cop was tied in with his joining AA and proposing to his girlfriend and generally turning his life around after a friend had convinced him to come to Crossroads, a New Age evangelical church in what had once been a carpet warehouse.
He and the cow picked their way over the bodies already bloating, he leading her by a rope hung loosely around her majestic neck. He wanted to get her outside, to open pasture, where she could graze a little, though the grass was still winterkilled. He’d go up to the mow and get her some fresh hay, maybe some mineral if he could find where Rutledge kept it.
When they finally got outside he led her into a little triangular paddock and let the rope fall. She immediately started grazing, tearing the stunted grass with swift, efficient chomps. She seemed perfectly at peace. Her great placid eyes, her long lashes, the pendulous swinging of her tail, all seemed uncorrupted by what she had witnessed. He went up to the mow and took a great armful of hay, inhaling deeply the rich, dank scent, then sneezing. She left the grass in favor of the hay, chewing it contentedly, the straws wicking out of both sides of her mouth. Watching her eat, it struck him that she hadn’t been milked yet. He went off and came back with a pail, climbed the fence, and knelt under her. He’d never milked a cow before, but figured he could work it out. It took him a few tugs in different directions, but he finally managed to pull a glassy thread of milk into the ringing pail, and laughed, thinking, If those guys I used to run with could see me now, a cop milking a cow…
After the forensics expert came from DeKalb and took the gun, and Doug Rutledge had been taken away in a silent ambulance to the morgue, there was the problem of what to do about the cows. By this time in the blustery, overcast midmorning, it had become impossible to keep people from learning what had happened. The stretch of highway that bordered the Rutledge farm was lined with vehicles, and Rutledge’s neighbors had simply crossed the fields and appeared in the open doorway of the barn. At first they were told sternly that they had to leave the premises, but then someone realized that the farmers were going to be helpful to have around; particularly when it came to the difficulty of what to do with the ninety-nine dead cows who lay bloating in the shed. It was a terrible mess, the floor slick with blood and manure, and it seemed almost psychologically necessary to get it cleaned up as soon as possible. There was talk of calling up the county road commissioner and having him send someone out with a backhoe to dig a great pit into which the cows could be pushed or dragged. But it seemed a bad idea to bury the cows there on the farm, where Doug’s wife and daughter would have to see the scar of it every day until they decided where and how to live.
As for his wife and daughter, no one could figure out where they were, and there was talk that perhaps he’d killed them too, until one of Maureen Rutledge’s friends turned up and said that they were in Chicago. The sheriff seemed relieved, but secretly disappointed that there wasn’t a homicide to investigate. When the friend was asked if she had tried to call them, she said yes but that Maureen wasn’t picking up. She figured they’d heard by now, but the sheriff said he wasn’t so sure and that she should keep trying.
“Better she hears it from you than from one of us.”
As for the cows, it was decided that only one man was capable of dealing with them, the man known to every farmer as the dead animal collector. He was a strange man, but his chosen means of making a living seemed to permit him a certain measure of eccentricity. He lived out near Lena, on a scrappy farm that hadn’t been worked in years. Dead animals were not the only things the dead animal collector collected. The farmyard was covered with rusting equipment, busted tractors, abandoned projects. His name was Sam. There was something wrong with him, he limped, though some said they’d seen him limp on different legs on different days. He had the dry, leathery face of a drinker. His eyes were a piercing blue and his cheeks were sunken in. He had no teeth and spoke with a Scottish accent and a lisp. Some said he’d been born in the highlands of Scotland, though how he had come to live in northwestern Illinois no one knew. He lived apart from men, as if his vocation had marked him. One of the neighbors volunteered to go down to the house and call him.
It was strange, entering that empty house. The coffee maker was still on. He flicked it off, then thought perhaps he shouldn’t have, and flicked it back on. When he put the phone to his ear, he shivered, thinking of the last man who had touched that phone, a man he had known to be kind and decent, if a little solitary. He dialed a number he had by heart.
“Have you heard about Doug Rutledge?”
“Doug Rutledge, out here near Dakota. Shot himself and all his cows this morning.”
“We were hoping you’d come take some of them away. They’re a hundred.”
“A hundred dead cows.”
“Oh. Yep. Today, then?”
“As soon as you can get here. And bring the biggest truck you’ve got.”
When she got the call they were at the Shed Aquarium, standing before a wall tank full of different schools of fish, each school moving in unity, their leaf-like bodies turning dark and light, depending. Judith had her face pressed up against the glass. Maureen’s friend had decided not to tell her about the cows, just that Doug had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and so it was not then that she learned of the herd, but much later. She hung up just as her friend was beginning to tell her how sorry she was.
Her hands were shaking so much she shoved them into her pockets, but they struggled against going in, like pullets being shoved into the killing cone. Her daughter had not turned to look at her yet. She was transfixed by the fish. With her arms spread out to either side and her fingertips touching the glass, it seemed from behind that she was conducting their movements. They went through the whole aquarium. At tanks she might have hurried her daughter past, she let her linger as long as she wished. When they’d seen everything, she said, “Is there anything you want to go back and see again?”
Her daughter shook her head.
She waited until they were sitting outside by the lake to tell her. She was ten. She wasn’t visibly upset. She asked very simple questions, very directly, as if there had been some mistake made that could still be corrected.
In the evening, a windowless van bore the dead farmer’s body to the back door of Burke Funeral Home, the most respected funeral home in Pearl City, where Tom Burke waited to receive him. Unlike the other funeral parlors in town, it wasn’t isolated on some hill, or set off by itself in a lot, as if death were infectious and might root its way through the pipes and wires into the adjacent houses. It was set right there amongst the others, snug as a tooth, indistinct amongst the houses of the living, where lived doctors, lawyers, superintendents. The house was known for the perfection of its gardens, which Tom Burke paid to have professionally tended twice a week. At parades, people pitched their folding chairs right there on its lawn. At Christmas, Tom Burke lined the long walk with paper lanterns filled with kitty litter and tea candles, and people strolled past its luminaries like they did those of the other houses.
Only at Halloween did the house recuse itself from the world. It stood darkly back from the street. The high school kids for whom Halloween had lost its sway, who were too old to trick-or-treat, dared one another to go up and ring the doorbell. They came rushing back, shrieking, feeling the whole house at their backs like an iceberg, the doorbell still ringing: it was one of those decorative doorbells that trips through an entire melody.
It was evening and the sun had finally come out, warming the earth as if in apology for having been away. Tom Burke stood in the last light, on the back deck, with a cigarette. He’d promised his wife he would quit after she found a pack in their oldest son’s shirt pocket while putting clothes in the washing machine. She claimed that his smoking had set a bad example and was the reason why the boy had started. He hadn’t had a cigarette in two months but today he had given in and bought a pack.
He had a wake every evening for the next four days and he was stressed out. He’d noticed over the years that deaths tended to come in windfalls, as if blustery gusts blew through the town on occasion and shook the weakest and sickest off the tree of life. And now here was Doug Rutledge approaching with his own unique death in his hands, a death made larger somehow by the slaughter he had executed. Tom Burke had always thought of farmers as essentially of one type: shy, weary, churchgoing, flannel-wearing. He knew them from the wakes, where they stood stiffly in their funeral finery, unused to dressing up. They were reticent in grief. They didn’t drape themselves over the coffin and carry on. They stood back until it was time to go up and touch the cold hand and kiss the cold forehead before the lid was closed forever. It was as if their lives in the elemental earth had prepared them for death’s ignominy.
But Doug Rutledge had refused to die the typical farmer’s death. He had acted, monstrously, perhaps, but he had acted nonetheless. Tom Burke found something admirable in this, though he could not have explained why. From what Tom Burke had heard, the act had greatly disturbed people, who were saying to one another, in the taverns and diners: “A man wants to kill himself, that’s his decision, but did he have to kill all those innocent creatures? And what difference did it make? They were to have been sold next week anyway, weren’t they?”
To most in Pearl County, Doug Rutledge’s act seemed to be an outsized denial of life, but Tom Burke wondered whether it wasn’t some kind of affirmation, though of what he couldn’t say. He directed the hospital staff as they carried the body into that house, absolutely quiet save for the sound of the grandfather clock in the hallway. When they were gone, he went back out to the deck to smoke another cigarette.
When Maureen walked into the house she was reassured that she’d made the right decision in dropping Judith off at her mother’s place in town, where she would be spoiled to death with cookies. She knew immediately that they couldn’t live here ever again. He would haunt them, his presence bolting out of every single thing he had ever touched. They’d have to cull the objects down to those things that wouldn’t remind them of him. She had two brothers who would help her, and Doug’s sister who, though irascible, was the kind of person who is exemplary in the wake of tragedy, as if it called up some deeply buried power that was otherwise inaccessible.
After walking into and out of every room, she went out to the porch and sat down. She was all cried out, wrung dry as a dishrag. She was just relieved that the funeral was over. The whole thing had passed before her like a dumb show. She hadn’t heard a word Father Thomas said, though she’d heard that the eulogy was somehow beautiful and bracing. She didn’t know how it could have been. The sheriff had reassured her that the dead animal collector had taken all the cows away, though no one seemed to know where to, and wouldn’t know until many years later, when some boys found the bones in an abandoned limestone quarry outside Lena and believed them to be the bones of a gigantic dinosaur. The bones mystified the authorities, until someone remembered Doug Rutledge, the guy who shot all his cows, or almost all of them, then himself. The top of the quarry is still known as Hecatomb Hill.
She got up and walked out to her car. She’d only gone into the house to see if he’d left some kind of note for her.
Later she remembered getting a call from her friend while they were still in the Field Museum. She hadn’t answered it because they were in the tomb of Unis-Ankh, the son of a pharaoh, a bad place to talk, and anyway she figured her friend was simply checking up on her to see how their trip was going. The news of her husband’s death had obliterated her memory of the hours before she learned what had happened, so that she only remembered the image of her daughter standing before the fish at the aquarium. Not until later did she remember following her daughter deeper and deeper into the tomb, half of which was real, the other half reconstructed. She had tried to read the informative displays describing the mummification process and the religious beliefs of ancient Egyptians, but she found it difficult to conceive of the year 2400 B.C. The objects didn’t belong there, in those bright-lit rooms in a museum in Chicago, and she felt strange following her daughter amongst them. The creepiest display was called “The Animal Niche Cemetery,” which contained the mummies of animals. Believing that the gods could appear in any form, the Egyptians had embalmed animals, too. There were cats, falcons, even an alligator. As with the mummies, she struggled to square the beauty of the painted sarcophagi with the corruption she knew they contained. The exhibit drained her in a way she hadn’t expected, and it was a relief to go to the aquarium after, to walk beneath the massive tanks full of blue water and all those living creatures. She had felt calm and moved by it all. Then she took her friend’s call.
The cow who survived became famous. At the neighboring farm, where she had been taken, they kept her in a separate paddock so visitors could take pictures of her. She brought the craziest people out of the woodwork, people who claimed that her milk could cure cancer, and that the Kleins, her new owners, should be bottling it separately. As it was, her milk was being lost in the ocean of milk the Klein cows produced, then pasteurized, so that all its miraculous qualities were dissipated and boiled away. Her ear tag number, 74, was a popular choice on lottery tickets. The cow herself was impervious to all of this. She lived out the pampered decline of retired thoroughbreds. Meanwhile, the people of Pearl County argued over whether he had intentionally pardoned her, or had simply missed her in the carnage, and the few who insisted that it didn’t matter either way received cold, uncomprehending glances.
No note, aside from the one saying not to come into the parlor. No sign as to why he’d done what he did. The banker at Farm Credit was consulted. No one was surprised to learn how bad things had gotten on the Rutledge farm since the old man had died. To keep up with the times, Doug had borrowed more than he could reasonably expect to pay back, but by selling the herd the Rutledges were going to be able to avoid foreclosure, which was more than some farmers in Pearl County could say that year.
Taking for granted the fact that the Rutledges had been deep in debt, people started wondering about his health. It was said that he had been in to the clinic three times in the last year for migraine headaches and general fatigue, but had been told to drink more water and get more rest, advice any farmer would find laughable.
Those who knew him best said he’d been a loving father, a loyal husband, a good neighbor. He’d stood in the bleachers at the football and basketball games, cheering on the sons of Pearl City. He hadn’t suffered any great grief. His parents, with whom he’d been particularly close, had both passed away two winters back. Some said that his father had been too controlling, and that after the elder Rutledge passed away, Doug found he couldn’t manage the farm alone, as if, once the training wheels were off, he just couldn’t quite find his balance.
But these were guesses. People settled upon the notion that it had been a completely random act, floating apart from all logic and reason, the slaughter merely a manifestation of some obscure personal crisis that would never be understood.
Of course, no one thought to ask his daughter why she thought her father had done what he had done. Everyone assumed that she was traumatized beyond comprehension, and took great care to avoid any mention of the tragedy. It was not long before her mother had moved them down to Peoria, where she had found work as a dental hygienist, putting to use the associate degree she’d received from Pearl County Community College before her daughter was born. She ended up getting married to one of the dentists, who never once said anything to his stepdaughter about her previous life on a dairy farm in Pearl County. And her mother had managed to convince herself that her daughter only thought of her father fondly, and not about the thing he had done.
But immediately upon learning that her father had killed the herd, too, Judith knew that he had wanted to take the cows with him to wherever he was now. This belief may have had something to do with having seen the Animal Niche Cemetery in the tomb at the museum, or with the way the schools of fish had moved as if following her gestures in the tank at the aquarium. In any case, instead of a random act of violence carried out at the very nadir of her father’s life, she imagined him choosing the cow he was going to leave behind, then going up to each of the ninety-nine others and drawing their long black lashes together before lying down on his back in the last stanchion bedded down with fresh straw and closing his own eyes.
Austin Smith's poetry collection Almanac was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. He is currently a Jones Lecturer in fiction at Stanford University.