Gabrielle Hovendon

Eat This Heart

After the rain refused to fall, after the jackrabbits came on like a plague, after the wheat and alfalfa died before they could cast a shadow, my father became a captain going down with his ship. He drove our spindly cattle from the pasture in Cushing down to the Broken Arrow stockyards, through the dry arroyos and up the line of mesquite stapling the ridge between Payne and Creek County. He spent five days herding the three thousand head along the trail with a twelve-man crew of wranglers and drovers and all their paints, palominos, and blood bays. He prayed for no lightning or rattlesnakes, argued the stockyards into the best price he’d ever gotten, and came home with a Longhorn heart wrapped in paper and string.

It was June, and I’d just finished eleventh grade. I walked into the kitchen and watched while he stood at the stove in the stiff hand-tooled boots my mother gave him for their last anniversary together. He heated the old iron pan and unwrapped the heart, the butcher paper falling away like twists of old skin. He rummaged through the cupboards, came up with what he was looking for, and began cooking the heart in whiskey and flour. Humming while it fried, “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.”

The hearts shrank and spat in the skillet. Usually there was flank steak, chuck steak, brisket from the drive, but that day there was only that slab of muscle with its smell like wet dirt, its green whiff of early death.

“Smells good, huh?” my father asked.

“You said we could have pizza when you came back,” I said. The pan popped and spit.

“You don’t want to try it?”

I shook my head.

“It’s from our herd,” he told me. “The best in the state.”

I shook my head again.

“It’s tradition,” he said stiffly. He flipped the heart in the pan. “This is exactly how my grandfather used to make it.”

“I thought Grandpa Chuck made Grandma Bessie do all the cooking,” I said. My great-grandfather, the one-time sheriff and many-times outlaw who founded our town and scratched our ranch from five hundred acres of sand and creosote, was famous for his temper and not his recipes. As far as I knew, my father had hated Grandpa Chuck, had planned to run away from home and never come back.

My father grunted and turned back to the stove. He slid the heart from the pan, sliced it down the center. Blood the color of old ink spilled from its middle.

“Here you go, Blue,” he said, sliding our plates onto the table. He had a way of making my name sound ugly when he was mad, the color the heifers got under their eyes when their milk was drying up. “Eat up.”

The half-heart steamed while I sat and watched it. I began to cut it into pieces and then smaller pieces, herding them around and over the edge of my plate with my knife. I was a pioneer awaiting my covered wagon. I was swallowing lock picks and digging tunnels with spoons. I was cleaving from this place like softness from bone. I was counting the days till graduation.

“This is tradition,” my father said, sliding a piece into his mouth. “Someday you’ll thank me.”

But I was empty as an old well. I built a tower from blood-red stones and ruled over a warring country. Our kitchen flooded and I swam through the wreckage, tentacles trailing into the hall.

“You’re not leaving the table till you try it,” he told me.

“Fine,” I said. I picked up my fork and took a bite. It tasted like something still alive, like all the cowness had been concentrated into that one piece. I pushed the plate away.

A cold weather front passed over his face. He took my plate and stood up. He ate my portion of the heart at the stove, skewering each piece onto his knifepoint and sliding them one by one between his teeth. A shiny pink thread of muscle clung to his mustache.

I watched as he ate the entire heart, scraping the plates to get the last little bits. The grease congealed on his plate, puddling into shapes a fortuneteller could scry: The future of his ranch and the fate of his daughter, sprinkled in Gold Medal and doused in Bushmills.

All that month, the rain didn’t come. The creeks looked like trickles of tobacco spit; the pastures receded up the sides of the hills. The white clover, the pasque flower, the prairie smoke and bird’s foot violet: all disappeared, gobbled up by weeds. The cattle looked like clothes racks, their hides gone sandpapery where they’d rubbed themselves bald on the fence posts. My father acquired wrinkles around his eyes like the furrows in the summer dirt.

In July, two months before I started twelfth grade, he planned a trip to the state capitol to protest a new tax code. I watched him stand in the kitchen in his bolo and boots, wondered how many ranchers it took to stop a law.

“Can I come?” I asked.

He looked up from his map.

“You want to protest the bill?”

I shrugged. The state university’s main campus was in the city, and even though I didn’t want college, exactly, I’d dreamed about a stranger who would come from far away and carry me away with him. In the dream he was Lewis and I was Clark and we were each other’s rivers. Or he was Bonnie and I was Clyde and the whole country was an unsuspecting bank. But there were no strangers forthcoming on the ranch.

“I thought we could stop at the university,” I said. “Pick up some application forms or something.”

My father closed the map with a sharp shake of paper.

“The college fund has to go somewhere,” I added.

“It’s not good for you to miss school,” he said, and went to go pack the truck.

I became a nomad. I wandered out to the hills that were making him look like an old man. I hid buttons under sagebrush and sucked quail eggs dry. I went up to the ugly red cows and held their enormous heads between my hands and spoke to them in their own languages.

We’ll run away, I told them. We’ll be outlaws like Grandpa Chuck. We’ll never come back to this place in our lives.

By the end of July, the ranch was in a fiscal landslide. Feed prices were up for the fifth year in a row, hoof rot was creeping through the herds, and drought was coloring the land like dead grasshoppers. The factory feedlots south of the city could afford to pay more at the calf auctions and charge less at the slaughterhouses, and they were putting our farm out of business.

The month before I started my senior year, consultants visited the ranch. For months they’d been sending my father brochures about turning our property into a dude ranch. We stuck the pamphlets in the burn pile and left them there: pictures of fat people plopped up on horses, Botoxed women wearing rhinestone cowboy hats, pale kids with spurs and pinched smiles.

The consultants were dressed in suits and ties and carried identical briefcases. They sat at our kitchen table and discussed other ranchers who’d sold off their herds and converted their barns into bunkhouses. We could devote our slowest, oldest horses to the effort, set up a practice lasso station, prepare simple dinners of steak and beans and haul in more money than the cattle would ever bring.

My father rolled his eyes at the promotional videos, at the businessmen who sat gingerly on their horses and shied at every stick that resembled a snake. He shook his head like a cow twitching off flies while they talked about selling soda biscuits and johnnycake, but when they showed him their spreadsheets and profit margins, he went to the window. He stared out at the stubbly hills, a far-off look in his eyes, as if he was already seeing accountants and lawyers riding over them.

I sat at the table and fidgeted with my father’s clasp knife. One of the men turned to me.

“What about you, young lady?”

I shrugged.

“What about me?” I said.

“What do you think should be done?” They had smiles that looked like all they did was brush their teeth.

I stood up from the table, glanced across the room at my father.

“Tear down the fences,” I said. “Burn down the barns, let the cattle go.”

It was getting dark outside, and rain was in the air. I left the house and walked up to the hills, where I communed with the owls in the trees. I became echolocation; I performed miracles of barbed wire and dust.

I knew the hills as well as my own bones and muscles, but when I rounded a clump of mesquite I nearly jumped out of my skin at the unexpected sight of cattle bedding down in the dry grass.

I crept up to them, my feet shucking insects from the grass. The cows snuffled sleepily in the moon as I approached. I could taste iron and salt in the air.

When I was close enough, I reached out and put my hand against the largest cow’s chest. Its body was warm, its breath hot and dry on my arm. I felt the coarse wall of hair and the heavy beating beneath, so much stronger than my own.

“You’re lucky,” I told it. “You’ll get out of here before I will.”

The cow sighed but didn’t move. I patted its nose and moved away, through the mesquite into a high open place where the clouds poured like milk across the sky.

The storm came as I walked on, the sky a giant pan spitting lightning down on the country. I was drunk, soaked, exhilarated. I took off my clothes and hung them in the branches of the mesquite. I danced like a dervish and remade myself in the dirt and rain.

I was frozen stiff. I was burned all over. I was queen of the rodeo, goddess of the earth.

By the time I got back to the house, the consultants had left. My father was at the sink, washing dishes with the radio on.

“What’s that smell?” I asked.

He turned to me, a smile cracking his face. A damp paste of flour coated the counter next to the sink. A pan filled with dirty oil sat beside it.

“I fed them dinner,” he said.

“That was nice of you,” I said.

The smile expanded. He gestured to a plate on the table where a dozen fried, lemon-sized shapes still sat. They were not hearts.

“Rocky Mountain oysters,” he said.

I sank into the chair. The brochures and spreadsheets were nowhere in sight.

“Bull balls,” I said. “You fed them bull balls?”

I started to laugh, so hard I had to put my head down on the table. He sank into the chair beside me and laughed too, tears rolling out of his eyes. Outside, the wind and rain made the high grasses billow like topsails.

In my dreams that night, I was the storm that devoured the sky.

After the consultants left, my father became more determined than ever. He fired three of his hands and worked like a maniac to make up the slack; he bought discount feed, mixed the hay with sawdust, and drove the new calves up to the pastures like an exorcist. There was mullein in his blood and bull thistle behind his teeth.

The week before I started twelfth grade, he returned from the latest drive with hot dust in his veins. When I went into the kitchen that night, he was back at the stove, heating up the old skillet, taking out a brown paper package from the fridge and resurrecting the capped bottle of whiskey from the cupboard.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “Who are those for?”

My father was humming to himself, husking the paper package into the trash and pulling out heart after heart, eight or nine of them, all smooth and pink and fistlike.

“You and me,” he said. The sink ran. The oil sizzled. He rinsed the slime off the hearts one by one. “For good luck.”

Something inside me rose up, gagging.

“All of them?” I asked. “Are you out of your mind?”

“We’re buying more land,” he said. “The papers go through the first of next month.”

I shook my head.

“You are out of your mind.”

He dropped the first heart in the pan. The smell of cooking meat lanced the air, and I had a sudden thought.

“Where’s the money coming from? How can you afford it?”

My father stared into the pan. I felt snow then, snow leaking into my skin and dripping down the buttons in my spine.

“I’ve done the numbers,” he said. “Blue, it’s the only way right now. Maybe in a few years you’ll be able to go away.”

The hearts crackled in the pan. I stood up from the table. I was cow and murder both. I was leaving.

I got into my father’s pickup truck and began to drive, the bundles of fresh meat bouncing around in the back. I drove through our town and then through the next, and the next, and the ones after that. The feeling inside my chest was hotter than the frying pan, hotter than all the cow hearts in the world, and I was no revenant.

I became a sailor. I found a crew and a marlinspike and sailed over peacock-colored waters.

I abandoned the truck, joined the circus, and shacked up with an acrobat from Kuala Lumpur.

I crashed into a ditch and was crowned queen of the hobos while the meat spoiled slowly in the afternoon heat.

I sprouted wings.

I found a town on the border that looked promising, one with a seedy bar and lots of withered dogs wandering around. I went up to a row of cowboys slouched on their barstools and picked the one who had a half-halo of empty bottles consecrating his spot, the one who looked like his luck had run out before he was even born. I got him to admit that he was on an express train to nowhere, that his farm was failing, that he was old enough to be my father, and then I said I knew all about farms and fathers and failures. I put my hand on his leg, and he felt solid and full of sadness, like a cow that had seen too many of its babies killed.

We drove out of town in my father’s pickup. Another storm was coming down from the plains, making the hills look like bloated blue corpses, like drowning victims. In the passenger seat, the cowboy began to whistle.

I felt my heart beating faster in my chest. When we stopped in the next town, I found a knife with an ivory handle and sharpened it against the sole of my shoe. I ground flour from acorns, forged a pan from scraps, and got the cowboy to beg a little cheap whiskey. I was god and sacrifice, desert and drought.

Then my heart was in my hand and the land was rising up, the cottonwoods and the rattlers, the sharp walls of rock, rising up with the bleached and forgotten skulls and flatnesses, the legions of dark moaning cattle and the endless failures of the earth.

This was hunger. This was the known world consumed.

Gabrielle Hovendon is an MFA candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University, where she teaches creative writing and composition. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Tin House’s Open Bar, the Baltimore Review, Necessary Fiction, and wigleaf. She is currently at work on a novel about the lives of two nineteenth-century mathematicians.