Things Fall Apart
“If someone ever asks you what you’ll be doing at some given time tell them, instead, where you’ll be. The details of what you’ll be doing are unimportant, and unknown. The importance of what you’ll be doing is implied. You’re living your life to its fullest. Namely, you’re observing nature, cause and effect, asking questions, and learning your way towards the ever-improving sacrifice of your gift of awareness of world as a creature of God.”
As he finished scribbling the passage, the rider shifted in his saddle to calm the big brown horse under him. It snorted and blew air out and whinnied. It stomped its feet and the heavy, thick sod deformed under the blows. It made a heavy suction sound in the deep deltaic mud.
The rider had bright eyes but his face was expressionless aside from the movement of his facial muscles massaging the tobacco wad inside his lip where it creased upwards to his cheek.
He replaced the notebook in his saddle bag. It was leather-bound and had an elastic band to keep the pages together. He eyed the herd that swarmed in circles, growing panicked by his presence. He wanted to put them on edge as an act of dominance.
Now, he could no longer see them but felt their movement vibrating up through the saddle. The fog gave the impression of being in a dream.
He was down in Louisiana. He was way, way down in old, old Louisiana. It is older than the old world because the people from the old world came here and made it older in their nostalgia for what they missed. They immortalized and idealized and finally fictionalized the place they’d had to leave.
He pulled the notebook back out.
“Two wrongs do not make a right. Deterrence, therefore, does not work because any deterrence is offset by the lifelong brutalization of those administering the deterrent—society ends up right where it started. Crime and punishment.”
Like an artist, he felt all acts were forgivable in context. This placed him beyond good and evil and is isolating.
He placed the notebook back in his saddle bag and spit a line of spittle into the air, arching perfectly, catching a breeze and spreading like a wand before landing in a splash in the dewy grass, sodden and wilting with spider webs in the morning haze.
It was not a bright day, because of the haze, but the sun was full up. It neared 10 a.m. They were at least two hours behind schedule. Twenty species of birds lifted in and out of the silence made by the fog. They made strange noises that were displeasing.
It was a day to work cattle. I was a boy and watched the whole scene from a distance, unnoticed. I had no courage to speak of. It was too warm and too damp and you could imagine dying on normal day like this with no beauty.
These cattle did not walk up and eat hay from your hand. They ran to the opposite end of the field after seeing us with our deliberate movement that portended danger for them. Their terror reminded you of your own worst qualities and was defended against with a newformed shell of anger. Herds move together the way blackbirds will, or fish in a swarm at sea will. They transform their shape according to the lead animal’s position. They follow the most willful and brave of their flock; the one overcome with the most fear, which, as a cattleman, you hope stops short of panic.
The herd chose their leader. The responsibility was put on her and it had made her crazy. She’d rejected the lone bull after one calf; had killed his spirit and he hung back sullenly from his own herd which she’d commandeered.
All eyes were on her. We’re not so different from nature. Her size and beauty had drawn the attention of the other animals. Beauty, alone, is never enough and is a tragic quality.
At the first surge of panic she’d forgotten her calf. Far too much responsibility had been put on her. She was isolated by her stature. The instinct to protect her calf was the trigger for her fear, but in the tumult, she’d been separated from her calf and was left with only the fear, which unmoored from its source could not be dealt with logically by the cowboy.
She had forgotten the herd, too, and treated them as a long tail that wagged as she moved in swift stretches that we’re more like locomotion than physical exertion; head and neck up and erect for maximum vision. Her blind will was their command.
The man on the horse groaned about the horns he’d wished he’d cut last year. He always had other things to do, some of which included a cold beer after a long day. Anyway, he regretted not de-horning these cattle last year.
He pulled the notebook out.
“This moment is the ‘why’ to the ‘what’ of the past. There is no deeper lesson than this.”
He put the notebook back for the last time. That animal is dangerous, he thought.
The man in charge, and in whose interest this all pertained, was back at the corral entertaining company. He was cutting a map in the mud with his knife; making the contours of the field they stood in. With his map made, the others gathered around.
“We’re here.” He said, pointing to the map he’d drawn. “The corral is here and that is true North. Most of the cattle have herded into this corner here. Pete will flush them out. Pete?”
“When, exactly did we learn these men from the State were coming to immunize the herd?” Pete said, riding up.
“Couldn’t we have been feeding them in the pen until they all came and just closed the gate one night?”
“We could have Pete, but these men are here now. That’s my fault. Pete, I want you to start here,” he said, pointing to the map, “and push the herd this way. Once they hit this fence, if you have the right angle, they will turn and come down the path, fenced on both sides, and into the corral.”
Pete saw the whole thing unfolding, and thought how disaster would make little difference in the overall behavior of the one engineering all this.
Yet here he was, as always. Something binds the philosopher and the artist. Some unreasoning thing which reasons for us. Between those two poles is life in general, the poles bearing all the strain as the world turns between them on its axis, breaking the two in the process in one beautiful display of fireworks.
It is good when an artist accepts his art and the philosopher accepts his philosophy. But an artist who strains for philosophy is ineffectual. A philosopher who strains for art is a monster. When either of the two are themselves you get what is good and we all benefit in between.
As the cattle stare at our preparations, a thrill rises in them. For the human observers this is unpleasant while it last and is only a thrill after.
The goal was to get the cattle into the little corral. It was a wooden system of fences; small, the footprint of a house, with neat trap doors and levers, all hand-made and ingenious. This was the only one of its kind. The last one built by the man who built this one was also the only one of its kind, as each subsequent one built by the same man would be.
Away from the small talk of men looking around, motioning, discussing and orders being given and received, and separate from the communal life of this party, Pete sat on his large brown horse.
He leaned forward with his elbow on the horn of his saddle and the other arm crossed over that arm at the elbow. He spit tobacco onto the ground and did not care for the others the way you would want if he was driving the cattle for you. Patience was his one talent. His horse reflected this and the effect is immeasurable, really.
Pete wore a baseball cap where a fat, braided thread ran across the crease made by the bill of the hat and the square forehead; relic of the days when men wore tassel and rode on parade. He wore wrangler jeans, a tee-shirt, and well-worn cowboy boots with spurs that were not kid gloves.
“He ain’t wrong, he’s just different and his pride won’t let him say things to make you think he’s right”, is what Willy said and it’s hard to improve on that, really.
As a ride wore on through a day this horse pulled harder and become more difficult for his rider to handle, inverse to any fatigue.
“Why?” I had asked.
“Because, he’s a man.” Pete had said.
The man in charge did not have boots, wranglers or a hat. He wore old tennis shoes and dressed like a self-employed plumber. But that was his house on the hill and these were his cattle and this was his enterprise, generally.
The sun beat his bare forehead but he never wore a hat or glasses or gloves or anything that was supremely practical. He was totally unpredictable. These were his cattle. He was not an artist.
He wanted to get the cattle into the pen because he decided to do this a long time ago. It was not certain whether this was a necessary operation. This frustrated the artist who, like all artists, vaguely feels the constant death of relevance.
The artist and the philosopher can work together, but it is rare.
Also, sixty healthy bumble bees can probably be fit into a mason jar with enough effort and resilience. How did they get into the jar? It cannot be said. Now we would administer medicine to the bees. The same attempt would be made with these cattle.
After much trouble on the part of Pete, the cattle were gotten into the small pen and quickly became as bumble bees in a mason jar.
The man with philosophy, but no skill at this particular job, got into the pen with an ax-handle and went to work. The onlookers thought he must be insane. Philosophy makes a man extraordinarily brave if it’s real.
The wild leader of the herd looked at him with what must be bovine disbelief; there is a kind of intelligence in fear that all mammals speak to one another and it’s clear as a bell on a bluebird day. This lead animal, disbelieving of the man’s audacity, was a shiny calico color—she was like a wild cat on your porch, fat from eating rats but ready for a handout and not asking politely.
Her coat was very short. The contours of the muscle and the dark calico rippled in the sun and sweat. She had white, softball-sized circles around the eyes with smaller, black, baseball-sized rings inside those surrounding the eyes. This gave her an evil look. It looked like she wore some kind of bovine mascara.
She charged. The man in the center of the pen stood in place, not running and I felt, keenly, the difference between man and boy.
Some cattle would be coaxed into the shoot where they would be single filed into a squeeze. There, whale-sized syringes were brought out of canvas bags by men from state’s A&M college, here to ensure state’s cattle were properly rid of economically deleterious threats to state’s population at large.
The man with philosophy obliged and was not ashamed of his wild cattle; possibly proud, even. The main apology he extended to everyone for his unnecessarily wild cattle was to not ask anyone into the pen with him.
Then disaster which the cowboy had expected happened. The wild calico animal that could not believe, and thus could not accept, her capture and the man with the ax-handle’s disregard for her size, like a challenge, did what every cornered animal can be expected to do.
For a second I thought of Spielberg’s boat and Jaws straddling up and onto the boat where the shark should not be. The cow now managed to climb up and onto the high aluminum pipe fence until, in slow motion, under her weight and girth, it collapsed to earth in a jerking motion. It was strange to see her above us as it would be to see a car upside down or floating in a flood instead of driving underneath you in the order of things. The fence accordioned down to earth and the way was open for her, and by random extension, the herd. Victory.
They all ran out behind her into the big pasture.
Bloody, covered with mud and holding, still, the ax-handle in the middle of the ring where no one else had gone, the man stood and watched, looking like the plumber of wisdom. The artist looked on muted.
We waited as he turned to us, smiling a true smile, as the cattle fled across the field.