Walking the Line

When the cows burst through the wire,
they drag it along behind them,
sometimes stripping the nails and insulators
from one post after another
until the wire stretches far into the neighboring field
trailing along behind them
as they run for freedom.
 
It never seems like much of a jailbreak,
they are usually frightened of something
that makes the pasture seem unsafe,
and they rush headlong in a crush,
the electricity of the fence
only cracking once—a brief twinge—
for the first one who leads the way,
and then the broken connection,
the live half arcing
in the wet summer grass.
 
Short-attentioned
they stop halfway across a new field,
distracted by clover or fresh, tender shoots,
the fencer in the old shed
sounding its clicking alarm
that they must be chased again.
 
On the easier days, it was not difficult
to navigate the edge of the herd,
begin pressing them back toward the home land
of their hillside pasture,
even if the eating in this new place
was good and plentiful.
Something about them preferred to be herded
rather than strike out on their own.
 
On the worse days,
my father’s rage would echo off the tree line,
roll down the hill of the back field,
send them running again
in that awkward shift of weight
that is the gait of the dairy cow—
udders swinging back and forth
between their legs.
They are not built to run.
They only run when they are truly afraid.
 
The only direction they seek is away,
and they would run toward further fields,
his yells and cursing following them
as he ran behind on foot
or slammed into the truck, pushed it into gear
and sped across the uneven ground,
my body sliding back and forth in the bed
as I tried to hold on to anything
that would keep me from being bruised.
 
Most of the time
they couldn’t run too far—
they tired easily,
their fat bellies and swaying bags
slowing them down,
and we would come along the other side
and eventually get them moving
in the direction of home.
 
And then the long process of mending the fence—
finding the insulators that had not cracked or popped,
stringing the wire back together,
my father stretching it to weave it into a knot,
but the stretching only making it weaker,
more likely to break again,
and then we would have to walk the fence line,
wading through knee-high grass,
looking for where the branches
may be rubbing against the wires,
siphoning off the current,
grounding the charge
that encouraged the cows to stay home.
 
One night,
a frightened heifer
led us in circles through the cedar brush,
ran for hours, not slowed by her undeveloped udder,
no shifting weight holding her down,
refusing to be put back inside,
and when he finally got a rope around her neck,
my father reached into his back pocket
pulled the hammer he was carrying,
and began beating her in the sides with it
as he swore and yelled at her for trying to escape.
 
She broke the line,
disappeared into the trees,
the thin layer of snow
shaking loose in her wake,
as he dropped to his knees screaming,
slamming the hammer against the ground.
 
We found her the next spring,
mixed in with the neighbor’s herd,
and when we brought her home,
she slipped out of the pasture every day,
made her way back to the other farm,
until we finally just sold her
to the home where she preferred to be.
 
The first few times,
I only ran so far,
not far enough to avoid being led back,
but finally the time came
when I ran and ran,
sides hurting and bruised
limbs behind me shaking,
the falling snow
covering my tracks.

Front page image by sarahluv.

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Carlton Fisher

About the Author

Carlton D. Fisher is an Instructor in the English Department at SUNY Jefferson in northern NY, near the Canadian border. He is also enrolled as a part-time doctoral student at SUNY Binghamton. His work has appeared in Assaracus and The Paterson Literary Review, and is forthcoming in Lips, Sugar Mule, OCHO, and Out of Sequence: The Sonnets Remixed.
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