In our field is a bull. It is just the head—the horns sticking out from the snow. The bull died suddenly and the owners wanted to know why and so my husband sent the lab a tissue sample. In the meantime, the owners butchered the bull and gave my husband the head and some meat from the flanks but I will not serve the meat. I will not serve it even to the dog, because when the lab called, they said the bull died from cancer, and I do not want anyone getting cancer, not even the dog. My husband said that you cannot get cancer that way, but I don’t think anyone knows for sure. “The head will be a beauty when it is picked clean by the coyotes, the snow, the wind, and the bugs,” my husband said.
I think how it will probably end up on our bookshelf where we already have a horse’s skull and a wolf’s skull. The bull meat is in the freezer now, and every once in a while my husband pulls out a frozen bag of it and throws it into the front field or the woods, saying that at least the coyotes have something to eat and will not starve this winter.
I tell my husband our daughter does not really know about the Holocaust. She does not really know about the stacked bodies frozen in the cold because when we were watching a movie that flashbacked to Dachau and showed images of stacked frozen bodies, she said, “Did that really happen?” So we agree our daughter should read a good book about the Holocaust, followed up by a good movie about it. It is our Holocaust prescription.
My husband took care of one of our dogs in the same way a while ago. The dog had become too old to get up and walk to the door to even go outside. First my husband took the dog out to the driveway and fed him, and while the dog was eating lamb curry leftovers my husband shot the dog in the head. It was around Halloween and there was no snow yet on the ground and our daughter was on the front lawn carving out seeds from a pumpkin and putting the yellow pulp onto the rock wall. When she heard the first shot, she looked up from her pumpkin and saw the dog fall and then she looked down at her pumpkin and continued carving. My husband shot a second time, just to be sure, and then he loaded the dog into a wheelbarrow and rolled him out into the woods. He slid the dog out onto fallen leaves covered in frost. My husband checked on the dog a few months later and told us how there was nothing left. He said, “He has been picked clean. Even the bones have been carried off. When I die, you could do the same for me,” my husband said, and I pictured rolling my husband out of the wheelbarrow and into the woods and I wondered if I would be strong enough to do it.
We drive to pick up a new used car in a neighboring state. The car is copper red with a convertible top and a key that is not really a key but a black plastic card that you are not supposed to keep with your cell phone or the black plastic card, or the cell phone, I can’t remember which, will stop working. I would rather have a metal key. A heavy key. A key that I can hear if it falls from my pocket to the pavement.
The neighboring state has less snow than ours and we remark how the lawns are still sporting green. We turn the heat down. We notice birds of prey in treetops along the guardrails, mostly hawks and owls, and even a bald eagle sitting in a nest. After we pick up the car, my husband drives it home and I follow behind him in our old car, closer than I would another car because I know he will not mind and also because he is going slower than I want to go. I move over and then drive a long time in the passing lane and when we return home he tells me what I did was illegal. “You should never stay for long in the passing lane,” he says. I say but there was no one else on the road but you, and he says, “but still.” I tell him that how slow he drove such a fast car home was what really should have been illegal.
Sometimes a horse is photophobic. It’ll come up lame in bright sunshine and walk with a head nod. It is rare, but my husband thought he had a case recently, and told the owner to ride the horse in dawn or early evening to see if it walked better then. I think maybe I too am photophobic, because when I go to the library to borrow the good Holocaust book during the day, with all the bright sunshine spreading on the snowy fields, my eyes burn, and I stumble up the library steps.
“Did you know,” my husband tells us, during a walk on a near zero day, “that what Arctic explorers have to worry about is wearing too many layers and sweating too much? If you sweat too much your body loses heat and you are that much closer to death.” Later we rise from our seats at dinner to look out the window and watch the snow blow off the rooftop and swirl above the woodpile, whiting out all that we can see.
At night I listen to the wind roll about inside the wood stove and shake the timbers of the house.
With another storm, the horns of the bull are completely covered now, and the snow looks smooth and windswept like dunes in the desert.
The new used car is in the garage. It gets washed and dried and waxed and polished. “There is too much snow and sand and salt on the roads to drive it now,” my husband tells us. In the garage, we sit in the car and play its stereo and honk the horn to see how loud it is. We engage the clutch and move through the gears. We walk around it, our heads hitting chamois cloths we strung out on a line to dry, as we search for evidence of wax we missed removing with soft brushes and the corners of towels. We joke about putting our daughter in the trunk when we drive, because the car is only a two-seater. “You’d fit just fine,” my husband tells her, but when she makes a move to climb in, he tells her not to be ridiculous.
She has not started reading the book I borrowed for her about the Holocaust. She is reading a book instead about girls in a fashion contest.
When my daughter sits on a cushion she is tall enough to depress the clutch. When I sit on a cushion, I can depress it also. The top of my husband’s head grazes the cloth top when he’s in the driver’s seat. We put the top down with one hand and pretend the wind is blowing in our hair as we drive when we are really still parked in the garage hearing the sound of the hot water heater’s flame coming on and the sound of the wind blowing outside and sending snow across the icy driveway.
It is too cold today for my husband to use his X-ray machine or his digital ultrasound. He cannot risk using them in a cold barn and freezing the hardware or the screens. He sits by the fire telling us how wind whips heat off the outside walls and roof of the house and that is why our fire cannot keep us all that warm.
It is too cold to stay in bed and read because our arms, while holding up our books, become cold, so I put my arms beneath the covers and the blankets up to my chin. I look at the patterns in the wood on our ceiling and walls and watch a spider walking across her web to eat a ladybug stuck in the silk.
We could skip the book about the Holocaust and go right to the movie, but whenever we have time to watch a movie, no one wants to rent the good movie about the Holocaust, and we would rather watch a movie that makes us laugh. I wonder how we ever watched the good movie about the Holocaust in the first place. How was it years ago we had the energy to watch it then and we do not have it now?
My husband reads the car manual before bed and tells me we have the deluxe model with Bilstein shocks and a Bose sound system. The ladybug from the spider’s web is gone, and now in the web is a large black fly that can only move its legs and try to crawl.
I cannot imagine who is eating the bull’s head since it is buried in the snow and no animal can probably get to it. We have not heard the coyotes howling in a while. I am afraid that the bad meat my husband left out has silenced them by giving them some kind of coyote cancer.
Our daughter has popped a band and so I make a time for her to visit with the orthodontist. Driving there we hear on the radio that a man robbed a bank and the police say the suspect will still have red ink on his hands and face. I think what would my daughter and I do if we ran into the man, if we walked, for example, into the orthodontist’s office and the man was standing outside, with the ink all over him. Would we run back into the car and drive off? Would we walk past him into the orthodontist’s office and ask to use their phone next to the basket of smiley stickers to call the police?
On the way home we stop and buy discounted chocolate sold in bulk chopped in irregular pieces. In the kitchen we take a pointed knife and bear down on the handle and break the chocolate into smaller pieces we mix into cookie batter. We eat the cookies before lunch and I think of the ways in which I am a bad parent and I think how I should have gotten my daughter to at least have watched the Holocaust movie by now and I think how I will rent the movie this afternoon, but when I get to the library to rent the movie, it is checked out. Someone else had the energy to watch the good movie about the Holocaust. Walking out of the library, back into bright sunshine, I shield my eyes in case I really am photophobic. I don’t want to stumble and trip on thick ice while just walking back to my car.
There are signs that something has dug up the bull’s head. My husband points out the tracks in the snow. “Oh, good!” he says when he sees the animal paw prints, and I think how he really does sound glad that something like the coyotes are getting a good meal in this cold that is so cold that I keep my head under the covers at night and sleep wearing wool socks and dream of places with waves that I ride right up to a sparkling shoreline.
For English class our daughter has to read All Quiet on the Western Front and so I am feeling off the hook for making her have to read a book on the Holocaust or watch a good Holocaust movie, because All Quiet on the Western Front is so full of the horrors of war that maybe some of what happened in the history of our world is sinking in. Our daughter says she is on page 119 and there is still no love interest, and she is waiting for the love interest and so far there is only horse meat and turnips and exploding shells and men wanting other men’s boots.
Today the temperature rises above freezing and so we open up the garage doors and back out the new car. Its tires rumble over chunks of ice and snow, but we lower the top anyway and turn up the heat and the music and drive by trees with snow still sitting on their branches. We are blinded by the white of the snow-covered fields that we can see for acres on both sides of us, and we lift our faces up to fully catch the sun on our cheeks. I drive and bear down on the gas hard before changing gears and feel the car hugging curves that are puddled with fast-melting side-of-the-road snow. Our daughter smiles up at the blue sky and later at home we can see how her face has some color. She eats a good meal, with red meat and green vegetables and fresh fruit afterward, and I wonder why I ever wanted her to know about what the Holocaust was in the first place.
The cold is getting colder and wind whips around the house and we shut the doors to the garage and keep the new car inside. Winter is not over and I have run out of kindling to start my fires, so my daughter and I take empty crates for carrying apples and tromp through three feet of snow to a place on our property where we know dead trees have fallen and whose branches range from finger thick to wrist thick. We are sweating by the time we get to the place, and I worry that like the Arctic explorers we could possibly die from catching a chill in this cold. I wish my daughter had worn a scarf because I can see how the collar of her coat does not close tightly around her slender neck, pale from months of being covered up by turtlenecks and scarves. The branches that we break off that are still too big we hit against the fallen trunk of the tree and pieces fly off that we cannot find because they have landed quietly buried in deep snow. The sound of our sticks breaking against the trunk rings in the air, and while we hit the trunk we yell, “Hiyah!” like we know martial arts. My opponent, I think, could be anything, a bad childhood, an inattentive husband, the cold, maybe just the freezing cold.
My daughter’s opponent, I’m not sure, probably just my husband and me, and isn’t that enough? That’s enough to keep her angry for a lifetime. My never knowing if I’m doing the right thing for her, and him always thinking he does know he’s doing the right thing for her.
The next visit to the orthodontist, I don’t go in with my daughter, but wait in the car reading All Quiet on the Western Front as I pulled an old copy off our bookshelf where it was hiding behind the horse’s skull and started it and it’s good, and I am not waiting for the love interest. I know enough not to wait for the love interest. On the drive home my daughter says that a woman who worked in the orthodontist’s office wasn’t there today. She was murdered by her own husband and put through the wood chipper. My daughter can’t believe it. This is good, I think, better than reading about the Holocaust. This is closer to home. This is about the horrors of mankind in her own backyard. This will lift her head up from that book about fashion she is reading. I turn on the radio. It’s all over the news. We listen as we drive, passing a beauty salon that’s also a grocery store and has aisles of food behind the hydraulic salon chairs, passing a gas station that sells milk, and passing a used bookstore that’s also a café. Nothing is just one thing, I think. Everything has a dual purpose, even a trip to the orthodontist, which has proven to be a learning ground.
At home, after hearing the news about the woman killed by her husband and thrown into the wood chipper, my husband says, “You see. Life is short. You only live once. It’s a good thing we bought the pricey car.” And then he gets on the phone and tells a client to feed her thin horse corn to fatten him up.
Evidence that my husband may be right comes pouring in. Fathers of our daughter’s friends become sick. One has a brain tumor he didn’t know he had except for shaking in his leg when he sat with them crossed. Another dies within ten days of being diagnosed after having gone in for symptoms of what he thought were just swollen glands and the flu. “You see,” my husband says. “Our days could be numbered.”
In the meantime, the bull’s head in our field is still buried, but now it’s under a shiny layer of snow from when the snow melted in the sun during the day and re-froze in the cold overnight. We are seventeen-below in the morning and hold our breaths when starting our old four-door car that we park outside, hoping the engine will turn over. Our daughter takes a shower and then goes to get the wood from the pile outside and her wet hair freezes and she breaks a piece of it off, showing us how fragile it is.
At night, because of the cold, I wear the covers like a burka, shrouding as much of my face as I can. My husband does the same next to me, only his eyes and nose showing pale in the moonlight and starlight, his head covered with the patchwork of our well-worn Devil’s puzzle pattern quilt.
One day my daughter comes home with the good Holocaust movie from the school library. A friend of hers told her it was worth seeing and so our daughter had a change of heart. We watch it with her and all of us cry and outside snow falls in whorls around the house as if the flakes of snow were particles of ghosts trying to take on the semblance of a human form. She says she doesn’t understand how so many were killed. Why did they get on the trains so easily? My husband gives her answers, saying no one thought they would be killed. “But animals wouldn’t even do this to each other, why do we?” she asks. I don’t have answers for her. I realize that all that I have are the same questions she has.
A thaw begins. The horns of the bull poke through, the way they face each other it’s like they’ve stopped for conversation in the snow-covered field.
My husband and I fight. He thinks our daughter should study German, because if she wants to go into any science field, the best scientific articles are written in German. After watching the Holocaust movie over again, though, I’m not that inclined to have her learn German. I’m not that anxious to hear the guttural sounds that will remind me of all the people who were put to their deaths. I tell him all those science articles are usually translated into English anyway. I tell him German is not like Spanish, where so many countries speak it. I tell him the only place to practice would be in the tiny country of Germany itself. Spanish would serve her well, I say, and plus, I say, the school offers Spanish and they do not offer German. If she wanted to learn German, we would have to hire a private tutor.
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” my husband says.
I say, “You just told me last week that we have to watch our money and now you want to pay for a private tutor?”
“You don’t understand, it will be a long-term investment for her, but I don’t expect you to understand what I’m saying. Some things you should just leave up to me to decide,” he says. I am so angry. I go upstairs and slam the door to my bedroom. I feel hot. I go to the bathroom and wash my face to cool down. When I’m drying it with a towel, I hear a rumble down in the garage. It’s my husband starting up the two-seater. I can hear the voice of our daughter talking to him. The garage door squeaks open and then the car pulls out and then the garage door shuts. They never told me they were going for a drive. I listen to the wheels driving over the driveway, and my daughter’s voice saying, “Turn the music up!” I hear my husband yell, “Wheeee!” as they drive off, the engine revving.
I sit down and read more of All Quiet on the Western Front. The main character has just realized that while on his second leave, the war has crushed him and he did not even know it. A wind shakes the house as if it’s trying to lift it and me inside up off the ground. They are gone for a long time. Did they decide to go to the store? The library? To rent a movie? It’s close to dark. The light is beginning to fade over our pond, making it hard now to see the water rippling as the beaver that has taken up residence in it swims around. I can hear a coyote howling. The howl coming from a thicket alongside the road where there’s a rock wall and in the thicket there is also the frame of a very old rusted Ford roadster that someone abandoned there probably over eighty years ago. I think how it would be nice to once and for all get rid of the meat in the freezer. I don’t want one day for my husband to defrost it in our fridge and insist that I cook it, saying that it’s good meat.
There are four big plastic bags of the meat that I take down with me to the thicket in the woods with the rusted out Ford. I drop one of the bags at a time, spacing them out so they are each separated by a distance of at least fifty feet. The evening is the warmest we’ve had in a long time and over the pond and the back field the sunset seems stronger than it has in a while, giving the evening a pink-colored glow. It would be nice to watch the rest of the sunset. There is a big rock close by that I could sit on, but if I sat on it and faced west, I’d have a huge hemlock blocking my view. The door on the rusted old Ford roadster is missing, but the driver’s seat, or at least the metal frame of it, is still there. I sit on the seat, my legs still out and hanging over the grass growing up around the car, probably looking like either I’m about to get in the car or I’m just getting out of it. I can hear the gentle ripple of the water on the pond nearby. Either the beaver is trolling around or a fish has decided to come close to the surface. The sunset becomes purple now, as well as pink. I’m glad I stayed out to watch it. There are too many days when there is a good sunset and I’ve been busy inside the house. There are too many clear nights I have not gone out to admire the stars and to see how they light up the fields and the pond and even us, our hands silvery and our faces silvery as we have them turned up to the sky.
When the sunset is no longer casting pink, I hear a howl that sounds impossibly close. I think how the coyotes must be too shy to get near me, but I am wrong. One lone coyote is standing by one of the plastic bags of meat I dropped fifty feet away. He is not ripping open the bag with his teeth. He is not pawing at it or trying to drag it away. He is sitting right next to the bag, on his haunches, and he has his head thrown back and he is howling.
I wish I had a camera. I wish someone else were with me so the two of us could see it together. Does the coyote somehow know the meat is bad? Is he angry over someone trying to leave it for him? He is a large coyote with a thick silver ruff of fur around his neck. I can see his chest expand after one howl ends and as he gets ready to start another. He howls the sun all the way down over the horizon, not stopping until the darkness is so pervasive that I begin to think how I wish I brought a flashlight so when it was time to walk back through the field and up to the house I would not trip in a mole’s hole or a rock embedded in the dirt whose rounded surface is scarred with lines from where the blade of our mower has scraped it for so many summers.
I wonder when he’ll stop howling and begin to try and eat what’s inside the plastic bag, but maybe he won’t because it’s still frozen. He keeps on howling. It’s sad and eerie and beautiful all at once. Now that the sun has set, I think I can smell him. He smells like the fresh smell of pine because maybe he rubbed against some tree whose sap clung to his coat. Then I hear our new used car coming up the driveway. The headlights hit the wooden garage doors and I can hear the music still on in the car and the voices of my husband and my daughter. I hear my husband loudly tell our daughter to shush, and turn the radio off. “Hear that?” he says. “Coyotes,” he says. The coyote next to me still howls.
“No, coyote, it’s just one,” my daughter says. That’s when I throw my head back and join in. I’m afraid at first that my howl will sound too human, and it will scare the coyote away, but he stays. I can make my howl last a long time, breathing when I need to and still howling. I try and meet the coyote’s register and sound the way he sounds. Sometimes my notes are different, but sometimes I think they sound exactly the same, as if like a nested wooden doll he is inside my throat, or I am inside of his.
Later, after I make it back to the house by just following the lights that are now on inside the rooms, my husband asks where I was. “I just went for a drive like you did,” I say.
“Wasn’t it a lovely evening for a drive? Did you see that sunset? Do you feel better now? You were getting pretty worked up about the German,” he says.
“Ah, yes, the German,” I say and then I tell him how our daughter should learn what she wants to learn, and that in the end, words matter very little. They don’t matter at all. Then, as if to back me up, we hear the coyote howl down in the thicket by the pond. It’s a long, high howl. Longer than I think I ever could howl.
“God, doesn’t he sound human?” my husband says.
I go up to the window and put my hands against the glass, looking out.
“You can’t see him, you know,” he says. “It’s too dark,” he tells me.
I don’t answer. I don’t want to hear my husband talking anymore. I just want to hear the coyote in our woods.
Yannick Murphy is the author of two collections of short stories and five novels.
“The Prescription” was originally published in TLR Fall 2016: I Live Here