"How long has she been in labor?" Sean asked his worried neighbor.
"Even since her water broke yesterday afternoon," Barbara replied, tenderly stroking the hapless goat. With feverish yellow eyes, it eyed its two inexperienced midwives and bleated unhappily.
Sean stared into the animal's weird rectangular pupils, pondered the nature of the alien intelligence within. The exhausted doe stood motionless on a bed of straw, gazing back. "Is this her first delivery?" he asked.
Barbara brushed back a strand of graying hair and dabbed with a rag the sweat on her forehead. "Yes, Roo's just turned two." She frowned at the creature's distended vulva and turned in despair to Sean.
"Could you maybe feel around inside to see what's going on? You've delivered lambs before, haven't you?"
He frowned in turn and looked away; he had done nothing of the kind. Although he had grown up on a half-ass sheep farm that had long-since reverted to brush, and his uncle had once shown him how to peel away the caul from a newborn lamb's nostrils if its mother didn't or couldn't lick it off, luckily for both Sean and the hypothetical lamb that emergency had never arisen. And now he was expected to insert his hand into an unfortunate animal’s vagina in order to hurry along the sacred rite of birth.
He regarded the suffering beast, and with a sigh agreed to try.
"I'm sorry, Sean, but I just can't bear to do it myself," she confessed, gesturing at a bucket of warm, soapy water. "You'd better wash your hands first – I added a pint of Lysol to sterilize it. Is that OK?" she fretted.
"Sure, that'll work as good as anything," he fibbed. But then he expected the whole affair to end badly anyway. In light of the doe's condition, a spot of infection was the least of her worries.
He removed his shirt and carefully washed his hands and right forearm. Outside the open bay door, the dirt barnyard baked under a hot July sun; inside the stone bank barn the air was cool, the light diffused. At his touch, a contraction shivered Roo's flanks; she shifted uneasily, softly bleating. her glistening vulva yawned invitingly, and into that secretive passageway Sean plunged his finger-wedged hand, working it in elbow-deep until he felt the tiny hooves of the unborn kid. The tiny hind hooves of the dead kid. To avoid a dangerous breech birth, the fetus needed to be turned.
"Can you feel it?" asked Barbara. "Is it alive? Is it OK?"
No, he thought, none of the above. "It's facing the wrong way," he said, ignoring her questions. "If I can turn it around, it should pop right out." I hope.
With difficulty, he wormed his fingers around the dead fetus, only to discover another inert body. Unless the stillborn twins were quickly extracted, their mother would die. As Sean struggled to turn the entangled pair, the unwelcome memory of an illegal abortion he had arranged fifteen years before crossed his mind. Despite his doubts that the baby was his, because of his youthful callowness and a selfish desire to avoid a messy paternity suit, he had reluctantly paid half of the abortionist's fee.
Could this be a punishment for that transgression? A rebuke from the void by that disembodied soul? With a grimace, he pushed the ridiculous notion from his mind, but as he blindly worked to save Roo's life, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was enmeshed in something more than just a botched delivery.
"Oh, God! I can't stand this!" Barbara cried, as Sean withdrew his bloody arm. "I'm going outside for a while."
After washing clean his arm, Sean followed her out to the sunny barnyard, where they sat side by side on a wagon tongue, watching the other goats graze in the pasture.
"It won't turn, will it?" she asked. "It's dead, isn't it?"
He lit a cigarette and exhaled with a sigh. "I'm sorry, Barbara, but there are two of them in there, and they're both dead. They have to come out before Roo dies from toxic shock. I think it's time to call a vet."
"It's all my fault!" she wailed. "If I had only called him last night, maybe he could've saved them. But none of my other does ever had labor trouble.'
Sean said nothing. He suspected that she hadn't called the vet to save money. Not that he blamed her – he wouldn't have either. But now she would have to pay anyway, and wind up with nothing but a pile of dead meat to bury. He recalled an old Amish saying about the foolishness of paying for a dead horse. Well, they'd waggle their beards over this one, all right.
"Don't blame yourself," he consoled. "Shit happens – it's part of farming. But still, I think you better call him now. I'm afraid I'll kill her if I try to pull them out backwards."
Barbara got up and walked into the house. Sean waited on the wagon tongue, wishing he had a beer.
When she returned, he asked who she had called. He recognized the man's name and spit on the ground. "That arrogant son-of-a-bitch? Couldn't you think of anyone else?"
"I know you don’t like him, Sean, but I didn't have much of a choice," she explained. "It's getting hard anymore to find a vet willing to treat livestock – a lot of the younger ones just want to work with dogs and cats. Doc Martin is one of the few old-timers left."
Sean snorted his disapproval. Doc Martin was by no stretch of the imagination an "old-timer." He was a self-important man of Sean's generation, no older than fifty at the most, a member of the Chester County horsy set who rode to the hounds in pursuit of foxes. Sean, who wrote an outdoor column for a local weekly, had once written what the Doc had considered a favorable article about fox trapping, which elicited a nasty phone call from the hunt club's "Master of Foxhounds," the good doctor himself. In a perfect example of the pot belittling the kettle, Martin castigated Sean for "glorifying a cruel sport," as if harrying a twelve-pound canine across the countryside with a slavering pack of dogs bellowing for its blood was a kinder recreation, and the knocked-over fences and trampled crops left in the wake of the half-ton steeds were nothing more than a spot of collateral bother, more the pity. The outraged vet had just worked up a good head of steam when Sean interrupted his harangue, advised him to write a letter to the editor, and hung up the phone. Martin never bothered to submit a rebuttal, and the controversy – if one could dignify the squabble with such a term – died of inertia. And now Sean's bitter critic was expected to save the day, if not Roo.
"So, when's he coming?" Sean asked, grinding out his cigarette underfoot.
"Around six, after he finishes his office appointments."
"All right, I’ll come back then. I think I need a few beers first."
Barbara appeared uneasy; she knew about the unresolved feud.
"Don't worry, I won't cause a scene. Me and the doc buried the hatchet years ago," he lied, doubting very much if Martin had. But since the men had never met, with luck the allegorical hatchet might just remain interred, rather than in one another's allegorical skull.
With a blush, Barbara pooh-poohed his suspicion of her suspicion, and returned to Roo. Before Sean left, he overheard her telling Roo in a soothing tone that everything would be OK. Reflecting on the cold, tangled-up bodies in her womb, he thought not.
Sean sat at the picnic table on his enclosed front porch, two cans into a six-pack, watching a beam of sunlight prismed through a quart Mason jar creep across the floor. Inside the jar, floating in rubbing alcohol, were a pair of tiny deer fetuses removed from a slain doe by his friend Stu. A mere three inches long, with well-formed eyes and minuscule hooves, each was a perfect replica in miniature of their dam. When Stu performed an autopsy and realized that he had taken three lives with one bullet, he rose from the gut pile badly shaken, vowing to never kill another doe, an oath he broke the very next season.
Sean had retrieved and preserved the aborted-by-gunshot fetuses as visible proof of how God's meticulous handiwork was evident in even the least of His works. Now he arose to study once again the fragile tracery of their ribs, the tiny hearts and lungs discernible beneath their translucent skin. With a shiver, he thought of his or an anonymous father's lost child, scraped from its haven by a strictly-for-the-bucks croaker who would later lose his physician's license and serve a prison term for running an amphetamine pill-mill from his all-purpose office. Sean recalled with shame how upset his twenty-three-year-old self had been when he learned that the date of the scheduled "procedure" conflicted with an anticipated trip to the shore with his drinking buddies. Cringing inwardly at the painful memory of his blithe heartlessness, he opened another beer.
Sean returned to the barn two hours later, a six-pack in his belly and another in a small cooler. Barbara and her brother Rob, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, and two of her lady friends stood around Roo's stall as if it were a sick bed, speaking softly. Barbara's husband, Chuck, leaned against a post, chewing on the end of a dead cigar. Roo stood as before, her yellow eyes on fire.
"Doc Martin just called," said Barbara. "He's on the way."
After introducing themselves, everyone turned to Roo, who was in obvious distress. As the women described to one another the most horrible sights they had ever witnessed, Sean opened a beer. How about the face of a woman who had just "terminated" her pregnancy, destroyed for convenience her baby? he thought. That oughta rank right up there, all right. Just as the ladies were running short of gory accidents and difficult childbirths to relate, Doc Martin arrived.
Sean's antagonist, a fairly muscular man with graying brown hair, stepped from his truck and looked around, then strode across the barnyard into the barn.
He listened to Barbara's account of Roo's lengthy labor, then took from his bag a shoulder-length glove. As he wiped it down with disinfectant, Sean explained what he had discovered.
"Is that so? Well, I think I had better take a peek myself," Martin said. "If you don't mind, hold her still for a minute or two."
Without further ado, he plunged his hand into Roo's vagina, groped about a bit, and then abruptly ripped out hind legs first a dead kid, causing Roo to emit a heart-rending bleat as a great jet of blood spurted across the floor, splattering the horrified witnesses. Tossing aside the limp body, Martin reached inside the dripping fissure and, accompanied by another spate of blood, tore out the second stillborn fetus.
"My God, man!" Rob exclaimed. "This kinda shit reminds me of 'Nam – I'm outta here. Call me when it's over." Shaking his head with disgust, he walked away.
"Oh, Roo!" Barbara cried. "My poor little Roo! What has he done to you?"
The Master of Foxhounds tossed the carcass next to its twin and felt the flank of the wobbly doe. "They had to come out, you know, and that was the only way," he remarked, reinserting his arm.
"Hold on a second," he muttered, "I think there's one more to go."
Anticipating another gory denouement, everyone but Sean and Barbara rushed outside. But this time Martin gently extracted a live kid. He swung it by its hind legs to clean its nostrils, then laid it before its barely erect mother. With no visible emotion the vet peeled off his bloody glove, washed it off with Lysol, and asked Sean if he wanted to announce the glad tidings.
"Christ," Sean said, looking at the pooled blood behind Roo, "I could've done the same thing, but didn't want to hurt her."
"Well," Martin observed, "that's why people call me, not you. I know what needs to be done and have no qualms about doing it."
Sean regarded him with revulsion. The woman who had nominated him the father of her unwanted baby had also had no qualms about getting rid of it either. Their whole short-lived affair had struck him as fishy from the start. He had easily – too easily in retrospect – seduced her on their first date, and although they dated for several weeks until her abortion, she refused to have intercourse even though the "damage" had already been done. Ever since their breakup, Sean had wondered if she had been impregnated by someone else, someone who couldn't afford an illegal abortion, and had coldly framed him as the father. Years later, after he married another woman, he heard that his one-time lover had joined a cult, then checked herself into a mental institution before eventually dying by suicide. Sometimes Sean expected the hair to part and allow the sword to fall upon him, too.
Upon hearing the good news, the others hurried back, oohing and aahing over the surviving triplet. Roo stood unsteadily in the bloody straw, nuzzling to its feet the shivering kid.
"She's lost a lot of blood and is at risk of toxic shock," Martin declared. "I'll give her a mega-dose of antibiotics, and if she's still alive come morning, she might just pull through."
Chuck escorted Martin to his truck, paid his fee in cash, and returned to the barn, chewing on a fresh cigar. Barbara and Rob sopped up the blood with fresh straw, while the two lady friends, much recovered, wiped dry with burlap sacks the nursing youngster. With a laugh, Barbara informed Sean that she intended to name Roo's baby after him.
"Better me than that butcher, I guess," he replied, opening another beer.
"But he did save one," she pointed out. "And even you admitted that the others were already dead."
"Yeah, but what about Roo? If she survives that outrage, then she's the toughest damn goat in the world."
Stroking the poor animal's head, Barbara clucked sympathetically. "Whether she lives or dies, Sean, Roo has done her duty. And ours is to accept the will of the Lord."
Again, Sean thought of the unnamed being whose death he had underwritten. The day after the "operation," its deeply upset mother claimed to have picked from her menstrual pad tiny pieces of flesh and bone and worse: an accusatory pointing finger. At the time, he had refused to believe it, thinking her hysterical. But now as he looked at the forlorn pair of discarded bodies in the bloody straw and thought of the twin deer fetuses on his porch shelf, with a shiver of self-loathing he knew that she hadn't lied. Had he done the "will of the Lord," or that which was merely expedient? Crushing in his hand the empty can, he choked back a sob.
As he left the barn, he glanced at Roo, who would die before morning. His namesake had gained its feet, and was attempting to nurse. As Sean walked home in the gathering dusk, bats swooping overhead, he looked past them to the emerging evening star, promising on its grace to bury first thing in the morning the things in the jar.
PA DOC # HZ6518
Burl N. Corbett
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733
Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA. Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm. Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965. Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back. Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968. Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer. Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won six PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first and four honorable mentions); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs. My first novel, A Haven from Violence, and Coon Tales, are available at Xlibris.com or Amazon.com.