from "Line of Duty"
by Albert Haley
(excerpted, published in Mars Hill Review, March 2001)
At church it wasn't the get-down-in-the-aisle style religion he'd imagined. The plain buff, steepled building housed something more formal. "Liturgy," Roberta Raye whispered early on in the service, and sitting next to her on the pew he felt an electric jolt. The breath from her lips had brushed his ear. He stared at her long nails, done up especially for the day. He looked down at the Order of Worship lying in his lap. His eyes couldn't get past the first title there: "We proclaim the presence of the Lord." What's that, Henning wondered. God has to be spoken into existence? Why not simply point at the thing itself? Hey, dude, over there! Why not catch him bare-handed, as real as a bullet streaking toward flesh? A fully-intentional God, not one hiding beneath beds or lodged inside songbooks, waiting for you to say the right words so He could come out and play.
Henning surveyed again the modem stained glass, the light woods covering the wall, the cushioned pews. By the end of the service Roberta Raye was smiling like something had passed through her. He felt nothing. As he walked out he wondered what he would remember? That it smelled nice in there. Like furniture polish? Drycleaning? Carpet shampoo? Yes, a clean place for a dirty person.
"What did you think, Max?"
"Great. Just great."
She smiled like she knew what he was trying to do. "Well, don't dwell on it. Time to switch gears."
"That's right. To the ranch!"
She didn't really need him to babysit. Instead, she turned the children over to her parents and rustled up a pair of overalls and leather boots for both of them. Henning and she got into an old, rusted-up pickup that had a winch in back. It looked almost like a tow truck, and Henning wondered why they'd need that on a ranch. There was also a fully stocked gun rack in the cab. "We've got to go into that field over there and get a cow for my daddy," Roberta Raye said.
They bounced over ruts and stopped in front of some Herefords. The cattle looked dumb and suspicious, but didn't do anything as Roberta Raye stepped out with the rifle. To Henning it felt like hottest day of the summer; he couldn't be sure having spent the last week indoors, entirely under air conditioning. Sweat oozed down Roberta Raye's cheeks. "Here," she said and handed him the rifle. He heard the whistling noise coming from her nostril as she spoke faster than normal. "Daddy said to take that one right there." Roberta Raye wiped her face and pointed. "The one with the funny patch on her leg."
The rifle was a small bore job. She advised him to nail the cow between the eyes so it would go down with one pop. Then she stationed herself behind him.
Henning stumbled upon a hole in the ground and frightened the nearest animals. They stuttered a few yards away. Black Patch stayed where she was, her head up, chewing, looking at him. Between the eyes.
"You can do it, Max," Roberta Raye said from the rear. "Taking life is part of preserving life. Kill a beautiful animal and eat it beautifully. That's all it is. We're feeding my kids. You pull the trigger and you guarantee a good life for someone else. You don't have to be the judge. The judge has already put you in the situation. All he is asking you to do is to respond. You hear me, Henning? Snap out of it! You're not the damn judge! Squeeze!”
A minute later they backed up the truck to the cow. After they'd run the hook through the hocks they turned on the winch. As the cow dangled and spun at the end of the chain Roberta Raye used a regular kitchen chef s knife to cut its throat. "There. Let it drain, then we'll drive it back to the house. Daddy will take care of the rest."
This was what she'd brought him here for, an event more important than church or coaxing him into pulling the trigger. She wanted him to face the blood. It came fast from the body, starting out like a faucet's gush then steadily graduating until, minutes later, it fell in coin-sized drips. A wide red puddle formed on top of the hardened field. Drought conditions. It would be a while before it soaked in. Flies appeared, flirting with the sticky surface. Mostly, Henning was impressed by the odor. The cow’s blood smelled hot and dark and even slightly metallic, like a pocketful of change or damp copper pipes in the basement. For a second he thought Roberta Raye might be on the right track, that these qualities could explain everything. Blood inside the animal was what kept it alive. By taking the blood out and putting it into the ground, they weren't so much killing the animal as moving its essence to a new realm. All the pulsing blood effort was going to be transferred into another kind of production. Right here on this spot plants would spring up.
He looked at the head-down cow, the carcass that ended in thick, rubbery open lips. He tried to see it as an evacuated bag, a container whose containing job was finished. Yes, he almost had it.
"It's bled enough," Roberta Raye said.