The Stray

The wind was moving the corn again and it sounded like rain, though rain hadn’t fallen on the farm for nearly three weeks. That took the music right out of it, and made the sibilance of the coarse leaves, which were already starting to brown at the edges, seem more like a hissing taunt. Leland pushed his way through the stalks and felt the leaves cutting at his arms. By the time he reached the middle of the field his skin was hatched with fine red lines. He squatted between two rows and pulled a tobacco pouch from the breast pocket of his stained overalls. The same wind that worried the corn tried to snuff the burning match he held up to a cigarette rolled earlier that morning. He drew smoke into his lungs and watched the shadow of a scavenger bird describe circles on the dirt between the sorry rows.

Last season had been a bust–a combination of bad weather and a weak market–and one more failed crop would put the farm in peril. It was only small-town loyalty that had kept the bank away this long. These days it was easier for Leland to imagine the sound of the auctioneer’s truck pulling into the lane than it was for him to remember the sound of Audrey’s voice without its undertone of worry.

Leland heard the screen door slam and the empty clunk of the bucket that Audrey used to carry water from the pump to the kitchen. He knew the stray would be there, skulking a few paces off, waiting to come lap any water that sloshed out of the pail onto the concrete pad, or continued to drip from the downturned mouth of the pump after Audrey was finished drawing it.

The sun burned overhead as Leland watched an iridescent beetle bumble its way across the furrows mounded up by the disc his tractor had dragged through the field earlier that spring. The bug moved seemingly without purpose, starting off in one direction, stopping to test the air with its palps, and then reversing course to scrabble off in another. He found it a little unnerving, the mechanical motion of the legs reminiscent of a windup toy he had had as a child, clawing dumbly across the dirt, destined to run down. He heard cows bawling somewhere in the low pasture and couldn’t remember whether he had fed the stock or not. He figured it didn’t matter now. It didn’t matter. That was a good, and rare, feeling.

The screen door slammed again, and this time, Leland knew, his wife would be taking the stray they hadn’t bothered to name scraps leftover from breakfast. The dog, he knew, would creep up slowly, submissively, leading with a shoulder and ready to roll over at the slightest provocation, tail whipping the ground between its legs. And Audrey would speak to it in a soft and steady voice. Call it in close until she could see the current ripple out across the wire of its body. She had empathy with all animals, and Leland, who wasn’t allowed that luxury, loved her the more for it.

Leland took another match from the box that said Sure Strike, struck it twice, quickly, against the side, watched the flame flare up, gutter until it was almost out, then form a willowing globe as he tipped it to a steeper angle. The smell of kerosene was on his clothes and when he dropped the match a rivulet of flame licked up his leg and blossomed on his chest. He fell back in the dirt and the smoke rolled up between the stalks, rising higher than the circling bird, obscuring the eye the sun had become. Back in the yard, the stray lifted its nose to the wind, started downfield with an easy lope.