A failed farm. A small white house with a front door painted pale blue. A lilac tree next to the house at the top of a green grass hill. Lilac tree in bloom. Two sisters reading near the lilac tree. A father opens the blue door of the house and storms outside shouting, “Goddamn steer! Goddamn steer!” The oldest sister stops reading. She watches her father barrel down three steps and then veer right towards their station wagon. Parked on a gravel driveway. “Goddamn steer!” A father wearing khaki shorts and black dress socks and black dress shoes and a navy-blue polo shirt bunched at his waist. A father with blonde hair combed away from his forehead and fifties era glasses in 1979. Furious face. He opens the station wagon door, enters, sits, slams the door shut. He starts its engine and the car lurches forward. A girl watches the car with her father inside it race down a steep driveway. Gravel pops. A hard left onto a country road. Unpaved. Dust rises. A car disappears. The girl keeps her eyes on the dust. Waits for it to fade away. My father was a lawyer. He bought the remains of a farm in northwest Illinois that was two hours from our Chicago home. Fourteen acres of rolling hill pasture. A creek. A stand of thin trees at the creek. Large flat stones in the water under the shelter of trees. Every Saturday afternoon I walked to the stones and sat on the largest, flattest one to watch water spiders glide in and out of the shade. Vulnerable and defenseless, I loved them and worried for them as I watched them spin on top of the water on their thin legs.
My mother was from Italy. I don’t know that she liked our weekend farm. We didn’t talk much. I never asked her what her feelings were about our weekend home, and she never asked about mine.
During the week we lived in a newly built townhouse in Hyde Park. It was short and squat and its garage stuck out in front like a last-minute thought. Sometimes a neighboring farmer of ours would call my father in Chicago to tell him that his steer had once again stomped a barbed wire fence flat and gotten out. “Goddamn steer!” he’d shout. “Goddamn steer!” In my bedroom, while he shouted, I’d stop reading and freeze, wait for his raging to stop.
In fifth grade, my class was assigned a project in which we had to create a homesteading, prairie person who would give a talk about prairie life. I became a prairie mom and talked about churning butter, outhouses, using woodburning stoves for cooking and warmth on winter days and nights. I spoke about how we depended on horses and trains for travel, on cows for milk, on pigs for meat. We plant grain, I said in my talk, and right now we’re struggling because of red rust disease. That’s a pathogen that’s killing our crops.
I practiced saying the word pathogen out loud for over an hour.
My teacher Miss Kamberos asked me to take my prairie woman to two other classrooms. My mom had made me a long skirt from swirling blue cotton and had sewn a red scarf into its waist with which to tie my skirt. I remember her saying, “Make a strong bow so that it doesn’t fall down.” I wore a dark blue, nylon turtleneck with the skirt, and for shoes, my Ked sneakers. I knew that the sneakers weren’t right and hoped my skirt would cover them up.
In the bathroom where I changed into my prairie woman clothes, I looked in the mirror and under the white light saw that I didn’t look like a prairie woman or prairie girl at all. No one will believe my act, I thought. I’d learned about prairie life from two books and hadn’t been able to put my personal country experience into my talk. I’d left out the water spiders gliding about our stream on thin legs, the flat stones, the pasture, the lilac tree. And the steer. I’d have liked to say that even though my sister and I had never seen him, we knew that he was there, dangerous and angry.
I didn’t want to leave the bathroom, but I had no choice, and so I took a deep breath and entered the hallway and walked to the first of my two classrooms, heart pounding hard, holding my skirt’s red bow with one of my hands hoping that it wouldn’t come undone while I walked.
When I asked my mom why our father shouted so much, she said it was because he had bad headaches from being a lawyer and needed total quiet when he came home. I considered it, understood that this was true. He’d come home from work and change from his suit into gray cotton pants and a polo shirt and then lie down on the couch with a cool washcloth over his forehead. “If you and Clara don’t disturb him, you’ll see he won’t yell at you, he won’t raise his voice.”
I became quiet, but the quiet didn’t help.
That spring of the steer, Clara and I took care of a feral cat who lived in the collapsing chicken coop of our failed farm. We brought her water in a bowl we took from the kitchen pantry, and leftover food whenever we could. She got fat and that made us happy and then she had kittens. Clara and I brought her double the water and food when we could and watched her kittens grow fur, then stand, then begin to walk for three weekends in a row. On the fourth weekend, when we went to sit at our spot outside the coop, the mother and her kittens were gone. Clara cried because she said that meant they’d been killed and eaten by a coyote or skunk. I told Clara that skunks and coyotes don’t eat kittens – they were too bony – and that they’d left because they’d grown up and had to begin looking for food on their own, had to find homes of their own. They’re alive, I told her. Believe me, they’re alive.
We went to Italy every summer to spend time with my mom’s extended family. Her mother and many siblings lived in a village within the Sibylline Mountain range. I don’t remember missing my father.
Clara and I kept away from the steer by never crossing the creek and reading books together under an oak tree that stood halfway between the creek and our house. Even there, we could hear my father when he shouted, “Goddamn steer!” His voice would interrupt the sweetness of birds singing and calling above us. I’d freeze, look up from my book and watch him storm to our station wagon, enter it, slam its door shut. He always drove the car down the driveway and turned onto the unpaved road fast, made gravel-dust rise up. I’d wait for the birds to return to their calling before I went back to my book. Here I am, there you are, I am here.
Our cousins in Italy had wanted to know what the steer looked like, and so after we returned to Chicago, I searched for the steer. It was the last weekend of September. I looked for him by myself; Clara was too scared to come with me. We’d learned from our father that he’d staked out the large northeast corner of our property, near the fence that separated us from our neighbor’s corn fields. I didn’t like to go to this area because I thought it too far from our house, but that Saturday I pushed through the thick weeds and nettles of our pasture’s tallest hill and when at its top, I saw our steer in its corner eating grass. He was an enormous animal who exuded a primal physical power. I studied him for several minutes, but when he stopped eating and lifted his head, I became afraid that if he sensed me near, he’d run towards me to trample me into the ground just as he trampled the barbed wire fence when he escaped. I turned away quietly as I could and began running home through nettle leaves that scraped and stung my legs.
Our steer was the product of a business that sold steers a person could buy and feed and then send to a meat processing plant where it would be killed and cut to become white paper packages that were sealed tight with translucent tape. Our steer arrived at our Chicago townhouse on a warm fall morning. I heard the doorbell ring, heard my father open the door and say, “Hello, hello, come in.” I left my bedroom and made my way to the stairs and then down the stairs sitting until I could see the ground floor and entrance hall. Once I could see what I wanted to see, I became quiet and kept my body still and watched. I remember the delivery men’s hand- truck that carried a white, horizontal freezer. I remember their crewcuts and arms covered in tattoos of snakes and crosses and skeletons. My father led them to our basement stairs and then I heard the thump, thump, thump of the hand truck as the delivery men maneuvered the freezer down the steps.
My father said, “Over there, and the socket’s there, can you see it?” And then my father and the two delivery men come up from the basement, and I saw the delivery men go outside and then come in again. This time the hand-truck carried a white box that had Stanley’s Meats stamped on it in red. My father led them down to the basement again, and I heard the ripping sound of the box being torn open and then the plunks of our steer now in white packages being dropped one by one into the freezer. So many plunks. And my father said, “Goddamn steer,” and laughed. He said, “Thank God I don’t have to deal with those phone calls anymore.”
They came upstairs together, and after the deliverymen left, my father closed our home’s entrance door behind them and then turned and shouted, “The steer’s here.”
As though this was something that we needed know.
-- Natalia Nebel is a writer whose work has been published in a variety of literary magazines. Her story Sloughs was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, her essay “Lazarus” was a notable essay in 2019 Best American Essays, and she’s co-founder of the reading series Sunday Salon Chicago. When she’s not writing, she’s painting odd little creatures for fun.