In the afternoon a hot wind swept across the farm, stirring up dust devils here and there in the barren fields. From his chair on the porch the farmer watched the miniature swirling cyclones dance like ghosts rising out of the ground. He was a large man with muscled arms and a tuft of chest hair protruding from the top of his overalls. His steel blue eyes had dark circles beneath them and his cheeks sagged wearily from lack of sleep.
He turned when his wife opened the screen door and joined him on the porch. She was a small, frail-looking woman who wore no makeup and was fond of reading the Bible. She rested her hand on her husband's shoulder.
"You best do it before Nathan gets home," she told him.
Nathan was their teenaged son, expected to arrive soon on the school bus.
The farmer sighed. "Keep Irma in her room," he said. "I don't want her to see this."
His wife nodded solemnly. Irma was ten years old and had stayed home from school that day pretending to be sick.
The farmer stood up and stretched his long legs. "I wish there was some other way, but I know there ain't."
"You just make sure you do it quick," his wife insisted. "I don't want him to suffer."
Leaving the porch, he walked slowly to the barn and swung the door open. He went first to the wide-mouthed shovel, then changed his mind and took the pitchfork from its hitch on the wall. It would be much easier with a gun, he thought, but his wife hated guns and wouldn't allow one on the farm. He would have to make do with the pitchfork.
His daughter confronted him as he left the barn. Irma was frail like her mother and stood barefoot in her pajamas with terror in her eyes.
"Please don't kill him, "she pleaded.
"Go back to the house!" he shouted.
"Please, Daddy, he don't each much."
"Do as I tell you!"
The farmer's wife came running and grabbed the girl, who squirmed to break free. "I'll take care of her," the wife said. "Hurry up and get it over with."
Taking long strides, he walked toward the ravine with the wails of his daughter ringing in his ears. As tears welled up in his eyes, he tried to harden his heart against the awful sounds. Four mouths were easier to feed than five, he told himself. Irma was too young to understand that sacrifices had to be made if any of them were to survive. It was the oldest ritual in the world, the one that whole civilizations had depended upon from the earliest days of farming.
On the forested slope of the ravine the farmer slipped and quickly regained his balance. A creek had spared this useless part of the farm from the effects of the terrible year-long drought and the farmer surveyed it with a certain bitterness. Those dust devils he had seen were mocking him, but he would have the last laugh soon when the rains returned.
Following the muddy creek bed, he could feel a watchful presence and smell the stench of shit and urine long before he saw the wild eyes bulging with fear. As he approached, it bolted and hit the end of its chain with a loud thump. The sight of it had always made the farmer feel nauseous. He was sure that such a thing was not meant to survive. It was a mistake of nature, a reproach against everything that was good and beautiful in life.
When he stepped forward with the pitchfork, it bared its yellow teeth and sprang at him.
The farmer jumped out of the way. "You settle down now," he ordered.
It stared at him with unblinking eyes. The farmer had always wondered if there was any intelligence behind those eyes — or was it simply blind instinct? He would never know now. He took a slice of bread from his overall pocket and held it out. "I'll bet you're hungry," he leered.
It licked saliva from the corners of its mouth.
"That's more like it."
He tossed the bread on the ground. When it bent over, the farmer thrust the pitchfork into its deformed back with all his strength. Blood spurted and it fell over, groaning and kicking wildly into the air. The farmer leaned on the pitchfork to drive it deeper. When the thing kept thrashing around, the farmer retrieved the pitchfork and in a frenzy stabbed it again and again until he was too tired to lift his arms anymore.
After a moment it stopped moving and its eyes turned glassy. The farmer sat on a log to catch his breath, wiping his sweaty face with a handkerchief. He noticed that he was spattered with blood and felt a strange exhilaration. The long wait was over at last and now things would return to normal. A smile flickered on the farmer's face.
Emerging from the ravine, he spotted a few clouds on the horizon. Maybe you will rain tonight, he whispered to the sky. Nathan and his mother were waiting on the porch when he strolled up the stairs.
"Did you bury him?" the wife asked.
"Nathan can do that," the farmer said, taking his seat.
His son's face was contorted into a look of horror. "Oh my God. What have you done?"
"Don't be such a baby," his mother scolded. "You've buried dead things before."
"I'm calling the sheriff's department," Nathan said.
He tried to open the screen door, but his mother slammed it shut. "You will do no such thing. You will honor your father like I taught you."
Nathan leaped off the porch and landed awkwardly on the dusty ground, twisting his ankle. The farmer rushed to help his son.
"Stay away from me!" Nathan shouted, hobbling backward.
"You stop this foolishness and go to your room," his mother demanded.
"I won't stay in this house," Nathan sobbed, limping down the driveway.
"He was an abomination not fit to live," his mother called after him.
The boy was already on the road. The farmer watched him until he had nearly disappeared from view. "Should I get the truck and bring him back?" he asked his wife.
"Let him go," she said wearily.
"But he's hurt."
"Maybe the pain will bring him to his senses."
"What if he tells someone?"
"They won't believe him."
"Lots of kids tell wild stories," he wife assured him. "It don't mean nothing."
The farmer returned to the porch and slumped into his chair. "I haven't felt so tired in years," he grumbled.
"You'll have to bury him some place where nobody can ever find him."
"I'll do it after supper."
His wife went inside and began peeling potatoes in the kitchen sink. The farmer saw the last dust devil of the day swirl past the barn and disappear into thin air. He smiled when he felt a hint of moisture in the cooling breeze. As the sun dipped below the hills to the west, he brushed a fly away and got to his feet. He lowered his head as if in prayer and kissed a bloody spot on his overalls. He would take a long shower, change into clean clothes, and watch some television until supper was ready to eat.
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