The Calf

Isaac Feist


They had finished slaughtering the oxen. The hunters stood near the bodies on a stretch of level ground. Two men were on guard, facing outward. The plain before them lay in shadow. The steep hillside beneath their survey was studded with boulders projecting from unstable soil and smaller stones with cruel edges. Here and there arose a lone fig or olive tree with a crowd of sparrows roosting in its branches or stands of marula trees giving shade to low bushes and sanctuary to quails. A green basalt cliff, the precipice from which the oxen had fallen, towered above the hunters. It was topped by a belt of dwarfish trees, their roots in the air. A narrow stream issuing from a cleft in the rock purled sluggishly around the spot where the group stood. The bodies of the oxen had been piled at the foot of the cliff to give space and their blood mixed with the water. The hunters worked furiously with stone knives as their families filed onto the promontory bearing parcels of tinder. The fires were lit. First Son crouched beside a calf, his back to his mate, Y—. He pulled his spear out of the animal and began hacking into its flank. Blood rushed from the wounds he made to infuse itself into the dust. There was the sound of a blow behind him, stone on stone, then the smell and hiss of burning wood, and a sensation of heat as Y— succeeded in kindling a blaze. First Son imagined her watching him as he worked. Maybe she was pleased to finish her task first; he wouldn’t know it by looking at her. Her gaze gave him nothing. He shook free the hunk of flesh he had been working at and threw it over his shoulder. He listened to her devour it and then returned to his labour. A low cry announced the approach of the Others. There would be no time for cooking before they arrived. First Son directed his butchery to the most valuable parts of the ox and they ate what he claimed raw, reserving a few gobbets from the liver. As he ate, First Son watched Z— traverse the group, leaving the fire he had lit in a blue hollow of the cliff. He had not managed to claim a carcass, although the hunt’s success was surely due to him. Z— was new to the group, younger than First Son or Y—, and he had no helpmeet to keep his fire. He was weak but not ill, inspiring contempt rather than pity. He had a melancholy demeanor and he always ate last, but did not seem to mind.  


By evening, the Others had settled in. They practiced their way of butchery and lit their own fires, but the groups consorted freely. First Son slathered his arms with dust, scrubbed, and gnawed a scrap of hide, sweating and unmanned. The light thickened, and for a moment he had been horrified by the sight of a severed hand lying on a nearby boulder. He looked again and found it was a bloody handprint left by one of the many hunters cleaning carcasses. It could have been his own… This was not the last surprise at nightfall. Retaking his old position, he looked back in Z—’s direction. The man had lit a fire, but he hardly stirred otherwise and First Son had not seen him eat. Not far away from that aperture in the cliff, First Son noticed a young woman picking through the cracked skull of a calf. The woman’s hair veiled her face, but First Son recognized the quick, careful motions of her hands and the obvious weakness in one of her knees: it was his sister. No sooner had he recognized her than she did something he could not explain. There, behind her, stood her mate, an older man she had never liked so much as tolerated. She stood up, revolved to face him and placed in his withered hands a few chunks of brain. He thanked her and shuffled back to his fire. She knelt again beside the skinny cadaver and caressed the head briefly with both hands. She clambered to her feet again and moved to follow her mate, then espied First Son. She smiled at him and he came over to greet her. They exchanged a few words. There was not much to say. She told him she was pregnant and he was glad to hear it, though this was difficult to express. She asked him which hunter had thought of sending the oxen over the cliff – that too was difficult to express – and First Son pointed out Z—, illuminated by his fire and watching the blackened horizon with an inscrutable expression. First Son and his sister separated, returning to their campsites. First Son ate some of the meat he had saved. When he was full, he lay down beside his wilting fire and closed his eyes. Yet even when the voices faded and the only continuing sounds were the low din of creaking insects, the hum of the wind, and the cries of a nightingale now and then, he remained awake. His years and the day’s work weighed heavily on him. The ache in his limbs made it challenging to find a comfortable place on the rough ground. In the night, he heard footsteps picking their way across loose rocks. The voice of his sister and that of a man he recognized as Z— approached him. This worried him. It was inappropriate for them to be speaking. They circled his campsite, stopping a short distance away on his left. After a few moments of silence, Z— let out an excited exclamation, followed by a cry from First Son’s sister. They were senseless noises, but there was a shared feeling there. Then Z— spoke a single word: Calf… The ground shook beneath First Son’s head as they passed. When they were gone, he, thinking they might have sighted more oxen somewhere, rose to his feet and walked to where he thought they had stood. But he saw nothing when he looked down the hillside or squinted into the distance. At least nothing was near enough to be seen by the orange gleam of the fires. Disappointed, he turned back and trod carefully around a flat jagged stone sprinkled with ash. As he did so, he happened to look downward, and saw, to his surprise, that the ash had not been merely blown across the basalt surface by the wind from one of the nearby fires, nor had it been deposited there by a misplaced brand… Faintly illuminated by the firelight, the ash composed a pattern of intersecting lines. He looked at it in confusion. Had his sister or Z— created it? It occurred to him that the word “calf” had something to do with it. But that was impossible. There was no calf. Yet, when he looked closely at the pattern, he sensed something familiar in it, something that was not part of the ash, but somehow contained by it... The word “calf” in his mind. Why, then? Where was it? … Musing, he examined the ash again. He viewed it from different angles, following and connecting the lines in his mind… And the lines of ash came together, illuminated by the shifting firelight, and there was an ox before him. There was the blunt snout, the hump, the low dewlap. But the horns were slight, immature. Not an ox, then, but a calf. There was a calf, lying motionless on the rock and yet in motion, smaller than his hand and yet large as life. It was, but without being, captive in the crossed lines, in total indifference to its non-existence. First Son stood there, frightened and transfixed by this vision for a few quick heartbeats. Then it was gone, and no matter how he stared at the ash, no matter how intensely he sought to recapture the vision, he could not make it live again. He was not relieved. After a while, he surrendered and returned to his fire… In the morning he was roused from dreams of ashen landscapes by a hand shaking his shoulder, Y—’s hand. She repeated the word “gone” in his ear, pointing to the ashes of his sister’s fire. A crowd of people had gathered. Coming to his feet, First Son searched blearily for his sister’s face among them, but he could not find her. He saw only his sister’s mate, sitting on a rock at the edge of the group and watching the grey infinity of the lowlands. Y—, grasping First Son by the arm, told him that his sister and Z— had left the group early in the morning. They had taken with them her scrapers, his knives, and his spear, and they had fled downhill. A group of men had already descended in pursuit. The footing there, First Son knew, was treacherous in parts. The soil slid readily and there were crevasses that could swallow a man. He was not surprised to learn that there was still no sign of them. Hardly hearing what was said after this, First Son also gazed out upon the plain for a long time. There was something about it, he thought, that made him think of a human face and he was reminded of what he had seen last night. It was again as though one thing was another without being that other. Some of the women had begun to wail. Someone soon brought his sister’s forlorn mate a piece of meat, and First Son was disgusted to see him begin chewing it with growing, mindless enthusiasm. First Son had no appetite. He knew that he would be hungry soon, that he would need to eat again. Something about the necessity to eat made him fearful. Not the danger of lacking something necessary, but the permanence and the omnipresence of the furious, unadulterated need itself. That fear turned suddenly to hatred, hatred for needs that could never be appeased, but only annihilated along with the sufferer. And now he longed desperately to see the calf again and that desire was, for the present, stronger than need. Something new had come into the world and he had been there to witness it. It must mean something. For the first time in his life, he considered that a thing could have significance beyond itself. He strode back to the sharp stone, afraid that the ash had been disturbed during the night. He was relieved to find it intact and he noticed that Y— was watching him. To his surprise, a renewed tenderness toward her rose within him. He beckoned gently, and she came to stand beside him. He pointed to the rock and said: Calf. She was confused. Babbling, he guided her to her knees before it and rapidly traced the lines with his finger, trying to reveal the contours of the trunk, the legs. But soon he too was confused. He could see a hint of the rump and two rounded angles that made the fetlocks, but the whole animal, in its miraculous entirety, was gone. He thought that maybe it had left with his sister and Z—, and his excitement vanished under a crushing feeling of loss… He reached mutely past Y— to sweep the ash away. He kept still for some time and then turned to look once more on the indifferent plain. After a few moments, he felt fingers, laid tenderly on his shoulder, and Y—’s breath, hesitant, on the back of his neck. She took him by the hand and he did not resist. She raised him to his feet and led him through the waist-high thickets to another clearing, far from the stone, from his group and the Others. She held him and for a while, removed from the smell of cooking meat, he was able to forget about his sister, Z—, and the calf.


There had been a rockslide downhill; it was impossible to say when. It must have been after they scaled the hill to hunt; the ground had been undisturbed. There was no trace of the two fugitives. But First Son was no longer beset by hopelessness. When he returned to camp in the evening, he spoke to no one, but immediately sought out the flat stone with a handful of ash in his fist. He sat cross-legged before it and studied the shadow of his head, as thrown upon the rock by the firelight and the last rays of the sun. Remaining within the limits of the shade, he began to spread ash over the even surface. Working patiently, he molded, with unattuned fingers, the hot powder into dark lines that roughly followed the profile of his own head and neck. The details he altered, as much as he could, the eyes. For the span of a heartbeat, he beheld her again even as he beheld himself. And when he raised his eyes from the image, he discerned for the first time other details in the images that surrounded him. The rocks presented knifelike edges and the scraggy tree roots, emerging at angles from the cliff into empty space, reached out mournfully after the oxen that had fallen from that peak. Or they were like a crown of horse hair binding the temples of a vast stone face. Out of its mouth flowed the stream like a lolling tongue. Before him was a marula tree and under the tree stood a pack of crocus flowers. Like golden flames they emerged from the undergrowth, like sunbursts on the surface of the stream.

Isaac Feist

The author is a former student living in Ottawa, Canada.

Issue 33
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