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The Silence of Winter

Ellie J. Anderson

My uncle Oscar raises buffalo. He and I are thrilled by their beauty. Ma says they're not much, not pretty, not even homely, flat ugly. All that fuzzy hair with dirt and straw caught in it and hanging in clumps like mange. I say she's not looking at the right things: their size, two thousand pounds, easy. The way their muscles pull hide tight, their power. 


The first day of snow melt in the spring, Oscar rides into the hills to find where the herd spent the winter. He likes to count the new calves. But today, he comes in at dusk and stands on the porch. Snow melting off his boots leaves a puddle of dirty water. He looks weary, his shoulders curve forward beneath his red and black plaid jacket. One of his cows is missing. One he's had for a long time. He holds his face stiff. 


In the morning I stand at the gate and watch him ride toward the house, leading a horse for me. The light on the barn catches his cowboy hat and throws his face into shadow. It's barely light. A dog yipes in the distance. Robins trill in the phone lines. The sounds are sharp, not muffled by snow. I climb up into the smell of horse and leather and dawn. We expect this'll take all day. We pick our way up the rutted road to the pines behind the house, past scattered stands of birch and poplar. 


In the shaded places cold breezes rise off mounds of snow. We ride back and forth eight feet apart taking sections of woods, from landmarks like a big rock to the stream. We comb for a sign of the buffalo cow. It's too early in spring for the trees to have leaves so the sun makes shadows with branches. They criss-cross the ground in front of us. The cold scent of pine needles fills our heads. At noon we stop on the crest of a hill to eat in the sun. We hold the cocoa so the cups warm our hands and steam tickles our eyelashes. Mustard lingers at the corners of our mouths. We've not found one sign.


 "We should go behind that big rock," Oscar says. "Don't know why she'd go there. No grazing. But that's the next place to look." 


I know why he's worried. In deep snow she might have stumbled into an old mine shaft. We get back in the saddles. By now, even the horses are tired. But the air, the new green appearing in the poplars, the indian paintbrushes, shooting stars and wild crocuses filling the mountain meadows take our breath away. 


Just as we decide to turn back so we can be home for a late supper, we find what's left of the buffalo cow. Horns, hide, scattered bones. We tie the horses to trees, walk closer in the long shadows of late afternoon. The horses snort, roll their eyes, toss their manes. They would never approach a buffalo. Oscar scuffles and leans from the waist, looking at pebbles and leaves. He squats and lifts the edges of the hide. He runs his fingers over scratches in the bark of three uprooted trees. "A hell of a struggle," he says. Rocks are scraped, large boulders dislodged. 


"What's big enough to kill a buffalo?" I ask. 


"She was down for some reason. Maybe sick. Then a grizzly might tackle her." 


The setting sun streaks the sky violet and peach. The wind howls through the bare branches of the silvery birches. I slide my hands in my pockets and shiver. 


The ribcage curves into the dirt, and reaches for sky, as if the buffalo were struggling for breath, for air. A rounded knee bone still attached to sinew pushes into decaying leaves, the hide stretches over earth, curling at the edges. The wind strokes clumps of fur. The muscles, the power, the spirit of the buffalo are gone. The birds and ants will pick the skull clean except for the patch of fur between the horns. They never touch that. I don't know why. 



Ellie J. Anderson has published a lot of short fiction. She also has poems published in the San Pedro River Review, Glimpse, Deep Wild, Third Wednesday, The Rupture, Stick Figure, Evening Street, the Comstock Review, the Bryant Literary Review, and others. To see more of her work, please visit:


Image Credit: Emma Grey Rose, "Wolf Creek"

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