The Last Cowpunk

The Last Cowpunk

Illustration by Sofie Praestgaard

Glenda knew her husband through a tube in her chin: watched his eyes; watched Kwame backflat in shooter’s gisant; watched the beeve amok through the bulb of his rifle scope. His lungs were filled with sour plains dust, and the flavor was mostly beyond her. Instead she tasted it through an overlay, a sheet of onionskin, programmed in so her use of his sloe wouldn’t glitch the ego. Its flavor was distant as a memory. Instead, his sloe fed him to her all physically: shapes and shocks, the size of the man ghostly as her fingertips ended where his wrist began.

Touch—touch, though—the little cable plugged into the sloeport mounted in her chin gave her such wonderful phantom touch. The gunstock leaning against his shoulder/her shoulder, chambray-soft gingham sweat-damp clinging to his back/her back, one chamois boot slung under the gun’s forestock, its form against his foot/her foot a vacant memory, and the peculiar magic of two wedding rings in one place. Glenda’s was two-thirds the size of Kwame’s, worked tool steel turned off a lathe somewhere in Georgia, with a suggestion of numerals on the inside. The outside read, simply, “I love you, I’ll miss you, I’m off to see the world,” a byword from their days in the Pioneer Mission, a maxim like Peace, Beef, Land or Our Children Will Live In Communism or Death to All Who Stand in the Way of the Working American. Something that young couples could turn over and over in their army cots when worlds apart to feel committed to one another.

They’d kept on turning it over, long after the Missions were done with; long after they’d let themselves be swallowed up by the listing ass-end of Jones County, Texas.

He inhaled chalky and bitter into her mouth, into their lungs, and held it there, air on air, windpipe taut as catgut. She was too focused on the beeve through the scope, wondering at what it was doing, to feel his finger kink around the trigger.

The stock punched meanly against his shoulder, and she felt it too, a rigid chop, and was suddenly inspired by a frightening memory: her troop-master in Montana; his axe handle against her back as punishment. The sort of thing you only needed to feel once. She wasn’t expecting it, and it all—the youth, and the fear, and the sudden smell of roasting pinewoods—it all rose through her throat and balled up there, hitching.

Only when she felt his fingers against her throat did she realize that the phantom pain had backfired, riding the little transmitter plugged into her mouth, squirreling across the sour air, and caught in his throat too. His hand clawed at a garotte that wasn’t there, panicking for the noose, but the feed from the sloe was all on the inside, and what was there to be done? She tried to breathe regular—for him.

“Dammit, Glen”, she felt herself say, jaw, unfamiliarly broad, working the words out between lips fuller than hers. “Perspective, not presence. Remember?” Another axiom from Pioneer days, the sloe Bell Labs’ newest wonder-weapon, certain to ensure the final success of the American Communist Experiment. Here she was, some five, ten miles away from him, sitting at their dining room table, and there was nothing separating them but that intangible membrane of the sloe’s buffer.

She’d watched the beeve buckle and break. Or he had, and she’d watched him watch it. It was a pitiable enough creature with no bullets in its body, and rampant on the lowlands, its very existence was nothing but a waste of meat. As Kwame lifted himself up from the hard-packed earth she had the growing feeling she was no longer taking joint responsibility for putting their livestock down—but merely being a voyeur. What’s more, there was more to be done. Fingering the toggle on the little console, she dissipated Kwame whole, and for a moment a part of her feared she’d lost him; that he’d never return; that, without the tether of her sloeport to his, he’d not find his way back and perish, alone, on the sallow plains.

But that passed—quickly—and she rose in their dining room, eyes confused by the sudden darkness against the light of his open sky. She glanced down at the table, where the sloe cable was beaded with a tiny droplet of her own saliva, and snatched it up. One of the beeves was wailing plaintively in the barn, her ears had attuned themselves to that mother’s frequency.

Always more to be done.

She reclined on the bed in the nude, felt the air on her skin and shivered with pleasure. The cold was a little joy, and the moments when she could have it all to herself were sublime—as close to the full thanatic sleep of death as she could come without having to fear it. She loved Kwame, but there was nothing cool and corpselike about the man, hot-blooded good Marxist stock as he was, and he was hot hot hot with his flesh against hers whether they were wearing sweat-stiff chambray or Pioneer drills or nothing at all.

In the bathroom, he gargled salt water for his tonsils. They had a tendency to swell, but that, in the grand scheme of their bodies, was a minor breakdown. The dissolution of the human machine at odd intervals was something with which she was well acquainted—when she might suffer a black star lesion in her chest, cankers in her gums, and it was more and more that the blood would land with a thump full and hard in her head, buzzing, pressing, and she’d sit down flat on her ass to regain a little normalcy. It could feel apocalyptic, something as simple as a rush of blood to the head; a dizzy spell. And him with his tonsils, just about the most the too-proud cattleman was willing to admit to her—his wife, she’d remind him—though there were aches and pains, grunts and moans here and there if it got so bad she had to do something beyond just be tender. At its worst, it gave them the feeling they were waiting for something, just waiting for their bodies to finish breaking down so they could die and be done with the whole affair. If there was a bright side, it gave them reason to not drink, and saved them a little shine money.

He spat and came back out. She felt fine–healthy and sexual as a leopard in her goosepimpled skin on the topsheet. He was stripped down to underwear and his graying skin the color of drying tobacco was embroidered with tattoos from his Pioneer days. Pictures, mostly, thin lines, American Communist sketches characterized by a dedication to reality through simple edges and corners. Now, in Texas, a hundred miles or more from wilting Abilene, the Leftist abstraction felt more than a little absurd. Was the triangle on his pelvis, smashing through two flaccid stripes, truly the vanguard of the revolution? Was it a quick way to get Marxist devotion, dappled in flesh, over and done with, when the tattoo needle was so close to the jarring bone? Elsewhere there was quotation, there were dedications, and bits and pieces of ink that had nothing to do with Marxism at all: his homeland, his lineage, his faith. He prayed, she knew, every day in the morning, under the gray spongy light through the loft window, and she’d watch him on his rug through half-lidded eyes, the prostration and rigid formality, the ripple of worn but whip-tense muscles under his skin like backwards shadow.

Kwame threw himself face down on the bed. She stretched and slackened, staring up at the naked bulbs on the ceiling. “Was it a clean kill?” she asked him after a few moments.

He hummed questioningly into the mattress.

“The beeve”, she clarified, “Earl. Did you kill Earl clean?”

He inhaled, then rolled over onto his side. His eyes were light, the color of dying leaves underfoot, crisp and bright and seeming to be permanently tired. “Clean enough”, he told her. “The round went through his shoulder and organs and out the hip, diagonal-like.”

“Did it kill him?”

He paused. “Not as such—” He was consumed by a coughing fit, hacking his lungs out into his fist.

She put her hand over her eyes and pulled at their outer corners with finger and thumbs, sighing her displeasure. It was a callous, petty action and she knew that, but was guilty of letting her sympathy for the beeves subsume clemency for her husband.

“Glen, Earl was a tough bastard”, he said evenly. She felt his fingers very lightly on her shoulder. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault he came undone. Nothing but kinks in the software.”

She didn’t say anything.

“Glenda, Earl’s the third beeve gone loose these past few months. We can’t help it if somewhere along the chain there’s a link loose.”

“That’s my software you’re talking about”, she responded, trying to keep her affect flat. Struggling. “That’s my chain.”

He was quiet. After a few moments he said, “Honey, I tried my best”.

She uncovered her eyes and looked at him, worry in his gaze, graying whiskers on his face. The jacketed socket of his sloe was a ring of burnished brass beneath his lower lip, a thin puckering of scar tissue where no hair grew. It was unfair, she knew, to hold him accountable for the animal’s death. But it was just as unfair to expect that chain, forged in the dust and lofty tumbling light of the starbound colonies, and yet only a machine of human make, to bind beeve and beef infallibly.

“I know”, she said to him. “I just feel bad for Earl.”

He lay down and settled an arm across her chest. “Me too. But I started feeling bad for Earl the minute he got loose. There’s nothing for a beeve outside that barn, he was just running wild on the plain. Couldn’t see, couldn’t feel, nothing but hungry and angry and confused. A beeve ain’t made to run free like that. A beeve ain’t cattle, just thinks, deep down and wrong, that he is.”

She shushed him, nuzzled her face into the crook of his neck, and heard him breath through a shopworn windpipe.

“I know that”, she said. “But I’m gonna’ keep on feeling bad for Earl.”

The next day, with no haywire beeves to shoot, they took a breakfast of milk and chop steak and went into the barn to figure things out. They had lost three beeves, and not to the cattle gun and butcher’s shop, but to some ghost in the machine that was conjuring them to run rampant from their stalls. Kwame was right: there was a weak link in the chain, a chain of her own design, and if it was not holding them in then it was not doing its job.

The barn was long, longer and thicker than a Quonset hut, but near enough the same notion in terms of practicality. The sides were ribbed plastic and frayed planks of scrap timber, and the roof timbers were held together with dabs of yellowing epoxy and in some places twine, hemp or plastic. It was, sure enough, dour to the uninitiated, but for Glenda and Kwame it was more than livelihood but vaunted labor.

At the head of the barn two large doors opened out into a square of ashy light, and at either side of the jamb were hooks with equipment and tools. At the far end, occupying the space of a lefthand stall, was the stacked mass of their house computer, each casing slotted into a dented rack like for baking sheets. It sprouted thick bundles of cabling that traced up the wall and hung along the rafters like pink strawberry runners, dangling down into the mouths of each stall.

The stalls, then. On either side of the barn, there were sixteen stalls, but now only fourteen were occupied on each. The furthest lefthand stall held, of course, the computer, pulled out of an old corporatist factory-farm in Temple, and three stalls down from the door on the righthand side, the gate of plyboard and aluminum was smashed and gnarled, and not a little splattered with blood on each bent jag. Cables dangled loosely from the ceiling, some brushing the hay on the floor, others, shorter, hanging in the damp shuttered air. They were all largely torn off at the end, secured firmly in Earl’s flesh when he pulled free from his halter. Some of the damage could be repaired or replaced, but, for example, the modified EKG that went into the beeve’s upper lumbar: without the hand of the Party to provide, that alone would cost upwards of 2,000 Chit. Chit Glenda and Kwame didn’t have, Chit that the beeves and what little odd coding and proofing Glenda could scrape in didn’t nearly amount to—didn’t amount to at all, in all. The beef brought in a little money, loath as money was, but in Jones County, among the Leftists, in the ghetto of the reds, the surplus labor was really brought in by favors and gifts.

Two months ago, for example, she’d reengineered a security system for a commune of Bengal Naxalites, and they’d in turn prized a rifle out of their armory for her use. That had left them with two rifles, one Indian surplus, and one old Texan stock, which they’d sold off in Abilene for fifty Chit. Fifty Chit. Fifty hateful Chit for a walnut stock, a blued steel body, clean and virgin and chambered for Winchester People’s Armory 30.06. Here they were, down three beeves with the stalls and halters torn to hell, and no money to fix it with, and kind as the people in Jones could be, Glenda knew that out of the kindness of her heart she couldn’t oblige them to give them a halter, and she couldn’t borrow one, or have one loaned out, because there was nothing to give back to them in return. Not enough Chit, not enough labor, down and out in Jones County sitting on 300,000 dead Party Cheques, using it to paper the walls and for late-night buffalo warmths.

Kwame hovered at Glenda’s shoulder, watching her inspect Earl’s stall. The blood was very nearly dry where it had misted lightly on twists of aluminum and splinters of wood. Where it had fallen heavily, puddling on the wooden floor, it was greasier and less far gone. It had ruined the hay, which was another expense, since a beeve was a cleanish animal that didn’t have such a hard time keeping itself kempt. Cleaner than Americans, Glenda liked to say meanly, since the beeves, unlike Americans, were still Marxist.

“What do you think?” he asked her softly.

“What do I think”, she repeated, characteristic of east Texas. “I think I’d like to talk to Earl if he were still around, and ask him what the hell we did to him for him to bust up his stall like this. And then I might like to ask him why it was that DuBois and Eugene ran off too.” She turned to Kwame, her brows furrowed with indignation. “Didn’t we treat him right?”

“I think so”, he said. “So what are we gonna do about it?”

She turned and walked down the row of stalls, looking at the somnolent beeves, slick and pink under the dim light. “Earl’s still eighty percent good beef or so”, she said. “So we’ll sell him off. No need to disclose cause of death when we’re being paid for it.” She stopped three stalls down, looking in at one of the heifers, Shirley. “And we’ll try to salvage Earl’s harness, and if we can’t we’ll sell it for parts. No need to keep it around like a bad memory.” She reached into the stall and patted the heifer on her hairless neck, thick with flesh. The beeve did not react at all. She kneeled, stumpy forelegs folded under her carriage, on the hay, stunted head lowered to the ground. Her body was thickset with tender beef beneath her raw pink skin: two, three times the size of a cow. Somewhere, Glenda imagined, deep within that fortress of muscle and fat, she conceived of herself as one of her distant ancestors, black and white and dozy-eyed, if indeed she conceived of herself at all. She ignored Glenda, living brightly and excitedly through the world piped into her sloe. Her eyes, tiny and pale and milky like her salamander’s flesh, were as degenerate and useless as her ears; as her marrow-soft hooves. Glenda wondered what she was dreaming—what she’d been dreaming since three months past birth; at the things that would comprise her entire reality, her whole life, if only things would suss out to keep her docile and not tear her away from halter and sloe.

“Are we going to sell all of it?” he asked her.

She thought for a moment. “No, not all of it. We’ll keep the sloe cabling. It’s already synced up to the computer and if we fill out the rest, we won’t have to scrounge around for new parts. We’ll keep that.”

The tip of the cable was filmed with scabbed serum—torn out instead of released, per proper. But where had the blood come from? Earl’s sloe was as naked and dead as hers, as Kwame’s. There should have been no flesh to blacken its gold glint with a blood mist. There could of course have just been some backsplash, from the other cables torn out, or from some indistinct wound. She did not know and could not: Earl’s carcass grown threefold fat with excess meat was not in front of her and she had not committed its manifold scrapes and tears to memory. But, then, if not, where did the blood come from? And why? Why tear away from the sweet hand-wrought dream at all? What could provoke such a rampage? Was the bovine urge to roam, atrophied as a shriveled udder, truly so strong? She put her hand on her chin and fingered her own sloe, dead, hard, and cool as a tusk. She stared at the dangling cable and swallowed.

“I’m going to go in, Kwame”, she told him.

He blinked. “To the house?”

She shook her head.

“You want to go into Earl’s sloe?” He looked at her. “Honey, come on.”

“You come on”, she said, and punched him softly on the arm. “We’ll do a minute each.”

He made disapproving motions with his head and body. “That ain’t safe”, he told her. “Glen you know that ain’t safe, going into a sim built for beeves. It’s built for beeves, honey, not you and me.”

“It’s built for anyone”, she told him. “I built it, Earl. It’s built for whoever has a mind to dream it.”

“When was the last time you used your sloeport?” he asked. “For a sim? When was the last time you let yourself dream and not just look over my shoulder?”

She shrugged. “We’ve done it before, Kwame. We used to simhop every night in the Pioneers”, she lied. It wasn’t exactly false. In Montana, yes, her troop had simhopped into a beeve’s sloe, or four or five of them had, and when they’d been caught, pulled out of digital idylls as real to their synapses as the coarse fabric of an army blanket, they’d all been beaten by their troop-master, and the empty cabling had been pulled out of the barn where they’d found it.

“Really?” he asked her, and then glanced down at Shirley, unmoving in her stall.

“Aren’t you curious what they’re seeing in there?”

“I know what they’re seeing”, he answered her. “You’ve told me what they’re seeing; That’s enough for me.” He looked away and sighed, and as he did so, he began to cough, and his lungs folded and collapsed, hectoring him. He doubled over, bending his torso across the gate of Shirley’s stall, hacking into his palm. The beeve did not react at all to the disturbance above its shoulders.

She stood watching him. He wasn’t the sort to favor trite mawkish sympathy. There was something patronizing about it, and her respect for that decision, they’d come to understand, was more indicative of her love than any cooed utterances. He hung across the gate, his lungs and throat stilled, and when he stood back up he was wiping sticky tears out of his eyes.

“Sixty seconds?” he asked her. She nodded. The dangling cable could be an answer—if not for Earl, with the Naxalite 7.62 torn through his guts, then for something larger and darker, for the blood bubbling up in Kwame’s raw throat and for the tumor getting fat and heavy in her breast.

“Alright”, he said. “We’ll do sixty seconds.”


There was warmth on her face, warmth she was having a hard time placing. It was immediately unfamiliar, not the hardup baking sizzle of smoggy desert, but purer and cleaner. Her skin prickled, tickling, and she felt like a little girl might feel, freckles smattered across her cheeks and nose.


She opened her eyes, and immediately threw a hand over them against the light. Peeking through her fingers she could see light so bright and intense that it had no color, not even white, but its own brilliance. After a moment a shadow stepped in front of it, splashed along its edges by a corona of sunlight.

“Comrade?” she asked back, sleepily. She lowered her hand and allowed her eyes to adjust. The sky behind the figure was blue, clear blue like museum china, or banquet flatware. She blinked and shifted and felt there was something hard under her back. “Yes, comrade?” she asked.

The man laughed—it was a man, tall, dark skinned, and virile. “I’m sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt your nap”, he said. “I just wanted to make sure everything was all right.”

“All right”, she murmured. She sat up. Beneath her was a bench—but unfamiliar in a sense, much nicer than the kind she would put together so many years ago as a Youth Pioneer to install in communities. It was constructed of rounded wooden slats, whitewashed and worn smooth from use, the grain barely visible through the paint. On either side black wrought iron held it into the ground. The ground beneath her feet was cobblestone. “Where am I?” she asked the man.

He laughed good-naturedly. “You musta’ been dreaming, comrade.” He looked at her, looking at her young face and bright blonde hair, at her handsome coat and suit. “Gorky Park”, he said finally. “We’re in Gorky Park.”

“Moscow”, she mumbled.

“Yup”, he said brightly. “No place lovelier. The spring lends itself to napping, for a part”, and then he cocked his eyebrow at her. She studied him closely, trying to place his close-cropped hair, his neat goatee, and his eyes the color of café au lait. “But you know what it lends itself to better?” He spoke English, with no hint of cosmopolitan Russian in his voice. In fact, there was a slight southern accent, Georgian, third-workers-commune, a gentle twang.

“What’s that?” she asked him, distracted, making sense of this face at once familiar for its characteristics, at once alien for its clean health; its youthful vigor.

“A cold Baikal”, he said, and smiled, and his teeth were just yellow enough to show that he was no bourgeois primper, just crooked enough for him to roll up his sleeves and smile with good-natured humility. They were honest, hard-working teeth, and made her think of people she’d once known, before teeth were black rotting things to be plucked from the rootbed one gray morning at a time.

“A Baikal?” she asked. It was—it was a soda, with kola nut, caramel color, herbs, carbonated of course, over ice. Plants that didn’t grow anymore—but then, they must have, right? Because they sold it in bottles, in Gorky Park, at little stands along the footpaths, at fifteen kopeks. It was good with sunflower seeds, or nuts. They sold those too, salty and just filling enough to make you ready for a picnic lunch on the banks of the Moskva. “All right.”

He held out his hand to her, and smiled. She smiled back, and she took his hand, and as he pulled her up off the park bench she realized who it was.

She had never known him to dress so well, in trousers and a bright linen suit, his endearingly oafish jacket bunched up at the elbows, showing dark, sun-brightened forearms. The toes of his shoes were glowing with bootblack but scuffs here and there warded off pretension. His shirt was buttoned down at the collar, but open to show his throat and that he had no undershirt beneath it, as far as she could see. Instead the walnut-dark skin of his hairless chest glowed along the peeking curve of his musculature from the sun. But it was his face that had misled her. She had not seen him so young in forty years or more, had not seen him wear a Party-type haircut since his early twenties, had not seen those teeth gleam with respect in—she could not say how long, picturing them only empty or capped with grimy metal. Even in his Pioneer uniform, his dress uniform, the high collar turned up around his neck, he had looked ragged around the edges. The Party had already been in the process of moving out. People like them, they had been just unlucky enough to be born in between generations, to be born into the wrong families. The quota from the Third Workers Commune had already been filled, the Colonies were filled, the American Communist Experiment had been a success, such a success that it had been filed for export—not to Mexico, where the Synarchists had sewn it all up, or to polite but chilly Canada, but to the stars. And it was pure chance, pure unfortunate chance that they had been left behind to be reclaimed by the law of the jungle: savagery, currencies, markets, debts, the warts of a robber baron’s philosophy naively believed to have been long since extinguished.

She began to say his name, but then he was not there any longer, and instead he was there forty years later. There was no blue sky, no bright Muscovite sun, and in front of her, Kwame’s skin was without a glow. He was tired-looking, anxious and needy. The skin beneath his eyes was waxy and puffy, and his sclera were so very yellow from this or that failure of the liver.

“Glen?” he asked her, his voice choked with mucus or blood. “Honey?”

She inhaled and choked on the musty scent of hay and damp-burst wood. She put her hands over her face, but could not affix them like a mask. Growing out of her chin like a gnarled root, the sloe cable was thick and rough-skinned. There was no valve for her to turn to pump the dream back into her body, to see the bright Russian sky, clear blue as her young ideal eyes. Instead she took it in both hands and twisted and pulled, and felt the grating rattle of the wiring in her jawbone, the twenty or so teeth in her mouth scraping razors in her gums. She pulled the sloe from her jaw, and said away, away to Gorky Park, to utopiae, to Neverland’s Kwame Quamina. Away, come not again; if you do, I shall not live.

Glenda reached up to the sink, sun-raw skin wrinkling like chamois to accommodate her reach. She took the glass, drank half of the water, then, pausing, threw up again into the toilet bowl. She lowered the seat and settled her arm across the acrylic, then rested her forehead on the tan downy skin. In no uncertain terms, the tumor had grown; the lesion’s points had stretched out further across her muscle and fat. The rot had set in. Or had, at least, become more obviously settled. Settled within her; settled within her notion of self. She did not even have to take her own word for it, or trust the tripartite nights broken up by intermissions of violent nausea and the fatigued days. Since the Naxalites had disbanded, their property had been taken over by a commune of Molly Maguires, and one of them had a little medical training from life and times in Fort Worth. Cursory examination, afforded more out of sympathy than any genuine exchange of labor, told her all she needed to know: it was eating her from the inside out, and the darkness, the darkness on the skin like a thumbed smudge or softish shadow was the rot itself before her very eyes.

She waited for a few moments to see if anything else would come up. She was eating less nowadays. The last spit had been nothing but bile that would have been visibly yellow if the toilet was real porcelain and plumbing and not a plastic hutch with a chemical interior. Nothing came. She leaned back and drank the rest of the water, spitting half of it into the toilet with the traces of vomit from her mouth. She downed the rest. After so many weeks of it, the taste had sort of gone out of her sensorium, but the smell, faint and pungent, was there in the cuffs of her shirts, the corners of her handkerchiefs; there on her pillow in the morning through gossamer strands of spittle. It was in her like a memento mori, a reminder of her impending death. More than that, it was a reminder of her own withering livelihood: how one by one the beeves were pulling free of their harnesses, running off into the ashen plains, too quick in their stumbling calflike terror to catch one of her sluggishly spent bullets, too puerile to come back to her cowed and lowing apologies.

She’d been sorry to see the Naxalites go. With them gone, the only other Maoists in the area were a tiny enclave of earnest but mean-spirited Shining Pathers on the other side of Abilene. She hadn’t heard from them in five years or more, but they were gritty bastards, and probably still kicking inside their little compound. On the other hand, the Molly Maguires were friendly enough, but they were a bunch of skittish democratic socialists, untrustworthy of their own independence. That left some loosely affiliated Tejano Bolcheviques who were good-natured as area Marxists went, but were also obnoxiously in love with ethnic nationalism, to the point of mandating lineage paperwork to keep untrustworthy gringos out of their commune. As if to highlight the area’s degeneracy, she’d even met a handful of Bakuninites in Abilene, canvassing as though anyone could be bothered to care about ideology: anarchists! She could only imagine what Kwame would have said about them, about their aggressive, but not explicitly authorized, adherence to dress code, about their fighting-words criticisms of Marxism as a bygone Eurocentric philosophy incompatible with contemporary American life, and, most of all, about their activism. How many were there, Glenda wondered, that they could afford to stand around in the Abilene bazaar and hand out pamphlets? Where were they making their Chit from, if not just to eat and drink, then to print flyers? It must have been proof that Allah had a favorite ideology after all.

That was a Kwame sort of joke, a shoulder-shrug, an uncaring acknowledgement of the relative incompatibility of his religion and his reality. There was no one in the Party to teach him Surahs and Hadiths but his parents, and those were his youth days, more joyously atheistic—not like the later days, the Third Workers Commune days, watching the lights of the Colonies in the night sky bright as comets grew smaller and smaller in blueshift until they couldn’t be seen at all—and certainly not the Texas days, the Jones County days, the kolkhoz days, when their ranch had lost comrades and beeves one by one until there were only twenty-nine; shortly after twenty-eight blind beeves like pupae living in the sunny lovelife of Gorky Park. The number was much, much smaller now. And the barn so cavernous and her chest so heavy she could not recall it as such, not huddled over a puddle of her own decomposing vomit.

And yes, in February, just over a year ago, she had put her husband in the ground. It had turned out to be pneumonia. Or tuberculosis. It had turned out to be his lungs, and since the Molly Maguires and their comrade-medic did not appear in Jones County until June, her cursory knowledge of Pioneer first aid had borne out precisely nothing in terms of medicine. Just care. Just bedside manner. Just carrying him out to the barn in her arms when the flesh melted off his bones and he had no voice with which to speak so that he could lay his hands on the beeves and feel their full overhealthy meat beneath his skin like paper. Just reading to him in phonetic Arabic, words and phrases she’d never cared to learn from him and he’d never forcibly taught, and when he would gently squeeze, the light change of grasp in his fingers all the power he could exert in his whole body, she would read him Wright, Du Bois, Sister Angelou, Audre Lorde. She would read him Thisbe Chinn, her little red book, his dogeared softcover from Pioneer days bound in wrinkled vinyl and turned end over end over end, for the whole world was in its pages:

There is a spectre haunting my body, a specter by any other name/

I am black like no day, and black like coal/

And I burn ripe red fire, so charge me criminal/

The history of me is struggle and strife/

I’ll eat these bonds and craft myself a new life/

And I won’t need you

Kwame’s grave was halfway between the house and the barn, and not put there consciously, but certainly deliberately, somehow. It meant she could not go anywhere without the ache of him, could not wake up on the left-hand side of their bed without the right side neat and smooth, could not go into Abilene without the silence left behind by his absent Party hymns. Glenda could not go to the barn to tend to the beeves without seeing the boulder above his body. The coffin had been a plain box with an ACE shawl. The Naxalites had made it for her, and in return, she’d given them a handsome cut of beef.

She walked down off the porch, wearing her service jacket and carrying the Indian surplus rifle slung over her shoulder on a cracked leather strap, taken from Kwame’s guitar. She didn’t know how to play it. It was thicker and softer, not to mention easier to use, than placing a boot under the forestock. She had on her head her Pioneer’s beret, black with a red star. It was, more and more, a comfort to her. Late Jones County days she wore her old-world trappings, found herself taking small comforts in the dress of the American Communist Experiment, the terrestrial proof of a concept so stellar it became, of all things, interstellar.

On her right-hand side, black against the weakening edge of the horizon, she could see the low oblong hump of Kwame’s boulder. It was stolid, thoroughly impassive. In February she’d drawn a Third Workers Commune blackstar, trailing crimson stripes from its cutting edge. She’d written his name, in white paint because it stood out the clearest, and she’d written as much Thisbe Chinn as her little stock of paint would allow, in white, red, and finally black when the brightness ran out and down across the stone, the words of New American Marxism’s poet laureate dripping in individual strands across Kwame’s stone.

If she had known how to pray, if she’d had parents to teach her holy praxis, she would have. But divinity was Kwame’s school, and hers had been militarism—hers had been a black beret and drab service jacket, comfort with an automatic rifle, Pioneer Missions more uncivil than his. It had worked, when they were together, when he was here. But his absence showed just how jarring a person she was, how abruptly her limitations became apparent, how little she felt she really had to contribute to the farm. It was all she could do to cook a chuck steak at night before falling into bed. There was no more milk—the beeves’ shrunken little udders had gone completely dry and she did not know the reason. She could not get them to breed. She could not find fertility hormones in Abilene for cheaper than a thousand Chit, far more than she could afford, far more than Kwame used to bring home. So she would raise them until they were in peak condition—that much she could still do, she still had a guiding hand with the beef—and then she would shoot them in the forehead and slaughter them and sell their carcasses in Abilene for less than they were ultimately worth, but she was past threatening people at gunpoint. Her husband at least had the image of brawn, and she was handy with the Naxalites’ rifle, but alone, wasting away, she was past fighting—and past caring, too, about whether or not she was being played for a fool.

She had made peace with the black star in her breast, longer and darker than the paint on Kwame’s gravestone. It was going to kill her, with no one left to care for her. One day she might not be able to get out of bed and she would lay there for forty-eight or seventy-two hours until she was consumed. One day the nausea might trip her up and she might stumble and blow out her temple against the rough corner of her bathroom sink. The strain might simply be too much, and that would be easiest, for her body to just give up, and perhaps, as it did, all of Texas, all of America would give up too. Synapse by synapse her flesh would switch off, and so would the Leftists all throughout the empty state, Anarchists in Austin, Titoists in Plano, Hoxhaists poling barges in San Antonio, and every commune of Bolcheviques in the reclaimed ethno-state of Tejas would fall to the ground, dead as her—and maybe even stop existing entirely, solipsism subsuming socialism in one fell swoop.

She did not see Shirley coming. She opened the barn door, and her eyes adjusted to the whitish-gray static of the fluorescent strip, and as they did, she looked at the far end, at the dirty house computer in its stall, then up the row of lefthand stalls, where only five beeves remained. They were all at various stages of immaturity, though Howard was nearing slaughtering age. Instead of noticing Shirley, she noticed Howard’s agitation. His head was thrust up, tiny vestigial eyes wincing against the lighstrip. As she came in, he snorted, disturbed, and shook his head. Cables rattled against his movement.

“What’s the matter?” she murmured to the beeve. He moaned in response, or in warning, and then Shirley threw her full adult bulk into Glenda’s body. What became of all her body was unclear, and would not become clear to anyone but Allah or any wandering comrade-medic. Glenda could certainly not take a full inventory of herself. Nothing lent itself to that much reflection; not even if healthy could she run down each bone, each tendon, each flashing nerve. She had no faculties.

Shirley’s skull had shattered a few of Glenda’s ribs. She felt them shatter when the beeve charged her, felt the animal’s browbone gore bluntly through her coat and shirt. Then, as she fell, a softshod, stunted hoof came down accidentally but fully against her face. Her upper skull was crushed, along the cheek, beneath the eye, the nose’s cartilage becoming little more than wettish pulp. Another hoof came down upon her stomach, and there was some tearing, and there was some blood, but that injury was insignificant against her caved-in face.

Distantly, she heard the beeve stumble and slam against the half-open door of the barn, the wood shuddering, reverberating. The sound was distant, as if beyond cellophane, as if transmitted by a faulty, third-rate sloe. A beeve lowed, Shirley or Howard, she could not tell, only hearing the animal’s plaintive moan. It felt like her own, mirroring not even grief or despair, but simple agony, plain pain felt purely in the flesh. It was what separated injury from disease, a crushed skull from cancer. The black star in her breast was slow and contemplative. It provided room for philosophizing.

This did not. This was immediate, immense. It had no horizon, for a horizon implied a dawn or dusk, and so change. The pain in her face and chest were changeless and consistent, and she lay on the floor of the barn, submerged in that vast flatland of pain without end, and thought that this would be perhaps were she would die, thought that perhaps, perhaps her brain had been partially crushed, provoking this internal narration, this monologue, this incessant philosophy. With only half a lobe, devoid of logic and reason, perhaps there was only space in her last sixty seconds for a little self-criticism, for some contemplation of hemorrhaging, and last gasping pronouncement of Kwame’s name and idealized image.

But, laying there, half wrecked by the confused and rampaging heifer, something interrupted the flatland horizon: tall and dark. She lifted her head slightly and looked through her one functioning eye at the wreckage of Shirley’s stall, the gate smashed to splinters, the sloe cable thrown in a loop around the gatepost. She rolled and felt the bones in her chest shift sickly, bits of rib whispering like January’s dirty slush. She let out a gasp, but not so much out of pain as acknowledgment that she was broken, physically. The brokenness of her head, it seemed, was such that it had censored itself. It was as though a whole third of her head had become empty, had blinked itself out of existence, though there was blood in her mouth, that much she could taste, and a probing tongue felt the texture of a roof half caved in and molars loose as change.

Was she able to rise to her knees? Was the brokenness in her arms so great that there was no pain as she crawled on shattered ulnae to Shirley’s vacated stall? What of her hemorrhages? What of her blood, red as the star on her felt beret that clung feebly to sticky hair gray like rotting hay? What of her brain, half-pulped in the brainpan by animal amok?

She took the sloe in both hands, clasped it like a knife. Her fingers did not seem to work, did not seem to bend at their middlemost joints. She laced them together instead, hands steepled and splayed around the snakeskin casing of the cable. She looked at it through her left eye, at the tarnished brass, at the gold lip of the jack, at the sticky film of Shirley’s blood on the needle and threads appearing bright yellow in a ring of black, the hair-thin point through which dying dreams could be piped into her body without any cellophane to keep her cold and bloody on the other side of Gorky Park.

But perhaps it would not work, perhaps Shirley’s hoof, without meaning to, had shattered her jaw and destroyed her sloe. And perhaps, she contended, the cable had been stripped of its conductive gold lining by Shirley’s violence in a way Earl’s had not, and perhaps the computer was broken down, and that was why Shirley and Howard too were so violently disturbed, and perhaps he would not be waiting her for there on the other side but snow instead, but something cold and white and hateful as salt flats, and just as dead a moment after she could process the agony of that full ego death.

And perhaps she could grow a beard as luxurious as Allah’s if only she would try—may He damn hypotheticals, utopiae and all! She laughed and immediately regretted it for a pain as clear and bright as any Muscovite sun lanced through the shattered hinge of her right-side jaw. She moaned then, like a beeve, and Howard or Shirley or any one of the others lowed back, and turning that moan into an indignant scream, she plunged the golden point into her sloe and so chose to end her life not in Jones County, Texas, but in Gorky Park with Kwame Quamina, not at all alone, and utterly incarnate and cancer-free, as alive as she could truly believe she was.

[Illustration by Sofie Praestgaard]

Stephen Williams Ortega

is an author and graduate of Yale College. They are a habitual and prodigious, but not compulsive, liar. Their fiction has been printed in The Foundationalist, Oakland Arts Review, and more.

All contributions from Stephen Williams Ortega

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