Wind-Shaped Woman (Pushcart Prize Nominee, SFLR 2018)

by Brendan Basham

We castrated the bulls ourselves with our pocketknives. Since I’m her only granddaughter, she made me watch her sneak up behind one with a blade behind her back, grab the sack and slice through in one quick motion. Somehow she didn’t need to tie anything. She liked to do it when they were young. Meanwhile, Father rode his horse alongside the flock of fifty sheep for fifty miles.

People don’t know that tumbleweeds are green and flush before they dry, that it’s the wind gives them their shapes, much like everything else here. Grandma’s eyes, my chapped knuckles, the shape of our dirt roads.

When my father came home he slept for three days before eating a large bowl of mutton stew. The bowl was the size of a toilet. Bones of the sheep he’d loved the most floated to the top after he slurped the meat and sucked their marrow. He belched into his fist then saddled his horse, which he’d named Bunny. When they saw him adjust Bunny’s bit the flock grew restless. The sheep loved going for long walks through the sand and clay more than standing in their own shit in the corral.

My grandmother once yelled at me for letting one of the dogs in. The dog begged because it was cold outside, she had icicles on her tail and fur. Before she was discovered she huddled under my bed with a blanket, gnawing on chicken bones. I didn’t understand why my grandmother didn’t let dogs in, since most of our house was dirt except the kitchen. There was sand in our soup, dirt in our bread, and grains crunched in our teeth even when the winds died down. When we walked through the kitchen the tiles shushed under our feet. There was no reason we couldn’t have had a dog inside. Maybe Grandma thought lightning would strike, but this was a wintery day, and there would be no lightning until summer.

Eventually we ran out of cattle because all their balls were gone. They were too expensive to feed anyway.

The sheep disappeared too, one for every year as if years were miles, in addition to what we ate or sold. Usually it was the coyotes, but one time a man lost in our desert killed one to survive. No one knew where he was going or why, but nobody questioned his reason to slaughter the sheep. He skinned it, buried what he couldn’t eat, which was most of it. The meat was still good when our father found the wooden marker.

People think that winter is hard, but really spring’s hardest, especially if it’s a wet one. It’s hard to walk in the clay. Not only is it slippery, but clay sticks to your feet and doesn’t come off until summer. One time I put my shoes under the fireplace to dry them faster, but they melted into the clay, and we had two baby volcanoes in the living room.

Before I could ride a horse my father made the rigging for me to ride the sheep. Called it mutton-busting. He tried to make me wear pants but Grandma made me a skirt I hadn’t taken off for months. First time I rode I was lucky, I didn’t fall shooting out the pen. I held on tight and she just kept moving across the yard and down the road. She found a hole in the fence, and I thought she must know where she’s going, but we kept moving, to the windmill and the water trough, past it, down a wash, climbed up the other side. We scrambled through the sage and it scratched my arms and legs, but I didn’t mind. I laughed and screamed, and the sheep tired out by the time Father caught us.

He lassoed us just as his horse halted, caused the sheep to flip and land on top of me. Father grinned as he slapped the sheep in the face. He bound her legs and tossed her over his shoulders like a saddlebag. The three of us rode Bunny home in silence. I didn’t get on another sheep for a long time after.

One day I asked my grandmother where my mother was. She said ask your father. Father said she moved to a different place where it was really green, it smelled like rain every day of the year. I asked if I could visit and he laughed. He said maybe he should have been more specific.

It’s not a place for young girls, or even young boys, because up there moss grows on their backs and makes them slouch, and everyone walks like this: he hunched over like he had a large boulder on him, walked like his laces were tied.

I believed him, so I didn’t ask about my mother again until I was older, and when I did he said he was sorry he lied to me, that she had fallen off a horse going down the mesa on one of the coldest nights of the year. He said he couldn’t get to her in time. She died in the morning, but only after the horse died, after it had kept her warm for most of the night.

When I dream of her I think of a horse with brown hair. When I dream of her I see a horse snow-angeling with human limbs. When I dream of her she has no face, and sometimes she’s a sheep flying through the air with me holding on, pretending we have somewhere more important to go.