Piano Wire

Piano Wire by Aaron Apps

The trees near the abandoned farmstead, eighty acres over, were a little more complicated than the sheer amount of bones they contained. Beneath the various apple, pine, birch, and underbrush is, quite literally, where we put the animal corpses to rot, to be eaten by wolves and coyotes and foxes and bears, to swell and rot into the forest floor, losing their flesh. I say animals, but I mostly mean animal parts—a cow head, a backbone, four hooves removed at the joints, an enormous pile of skin, part of a tail, the ends of ribs clipped off by a reciprocating Sawzall, the slimy movement of guts and organs that moved out of the wheelbarrow onto the ground like giant, lumpy masses of strangely colored Jell-O. At times there’d be a whole body there, like when a cow was shot, accidentally one assumes, by a hunter or neighbor or enemy, and it rotted away on the inside. So: when we cut into it at slaughter, most of the meat was rotten, or wet and too near the animal’s blackening innards. Its whole body tossed under some trees like garbage, its bones pulled in various directions by scavengers, and I’d often take the dogs up to those bodies and toss the bones into the mossy abandoned foundation of the old farmhouse, and I’d toss them for the dogs who would gnaw on them, or bring them back, or paw at them and dance around like they were nothing more than white and oddly shaped sticks, blank shapes, further spreading and repurposing themselves from their multiple and incomplete bodies, and the dogs with the bones in their mouths were ecstatic.

To talk about the space where the dogs danced is also to talk about one body that made it up to that same spot, hauled there in one giant mass in the dangerously heavy basket of the tractor, although much later than any of the bones in the dogs’ mouths, is to talk about flesh and music, about the violence of music cutting its way into the flesh, piano wire into the cow’s whole womb, into the edges of its genitalia. To talk about that body is to talk about the day it went into labor in the middle of the winter, to talk about how it died during winter too, albeit a few years later, to talk about how its flesh froze for several months before decomposing, before becoming edible again, much like its calf’s flesh froze that winter, froze having rotted as if in misuse inside of another living thing: becoming scattered, frozen, rotting, and then bone, and then, again, forest floor and then, again, apples, birch bark, pine needles, and rash-causing leaves. To talk about the calf inside of the body thrown in the trees: we didn’t notice it until the heifer was shivering and suffering and mooing and hammering its feet up against the walls of the pole building, thick strands of saliva falling from its mouth into the frozen bricks of manure, round, expressing their grassy contents, the metal of the building clanging against the horny keratin of the cow’s feet. She was this way all night, nothing coming out except for pinkness and wetness and brown and green strands of ooze.

In the morning we went outside and stuck our arms inside of the cow’s ass to feel what position the animal inside of the animal was in. I went first, with my whole arm, and I felt bone and flesh, and warmth inside that womb, and I pulled gently at a part, trying to maybe loosen the calf, loosen it so it would slide out, slide out into the world, and it did slide out, except, it slid out off of itself, a slick chunk of brown fur and flesh loosening into my grip, coming out in one raw movement, like pulling hair out of a drain with your bare hands, hair with the girth and meatiness of a large hamburger, with the yellow color of something slowly rotting in a thick fluid.

It was then a matter of getting the dead thing out of the living thing to prevent further rot, to save the flesh that was still there, still breathing and crying and staring out of bulging painful eyes the entire time, like it still is there drooling and bulging in my memory now. We pulled harder with our hands, my father and I, and the thing wouldn’t come out, except in small pieces, and we pulled until our arms were hot and wet and tired, and our bones were freezing, and then we went inside and called the local vet, washed our arms, drank tea, and sat in the hottest part of the house waiting to go back out to the thing still screaming on the ground in pain.

When the vet arrived, she brought several buckets, a ratchet style calf puller, a tackle box, a bag full of implements, and several grocery bags full of packages of instant, all-purpose lubricant. She told us to go inside and fill the buckets with hot water and when we brought them back out, she added the large packets of dry instant lube, and the water became thick, instantly became gallons upon gallons of KY Jelly. She reached into the animal, pulling out parts, and said the ratchet was useless, said the calf was sideways, said we’re going to have to cut it out, which didn’t mean quit, but meant divide the dead thing in half so it slides out in two distinct pieces, two distinct pieces amid many smaller pieces, the two masses and the chunks of detritus that surrounds them. She scooped handfuls of the lube into the cow, and then reached into her tackle box and pulled out what looked like metal fishing line designed for sharks, sea monsters, things like that. She said it was piano wire, and she reached into the cow, and wrapped it around the calf’s body, around with lots of effort, because it was hard to tell what part was what in all of the indistinct flesh. But soon she’d figured it out, and soon she ran the wire through the metal pipe, and soon we were sawing through the calf, sawing and sawing with the piano wire, and the only sounds were our heavy breathing, and the cow’s heavy breathing, and the screaming, and the grinding, the back and forth of metal on metal. That is, until the wind picked up, and began to howl through the door, and the temperature dropped a solid 15 degrees, solidly below zero, solidly such that the only place one wanted to have one’s hands was near or in the cow, because our whole bodies were shivering, and the calf wasn’t giving way to the back and forth movement of the wire, which moved back and forth as it ground and ground until, under the force of our bodies leaning back, the wire broke, broke against the pipe that was keeping the wire away from the flesh of the heifer. I was sawing at that moment, and I almost fell back on my ass, but I caught myself, the frayed broken wire in one hand, the line still running into the cow in the other.

We tried to fix the thing, tried to get the rigging back up and running, the wire through the pipe, but there wasn’t enough wire, and as she pulled the wires back and forth she could only saw an inch or two at a time. There seemed to be no leverage, no progress being made, no body being got through as the body of the live cow heaved and moved closer toward a likely death itself. There was no other wire so we took the pipe out. There was no other wire so we cut into the mother and the calf at the same time, cut and cut and cut, taking turns at the wires, taking as little time as possible, which was a lot of time, near four hours of time, cutting and cutting and cutting, and using more and more lube, and though I couldn’t smell anything, because I can never smell anything, I could taste the rot at first, and then I could taste blood, like all of the air was too raw of a steak, and the eye of the cow was black and veined and it had a yellow crust around each socket, and saliva was leaking still out of its mouth, and its face fluids were much like the substances of its ass, and everything seemed to be on the verge of hopelessness, and everything seemed to be on the verge of everything, on the edge of death and violence and sacrifice, on the edge and then, suddenly the calf ruptured, and my father fell back several feet. In a few moments, with a few pulls of the hands, most of the calf was out, and a few moments more, most of the extra chunks, and in a few moments more, the small red dead thing, its eyes and protruding tongue tinted with a yellow hue, its ribs sticking through it skin, was there in the world, steaming, freezing to the bricks of manure on the floor of the pole building, its guts stringing together its two halves. In a few moments more, the placenta came out too, its own entity, its own object, its own kind of being as the most disgusting thing I’d ever encountered, black and green and yellow and rotten and almost bubbling on its insides like the world’s most corrupt fondue. In a few moments more, the heaving of the mother subsided, and we shooed it onto its feet, shooed it so its legs wouldn’t go to shit, shooed it so that it might live. In a few moments more, we tossed the body of the calf in the wheelbarrow, its skin dripping with lube, its rot unbearable, its body going always already to the bones, to the mossy foundation, to the place where the dogs dance like animals amid animals.

Aaron Apps is the author of Intersex (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2015) and Dear Herculine, winner of the 2014 Sawtooth Poetry Prize from Ahsahta Press. His writing has appeared in numerous journals, including Pleiades, LIT, Washington Square Review, Puerto del Sol, Columbia Poetry Review, and Blackbird.