When I came into the kitchen, Ward was using a knife to help his wife, Irene, peel the skin from two buffalo tongues. The skin was discarded in a small heap along with the glutinous veins cut from the undersides, then Ward left it to Irene to cut the meat into cubes. He pulled out a chair opposite me at the table in the dining area and opened up a John Deere repair manual, which was my reason for being there, and began thumbing through it. Meanwhile, Irene put the cubes into a cast-iron Dutch oven and seared them. She added butter, garlic, onion, white wine, and spices, causing me to grow alert to aromas. Besides garlic and onion, I picked out the scents of rosemary, oregano, and something else I couldn’t identify. A pressure cooker slowly heated up on a back burner, and on the counter beside Irene stood ranks of quart mason jars.
Irene turned down the heat under the Dutch oven, placed a lid on it, moved out of the cooking area to a niche in the wall, and sat on a stool. She wiped her hands on her apron and reached up to the back of her head, adjusting the clip on her bun.
“Buffalo,” she said. “So this is what it comes to. All for my sister.”
“I’m sorry,” Ward said. His voice sounded dismayed, which was not typical of him, though he’d been showing more of it lately: dismay, even distress, with the world.
I surmised that it wasn’t canning buffalo tongues that made him sorry. Under the circumstances, he was probably glad Irene was doing that. Rather, he was sorry that the meat had come to be available at all, that these tongues had been selected from the two formerly angry buffalo that now lay in neatly stacked white packages in the cold of their freezers. He was also sorry that the three-month saga with Irene’s sister and brother-in-law, Jenna and Leland, had come to a head the way it had.
And that wasn’t all. Ward, like most everybody else in these parts, was on edge over the drought and the wildfires that had been ravaging our state that summer. Though we had so far been spared the burning, the winds carried the smoke into our valley. The ridgeline of the canyon below our house was barely visible, and Irene and Ward’s place, set under a hill just to the north, often vanished in a sullen pool of smoke and dust.
“I guess you’ll have to show more discretion about helping Leland out, generous and competent as you are. Or stay out of trouble by keeping completely clear of misanthropes like him,” Irene said. The dimples in her cheeks deepened when she glanced at me and smiled. “I don’t mean you. You’re no trouble.”
“Leland exaggerates,” Ward said. “That’s all I can say.”
“He’s got a screw loose.”
“Hmm,” Ward murmured.
“It’s my sister,” Irene went on. “It’s her I’m worried about. She’s the only one I care about in this thing. But what does she mean that God is in the trees and rocks of the world, in every animal and plant? Or when she says he’s not called God anymore, but Goddess? She’s certainly taken on some wild ideas since she and Leland moved to Montana.”
Ward sighed. “Honey, she had to be working on those ideas before they moved.”
There was an edginess to this exchange, and despite Irene’s exempting me from the misanthropes of the world, I began to wonder if I should leave. I had come up to ask Ward about a mundane thing, the steering-fluid leak in my tractor, a late-Fifties John Deere 720. That was all. Ward had a tractor like it. Irene might have doubted his competence when it came to assessing certain types of people, but when it came to animals, machinery, the farm implements that I regularly borrowed, nobody questioned Ward’s judgment. Earlier in his life, he had been a mechanic for Union Pacific, then for the Air National Guard. I’d never come across anyone who could diagnose a machine’s problems as he did, often by listening to it run, sometimes by clambering up on the engine with a stethoscope and listening to the innards turn on themselves.
Most of his equipment was thirty years old. In other ways too, Ward and Irene seemed content to inhabit a time warp. They didn’t have an answering machine on their landline and had no cell phone. They avoided computers. They lived close to the way they’d been raised, both of them having emerged from hardscrabble farm families whose grandparents had journeyed west during the Dust Bowl. Every Saturday, Irene did her shopping at the Air Force commissary, and every Sunday she went off to the Methodist church in a town nearby. She had her routines of baking, cooking, washing, and cleaning, and her life and Ward’s, too, had a deep-seated sobriety and intactness. No wonder she felt that her sister, who was now living in an underground compound among celestially oriented Blackfoot rock piles, had slipped off the deep end.
Ward looked down at the service manual. “My guess is you’ll have to pull the pump,” he said. “Replace the hoses. As long as you’ve got the pump out, you might as well replace the bearings too. And there are the O-rings on the water lines.”
“To get at the pump, I’ll have to take the grille off too, right?” I said. “And the cowling? Do I have to take the radiator out?”
“You’ll have to drain it and slide it out of the way.” He pushed the manual across the table and pointed to a picture that showed the pump and the radiator levered all the way to the front of the tractor. He put his finger on another picture. “You’ll have to pull the steering wheel and steering shaft too, and take down the worm-gear housing.”
Ten miles to the south is the air base where Ward plied his mechanical skills for more than two decades. Twenty miles east is the city of Spokane, Washington, and just beyond it, the Idaho Panhandle, and then Montana. Fifty miles to the north are the Kettle Mountains, and nestled against them is the town of Cusick, which had freshly emerged in our consciousness because of the broken-loose Kalispel buffalo — not the frozen bodies formerly linked by integument to Irene’s tongues but nine or ten others. To the west, the land sinks slowly through a desolate high desert that ends at the Columbia River. There we find Russian thistle, skeletonweed, leafy spurge, and Dalmatian toadflax, among other noxious European transplants, and also the ubiquitous native sagebrush, and fescue, or bunchgrass, and in late June the exquisite yellow flowers of the northernmost cactus on the continent, Opuntia fragilis. It’s true that much of that land is now irrigated from the Columbia River Project and grows fodder mainly for livestock — lentils, alfalfa, timothy, field corn — but north of it, then arcing back eastward in our direction, is the coulee country where the fires yet burned.
Ward and Irene are dryland farmers. So are my wife and I — after a fashion, since we own what some disdainfully call a “hobby farm.” We usually get between eighteen and twenty-one inches of annual precipitation, just enough to sustain our alfalfa fields and the ponderosa pine that grow on slopes leading down to the canyon.
But now we’re in the second year of high temperatures and drought. The pine engraver beetle has moved up from its native habitat in California and Oregon. Pine trees are dying, and in places our woods are a quilt-work of green and brown: more tinder. At runoffs we have Douglas fir, willow, hawthorn, aspen, and some alder, and then the elderberry, serviceberry, red currant, and plum. A few of these wild fruit bearers grow near the house, where my wife has nurtured them, making sure there’s space between the plants to give them room to grow. This year, the fruit came early and was desiccated. The bushes changed color prematurely. Birds that feed on the fruit moved on early.
Of necessity, we abide by what is called “farmer’s time,” which some also call “Indian time,” depending on who’s using the term and what their intent is. What it means is that one performs a certain duty or arrives at an agreed-on place when obligations permit. Though some city dwellers extol the “simplicity” of life here, tasks can grow complicated even for hobby farmers when something, such as my tractor, needs repair. Or when our cows, restless for green pasture, break out of their fence in the springtime. Or when one of them has a countermanded birth, like the heifer we discovered earlier this spring walking in circles in our corral, one of its calf’s legs poking out of its hindquarters.
Ward came to help us, bringing down chains, a calf jack, and a ratchet. Once we had the heifer in the squeeze chute and Ward had stuffed the calf’s leg back in, repositioning it, he hooked the chains around the legs and ratcheted the calf slowly out, timing it according to the heifer’s contractions. The calf discharged and fell, thudding against the ground, and Ward bent over it and cleared the afterbirth from around its nostrils.
The calf didn’t make it. Turned loose, the bereaved heifer went for Ward, but he leaped away, ending up next to my wife and me behind a panel. For a moment, the heifer glared at Ward, then resumed licking her dead calf. Such was the inauspicious beginning to the growing season — the first thing that happened. I came to believe the calf had the power of omens and that its mother, the heifer, put a curse on the summer that was to follow. My wife and I began calling the heifer Lady Macbeth. “Out, damned spot!” we would exclaim at her. “Out, I say!”
Back in May, before the weather changed, before the drought, before the fires, and just a couple of weeks after we lost the calf, Ward acquired two buffalo. I happened to be up at his place returning a harrow I’d borrowed to knock down the gopher mounds in my fields. He was pulling out with the heaviest of his stock trailers and he asked if I could come along. He was taking the trailer, he said, to help out Irene’s brother-in-law, Leland, with a pair of buffalo bulls he’d bought. “I’m glad you turned up. I could use another hand.”
“Certainly,” I said. I called my wife to tell her what I was doing and climbed into Ward’s truck. This was before Leland and Jenna moved. I’d met them only a few times. Jenna bore a resemblance to Irene, though she was younger. Leland seemed a nice enough fellow, if a little lost, his shining eyes peering out of his face as if out of a jail cell.
“I think he’s got himself into a pickle.” Ward turned out of his driveway onto a gravel road. “He says he had the buffalo delivered and released into a circle of panels he’d set up in his front yard. But then he discovered the two buffalo crossing the road. They put their heads down and just walked off, panels and all.” Ward chuckled. “Seems he didn’t think about securing the panels to the ground. Then later he called again and said that a bunch from the Kalispel herd happened by and got his two excited. Have you heard about the loose bunch of Kalispel buffalo?”
Indeed I had. They’d been in the news. “I haven’t heard anything about their coming down this way, though I guess they could have.”
“Right,” Ward said. “He says the Kalispel buffalo made off and his two followed them as far as a neighbor’s field.”
The Kalispel are an entrepreneurial tribe, and among their projects is a buffalo herd. I had admired their fences, which I remembered as impressive five-wire affairs pulled tight with wooden posts set every eight feet. The buffalo must have broken out, or a gate had been left open. Soon after, it was reported that the buffalo wreaked havoc everywhere they went. Ordinary fences meant nothing to them. The sight of riders on horseback or on A.T.V.’s enraged them, and they lowered their heads to charge fence after fence, barbed wire, split rail, treated posts, even steel posts buried in concrete. It didn’t matter. They’d gotten inside a barn and, when come upon by the farmer, crashed right through a wall.
Though we didn’t know it yet, the loose Kalispel herd was the second thing that happened that season. The third thing was their running wild.
We drove north to Leland’s place and found him standing out front, looking down the road at the two young bulls that had stopped in the alfalfa field. They were buffalo all right, and by now had dragged the twelve-by-five panels, which were still connected by chains, into a long rectangle with themselves at its head. They seemed content, pulling up the plants. Leland wore a bright-yellow shirt, Wrangler jeans, and a pair of new Western-style boots. Behind him was the doorway to his house, where Jenna stood in a long, frilly white dress, her eyes like distant smudges, staring out at nothing I could discern.
“Is she all right?” I said.
Ward looked at her and muttered, “Jenna? Don’t know if she’s all right. We never know.”
He pulled up and Leland came over to the truck, picking up his conversation where it had been left off. “I wondered if maybe they’re from the same herd. It’s like the Kalispel buffalo were lost and came to find two more of their own. But I’ve got a bill of sale that says otherwise.”
I slid over to make room for Leland, and Ward headed for the bulls, driving into the field. Leland and I got out when he stopped. I walked toward the panels and gave hand signals for Ward to back in, all the time warily eyeing the buffalo, which were the color of smoke. Ward stopped when the trailer came near the panels. He set the brake, walked to the rear of the trailer, and opened the door. The buffalo backed up. Ward undid the chains that held two panels together and slid one panel toward me, keeping both of them close against the trailer, making a rudimentary chute.
“Hold it,” he told me. “Don’t let them out. Don’t give them time to think about it. But if they come through, get out of the way.” He grinned, propped his panel in place, and circled around behind the bulls.
The two buffalo surprised us by looking around almost mischievously, first back at Ward, then up at Leland, who had moved to the side of the truck cab, and finally at me. Then, without any warning, they stormed into the trailer, crashing against the walls as they went. Ward shoved a panel aside, jumped in after them, and slammed the middle gate shut, so that the buffalo were secure in the front of the trailer, then he piled out. I closed the rear door, and he jerked down the latch and secured it. One buffalo grew furious, having discovered, I figured, that the trailer was not the tunnel to freedom that it was expecting. It turned and began ferociously kicking the side of the trailer. Up front I glimpsed Leland edging closer to the truck door while Ward scrutinized the buffalo through a slat. The buffalo kicked the side again.
Ward pulled away. “Spike bulls,” he said. “Maybe a little over a year old. They’re full of vinegar, but I’d have to say that was a lot easier than I was afraid it might be.”
Leland stayed where he was. “I guess they’re safe in there.”
“Safe?” Ward said.
“I guess I mean us. We’re safe.” Leland lifted a hand. “I just wanted the two. Then I heard about those others out of the Kalispel herd. They’ve gone over the state line. They’re making their way up the Idaho Panhandle, clean over the line toward Priest Lake. It’s like . . . ” As if he found himself suddenly exhausted, his voice trailed off and his hand floated down to his side.
“Synchronicity,” I interjected.
“That’s it,” Leland said, his voice rising. “Way too much of it.”
Ward squinted at me as if to say, I doubt Leland knows what that word means. When I considered it, I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, either: something to do with the paranormal. And thinking that, I realized I’d had a rush of adrenaline when the buffalo went into the trailer. Now I felt short of breath and my hands were trembling. I thought further that synchronicity brought the paranormal within the bounds of intelligibility. It was a question of things falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity, like Leland’s two buffalo and the Kalispel herd. That was it. Two things connected by meaning, not by cause and effect.
Ward spoke to Leland. “I thought you were planning to move.”
“We are,” Leland said. “We were planning to rent a trailer and take the two buffalo with us.” Then, affecting savoir faire, he said, “Maybe breed them.”
When Ward squinted again, more fiercely than before and turning his gaze on Leland now, Leland’s eyes began to shine and dance about furtively. “They’re more unruly than I thought,” he said. “Maybe it’d be best if you took them for now.” He bent over to dust off his boots with a red handkerchief, but stood bolt upright in alarm when a buffalo kicked the side of the trailer again.
Leland gripped the door handle. “You’ll have to watch out for that other bunch in case they come looking again.”
“Hmm,” Ward murmured. “They came from where?”
“From up there.” Leland gestured to the north.
“Nine or ten of them, you say? There’s no sign.”
Leland’s look grew ghostly. “They were here all right, believe me, jumbling up on each other.”
Ward and I drove Leland back to the house. Jenna was absent from the doorway, though it was still open. To one side, the corner of a curtain dropped over a window. I had to slide out to let Leland climb down from the cab, and I spied something I hadn’t noticed before. He wore a silver belt buckle in the shape of a buffalo’s head, with two bits of glass for eyes. It was like a token, an amulet.
On the drive back to his place, Ward said he didn’t believe Leland for a minute about the Kalispel herd. “And he’s scared to death of the two.”
“Well, yes.” I said nothing about seeing Leland stand aside during the loading, not lending a hand, or about the rush of adrenaline he must have shared with me, or about his fancy boots and silver belt buckle. I left those things where they were. I let Ward’s comment about not believing Leland alone too, though I was inclined to agree with him while also wondering why he indulged Leland so. It seemed a tangle, a family thing well beyond my ken. I did say I was glad that Ward hadn’t given me any more chance to think than he gave the two bulls.
Ward chuckled. “Yeah, we were lucky.”
We unloaded the buffalo into the corral where Ward kept his Charolais bull during the winter. It had just been moved to summer pasture along with the cows. Built from extra-heavy planks, the corral opened up to a feeder, also built from heavy planks and reinforced with steel diagonals. Ward’s bull, and now the buffalo bulls, had to turn their heads to get at the feed, a stratagem designed to minimize the amount of hay that fell to the ground. So began the three and a half months of Ward’s possession of the two young buffalo, which became the fourth dire thing that happened that summer. It was followed by a fifth, the drought that brought us failed crops, and then we had the sixth thing, the fires that began as singular conflagrations but soon mushroomed into hundred-square-mile complexes, fires joining fires, tearing through the central and northern parts of the state. They were of their own energy and created their own weather — windstorms, fireballs bursting like bombs in midair, flames ripping up slopes — all of it seeming like some massive preparation for the death of oxygen-breathing creatures and the next great age of plants.
The corral’s feeder faced a passageway along the edge of Ward’s equipment barn. I checked on the buffalo every now and again when I came by to pick up or return an implement. It goes without saying that I kept my distance. The increasingly menacing demeanor of the pair discouraged me from getting too close, even while outside the corral, and from standing directly in front of them. Every time, they would move to the back of the corral, as if they knew I was going to watch them. Sometimes, if he was there, Ward came out and we would stand off to the side and discuss how much they had grown: their knee joints were now more proportionate to the rest of their bodies. Their hair was luxurious and had begun to change to the straw color I remembered seeing on adults.
After three months had passed, I was returning a disc I’d borrowed. I parked and unhooked it from my tractor, then walked over to the corral. Ward joined me. He was just back from Montana, as I would learn. We came up the alleyway that fronted the corral and surprised the buffalo as they ate out of the feeder. They turned their heads and pulled free, banging against the steel diagonals. The bigger one backed clear up to the rear of the corral, not taking its eyes off us. The other looped around and ended up standing next to the first one, facing us in the same posture and attitude. In this manner they may have granted us our position of dominance, but suddenly the bigger one whipped its head back and forth, giving notice that it could break away in a flash, trampling whatever stood in its way. The other was sure to follow. Instinctively, Ward and I moved to the side, increasing the angulation between us and them.
A few weeks before, Ward had put a medicine ball in the corral. “To give them something to do,” he had said. At first, still mischievous on occasion, they would lapse into a playful mode, kicking or butting the ball, but soon they stopped doing that. Now the ball lay flattened in a corner.
Irene, meanwhile, had come to fear the very sight of the buffalo. I heard her telling Ward that they darkened the whole yard, that their ominous presence overshadowed everything: the arena, the birthing corral, the haystacks, the fenced-off portion where the cows were to be kept when they returned, the repair shed, even where she parked the car at the back of the house.
“The truth is,” Ward told me, “I’ve grown kind of fond of those buffalo. I wish I could keep them, but I’d have to build a fence that would hold them. If they broke loose, they’d probably run into a car, or vanish into the fires. Somebody could get hurt. And I’d be liable for any damage they caused. Like the Kalispels. I figure they ended up paying for all the destroyed fences and that barn.”
I didn’t say anything, wondering whether Ward might be edging toward the same thrall that had sucked Leland in.
The fires were rapaciously feeding on one another: the Okanagan Complex, the Chelan Complex, the Stevens County Complex, the Clark Fork Complex. There were more fires in Oregon, and it appeared that California was in the throes of suffocation, about to be wiped out. The Kalispel buffalo had run free for a month or so, but just as the media began to pay less attention to them, somebody reported that they’d been sighted way up north, vanishing into the smoke of the Okanagan Complex. Ten days later, four buffalo carcasses were found. Their feet had been burned clean off to the ankles and the bodies charred. The rest of the herd were never found, but it was hoped that they had made it to the border and tricked their way through the fancy gates and underpasses for elk, moose, sheep, and deer that the Canadians had constructed along their highways.
Ward took out a pocketknife and began whittling a stick. He leaned forward and contemplated the buffalo. The bigger one lifted its head, though otherwise they both stood frozen in their spots, eyes filled with abject distrust.
“Just look at the black pelage on their underbellies and the insides of their thighs. And the tail tufts,” Ward mused. “And the thighs themselves, how big they’ve become. The humps beginning to fill out, the spikes starting to curve inward.”
He said he had traveled to Montana for Irene’s sake, to check on Jenna for her, to see whether Jenna and Leland needed bailing out yet. He said he guessed they didn’t. Leland still wanted the buffalo, but hadn’t done anything about getting a place ready to keep them. “I don’t understand it,” Ward said. “Does he really want them? He’ll have to feed them too, you know, and watch after them.”
There were other people living there, what Ward said Leland called a coven. They all inhabited a large underground complex dug into a hill. “It seems to me that they are plain old survivalists,” he said, “but Jenna insists they have a new faith. She calls it Natural New Paganism. She showed me an altar with candles, a statue, and a set of buffalo horns.” Ward shrugged. “I don’t know.”
He described the underground complex that was meant to protect them from fallout, from anything but a direct nuclear hit. The entryways were built around ninety-degree corners with two scallop-shaped constructions engineered to deflect blast concussions. “I have to admit it’s impressive,” he said. “They’re pretty carefully installed.”
He hunkered down and used his stick to draw a picture in the dust. “First you have a passage coming face-to-face with a large scallop, like an abalone shell placed on a smaller abalone shell. Then that one is placed on a smaller one yet, and on and on.” Ward drew it in the dust. “They’re beautiful in a way, made from cast steel coated with ceramic.” He stood up beside me and gazed down at his drawing.
I saw that Ward was confused. He wasn’t sure how to pit his old-school perceptions against a meticulous installation that was to serve as a last line of defense against the end of the world.
Ward gave a detailed account of how the group fed themselves. They hunted deer, antelope, elk, and chukar. But they had underground nurseries too, and grow lights powered by generators, which in turn were powered by a methane well, the whole business run by a computer system. Leland told him they were developing retractable antiaircraft guns, modifying them to shoot down the drones they believed were sure to come.
“It’s their new thing,” Ward said. “The hill they built the compound on had piles of stones — they call them petroforms. Jenna says they align with celestial plotting. She was talkative for once, walking me around, showing me how the petroforms line up with constellations and stars: Beta Orionis, Alpha Orionis, the North Star, Ursa Minor. There are also circles of stones that the Blackfeet used in the old days to weigh down the skirts of their tepees. The Blackfoot people were chosen. They knew. That’s what Jenna says. She believes in what she calls the Rule of Three, or some such nonsense. The energy one puts into the world will be returned threefold. Whatever.”
Ward gave me his characteristic squint. “I don’t know what it means. Then she says, ‘One can only hope.’ Hope! Can you believe it?”
This is the seventh thing. I did not witness it, but was informed of it by Ward when I met him in his farmyard.
A couple of weeks after his return from Montana, he got up one morning and went out to discover the two buffalo outside the pen, right there in the turnaround in his driveway. He saw the gate to the corral open behind them: not broken, he said, just jimmied open. He made an effort to shy them that way, shifting his weight and lifting his arms, but the two kept advancing toward him, and the one lowered its head again.
He backed away and headed cautiously for the open bay door of his repair shed, where he kept his .30-06 rifle. The buffalo held their ground and turned with Ward as if he were a gudgeon and they the pins, or like a large fan, they the blades and he the nubbin. He remembered marveling at how smoothly they moved, supplely, as if they were lubricated. He slipped through the doorway, took up his gun, and saw the two had followed him to the doorway and stood in the opening. They were silent.
Again, he made a last attempt to shy them in the direction of the corral, but they wouldn’t budge. “I saw I had no choice,” he said. “First I shot the biggest one, the more aggressive. It went down, and the second turned tail up the driveway and toward the road. It reached the turnaround, right up there,” he said, gesturing. “It stopped to look back, and I shot it. It went down, too. I got my tractor with the loader, moved them next to each other, field-dressed them, then loaded them in my truck and took them to the butcher.”
I looked up the driveway. A monolithic cloud of black smoke roiled in the sky and blotted out the sun beyond the trees. Dark, suddenly it was dark as twilight, although it was only three o’clock in the afternoon. Ward’s breath shuddered and I could have sworn that his eyes filled with tears. “I hated to do it. What other alternative did I have? I called Leland and Jenna to let them know.” He paused, then looked up at the smoke and laughed grimly. “Leland said he wishes I’d of checked with him first.”
That was nearly a month ago, and here I sat at Ward and Irene’s kitchen table. Irene had got up to spoon the chunks and sauce from the buffalo tongues into jars, carefully place the jars inside the pressure cooker, and put the lid and the weight on. The cooker began to hiss. I imagined the pieces of buffalo tongue talking inside there, as if the chunks had recomposed to tell their version of the story.
Irene spooned the last of the meat into the remaining jars. She would have to do two processes to finish. I finally came to recognize the ingredient I hadn’t been able to place: anise. It gave the meat an almost metallic scent. “Anise,” I said. “You put that in too.”
Ward had pulled the manual back to him and was studying it. He said, “You’ll probably have to check the play in the spindle. Like most everything else, they didn’t think too hard about taking things apart when they first put them together. It seems to be the way of the world, organized just fine so long as it keeps on running.” He evinced a faint smile, as if he were being preyed on. “When something breaks and you have to stop and fix it, I guess you’re in all kinds of trouble anymore.”
“Sure,” I said, “but fixing things is what you’re best at. I can tell it gives you pleasure.”
Irene turned to me, running one hand across her apron.
“Yes,” she said. “Anise. We’ll keep a few jars and give the rest to Jenna if she wants to come visit. Leland be damned, he can take what’s frozen if he wants. But buffalo tongues are a great delicacy, you know. Maybe that will make Jenna happy.”