If you’re going to skin a buffalo or steer, make sure your karma’s good….

Years ago, someone told me a story, a sort of folk tale which is circulated in parts of the West and Southwest, about a naive buffalo hunter who got stuck out in a snow storm on the range.  Though apparently the story is circulated among different groups of people as a tall tale based on fact, it has actually been written down and made into a literary work.  I wish I knew by whom, because several people have been credited with it.  Anyway, in this story the buffalo hunter, stuck out on the range when the storm hits, decides to wrap himself up in what turns out to have been a “green” (uncured) buffalo hide, with the result that he is smothered to death as the hide “shrinks.”  Obviously, he should’ve known the difference between a cured and an uncured hide.

When I first encountered the title of Annie Proulx’s short story “The Half-Skinned Steer” from her collection of stories Close Range, I assumed that it was some version of this story that I was going to read.  But her story, while to some degree lacking the sort of slapstick human element of the other story, is untimately more chilling.  The similarity between the two is not only in the skinning of a buffalo or steer, but in the unity in what’s being done to animals and how they are avenged on humans.  There’s a supernatural element in Proulx’s story, which yet can be explained away by those determined to do so as the natural demise in grief of a plain, boring, and everyday elderly rich man who rides an exercise bike and decides to drive himself across several states in a Cadillac to his brother’s funeral.

Mero, the main character, is contacted by his nephew Tick’s wife with the news that his brother Rollo has died.  This information provokes his decision to travel and causes him to reminisce about the past, and to wonder if his brother ever managed to steal his father’s girlfriend away, a “horsy” woman who evidently appealed to all of them in slightly different ways.  For one thing, she was a natural storyteller: as we are told, “It was her voice that drew you in, that low, twangy voice, wouldn’t matter if she was saying the alphabet, what you heard was the rustle of hay.  She could make you smell the smoke from an unlit fire.”  The message that the storyteller conveys is one about how natural things are avenged on humankind, the interloper; it’s a question of Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw.”  When humanity participates in this earthly menage, it risks being treated itself in the same terms as its victims, even if by apparent “supernatural” influence.

The extent to which Mero’s lack of adjustment to a natural ranch environment is fairly complete is shown by the fact that he is living in city surroundings far away from his original home, exercising on a stationary bike when Tick’s wife calls him to tell him that his brother Rollo has died.  The main fact she tells him about the death is that Rollo has been running his ranch as a sort of Australian theme park, with emus (among other “Down Under” animals) on site; one of the emus has slashed him with its nails “from belly to breakfast,” an event which is thoroughly in line with what will happen later in the story.  It’s obvious from this death that even someone who is more accustomed to ranch life than Mero must still treat his surroundings with constant attention and respect, and one gets the feeling quite early on, from his determination to drive his Cadillac to his brother’s funeral in the midst of winter snowstorm conditions, that Mero has forgotten this very important adjustment.

He is given several warnings by his surroundings that he is not capable to take on this “mission”:  he is stopped while speeding by a policeman, and at first can’t remember what he’s driving for when the policeman asks.  Then, he has a collision and must purchase another car, which though also a Cadillac turns out to be a malfunctioning one.  But he thinks to himself about purchasing yet a third car on his presumed way home, “I can do whatever I want.”  Yet, even when talking to his nephew’s wife on the phone, he himself introduces the element of superstition in thinking:  he’d “never had an accident in his life knock on wood.”  And this superstitious element in the story becomes the correct way to confront the apparently supernatural picture of his downfall, in which the reader is pulled between seeing the story both as a pragmatic account of a man’s lack of forethought and caution, and also as a symbolic reminder of how his early beginnings get their belated revenge on him.

One might say, of course, that he is not concentrating while he drives.  But he is taken up with remembering his early life with his father, his father’s girlfriend the storyteller, and his brother.  The story which she told that is set up as a foil and in counterpoint to the story of his trip is that of “Tin Head,” a rancher who supposedly had “a metal plate in his head from falling down some cement steps.”  Tin Head is one of those archetypal figures from tales to whom odd things happen as a matter of course.  We are encouraged to believe that he made a series of bad decisions due to the plate “eating into his brain.”  This brought bad luck on his ranch therefore, really highly unusual bad luck sometimes, such as the chicks turning blue.  And all the while that Mero is thinking of the story of Tin Head and how he once half-skinned a steer and then left it while he went to supper only to come back and find it gone, he is also thinking of his father’s girlfriend as the only flesh and blood woman he’s ever known.  From the time he was 11 or 12, when according to his memory, he showed an anthropologist some cave paintings and learned that some of them were vulvas, he has thought of all other women as having “the stony structure of female genitalia.”

These three threads of storyline entertwine:  he thinks of himself as a “cattleman gone wrong” who doesn’t like rare steak and who considers he’s been preserving his health with exercising, “nut cutlets, and green leafy vegetables”; he thinks of Tin Head, whose luck turned permanently against him after he came out to the pasture in search of where someone might’ve dragged the half-skinned steer only to find it glaring at him from a far field, its “red eyes” full of hate; and he remembers the storyteller who could tell the story so well, and thinks about her appearance.  The symbolism and imagery of the story work as foreshadowing.  For example, during his trip he wakes up early in a motel room with his “eyes aflame” from lack of sleep.  Everything practical that one knows about safe driving and arrival at a destination goes against his logic, yet in the end, when he is stuck up in a snow drift and has to break a window to get back into his car after a trip out to see if he could perhaps walk (to a nearby ranch whose owner, he finally remembers, would be dead by then), it is the “red eyes” of his taillights winking that signal again just how much trouble he is in.  He all the while is assuring himself that he “might” find his way, or a truck “might” come by, but when he thinks of the “mythical Grand Hotel in the sagebrush,” we know either that he is acknowledging himself to be in desperate straits or that he really is delusional.

At the very end of the tale, the two threads of actual story, the story of Mero’s drive and the story of Tin Head’s bad luck, come together in a final tribute to the girlfriend’s act of storytelling itself:  for Mero notices some cattle in a nearby field, and one of them, whose “red eye” he thinks he sees, is stalking him, keeping up pace for pace.  The last line of the story brings the whole picture stunningly and neatly together, proposing in the “rhetoric of fiction” (Wayne Booth) that stories, however exaggerated, are what our lives come down to, that we are always joining another story which has come down to us “from before” (note the symbolic presence in the story of an anthropologist), and that a person is a fool who thinks that he or she can escape acting a role in some story which began even before he or she was born.

The collection of stories in Close Range is subtitled Wyoming Stories, and is the collection from which “Brokeback Mountain” originally came.  There are many other stories in it which deserve equal attention, but this is my post for today.  Naturally, my skill at retelling the story is not nearly as accomplished as Annie Proulx’s in the original telling, and I hope you will buy the book or check it out from a library, or get it online if it’s available there, and read it for yourself.  I think you’ll agree with me that it is a welcome and accomplished addition to what might be called New Americana.

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