(1400 words) Alex, slaughterhouse employee, watches the killing of Torbo, a prize-winning Holstein steer, which wasn’t supposed to even be there.
Short from my book Strange & Weird Stories
The back door began opening. Daylight appeared, brighter than the small circles of light surrounding Torbo and his Hereford companions. Maybe daylight meant freedom. Torbo pushed forward. His body was lighter-built than most of the others, but bulky enough to hold its own. A man appeared in the daylight holding a long pointed object. Torbo had seen the object at the beginning of the trip, when he had been jostled onto the corral that moved. He knew the object stung like the bite of a fly only harder.
But it did not frighten him.
Alex had watched the trucks arriving and held his prod ready. He didn't use it often, but sometimes, to speed a critter on its way, to prevent mayhem, yes, he would use it. From beside the truck a young boy about twelve appeared with a dog, "Hi-yah!" The boy yelled. The dog barked.
A panting Hereford steer went down.
With the relentless yelling and barking some of the critters stampeded, some leaping the fallen Hereford, others trampling.
Torbo moved with the crush of bodies toward the door. Daylight streamed onto sweating red backs, and Torbo's black-and-white one. When Torbo reached the fallen Hereford he stopped, sniffed, then carefully stepped to miss it.
They filed down a steep ramp onto concrete into a small pen, then through a gate, then another and another, until they were allowed to move about almost freely. The fallen Hereford finally got up and joined them. The last gate clanged shut.
Torbo's world had been reduced to steel and concrete, but at least outside in the sunshine. But where was his own corral? Where was his dry, personal pen where he rolled in dust baths? Where was his green pasture with lush grasses? Most of all, where was the young woman who rubbed his nose, scratched behind his ears and massaged his great back?
If Torbo could have thought he would have wondered these things. But he couldn't think. He couldn't speak. He couldn't feel on exactly the same terms as humans. But he did sense that something was very, very, different, in his world.
His shift was about over but Alex had never watched the actual processing. It was time. He worked there. He needed to see what happened inside. He deserved to see what had to happen in order for people to have food. Besides, one particular critter had caught his eye. That Holstein steer, a tall, beautiful animal, the one that had stepped carefully over the fallen Hereford.
As the morning progressed, more and more of the others who had arrived with Torbo had left. Then gates and partitions of fences had been moved to make their pen smaller, never giving them more room. Torbo and his seven remaining Hereford companions were still almost body on body in the steel and concrete pen. No room to lie down. No water, no food. No communication except for an occasional bellow from somewhere.
Those in Torbo's pen were silent, just standing, looking at whatever movement caught their attention or passed their field of vision. Not much. An occasional car on the adjacent street. An occasional human passing their pen.
None spoke with soothing voices. No comforting hands. Most did not even look at Torbo and his companions. Where was the young woman who had been with Torbo since birth? Where was her voice? Her hands? Her loving arms?
Where was Torbo's world?
Shift change came. Men began arriving, many of them. And some women. Torbo sensed some were women because they smelled different. His nose searched for his young mistress. But her scent was not among them.
A man appeared at their pen with the pointed object. Torbo did not fear it. The gate clanged open. Torbo's companions began to push. Torbo pushed back. They became a crush again, and moved from their outside pen into another pen in a building. More steel and concrete. Then they reached a very narrow pen which soon became just one body wide.
The men began shouting and jabbing their stinging sticks. From ahead of Torbo came the sound of a thud. He had never heard such a sound. He lifted his head above the rump of the body ahead of him. He saw nothing but men and darkness.
The sound came again. It meant nothing to Torbo, yet it began to affect the chemicals in his brain, the senses in his being. He saw one of his companions ahead of him disappear through a very small lighted doorway. Then came that sound of thud again.
Had a bound and blindfolded human in such a situation begun to hear an unusual sound, the human would have begun to feel fear, and then, as the human ahead of that human moved ahead and the sound came closer and closer and again and again, that human would soon have known irrationalizing, terrifying, fear.
The body just ahead of Torbo went through the narrow opening. Torbo went through too, at least his head did, and he saw a man ahead with a different object, different from the stinging stick, yet Torbo could tell no difference because he had no intelligence. None, at least, that humans could understand.
The man placed the object behind the ear of Torbo's last companion. Came the thud sound. Torbo's companion went down. All four of its legs had buckled. Then Torbo's companion moved forward again, but no longer by its own power.
Torbo was next.
Deep in Torbo's brain fear was building. From behind came the sting of the stick. It didn't hurt that much. Torbo did not fear it. But he moved ahead anyway—where was his mistress? That soothing voice?
Alex watched the Holstein step onto the killing slab. Its lustrous black-and-white pelt appeared to have been currycombed daily. He pictured the handsome animal as a young girl's 4H project. But the blue ribbon winners did not come here, at least not early in life, at least he hoped not.
The man with the stun gun positioned himself. Another with a large knife approached. The Holstein lifted its head. Alex wished the Holstein would fight. But he knew no matter how hard it might fight it was going to die. That's what the critter had come here for. To die.
Torbo saw bright lights. He held his head high as he could and looked all around at the many humans. The different object touched Torbo behind the ear. Torbo finally knew fear. His brain flashed the message to run. He tried. The thud sound came, but Torbo did not hear it.
No more visions came of the comforting hands, the soothing voice, the loving arms, for Torbo was no more.
Alex kept watching. He had to watch. Just once.
The Holstein's legs buckled under it. Its body hit the cold concrete. It moved ahead but not of its own power. The feet and lower legs left the body. The head left. Hooks grappled the body onto its back. A knife cut it. More hooks removed the shining black-and-white hide in one swipe.
A great knife then cut the carcass into two pieces, then four. Smaller knives cut it into more and more pieces until they became sirloin for the rich, hamburger for the poor, bones for meal, hide for shoes, guts for fertilizer.
Alex could watch no longer. The beautiful Holstein steer had been reduced to so many pieces, so quickly, that nothing was left to watch. From birth to death the animal had been nothing but a project, a food project. He left the kill floor, now only wanting to go home, away from this.
He reached his car. On the adjacent street appeared a speeding pickup. His hand on the door handle, he hesitated. The pickup squealed onto the plant's parking lot, then speeded up and finally slid to a stop just outside the pens.
A young woman, sixteen or seventeen, leaped out. Her eyes wide she ran from one worker to another. Alex heard just one word, "…Holstein…" and wished to hear no more.
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|Reviewed by Ronald Hull
|Very poignant and realistic. A case of tragic mistaken identity.
I've been learning recently that animals have much more intelligence than we have thought earlier and means of communication that we are just beginning to understand. Whether they understand the future and remember the past (many think elephants do) or not remains to be seen.
Tragic or not, I enjoyed your fine and unique story.