Pity the Beast

Robin McLean

November 30, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Robin McLean's new novel, Pity the Beast. McLean worked as a lawyer and then a potter in the woods of Alaska before turning to writing. Her story collection Reptile House won the 2013 BOA Editions Fiction Prize and was twice a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Story Prize. She now lives and teaches in the high plains desert of central Nevada at Ike’s Canyon Ranch Writer’s Retreat, which she co-founded.

Well, I do hope you paid close attention to those messages from our sponsors during the break, buckaroos, because they’ve got some fine products your parents could surely use in the old homestead. But now let’s settle back in to our exciting serial, The Long Trail of the Rodeo Kid (based on a hair-raising true story!). If you’re only now tuning in, you’d best saddle up and hold tight, ’cause this week’s episode finds your hero and mine, the Rodeo Kid, in one heck of a thrilling and terribly terrible mess.

It’s dawn again, and here we are in an average barnyard after a raucous party outside a small western town by a river. The air is chilled, dewy, smoky, crystalline, lots of words like that. A tree stands on the hill in the nearer distance cluttered by large debris, bulky, alien, geometric. We won’t ask. It’s no matter. That’s the past and we’re the future comin’. The sky’s dry between ridges of two distant ranges, east and west. The western range seems smaller but this is just a trick of backdrop to indicate “farther.” The eastern range looms, however, so big behind the hill that it seems an actor in the show, and the sky, so flat and uniform this time of day, it is surely blue paint brushed on. The birds, both wild and domestic, dart, fly, and call for seed, gathering at feeders in town and at the barn door where they know it’s hidden. The hawks wheel in blue as expected, their small heads clicking tiny readjustments.

The Kid stands in the dusty ranch yard, his fists at the navy piping of dirty pants. He wears no shirt. He lost it in the confusion before our commercial break. His face is filthy, his chest and arms likewise. He’s been sleeping in the barn. Found his hat dangling from his thumb. He lifts the hat and looks it over. His eyes are blue as the sky, as sapphire shining in the sun, too rare a color to play an Indian. His day as the Indian is done. He is young. He is both thrilled and disappointed. He walks to the well, bows to it. There is soap in a tin cup. He sets his arm to work at pumping and he cleans himself of Indian.

He drips when he stands. No towel. He spins to take things in: the tree and the three stone steps to the porch. The propane tank. The clothesline fallen on the berry bushes out back, a pair of socks, old graying pegs. We zoom in and out on cottonwoods that sprang from the seeds of the trees who hid the Indian Spy, the Original. They fill the space between dirt and sky.

The boy yawns. He’s been a child, a puppet. The strings are broke now. His privates still tingle. His eyes are full.

If the boy could do both, stand in the barnyard at the wellhead and also watch himself standing in the barnyard at the wellhead, sit in the loft and in the yard also, for example, watching himself thinking of the Indian Spy spying in the cottonwood, he would divide himself in just this way. This is the world no one speaks about. He’s been waiting for it a long time, felt it coming when he was younger, now it’s arrived in a wave. He shakes with aðrmation.

For all his scrubbing the grime and soot still streaks down his chest, staining his waistband where his body dips inside it. Only his face and palms got clean. He can see this from the window in the barn loft. He’s hungry too. He bends and rubs his innocent, clean hands in the dirt again, smears gray on the knees of his rodeo pants, up his thighs. He has calluses already.

Enter the hens. They peck around him. They’re an audience, like us, but they’re in the show too. Their coop door hangs open. No one thought of the hens last night, their safety from foxes, dogs. The Kid notes it, so we note it.

But someone remembered the horses at least. We can all agree there’s a big difference between horses and hens. The Kid hears the horses shifting under his feet in their stalls as he sits in the loft watching himself at the door to the coop. This is tremendous fun.

He is addled. He knows it. There’s something terrible and wonderful about addled, a requirement of growing up. A red dog chases the flock below. The red dog.

They scatter around his other self, the Kid, down in the yard, hens squawking, flapping and pretending they can fly. They divide around him, too tall and too slim even for a cowboy, as creek water will divide around a rock. The Kid is the rock. All else is the water. This is knowing he is alive now. He is an actor now. He will fill in. His body.

A cat waits behind a chicken with black-blue wings. The cat keeps low, is big-pawed, believes he’s a sabertooth.

There’s a truck parked at the main gate, really an old telephone pole on a black forged hinge. The gate is down. Over the gate is an archway of welded pipes, tall enough for

deliveries by truck—feed, pallets—and for moving cattle in or out. A brand hangs down from the middle: V4. If the boy were to float above the gate on wings, he’d sit on a pipe, examining the couple sleeping in the truck. Saul is in the bed, slapping at bugs without waking. Ella is in the front passenger seat. The window is cracked for air. She’s restless. Feels the boy hovering over the hood.

He flies to the tree on the hill where Dan is sleeping unsoundly by the mare who’s still awake, of course, blinking in her sling. The ranch is quiet except for the cattle lowing, moving up and down in the fields. The scene is vast and serene. Yes, the little town, below, over there.

A roof is nothing. A boy is something. He flies back to himself in the barn loft. He rests his wings.

His face is beautiful despite the smudgy blue shadows under his eyes. He’s tired, of course. What a night! The creature in its cocoon, at its metamorphosis, is never at rest. He sets his hat on hay gray from winter. He must clean his pants, but the dirt, too, is wonderful. It matches the smudges on his skin. All is wonderful, his handsome jaw, his icy eyes in penetrating squints, the bits of straw strewn attractively through his tousled hair.

He crawls to the north window above the cow pit. There is movement in the pit, metamorphosis there too. The woman has rejoined the living as the cock crows.

She’s climbing across calves and a stiff gray foal, a human shape made of muck shifting through muck. She has a plan. She is dragging bodies to the bodies. She is building a set of steps with corpses. This is a good idea, the Kid grants it, but he still isn’t impressed. Anyone would’ve come up with it if they woke up in that kind of grave. And here she’s climbing the steps, steady as she can. She reaches the lip. She’s out. She lies on the turf at the lip of the pit, a wet, stinking, drowned skunk. She stares up into the walnut. Her eyes shift to the window of the loft. The Kid makes himself scarce.

She crawls toward the barn. A horse head hangs out a stall. It nickers at her, nibbles. A loving scene of love when she reaches it, then the head disappears into shadow. She zips her pants. She is Eve rising from the clay this time around, Genesis revised. Her left eye is awful to see. Her lips are swollen. She is hideous, red, chapped, caked with fetid pit rot.

At the barn wall, she crouches, keeps low. She’s heard a howl on the hill. An animal cry, she must think, its gut ripped open, but no, turns out it’s only Dan dreaming. She crawls. The Kid can smell her thinking, taste her confusion. She will crawl to the northwest corner. She turns once, feeling him behind her, inches away, but he’s gone in a blink behind the stack of pallets. The morning is a blue fog. She stifles a cough. He stifles one too. She wipes her nose and he does the same. He sees the top of her head from the west window now; also looks at her crotch from the cat’s favorite hole. Her head is round like a melon from every angle. Her crotch reeks. She can feel the air moving but she can’t explain it. Anyone looking then would see him, but only the birds do, and they fly past at the business of birds. They, he knows, in their rudimentary stage of evolution, have no opinions. The barn wood catches the shoulder of the woman’s flannel shirt. Tragedy is a matter of opinion and tone. His mind is rich and full. His mind, he now knows, can make anything.

Her shirttail is riding up; the skin on her back is showing. She is bruised about the kidneys. She crawls around a rusty gutter. Her spine is horizontal to the earth. A brick from above could break her back. He lets the brick alone. He has mercy on her, poor thing. On the west wall, her jeans’ ass is in full view. She crushes an anthill with her giantess knee. The pit is behind her now. The pit is the past. He tells her this with his mind. She gives no indication of understanding. Instead, she passes a stick of old siding hanging of the barn. A sixteen-penny nail has sprung away from the barn on one end. She pries it free. She shoves the stick under her arm and crawls on through thick vegetation, drags under branches and thorns, sucks her finger. From the corner she can spy on the whole yard. A chicken struts up and struts on.

There is a hand over the tailgate. The tailgate drops. Saul rolls out. There is weeping ongoing on the hill. Saul cups his hands to call. Ella speaks out the window, the mealy words of married people. The boy will marry too someday. A big wedding with ribbons and cake. Saul goes in the house and comes out of the house with the shotgun. The truck’s engine turns over. The brake lights flicker. The gate swings open and closed again. The truck accelerates toward the main road. Dust swirls. They’ll be back soon. The note on the counter says as much. The woman stands at the barn. A horse whinnies, a cock crows, a cow lows in the misery of a too-full milk sack. The boy slides down the conveyor, meets himself on stone porch steps. The woman watches him sit. She’d thought she was totally alone. This is the biggest mistake humans make. Animals never make it. The Rodeo Kid is disappointed in the Dead Woman, frankly.


Excerpted with permission from Pity the Beast by Robin McLean. Published by And Other Stories. Copyright Robin McLean, 2021.

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