I never asked Ma about her favorite animal, but it was probably one of those birds that eats insects off the backs of sub-Saharan oxen. She had a neurotic desire to look after people, and if they swatted her away, she’d swoop right back in and start pruning again. After she retired from nursing, she bought a herd of bison and spent her days fluttering around them instead.
Before the Big C took her, she used to say, without a lick of humor, that they were her kids. All fifteen of them were good as gold, she’d add, ‘cause they did nothing but chew on grass and fart. Besides, she saw them every day. She knew they were safe.
But me and Tom?
Ma always said she never quite saw us enough.
I can spot my bovine siblings through the kitchen window: they’re blobs of brown in sunlit fields, distorted by the smudge on my glasses. Across from me, Tom sits with his feet up on the dining table, watching tendrils of smoke from his blunt spiral up into nothing. His nose is wrinkled; in less than a week at her farmhouse, Ma’s patchouli-scented candles have already infused themselves into our clothes.
“We don’t know squat about bison, Billy,” he mutters.
“Don’t matter,” I grunt back, still peering out the window. “They’re our siblings. They’re sick. We have to look after them.”
“They ain’t our siblings. They’re just bison. Big cows.”
“Still our responsibility.”
Tom winces at that. “So, the vet’s coming. Then what?”
“Depends what he says.”
“Will it cost?”
I shake my head. “Said he’d come here for free. On Ma’s account.”
“But after that? He ain’t gonna cure them for free. ‘Sides, you know I don’t like pills and such.”
Suddenly self-conscious, I suck my stomach in. He hasn’t commented on the weight I’ve gained since we last saw each other. But he’d definitely have something to say if he knew it was from my medication.
Taking my silence for assent, he puffs out another cloud of smoke, watching the vapor melt into the space between us. A frown creeps onto his face.
“We got enough going on as is. There’s this place,” – he waves the blunt around – “her money, all her stuff, a funeral to sort out, and now the bison?”
My nose pinches, but I force the tears back. I haven’t cried in front of Tom since we were kids, and I don’t plan to now. I let my breath flow out through puckered lips, controlled, like my therapist taught me.
“We knew about the bison long before she… you know.”
His eyes soften. “Eh, you’re right. Guess we didn’t think she’d go so fast.”
My eyes drift from Tom’s face to the wall behind him, where Ma put up a framed photo of us three years ago. In it, a teenage me sports the same glasses I’m wearing now; she bought them for my birthday in my last year of high school. Tom’s beard was shorter back then, trimmed around his jawline, and his eyes still had the optimistic light of an apprentice tradesman. Ma’s head is sandwiched between our shoulders, her smile so wide it compresses her eyes into wrinkled ovals.
He follows my gaze, craning his neck to look at the photo.
“That was when she got the bison, wasn’t it?” he sighs. “I wonder if the Big C was growing inside her back then. We just didn’t know it.”
“That’s why we gotta look after them. For her sake.”
Now Tom’s looking out the window. He pulls his feet off the table and draws in another puff, deep in thought. The sun shifts in the sky, and I close my eyes, enjoying the warmth on my face. We sit in companionable silence as the morning leaks away.
“They teach you much about bison farming in engineering school?” he says finally, his lip tugging upwards. “’Cause I’m just a mechanic. You got the brains.”
“Think our knowledge is about the same.”
“So, you gonna drop outta school and take care of your bison siblings? You know I can’t. I got bills to pay.”
“I can’t either.”
“Then what do we do?” A glint forms in his eye. “Could we sell them?”
Like a magnet, the photo draws my attention again; to Ma’s effervescent, innocent smile.
“Or,” he continues, “you know what I’ve heard?” He blows out smoke and lowers his voice. “Bison meat is supposed to taste pretty good. Aren’t they sick already? Might be kinder to just… let them go.”
I bow my head and tear my eyes away from Ma’s, squeezing them shut. A whiff of patchouli wafts past, as if she’s still here, bustling around the kitchen with her chessboard apron on.
“Billy?” Tom falters.
Bereft of words, I point across the kitchen table to the thin, threadbound book underneath a porcelain vase of marigolds. I hear the vase thump against the table, then wood scraping as Tom drags the book towards him. Each turn of the page is a shallow breath that tickles my nose.
“She gave them all names,” he murmurs. “And birthdays. They’ve got favorite treats, like apples and bananas. Jesus, she even measured how fast the calves grew.”
“They’re her kids too.”
He snaps the book shut. “Should we cut them a slice of the inheritance, then?”
The tinkling of the doorbell cuts off my reply. Ever the traditionalist, Ma never replaced the vintage brass bell hanging outside, even though a century of tarnishment has left it black as midnight.
Knees creaking, I clamber to my feet. “Must be the vet.”
Dr Johnson stands in the doorway with a clipboard under one arm and flowers in the other. His brow is furrowed in sympathy.
“Some lilies. In Jane’s memory,” he says, flashing a smile.
I thought my lips had forgotten how, but they surprise me by returning it.
We slip our gumboots on and traipse into the fields, weak sun at our backs. I notice Tom’s holding the bison scrapbook in his hands, but on the other side of his body, as if he doesn’t want me to notice. Waving bugs away from my nose, I ask the vet how Ma looked after the bison.
“Jane was a force of nature,” he remarks. “I don’t know many people who can manage a bison herd by themselves, but she was one of them. Those bison were looked after exceptionally well.”
“Then how’d they get sick?”
Dr Johnson shrugs. “We’ll see. They were healthy until just before she passed. Maybe she was too weak to care for them towards the end.”
Tom walks in silence a few steps behind, sniffing. I stopped badgering him about taking allergy tablets a while ago. “Pills aren’t good for you, Billy,” he’d told me. “Natural’s best.” And that was that. For all the trouble it gave her in life, I wager Ma’d be proud at least one of us carried on her famous stubborn streak.
The bison have scattered themselves across the grass, some chewing, others lounging on nature’s futon. The stench of droppings is overpowering.
Up close, I fight back a pang of fear at their size. Their heads droop curiously close to the ground, but their humps rise to above my eye level. There’s no consistency to their shaggy brown fur: on their heads it grows long, the color of dark chocolate; on their backs, it’s shorter, faded to sun-worn teak.
The vet picks his way past piles of dark droppings, hot grass crunching under his boots. He leads us a short distance from the largest of the bison.
“You see that one?” he says, pointing. “That’s the male. Your mom did well – fourteen cows per bull is a good ratio for a herd this size.”
The bison stands there, chewing. On second glance, I notice its head and horns are much bigger than the others. Its shoulder muscles, too. It looks like it could easily flip a car.
“His name’s Zachary,” I mutter. “Ma named him.”
The vet nods. “Well, Zachary is sick. Can you hear that?”
I cock my head. Under the wind and birdsong, there’s an odd, wheezy sound every few seconds. It’s strangely familiar.
“He’s coughing,” the vet continues. “You’d better hope it’s just influenza and not tuberculosis. I’ll need a saliva sample for testing.”
Something wrenches in my chest, and I glance at Tom, but his eyes have glazed over. He fishes in his pocket for a lighter, and the blunt reappears between his fingers.
“Everything okay?” Dr Johnson asks, eyes darting between us.
Tom’s looking away, far in the distance, so I break the silence.
“Sorry. That cough - it just sounds like Ma did when she got the Big C.”
“I understand. Take a moment. I need to check the other bison, anyway.” He strides off.
I wait for Tom to say something. He always has something to say. Yet we remain ensconced in our own little worlds, listless as cows standing in a field under an empty sky. My mind wanders back to the past week - the first without Ma - when my life was on fast-forward. Faces, words, and emotions revolved so quickly through my brain they’d congealed like dried blood, hard and impenetrable. I felt as if my mind and body had lost all capacity for sensation.
But now, there’s a weight on my eyelids, a pressure behind my eyes, a yawn waiting to escape whenever I open my mouth. The minutes trickle past effortfully.
I’m about to leave, admit defeat, when Tom finds his voice again.
“They’re suffering, Billy. Just like she did.” He lets out a breath that lasts an eternity, smoke billowing from his lips. “You were right. We gotta look after them.”
“You were right, too. What if it costs?”
“We’ll figure it out. I know we will.”
I take a deep breath. His back is to me, his gaze still fixed somewhere far beyond the horizon.
“Tommy?” I croak.
“I’m in therapy. They gave me pills. I know you don’t like them. I’m sorry.”
He looks back at me, eyes red-rimmed and moist. Watching. Then, he puts out his blunt and spreads his arms wide, beckoning me in for a hug.
“I’m gonna look after Ma’s big cows,” he smiles, “and I’m gonna look after you, too.”
The tears fall before I can stop them, but this time I realise I want him to see.
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An author I admire said a good story is all about making the most interesting choices. I felt like you made every correct choice moving through the narrative. It all just got better and better. Bravo.
Hi Kevin. Getting compliments from you always puts a spring in my step! Thank you!
Fine work. Congrats.
Thank you Philip!
I love how you portrayed animals. Excellent writing I think. Feel free to check out mine! Keep up the good work.
Thank you very much! Appreciate the read and comment. :)
Loved the story I just have so many nurses in the family, made it hard to picture a nurse who raised bison like children. But, that a nurse who prefer something as much, or more than her children, that I get. The real comfort I found, however, in this story was the strength of the siblings, their bond and their extreme bond over a love for their mother which, seemingly, was greater than her own. Maybe it's the sort about nurses and mothers. My mother and step mother are both nurses too. And, I struggle with a horrendous relationship with t...
Another thoughtful comment - thank you so much. I agree, the reader's perception often elevates a story, especially when you apply your own knowledge and memories to it, as it seems you have with this one. Regarding the spelling, that is actually a typo you've picked up! I only use American spellings (like realize) when the story is set in the USA or has characters from the USA, so it should have been realize, not realise. Thank you for that!
I'm super late Shuvayon, but wow, what a story! Absolutely loved it and it is so so deserving of that shortlist. Congrats again! I think I can honestly say this is one of my favourite stories I've read on Reedsy.🥰
Thanks so much! Glad you liked it. :D I miss your work on here!
Congratulations, Shuvayon! It was a damn good story. I'm glad it got the recognition it deserved.
As always, your support is highly appreciated. Thank you. :)
Shuv, my man, this is beautiful! Loved the relationship you crafted between the two brothers, felt genuine and real. A natural brotherly friction between them at times but ultimately they love and care about each other. That was brilliant! Some incredible descriptions in this too! Another brilliant piece from you, as to be expected!!
Thanks my friend! I don't have any brothers so it's gratifying to know the relationship was somewhat convincing lol. Always appreciate your time. :)
You got me! My brudda from Down Unda!
I have to love the way you have someone who can relate more to the animals than humans. I can understand that at times when people are stressing me out. The depth of the relationship and the respect for the animals really works.
Thanks Graham, much appreciated. :)
Excellent opening paragraph- it drew me in and I just kept reading. What an unusual and interesting choice of subject (bison!). I really enjoyed how you pushed both the characters and the reader to look at the bison as more than just inconvenient and large animals that could be sold for meat, but as worthy of care. Even though Ma is gone and never appears directly in the story, we can tell that she must have been a real character!
Thank you for the read and feedback! I'm very grateful. :)
I love that you used Bison instead of just cows. Straight away it gives the story a more interesting and unique feel. Also I had to google to get a visual of what they were looking at, and I always appreciate a story which gets me looking up something. The sibling relationship was so well drawn. Siblings, and brothers in particular, is one of my favourite things to read (and write for that matter). The way even though they are both adults there is still that sense of Tom as the 'big brother' in Billy's eyes. Especially loved how much is re...
Thanks so much Kelsey. I've been working on my dialogue, so you made my day by saying that! Your comments are always appreciated. Looking forward to your next story. :)
There's a bison ranch near me, and there's something delightfully soulful about them, which works beautifully in this story. It's a gorgeous portrait of grief and sibling relationships. Gorgeous.
Aw, thanks Jay. You're too kind. :)
I like it, I like it. Makes me wonder how much research you had to do on bison, or if you've just spent a wealth of time around them throughout your life. Really enjoy the lit-fic vibe on this one: less about the plot and more about the richness and depth of the character relationships. You rendered the brothers beautifully (reminded me of my own sibling relationship, too), and it's impressive that the mother herself had such a big sense of character, considering she's not present physically. (Also, shoutout to the big kahuna bison being na...
Zack, my friend! Your comment, as always, is a wonderful start to my day. Not often I get called a unicorn. :) I've never seen a bison before, so everything in this story was from research... but as you would know, usually, not much actually makes it into the story! Glad you appreciated the wee shout out LOL. I was picking a name for the bull and Zachary was one of the first names that popped into my head. And I've had this bison-grief-siblings concept in my head for a little while now, it just so happened the prompt fit perfectly. I'm cur...
Ah, the power of good research - when you spend hours learning about a subject only to end up writing a few sentences about it. Been there, done that. I've got a couple ways of doing notes when I read. Sometimes it's mental. Sometimes if I'm on a desktop (as I was when I read this), I'll highlight a line that stands out to me, then copy/paste it into another tab to reference later in these comments. And sometimes, for the ones I really want to come back to and study, I'll open my super-special Word document entitled "Good Story Lines" and w...
Thanks for this. I'm gonna start my own special Word document now. :)
This is so, so good. I love how you captured Billy's emotional rollercoaster, and seeing Tom through Billy's eyes leaning into keeping the bison was lovely. Great dialogue, great pacing, loved the characters - and bison are so awesome.
Amanda, thank you so much for reading and enjoying this. Much appreciated. :)
Congratulations on the shortlist! You very much deserved it.
Thanks Amanda, I'm very grateful for your support!
Hello! Oh this one was a good one. There were so many beautiful lines in this piece. And on a personal note, my sister has always been a bit like Jane-better with animals than humans. I love that this story ends with a confession and a moment of dividing acceptance. I also really admire the way you’ve created a vast cast of characters-including some animals. Nice job!
Thanks as always for reading Amanda! Glad you enjoyed it. :) I've got "Reunion" on my reading list for the week!
A layered story of turning points. The mother dies - her turning point is clear, but it also fundamentally changes the family. Tom changes his attitude from selling the bison to caring for them, and from worrying about managing to confidence he'd find a way. And the narrator, from hiding his affliction (I assume depression from context and the title, but it's not explicit) to sharing his pain, despite the fact he's on pills now and Tom doesn't like it. There's a line that really caught my eye: "Ma always said she never quite saw us enough....
Thanks Michał! I would love to know how you learned to read into a piece so meticulously - is it from experience? Everything you said is what I was going for and more. I'm glad you managed to parse three paragraphs out of it. :)
I think at this stage it's experience. I like reading good stories, but as a writer myself, it's useful to know *why* they're good (actually, the same goes for bad stories, but they're naturally more of a chore to read). One of the best ways I've found to do that is the old grade school technique of "tear it apart and see what makes it tick." It probably started out from just not understanding some stories though, and trying to figure out what they meant. The old "everyone loves this but I don't get it, and I don't want to look stupid". M...
Amazing insight, thanks for that. :) Give it a few years and I might be half the reader you are. I can't imagine how much you pick up from novels LOL
Congratulations on the shortlist!
Thanks Michał! Hope you know I appreciate your comments and feel terrible I don't always reciprocate.
Great story. Very clear and easy to read. A lot of unexpected new things happening in the first couple of paragraphs. I love how the mechanics of what to do with a herd of bison is kept in the foreground, and the emotion issues are subtext, until the very end.
Thank you Scott, I really appreciate the read and comment. :)
Sad story. Very well written. You could feel the emotion vividly throughout.
Pretty unique take on the prompt, Shuvayon. And an A+ for your research on Bison. You kept the voice suitable to the geography the story is set in. That's pretty neat. I really liked the small details you described about the kitchen, mother and the bell. The way two brothers go through different motions of coming to terms with the grief and new responsibilities that comes with their loss is well portrayed. Only thing I found a little difficult to believe is, the POV character apologising for taking medication. On second thought, may be he wa...
Thanks for reading Suma, your insights are appreciated as always. :) I saw him apologising as a way of awkwardly coping with the pressure of telling his brother. So yes building a bridge, in a way!