"Plow Breaks Soil" by Ace Baker — Our September 2019 Bronze Medal Winner

by - Thursday, November 14, 2019

Ace Baker is our third place winner from the contest posted in our September, 2019 issue!

What the judges had to say:

 "Nice change from the usual use of big and unnatural words in dialogue that often occur in the short story entries."

"I did not see the ending coming. Graphic and painful, but so wonderful to read. Really, really interesting and compelling story."

"I appreciated the unique take on the image.  It was interesting to read such a violent and unexpected ending paired with an idyllic image."

Meet Ace:

Ace Baker is a writer, poet, and writing coach from Vancouver, Canada. His short story, "Victory Girl," won the Storyteller Award, and his poetry has won the SIWC, PNWA, and Magpie awards, among others. Both is prose and poetry have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and National Magazine Awards.

The photo prompt:

  the unedited story:

Plow Breaks Soil

by Ace Baker

Mick learned, way back in ’43, that there was nothing simple about the simple folk of Riverview Gap, himself included. He had New Year’s for a birthday, a horseHorizonfor a pet, and a corpse for a father.

His pa, “Uncle Willie” to most everyone, was laid up ages ago. Some stroke that had paralyzed him top to bottom. That left Mick’s ma, “Aunt Nell,” to tend to a sprawling ninety- seven-acre hill farm in the boonies, along with a couple of kids, barn animals, wild animals, gardens, and, of course, Uncle Willie.

And if you took a good look at her, she was like the old farmhousebeautiful enough on the outside, with a certain gleam coming from inside that made her seem even prettier. But take a closer look inside and you’d see the damage from too many winters in the wild.

When her right ankle stiffened up and never quite made its way back to normal, her farm started to show the strain. Over time, Mick saw how rust and dust, pig slop and cow manure, broken this and rotted that could slip on out of the barn and into their lives.

He didn’t want a speck of it.

He’d find work in salt mines or coal mines or nearby fields or wherever they needed young muscles and strong backs, and he’d make his way—away from here.

No kids. Just a wife and a life and time left to enjoy it all.

And that dream lasted right up until the year he turned nineteen.

He was relaxing in a recliner when the doc came by to tell them Aunt Nell’s test results.

“Tumour’s bigger than expected. Don’t think I’d be making plans past Christmas.” And he said it right in front of her like she was some lame horse that would have to be put down.

Nell just looked him straight in the eye, no tears, no nothing, and said, “Plow breaks soil so seeds can grow.”

And then she looked straight at Mick.

He ducked his hands into his pockets and stared at the floor like it was the most interesting dirt he’d ever seen. Then he backed on out and headed for the hayloft.

He didn’t make it far. Not ten yards out, he heard the groan, a long slow moan that sounded like an engine out of oil, right before it catches fire. Heifer on her side. Nell and Willie inside. And Lizzie too young to be useful.

Mick went to the barn, slid the door to the side, and lifted a noose of rope from a hook nearby. Then he made his way back to the mother cow. “She’s not asleep and dreamin’, that’s for sure.” And he knelt on her back legs, pinning them to the ground, and he grabbed the rope and pushed it deep inside, real deep, elbow deep, looping it around the baby’s hocks inside the mother.

For what seemed like forever, he yanked and tugged, and at long last the legs popped out. He grabbed onto both of them and slid that calf out slick as a whistle.

The calf was fine. But the mother was a mess. Bleeding out something terrible.

He took the rope off the calf and watched the baby take a drunken walk over to its ma. Then he turned away as the young one began sucking milk from the udder of a dead mother.

Mick’s own ma was staring straight at him now too, hands on hips, a huge smile on her face. “I know it’s hard, real hard,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron like she’d just delivered the calf. “Plow breaks soil so seeds can grow.”

And that was that. He’d proven himself useful, so this’d be his life. Forever.

Don’t think I’d be makin’ plans past Christmas.

So he treaded the long way out to the west field to mend some fences, and just after he’d tacked the barbed wire back to the first post, he turned around and Nell was there.

He took a step back, tripped, slipped on the snow and stopped his fall by grabbing a handful of barbs. Blood streamed down his wrist something awful, just like that dead heifer.

And Nell looked at him and said, “Plow breaks soil so seeds can grow.”

All night, his dreams were mighty disturbed. He was kneeling hard on the heifer’s hind legs, reaching deep inside, and she was bawling and he was screaming and blood was coursing out. When he jerked his hand clear, he was holding a giant ball of barbed wire, and it tangled all around his fist, snaked up his arm, over his shoulder, and began to tighten around his neck

     and that’s when he woke up. And he was kneeling on Nell, and he had a pillow pushed tight across her face. And she wasn’t moving.

And he had no tears, no nothin’ and he said, “Plow breaks soil so seeds can grow.”

And that’s when little six-years-old Lizzie walked in.

And as calm as could be, he told her, “Aunt Nell’s not well. I need your help. Can you go get somethin’ for me?” And she nodded slowly, and he said, “That noose of rope hangin’ on the hook near the barn door?”

And she nodded again and headed out in her night gown and bare feet.

At least her trip to fetch the rope would buy him time to think. A gunnysack of rocks, like what they did with unwanted farm cats is what he decided on for her.

And with tragedy hurtlin’ around him like a hurricane, who’d expect anything of a boy who wasn’t even an adult yet?

And just like that, the skies cleared, and Mick began making plans for well past Christmas.

“Plow breaks soil,” he said, and he leaned over to the other side of the bed and placed the pillow over his father’s face.

[Read the first and second place stories]

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