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TRACKS

There’s a theory that because of the way the human mind develops no one can remember much of anything before the age of 3, but I do and I know other people who do, too. If you have a memory like this the days of childhood stay with you. The place you grew up is never far away. For me that place was a small town surrounded by corn fields and cow pastures. There were brick streets, old gnarled elm trees, air heavy with the scent of sweet corn and manure, occasional clip-clops of horses, dogs trotting by unleashed, grape vines and asparagus patches, a smell of burning leaves in fall, tulips lining the streets in spring, scarlet tanagers and Baltimore orioles, snow drifts big enough to build secret passages through, bicycles.

But there were also shadows, the kinds that moved and the kind that didn’t because they never even existed. This is the story about all these things. But mostly it’s a story about a dead cow that scared the hell out of me one cold, snowy day when I was desperately trying to catch up with my friends who had taken off into the woods without telling me. I had my head down as I pushed against the blowing snow so I practically ran into the cow before I saw it. It was lying down near the bank of the stream that we called the Red River. Its head was sunk and it was still. I was startled and scared. I could sense death all around. I kicked the brown lump of fur, not too hard, but hard enough to feel it was frozen. I turned around and hurried home through the blowing snow.

My brother and his friends ran into the dead cow that winter and long after its carcass had deteriorated, we used it as a reference point. “You hike out across the tracks till you come to where the dead cow was. Then you hitch left.” Of course, you had to know where the dead cow had been. That’s why people tell stories: to remember things that have disappeared. There’s a house now where the dead cow laid down and died. I think the people who live there ought to know that.

 

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