Brendan O'Donnell

Brendan O'Donnell grew up in Staten Island, New York, and now calls Latah County, Idaho his home. A graduate of New Saint Andrews College, a writer for Populi, a deacon at Trinity Reformed Church, and the husbandman of a mess of pigs, his chief joys are his wife, his children, and his endlessly surprising Lord. When he cares to share them, other shards of thought and various photos show up on his blog and on Twitter.

Thistledown

Cursed is the ground because of you;
In pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
And you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
You shall eat bread.

If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

The thistle bothered me all summer. The cows had eaten the timothy and the other good grasses around it so that it stood lordly and alone in that part of the pasture. On my daily walks past it to feed the hogs, I’d always commit to some action against it. But I was always carrying buckets. Or pushing a wheelbarrow. Never a shovel or pair of snips or even a glove to seize it. Then I’d return to the house or some other task and forget about it. It bloomed brilliant and purple for two weeks in July, and as summer dragged long and hot into August, the flowers molted into five sprays of downy seeds. One hot day, shoving the wheelbarrow past, I eyed that thistledown. Nothing more than a breeze or a passing animal would jostle it loose into the pasture. Then how many more thistles next summer? A shovel, dammit, I resolved: I’d just go get one, then and there. Sweat beaded in my eyebrows and ran down my face. By the time I got back to the house, thirst overwhelmed the work and I made for the kitchen sink. There I drained a jar of cold water and excused myself from going back out into the heat.

There was a small Red Angus heifer, six months old in September, scarcely any bigger than the May day on which we had bought her. Blossom. A slow, sweet-tempered creature. Shaggy auburn coat. Far more interested in having her neck rubbed than in eating or gaining weight. Her shoulder was barely as high as my hip.

She had no ambition. In the mornings, Marigold, a brown Jersey, would come galloping up the hill as we carried grain in buckets to the chickens. Cocoa, her black calf, trailed her. Blossom ambled up after them, indolent, lackadaisical. The Jersey would lunge at the spilled grain, brushing it into her mouth with greedy sweeps of her head, chewing near the ground, poising her mouth over the next bites. But the little heifer would dip her head as if with a shrug to browse the barley, eating it, seemingly, one grain at a time.

At a month old, Cocoa could dance circles around Blossom. By two months of age, sturdy and arrogant and full of his mother’s milk, he stood eight inches taller than her. One morning he butted Blossom in the neck and took over her grain spill. She backed up a few paces and watched him eat. There were five porcupine quills stuck in her nose like darts around a bullseye. Scratching her cheek, I plucked them one by one, zebra-striped shafts disappearing into a fine, painful point. She seemed to not notice when I pulled them out. I wondered how many days they might have been stuck there, me not noticing. And I wondered what was wrong with this cow that would not grow.

Summer gave way to autumn. Autumn ceded to winter. Frost blanched the fields brown and lifeless. We started feeding hay to the cows. Cocoa moved to a neighbor’s farm to wean him off Marigold. The Jersey and Blossom would sleep in the warm piles of uneaten alfalfa. We could watch them from the window above the kitchen sink. At 8 o’clock one January morning I filled the kettle with water and saw Blossom nested in the hay. Fog hid the mountain. Hoarfrost gilded the pines on the hillside. It traced the fence posts and barbed wire and anything that stood above the ground that did not move. At ten I washed a glass and saw through the window that she still lay where she’d been. I pulled on my boots and dashed out.

She lay on her side. Her eyes were warm and pathetic. I slid my hands underneath her and tried to sit her up. She flopped back down.

A vet friend came out in a couple hours. He felt along her back, the loin muscles on either side of her spine. “How old is she?” he asked, “Three months?”

“Um, eight, actually.”

My daughter brought me a calf bottle filled with warm water. Blossom sucked it down. Halfway through the bottle, she sat upright. The vet said that something was making her dehydrated and that, not being a large animal vet, but rather a specialist in dogs and cats and the like, he’d have to get back to me about underlying causes.

“For now, though, B vitamins, probiotics. As soon as you can, warm water with electrolytes. She needs all of that.”

I returned in an hour with the electrolytes. Halfway through it she stood up on her own, and regained her normal, dopey self as she finished. In the last light of the day I looked out the kitchen window and saw her browsing the field for the short green shoots amidst the brown stubble. I determined that I’d give her a couple bottles of the electrolytes every day until the packets ran out—about a week’s worth. In that time I’d figure out how to feed her the probiotics and summon the nerve to stick her with the horse needle full of B vitamins.

As my head hit the pillow the next night I realized that I’d forgotten to give Blossom her water bottles that day. Sleep was overtaking me. I found it simple to tell myself that she could coast for the day and that I’d resume her bottles first thing the next morning. The bedroom window was cracked an inch. I fell asleep listening to the distant yaps of coyotes.

At eight I filled the kettle and looked out the kitchen window. She was curled up in the hay. I sent my daughter out with a warm bottle.

She was back at the door in two minutes asking me to come outside.

I knelt by Blossom. Hoarfrost was on her face. Her eyes were open, soft and black, serene, asking for nothing. Something in them had closed and was no longer seeing. I ran my hand from her cheek along her neck to her shoulder. Her body was beginning to stiffen. Something passed in the air above me. A crow circled and landed on the branch of a nearby willow. It cawed and was answered by other crows I could not see. They would go for her eyes first, and then likely to a spot of thin skin on her back where their beaks could easily pierce her hide and find her flesh.

The ground was frozen. I could not dig a hole for her myself. After a few phone calls I learned none of my friends could help me until a couple days hence. By that time every scavenger a mile around would have scattered her all over the field. Procrastination was not an option. Neither, it seemed, was anything else. How do you get rid of a dead cow in the middle of winter?

Up the hill past the barn I glimpsed the burn pile. Twisted lumber. Rotted fence posts. Brush. Pallets. Work not worth keeping. A blaze hot enough to turn Blossom to ashes. I only had to get her up there.

I fetched the wheelbarrow. But how to get her in it without help? Perhaps I could lever her up with two-by-fours. To gauge what I’d need for the task, I grabbed her four legs and tried her weight.

I picked her right up.

It was like she was half filled with nothing, her belly cavity empty of innards, her bones hollow like a bird’s. A pig her size would weigh 300 pounds. She weighed scarcely 100. I dropped her into the wheelbarrow. Her hooves stuck over one side. Her head flopped over the front. As I started to push it uphill a tall weed caught my eye. The thistle. Every thorn on it still intact. The involucres of the five flowers empty of thistledown. The whole thing gray-brown and frost-brittle, its outline traced in hoarfrost. My hand wrapped up in my coat cuff, I pulled the thistle and placed it on the side of my little dead cow.

The fire lashed through the still, cold air, its fierce heat as hot as thirst. Blossom lay atop three stacked pallets. Her hooves were consumed. Flames raced over her auburn hair. The thistle turned to smoke. The heat was a presence, searing and steady. I looked at her face for the last time, fire licking out from between her teeth, her nostrils flaring as their flesh burned away, the flames revealing my work, burning it up, saving me.

photo by:

Selling a Table

“Do what?”

“I need you to beat that table with this chain,” said Nate, draping it over my forearm. It was studded with metal fragments, pieces of chainsaw blade, and nails. “It’ll make it look nicked and, uh, authentic,” he snickered.

Nate was my brother-in-law and I was bumming around in his woodshop a few days while our wives visited and superintended children. He sold furniture to stores all over California and even moved a few things through the Sundance Catalog. The table was constructed of big-boned barnwood he’d salvaged from a chicken farm. Aluminum from the barns had been wrangled into picture frames stacked on a bench in the workshop. The ceiling joists had been trucked up to a winery in Paso Robles. One of the doors leaned against some pallets outside, awaiting metamorphosis into a desk. And some of the wall studs had been planed, joined, mortised and tenoned into this pine table some twelve feet in length and as solid as an aircraft carrier. The planing had cleaned up the splintery, aged faces of the wood and the old-growth pine boards gleamed in the peculiar California sunlight pouring through the shop windows.

“It’s too clean now. But you beat it up and the guy who buys it will think it’s an antique and pay another thousand for it,” Nate explained. He shook the chain. “Go make me some money!”

I hefted the chain and swung it at the table like a biker taking out an unsuspecting member of a rival gang. It rattled across the surface and the nails and chainsaw pieces bit fast into the wood. Extracting the weapon, I examined my work. In just three seconds I had added forty years’ worth of hard-won experience and poignant memories to about two square feet of the tabletop. The center board had a terrific gouge from where a chainsaw tooth had torn up a chunk of pine from around a nail hole.

“Ease up a bit, man,” Nate drawled, preparing a finish in the opposite corner of the shop.

“Gotcha.”

That initial stroke, I decided, represented that unforgettable Thanksgiving when Uncle Clarence emptied the Ballantine’s into his Coke and started drumming with the bottle. The rest of my work would portray in effigy the daily dimpling and scratching of the table in the regular course of family life. Squirming brothers not eating their brocolli. A giggling sister tipping the flower vase on its side. The mischievious cousins jumping up and tapdancing on it. Grandpa putting up his boot-clad feet while telling a Navy joke. Dad rebuilding an alternator on it because the garage was too cold. So I circumnavigated the table, wielding the power of decades until arriving back at the site of Clarence’s Thanksgiving spectacle. To finish, I stepped back, swung the chain over my head  and let it go. It crashed over the opposite side of the table and pulled itself down over the edge, clattering on the concrete floor.

Nate walked over. “Good work. Now run over it with a palm sander.”

A couple days later we ran to a store in San Luis Obispo to deliver a pair of bathroom vanities built and beaten in like manner to the table. We dropped them off at the loading dock behind the store, where a tall woman in a sun dress and twenty bracelets on either wrist greeted us with an excited little clapping gesture. Nate and I hustled the vanities inside a stockroom and returned to the loading dock. She handed him a roll of hundreds. “Thanks for coming in today!” she said.

“Sure,” he said, and pocketed it without counting it. “This is my brother-in-law, Brendan.”

She turned to me and stuck out her hand for me to shake it. Her sun-darkened skin set off starkly against her straw-colored hair. “Nice to meet you! You know, people just love your brother’s work! I just can’t keep it in the store!”

“I’ll bet. It’s good stuff, isn’t it?” I smiled back.

She turned back to Nate. “See you next week?”

“Yeah, got a table for you,” he said.

She gushed excitement and waved at us from the loading dock as we climbed back into the truck. “Can we have a look inside?” I asked Nate. “I’m just wondering what kind of place sells your stuff.”

We parked in front of the store. The signage declared that its business was “antiques and vintage furnishings”. Inside we were greeted by one of Nate’s tables, an eight-footer, upon which sat dinner settings cobbled together from the studios of local potters. No two pieces were the same shape or color. Inside an oblong soup bowl I found an artist’s statement about letting “old-fashioned, natural imperfections shine” and a price tag of 38 bucks.

Nate caught my eye and flicked his finger at the card set on his table. “Authentic antique wood farmhouse table,” it read, “reclaimed and restored by a local craftsman.” Then I found the price. I would say that the twelve-footer I’d wailed on involved maybe twenty dollars’ worth of materials and two days of labor and finishing. This eight-footer of the exact same provenance cost $3,000.

The sun-and-straw saleswoman was speaking to a couple by another of Nate’s tables in another part of the store. We eavesdropped.

“Isn’t it beautiful? Look at all the nicks and notches!”

The wife nodded. The husband stared at his phone. His thumbs tapped on the screen, his brow furrowed.

“What I love about these old tables is how… how solid, they are. They just really knew how to build them to last. And it’s just the kind of table people just want to be around.”

“It would look lovely in the guest house, wouldn’t it?” The wife turned to her husband.

He shrugged and returned to his thumbing. “Why not?”

“Well, what do you think? Should we put it in the main dining room?”

She touched his arm. His hands dropped to his sides and his shoulders slumped. “Sure. Look, the house is your thing, okay?” he grunted, defensive, like he’d been accused of something.

She glared at him a moment, puzzled.

His phone rang and he dropped his eyes. “Gotta take this. Go ahead and get it.” He walked for the door and put the phone to his ear, his countenance transformed. “Where you at, man?” he laughed, stepping outside.

The wife watched him leave and turned back to the saleswoman. “So, I guess we’ll take this one.”

“I think that’s a wonderful choice. Such a warm and inviting table, you know? You’ll have a great time with it, lots of friends…”

Nate nodded for the door and we left. The husband was pacing back and forth in front of the store enjoying his phone call. “That place is a trip, isn’t it?” Nate said when we were back in the truck.

“Three thousand bucks! And that description!”

“Authentic antique wood farmhouse…” Nate spoke in the voice of the description card. “With all the chicken crap lovingly scraped off by a craftsman who couldn’t afford his own table if he bought it here.” He piloted the truck to the road out of town.

“They can’t just sell it as a table, though,” he said, pensive. “They have to sell something authentic to these people. These people can buy any table they want. A folding table costs thirty bucks. A nice wood table might cost a thousand.” He shook his head. “But they want something to fix their home. Make it real. That’s what people are after.”

We got back to the house in the humming activity just before supper. Two tables were arranged end-to-end. On one our wives had stacked dinner’s dishes; from the other Nate’s sons were clearing that afternoon’s project, a pile of surfboards that needed new coats of wax. Nate had built these tables years before and had never seen any need to age them himself.

Dispatch from Idaho: Shooting the Hog

“Let them stand still for the bullet,
and stare the shooter in the eye,
let them die while the sound of the shot is in the air,
let them die as they fall,
let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife,
let its freshet be full,
let this day begin again the change of hogs into people,
not the other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives’ wedding with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew the bond.”

Wendell Berry, For the Hog Killing

“So, what happens if you mess up?” asked Rusty.

I’d just explained to the men assembled how we were going to slaughter the hog in the pen in the yard. Half of the hog was destined for Rusty’s freezer. His three-year-old daughter was perched on his right arm. The rest of his children were whooping and hollering with my kids out back of the house.

“I’ve done this, oh, ten times,” I said, hefting my .22 and shrugging so my shoulders would seem wider. “But it’s a forgiving process.”

We gathered at the small pen into which we’d lured the animal. The big barrow paced back and forth, glaring at us, his bristly white fur sullied grey with dirt. He was a cross, brooding creature, who even at feeding time had preferred to sulk under a willow tree than let a human hand come near him.

“What’s he weigh?” asked Rusty.

“I think he’s around 500.”

“He weighs more than my entire family,” Rusty croaked.

The barrow eyed me and my implement with suspicion. I glowered back at him. There was no love lost between us. I rested the muzzle on the fence about eye level with him and drew a bead on him. He kept pacing.

“What are we doing at this part again?” asked Doug.

“I’m gonna shoot him, and you and Tyler’ll jump in, spread his front legs, and I’m gonna stick him. Then we’ll roll him over and let him bleed,” I said. “This part goes fast, once it goes.”

Sighting him in again, I heard Wendell Berry’s drawl in my ears: “…one of the firm laws of hog killing was never to make them squeal. If they squealed after you shot them, you had done a bad job. You had hurt them.” Last year I watched a friend miss the spot—just to the left of an X drawn between the eyes and the ears—three times. He’d had to chase his shrieking black hog around the pen until he finally dropped it with a point-blank slug behind the ear. Four bullets to lay that one down!—an animal half the size of this one. “A righteous man,” says the Proverb, “regards the life of his beast.” The best we could do that day had been to regret how the life of that beast had ended. My hands, following that spot on this big white hog’s head, were trembling.

“Who’s got the Wild Turkey?” I stood up and held the rifle at my side.

Tyler handed me the uncorked bottle. “You’ve got an audience,” he said. I took a pull of the liquor, turned around, and cussed under my breath. A loose crowd of 15 or so had gathered: neighbors and friends there to watch, three of my pastor’s daughters and their friends, my wife, my children, Rusty’s children. All would watch this living creature pass from life to death by the operation of my hands. From her perch atop her father, Rusty’s daughter cooed at the barrow.

“Hi piggy! You’re such a fat piggy!”

The bourbon settled me and I resumed my crouch. “Who’s got the blade? I’ll need that handy in just a second,” I called out.

“Got it,” said Doug.

There’s a sweet spot on a rifle trigger where just an ounce more of pressure will fire it. There I held my finger, waiting for my shot. Twice, and then three times, the barrow paused, almost at the right angle but never quite. A fourth time, and he paced again. I grit my teeth and snorted, tense and rigid. He circled around the pen again and barely glanced at me.

Into the muddle of “dammits!” and “stand stills!” in my head, I fit a prayer for his swift death, then exhaled slowly. On his next circuit, he paused a fifth time, the spot just twelve inches from the muzzle, my eyes on it, his eyes on me. I gave the trigger that one more ounce.

In a thousandth of a second: he jerked his head as if startled by the pop; a black hole appeared on the bridge of his snout; he screamed and rammed the fence by Rusty, shoving his snout underneath the wire and lifting the entire panel.

“Shit!” I spat, and rammed a new bullet into the bolt.

The beast tore at the dirt, blood bright in his nostrils, shaking his head as if to fling the bullet out. The fence panel crashed back down. Rusty shook, his daughter on his shoulders.

Doug was in my way. “MOVE!” I growled, and took aim at the animal. The hog thrashed away from the fence and hung his head in the corner of the pen, his grunts angry and labored, his lip curling over the small tusk in his gums. My helpers gripped the fence at arm’s length, waiting for him to charge again, to break through the wire and trample us in his rage. I shook and pined for that bourbon. “Everyone, just be calm, and he’ll be real calm, and we can do this right,” I announced.

Rusty’s daughter leaned over his face and squealed, “The piggy will be all right!”

I crept along the fence. The hog startled and backed into the corner, lowering his head at me. I’d gotten him right on the bridge of his nose, a little black dot on his big shovel-shaped head. He had calmed, and was now no more cross than he’d ever been at any normal feeding time: just sulking in the corner, waiting for me to go away so he could boss the other hogs at the feeding trough. I pushed the muzzle through the fence, aimed it at his forehead above his eyes, and squeezed. He dropped like a bag of sand.

In an instant we were in the pen, Doug and Tyler pulling his forelegs apart, my hand plunging the dagger into his throat, levering it on his breastbone towards his heart. A hot dark flash of blood pursued the blade. We rolled him on his belly and watched it pool in heart-timed spurts on the ground beneath his jowls, the soil and grass blackening as his body shook feebly and grain-studded crap sputtered from his anus. And then the peculiar stillness of death passed over him, a change blurry like the shadow of a cloud, the light in his eye leaving behind a moist sack of darkness.

Neighbors and friends dispersed. The hog’s blood was already tacky on my hand and arm. Rusty stood beside me. “I won’t lie,” he said. “I can’t believe you missed.”

“Me, neither,” I grumbled and shook my head. “Sorry about that.”