A THOUSAND HEAD OF CATTLE


By William Saphier


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Editors' Note

"A Thousand Head of Cattle" appeared in issue 2 of The Double Dealer, in February 1921.

William Saphier was a Romanian-born poet. According to poets.org, he served as associate editor for "Others," a monthly modernist magazine he co-edited with Alfred Kreymborg. The magazine, under Saphier and Kreymborg, published the early poetry of T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens. The story takes place during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, specifically around the The Seige of Plevna.

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My grandfather drove a thousand head of cattle from northern Maldova, through the plains of Valachia, across the Danube to the front at Plevna. The war was at its fiercest, Osman Pasha was getting desperate, and the besieging armies needed food.

A thousand head of cattle were let out of the stalls and corrals. Most of the men were on horseback, a few on foot, and a dozen big dogs made up the convoy. Grandfather was the last man. Two kind eyes in a savage face, a long beard inclined to be reddish brown. He never turned his face after saying goodbye to his wife, that is, as long as he thought she could see him.

She did not think. She only sat down and cried and watched the sea of cattle move in waves to the valley. Slowly they were swallowed up by the hills and she was alone. Her husband's tall lambskin cap was the last thing she saw go down behind the distant hills.

It was early in the morning. Soon the village began moving about and my grandmother found she was a stranger in the place. No one seemed to have noticed that the world had turned hard and cruel that morning. Only one spot and the things in it kept their former attitude toward her: the candle-dipping shop, the workmen and the cat. They came at the usual hour and proceeded in their slow, rhythmic manner.

The oldest son took charge. A silent youth, he made quick decisions and acted the part of boss as if he had done nothing else in his life. A bit clumsy in his movements but never doubtful. The young boss was on his feet three hours after midnight and worked hard till after sunset, tending to cattle, the butcher shop and the slaughter house.

Grandmother looked after the candle shop. There she sat all day watching the wicks being lowered, a dozen at a time, into square wooden vats full of hot tallow. Slowly the wicks would go down into the white hot tallow and come out with a thin layer of tallow clinging to their thin long bodies. This was repeated many times, till the desired size was attained. There she would sit and dream of her husband on horseback, the long whip in his hand, disappearing between the hills.

Months passed and no word came from Cuna. All were getting anxious, rumors began sneaking through the town. Cuna was dead, Cuna was killed by robbers, drowned in the Danube, shot at Plevna. Two soldiers returned, wounded. They had heard nothing of either Cuna or the cattle. Grandmother wept more than usual and her cries would rise whenever she happened to see the big empty armchair at the head of the table. The eldest son spoke less and worked harder.

The two soldiers would come around regularly every afternoon and tell of the horrible scenes they had witnessed at the front. One delighted in describing scattered brains and dried blood on skulls and stones. The other described the long bayonets of the Turks or the moon-like yattaguns, "sharp like a razor." Grandmother sat there, cried, and served tea and things to the two heroes, who found in her a good listener. There were no doubts left in her mind as to the end of her husband. She would see and talk to no one but the two soldiers, who had at least seen the spot where her husband died.

She was greatly surprised one morning, when a courier arrived and brought a letter from Cuna, who was only two days behind the courier. Immediately she ran to the candle dipping shop, shouting the news to all on her way. There she made two large bundles of candles and brought them to the spacious synagogue near the top of the hill. The attendant, the "shamass," could not understand what she said and gesticulated, but he took the candles and promised to place them in the best candelabra, near the altar. Grandmother swam in a sea of emotion, and was deaf to the earnest stories of the two heroes.

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Three heavy creaking carts and loud men stopped in front of the house at midnight. Grandmother, half clad, ran out of the house, followed after some time by the eldest son, he with the tall boots, serious face and silent as a stone. Grandmother wept and laughed and talked. Grandfather was changed. His face was sunburned but thin, he was old and bent and spoke in a sad, soft manner. Four men carried two copper kettles full of Austrian and Russian gold coins into the house. All the men climbed into the carts, and after a short talk with grandfather, left for their homes. Grandfather, aided by the eldest son, put the copper kettles into the huge brick bake-oven. He answered none of the questions put by his wife, but looked tenderly into her eyes now and then. Most of the time he kept his eyes on the floor.

They thought his queer behavior due to weariness, and urged him to go to bed. He claimed he could not sleep, and sat down in his usual seat at the head of the long, heavy table, made of oak. There was a heavy mood in the room. Somehow, instead of joy, bad news was on the way. Grandmother thought it was money matters. She wanted to know how much he had lost. But he had gained more than expected. "Are you sick?" she demanded. "No," came the decisive answer. "Well, what happened, why don't you speak, are you not glad to be home with your wife and children, why are you sad?"

Money, wife and children had no connection with his sadness. He had made a discovery, men were bad, they were mean without reason. Grandmother sighed, she knew, the two soldiers had told her. She attempted to repeat some of the things the soldiers had related to her in great detail, but her husband would not listen. He shook his head, these things he knew and expected. Again there was silence, and the big-bearded man sat back in his chair, dropped his head forward on his chest, so that his nose was hid in his beard.

No one spoke for some time, only his wife sighed now and then. She was very nervous now, and close to bursting into tears. Cuna grunted, shook his head and slapped the table with his broad palm. Both son and wife looked up, but no other sound came to clear the air. More time passed. Grandmother decided to change things. She intended to go over and caress her husband, run her hand through his long hair. As she was about to carry out her plan, Cuna threw his head back, sighed and said aloud, as if repeating something he had said to himself many times: "Would I had been blind, would I had been blind." His fist struck the brown oak table with force and shaking his head he repeated the sentence again and again.

Grandmother began to weep and moan softly. Both men were breathing heavily and attempted to disregard the woman. The eldest son sat upright on a hard bench and looked out of the nearest window. The deep blue night was getting pale. The lamp shone with less strength. The early risers were heard between the woman's sobs. The big, heavy man bent forward suddenly, and with clenched fists began to speak, almost in monosyllables. He made a long pause after each sentence. At no time did he look up.

The horrors of the front he had expected. Both sides seemed willing. Both sides were armed and either side could quit under certain conditions. Besides, it was all child's play after he had seen this terrible thing before he got to the front. He had crossed the Danube without a loss and the men and the cattle were resting. He was asked to go to a nearby town to complete the deal with the quartermaster's department. He was accompanied by two soldiers. They met many wounded men returning from the front, most of them in carts, some on foot. At certain intervals Turkish prisoners with their dark skin drawn in wrinkles over their tired bones, passed by. The returning soldiers were a boisterous lot, and many fights took place among those who walked home and who were only slightly wounded.

Toward evening the road became deserted. The two soldiers had orders not to stop until they had reached headquarters. From one side of the road came piercing shrieks. Grandfather wanted to investigate, but the soldiers reminded him of their orders. The shrieking continued, and soon he persuaded the soldiers to turn back for a few moments. All three jumped over the wide moat that ran on each side of the road. After passing a few trees they came into a great level meadow. Here the big, hairy man stopped a little longer and drew a deep breath as men do when they are about to dive. "Would I had been blind. They were boys from our town. Our boys. Two sons of decent people. Think!"

Someone knocked at the door and entered without being asked. It was Ioan Doina and his wife Garofa, one of the men who had made the trip with the cattle. loan turned to his wife and said: "Did I not tell you?" and then addressing grandmother, added: "For the last two months I have heard nothing else from this man. Day and night he talks of it. He does not sleep, he does not eat, he is going mad."

"They were our boys, boys from our village,'' said Cuna in half pleading, half threatening voice. Both men looked each other in the face, and there was silence. loan turned about, took his wife's sleeve, and edged his way out of the room. Cuna's wife followed slowly. Father and son, left alone, sat like two monuments for many hours. Some one knocked at the door, the son opened, and in came the two soldiers who had entertained the mother with their heroic tales. They greeted Cuna, who looked frightened, rose suddenly, and shouted to his son: "Take them out, take them out. Don't ever let them touch my threshold again." The eldest son, with stiff steps and outstretched arms, like an advancing wall, saw them out. He followed only a few inches behind them, without touching their clothes.

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Painting By Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky - [1], Public Domain, Link