CW: mentions of suicidal ideation, descriptions of violence
I’d heard from a girl I used to wash dishes with that ranch work was the worst work she’d ever done, so I left the car I’d been sleeping in on the side of the road and walked until I found a ranch, which wasn’t hard to do in Montana. Leaving the car was part of my new philosophy. I would break off all earthly attachments and laugh from afar, empty and weightless. If Nietzsche could do it, so could I. I’d spent the last year mowing lawns and folding in laundromats and deciding whether or not I should kill myself. I thought working on a ranch could be pointless, ironic. I told myself I would ride life like a merry-go-round.
I was jealous of the rancher who hired me at first. When he showed me how to lasso, he kept his eyes on the frosted ground, and the rope cut through the air with almost no noise. He was short and hardly ever spoke. His thin wrists reminded me of the pamphlet about nihilism I’d stolen from a gas station, reminded me that nothing amounted to enough for me to take it for granted. He told me his name, but to compound my jealousy and contempt, I continued to refer to him as “the rancher” in my head. He smelled like cigars and oranges—his wife’s soap, I presumed. Like he was invisible enough that you could smell right through him.
The ranch was on a flat plain as close to the mountains as you could get without being in the hills. The peaks were cracked with ice, and I spent my first few weeks trying to ignore the mountains, then forgetting and staring up at them anyway.
I came on to the rancher the first time we were alone together in the barn. We took our clothes off swiftly, let them drift into piles on the dusty floor. I told myself I was doing this just to see what would happen, one choice after another after another. But didn’t any sort of anticipation go against my philosophy? Didn’t making any choice at all prove that I preferred one outcome over another? To console myself, I imagined all the ways I could kill the rancher right there: ram his head into a hoof pick, smother him with a feed bag, take a strong bite out of his jugular, exposed and pulsing red. What was stopping me? What was stopping me from letting him do whatever he wanted to me while I pretended to be dead? Instead, he whispered questions and I made soft noises in response. I wanted to make a definite choice.
After we were done, I slipped behind the barn and smoked one cigarette after another until my eyes crossed. I stopped being jealous of the rancher.
During the days, I slouched over my horse and squinted when the sun came out, tasting the metallic breath that came with not brushing my teeth. I reminded myself that this was a game. It was supposed to be fun, in a twisted and simple way. The rancher had given me a knife for cutting rope, and I slumped off my horse several times a day and went down to the creek to make thin slices in my knuckles or carve out my cuticles. Ice still filmed the creek, but a current swam beneath it. I could feel the thrumming of it when I held out my hand.
In my room at the back of the rancher’s house, the cuts throbbed at night, and I always wished I hadn’t made them. I rubbed my eyes until I stopped crying. I told myself I was crying only because I lacked the strength to commit.
I wished I had enough money for a Nietzsche biography so I’d know what he did with the rest of his life once he’d decided it was meaningless. Then I remembered that the book itself would be meaningless. That meaninglessness was meaningless. Then I remembered I was supposed to be wishing I had no money at all.
Months lapsed, grass softening the base of the mountains. I tried to eat as little as I could, but my forearms still thickened from dragging hay, my veins protruding so that it was impossible to forget the blood coursing there. While we were having sex in the barn one day, the rancher accidentally bumped my head against the wall.
“Are you okay?” he said. “I didn’t mean to do that.” He wouldn’t continue until I nodded.
Another day, he touched the concave of my stomach and said, “Will you come up for supper? Marsha says she never sees you in the kitchen.”
I turned my cheek against the ground and didn’t answer, but I couldn’t stop thinking about his questions, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was thinking about them. Instead of willing myself to sleep at night as soon as I lay down, I stayed up for several hours considering what it all meant. I propped myself up on my elbows and left the blinds open to a wedge of sky and dense stars. I remembered things about the rancher against my will—his name was Heath, he had a mole that dipped into his scooped-out collarbone, he’d grown up on the other side of the mountain and missed the chinook that blew through the valley. I marveled at these thoughts, turning them around and around, my hands glowing white in the moonlight. I didn’t love the rancher. He did not love me. But I didn’t think I could put a hoof pick through his head, and I thought I’d feel something if he did the same to me. I knew it was ridiculous to think that way and laughed aloud, bitterly. Then I was so terrified I couldn’t fall asleep.
Sun warmed my scalp while I was out on the horse. Ragweeds cropped up in the ditches, wavered in the breeze, and though I’d lived in Montana my whole life, it was like I’d never noticed them before.
I cursed and spat at the cows and their apathy. They wandered away, their glassy eyes sliding over me.
Why had I taken the nihilist pamphlet in the first place? What did it mean that I had decided in less than a second to ferry a new life philosophy up my sleeve?
When hard little buds had formed on the trees, the rancher’s wife invited me inside for lunch. I accepted the offer because I wanted her to scream at me so I could stare back with nothing on my face. I wanted her to throw my few broken and scuffed possessions onto the lawn so I could walk back to town without them. I wanted her to blacklist me on the hardware store’s bulletin board so I never had to look for a job again. She could make it easy on me that way.
Or I wanted none of those things. I didn’t know what I wanted.
She smelled like oranges, but just as vaguely as her husband did. I wondered if it was me, some soap I’d forgotten I used. I sat at the table in their kitchen, and she sat in the chair beside me. She scooted in closer.
After staring at her hands for a moment, her forehead contracted, she said, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go. We just can’t afford to hire help anymore.”
“That’s okay,” I said.
“You’re a very hard worker. And I hate to put a young person out of a job.” She looked at me and grabbed my hand. Her fingers were cool and dry, her knuckles wrinkled softly.
“I’ve been fucking your husband,” I said.
“Sometimes we just let ourselves be human,” she said.
Both she and the rancher walked me to the front gate, told me again that I’d been a hard worker, and gave me a hundred dollars. They had their arms tucked around each other and were smiling. I found it difficult to move. I walked a few paces down the road, warm with spring heat, then turned around. Heath took off his hat and nodded, his thin hair shuffling in the breeze.
I felt immense fear. I felt like I hadn’t known anything when I’d thought I had it all figured out. And now I knew too much.
I wasted the money in every way I could think of—beer, pills, an allergy nasal spray I’d heard you could get addicted to. I wanted to be a snake eating its tail, losing myself in oblivion. All I did was wake up alone in a stranger’s car, the cracked corner of the windshield throwing rainbows across the dirty upholstery. I still had three dollars left. I was hungry.
Emma Estridge is a writer from South Carolina who attends the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and when she’s not writing, she likes gimmicky rock and lying in the grass.