The Steer of Heaven


Annie Proulx’s short story “The Half-Skinned Steer” draws on a tradition of supernatural bulls that appears in literature as early as the 4000-year-old Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. After that great and adventurous king of Uruk spurns the advances of Inanna, goddess of love and war, she forces her father to retaliate by unleashing the Bull of Heaven on Uruk. Waters dry up and the beast destroys vegetation until Gilgamesh kills it, further annoying the gods.
Typically the bull symbolizes male force and regenerative power. Egyptians recognized the Apis bull as a manifestation of Ptah and later Osiris. In the guise of a bull, Zeus charms Europa and takes her to Crete where he fathers King Minos on her. Years pass. At Minos’s request, Poseidon sends him a bull from the sea, but the king fails to sacrifice it as promised. Comeuppance is swift. His wife, Pasiphae, cheats on him with the bull and gives birth to theBull-dancing, Knossos, circa 1500-1700 BCE Minotaur, a wild bull-headed freak that must be confined to a specially built labyrinth. There it feasts on Greeks sent to Minos as tribute. Aided by Ariadne’s thread, Theseus beats the Minotaur to death.

Minoan culture valued bulls as well. Crete was home to the acrobatic rite of bull-dancing.

Mithras kills the Taurus, British Museum, photo by Mike YoungLike kings, the mightiest bulls age and lose their strength. Revitalization in the ancient world was often achieved by sacrificing sacred bulls. The act curried heavenly favor. It invigorated fields and celebrants who consumed the flesh. Imperial Rome saw the rise of Mithraism, a mystery cult popular with military men. Frescos and sculptures of the central ritual preserve the old astrological associations of Taurus, the Bull of Heaven, and depict Mithras slaying it in a consistent stylized manner. Bull sacrifice, with religious significance obscured, entered our era as the sport of bullfighting.

Proulx, in the acknowledgments section of Close Range, the collection led off by “The Half-Skinned Steer,” reveals that her story is based on an Icelandic folktale called “Porgeir’s Bull.” The wizard Porgeir skins a calf in such a way that the hide remains attached only at the tail. Ghosts ride the monster’s bloody sled from one end of a river to the other.

A pair of well-known American short stories may have influenced Proulx as well. James Agee’s “A Mother’s Tale” is set on a ranch. The cow narrator tells her calf about a bovine messiah who escapes the slaughterhouse after being hammered, hung and skinned. It returns to the herd to deliver a dying message: Stop cooperating with men; all cows are victims. Images of another butcher’s escapee inspire Proulx’s protagonist, Mero Corn, to vegetarianism. He cuts into a Cheyenne steak and seeing blood spread across the white plate, “saw the beast, mouth agape in mute bawling, saw the comic aspects of his revulsion as well, a cattleman gone wrong.”

Flannery O’Connor, in “Greenleaf,” devils the uppity widow-woman Mrs. May with a stray scrub bull. The interloper eats her out of house and home and gets in with the dry cows. She instructs her tenant farmhand, Mr. Greenleaf, to remove it from the property. To no avail. She then tells Greenleaf to kill the pest and goes with him to ensure that he does. The bull escapes but soon charges out of the woods to gore the old lady with a fatal moment of grace. As life fades she’s aware of Greenleaf shooting her killer in the eye.

Proulx’s vision is darker still. Her bovine agent of doom lacks any redemptive or regenerative capacity. It’s a steer, stunned with an axe, hung, drained of blood, half-skinned and rendered tongueless by Tin Head, a brain-rotted Wyoming rancher for whom things often go wrong. Mero and Rollo hear the story of Tin Head’s escaped beef from their old man’s grotesque girlfriend. She of the bloody bitten fingers, horsy buttocks and appetite for seduction. Mero is spooked by her and thrashes “all that ancient night” dreaming of “horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cut-throat gasps” he isn’t sure. In the morning he flees her and Wyoming.

If the old man’s girlfriend is bad news, the country at the south hinge of the Bighorn Mountains is equally harsh. Hay won’t grow and mountain lions eat girl scouts. Nobody seems to win there for long. When a goshawk strikes a mallard drake from the sky, the duck falls into deadfall trash and the hawk flies off hungry.

In Mero’s mind the girlfriend and Wyoming blend together. He has difficulty seeing horseshoe-shaped Indian petroglyphs as vulvas, “except for the old man’s girlfriend whom he imagined down on all fours, entered from behind and whinnying like a mare, a thing not of geology but of flesh.”

In the sixty years since his escape Mero has kept his distance, prospering in the East while his brother struggles on at the ranch. Rollo’s grisly death, from the eviscerating claws of an emu that turned on him, occasions Mero’s belated return. Fit and flush in Massachusetts, he points his Cadillac into winter weather and drives westward to see his defeated brother “dropped in a red Wyoming hole.” But Mero is no Gilgamesh. Wyoming hasn’t forgotten him. Nor has Tin Head’s red-eyed half-skinned steer.

There are no heroes in this hard-bitten West. Similarly godforsaken landscapes set the existential stage for Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men. In McCarthy’s wastelands the vicious mayhem of antiheroes provides a twisted assertion of human dignity. Proulx denies us even that. Mero is just another pointlessly dead duck.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2009 all rights reserved

For fun, check out “Cows With Guns,” a variation on the theme of “A Mother's Tale”  



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Asheville, NC