A Stellar Flare of Young Adult Writing and Visual Art

My Momma Always Told Me: You can sleep when you are dead



She is a little woman — little, but her coat, cut for a man, hides the ripple of muscle underneath. Her mouth is open, head tipped back against the window of the car; dark, permed tangles of hair caught in the zipper of her coat, splayed along her shoulders like a living organism. She is currently capturing the longest period of sleep she will have this day. The one-hour drive from Templeton, twisting into the hills toward the country so craftily hidden in their California folds.

Her driver is also small, though 50 years her senior, and a man, an old man with a boyish grin and icy blue eyes rimmed with lines and creases. His back is hunched, and his felt hat is pulled down just low enough to make him peer past it into the headlights of the oncoming traffic. He says nothing, just flips through the stations of the radio playing softly in the glowing lights of the dashboard. He gives an annoyed grimace. Nothing good is ever on at 5:04 A.M.

The sky is sullen, and the fat, grey, fog bellies hang over the rounded brown hills like sleeping cats. The white Dodge Ram pulls into the circle of headlights, and the old man rolls down the window, hanging out his head to unleash a sincere strand of profanity to the trucks in front of him. The response is immediate. Long legs swing out of the cabs, spurs jingling, and collars pulled high against necks tanned by too many hours in the sun. The trailers behind the trucks are filled with the sleepy, reflective eyes of horses, their breath steaming out of the windows like a dragons smoke. Dogs swarm in the headlights, long-legged beasts, tails wagging as they watch, bright-eyed, the underbrush of the chaos around them. The woman is wide awake. She stretches, gathers her dark hair, and bundles it under a straw hat. Her spurs jingle, lighter — sweeter notes than the ones around her. The music of the spur is pure at 5:53 A.M.

Her eyes are tipped up in the corners, whispering secrets of a heritage not common in her profession. Nothing about her is common for her profession. She greets the crowd with a mild smile, and an air of energetic youthfulness. Mid-September, and the cold snap is already caressing the air. The air is laden with smells of dirt, horse shit, cow shit, and the piercingly aromatic smells of gas station coffee and chew. The voices are muffled. Everyone knows their jobs. The horses are condensed into two trailers; dogs spring into truck beds along with their owners. The seats are packed, sardines in a portable can. The trucks heave themselves up the dirt roads, well-kept with narrow corners. The only sounds are the rattle of the trailers and the occasional wet splatter as someone spits his chew out into the grey mist. The mist is alive, filled with snakes of wind at 6:04 A.M.

The trailers are unloaded at intervals, two or three horses at a time, shod feet slipping as they back out of the rubber-matted trailers. Their riders reset their saddles, tightening the cinches. The woman unloads her horse — her driver unloads next to her — and they mount up with robotic efficiency. The saddle leather chills the back of her legs, slowly warming as they trot cross country, into the embrace of the mist. Her two dogs lope behind, tongues lolling, brown eyes watching  their owner and the swish of her horse’s tail. The job is simple, take all the cattle with calves out of the holding pasture and sweep them down into the branding corrals at the bottom of the hills. The riders drift along the hilltop, and the black cattle trickle down the crevices like spilled ink. The scattered bawls of calves and cattle rise into a roar; the mist is shattered by the noise and begins to lift, sunlight spearing the ground below. The temperature begins to rise, and riders shed their layers, caterpillars in metamorphosis at 8:14 A.M.

The day heats up, the flurry of activity increasing with the temperature. Cattle are sorted. Dry cows (who have no calves) are kicked back into the pastures, bulls as well, their bravado and muscle unwelcome in close quarters. The little woman is off her horse now, prepping the oversized syringes filled with vaccinations for the calves. She works out of the back of a flatbed truck filled with branding irons, iceboxes of medicine, buckets for the remains of ear notching and castration. She smiles as she works, her eyes somewhere else, but her hands never stalling, for she knows her job. The first team of ropers slide into the herd of cattle, loops shaken out of their ropes, they move seamlessly,  sorting the first calf off, then their ropes snap to life, one loop fast around the heels, the other around the neck. The calf is dragged, kicking, to the branding fire, and is wrestled to the ground by the ground workers. The woman is quiet and apologetic, sorrowful at what is necessary. The smoke of searing hair and its stench permeates everything in its path at 9:15 A.M.

Lunch is skipped. There is too much work to do. The day has heated up beyond belief; shirt-backs drenched in sweat ripple with cord-like muscle. The little woman has blood on her hands, the result of cutting the bull-calves. Everyone is covered in flies, sweat and shit, the horses frothed along their flanks. Smiles and profanity are the common languages — despite the work, not a single word of complaint has been spoken. Everyone is on task, though by the end of the day, the pay will only afford the little woman about 4 meals. This job had cost her a family and a home, but she left without looking back, and she has little regret. The land, the horses, the smell of the dirt had called to her since she was a child. Though now she is a silhouette in the branding smoke, she tips back her hat and smiles, pure, happy and free at 5:00 P.M.

Her driver takes her back. She is asleep again, and this time there is music blaring through the speakers. Her face is peaceful, fine lines crinkling around the corners of her mouth. She wakes as the truck rolls to a stop, slips out, and unlocks the gate in front of her. Behind it is a small, sagging house beyond which is a barn and a set of covered pens for the dogs. None of it is hers, but it what she has. She unloads her horse, and the dogs stretch their stiff legs in the quickly failing light. She pokes her head back into the window of the truck and exchanges happy words with the old man. He turns around and drives back out the gate in a rattle of metal and a plume of dust. The autumn light filters through the branches of the oaks, vested in garlands of Spanish moss. The light pours in, filling the air with amber and copper at 6:30 P.M.

The little woman is no longer. She is a giant, shoulders wide and confident. Now she wears a uniform, her coat of responsibility is a pale shade of blue. Now, instead of a bloody knife, she holds a clipboard, heavy with names and ailments, remedies and prescriptions. Her hair is pulled back, and her slanted eyes catch the light from the pale hallways. Her eyes echo a shade of green, unusual for her heritage. Nothing about her is usual in her heritage. Instead of wading through the mud, manure and sweat of the branding pen, she navigates the sanitized white corridors of the E.R. In times of fear and pain this woman appears at the door like an angel, where she greets the crowd with a mild smile and an air of energetic youthfulness.

Now she works with her mind, a silhouette against the white lights, but she tips her head back and smiles, pure, happy and free at 8:00 P.M. She looks forward to returning home, the little sagging house with the barn and dog pens beyond. She gets there at 3:06 A.M. and showers, lying in bed, too tired even to sleep.

My momma always told me, “You can sleep when you are dead.” And now I understand: when you find a true passion, even sleep seems like a waste of time.

About the Author

Kyanne Skelton is 17 years old. She lives on a cattle ranch thirty miles from the nearest town and six miles from the nearest neighbor in California. The towns she lives between are Santa Maria and New Cuyama. She attends Midland School, a boarding college prep school in Los Olivos, California.

About this piece and her writing in general, she says: “Even since I was small, I often felt alienated for my unique lifestyle and upbringing. I could never express my experiences to children my age or even adults. As I grew as a writer, I became determined to share this dying culture, ranch culture, with the world. This work is a work of fiction, however, the plot, settings and characters are based off of very real and vibrant places and people. They all changed my life, and in the case of my mother, cared for me when I was small. Many of the settings I have been to in person, I have felt the magic of the land. It makes me a bit sad to read now, for one of the characters has passed on. The ranch on which it takes place was sold to different owners, and I am unable to visit anymore.”

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This entry was posted on July 17, 2018 by in Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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