The Far Field
By Laurie Paulsen
Out of the dead, cold ashes,
                    life again.
                            - John Banister Tabb, Evolution

“Jesus,” I whispered. The carcass was half-buried and the udder had burst open in the heat. The surrounding mud sucked at my boots.
“Joey, bring the flatbed behind the tractor.”
My farm hand, a college kid helping over the summer, nodded and wiped the sweat from his face with a bandanna. He started the walk
back to the barn without speaking. He usually talked up a storm. I didn’t blame him.
Kneeling, I examined the ground swallowing Betsy’s front end and noted the ragged tears in the muck. The grass had been torn up in
deep furrows. Looked like she’d struggled on the way down, her hooves planted as whatever creature had pulled her head under. I
shivered in the warm sun. What could do such a thing? I wished to God I didn’t have to find out.
I heard the tractor coming and stood up. The hole didn’t look familiar. I was sure there hadn’t been a break in the soil that wide before.
Cattle were stupid and would trip into any old gopher hole. Something this big? No, I’d have seen it.
Joey wrapped several loops of chain around Betsy’s hindquarters and climbed back into the tractor seat. I nodded and backed away as
he tugged her poor body clear. She emerged with a sucking sound as the mud gave way, and the hairs stood up on my arms. Her head
and front legs were missing. To the shoulders, she was just gone. Horrible. Running a dairy farm, I’d seen all sorts of awful wounds to
the livestock. We’d had trouble with a pack of misguided wolves a few winters before. This was different. I did my best to ignore my
weak knees and stared at her, trying to piece it together. Joey walked over and clapped his hand over his mouth. He was pale.
“What did that, ma’am?” He took a deep breath and gagged, realizing his mistake. “I mean, look at her. That’s Betsy, right?”
I didn’t answer. Something about the marks on her struck me. Where had I seen those kinds of sharp scrapes? Not wolves, with her
being half-submerged in the mud. Wolves buried unfinished meals, but they tucked them away for safekeeping. We were out in plain
sight of anything. Cougar? The marks could’ve been claws, I guessed. But no cougar’s gonna leave meat this prime to rot. Plenty of
strong trees just over the rise. A cougar worth half his salt would drag her over and up, easy. Something tapped my shoulder and I
startled. I’d crept close enough to Betsy’s corpse to smell the earth and blood mixing on her flesh.
“Sorry.” Joey looked sheepish.
“Lemme help you get her on the flatbed and if you’d take her back to the barn we’ll give Doc Barnes a call. Maybe he’s seen this
before.”
We wrapped Betsey and stored her in an empty stall and Doc said he’d be by in the morning to give her a look. He didn’t mention
hearing about any other kills like this one.
The sunset lingered, turning violet across the horizon and I sat on the stoop with a cold beer. Nice breeze for this time of year. Next to
my boot, I saw a beetle trundle along on the ground, stopping every few inches to confirm direction and progress, I assumed. The
motion struck me and my mind jumped into overdrive. I lunged inside the screen door and grabbed a flashlight, returning to light up
the beetle, or, its tracks.
Long, trailing grooves in the dirt followed the tiny beetle. As I watched, it paused again and raised its head, perhaps sensing the hovering
behemoth above. Pincers with jagged interior edges.
I shook my head…can’t be. But I gotta find out for sure. I took off toward the far field, where we’d found Betsy. Flashlight in hand
and the sun just set, I felt fine. But traveling familiar terrain at night is a different animal. I didn’t get lost, but I stumbled over tiny
ridges, the flat light leaving the ground colorless and two-dimensional. I reached the hole and hesitated. What was I doing? What if some
predator had gotten Betsy and stayed, looking for more easy pickings? I had only my light and cursed myself. Well, no answer but to
take a look quick as possible and get back. I was already out there.
I knelt in the clammy soil and crawled to the edge of the hole, the flashlight in one fist. No movement, no sounds. I peered over the lip,
leading with the light and found nothing but earth and torn roots and those long, deep scrapes for several feet. A tunnel stretched
before me, curving slightly to continue I didn’t know how far. I leaned over, reaching in to see and my heart started racing. Eggs the
size of oblong bowling balls lined the tunnel, planted in the walls a few inches apart as far as the light shone. Hundreds of them; must
have been. Betsy’s front half lay split open on the tunnel floor; a half-dozen eggs already nestled into her. I blanched and started to itch
all over. Impossible, but there it was. I raced home, tripping on every rock and giving my ankle a terrible wrench just before reaching
the back step.
I hobbled inside and to my encyclopedia, pulling the ‘B’ volume from the shelf. Beetles. Coleoptera. Okay, pictures. Good. I noted the
chitinous mouth parts, how they scissored together. Pictures bad. I skimmed down the page until I got to Nicrophorus. The burying
beetle. Antifungal anal secretions. Okay. Regurgitating liquid food. Hmm; raising broods communally? Bad…very bad. I skimmed
further until I found photos of the eggs. Exactly the same as Betsy’s. About four hundred times bigger than they’re supposed to be, but
otherwise the same. And I dragged their rotting beetle nursery back to my barn. Did I even check it that closely? What if eggs riddled
Betsy’s back half, too?
I stood to get my shotgun and my ankle gave way under my weight. I stumbled, slamming into the study doorway. Already swelled, I
could see. I’d have trouble getting my boot off later, but at least it would keep the swelling from getting too bad right then. No time to
play doctor, anyway. Unlocking the gun case, I cradled my double-barrel under my arm and broke it open, feeding it shells from a fresh
box and locking it shut. I tucked the flashlight into my back pocket and limped out into the patch of night between the house and barn.
“I don’t care how crazy I am,” I muttered. “I gotta see it for myself and then I’ll burn ‘em out.”
I still had that much sense.
I cursed with each step, the torn tendon in my ankle shooting glass shards up my leg. I neared the open barn door and paused to listen.
Did I hear rustling? Was that the wind, or something else? I didn’t want to go in there. I flicked on the flashlight, the bright circle
landing on the gate to Betsy’s stall. The rustling stopped and I lost the ability to breathe for a second. Maybe I should go back inside.
The barn was empty—mostly—and I could investigate in the morning; with several large farmhands between me and whatever Betsy’s
carcass was feeding. I swallowed hot bile and nodded. Good plan.
I turned to retreat and saw in the swipe of the flashlight a scuttling black mound not five feet away. I choked back a scream. Shiny,
inexorable and the size of a full-grown sow, it crawled like a six-legged tank; blind but for its antennae, dagger mouth parts clicking
together as it cut a swath through the soil. I lunged to the side. Surely it came for Betsy. It couldn’t even know I was there. But it
turned toward me as I hobbled in the dark. I heard its feet scraping the ground as it gained on me. The porch was farther than I
remembered. I gritted my teeth through the pain and forced an uneven run, sure I’d make it. I even laughed as I got closer, already
telling the story to the Doc in my head. Then I remembered. The encyclopedia had said that these beetles—the burying beetles—always
raised their young in pairs. As those pincers clamped onto my boot and I fell, the shotgun jolting from my grip and skidding off into the
dark, I looked up to see another beetle closing in. Those eggs were gonna be just fine, I knew then. I hoped they choked on me.