“The Buffalo” is the first-place winning story in SNHU’s 2017 Fall Fiction Competition.

by Candice Lee

The sky had the look of a dead man’s eyes before the red buffalo calf came trotting down the road. A young man walked beside it, using only his hand to guide it. Menca watched them from the porch. They had appeared as the first of the sun’s rays burst through the dense cloud cover tearing a swath across the dismal landscape. Dust blew up from the road as they neared the house, whitening the calf’s knees, making Menca smile. She covered her mouth with her hand, hoping the man would not think she had smiled at him. She was not her sister. So as not to confuse him, she ran inside the house.

Her mother was standing before the stove. She barely raised her head, and kept on stirring the contents of the old black pot, but her father looked up from his paper and asked, “What’s the hurry?”

“Buffalo,” she said, running up the creaking stairs to her room. He would send her there anyway once he had seen the stranger himself. She knelt down over a hole in the floor boards. Her father got up and went to the door. He did not invite the stranger in, so Menca went to the window. The stranger and her father talked for a long time. She could not make out what they were saying, only watched the buffalo calf nibble at the railing.

Suddenly, her father looked up at her window. Menca ducked down, pretty sure he had seen her. By the time she had the nerve to look up again the stranger and the calf were gone and so was her father. Menca ran downstairs, past her mother’s back. She looked everywhere for her father, found him out near the barn.

“There you are,” he said. The tanned wrinkles around his face gathered with effort into a smile. “What took you so long?”

Menca’s eyes sparkled, but not at him.

“So, you want it, eh?” her father asked, with a sigh. “That’s what I thought.”

Menca walked over slowly, put her hands on the soft fur of the calf’s face, making him blink his round eyes. Her father tied a rope around his neck.

“You take good care of him now, lead him to the good fields, and give him sweet water.” He mussed her hair and Menca frowned, but she took the rope from his hand and led the calf away.

She did as her father said, fed the calf only in the best places and gave him clear water to drink, but she also slipped him bits of honeyed cake when she could, and made garlands for his head and hooves. When he was big enough she rode him like a tame horse. They ambled over fields while he ate.

They talked. He was patient with her prattle and did not mind her idle observations. She said nothing of his smell, though she was grateful after every heavy rain. And though they were very different, Menca and the buffalo hardly ever argued. After all, he let her have her way, unless he was sure there were better fields farther on, or a clearer water course, but even then sometimes he gave in because she would pout so when she was wrong.

In time, Menca learned to respect Buffalo as she did no other. He understood about the world, the seasons, why the rain fell, and the snow. He was always sure of himself. In his hair she found cities of knowledge, in his lowing much sense. He was so wise in fact, that time seemed to stand still when she was with him, and years passed by like days. She did not notice how big he had grown or how monstrous his head had become. Her sister, who was married several years now, screwed up her face and carried her first child back into the house whenever Buffalo appeared. Menca never understood this, for she always saw the sweet calf beside her, with eyes like stars.

One day, the stranger reappeared, standing on the porch, hat in hand as she was leading Buffalo out to the field. She almost did not recognize him. His dark hair was combed back neatly, and he wore an ill-fitting suit over his tall, strong frame. He was still lanky. Menca averted her eyes. She raised her head, let her hair swing as she walked past him. She had a right to be proud–had she not raised a beautiful buffalo? But just as the thought came to mind, she realized that perhaps the stranger had come back for it. So, mid-stride, she turned to stare into his face. He had the look of a starved dog, and his eyes were like an empty night sky.

She ran from him, right into her father. He caught her by the arms, held her. He said it was time to slaughter the buffalo calf, calf no more. Menca shook her head, tried to walk away.

“You asked for this. You wanted this. Now take the bad with the good,” he commanded.

Menca stared at him as if he were a stranger.

“It’s all grown up. It’s time,” he whispered in a choked voice, and let her go. He walked into the house, leaving her alone.

She stood for a long time hating her father. Then she led Buffalo out of the yard into the fields. There she let him go. She waved her arms and yelled at him, but he would not move away. He who understood her so well stared at her blankly now.

“Go!” she screamed, and pushed him with all her strength, but he would not budge. Slowly, deliberately, he lowered his head and ate. Menca cried in despair, dropped to her knees to look in his distant eyes.

“Why won’t you go? Why won’t you?”

Then someone, someone she did not know, grabbed her by the arms and pulled her up. Buffalo never let anyone near her, not even her father, without a grunt or a bluff. He had killed wolves and even chased deer away from her but this man he let touch her. Menca was surprised that she was not surprised to see the stranger.

“He won’t leave you.”

“Then he’ll die,” she said breathlessly, twisting around to get out of the man’s arms.

“He would rather die with you than live without you.”

And that was all he said before walking back to the house. Menca faced Buffalo. She frowned at him with her hands on her hips, asking if this was true. He snorted and tossed his head at her implication that it was silly to die for Love. She shook her head, put her arms around his neck. It was not silly. It was because of Love that she wanted him to live. But for how long, he asked her, could one lone buffalo live in the wild? What troubles would he face, what sorrows, what longing before falling one winter in the snow?

Menca turned to gather flowers so he would not see her crying. When she could control herself, she came back to him and put garlands on his horns and tied them around his hooves. She stole back to the house and filled her pockets with the many good things her mother had just put out, all freshly baked. Things her father had said would kill a buffalo if he ate them, but what did it matter now? She fed Buffalo with chocolate cake, and honey cake, and apple tarts and spiced doughnuts, anything and everything he had ever tried to nuzzle out of her pockets. Then she led him back home before the setting of the sun.

She held his horns while her father slaughtered him. She moaned when he moaned and fell when he fell. She watched his eyes close. Her mother butchered him, and Menca got his heart, for she said that his heart was hers and no one else’s. When it was all over and everyone was laughing and eating, Menca went to the barn where it was quiet, and she ate the heart so that his love would never leave her.

It tasted like blood, like meat, but it felt like Love, a love so strong and great, so beyond Reason and Death that she fell unconscious. She woke with the moon and saw the Buffalo at the door. He came to her and lay down beside her and let her rest her head on his warm flanks once again. In the morning when she woke, she still felt warm and looked up to find the stranger holding her, his eyes a sky full of stars. She went home with him that day; that night she led him to bed with flowers in his hair.