A Sheep’s Mercy: story and analysis

Please note: This story was originally written for the purpose of mimicking the style of author Annie Proulx, and specifically her short story collection “Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and other stories”. It contains heavy themes and coarse language. This piece contains both the creative piece of writing and the analysis I was required to write to explain the literary decisions I made within the story. I recommend reading this analysis after having read the story, as it assists in the comprehension of the piece, which is deliberately vague so as to remain true to Proulx’s creative style. Please enjoy!

A Sheep’s Mercy

No trains shot through the wind over dusty tracks; no bumpers made the familiar rattle as tires tread grime onto the fading bitchumen; no footsteps crunched against gravel; no, the only sound here was the silence of broken glass and rotting teeth. The landscape lay rugged like a discarded towel, a moment undisturbed in time, unbroken in flesh. As his slumped figure lay lifeless through the windscreen, the scene reanimated with midday’s hot wind, stirring the still grass and matted hair, sweeping the quiet towel from underfoot. Out here, life stopped for nothing; out here, the only mercy was the one you made for yourself.

+++

The sun rose an orange ball, blazing the purple dawn with streaks of red. Jay pushed open the weathered wooden door that led to the stairs. Cheryl nodded to him as she passed, said Theresa was downstairs grinding the coffee. She smiled broadly, her teeth shining bright against the mahogany skin as she pointed out his rough hair. Jay gave a small smile and went hand-in-pockets down the stairs where he leant against the doorway watching Theresa. She moved with the wild grace of Wyoming’s spring storms, fierce and pointed, the type of strength that was blood borne and built resilient by the spirit. The women of this estate had been a part of the land for as long as the Wingers themselves, becoming bone-seasoned, tireless workers accustomed to the life of a rancher. Their tireless hands hammered the ranch from four each morning, hands that had been passed down for generations, alongside booming laughs that could be heard til late in the summer afternoons. The women could often be seen shearing the white bodies of bushy sheep, sweat glistening as the sun beat their brown backs, wool plodding to the ground like last night’s bedroom leftovers; they were born for this country. Wingers Wool was as much their blood right as it was to the Wingers themselves.

+++

The diner stood stark in the empty landscape, neon lights softly glowing against the bluing sky. A lot of people came here, but the cheap plastic booths provided little patches of privacy amongst the clinking mugs of coffee and plates of burnt eggs and bacon. The checkered floors glared at its newcomers, bold as its regulars, a polished linoleum made to withstand the rush for last drinks at a rodeo. As they walked in, the garbage truck outside groaned like a horse giving birth as it crashed to a stop, like the foal plonking to the ground. As Jay sat down, he found his eyes flicking across the overstated walls filled with flurries of pictures of far off states and postcards from loved ones of the owners. He pulled a chocolate heart from his pocket half-melted like summer’s sticky mud and a creased card. Turn over of Valentine’s Day cards wasn’t exactly rancher priority, so Theresa didn’t care it was the same card he had handed over for last year. They ordered coffees with milk and sugar and Theresa talked. Jay watched the speedy parting and coming together of her dark lips, the small shifts in her jugular like waves of bended barley stalks. The coffee came, Jerry frowned at the long black in front of Theresa. She shrugged and sipped til she reached the polished bottom.

+++

They drove home in the rickety Chevy to find Ace storming the fields in one of his tirades. A man of six-six and bulky shoulders, Asa Bergenfield never had trouble getting his way. Forthright but well respected by the townfolk, he had come to work under Jerry after running over one of his sheep the previous season. Wearing a brown leather rodeo hat with a yellow piece of barley permanently weeping from his crooked jaw, he consisted mostly of arrogant pride and fierce loyalty to his friend. Here in the field with the sheep, he stood out like a sore thumb after popping a bottle lid, spit flying in his frothing anger. Unshaven and cursing, he shore the sheep with jerking movements of the arm. Jerry put a hand on his shoulder, pushed him gently from the stool. The bleating ceased when Jerry took the chair. Ace paced the shed, insisted they could go state over together, work for the Yates. They needed the money he said, didn’t matter none how they got it, just hadda keep from sinking in winter’s mud. Jerry shook his head as he listened, insisted he would never betray the family. This was his blood line, and he would stick with it, death do them part. He finished shearing the sheep, patted Ace on the back, gave a grimace. “It is what it is, my friend.”

Theresa helped him load the last of the wool into the truck, each crate packed to the brim with white wool. Jay’s eyes flicked to the brown arms glistening with smothered sweat, creating a shine like the metal of the Chevy bumper. An arm made its way around her small waist, a thumb found itself on the back of the sweaty hand, drawing circles over the tendons like the ridges of the mountains in the distance. She turned into his firm chest, breathed in his sweat mixed with the musky odour of warm sheep. They made an unlikely pairing, brought together by history and a devotion to their land. They parted and Jay saddled into the truck’s blue cotton seat for the journey to Cheyenne.

+++

Jay approached the glass doors branded with clustered advertisements and pushed his way into the air-conditioned reception. A man entered the room in a grey suit and checkered tie, his black stubble morphing with his large chin as he invited Jay into his red wallpapered room. Chip packets and staples lay scattered across the large desk; the usual. The man, Leeway Jenkins, gestured to the wooden chair as he made his way to his seat. Jay brushed the crumbs from his own chair and began to talk, but Leeway raised his udder-like fingers to cut him off. “It just ain’t like that no more Jay. Yer my friend, but the business don’t want yer no more.”

“Jus’ like that, ay?” Jay snorted, swaying his head side to side like a cow bell, a bull ready for the charge. “I musta been your best wool bearer for years. Why yer lot pullin’ on me now huh?” He grit his teeth, jaw taut with anger.

“Well yer wool’s been of less fine quality this last year, Jay,” he opened another chip packet, crackling like the microphone at a rodeo before the showdown, “An’ it’s jus’ too expensive. Look, we can give yer a nice wad of cash for yer last load today, but…” Jay shot up like a lightning bolt. Slamming his hands palm down on the desk, he spoke angry but restrained.

“Lee – this is my life you’re screwin’ with – you can’t do this to ma’ family line.”

“There ain’t nothing I can do, Jay,” Leeway stood, patted Jay on the shoulder like he would a kicked dog, “I’m sorry.” Jay breathed deep, clenched and unclenched his white knuckled fists, reluctantly shook Leeway’s pudgy hand. They walked out to the Chevy, Jay striding toward the large truck. He jarred open the door, jolted the keys into the ignition, started the engine and the radio, slammed the door shut and rolled down the window, fixed Leeway with a cold glare. Leeway shrugged apologetically. “Didn’t take yer for a Salt n’ Pepper fan, Jay.” He lumbered away, the fat on his limbs wobbling like the behind of a cow. Jay smashed his fist into the dash then put his head in his hands. He placed his tired hands on the wheel and foot on the pedal and drove away from the horizon back to the ranch.

+++

Ace joined Jay out on the field. The wind bent the yellowing stalks and swept orange across the setting sky like the blood smears after a broken nose from a bar fight. He looked across the field and out to the jags of mountain. Those mountains had been there so long, Jay often didn’t register them, yet he was aware of them in the same way he was aware of bleats from his sheep and the breath from his own mouth – he’d notice if they were gone. Ace shook his burly head, let the barley fall from his peeling lips to the grass and crushed it underfoot before walking away. Theresa came to join him, slipped her small hand between his large calluses. They didn’t exchange a word, but they didn’t have to. The women called from the deck; dinner had been served. Jay squeezed Theresa’s hand. “I think I’ll jus’ go to the bar tonight, Tes. Mind the place for me?” She nodded, watched him walk away. Inside as she took her place with her sisters, her eyes found the half torn, coffee-stained papers lying upon the kitchen bench. Her bowed head bore semblance to a reversed coat hook that had swung loose under the weight of a rancher’s heavy winter jacket. She took the seat at the head of the table, body lurching forward like a cat about to be sick.

+++

Jay walked defeated into the stink of the 11pm bar, took a bench seat, tossed a coin over for a beer. Outside the sky was green-black, and in here the neon lights reflected off the rank sweat of the dancers, and as he watched he felt his body unwillingly vibrating to the bass along with the row of glass bottles. He downed his ninth drink then ordered a coffee, straight, no milk, no sweetener. He continued to watch and vibrate as he slowly sipped at the mug, concentrating on the hot searing of the tongue and his warmed insides. He was drunk, but he was o.k. to drive. He would drive all the way. He could feel some bearing seizing up inside him only to burn out. He could feel liquid rising up to the back of his throat, the carbonated burn of beer mixed with the bitter tang of black coffee. He went out to the Chevy, drove toward the quiet side of town. Keeping one hand on the wheel, he rolled down the passenger seat window, eyes off the road, stretching his arm to the limit, breathing the euphoric, bitter air. There was an open space between what he trusted to be true and his growing lack of faith, but nothing could be done about it, and then suddenly, the glass was gone. Friend, it’s easier than you think to yield up to that dark impulse, and if you can’t find mercy in a bar or the arms of your lover, then it’s time to make your own.

© 2017 Anna Rabinov

ANALYSIS:

A Sheep’s Mercy, focusing on the mundaneness of life and its ephemeral nature, is so named to imitate Proulx’s style of taking a seemingly insignificant point or line from her stories and using it to encompass them. These titles also create a sense of distance and aloofness from the characters and their lives and tragic events, yet unfailingly grasp a true strand of each story and the nature of its characters. The characters of A Sheep’s Mercy are sheep ranchers, and the failure of Jay to be able to continue the family line of work is what ultimately drives him to commit suicide. The title originates from both the start and end of the story, where the need to make your own mercy in such a bleak world is necessary. The fact that it’s a sheep’s mercy is reflective of the fact that Jay was a sheep rancher, but also that like sheep following sheep, Jay’s family as well as the women that serve him have followed down the family line of tradition of sheep ranching for many generations, and the fact that Jay is unable to continue this once he is told his wool is “too expensive”, means that he can no longer be a part of that family, that he’s no longer a sheep following the herd. So, as a lost sheep unable to find his way, he kills himself.

Imitating the style of Proulx, and more specifically ‘People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water’, A Sheep’s Mercy is composed of several disjointed paragraphs, focussing in on important moments that portray the life of these characters in Wyoming. Some of the separated paragraphs follow immediately after one another in time, but others incorporate a jump in time that is not explicitly stated, similar to Proulx’s assumption of knowledge of her readers and attempt at disorientation. This tactic not only displaces the reader in her writing, but creates the illusion that Wyoming and its people are unbound by time. This makes the tragic deaths of her characters more shocking as this illusion is broken, but also portrays the sameness that exists within their lives, how ultimately the same stories play over and over again, each person just attempting to find something worth making an effort for, something to hold on to in their isolated lives. Beginning A Sheep’s Mercy with Jay lying dead in a desolate scene before jumping back in time to describe the events leading up to his death assists in recreating this sense of timelessness and inevitability of death that Proulx so aptly creates in her stories. Ending the story with the seconds before his death then creates a circular narrative, further emphasising the cyclical nature of the lives of people in Wyoming and how ultimately, nothing really changes.

A recurring theme of Proulx’s stories are the importance and tension between family and the land, and hence naturally became a theme within my own story. An understanding of family legacy and tradition are drawn predominantly within the second paragraph of A Sheep’s Mercy, where the strength of the women that work alongside the protagonist Jay Winger and their ties to one another and the land are described. For Jay and these women, the land has provided them with a livelihood for generations; it has produced in them a “blood borne” strength and “resilient” spirit that binds them together. For Jay however, this is also his downfall. His dedication to the continuation of his family’s work is what drives him, and when he is unable to fulfil this legacy due to being cut off by the buyer Leeway due to his lover Theresa being a black woman, he cannot find the will to go on and instead kills himself out of shame and despair. The line “death do them part” in the fourth paragraph of the story when Jay explains to Ace why he cannot simply discard the ranch is a reference to marriage, emphasising just how dedicated and tied to family tradition Jay is.

In each of Proulx’s stories there is a cultural shift in which the norm is challenged or threatened. The homosexual men Ennis and Jack in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ or the moving in of “Jap food” in ‘A Lonely Coast’ are examples of such shifts. In A Sheep’s Mercy, the cultural shift is the union of a white man and black woman, as well as the fact that the black women of the ranch are working alongside Jay. Instead of simply doing the cooking and cleaning, these women have been trained in sheep rearing and wool production, making for a resistance to society and Proulx’s own stories.

With racism still relatively heavy in working class America in the 1980s (the time setting of this story), Theresa is treated poorly, and Jay through his love of her becomes outcast too. Whether going to a diner together or trying to sell the Winger’s family wool, society feels threatened by this interracial pairing and hence treats them as outsiders. The motif of coffee throughout A Sheep’s Mercy is a subtle metaphor for the racism that exists in Wyoming. When Theresa is served a long black instead of coffee with milk and sugar, she shrugs it off, but Jerry is upset at the jab toward them. The reoccurring coffee stains are a continuation of this metaphor but symbolise how the couple’s lives are tainted by the effects of the racism and the consequential outcast status they must endure. This is especially emphasised when Theresa finds the papers (Jay’s will and insurance) on the kitchen bench once Jay has left for the bar. They too have coffee stains on them, highlighting the true consequences of racism; it lost Jay his livelihood, and he can’t live with that. The fact that Jay drinks black coffee at the bar however, “straight, no milk, no sweetener”, illustrates that no matter what, he has always accepted Theresa despite her skin tone and always will. He loves her, and nothing can change that, even the loss of his way of life.

The prologue of the story opens with a description of the desolateness of the area and the seeming isolation from the rest of the world.  The lack of human life or even indications of it (trains, cars, or footsteps) emphasises the ephemeral state of human life, with landscape being the only force that lasts. After having read ’55 Miles to the Gas Pump’, where the protagonist Rancher Croom also commits suicide, I decided I wanted to transfer this to my own writing, as well as the causal manner in which Proulx executes this tragic event. I decided to combine this casual disregard for Croom with the tone Proulx adopts in her nature descriptions in the beginning of ‘The Bunchgrass Edge of the World’. I attempted to replicate the feeling of open, unbound space that is created in this story through the lines, “nothing much but weather and distance, the distance punctuated once in a while by ranch gates, and to the north the endless murmur and sun-flash of semis rolling along the interstate”. My lines about there being no trains on the “dusty tracks” or “crunche[s] against gravel” and the comparison of the land to a “rugged”, “discarded towel” suspended in the silence imitate this bubble-like area of the world where everything seems very distant and separate from the event at hand.

Then there is the setting of the diner and the bar. These accentuate the isolation and outsider statuses of Jay and Theresa – the floor of the diner “glared” at them, “bold” as the glares of the regular attendees of the diner, and the the harsh, neon lights of the bar scene all create a sense of displacement and tension that emphasise how Jay feels like an outsider. The polished floors and cups and the neon lights all make for a hostile environment that is repellent to outsiders.

Proulx’s stories all incorporate adept descriptions of her characters, their stature, mindsets and relation to the land. In A Sheep’s Mercy, the characters such as Theresa and Ace are described in Proulx’s style at various points in the story, but a description of Jay doesn’t exist. The reader can only come to understand him through the story as it happens with small details of his looks or habits. This is a deliberate decision for two reasons. Firstly, Jay himself is a person unsure of himself and his life, especially once his life’s work is discarded by his buyer. Not giving apt descriptions of him but instead observing things through his descriptions of the world around him paints a vaguer picture, paralleling to his lack of confidence in himself. Secondly, this mimics the story ‘A Lonely Coast’, where the female narrator is never described herself. Instead, she is the first person narrator, observing her friends and the landscape around her. In A Sheep’s Mercy, Jay is observed from a third person perspective rather than being a first person narrator, and this had the effect of increasing that feeling of only understanding small parts of him rather than obtaining a definitive picture. I believe this was an effective technique because whilst some characters in Proulx’s stories are more distinctive than others, she does not completely define nor categorise any of them, allowing them instead to just exist without her third person interpretation, creating an image of them only through commentary of their actions and relation to the landscape around them.

Proulx’s language style is a difficult one to replicate, and proved to be the biggest challenge for me in writing this story. Her minimal usage of dialogue and left of centre idioms that capture the heart of Wyoming were what I struggled with the most. Upon reflection, my first version of the story was composed almost entirely of dialogue. Furthermore, the religious and racial symbolism I utilised were far too obvious and very in the reader’s face.  This resulted in my having to rewrite the entire story, keeping the main concept but discarding almost all of the original writing, because Proulx’s symbolism and comments upon her characters are all very subtly executed, and are done through observation rather than large amounts of dialogue between characters. In the dialogue that I did create for the second version of the story (fifth paragraph), I made it more in the style of how working-class, uneducated men would speak to one another. I then interlaced anthropomorphic idioms between the dialogue to extend this feeling of being a part of a Wyoming-style conversation, but also to imitate Proulx’s style of using anthropomorphism to describe her characters and the way in which they see the land and people around them. As they have no education or other types of experiences outside of Wyoming, it is natural for one of their single points of comparison to be with animals, especially given that most of them are farmers or ranchers.

Proulx’s left of centre idioms and casual prose were another thing I found really difficult to imitate and come up with my own of. Because of this, I focussed more upon the other elements of her writing such as the themes of tradition, desolate setting and overall structure of the story with the disjointed paragraphs and the sweeps of time. I believe I was successful in capturing these elements, and that despite my idioms not being quite as gruesome as Proulx’s, that they still capture an element of a rancher’s state of mind, that they’re still Wyoming-esque. I also feel that the other elements I focussed upon more assisted in overcoming the less gut-wrenching idioms and more formal prose than that of how Proulx would normally write.

In the last two paragraphs of the story, I incorporated serval altered versions of some of Proulx’s lines that I felt conveyed what Jay was feeling preceding his suicide. The main lines of hers that I used originated from the final sentences of her stories ‘Brokeback Mountain’, ‘A Lonely Coast’ and ’55 Miles to the Gas Pump’. I combined all these final lines in my own final two sentences to emphasise the fact that Jay has indeed killed himself, that it was not simply a road accident due to him being drunk, that we was creating his own mercy. This line about mercy also connects back to the beginning of the story, completing the cyclical nature of life in Wyoming.

© 2017 Anna Rabinov

Featured image: https://duderanch.org/listings/states/wyoming

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