“The Lord’s Touch"

Fiction by William S. Rohn

Nimrod sat on the tractor and watched the bull watching him. The massive animal stood in the shadow of the hickory tree, taking refuge from the searing summer sun that had baked brown the endless miles of surrounding prairie. 

With eyes locked between beast and boy, he began to wonder what they called a baby bull — was it a bullet? Hadn’t Uncle Mike said as much to him one time, or was he funnin’? Nimrod couldn’t get the notion out of his head so he pulled out the gun and fired a bullet into the barn just to distract himself from his own flibbertigibbet thoughts.

He was a somber boy, aged 12, with a moon face framed by thick strands of hair more white than blond, like dead straw hanging scattershot in front of his dim blue eyes. He’d outgrown his grimy overalls, which were short at the ankles beneath layers of patches at the knees, but in girth the filthy garment hung loose off his slight frame like he was no more than a discarded sack ready to blow away with the next gust of wind. 

He sat still with his head cocked crooked like he was still figuring something. He gazed at the prairie grass stretching out of reach beyond their old, crumbling farm, then back to the bull, blacker than the shadow around him but still mostly hidden except for the whites of his eyes, piercing and tinted red it seemed to Nimrod. He’d never seen a baby bull around anyhow, just this big one here fixing him with his stare. 

If that bull was to get outta that pen, he’d run faster than Nimrod and the tractor would be no help neither because the tractor was at a standstill on account of the fact Nimrod wasn’t allowed to operate machinery. 

Nobody ever told him why but Uncle Mike and Aunt Leah bandied about the word special an awful lot. Was it special to be wondering if baby bulls was bullets even though Uncle Mike had said he was just pulling his leg? Gettin’ his leg pulled didn’t sound so good to Nimrod and got him wonderin’ how that could be the same thing as funnin’? Maybe some words could mean more than one thing. He knew well enough what bullets was and how they go with guns only he wasn’t allowed to have a gun on account of his being special. 

But he’d gone wandering earlier that morning and found himself in Uncle Mike’s bedroom even though he wasn’t allowed in there and when he walked past an old picture of some saint hanging on the wall with rosary beads draped on the frame, the wood squeaked under his foot just as he paused to count the beads and so he bent down and noticed a loose floorboard and pretty soon another. After taking a short look around the empty room, he pried up the boards and found an old pistol with a ram’s head carved on the grip. 

He recognized it right away from the time Uncle Mike put down their nag Silas. Nimrod had pleaded with his uncle not to do it but Uncle Mike said it was all part of the Lord’s plan. Nimrod remembered crying himself to sleep that night. The next morning, he’d asked Aunt Leah about it and she’d said that no one was allowed to question the Lord’s plan and that it was set and set for good. So he’d said, “What about Uncle Mike?” and she didn’t answer but just stared in a way that froze him to his spot.

Uncle Mike wasn’t coming back from town for hours, so he wouldn’t go missing the gun as long as Nimrod walked it back to the house in time. But what about the bullets he’d borrowed from the box under the floorboards? Would Uncle Mike notice one gone missing? He’d fired just the one into the barn so far but there was something about the flash of the barrel that reminded him of lightning on the prairie and how grazing Silas would pay no mind to the brilliant light all around them. 

Now Nimrod was itching to fire another. He got to thinking what it must be like to kill a critter so he walked inside the barn to see if he could find an owl up in the hayloft. He wasn’t particular against owls but they might be the only living things around cuz the rest was hiding from the midday heat. Even the bull had taken to all fours in the shade beside his pen and that bull was way too big a critter to shoot at anyhow. 

But if Nimrod was to find himself an owl to shoot at, would he be asking for trouble with Uncle Mike by having two bullets gone missing? When he’d grabbed three from the box, he never once thought of ’em being missed but you never could tell with Uncle Mike. He was more likely than not to see right through you if you was saying something that wasn’t so. 

And Uncle Mike wasn’t one to spare the rod. That’s what he called it even though Nimrod knew it was really a switch made from a hickory branch. Usually, as part of his punishment, Uncle Mike made him go out near the pen and break off a branch from the low hanging hickory and make the switch himself. Nimrod would carefully remove the twigs and leaves so that when Uncle Mike lashed him with it, it would be smooth enough not to cut his skin even if it did leave those purple welts. 

But sometimes, if his uncle was really angry, instead of waiting on Nimrod to make a switch, he’d storm out to make his own from a dead branch off the brush pile by the barn. Unlike the kind Nimrod would make from a fresh branch off the tree, Uncle Mike’s dried-up switch not only hurt more but would tear through his skin and leave him bloody.

And whenever he threatened him, he always warned Nimrod how the Lord shall soon smite thee, as if Uncle Mike wasn’t the one doing the smiting. Nimrod could almost abide the endless cycle of summer fieldwork and winter chores but the rod not spared did leave its mark. Nimrod even ran away once but got so tired on the stretching prairie that he lay down to sleep in the snow until Uncle Mike found him and fetched him home. Aunt Leah said that was all part of the Lord’s plan as well. 

Now it seemed best to get on back to the house and put the two bullets back in the box and hope the one fired wouldn’t be missed by Uncle Mike. Nimrod climbed down off the tractor, thinking how that high and mighty owl, if he was up in that hayloft, was gettin’ off easy. As he walked by the pen, the bull paid him no mind even when Nimrod rattled the gate to see if he could stir him up. 

When he got to the big, empty farmhouse, he was abruptly met at the back stoop by Aunt Leah, who wasn’t due back till tomorrow from a visit with her widow sister Joy. Nimrod had a dim, distant memory of how he used to call Aunt Leah’s sister “Ma” but he was told to stop and he had done like he was told and called her Joy ever since. Now, seeing his aunt home early from Joy’s place, he sucked in air, held it some, and then busted out with a whoosh the only two words he could think of, “Aunt Leah!”

Aunt Leah sized him up, down and up once again from her high perch, and she looked all the higher for being a whole head taller than Nimrod to begin with. 

Up close, the yellow daisies of her church hat looked as plastic and stiff as her pursed face buried beneath a layer of caked white makeup. The hands on her hips rumpled her blue Sunday dress as she leaned down and eyed him hard to make sure she had his full attention. 

Then she said a whole bunch of words in that breezy way of hers and the words was like, “Nimrod, I know you’re a good boy and I know just as well that you have no business being here by yourself and I’ll be talking to Uncle Mike ’bout that seein’ as how he was supposed to be minding you while I was gone, but it’s certain you’ve been up to no good and we don’t want to be raising no spoiled child so you go on and tell me what you was doin’ out there by the barn. The Lord done touched you in a special way and lyin’ ain’t no part of it and Uncle Mike will be back soon enough so you better tell me proper why I heard a gunshot ’round back as I was comin’ up the front path.”

Head bowed, Nimrod listened as the wind throttled up high above the prairie. He shuffled his hole-riddled shoes and began to answer with words that trickled out slow like a drippety spigot. “I borrowed Uncle Mike’s gun, and . . . and I borrowed three bullets . . . but I wasn’t going to shoot it . . . and then I remembered . . . I remembered how Uncle Mike was funnin’ with me . . . ’bout bulls and bullets . . . so I got mad and I shot the barn.”

Aunt Leah was tempted to shake some sense into the boy and began to move to a lower step but his eyes raised up to reveal blue orbs no longer dim; they met hers with a piercing clarity that kept her frozen to her place above. She listened as the rising wind rattled the farmhouse and blended with the rising voice of Nimrod as his words went from trickle to torrent: “And then I thought how the Lord done touched me an’ I never asked to be touched and I don’t wanna be special an’ if the Lord was up in that hayloft in the barn I’d shoot him and ask how he liked being special an’ then I’d have only one bullet left so I’d run back up to Uncle Mike’s room to fetch me some more in case there be more than one Lord left and they’d be special bullets for all the Lords there is.”

 


William Stevenson Rohn is a short story writer who summers in East Hampton.