Called Out to Snow Crease Farm

By Constance Cooper

It was a bone gate, the first she'd seen, and it was appalling. Margit Gazaway set the battered motowagon to idle and walked up to it, boots crunching on the brown lichenoid that the locals called roadwort. Around her stretched a desolate mottled landscape of coated stone, muted by haze and pressed under a gray sky. The air smelled of sulfur and caramel.

Margit stared up at the gate. Dr. Frew, the local physician back in town, had told her that bone construction was common on the more remote holdings where wood was unavailable—but his descriptions hadn't really prepared her. The sticklike uprights, somehow coarser than human or wellbeast bones even under their fur of dusty growth, must have come from the legs of stilts. The gate's crosspieces were a less recognizable type of illbeast femur. The whole sinister lattice was lashed together with sinew and strips of faded white hide.

Looking at the gate, and the high barrier of shiny black thorn to either side, Margit ached for the wooden gates and green fields of home. A dun haze drifted up from her bootprints and the wagon tracks, but for the first time since coming to the Furrows country, she kept her hands jammed in the pockets of her coverall. It was pointless, really, trying to fan the wort-dust away.

At least she wasn't lost. Midway up the gate, the scapula of some large-shouldered beast bore the words "Snow Crease Farm." The farm's name gave the scene the last bleak touch. Margit had found that even her new neighbors in Blackridge, who were supposedly sophisticated for First Wave folk, used "snow" as a synonym for "white." None of them, needless to say, had ever seen real snow.

She couldn't stand here all day, not with a patient waiting. Margit worked the latch-bar of the gate, which was socketed in the bony pit of what must be an adzehorn skull. With its broad-bladed prongs removed—for tools perhaps?—and the flesh long gone, the skull looked bald and vulnerable, as homely as a cattle skull. Maybe farm-bred illbeasts would be easier to care for, and care about, than the few sickly specimens the instructors back at the university had exhibited briefly to her class.

The road ran alongside the thorn wall, then turned downward toward the thicker bulge of haze that hovered over the crease. Vapor swirled, hiding her view of the barren landscape and blocking even more daylight from overhead. Sweat gathered at the roots of her hair. Specks of white wort appeared in the brown of the roadway, and thickened until she drove over a carpet that looked more like ash than snow.

Margit slowed as she neared the farm buildings. Motor vehicles were rare here, not like in the capital, where she'd never had trouble getting a ride from a friend or admirer. Since she had charge of one of the only two motowagons in the district—the other belonged to Dr. Frew—anyone watching would know immediately who had just arrived. Normally she would enjoy the attention, but here in the Furrows country it was different.

Margit rolled up between a barn and a low line of sheds, and stepped down onto the crackling white surface. Across the yard, the farmhouse was a pale mass in the steamy air. Would she ever get used to this Furrows country reek of burnt sugar and rotten eggs, even in the five long years she'd be stuck here?

A small girl in a faded yellow smock scooted out of the mist, almost cannoning into Margit's legs, and opened her mouth several moments before she actually spoke. "You're the new vet, a'nt you?" she piped, eyes wide.

Margit couldn't blame her for staring. It might be the first time the child had ever seen anyone but an infant without facial lichen. But still it felt odd to be self-conscious about her bare, uniformly brown face, her smooth skin and high cheekbones that had been so admired back home.

The girl's face was swirled sandy and white, grained with darker brown around the eyes, the lips, and the sides of the nose. She looked like a rust-stained skull. Margit had learned that most people hereabouts could guess a person's region, town, or even farm from a single glance.

By now Margit was almost accustomed to skinwort, but the girl's hairless head froze her for a moment. According to Dr. Frew, the government had been quite successful in bringing vitamin supplements to the hinterlands, and even the older locals now boasted both hair and teeth.

Looking closer at the girl, Margit saw that her head was shaved, with specks of dark stubble poking up through tiny rosettes of brown scurf. Evidently some Furrows folk still could not accept hair as normal and attractive. Margit guessed that the same person who had tied the tiny bow at the neck of the girl's smock also saw to it that her hair was periodically scraped away. Somehow it seemed even more terrible than true baldness. Reflexively, Margit passed a hand over her own neat braids.

"I'm a vet, all right," she told the girl gruffly. "Are your parents around? The sooner I can tend to this illbeast, the better."

Not an illbeast, Margit berated herself as the girl ran ahead toward a white-mottled barn. She had better banish that term from her vocabulary before she offended someone. They called them crease animals here, if they bothered to distinguish them from wellbeasts at all.

And to be fair, the native creatures' meat did not make people ill if it was prepared the right way. The unfortunate FirstComers had sustained themselves on it for generations, after all, before the Second Wave settlers managed to establish more wholesome, imported livestock and green crops.

It was pure luck that Margit's gaffe could be interpreted as "ill beast," a description which turned out to be all too true.

Keeping her eyes on the girl's gray outline, Margit followed her through a bleak fenced yard with earth chipped raw by a flock of scurrying pickbeaks. They entered a barn stacked out of dark stone furred with white. The inside was murky even after the overcast light outside. A pen along one side held immature rockclingers, their tiny horned toes scrabbling at the stones. A tethered strider dozed in its stall, the muscles in its two shaggy legs jumping as it slept. It looked like a giant chicken that had been plucked and tarred and tossed into a pile of hay. Its vestigial front limbs seemed to be missing, but then Margit realized the strider wasn't really wearing a saddle. Its front limbs had been bent back, probably at birth, and tied down to form a better seat atop its narrow back-ridge. Wasn't that illegal now? Wearily, Margit knew she should probably check.

The barn felt alien. Illbeast droppings had a pungent odor, chemical yet fruity, that was very different from the comforting, musty animal scents Margit was used to. And this barn wasn't floored with straw—the piles of illbeast dung seemed to collect cocoons of powdery growth that were easily swept away.

"There she is." The girl pointed with a small, pale finger. "That's Bella. She's my best favorite spadie."

The hunched, patient shape of a large animal in pain stood swaying in a loose box, so like a cow that Margit hurried automatically to its side. "Run and fetch your mother or father, please. And have them bring a lamp—it's getting on toward night."

"Can you make her better?" In common usage, Margit had discovered, crease animals were all called "she," though they had only one sex.

"I'm afraid I don't know yet." The little girl nodded upward in the jerky way of the Furrows folk, then reached out her hand to pet the rough surface of the animal before she scampered away.

Bella was a spadejaw, a long-faced creature covered in a coarse mat of brown-and-white fiber. The fiber was too dense for hair, too loose for horn, though under the three-toed feet it had compressed into a hooflike sole. Spadejaws were primarily raised as meat animals, Margit understood, but were also kept for their "milk"—actually their pseudosemen, which could be extracted from their bodies by people who knew how. Margit was not one of those people, nor did she ever want to be.

But most likely this animal was a milker, if it had been around people enough to become a child's favorite. It should be docile enough.

Margit laid her hand on the creature's back. It felt like the cut straw at the end of a bale. The spadejaw swung its eyeless head ponderously to face her. Its lower jaw extended grotesquely into a wide platter of tooth that did resemble a spade, and Margit could see how the leading edge had been worn down by years of scraping its nourishment off rock. The heat-sensitive pits on its temples were smooth gray membranes, wider than eyes but blank as flat stones, shielded in craters of ridged bone. They did not move as eyes did, but Margit guessed that in the dimness of the stall, the creature could sense her thermal patterns far better than she herself could see.

"Easy, girl," she said. The spadejaw whoofed and stood still.

This wasn't quite her first time treating an illbeast. Two days ago an old woman had brought her pet creeper into the surgery in Blackridge to get its scrapers clipped. The creeper was as long as a ferret and twice as limber, with a downy coat and a blind, earless head. Margit had immobilized it in a towel the same way she had for cats in practicum.

The old woman had thanked her graciously. "You did that every bit as well as Mr. Costa, dear, and now I can have my little Linsy up on my lap again." She stroked the creeper, making it chirr. Her face had been olive gray.

Fortunately, Blackridge was far enough from the creaseline for patches of Second Wave grass to fight with the native groundwort. Wellbeasts could live there, if not exactly prosper, and Margit had managed easily enough on her first few calls: a cow with an infected udder, a sow who'd cut her leg on a nail, and a dog with a bone stuck in his throat. But as she spent those first days settling into the vet's residence, meeting the more friendly townsfolk, and finding the markets that sold the least frightening food, she'd been dreading the call which would finally show her ignorance.

She cursed the name of Enrik Costa, her predecessor, who'd left no notes to speak of and who'd bolted for home the moment his term was up, taking the same government transport out that she'd arrived on. He'd barely had time to give her the keys and show her where the supplies were kept, much less transmit any knowledge about the practice or the local livestock. Thank goodness for Dr. Frew, or she'd have been utterly lost.

She cursed the government that had assigned her to this backwater for her entire tuition service. It still seemed unreal—was she truly expected to endure five whole years in this hellhole?

Most of all, though, as she lay in her unfamiliar bed in the vet's residence, breathing the muggy air, she cursed herself. If she'd just studied a little harder . . .

Now, standing in a gloomy stall with the hulk of an ailing spadejaw, Margit felt like a beginning student again. The beast's head was down, and it swung its heavy body slowly from side to side, cooing mournfully.

Margit took a thermometer from her bag and after a moment managed to find the creature's rectum. Bella's temperature was high for a cow, very high, but for a spadejaw? Did they even maintain a steady temperature? She couldn't remember, or more likely she'd never known. Reading a few historic treatises on crease ecology by early Second Wave settlers had hardly given her the everyday facts she needed for veterinary work.

Margit systematically examined her patient, running her hands over Bella's feet, over knobby ankles, over hind legs that seemed to bend the wrong way. She moved slowly at first, cringing at every movement from the animal. That heavy bone blade on the jaw could do some damage, and she had no idea how quickly a spadejaw could swing its head around.

Luckily Bella seemed to be a placid beast. Either that, or she was just too sick to care.

No leg injuries, but the body was hard to evaluate under the fibrous padding. Margit checked the throat for obstructions, holding her breath as she inserted her hand over the raspy tongue and between the grinders. The mouth cavity was oddly shaped, but there was no foreign object that she could feel.

"Ms. Gazaway?" Yellow light flowed into the barn. The girl's father had brought a lantern, a tin frame around a lumpy tallow candle. It looked like an antique, but he'd probably made it himself. He hung the lantern at the end of the stall and held out his hand. "I'm Ourland Bridger. Thanks for coming out."

Hastily, Margit wiped the spadejaw saliva from her fingers. Mr. Bridger's hand felt smooth and slightly chalky, despite the humid air. His face was craggy below the overlay of color, and his scalp was also shaved, as was his beard.

Suddenly Margit felt ashamed of her new jade-colored coveralls. They were standard wear for veterinary students, and although they matched the flecks in her eyes, Margit had always regarded them as nothing more than muck-catchers. But here the bright cloth looked like finery next to this farmer's worn workshirt and drawstring trousers.

"I'll do what I can, Mr. Bridger." Margit took a breath of damp air. "But I have to tell you, my training has been almost entirely with wellbeasts." It felt good to say it at last, to someone besides Dr. Frew. "In fact, at the university—well, they didn't really teach us much about crease animals at all."

Bridger raised an eyebrow over one brown-dusted socket. "Huh. I figured as much, but that's more than the other fellow ever said." He spat casually to one side. Whether it was a habitual gesture, or a comment on Costa, she wasn't sure. "Tell you the truth, you're kind of a last resort. I don't think this old girl's got too many more breaths in her." He rubbed a hand over the spadejaw's near heat-pit.

Tersely, Bridger gave her a summary. Six nights ago, he'd noticed Bella lagging behind the herd when he brought them into the barn for milking. She'd tried to follow the others back toward the crease, but at that point he became disturbed by her tottering gait and kept her back. Since then she had become increasingly less mobile, and hadn't eaten any of the fodder he offered.

"And it's not easy getting those heat-plants for her, either. Full body armor, it takes. Our Snow Crease is hotter than most."

"Has she been drinking much water, Mr. Bridger?"

The farmer stared. "They really didn't teach you much, did they? I've been wetting her down regular, twice a day. That's all she needs."

"Oh, I see." There was an awkward silence. "I was thinking of shaving her," Margit offered. "To get a better look at her body."

"Shave her? Spadejaw can't stand the crease heat without a coat. She won't be able to graze."

"But if she's dying anyway, isn't it worth a try? If she lives, you could keep her in the barn until her coat grows back."

The lamplight shadowed Bridger's eyes until he looked like an illbeast himself. "You're right, Ms. Gazaway. It's worth a try. I'll get the shears I use for the wirefleeces."

While he was gone, Margit thought she saw the girl's face at the door for a moment, a pale mask in the dark, but then she was gone. Her father had probably told her to stay out of the way.

Bridger returned and began to saw off great clumps of the fiber, cropping it close enough that Margit could see the spadejaw's dappled skin. Chunks of matted coat plopped onto the white-fuzzed ground, kicking up dust eddies in the lamplight.

When it was done she had Bridger lead the animal around the barn floor. Bella trudged after him haltingly, with steps that revealed her pain.

"I'm sorry," Margit said at last. "I just don't know."

The spadejaw's cooing was louder now.

"That sound, Mr. Bridger—is she having trouble breathing?"

"What? No, no. They do it when they're happy, you know, but sometimes when they're scared or in pain, they do it too. Seems to comfort them." His shoulders slumped. "You'd best put her out of her misery. I know you vets can do that much."

"I—I can give her an injection, but I don't know its effect on spadejaws." Margit couldn't meet the man's eyes.

"Just like for cattle, that's what the other fellow always said."

Did he now. Lips tight, Margit prepared the injector.

After she'd put Bella to sleep, Margit took her leave as quickly as she could. She motored up the hill until the farm buildings had blurred in the mist, then parked and walked toward the crease.

The brief night had passed while she was in the barn, and now the sun was rising, glowing behind rags of steam that blew hot across her path. Below her the crease was a snake of swirling fog. Erratic windgusts blasted the mist away for moments at a time, revealing craggy cliffsides covered with encrustations, white and gray and brown, from the bushiest heat-plants down to the finest wort. Those stolid shaggy lumps grating their muzzles against the ground must be the spadejaw herd, with a few adzehorns prying into cracks in the lower reaches. The moisture in the air muffled their grazing to a distant grinding sound.

So this would be her life for the next five years. Putting down poor beasts she couldn't begin to help, and apologizing afterward. Long lonely drives to sweltering farms reeking of poverty. Living in a dreary town of dark stone buildings where the sky was always gray, where she would always be a stranger. Maybe she hadn't been the best student she could, but surely she deserved better.

A light touch on her calf made Margit whirl around. It was the little girl, her bare feet caked with wort, panting from the distance she had just run.

"I'm mourning," the child said.

Margit froze. This was all she needed—recriminations for killing the "best favorite spadie."

Then she realized the girl had most likely said, "I'm Morning." It was a common FirstComer name, along with Newhope and Horizon and Promise and all the rest.

"I'm Margit."

Morning bobbed her head. Her small pallid face was serious, and the powdery coating around her eyes was smeared. "Pap said you made Bella die."

Margit squatted down so she could look right into the girl's face. "I'm sorry, Morning, but there was nothing else I could do. She was in a lot of pain."

"I know. Pap explained to me." The girl bit her lip. "He said you felt bad."

"Yes."

"You shouldn't. It wasn't your fault." The little girl reached up and curiously touched Margit's face, then whirled and raced away across the rocky field, her outline growing lighter and lighter until it disappeared into the haze.

It would have been better if Morning had been angry. In other places Margit had been—Second Wave settlements, of course, green and fertile—people expected more from a vet.

In fact, she expected more herself.

Margit stared down at the crease until her eyes stung. Then she stalked back to where she'd left the motowagon. She turned it around and headed back down the hill toward Snow Crease Farm.

She'd find Ourland Bridger and ask his permission to dissect Bella. Then she'd ask him to start teaching her about spadejaws. And she would write down what she learned. Someone had to.

Margit raised a hand to her face where Morning had touched her, and in doing so felt a tiny roughness at the side of her mouth, where the first flake of lichen was starting to form. She didn't brush it away.


Constance Cooper has worked as a journalist, linguistic researcher, and software engineer. Her writing has appeared in Asimov's, Talebones, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Abyss & Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and a variety of other magazines and anthologies. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and daughter.