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****Ryan Dennis’s The Beasts They Turned Away is #226 in the never-ending series called INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.
Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? The novel is titled The Beasts They Turned Away, although after five years of thinking about it, I still might not have gotten it right. I wanted something that reflected both the form and the content of the book in some way, but had to settle for only the latter. Its working title for the first draft was Man of Land and Sky. (Right: Ryan Dennis (far right) outside of Neachtains pub in Galway, Ireland. Copyright by Ryan Dennis)
What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? The Beasts They Turned Away is the result of my PhD with the National University of Ireland, Galway. I first started writing it September 2015, and six drafts later, the final corrections were submitted to the publisher in February 2020. I had trouble with my eyes in 2015 and couldn’t tolerate a computer screen, so I wrote the whole thing longhand in notebooks first—and once accidentally left those notebooks overnight in a pub. Luckily, the barman didn’t bin the year’s work. (Journal entry from Ryan Dennis's notebook of THE BEASTS THEY TURNED AWAY. Credit and Copyright by Ryan Dennis)
Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work? And please describe in detail. And can you please include a photo? Because the project spanned five years, the writing of Beasts happened all over and spread across three continents. Some of it was at my desk in Galway, Ireland, some happened at the home farm in Western New York State, and the final draft was completed while traveling through South America. (Right: Road leading to Ryan Dennis's farm in upper state New York. Credit and Copyright by Ryan Dennis)
When at home and in good weather I’d either work on the porch, or on a hay bale in a field. It always worked better when I was outside and only the cattle could hear me talking to myself. (Left: Ryan Dennis's nephew sitting on the porch where Ryan Dennis writes. Credit and Copyright by Ryan Dennis)
What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I always write the first draft of everything on paper, and then type it in. I can’t think staring at a computer screen, and instead need a pen in my hand so I can draw arrows and make quick notes and scratch things out. It’s much slower, but I can’t get around it. (I just hope that it makes for a better archive someday.) (Right: Ryan Dennis reading on his farm. Copyright by Ryan Dennis)
Often, I let the characters in the scene speak to each other freely first, with me simply transcribing what they say. Then I go back and write a draft of the scene. In that manner, I’m not getting in their way as much. (Left: Ryan Dennis with his partner Alessandra in Patagonia, South America. Copyright by Ryan Dennis)
Please include just one excerpt and include page numbers as reference. This one excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer.
THE SICK PEN
The old man stares at the backend of a cow, his elbows in his hands. The cow lays still, breathes slowly.
Behind them Geir Sullivan jerks open the shed door, squeezes himself through sideways. Stands there with his thumbs tucked in his belt loops. Hey there, he yells out. Rocks on his heels. Yells out again and then walks through the shed.
The Great Mulgannon, Geir Sullivan says, coming upon the old man. Stands next to him and folds his arms. Then says, Christ Almighty.
A red mass protrudes out of the back of the cow, bulges in the straw. Leathery caruncles drying, stiffening in the murky light. Her uterus spilled out behind her.
Listen, says Geir Sullivan. He wears a hat that says Cusack Feeds. Takes it off and puts it back on again. I’m sure you’re willing as I am to let bygones be bygones and all that. He looks the old man over. Then shifts on his feet and holds out an open palm.
The old man walks away.
Geir Sullivan stares after him. Turns to the cow. Then follows the old man.
The old man enters the dairy, takes a calf bucket. Pumps the lever of a plastic barrel and splashes teat dip into the bucket. Fills it with warm water. Yellow bubbles swell on the surface and then burst. Geir Sullivan trails the old man out the door.
The old man climbs into the sick pen again. Swings his leg over the highest bar and sets the bucket down. It tilts in the bedding. The old man picks up a come-along from the corner of the pen and drags it to the down cow. Tosses the rope towards the rafter stretching over them. 202 lays in the far end of the pen, watching the old man, the other cow. Flicks her tail at flies on her topline. On the third try the old man tosses the rope over the plank, connects it back to the pulley.
I just been hired, see, by Cusack, Geir Sullivan says. Sure, it’s alright. I’m to enquire after accounts and all that. Mostly the overdue ones. Jesus, what’s going on here, he says, nodding at the cow.
The old man slips the hip lifters over her pins and turns an old bolt shaft until it grips her bones tightly. Straightens himself, exhales. Starts working the crank, raising the backend of the cow.
Geir Sullivan says, anyway, they sent me here. In fact, I’m the only one that would come. Others say it’s futile, or well. Just don’t feel comfortable or something. But I said hell, I’ll come.
The cow scrapes at the concrete with her front hooves but doesn’t have the strength to lift herself. Resigns to being on her front knees. Her backend slowly turning as the rope twists.
The old man pushes up his sleeves. They bunch at his elbows. Dips his hand into the bucket, lathers. The dark water clinging to the hair on his arms. Says, the dead pile will take you. Maybe not today though.
The old man carefully rubs the rough tissue. Lifts the bucket to his chest and pours it, the warm liquid following wiry paths over the organ, his fingers. Falls to the hay. The cow jerks, dust filtering down from where the rope flinches on the wooden rafter.
The old man steadies himself behind the cow. Gets two hands beneath the bulbous pile and then puts his shoulder under it. Shakes as he lifts up. Slips it back into the cow, pushing it into the caverns inside her. Then he stands there, his arm inside the cow. Tells Geir Sullivan to come here.
Geir Sullivan clutches at his beltloops and kicks at the chaff in front of him. Turns to stare at the shed walls. The old man says it again and Geir Sullivan finally steps forward.
Run your hand along my arm, the old man says. Until you find my fingers. Hold her in place for me.
Surely will not, Geir Sullivan says. This isn’t my job.
The old man looks him over. Says, probably never been inside a woman either.
Geir Sullivan chews on the inside of his cheek. Shakes his head. Jesus Christ, he says.
Geir Sullivan pushes his hand through the vulva of the cow, his arm sliding against the slick skin of the old man. Leans in until his fingers reach the tissue lining. The old man pats Geir Sullivan’s hand inside the uterus of the cow before freeing himself.
I’m going to need to leave here with a payment, Geir Sullivan says. Marching orders, you know. I’m sure you understand.
The old man takes a steak knife out of the back of his pocket and tosses it into the bucket. Tips the bucket and swirls around the little bit of teat dip still inside. Bends and unlaces one of his work shoes, pulling at the dirty string as it becomes longer, clumps of mud breaking apart as he forces it through the eyelets. Drops the shoelace into the bucket.
The old man grabs the fold of the vulva and needles the end of the knife into it. He clenches the shoelace in his mouth, the bitter taste pooling around his teeth. The string stretching half his length and swaying. The internal fluids of the cow cool on the old man’s arm. When the knife pierces through the tissue of the vulva the old man slides the knife into his back pocket again, pokes the end of the lace through the hole. Pulls. The cow lifting her head and straining from the lifters.
The old man spreads the vulva flat between his fingers and takes the knife again. Geir squints. Leans away from the old man. 202 rocks forward at the other end of the pen, finally pulls herself to her knees and gets her hindlegs beneath her, rises. Her loin dipping as she stretches, puts her head over the gate. The old man’s wrinkled fingers numbly work the flesh, the shoelaces. He stops sometimes to curse and wipe his forehead on the end of his shirt.
Eventually the string weaves around the outside of the vulva, both ends falling over the back of the udder.
Take your hand out, the old man says. But do it slowly.
As soon as Geir is clear from the end of the cow the old man ties the shoelace into a bow. Well, he says. Then says, there you have it. You’re an alright assistant, Sullivan.
Geir Sullivan shakes his arm out. Didn’t expect to be doing vet work today. But damn.
The smell of iodine rises off the clothes of the two men, the top of their collars damp with sweat. The old man bends down to rub his hand on a dry patch of straw. Then steps over the top bar of the gate and takes a syringe, bottle, off a nearby window ledge.
Now comes the uncomfortable part, says Geir. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask for that payment. It would be helping me out.
I won’t, the old man says. He fills the syringe and gives the cow a shot of penicillin in the neck.
Geir Sullivan crosses his arms. Looks to the cow and then back to the old man. Tilts his head. You won’t, Geir says. That’s not a great stroke on your part.
The old man levers the crank, slowly lowering the cow. When her weight settles in the bedding and the rope slackens the old man slips the lifters off. He pushes her rear legs beneath her to make it easier for her to stand later.
The old man looks up. Sees Geir Sullivan still staring at him. Says, can’t get water from a stone, and so on.
Fucksake, you’re a pain in the hole.
The old man sets the knife, syringe, and bottle into the bucket. Grabs the lip of the bucket and heads towards the dairy.
They’ll put a lien on this place, if they haven’t already, Geir says. Banks and lawyers and all of it.
Geir Sullivan grabs the old man’s shoulder as he passes.
The old man spins around. Lifts a finger at him. I’ve given more than enough for what I have. Try to take more and see what happens.
The old man takes the knife out of the bucket, grips it. Turns back to the dairy.
I will, Geir Sullivan yells at the old man. He pounds his fist on the gate, making the latch rattle. Glares at the old man’s back. I will!
Why is this excerpt so emotional for you as a writer to write? And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt? This except involves the main character fixing the prolapsed uterus of a cow with his shoelace and a steak knife. The scene was added in the final draft. I had written similar scenes in other short stories and an unpublished novel from when I was young. It might seem a little unrealistic to some readers, but that it how we fixed prolapsed uteruses on our farm. Much like the protagonist in The Beasts They Turned Away, we couldn’t afford to hire a vet. To me, the scene represents not just a lived experience, but serves as a demonstration of what the current agricultural policy has done to family farming in most Western nations. (Left: Ryan as a child with Ana. Copyright by Ryan Dennis)
Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us? And can you please include a photo of your marked up rough drafts of this excerpt? Unfortunately, all the drafts of the novel that survived moving from one place to another are kept in a blue plastic tub in the old feed room on the farm (and I am currently back in the West of Ireland). I had to put a lot of heavy tools tractor parts over the lid because the goat that roamed free liked to pry it open and eat my future archive.
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