(Below is Jas Isle's How They Make Soap, which is probably the most memorable story you will read all year.)
How They Make Soapby Jas Isle
I was home for a weekend from summer camp where I worked as a CIT, a counselor-in-training. I'm in full quiet mode, trying to get used to civilization again. This was at supper, the night after a long talk from Pop about the importance of experience to something or other and also about not swearing, or smoking. So Dad finally puts down his fork, or whatever, and asks, like he's been waiting twenty-four hours for an answer, "What good is it. What are you learning besides swear words and how to blow smoke rings?"
"Well, I think summer camp helps to make a kid more mature", I said, "and besides you learn things," I began searching my mind for something, "for example, this week I learned how they make soap."
"What does that have to do with anything."
"Well a horse died," I said, not sure how to follow this.
"You are going to have to tell us more," said Dad.
"See, they're starting a ranch camp. We gutted an old farmhouse and built it into a bunkhouse and we added corrals and a stable, sunk new fence posts and have been stretching barbed wire. Last week we got in a shipment of new horses. The horses are really beautiful and have some life in them. Our own horses are swaybacked and bored. Its like riding on the back of a chain gang. You might as well be on a merry-go-round. So getting this new batch was like taking delivery on a truckload of new cars. Me and Bod Jones and the Ranch Camp director, Rick Armstrong picked out the best looking ones and went for a ride on the back roads. We let em run, racing one another, just had a ball. I never galloped horses like that before. When you are bent down behind the neck of a horse stretched out at full speed there is a quietness in the center of this furious motion, like riding in the eye of a hurricane. I just tried to ride in that center, my arms and legs pumping like I was a four banger engine. Rick was so pent up after riding the merry-go-round, we couldn't keep up with him. He went up over a small hill leaving dust and stones skittering behind. I cantered over expecting to see a trail of dust. What I saw was Rick's horse, at the bottom of the hill, right in the middle of a crossroads, on its knees. Then it slowly rolled over and I saw Rick jump off. When I got there Rick was saying, 'Oh shit,' over and over."
My mother looked at my brother and sister and cleared her throat but Dad lifted a finger so I continued.
"God damn. At first we didn't believe it. We kept poking it with our toes, like it was faking. We didn't know what to do. I mean how do you give CPR to a horse? It was dead. Big dead. Rick told me to ride and get the camp director. Which right away I tried to do. But my horse was trembling and spooked as I maneuvered around his dead buddy, reared up, and just about knocked out one of my teeth. I lost the reins and he took off running like death was after him too. So we went down the road full speed with me bouncing between the neck and the saddle horn at least a quarter of a mile before I got a hold of the reins again. I got to the director's cabin and the director jumped into the jeep and drove out there. I moseyed on back sucking on my lip. There wasn't a cloud and the birds were singing, it was a good night, a deep, space blue summer sky.
"By the time I returned there were six adults standing around the big dead thing looking sad. After a little, the director left. He said there wasn't anything to do about it and to wait till morning. They all stood a little longer, pretty much agreeing there wasn't much they could do about it and wondering how they were going to pick it up. Bod and I walked our horses back and I brushed them down, fed them and watered them in the arc lights of the stable yard. That night, where I bunked, with the cooks and dishwashers and all the counselors-in-training, I didn't say anything about it, just smoked cigarettes, and played cards. Nobody asked how my day went. I didn't ask about theirs.
"Next day all the hikes went by the corpse so everybody could get a look at her. She was stiff like a huge stuffed animal tipped over. The adults were still thinking, trying to figure out what to do, like philosophy. They're all mostly college guys and I'm not sure exactly how much Rick really knew about horses. I think they hired him because he was from Arizona. Maybe he had read a book. But not the right book. And so that was it for the first day.
"By the time we got there on the afternoon of the second day the horse had changed a lot. She was beginning to look wicked. She winked an eyelid of flies at us, her stiff legs stuck straight out. Bod Jones, who just turned fourteen but who can grow a full beard, twanged em. Someone suggested we stand her up. 'Naw, her legs would bust off,' he said. 'Maybe we could just leave it?' someone else said. All we had with us was a piece of rope and a shovel. Rick drove off in the truck and we stayed behind and waited for him. 'Guard the horse,' he said when he left. When he came back he had some tall fence post stock and block and tackle to make a hoist. It was almost sunset when we set it over the horse. It was only lodge poles lashed together and it didn't work, and the horse fell and, when it hit the ground, belched and farted like it was disgusted with us instead of the opposite way around. We straggled off defeated. The director, when he heard, nearly blew up. I heard him yell, 'What do you mean it's still out there?'
"The next day, the air was already hot when I walked down to breakfast. It was going to be a scorcher. During breakfast Rick came in and sat with the CITs. 'Boys, we need some volunteers. We had a horse died out in the pasture as you know. Who wants to go help load it onto the truck?' The pickup truck roared down the back road towards the dead horse crammed with volunteers. Kids love dead things. This was gonna be one big dead thing. During the ride one guy went on and on about a dead chipmunk he'd seen but he was not prepared for what was out there.
"Under that hot, hot sun, damn, it was evil. The horse lay all alone in the middle of the crossroads, and this time it was much worse. The smell was very strong. The horse had grown and enormous swollen belly and the legs stuck straight out like pins. And worse, it appeared to be smiling sarcastically. Everybody stood to the side murmuring exclamations of grossness. The way the flies went in and out of the nose made it look like it was breathing. Somebody asked if it was dead. One of em poked it with a stick. Bruce Hornblast touched one of its glassy open eyes and then pretended to suck his finger. No one knew how to pick up a dead horse and the horse was beginning to sneer. So we all stepped back and gave it some thought. It was surrounded. Bod started bouncing pebbles off the belly from a distance. It sounded hollow, taut.
"Finally, they sent us in as a group. I guess they figured it'd be like a car. If we could get enough hands under the edges we would just pick it up. The sun rose higher, the smell rose higher, my nose rose higher. It is very hard to lift something at the same time you are trying to stay away from it. A dead horse has no edges. We struggled against these great difficulties. We didn't have much luck. It was a hot morning and the idea stunk.
"By afternoon, lime had been spread on the horse but just made it look more obscene. We had been given boards and the idea was to fit them underneath. This way more of us could get a handle and heave-to as the sailors say. And boy did we all heave too. The stench up close was terrific. The flies were more likely to pick her up than we were. It was impossible to work up close for long. Someone slipped as we were trying to lift one side because the underbelly of the horse was purple, slimy and crawling with maggots, so, the horse dropped a couple inches to the ground and oozed out both ends. This caused a squirming sensation in a lot of people. And, as the horse oozed, some of us oozed and wished we hadn't taken the time to eat lunch. As we worked the sun puffed up the animal like a party balloon. Someone had remembered seeing relief workers on TV with their faces covered with handkerchiefs, which became fashionable. Soon we were swarming around it, in competition with the maggots, the flies and the birds. Finally we got the boards in place and everybody backed off to get some air. Progress had been slow. Nobody wanted the front or the back. There was a lot of swearing and people kept switching positions. As the horse was hoisted guys on the outside backed away. I think they were afraid of what might happen if the bloated thing should drop. We staggered towards the truck, retching and weeping with the smell, and had it halfway in the truck when the board in back snapped. The horse dropped, half on and half off the tailgate and we scattered. Before the animal slid off, before it even hit the ground, we were in the bushes. The horse bounced once and blasted horror out both ends, explosively farting and belching maggots, shit, and blood, thereby satisfying any adolescent need for grossness in us forever.
"Morale was low. We left the horse and went off someplace to think about it, the horse lay there in the crossroads, alive. It had begun to grin. That night, while it lay out there resting under a clear starry sky, that night, most of us lay awake in our cabins and the dead horse grew larger and larger, and not just in our imaginations.
"Next morning the weather was clear and hot. We all started talking before we got out of bed. Someone said it was hot yesterday. Someone else said they thought a record had been broken and pointed out it was hot already.
'Which way is the wind blowing today?'
'West, I think.'
'I can smell it from here.'
'Man, I'm callin in sick.'
"Breakfast was grim. There weren't going to be any volunteers. Nobody felt like wasting their time eating. All faces went blank. Sure enough there were no volunteers that morning.
"'Everybody goes,' says Rick. There were various arguments put up against this. Such as, 'Screw you, I'm not going,' or 'My parents didn't send me here to put up with this shit,' and, 'You make me go out there and I quit.' But management was all business, 'Last one in the truck gets the back end of the horse.' On the ride out everyone seemed withdrawn. No one was talking about dead chipmunks.
"They dropped us off far away. A volunteer had to be drawn by straws just to go and back up the truck. Of course it was management's job to get an overview of the situation and to get a really good overview they needed to be back a strategic distance, looking like a knot of generals drawing diagrams in the dust with sticks. They did a lot of thinking at a distance. Nobody could quite figure it out. The horse's aura had expanded, and one could see the shape of a light breeze in our distribution around her. It turned out our job was to get three fencepost sized pines under the horse and then use them to lift.
"When we finally got started it looked like D-day. People brought cans of spray deodorant with them and sprayed them at the animal as they advanced. There was an initial wave of attack, then repulsion. The smell was unbelievable. The dust had grown thick around the animal, kicked up by recruits and their replacements as they advanced and retreated over the past four days. We kept at it like an army of ants, trying to lift some dead something so many times bigger than ourselves. We positioned the posts. We lifted. We shoved. Once again the horse blasted warning gases. Once again it lay alone in the middle of the crossroads, victorious, as we looked out at it in horror from the bushes. The air was filled with the sound of retching, weeping fourteen and fifteen year old boys, cursing and retching, weeping, moaning, and retching. People kept switching positions. If one fresh faced replacement passed out he was dragged away by his arms, through the thick dust. New replacements were sent in from the perimeter. Besides the bodies of the overcome being dragged off there were others crawling out on their hands and knees thinking, I guess, that they could get out by crawling underneath the smell. So there was a constant exchange, some dashing in and some dashing out, some crawling in, some crawling out. Someone had even brought aqualungs from the beach. The new kids weren't much good, they were in the bushes all the time puking, open mouthed and on their knees in reverent horror. Everybody up close, putting the heavy fence post stock in place, was trying to keep from inhaling flies.
"There was a lull as we all stepped back for air. It is hard for me to characterize that moment of silence. All I can say now is that it didn't last long enough. We were split into two groups. On command, half of us swarmed the barricades of smell, went to our posts and lifted, and if one of us dropped away, overcome, a replacement from the other half was sent in to fill our place. We had the horse up in the air and headed for the truck when, at this point, to the brave souls at the back of the animal, pushing for their lives, the unthinkable happened, the horse exploded, out its butt end, and into their faces."
At this point my family stopped eating.
"The entire organizational structure collapsed. We ran from the sight of our comrades. They were covered in horror. Their wailing, their screams, their agonies, are indescribable. No one could help them. They staggered around shaking their bodies in a strange dance trying to fling stuff off themselves without touching it. One guy was murmuring, 'Help me. Help me.' If she had been there, not even his mother would have helped him. You kind of wanted to shoot them to put them out of their misery. Two big guys got the water cooler, which was full of cherry Kool-Aid, and dumped it on their heads. Then they were carted off in the truck. It was noon now, but no one was hungry. We were empty vessels. Bod Jones started lobbing stones from a distance but we begged him to stop. Jones grinned, and looked around, and asked if anybody had a chain saw.
"The horse lay out another night hosting a hell of a party of parasites.
"Next day, at breakfast, its Rick again.
"'How ya all doin this morning?'
"'Fuck you, Rick!'
"'Anybody got any ideas then? What about you, Jones? You're always full of it.'
"Jones looked out from under his black bushy eyebrows. It was 6:30 in the morning and he already had a five o'clock shadow. He said,
'I can do it.'
"And Rick responded, 'All yours.'
"While he ate, stuffed himself in fact, Bod picked twelve of us, not just for size, but for stomach. Bod stopped only to grab a chainsaw from the toolshed before we rode the truck out." At this point my little brother was breathless, "So you chopped up the horse in little pieces with the chainsaw?" "Ew," was all my little sister could say. My mother was all attention.
"No, we didn't cut the horse into pieces. We had that entire horse loaded on the truck in fifteen minutes using round pine poles Bod cut from the woods. He was the boss. We worked in teams. We rolled her onto four very long, strong poles. With those under her we had a lot of lift. We knew what we had to do, we stood at the job and did it. A leg had broken the day before and it was swinging around loose but it didn't bother us. We had short round poles cut for the truck and we slid her across those. And so we rolled her across the finish line. She was a little long for the bed and her nose hung off the end and her three good legs had to be propped up on the sidewall, but it was close enough. Bod and I got picked for the ride into town to the rendering plant. That's where they make dead horses into soap. We rode in back with the horse and sat on the bed rail and leaned back against the cab and hoped the truck would keep moving.
"In town, a station wagon full of kids pulled up behind us at a light. The kids were saying, 'Mommy, look its a horsey.' We smiled and waved at the children. The dead horse was oozing out of the tail-gate like a melting block of ice. As we pulled away from the light, Bod poked the horse in the tummy with the broom handle to make it ooze some more. The kids were pointing and excited and asking questions to Mommy, but Mommy didn't look well. We returned her stare. We rode with some arrogance. As long as we were moving, we were cool, everybody in the world was downwind."
I was done talking and went quiet again, looking at my Dad. And after awhile he got his breath because what I was saying had made him choke a couple times and he looked at me and said, with a kind of look on his face which I will never forget, "You should write that story down."
Crowright 2000 Osric Publishing. Last updated 06.25.2000