Buffalo Cactus

Sierra Bellows

A year after Sadie moved in with him, Ben brought home a buffalo calf in a rented trailer designed to carry four horses. The calf rode the thirty miles of highway from the farm in Buckeye, Arizona, where she was born to a new paddock that Ben had built in a rush over a week. It was a small enclosure, more a holding pen than anything else. The neighbors down the road had assumed that it would hold ponies. But when Ben unloaded the trailer, the calf came tripping across the driveway, a rope tied around her neck. She was the size of a pony but with a fawn's unstable gait. She had dainty black hooves and a shaggy reddish coat that paled to white down her legs.

Sadie thought the buffalo calf looked beautiful but improbable, an animal invented in a dream. But here it was in the yard.

The buffalo calf was instantly popular with the neighborhood children, who put their hands through the slats of the paddock to pat her low-slung head. Ben prepared her large bottles of goat's milk. The calf tried to pull the bottle away from him and it took both Ben's large hands to keep hold of it. "It looks oddly like Bambi, the eyelashes," said Sadie.

Sadie fell in love late in her life, when Ben was already old, and she was past what she felt were her marriageable years. It wasn't until she'd moved in that she asked him what color his hair had been before it was white. Before he could answer, she said, "Don't tell me. I want to know you only as you are now."

Ben lugged a small bale of hay from his truck toward the paddock. When the calf nibbled on the hay, Sadie could hear its teeth grinding together.

A few months before, when Ben had spoken on the phone with the farm where the calf was born, Sadie had questioned him about it. "How big will the buffalo grow?" she asked. "Eight hundred pounds? A ton?"

"About that, yeah," Ben said.

"How long will it live? Fifteen years? Twenty-five?" It was as if Ben were buying a sailboat, something they'd have to pay off for a decade. Why exactly did he want a buffalo calf?

Ben shrugged. "We'll get her when she's three months old and she'll be able to calve herself in three years."

"Wait, are you getting her so you can raise her for meat?" asked Sadie.

"Sadie! Shit," said Ben. "Of course not."

Ben had told Sadie to envision what a herd of ten thousand buffalo would look like. "Picture them in a plain where the grass is high," he said. "Imagine it's summer, so there are calves grazing next to their mothers. If you stood in the middle of the herd, the land would be so thick with them that when you looked toward the horizon, there would just be a line of black, and you could turn in a full circle and all you'd see is buffalo."

To humor Ben, Sadie closed her eyes. She pictured the desert full of buffalo, thirsty animals, their tattered hides hanging from their curved spines.

"Wouldn't it be beautiful?" said Ben. "That's how America was when Europeans arrived here. If I had a billion dollars, I'd repopulate the West with buffalo."

Even though she'd known it was coming, Sadie hadn't been prepared for the calf's actual arrival. It looked so out of place.

Ben beamed at the calf. He was sweaty from carrying the hay and his jeans were dusty up to the knee. The calf had finished eating and was pushing its dark nose between the slats toward Ben and Sadie. It nibbled at Sadie's long Indian-print skirt, then suckled on it. Did all babies do the same things? Sadie tried to retrieve her skirt, which was soggy with calf spit. The calf would not let go.

"See? She likes you," said Ben. Sadie reached down to pat the calf's large ears.

The first night after the calf arrived, it made horrible low grunting sounds after it got dark, sounds lower than a man could make, and louder. Ben called the vet and while they waited for him to arrive, they stood next to the paddock in their nightclothes. "It's just homesick," Ben said. Ben went to prepare a bottle of milk and Sadie listened to the animal's sounds. The calf made noises like an old engine that turned over and over but wouldn't start.


Sadie lived with Ben in his house on several acres on the outskirts of Phoenix. Their neighbors had pools, palms, and lawns tended by Mexicans who arrived in pick-up trucks once a week. Behind the houses, red rock formations jutted up through the scrub. Desert skyscrapers, Sadie thought. The neighbors were real estate developers and businessmen, and on Sundays most of the families went to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the neighborhood, the dominion of nature and the dominion of man were clearly divided. The roads were newly paved, the houses were freshly painted and irrigation hoses were laced through the soil of the green lawns, but the earth was mostly rock and, where human hands did not touch it, only scrub brush would grow.

Sadie knew Ben had been an engineer, but in his retirement, most of his time was spent growing desert plants. In the early mornings, he'd tuck a spray bottle into his belt loop, then walk outside and dust the ground around his cacti and succulents with water.

They both woke early, when the light was purple and shadowless, the sun below the horizon. Sadie could hear Ben's feet scuffling in the gravel of the yard as she made coffee on the stove in a small percolator. For her entire adult life, she'd made a cup of coffee for herself this way in the mornings. Now she boiled the water in the percolator twice.

Sadie would drink her coffee at the small desk she'd pushed in front of the living room window. Whose desk was it? Ben's childhood desk? His ex-wife's? When she'd rifled through the drawers, she'd found only dried-out pens, a calculator without batteries, unused legal pads and a bag of pipe tobacco. Ben didn't smoke a pipe, but maybe he had.

She'd switch on the desk lamp—its light yellow in the blue morning—and read over the translations she'd done the day before. The Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt had written most of "Kosmos" during the first half of the seventeenth century. Sadie had translated its first four books before she'd turned fifty. Now she was translating its fifth and final volume.


Before the buffalo calf, no one ever knocked on Ben's front door unexpectedly. Now it happened often. Sometimes it was a boy from the neighborhood who wanted to feed it a bouquet of flowers picked from his yard. Sometimes it was an entire family, their faces vaguely familiar to Sadie, the smaller children standing behind their father's pant legs on the front porch. Other times the visitors weren't even from Phoenix, they had just passed the calf's paddock while driving down the road and wanted a closer look.

"I can't believe it. Incredible. A buffalo. Just in your yard," said Janice, a neighbor. She'd brought her three blond children with her, though not her husband, Roger, and they stood both awed and afraid several feet from the calf's fence.

"Oh, people get all sorts of animals these days. I read that people are using miniature ponies as seeing eye dogs," said Ben. "It's okay to touch her. She's just a little baby still. You like kittens, right? Puppies?" The children edged closer.

But Janice was right, thought Sadie. It was strange to keep a large, undomesticated animal. It was a wild enterprise. Sadie had never even owned a cat; she felt she wouldn't be able to take care of something that couldn't express its needs to her. She liked that Ben had such ambitions, that he wasn't like the men who came by wearing their freshly pressed slacks, their brand new shaves. What did these men dream of? A newer car? A weekend when the wife and kids went to visit their in-laws without them? She admired Ben's ambitions, but Sadie had kept her wishes modest and pragmatic.

The children were reaching their hands through the fence to touch the calf's heart-shaped muzzle, and the calf licked their fingers with its long, pointed tongue. "It likes us," one of the children said to Ben.

"Now they're going to want one," said Janice to Sadie. "I don't think Roger would like that. Kids never take care of the pets like they say they will. I'd just end up walking the buffalo." Janice smiled at her own joke.


Ben's house was overstuffed, filled with the remnants of the many lives he'd lived in the thirty years since he'd moved in. The kitchen cupboards were cluttered with mismatched glasses and plates, the drawers overflowed with flatware from different decades, and several forks and spoons were engraved with Ben's mother's initials. "She got them one by one, by mailing in the coupons from Betty Crocker," Ben had said. None of the furniture was new, and Sadie wondered if the nicer pieces had been wedding gifts, either from Ben's wedding or from his parents'. The heavy walnut bedside tables looked like they were from the 1930s. But the teak sideboard in the dining room could have been something Ben's wife had left behind.

Ben grew a giant starfish cactus from a cutting sent in the mail from Mexico, and he dutifully cut and buried the foot-wide flowers two days after they bloomed so they would not stink of carrion. Before their burial, Sadie touched the yellow speckled petals, and they felt alive. The German word struppig seemed like the right adjective to describe the sensation, Sadie thought. Like an unshaved man. But samtweich might be better, its meaning closer to velvety.

Sadie translated a section about submarine volcanoes, describing with as much poetry as she could the plumes of steam and smoke rising in grey columns out of the ocean. She did not use the term "pillow lava" to name the round shapes made by molten rock as it hit cold water. It was not a term of Humboldt's time. "Have you ever been on an oceangoing ship?" she asked Ben.

"Once, I took a Mediterranean cruise," said Ben. Sadie tried to remember a map of the volcanic islands of the Mediterranean Sea. Was Santorini volcanic? "The food was horrible and we had an inward-looking cabin. No view of the sea. But the European women sunbathed topless every day on the deck."


On one of the first nights Sadie had spent at Ben's house, they sat in lawn chairs, among the cacti, and watched the setting sun dim out the desert, the slow leaching of its color. They had known each other for mere weeks. Sadie propped an open bottle of Malbec in the gravel by her foot and they both held tumblers of wine. Sadie didn't know why Ben didn't have wine glasses. Had they all been broken? They listened to the wind, the occasional car as it passed on the other side of the house. Even in the beginning, they knew how to be quiet with each other. They watched as stars began to appear in the east, even as the western horizon glowed a dull gold. "Why the old books of a Prussian naturalist?" asked Ben. "Why not something racier, like the Karma Sutra?"

Sadie laughed. "The Kama Sutra?"

"What?" asked Ben.

"Never mind. Humboldt's project was to take all that was known about the natural sciences and make it all work together," said Sadie. "Like a unified theory of everything. Something that made the world seem like it wasn't full of chaos, but rather ruled by order."

"A tall order, indeed."

"And it hardly mentions God. It's like he's looking for God in the coincidences." Ben nodded, but stayed quiet. Sadie wasn't sure if she'd bored him. "He would have been one of the first Europeans to see some of your cacti. He traveled in South America."

Humboldt had noticed the coast of South America and the coast of Western Africa were almost mirror images of each other. He'd suggested that they'd once been joined and had been torn apart, slowly, over thousands of years. The boundary between the two continental plates was all on fire, volcanoes erupting under the Atlantic Ocean as the continents drifted away from each other.

"I wish I were Humboldt," said Ben.


Sadie told her friends she'd met Ben on a flora and fauna tour of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, among the prickly pear and desert lavender on the incline of Piestewa Peak. The story seemed plausible for a cactus gardener and the translator of a naturalist. It was true that she'd met him in the desert; she didn't say it was at the Avery Shooting Range.

The first time she'd seen him, Ben was wearing ear protection and yellow-tinted glasses. "Supposedly, they should make my aim better. But they don't seem to help me much," he'd said, as Sadie took out her earplugs. He was at the shooting table next to hers. His target was twenty-five yards distant. Sadie's was only ten yards away. He had a hunting rifle, and she had a semi-automatic pistol. Downrange, after the targets, the dry dirt ran flat for miles before the blue hills rose at the horizon.

Every quarter hour, there was a ceasefire at the range when shooters could set up new targets or take them down. It was a welcome quiet for Sadie.

Ben explained that he was learning to shoot so he could live off the land. He was also taking bow-hunting classes. "The Cocopah Indians used to hunt deer in the mesquite forest."

"Are there still deer in those forests?" asked Sadie. She took off her hat and ran her hand through her hair. Her hands smelled like brass and they were sore from the gun's recoil.

"Yes, I've seen photos," said Ben. Sadie doubted it was legal to shoot them.

"Are you taking butchering lessons also?" she asked, coyly.

"I've read about field dressing. Maybe I should take lessons," he said. Sadie looked at Ben's target. He wasn't a good shot, even at twenty-five yards.

Sadie laughed. "I've read about how it was done a hundred and fifty years ago, might be useful, but I don't have any practical experience with that kind of thing."

Sadie didn't think there would ever be any necessity for her to shoot a deer. Or a rabbit, for that matter. No forest creature would need to be skinned for its pelt to keep her warm at high altitude. She was learning to use a gun because she'd realized that she would likely be alone for the rest of her life, and when she imagined herself as an old woman, she felt she would be vulnerable.

"Have you ever killed a deer?" Sadie asked.

Ben shook his head. He took off his yellow glasses and she noticed that he was handsome.

"But you want to?" she said.

"Not exactly. I want to be able to," he said.

She left her gun locked in its case in the basement of her old house when she moved in with Ben.

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