Red Heifer

After sliding a rocket into it, the general passed the launcher to Gabriel, who’d avoided staring at the animal in front of him. A hot breeze moved the tips of Gabriel’s brown hair, wavy like a flowing river, most of it tucked into a backwards baseball cap. He was twenty-two but had the face of a child, out of place on his muscular body, with arms that stretched the sleeves of his t-shirt and a chest that puffed like it was inflated. He was naturally pale and always had something in his mouth—usually a cigarette, but a toothpick or a peppermint when he couldn’t find one—because he thought it made him look like he didn’t care.

Harrison, Denny, and I stood behind Gabriel. The four of us were childhood friends on an expensive trip through Asia after graduating from expensive colleges. As I held my breath, I searched their faces for the dread that was paralyzing mine. Drops of sweat rolled off Harrison’s pointed chin as he stared at the grass and hovered his hands over his ears, ready to block the explosion’s boom. Harrison, taller than the rest of us, had never grown into his height, still awkward and lanky on his long legs. Denny looked short beside him, but he compensated with solid muscles that he emphasized by wearing tight shirts. He was trying to be stoic, but I noticed his bottom lip quiver. Denny had idolized Gabriel ever since elementary school, and only now was his faith being tested.

A cow grazed about fifty yards in front of us, before a mountain that scraped the clouds. The cow didn’t look like the images on milk cartons, white with black splotches and a bell around the neck. Instead, she was a skinny, relatively small animal, such a rich shade of brown that she was almost ruby. Her tail flicked up and down as she chewed, standing in grass so tall it touched her belly. It was probably more grass than she’d ever seen in her entire life.

Dense forests towered on both sides of us, creating walls that bore witness over the grassy valley. The green walls were impenetrable, with the exception of an unmarked dirt path through the forest to our left, which had hardly been big enough for the van that’d brought us to the field. In the strip of land lined by forests, we were standing in nature’s bowling alley, the target being one happy animal instead of ten pins.

The heifer stood directly across from Gabriel, at the base of a mountain. The mountain’s trees gave it a vibrant green hue, but it was so tall that its top half transitioned to a deep, muted purple. It stretched across the whole horizon, blocking most of the sky.

The general nodded at Gabriel, who looked through the rocket launcher’s sight and pointed its tip at the heifer.

When we were children, Gabriel had never been the kid who shot cats with airsoft guns. He never threw rocks at squirrels, he never hit dogs with sticks, and he never fried insects under magnifying glasses. He wasn’t sadistic. He was a sweet child, always chosen first in sports when he wasn’t the one picking the teams. He loved his mother, his father, and his brother.

None of us thought Gabriel was going to go through with it. He’d been talking about it since we’d left Thailand—how, in Phnom Penh, you can shoot a live target for only a few hundred dollars—but it’d become a sort of joke among us, something none of us were serious about. We’d gone to the shooting range, hoping to handle some World War II weapons or a light machine gun, but our stomachs had all turned when we’d seen Gabriel discreetly talking to a straight-faced general, handing him a wad of American dollars. The cash couldn’t have been for what we suspected it was for—no, our friend would never do that. But once the general had escorted us to the back of the parking area and told us to climb into a battered van, Harrison and I shot Gabriel incredulous glances. He couldn’t even look at us.

Even Denny, Gabriel’s best friend since the age of six, who showed him support in everything he did, was apprehensive. I could tell he was trying to be brave, trying to go along with his friend no matter what, but his face turned white as paper when the van sputtered to life. No one had said out loud what we were about to do, or witness. But as soon as the general had told us to follow him, we’d all known.

The general drove to the front of the shooting range and parked beside its main building, a wooden hut with ammunition for sale and guns on display. As we watched him enter, the four of us sat there, no one saying anything. The general had left the engine on. I looked towards Gabriel sitting in the passenger’s seat, trying to see into his eyes, but his gaze was elsewhere. This was the critical moment—the moment at which I could’ve said, Gabriel, you can’t do this, I’m not letting this van move another inch. But what would he have said? I’ve already paid the money, he might’ve snapped. Fine, he’d maybe retort, get out of the van. You don’t have to come. But who would you be helping?

There were four of us in total, and, ever since we were eleven, there’d never been any doubt Gabriel was our leader. He was the first to kiss a girl, the first to watch pornography, and the first to take a hit of his older brother’s joint—which tasted like dirt—as the rest of us watched in awe. Now, as we explored a new continent, he was the first to try strange meats like tortoise and rat, the first to jump from a bridge with only a thin bungy cord wrapped around his ankles, and the first to suck nitrous oxide from balloons sold on the side of the street.

Obliterating any lingering doubt I had about the unspoken purpose of our journey, the general returned shortly, carrying a long tube I’d only ever seen in Call of Duty. Like he was handling any disposable object, he threw it into the trunk, before carefully placing a small wooden box beside it. I hated to think what was in the box: a grenade, shaped like a pointed cocktail shaker, that would slide into the launcher.

As the general put the car in drive and sped through the parking area, the final opportunity to object remained behind us. I leaned against the window, watched motorbikes and trees blur past, and pretended like we were going somewhere else.

Gabriel hadn’t said anything since we’d left the range. He’d never been the most talkative of people, but he was particularly silent during the drive, his eyes glazed over as he stared out the window.

“You scared?” asked Denny, as the vehicle merged onto a narrow highway.

“What the hell would I have to be scared of?” Gabriel responded, his voice harsh, as if he hadn’t wished to be disturbed. His eyes didn’t move from the passing treetops. “That animal’s the one that should be scared.”

No one talked for the rest of the journey, not even the general. Once Gabriel had handed him the cash, the man hadn’t had much more to say. He was in the driver’s seat, one of his huge hands on top of the steering wheel as the other waved a cigarette out the window. His posture was abysmal—even his skin sagged—but his dark green jacket was tailored exactly, its golden buttons glinting in the Cambodian sun. The ranks above the left side of his chest might’ve been impressive to a local, but to us they looked like nothing more than a roll of those rainbow candies that taste like chalk. His cap was half the size of his head, with a crest above the brim, golden braids strung across it.

The van followed dirt switchback roads, like a rickety rollercoaster climbing to its apex. Everyone pretended not to notice as the van jumped, every pebble under its tires noticeable like boulders. Except for the acknowledgements he gave the general during an inadequate safety briefing about how to handle an RPG, Gabriel was silent. Harrison, his head scraping the van’s ceiling, closed his eyes, trying not to succumb to the motion sickness that’d afflicted him on the flight from Hanoi. Even Denny, who’d never taken anything seriously in his life, turned green once the first mountains came into view.

I pressed my cheek against the window, willing the van to run out of gas or burst a tire. I didn’t know what would happen if it did—we’d be stranded, in the middle of nowhere, with the only figure of authority being a man in a costume who hardly spoke English. But somehow, it would’ve been better; even if help didn’t come for a week, it was still a way out, a way to never shoot the rocket but also say oh well, Gabriel, you tried. I leaned forward, glancing towards the dashboard. There was over half a tank of gas and no turning back.

As my breath turn to mist on the window, I tried to isolate the exact moment when there really had been no turning back. Was it in Vietnam, when I’d first seen that glimmer in Gabriel’s eye as the subject was raised? Was it when Gabriel had handed the general the cash—how much had it been? Five-hundred? A thousand? Was it just moments ago, when a pick-up truck with a trailer attached had started following us?

No—it wasn’t any of those. None of them could explain our friend’s sudden turn from humanity, none of them could get into his head. There must’ve been something about Gabriel that I just simply didn’t know. Something that’d happened to him in his childhood that’d been dormant for all those years, awakening only when the taste of senseless blood was so near his tongue. Or maybe it was a recent change—had he experienced something so terrible that his conscience had just slipped through his fingertips like sand? Had someone died? Had someone broken his heart? Would any of that be enough? Was he trying to prove something?

I thought I’d vomit as I peered out the back window, covered in dust from the path. Following us was a burgundy pick-up truck, a silver trailer attached to it. As the pick-up swerved through the winding roads, the trailer swung from side to side, skidding off the path and then back onto it. I tried to convince myself that it was just a regular pick-up. It had no connection to us. Maybe it was a family, moving from one farm to another. But as I watched the trailer swing, I couldn’t help but think of the scared animal inside, living its final moments being thrown against the walls of a metal box.

When the general parked, and finally turned off the engine, we sat in silence. Even the general sat in place, staring at the steering wheel. The first to get out of the van was Gabriel, who turned his baseball cap backwards and walked into the green field, a clearing between the trees at the base of the mountain. Denny followed him. I looked at Harrison, who shook his head in horror, likely feeling what I was feeling—an intense brand of self-hated for not having stopped the vehicle. But it’d all happened so quickly, I argued with myself, desperate to justify my presence in the clearing. Gabriel had snatched the rug from underneath our feet. We’d seen him paying a strange man, then, suddenly, we’d been swept away, before we’d had time to think. But when I saw the look on Harrison’s face, dread in its most potent isotope, I knew we too were responsible. If anything, if we couldn’t have stopped him, we could’ve remained at the range. I couldn’t feel my limbs as I exited the vehicle. I felt like it was me walking to the slaughter. Slowly, Harrison followed.

The pick-up truck parked beside the van, its trailer finally reaching a halt. Gingerly, the driver emerged. He was a short, skinny man, dwarfed by the vehicle he’d just been driving. His oversized purple shirt was soaked with sweat. My stomach sank. I’d been expecting another military man. The driver trembled as the general barked orders at him, and I realized he was younger than the four of us, maybe by two or three years.

Muffled animal noises came from the trailer, faint mooing that didn’t sound panicked or scared. After the driver unlocked the trailer, following the general’s orders, he led the animal by a green rope tied around her neck and snout. He was clutching the rope like a man walking his dog, his hands shaking like he’d seen a ghost. The general said something in Khmer, motioning for the driver to lead the animal downrange. The driver took small, laborious steps, escorting the cow through the most beautiful landscape it may have ever seen.

Gabriel, Denny, Harrison, and I stood in the middle of the field, everyone watching the driver and the animal except for Gabriel. We kept our eyes pointed forward. We couldn’t look at one another. The general had disappeared to the van, to fetch the launcher and the rocket. The wind blew Gabriel’s hair underneath his cap and whistled in our ears. We listened to the cow, delighted as it grazed.

After slamming the trunk, the general dropped the unloaded launcher at Gabriel’s feet. Gabriel stared at the alien object, not even leaning down to touch it. The general opened the wooden box, which held exactly what I’d thought it did—a stick that ended in a dark green grenade, the shape of large lemon. Instinctively, I backed away as the general picked up the rocket and slid it in the launcher. At that moment, as the explosive locked into place, time stopped.

The driver, rope still in hand, shouted something, about fifty yards away. The cow looked up, grass in its mouth. The general sent a thumbs-up to the driver, who gave the animal one last look before dropping the rope, finally leaving the cow in the pasture. With stiff arms and fast steps, he hurried back to us and stared at the mountain behind the cow.

The general handed Gabriel the launcher. It looked horribly out of place in his arms, like it was being held by a child. The general positioned Gabriel correctly, showing him the trigger and telling the rest of us to stand away. Gabriel’s arms shook slightly but then steadied as he focused. The general gave him a thumbs up before backing away and taking off his cap.

Sweat rolled down Gabriel’s face. Through the sights of the launcher, he stared at the animal for the very first time, like a groom finally seeing his bride on the wedding day. The sun had burnt us all in the past few weeks, but Gabriel’s face had drained of color. His index finger flirted with the trigger.

The cow made a noise as it stared at the ground, chewing. For some reason, she’d remained in place, not moving from where the driver had led her. She tore off blades of tall grass with her furry brown snout, and I could’ve sworn I saw her smile. Was it the first time in her life that beautiful animal had been so happy? She’d probably lived in some barren pen, malnourished, as her friends were picked off one by one, by bloodthirsty tourists. She made another noise, a deep, low moo, her tail flicking up and down as she chewed. Stalks of grass stuck out from the sides of her mouth. The scene could’ve been on a postcard: the animal standing in the grassy valley, huge trees on either side of the expansive field, and the mountain towering behind the cow, touching the sky. The sweet smell of grass filled our nostrils.

I was sweating through my clothes, though I could hardly feel the heat. In fact, I could hardly feel anything; my body had gone numb, like I was in a dream or a hallucination. The driver averted his eyes. I wasn’t sure if it was a tear or a drop of sweat rolling down Harrison’s face. He looked as terrified as the cow should’ve been. In an act of ultimate loyalty, Denny didn’t take his eyes off Gabriel, grimly nodding and meekly raising his arm to give his friend a thumbs up. We were standing in the very moment the van had been leading us to, staring straight off a cliff and preparing to jump.

In Gabriel’s arms was a weapon, a powerful weapon, with the capacity to kill twenty people at once, or destroy an entire house, or blow-up a truck. The rocket’s impact on its one small target would be an irrevocable action, an explosion that’d vaporize its wielder’s final scraps of morality.

I imagined the rocket shooting from the tube and engulfing the cow in a fiery blast, sending her organs in every direction before the animal even had time to moo. Our nostrils would be overwhelmed with burning as our ears ring. Blood would pour from segments of the carcass and paint the grass red. A charred leg would fly towards a tree, its hoof detaching in midair. Intestines would wrap around a branch, their pungent contents spilling onto the forest floor. A smoking ear would land in front of my feet, or maybe hit me in the face. Chunks of brain would slide down leaves. Hairs would evaporate instantly. The skull would crack into fragments, ejecting like shrapnel. In the following days, other animals would arrive—birds, tigers, bears—and banquet on the charred flesh, maybe find a lucky eyeball in the tall grass. A blanket of ants would cover remains as they decayed in the hot sun. Maggots. A stench would waft over the valley like fog at daybreak.

Gabriel pulled the trigger. But it wasn’t before he’d tilted the weapon slightly upwards, sending the rocket sailing above the heifer’s head, towards the face of the mountain. When it finally hit, we saw the explosion—a tiny blast that lit up a mere point on the mountain for scarcely an instant—seconds before hearing the boom. As the sound swept across the field, the cow, startled, turned towards the mountain and stared, before losing interest and returning her snout to the grass.

The pick-up driver closed his eyes, as if he was sending his God a prayer. Gabriel kept his eyes on the mountain like a golfer watching his ball after swinging. The general, who hadn’t even raised his eyebrows in surprise, put his cap back on.

“What am I supposed to do with cow now?” he asked. Gabriel stared at him dumbly, the empty launcher still out of place in his arms.

“I dunno,” said Gabriel, shrugging meekly. “You could leave it here. Set it free”

The general considered it, before smiling, and then laughing. He instructed the pick-up driver to collect the animal. The driver nodded and jogged towards the cow, picking up the rope and leading it back to the trailer. The red heifer took one last look at the field before entering the container.


Ethan Szlezinger is a New York-based writer whose body of work consists of short fiction, TV scripts, and comedy sketches. While he enjoys writing short fiction, he now focuses mainly on comedy and satire.