By late afternoon, the pond was surrounded by men in bathing suits and women in black, waiting. Herr Orman and another man Max had never seen before pulled Meinard’s body from the pond. “There's a big plow down there. He probably tried to dig it out of the mud when it fell on top of him.”

Max imagined him, pulling at it, tugging, the air leaving his lungs in bursts of bubbles. Meinard had thin matchstick arms. He wouldn’t have been able to heave a plow out of the mud, and now Max wished he had at least warned him of this.

“Only God and I loved that boy.” Meinard's mother walked so softly, no one heard her approach. “No one else.”

Max wondered about that. It seemed that had God loved Meinard, he wouldn’t have made him repellent and then tangled him under a plow in a cow pond. He knew not to question—Karin would just dismiss his misgivings with something about mystery and God’s mind being unknowable, and Max didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t understand, given the evidence of the plow, the sad, friendless, lonely life that ended so ridiculously, that there could possibly be any entity that cared for Meinard. Even his mother’s love seemed in question, as she pawned him off on parish priests and schoolteachers when other kids weren’t around. She begged Karin to encourage Max to take him swimming with the boys. As she played over his virtues, his kindness, his sweet face, she crumpled her handkerchief as she spoke, her knotty, nervous fingers betraying her words. Even she, a tower of maternal love, a woman who could nurture the sickest cows back to milking health, even she didn’t love this little knot of legs and arms in the grass. Max knew she was sad, everyone would be sad, but there was an exhale of relief in the summer air, mixing with the sadness, a breeze cutting through the heat.

“Don’t worry, son. No one thinks you’re responsible. It was just an accident.” Karin's hand was heavy on his shoulder. “You didn’t do this.”

As the news spread, the boys showed up. The village gathered at the Elban’s pond, their hands folded behind them, their heads bent toward Meinard. He'd lost a sock and shoe in the struggle under the plow. Max closed his eyes and clenched them, erasing that image with that of the ant bobbing on the grass, the sun pink under his eyelids, the smell of algae on Meinard’s skin. But when he opened them, the twisted body lay in the grass in front of him, Meinard’s pink skin now pale wax.

The coroner arrived with the priest, whose face creased with hopelessness. He comforted Max first, his thin arms gathering him into a hug. “You’re a good young man. I know this wasn't your doing.”

They were lying, and Max knew it.

Frances Badgett

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Excerpt from “The Plow”