The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Half-Skinned Steer” is told in the third person with frequent flashbacks that reveal various memories of Mero. The flashbacks function as a story-within-a-story, with the girlfriend of Mero’s father serving as the narrative voice of those portions of the larger story. The action is both internal and external, either occurring on or resulting from Mero’s journey to Wyoming to witness the burial of his brother.

Mero and Rollo were raised on an impoverished ranch in rural Wyoming. Mero left the ranch to go to war, then eventually permanently left his place of origin, settling in Massachusetts and living a lifestyle quite different from that of his brother, who continued to ranch with his son and family.

The story is set in motion when the eighty-three-year-old Mero receives a phone call and learns of his brother’s death. He begins an adventurous drive across country during which he rarely eats, wrecks his Cadillac, and buys another one. The journey provides an opportunity for internal action that reveals the subtle conflicts within Mero. He reminisces about his youthful interactions with his father and brother on the ranch. He also recalls a particular story he was told about Tin Head, who had the misfortune of having a galvanized plate sewn into his head. While butchering a steer, Tin Head pauses halfway into the job to eat half of his dinner before taking a nap. When he awakes, the steer is gone. Eventually Tin Head finds the half-skinned steer alive and vindictively staring at his would-be butcher.

In the process of remembering his younger days, as well as the saga of Tin Head and the steer, Mero arrives in the Wyoming countryside near his boyhood home. He drives the last miles through snow. Not having been to the old place in sixty years and arriving at night, he cannot remember the right road. His unfamiliar car becomes stuck in the snow, and Mero becomes disoriented. Confused, hungry, and disappointed in his failure, he finds himself in a serious predicament in the middle of nowhere. He finally decides to try to walk some ten miles to a ranch he believes he can find and then wait until morning to complete his odyssey. As he walks in the snow, a steer follows him. Mero dies in the snow under the angry glare of the half-skinned steer’s red eye.

Summary

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer’’ begins with a short summary of Mero Corn’s life, from the day he left his family’s dilapidated Wyoming ranch to his life as a successful retiree in Massachusetts sixty years later. One morning, he gets a call from his nephew’s wife, Louise, who tells Mero that his brother, Rollo, has been clawed to death by an emu. Despite Louise’s misgivings, Mero says that he will drive from Massachusetts to the funeral in Wyoming. As Mero packs for the trip, the story reverts to one of the many flashbacks of Mero’s life on the ranch. Mero remembers his father, his brother, and his father’s girlfriend at the time. Mero imagines the girlfriend as a horse, given her characteristics, which he comments on throughout the story. In his memory, the girlfriend tells a gruesome story about Tin Head, a hapless rancher, and a half-skinned steer. The night following her storytelling, Mero has a disturbing dream, and he flees the ranch...

(The entire section is 862 words.)