Issue 20 | Fall 2018

Country Dirt

The summer I was sixteen, I spent all the money I’d earned bagging groceries at a run-down supermarket chain to buy a container of chilled horse semen. I lived in Pennsylvania, and the big chestnut stallion with the long neck and expressive eyes who was providing the spooge lived in California, so this was a high-tech endeavor. Modern shipping practices. Express rates. The semen came in a big, silver tube full of liquid nitrogen, like the ones they store dead alien fetuses in on The X-Files. The delivery had been timed to coincide with the mare’s fertility cycle, and the vet was on call. This method of impregnating horses is more turkey baster than IVF and not particularly reliable, so I had already worked out the number of hours I would spend looking up produce codes and applying manufacturer coupons if a second try was needed, but I was lucky. Just as health class videos had warned me, it only took one time.

I’d been riding since kindergarten and thought I was going to continue for the rest of my life. Summers were spent cleaning stalls in exchange for lessons, horse shows every weekend. We had two horses—my gelding, and a mare who mostly hung around the back field gaining weight. My gelding was getting old, and the mare wasn’t busy, so it seemed reasonable to dip into my Mike’s-Hard-Lemonade-and-Chumbawamba-CD fund to breed a replacement. I ended up running away with my boyfriend six months after the foal was born and quit riding for a decade, but who could have seen that coming?

Years later, a different boyfriend would tell me about his adolescence in rural Ohio, where his mother would sometimes send him off to spend the day with Mr. Pyles, who drove the semen truck. In Ohio, they didn’t have to rely on FedEx. They had, instead, a truck full of cow sperm, which would just sort of putter about from farm to farm on little reproductive errands. This sounds very All Creatures Great and Small to me. I’ve never been to Ohio, but imagine it is a lot like the English Dale Country: clattery old lorries bouncing along the rolling, green hills, a shaggy Alsatian nipping at my boyfriend’s heels as he jumps down to open a gate for poor, arthritic Mr. Pyles, dressed perhaps in a herringbone vest and newsboy cap—and I realize I am actually picturing Tristan Farnon, the young reproductive vet in James Herriot’s books, on whom I had one of my first crushes. He was kind of a bad boy, and most of his storylines had to do with jerking off bulls.

Childhood is a mortifying thing, best forgotten.

My boyfriend isn’t sure why he was sent on these semen-truck ride alongs, but in that time and place it didn’t strike anyone as odd. While we had very different childhoods, this makes me feel close to him. We were such good country people, with our little vials of sperm. My mother has always made a distinction between dirt and “country dirt.”  Country dirt was preferable to dirt—preferable even, in small amounts, to cleanliness. All horse-borne dirt was country dirt. Jizz too, probably. I think if I ever have children, I will have to raise them in the city, and this frightens me—could I love such sterile little aliens, without the fertile tang of earth upon them?

Filed under: Nonfiction

Emily Kiernan is the author of a novel, Great Divide (Unsolicited Press). Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Pank, The Collagist, Redivider, and other journals, and she has received support from The MacDowell Colony, The Ucross Foundation, The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and other organizations. She is a prose editor at Noemi Press and a fiction editor at Rivet: The Journal of Writing that Risks. She lives in Pittsburgh with her man and her dog. More information can be found at