(cw: references to a variety of abuse, implied and off-screen)
The cow is in the corner, legs splayed, a pool of blood seeping into the hay. Its skin is white, lips purple and parted as if on a sigh. Hailey’s stomach drops, and her throat feels like it’s closing on her. She doesn’t have to check to be sure the cow has died, but she does anyway.
The milking cow in the next stall issues a pitiful moan.
“Hush now.” Hailey isn’t supposed to speak to the cows unless she’s giving them instructions, but Daddy isn’t here, and this day has gone to hell anyway.
She kneels in front of the cow and lifts the hem of its rags to see. It won’t change anything, but she has to know if the cow died for nothing while Hailey and Colin and Daddy slept peacefully inside, unaware Daddy will now be denied milk. Her hands shake, and she fights back panic.
The calf crowned. Its scalp is dark blue and covered with ugly squiggles from dried blood in its downy white fur.
Daddy will be furious.
She can’t. She’s not strong enough to survive the world outside, not at twelve years old. Maybe with Colin’s help, but even at eighteen, he's too dutiful and too accommodating. He won’t leave Daddy because it wouldn’t be the right thing. “He’d never survive without us,” he told her last year, when they weren’t sure if another cow would wander into the pasture and Daddy’s fits were getting worse.
And here they are again. Down one cow, the milking cow’s supply fading. Colin and Daddy will have to try to inseminate it again, but there’s always a chance the milk will dry up entirely. It’s hard enough to keep the supply going when all you have is an electric pump and a recording of a crying calf playing on an aging iPod.
She rises on shaking legs and manages not to stumble toward the pump. Two clean plastic bottles screw easily into place, and she approaches the cow with the two suction pieces ready to latch. It stumbles back, its chain clanking, and glares at her, tears forming in its eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Hailey says. And she is. It’s not right the way they’re treated, but what can she do? She refuses the milk and the veal when they’re offered to her because that's what Momma had taught her. We don't eat animals, she would say. It isn't right. Leave the meat and the milk to the men.
Daddy didn't mind. No milk, no cheese, no butter for the girls...more for him.
She bobs her hands at the cow, hoping it will see that even today, when Daddy could well go mad with the lost cow, milking is inevitable. After a long, painful moment, it lowers its head and allows her to attach the pumps.
Hailey queues up the recording of the calf and tries not to hear the cow’s wails as she slips from the barn and across the yard to the house.
Momma taught Hailey the art of making cheese, and now she teaches Colin. She’s not sure why Daddy insisted this morning that Colin should learn, but at least this means they’re away from him while he deals with the dead cow. The way he looked at her when he hitched his shotgun over his shoulder on the way out absolutely chilled her, and now she is consumed with worry.
It’s not the kind of worry she thought she’d deal with, either: not the burning fear in her chest, but rather a tickling in the pit of her stomach, as if she’s about to witness a new side of Daddy she hasn’t seen before.
Hailey takes Colin through the cheeses in their various stages of culturing and shows him where she keeps the supplies to make rennet when a new calf has been slaughtered, and the remaining store of citric acid they use when there is no more rennet. His shoulders are tight, and he slides uncomfortable looks her way, but he nods as she shows him the process.
When she’s done, she checks the sauerkraut and pickles fermenting in the cellar near the cheese bins. Colin sits where she left him, making notes on a scrap of paper with a stub of a pencil. Hailey checks the date she scratched into the dirty floor—four weeks ago—and decides to pull one of the jars of kraut as a special treat for Daddy since they’ve been out for two weeks. Maybe it will keep him from thinking about the lost calf and the dead cow. Maybe it will keep his need at bay. Maybe for a little while.
“I’ve been thinking,” Colin murmurs.
“Don’t hurt yourself.” Hailey cringes at the way her voice sounds—nervous and high-pitched and a little nasally. She slides the jar of kraut closer and swipes her foot across its date on the floor.
“Last year, you had an idea,” he says.
Her foot stills. Her whole body stills.
Let’s run away.
He’d never survive without us.
She holds her breath, waiting, but Colin says nothing. She turns to him, and he’s staring up the stairs. Though she knows Daddy isn’t up there—she’s heard no creaking floorboards—her skin crawls. What if he knows?
Colin shakes his head and goes back to his scribbling.
The cellar is quiet but for the scratching pencil, and after another hopeful but fruitless minute, Hailey grabs the kraut jar and carries it upstairs. She makes it to the kitchen table when the distinctive pow of Daddy’s gun and a desperate screeching echo through the yard.
Colin is up the stairs and at the back door before Hailey unfreezes her feet.
Outside, she finds Daddy standing over a writhing body. The noise it makes grates on Hailey’s ears, long, loud, high-pitched wails that sound like the eee-eee-eee of the fire alarm at the school she attended before the world fell down.
It’s the milking cow. It’s trying to crawl away, the chain dragging behind its bleeding leg, but its motions are jerky and uncoordinated. Its head is bleeding and looks oddly shaped, maybe dented.
“No cow’s getting away from me,” Daddy says with a chortle.
“Daddy,” Colin says. “It’s making noise.”
Daddy smacks Colin hard on the back and grins at him. “Yup. We’re going to eat tonight.” And he lifts his gun high in the air, stock aimed at the twisting, creeping cow.
Hailey spins around and covers her ears so all she can hear is the sudden end to the screeching.
Daddy eats well. He has fresh steak, new cheese, and kraut. Though he grins with each bite, sighing as his lips smack together and his tongue whips out to grab bits of juice—he likes his meat rare—a tension fills the room. It weighs down Hailey’s arms until she tires of the effort it takes to stab bits of her bitter dandelion greens and wild berries. Feigning satisfaction, she pushes from the table and begins her nightly cleaning ritual, taking a moment to refill Colin’s and Daddy’s water when they run low.
Colin’s plate has a small portion of the steak and sweetmeats, but he pushes it around with his fork and cuts glances at Hailey. A bit of sweat trickles down the back of her neck.
“Come here, girl,” Daddy says when she packs the uneaten berries and greens into the refrigerator. The door thunks closed, and she turns slowly.
She shuffles next to her father and stands between him and her brother.
“Get your sleep tonight. We’re hunting tomorrow.”
A chill rolls over her, but she nods. Daddy picks up his plate and licks a spot where cheese melted from the warmth of his steak. He hands it to her, stabs Colin’s last few uneaten bites, and waves at that plate, too.
Hailey has never washed dishes so fast in her life. When the table is wiped and the floor swept, she creeps past Daddy’s office. Inside, he hums a troubled hymn she vaguely recognizes. She curls up in the chair next to her cracked window, where the scent of fresh air comforts her, and falls asleep to the breeze. As she succumbs with a jerk, she can swear the wind has whispered to her in her dead mother’s voice.
Keep him happy, and everything will be okay.
When she wakes in the morning, her stomach hurts, too low to be hunger. Her legs are cramped and her neck stiff from sleeping curled in her chair all night. The sky outside is too light. She's overslept, and even though there's no cow to milk, Daddy will be furious if she's not doing her other chores when he goes downstairs.
Hailey rushes from her room, grabbing her dress on the way to the bathroom. But when she sits to pee, a cold flush rushes over her. There's blood in her underwear. Tears prick her eyes, and she thinks of the cows and the occasionally bloody straw in their stalls. She's never understood this blood—the cows never bleed to death unless something goes wrong with the calving—but she understands that this is bad. This changes everything.
She tugs off her underwear and pulls her dress over her head. Wash day isn't for another two days, but there isn't much blood, so it should be fine to put it in the wash pile for now.
But when she steps from the bathroom, Colin is waiting outside, and when he sees her underwear, she suddenly feels very uncomfortable and hides the stained fabric behind her back. He tenses and stares, eyes wide.
“What is that?” he asks.
“Nothing.” She tries to step around him, but he blocks her, grabs her arm, and tugs her away from the bedrooms and down the stairs.
When they're in the cellar, he reaches behind her and snatches the underwear from her hand. Heat stains her face, and she wants to run away. But Colin has blocked her escape up the stairs and stands there, very still, staring at the modest stripe of blood. “Daddy can't know,” he whispers.
And Hailey begins to understand.
“Do you hear me?” he asks, louder. “Daddy can't know.”
Hailey gulps and nods.
“I'll bury these before we go hunting today. Pretend like you're sick, okay? I'll tell him I found you puking in the bathroom this morning. Then you find something you can use for rags to catch the blood. We'll bury that, too.”
The embarrassment is gone, replaced wholly now by fear.
When Daddy and Colin tromp from the house and head into the desolate day, she knows the chances of them finding another cow are slim, even as close to the old city as they are. The cows have left, they're all hiding now, and when they come out of the woods or over the barren hills, they're usually sick or starving. But the search will keep them gone all day, and she'll have time to hide what's happening to her.
There’s no more cream. There’s no more cheese. And no cows have wandered into the Taylor pasture.
Colin and Daddy have gone hunting nearly every day, even when the yellow rain stank up the air and the endless dirt turned to mud. When they don't hunt, Daddy sends Colin to escort her to the fields. She’s never needed an escort before, but lately Daddy watches her with a new wariness. Colin won’t talk to her anymore, not even to tell her if he’s mucked the barn for her yet or whether he needs her help with his chores.
One day, as she runs down a patch of wild strawberries, Colin follows behind her with the rifle clutched tight. She doesn’t like the way he looks at her today. She doesn’t like the way Daddy whispered to him in his office while she cooked potatoes for them and snuck a square of the starchy vegetable. And though she would rather ignore all the signs, she doesn’t like where she knows she’ll end up next.
“Do you remember Momma at all?” Colin asks.
His sudden question surprises her. She pauses in her plucking and decides to lie. “A little.”
“Do you remember Stephen?” he asks.
Though the summer sun lumbering ever closer is giving them a small taste of the August heat wave to come, she shivers. She hasn't thought of little Stephen in a year at least. She's tried hard not to think of little Stephen. “Who?”
“Our brother,” he says. “He died when he was still really small, not long after everyone got sick.”
He was really small. He was born so tiny, his fingers unable to grasp even her own small fingers. But he was an angel. A tiny angel. That’s what Momma called him, and that's how Hailey still thought of him. “No, I don’t.” She tucks the tiny berries she’s found into her sack. It’s enough to tide Daddy over, but she still needs to find enough for Colin and herself now. She scans the grass and sees a flash of red several yards away, so she heads to it.
Behind her, Colin’s feet rasp against the grass, and the metal on the gun clinks against something on his jeans.
“Momma always joked that Daddy couldn’t live without his coffee creamer and his cheese. That was before the plague.”
Keep him happy. Leave the meat and the milk to the men.
Hailey drops to the ground and pulls at the berries she has found. They are larger, redder. Daddy would prefer these to the others, but maybe if she finds enough she can convince him to let her make preserves of them.
“When Stephen died, Daddy was going a little crazy. We couldn’t go to the store anymore. It was already too dangerous, too many people were sick and desperate. So...Momma found another way to get Daddy his cheese.”
Hailey’s hands still. She remembers the rest, but she doesn’t want to.
Colin rambles on, but she fills her mind with memories of life before the plague, when she went to school and had her small container of real organic cow’s milk from their own farm and a sandwich with peanut butter and homemade jelly. And at home, Momma would make casseroles that tasted terrible except for the crispy, stringy layers on top, but they filled her belly like the greens and berries don't do anymore.
Colin kicks gently at her shoe, and she jumps. “Did you hear what I said?” he asks, his voice pitched low and almost a whisper, way out here in the fields where Daddy never ventures.
She swallows and shakes her head.
“Dad’s getting suspicious.”
Her breath catches. She knows what would come next if his suspicions were confirmed.
“We should leave.”
She shakes her head. “I need to pick more berries first.”
“No.” He tilts his chin toward the east, where Dallas might still be. “I mean we should leave Dad.”
She sits back on her heels, but her legs feel wobbly beneath her. She wants to run now, but what if they shouldn't? “You said he won’t survive without us. Momma said I had to take care of him.”
Colin drops low beside her. “We won’t survive if we stay. I’m leaving. You can come with me, or you can watch me go.”
Hailey averts her gaze, focusing on the nearby tree line. He's right. She has to go. It was only that she got the milk and made it cheese that kept her safe, and now that there's no milk and no cheese... What else are girls good for but giving themselves up to men, piece by piece?
A hot breeze blows past them, and in the distance, a gun fires. Colin and Hailey tense, glance at each other, and run home.
When they reach the yard, they both stay inside the trees, look around for danger—maybe a desperate, starving plague survivor with a weapon and an eye on what they have in their cellar, the solar panels on the roof, or the still-functioning well. But there are no noises, no strange cries, and they detect no movement, so they head to the door.
Inside, Daddy sits at the kitchen table with a mug of black coffee and a plate of cheese and smoked meat and fried potatoes from breakfast. But there’s a man there, too—bedraggled, dirty, shoulders slumped in relief even as his wary face turns toward her and Colin. But amazingly, there is a cow and a calf, too. In the house. In the kitchen.
Hailey’s stomach growls from the smell of the food, and the calf fusses. The cow leaves with the calf, and it's all Hailey can do not to gawk. She wants to believe this is her good fortune, but the way the man lovingly brushes his hand against the cow as she leaves the room leaves her feeling awful, like a traitor. All she can think of is Momma.
Take care of your father. Don't eat the meat or drink the milk.
“I found strawberries.” Hailey takes the bag to the counter.
“That’s fine. Go do your chores,” Daddy says. “Sit, Colin. You should meet our guest.”
Hailey glances at her brother as he warily sits between the two grown men, and then leaves quickly. When she passes Daddy’s office door, she glimpses the cow feeding her calf. It’s tiny but suckling hard.
There is fresh cream, and Daddy has had veal. Newly butchered meat is drying, some is smoking smoking, the rest is in the freezer. And the new cow is breeding already. Her milk supply is strong for now, and Hailey imagines there would be cheese for months to come if Daddy can manage to eat sparingly.
Hailey scans the early morning yard for signs of danger, and when she knows the way is clear, she dashes outside, leaving the door unlocked behind her. Colin will watch the door while she’s in the barn. And when she returns, he’ll eat all the potatoes with Daddy, and they’ll share the meatloaf Daddy has requested for dinner tonight. And they’ll both pretend like Daddy doesn't look at Hailey with the same hungry expression he gives to the kraut and the cheese and the jerky.
In the barn, the cow looks up at Hailey as if the world has ended for good, and not in an epidemic of people who got sick from bad meat grown in terrible conditions. Hailey pulls the key from the pocket of her jeans and twists it in the shackles that confine the cow to her stall.
“What’s your name?” Hailey asks her. She's never asked a cow before. It has always been easier to do her chores if she sees them as Daddy sees them, as Momma told her would be best.
After a few slow blinks, the cow answers. “Jennifer.” Her voice is dry and cracked and dull.
Hailey nods. “Go after I’ve gone back inside. Go quietly. Daddy’s in his office after breakfast, so don’t pass that window. You remember the one?”
The woman jerks her head. Hailey assumes she remembers. It was only a month or so ago that Hailey had seen her sit in Daddy's office chair and suckle her calf.
Hailey stands back and imagines she’s attaching the plastic suction pieces to a cow's breasts, starting the pump, plugging in the iPod with the recording of the wailing calf, and waiting for the process to finish. She hands the woman a lump of dried meat, pats her head like Momma used to do to Hailey, and leaves with the empty bottles.
Tonight she will go, with or without Colin, and no matter the danger. Momma told her to take care of Daddy, but maybe Momma loved him in ways that were bad and dangerous, and maybe some of her rules weren't worth following. Besides, there would be no more danger to her out there than there would here, shackled, inseminated, and giving herself up to Daddy and Colin in pieces.
The barn door clunks closed behind her, and in the warm summer morning breeze she catches the faint scent of smoking meat.
(originally appeared in Blood Sushi from Dirge Press)
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