THE NIGHT THE COWS GOT LOOSE
I wasn’t at Uncle Drew’s by choice—Mom sent me here to spend the fall at a new school, to work on the old family farm and learn about real hardship. Now instead of spending my weekends watching reality tv and scrolling through Instagram until my vision blurs, I rinse warm eggs under a cold, rust-speckled faucet and listen to coyotes howl at night. I can’t help but imagine what it would feel like to be crushed between their teeth.
Tonight, I press my forehead against the cool dusty window in my makeshift bedroom and watch the stalks of corn stand silent and still like sentinels. A shadow, a sweeping mass, slowly trickles into view and I strain until I can make out the outlines of cow silhouettes moving against the stalks. They look so careful that I feel embarrassed, like I’m intruding on something sacred.
I haven’t seen the cows out on the land at night before, I mostly see them inside the barn, cramped beneath heavy beams, dark eyes blinking past me like something was lurking just over my shoulder. I flinched away from them, scared of their birch-colored teeth and how they chewed endlessly like it soothed them. It made me nauseous to see their hot bloated bellies pressed up against each other and sometimes I felt like I was the one being squeezed and suffocated in the hot lowing smell and not them.
Drew said they liked it, that they were herd animals and being so close made them feel safe. He said I wouldn’t understand, being so young, that this type of thing was ancient and passed down through generations of farmers who taken time to study the earth. It was another thing I wouldn’t understand.
When I got out of inpatient, Mom said I couldn’t go back to school. She didn’t ask me if school had been the issue, I think she watched one movie about bullying on the Hallmark channel and assumed that’s what my problem was. She talked the whole car ride home about where I would go, what I would learn from real people who did real labor while I tried to bite my hospital bracelet off, the thin plastic catching between my front teeth.
Drew calls me his little TB patient like I need fresh air to rattle out all the dust and dirt that had collected inside of me. Maybe that’s what Mom thought too when she sent me here with two days warning. But I think she worried I was contagious more than she worried about me breathing clearer. When I was on the ward, she only visited twice, and she looked so awful there, fake cheery and red-lipsticked, her limbs pulled in tight like if anything touched her, she’d catch a plague. She’s the principal at my old school but hopes to run for a higher office now that she doesn’t have me to hold her back.
Now I go to school with kids I don’t know who have filled up their friend group quota since third grade. After dinner, sometimes I go to the cows and sit in the barn beneath one glistening, buzzing lightbulb, close my eyes, and try to relax into the swaying. And even though I’m surrounded by the herd, the shifting, moaning herd, even though Drew told me I should feel safe, and huddled, and warm, I feel even lonelier than the third-floor school bathroom where that girl from homeroom walked in on me. The girl that kept asking if I was okay while we waited for Mom to get out of her meeting, while we waited for the EMTs to come and scrape me off the wet tile floor. And it’s so quiet, even with the rustle of bodies against bodies, even with the howl of the coyotes, I can still hear the hollow rattle of the pill bottle when Mom snatched it from the cup of my hand, the one I took from her bedside drawer that morning, freshly refilled on the first of the month. Sometimes I can feel the cold breeze against my face as she paced, clutching the bottle against her soft baby pink sweater, how it warmed against her chest while I shivered on the floor.
It’s a messy thing, a baby cow, all legs and desperation, not yet having learned the grace of their mothers. My first week here Drew had two baby cows, one right after the other. They wouldn’t let me see the birthings, but I got to see them in the days after up in the field with the herd, staggering after their mothers. I admired one mother’s coolness, how in the gleaming greenness of the morning she could turn to her calf, knock it over with one swift nudge of her face and continue moving on after the herd without looking back.
I can’t see the baby cows tonight, but I hope they’re in there, somewhere, pressed up against the warm bloated bellies of their mothers. I hope they didn’t get left behind in that cold creaking barn without any light, except for maybe the moon pressing through the gaps between the rusting tin shingles. I hope they weren’t left alone with no understanding of how to get out.
Drew knocks on my bedroom door, opening it just a crack. His long face is darkened and backlit, the orange hall light haloing his head.
“I saw your light,” he says. “Everything alright?”
I wonder what he would do if I told him. Would he run out into the uneven night, pull a lasso from his belt? Would he call to the boys even though they’ve all gone home for the night? Would he blame me? Me, who did the last feeding, who went to the barn and sat beneath the glow of that one, sparkling lightbulb, and stared into their eyes, huge and glossy and wet with a sadness I could feel, raw and heavy in my gut, like I’d been given something I wasn’t sure how to carry. Me, who’d begged them to tell me how to feel it, how to feel warm and safe against other bodies, how to comfort myself with the chewing instead of gnawing through my tongue.
Do I tell him I pushed the gate open, that I guided them out into the cold open night?
I shake my head. I say nothing. Drew nods and closes the door.
I watch the cows, that shapeless shifting mass move through the grass and disappear past the corn. And I swear I can feel it, that ancient understanding. I can feel it warm like lightening bugs crawling underneath my skin.
Mialise Carney is a writer and MFA student at California State University, Fresno. She is an editor at The Normal School, and her writing has appeared in Hobart, Maudlin House, and Atlas and Alice, among others. Read more of her work here.