The cow eyed Jared dully.
Or, at least Jared thought the thing was looking at him. It was hard to tell as half of the cow’s face had rotted away, its jaw moving around in slow circles despite the lack of cud. Its coat, which once must have been a gleaming white and black, was now filled with dirt and grime, its hooves dragging through the dying grass at its feet.
“Git,” Jared yelled. He couldn’t be sure, but it looked vaguely like Susan. Or maybe Babe? Maribel? It was hard to discern any features, but one of the splotches on its flank did faintly resemble a heart. Maribel then. Jared raised his rifle as he screamed at the beast again, a lurch starting in his stomach and pulsing its way toward his temples.
The cows had all started dying off about two months previously. Which, although sad and bad for business, had been somewhat manageable. Comprehensible. It was because of some disease and there would be a cure and then everything would go back to normal.
The cows had all started coming back about two weeks previously. Which was still sad and bad for business, but was no longer comprehensible and was becoming less manageable with each passing day.
The cow with the vaguely distinguishable heart-shaped spot mooed hoarsely as it inched farther into the field, its big brown eyes mournfully lacking expression. Maribel used to have the prettiest eyes, Jared thought, long eyelashes framing the rich brown.
Jared pulled the trigger, feeling the recoil bury itself deeply in his shoulder. Maribel dropped to the ground, jaw still masticating.
He heard the crunch of footfalls behind him, and he turned around from the gory sight.
“Maribel?” his father asked, stepping up directly to the carcass, nudging the body with the toe of his work boot. Jared’s father, Elijah, was an imposing man, wiry, but tall, his eyes chips of ice, and deep furrows like a roadmap tracing his face. He turned his suntanned features toward his son, eyes boring, lips tugging down at the edges.
“Yeah, think so.”
“Took her down with one shot?”
“You’re getting better.”
Maribel lay on the ground, her hulking carcass rotting and putrid. Elijah looked at his son; Jared’s face blanched, his mouth a thin red slash, his eyes scared. Elijah had to clench his jaw to prevent the twisted smile he could already feel forming show itself on his features. Jared was seventeen years old, but holding a gun, he still looked like a five-year-old playing Cowboys and Indians with a plastic pistol.
Elijah wasn’t overly perturbed by the undead cow as he had lived through the Chicken Resurrection of thirty-four years ago. Elijah had been a child at that point, but he still remembered how it felt like he had to force the air through his lungs every time he sat with his parents to eat dinner, the hollow sound of the silverware clinking against the plate. The time spent chasing away the clucking fiends with red bulging eyes and bent wings. At first, it had almost seemed like a game, the neighborhood kids making competitions of who could kill the most poultry, who could kill two with one stone, who could kill it when it was crossing the road. But it had taken five years before the last of the head-bobbing dead was wiped from the Midwest, and by that time, it was hard to find the humor in it.
Now, as his life was once again filled with undead livestock, he was more concerned about the nightgown in the second to the bottom drawer of the dresser, folded crisply alongside a few balled up socks and a pair of tights with several runs tracking up and down the legs. It troubled him a little, that it was still there, but it did have such a pretty pattern.
“You might as well come back to get your breakfast,” Elijah said. “It’s no fun burying on an empty stomach.”
Jared looked on with a mixture of distaste and sorrow, unsure if he was in the mood for the thick and hearty porridge his dad would undoubtedly pull from the pantry. He remembered fondly the days of eggs and pancakes, but since the production of milk and cheese plummeted, they had to get by on old packages of cream of wheat and the oats they had saved in the back of the pantry. The family farm, Pembroke Farms, did still have a few chickens, but Elijah was wary to eat any of them given the situation.
Jared half-expected, on entering the kitchen, to see his mom, who would have looked as haggard as his father, her fingers long and knobby, tapering off into fine tips. Her hair the color of flax seed, only strands of gray twining through the pale yellow. She would have turned her watery blue eyes toward them as they entered the dusty kitchen.
But the kitchen was empty, Jared’s eyes peering through the place her body would have been, straight to the small window over the kitchen sink.
“Wish I could make you something different,” Jared’s father called out gruffly, his voice loud despite the physical closeness of his son. He always made it seem as if he had to yell over a great distance like he was standing on one side of a gorge and everyone else was on the other.
“Ah, that’s okay. I like cream of wheat,” Jared returned lamely. Elijah nodded in a way that made him look wise and focused intently on the slightly off-white lumps that filled the pot he was mechanically stirring.
Jared, with the smooth and thoughtless movements of routine, pulled down two beige bowls and two silver spoons, each mildly stained. He set them down with care, each at an opposite spot on the rounded wooden table.
Finished, Jared noiselessly pulled out a chair, lifting it slightly to avoid scraping, and watched as the sun started to peak over the wheat fields out of the small window above his father’s head. There would be no great harvest this year. The zombie cows had trampled and eaten most of what had started to grow and autumn had almost arrived. The land was razed, but at that moment, the sun casting hues of gold, pink, and green over the ground, it almost looked peaceful. Like an end that would turn into a beginning.
Elijah hated cooking. It wasn’t that he saw it as “womanly.” In fact, he did most of the cleaning around the house, dusting the floors and wiping the windowpanes. But that was calming, repetitive. If he cleaned long enough, he could forget where he was, forget the never-ending days that dragged along his skin, forget the cows with their vacant stupid eyes, forget his wife with her faraway look in her eyes.
He never found out where exactly she was looking to; only that she wanted to go and he couldn’t take her there. Did she know he wanted to be there with her? To go to a place where the emptiness of horizon didn’t feel like a zipped up body bag? Where he could breathe without having to lick the dust from his teeth?
If he moved his hand around and around the countertop for long enough, the taste of lumpy porridge would leave. Cooking did not have the same effect. His french toast was perpetually soggy, his spaghetti noodles always chewy.
His wife, now she could cook. Even with the limited supplies they had recently, everything she touched seemed to be ambrosia. He’d asked for her secret once, and she had waved the question away, saying, “My grandmother always said it was love.”
Elijah decided it was probably butter. Lots and lots of butter.
Every day started at five, a habit Jared had gotten into as a child, waking up early to go out with his father. Those memories remained overall hazy in his mind, but with moments of sharpness, distinctive images of a rising sun, his father’s back ram-rod straight as he led the way to the barn, showing Jared patiently how to attach the milking machine, how much to feed the chickens, how to calm the calves. It was soothing to start his mornings, in the same way, to feel his muscles fall into the familiar motions, his mind wandering as his hands worked seemingly of their own accord.
Right after the cows started succumbing to illness, Jared would wrench himself out of bed at 5:15am to go milk the cows, forgetting that he wasn’t allowed in the barn any longer, forgetting the smell of rot and puss that permeated the stalls, the milking machine covered in the sawdust from the bedding. Jared would trudge across the grass still wet with dew, his pant’s legs trapping the damp, pasting the denim to his legs. Breathing in the chill air, he would stop up short, the smell slamming into him, sticking its clawed fingers deep into his skin. The low moaning that wracked from the wooden stalls startled him, full of an intensity of pain. Trying to stop his ears to the noise, Jared would turn around, attempting to convince himself he was really lucking out, two extra hours of sleep before school. A chance to feel well-rested.
He was never able to go back to sleep.
Jared hadn’t been back to school since he found Bessie rising from the truck bed on the way to the FDA lab. He had been looking out of the window, watching the wooded landscape whoosh by, the windows cranked opened since the air conditioning had broken three months before. He watched the dust swirl out over the road underneath the truck tires. He wouldn’t have noticed if she hadn’t started… it wasn’t really lowing, it sounded more like a dry hacking as her hooves stomped against the frame of the car. Jared could still feel the ice that crept up his spine as he slowly turned around, looking through the dusky glass to see legs kicking and head thrashing. He screamed at his father to stop the car. To turn around. To kill it, goddamit, kill it.
Bessie had always been his favorite.
Jared, Elijah remembered in an abstract way as he stirred the white mass in the pot, had been there for Bessie’s birth. His small hands twitching nervously at his sides as he watched the calf come into the world and stand, stumble, on legs that looked more like stalks of grain than anything else. Elijah practically heard the sharp intake of breath, half amazement half worry, that Jared had made, his eyes wide despite the late hour, his body, all but his hands, motionless, despite the draft in the barn.
Elijah could vaguely recall the first time he witnessed a birth. The strange sounds of pain that seemed so alien to him, his eyes trained on the hay and not on the calving. He couldn’t remember any amazement as the mushy looking animal wobbled on the ground. All he could remember was disgust.
That night, with Bessie trembling on a bed of straw, Elijah couldn’t stop staring at his son’s eyes and his slightly ajar mouth, at the way his hands fidgeted in excitement. For a moment, Elijah had been filled with a jealousy so raw that it made his knees buckle. He wanted to be amazed.
“I think that’s going to burn,” Jared spoke up from behind him, the chair barely making a noise as he pushed it back from the table.
Elijah started, staring down at the white goo he’d been stirring. Particles were stuck along the side of the pot, most of the solution cake, onto the metal bottom. He frowned slightly. “I’m sure there’s a way to make this taste good.”
He could feel Jared shuffle slightly in his place behind him. “Maybe add some cinnamon?” he suggested softly.
“Yeah,” Elijah said, his voice sounding obnoxiously loud as he forced the syllable out from between his teeth. “That sounds like a good idea.”
“Ha. Ha. Ha. What about Apocowlypse?”
“Ooh, that’s even better, Brian. Now it’s up to you, our lovely viewers, have any ideas for what to call this Night of the Mooing Dead?”
Elijah snapped off the T.V., the small screen blinking black, the smiling faces of the morning show hosts disappearing along with their bubbling voices. Jared had settled into the living room for coffee after the gloppy breakfast, and he had clicked the T.V. on almost on rote.
“They’re just trying to keep people from panicking,” Jared muttered over gurgled sips of his bitter coffee. His teeth felt gritty with the small clumps of grounds that hadn’t been filtered out.
“Ha,” Elijah coughed humorlessly, “When that volcano was discovered, they made it out that the world was ending. No one gives two thoughts about the cows or the chickens.”
Elijah’s wife had cared about the cows, at least, when they were younger. The idea of farm life had still been romantic to her then, her love of the land still untarnished by thoughts of disease and the weariness of routine. Then, she had lived on a farm fifteen miles to the south of Pembroke Farms, her and the six other children who her mother couldn’t manage. They had gone to the same dusty school with broken down cars parked out front. She was constantly tapping her shoes during math class, creating a rhythm to his day, adding music to his life.
They talked occasionally of the Chicken Resurrection, which was still going on, if only at the periphery of their lives when they were eighteen. Elijah had told her, in hushed tones as they walked along the football field outside of the high school, about how he had almost run away. She had looked horrified then, her mind barely able to comprehend him leaving. She had whispered, a little harshly in the spring air thick with the cloying scent of honeysuckle and wheat, that it was wrong to leave his family behind. They had needed him so much. He was still so needed.
Need, Elijah mused, was an interesting thing.
Jared blew on his coffee despite the fact that it had been lukewarm to start. He couldn’t disagree with what his father had said; most people didn’t care about the cows or the chickens. All his friends had moved away, to the big cities made of concrete and steel, smoke and glass. They studied things like biology or literature, wanted to “make something of themselves,” whatever that meant. Jared had never seen himself as anything other than what he was. Had never imagined himself as anything other than his father, with hardened hands and removed eyes. But he, Jared thought, grimacing as the sour taste of the coffee saturated his tongue, would talk softly. There was no reason to yell when the other person was right in front of you, eyes fixed on your face, ready to hear whatever words would come next.
His father had only mentioned college once, a conversation that ended quickly with a plaintive word from Jared about the cost and how he didn’t need a degree to know he was worth something, didn’t need a professor to tell him how to take care of his own animals.
Jared had met his father’s eyes for the briefest of moments before the conversation reverted to his mother’s brilliant culinary skills, how tender the pork chops were, how smooth the garlic mashed potatoes. They didn’t mention that she was now making them in a different kitchen, her feet padding out a rhythm on a different floor.
“I think it’s time we’d better get a move on,” Elijah intoned matter-of-factly, his gaze leveled on his son. Jared shook his mug, watching the brown liquid spin around on the bottom before he set it down with a clink on the old wooden stand next to the couch.
The air felt stagnant as the two of them walked out to where Maribel still lay, her stiff limbs sticking up into the air, dried blood littering the trodden-down grass around the body. With each lumbering footfall, Jared felt his stomach sink. He hated the burying. Because it felt so final. Because it felt so inconsequential at the same time. Because he loved these cows and he wished they would just die, was glad when he was sure, almost sure, they were truly dead.
Elijah opened the car door while Jared walked forward, the rumble of the engine shattering the pregnant silence that had filled the air. Jared made his way toward the barn, his breath sucked into the back of his throat to avoid the cloying smell of death that still clung to the boards, the wooden stalls, the dust floating calmly through the air. He grabbed the blue wheelbarrow, chipped and rusted, feeling the hand smoothed handles glide into the grooves of his palms. Jared remembered seeing his mother behind this wheelbarrow, filled to the brim with dirt for her compact flower garden, the splashes of color from the goldenrod and latent roses, Virginia bluebells and geraniums lighting up her eyes.
There was still a bit of dirt caked into the hollow of the wheelbarrow, along with patches of skin that had peeled off as they moved the cows from the ground to the bed of the truck. Jared blinked quickly, erasing the image of his mother patting soil around cornflowers from his mind. He grabbed the rubber smocks and gloves that hung from the many steel hooks placed around the long room of the barn. Jared loaded shovels into it as well, the clunk softened by the fabric of the protective gear.
He shucked them into the wheelbarrow and started toward the body.
Elijah had told his parents he was going over to a friend’s house the day he had decided he was going to leave. He had shoved some granola bars and water into his backpack with the safety pin that served as a zipper. The lie had slipped out of his mouth so easily, calling it out nonchalantly over his shoulder as he headed out the door for school. Instead of waiting at the end of the drive for the school bus, he walked onto the main road, his arm outstretched, hoping for a ride into the nearest town with a bus terminal, about an hour away.
It was the money that stopped him. Not the image of his broken-hearted mother or the thought of the extra workload for his father. He didn’t have enough for a ticket to New York, barely enough for Chicago. He couldn’t live. And what could a fourteen-year-old farm boy do in a city? Beg. And Elijah didn’t beg for much.
A few miles out, close, but not too close, to the edge of the Pembroke Farms property line was a mass grave.
At first, they had burned all the cows, worried about contaminating the groundwater, about spreading the disease, about infecting humans, about the end of the world.
But after a while, the process was too costly to continue and nothing obviously nefarious had happened yet.
The shovel hit dry soil with a rasping sound, a blistering type of laugh. The sun had risen and its rays got caught in the dirt puffing up from the burgeoning hole. Jared coughed as the particles entered his lungs; he stopped his digging, looking over to where his father was moving the corpse into position.
“Can you take over for a little while?” he called out, his voice scratchy.
Elijah nodded, grasping the sweat coated shovel and helping his son out of the pit with his free hand. They continued, taking turns until the proper parameters had been reached. Then the two of them slowly lowered the cold heifer into the ground and covered it with soil.
It always felt empty after they flattened the last of the mound, like there should be something more, should be some words to say, should be some ritual to enact. Should… should… should.
“Well,” his father grumbled, his hands at his lower back as he stretched toward the hard-looking sky. “It’s probably around time for lunch. Let’s go clean up.” He grasped his son’s shoulder in a swift clasp, his eyes meeting his son’s for a brief moment.
Elijah hadn’t been able to catch a ride back home, so he’d walked, his feet dragging only the pavement, his backpack heavy on his shoulders, his three granola bars eaten by mid-day. Darkness was bleeding into the horizon as he edged closer to town.
His mother, looking up in surprise as Elijah had opened the door, asked him why he was home so early.
“I missed you,” he answered hoarsely.
“How sweet,” his mother cooed, her eyes welling with faint tears. She always seemed bleary-eyed nowadays.
“I am a little tired though. I think I’m going to go to bed.”
Elijah’s body was sore as he laid down on his lumpy mattress. He slept that night, but he woke up with his eyes still heavy and his stomach still leaden. He practiced smiling in the bathroom mirror before he shuffled down to breakfast.
Jared remembered the night his mother left, her face sad. She had crept into his room, the moon heavy in the sky, and told him to come with her. To the city. The farm had been fine, before. But now it was killing them. His father wouldn’t leave because it had grown into his skin, trapped him like throttling vines. He had tried once, she said in a whisper, but now all he saw of the world were these fields and the hateful sun that cracked his skin. But they could get out, if only he would come with her.
Jared had expected it. He had guessed at her leaving when he saw her eyes. Sometimes she would gaze out along the fields looking just like Bessie or Maribel, her eyes cast slightly downward and her long fingers jumping in place, her toes tapping out a beat that was bound to carry her up and out of her chair and into far away streets where she could forever be moving.
Jared came down to breakfast the next morning to burned toast and watery scrambled eggs. He wanted to ask his father about the time he left, years ago, about what his mother had told him as she packed her bag. If she had said anything to him at all?
“How did you sleep?” his father had asked as Jared’s throat clogged with words.
“Susan died sometime last night.”
“Really? She was a good heifer.”
“Yes, she was. I’m going to miss her. She always was so patient with the milking.”
Jared woke up to his father’s yelling. His eyes snapped open, but his body stayed rooted between his sheets. He felt his heart hammer for a few precious seconds until he threw off his light blankets and thundered down the wooden steps, hearing them scream in protest as he launched off of them, hurtling toward the sound, the terrible sound.
There she was, standing right outside the screen door, her head half-gone, her body caked in mud. Jared stopped thinking, his heart striking the floor with a semi-audible thump. Circulating jaw, gnashing teeth. Mud covered the threading throw rug, the red and yellow long since faded to a pink and off-white.
Jared wasn’t scared. Only sadness, a suffocating, oppressive sadness.
“Get my gun, Jared!” Elijah screamed from his place against the wall, his face wrinkled as he stared at the dented face of the cow.
He remembered the day Maribel was born, three years after Bessie. Jared could recall the thimble thin legs, wobbling on the ground. It had been mid-afternoon and he had just gotten back from school, running through the high grasses which smelled of the sun, his arms pumping furiously in exaggerated motions. Maribel was already there, stumbling with her head rocking from side to side, by the time he entered the barn. His father had looked at him, drawn in a breath that sounded like a sigh. As his father walked out of the barn, his shoulders sloping down his back, he called, “Wash that goop off her, will ya?”
Jared left, walking slowly into the bathroom and grabbing a washcloth, running it underneath steaming water. It took only a few minutes of rubbing until he could see the jagged heart on her left side.
He couldn’t do this anymore.
“Hey, Maribel, you’re a good girl,” he cooed.
Jared couldn’t kill her. Not again.
“Get my gun, Jared, what the hell are you doing?”
“It’s okay, Maribel.”
He felt his hands dig strangely into her loose skin.
Maribel didn’t last long. At least, not long after Elijah had run to grab his gun, Jared uselessly washing off her hide.
The two stood over the third-time dead cow, Jared’s right hand loosely holding the dripping rag. Slowly, the sound of the gunshot stopped ringing around the house and the only noise was the dripping of the cooling water unto the floor, the soiled rug.
“Why didn’t you do what I asked you to do!” Elijah yelled. It wasn’t a question: he didn’t care about the answer.
“It just seemed… pointless,” Jared answered truthfully.
“That thing could have killed me!”
“You’re still standing, though.”
“No thanks to you! What the hell do you think you’re doing? These things are dangerous.”
“Maribel was never dangerous.”
“That wasn’t Maribel. That was an it, Jared. Can’t you understand that?”
Jared looked down, trying to ignore the aching in his back, the throbbing at his temples. His fingers itched for the times when they could act without thought, when he could wake up with the rest of the world and go out to the barn, his head held high and his arms swinging.
“You should leave.”
He looked up suddenly, the softness of his father’s tone catching him off guard.
“I would have if I could have.”
“But you need me,” Jared said plaintively. Even though that wasn’t necessarily true. He needed this place, to feel the land under his feet, to convince himself that it would be fine. Fine. Fine. Soon enough it would all be fine. In five years, things would have settled down and he could take over the work from his father or buy out a farm nearby with a small house and a clean barn.
“I would have left. This place will destroy you.”
Jared couldn’t imagine his home destroying him.
“Come on,” Elijah sighed, “I don’t want your mother to have to see this.”
They slowly worked together to drag Maribel out of the front door, their muscles straining under the weight despite the thinness of the cow. The cool air of the autumn morning washed over Jared’s face as the screen door clicked shut behind them.
Nicole Zador is a sophomore at Brandeis University who enjoys writing stories, drinking tea, and crocheting. If you ever need to contact her, you can find her attempting to cope with her stress by crying under the nearest tree.