The men’s hands are coated with a perpetual skim of black. Dirt from the fields, grease from the tractors, dust from the animals. The men’s hands are large and sturdy. Steady. Their hands smell like sweet hay, manure, curdled milk.

The cows in the barn have their favorite sets of hands. Lettie will stand still for Tom but will kick like a devil if Vincent tries to get near her. Mabel flicks her tail at Andrew every morning in a come-hither motion, batting those huge black eyes as the farmer’s oldest son limps his way into the barn. Goldberry won’t tolerate anyone but Vincent, whose hands, still young, are not yet two solid calluses.

And Estella. That cranky old bitch. Lost her last calf but the milk keeps coming. She shrieks when the men reach for the udder. Her big eyes roll. She stamps in her stall, enormous hooves smooshing into piles of her own shit. Her milk is cloudy gray and useless.

One morning Tom tells Andrew to get the rifle. Tells Vincent to get the shovel. The Leavitts are having an auction next week; they can buy another cow. A better milker. Vincent says they shouldn’t all have to watch. Why not just Tom alone. Tom says it’s a man’s job, and it’s time Vincent learn to be a man. Andrew doesn’t say a word. His younger brother’s weakness annoys him, but he also thinks their father’s a bitter old bastard, part of a world that should’ve stopped existing long ago.

Out in the field, Estella screeching and shaking between them, Tom tells Vincent to take the rifle from the Andrew. It’s time he learn. Stop being a little pussy. Nothing in this life is fair; nothing in this life is pretty. It’s late spring, chilly. Glue-white sky hanging low. By noon it’ll be raining. By noon the cows in the barn will be milked and content, udders greased with the bag balm Tom is always so careful to apply.

The rifle is heavy. The echo of the shot breaks the morning, brings hot, panicky tears to Vincent’s eyes. The blood is everywhere. Andrew says nothing. Tom takes the gun from Vincent and lays one huge, warm hand on the back of Vincent’s neck. Holds him there a moment. It’s a sonofabitch, he says. Then the farmer tells his sons to go inside, rustle up some breakfast. Flapjacks would be good. Maybe some of that sausage.

At the edge of the field, Vincent stops and looks back. His father kneels beside Estella, leans toward her empty eyes, says something no one else will ever hear. Then his father takes the green tin of bag balm from his jacket pocket. Dips his big, cracked fingers into the yellow grease. Strokes those fingers along the dead girl’s udders. Carefully. Lovingly.

 

Shannon L. Bowring

Shannon L. Bowring’s work has appeared in numerous journals, has been nominated for a Pushcart and a Best of the Net, and was selected for Best Small Fictions 2021. She is a Finalist for the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance Maine Literary Awards. Shannon earned her MFA at Stonecoast, where she served as Editor-in-Chief for the Stonecoast Review. She lives in Maine, where she works for a public library.

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