The newspaper advertisement for a special exhibit showing freaks of nature made me remember a few summers ago, when I kept sneaking over to the north field to watch Dot, because I knew she was going to have her baby soon and I wanted to see it happen. After supper mama would say,
Go out to the barn and tell the chickens goodnight.
I would say,
but instead I squeezed between the wires over to Dot’s pasture. She was easy to find among the other cows, because of a large white spot on her nose, the rest of her jet black. Or when I was supposed to pluck the weeds out of the gardens or clean the horse stalls, I would always make time for her too; I was her guardian; if her baby was ready to come out I would give a holler and get help.
Silky didn’t like my standing sentinel over her when I was supposed to be doing my chores.
The bitch knows how ta do it, ain’t like it’s her first calf.
Rick, it makes her happy. She’s never seen a birth before–
Not that I asked you.
Silky had been around since as long as I could remember, but he wasn’t my daddy. Mama said my daddy had gone on a trip to heaven and wouldn’t get back in this lifetime, and that Rick was taking care of us, the farm, and our debts just fine. Rick was a strange man. He had a mean way of speaking to me and mama and his hair looked greasy and dry at the same time. He played with my hair sometimes which I hated because he was so foul, and I didn’t want my hair to look like mama had fried it in butter then dusted it with bread crumbs. Sometimes when mama was in the house and we were out doing chores, he would take a break in his chair under the weeping tree.
Git over here, girl.
I went with some water for him, because it was hot, but before I turned to go he would reach out and stroke my head. He’d just sort of pet my hair like you would to a baby cow. He would say, real soft,
So silky. Silky, silky, silky.
Then he’d tell me to git the hell on with the chores. That’s why I call him Silky.
Anyway. Dot’s baby was going to be mine. A few weeks before she was due, Mama and I were doing the dishes in our little kitchen after dinner while Silky went over some accounts, a flask of whiskey on the table next to the books.
I wonder if it’ll be a girl!
You never know, Laura.
I hope it’s a girl. She handed me a clean plate, which I dried and set on the rack. Mama?
Hm, she said sleepily.
I’ll take care of her. She’ll be mine as much as Dot’s.
That’s nice, sweetheart. She handed me a bowl.
Maybe she can sleep with me!
Mh-hm. Another plate.
Silky slammed the account book closed. Would ya shut up about the damn cow? Doing accounts made him more cross than usual. I guess he forgot how poor we were from when he had gone over them the night before and it reminded him of it.
Why that one, huh? We got about five of ‘em ready to have kids.
His booming voice had scared me and I had turned around real quick. Mama kept washing the dishes but she was more stiff. It had gotten really hot, even with the windows open and the evening breeze flowing through.
Lookit me, girl.
Any more about the calf, talkin’ about it or neglectin’ your chores for it, and I’ll have ya over me knee.
Rick, it’s just a fixation of hers. She doesn’t mean anything by it.
And here ya go. Why don’t ya tell her she ain’t a little girl anymore? She’s a woman and oughta be thinkin’ about other things
She ain’t a woman, Rick. She turned away from the cup she had been scrubbing and scrubbing.
She looks to be filling out to me. He scanned over me. You let her get away with this shit.
And he gave her the meanest look ever. Like Mama was a pile of manure or a burnt loaf of cornbread. Like she pained him more than even I did.
I’m sorry, she said real quiet, how she always did when he got mean. We were all sweating like hogs, so she wet a rag and pressed it to his brow. Even when he was awful, Mama was always sweet on him like that. I also got the feeling, though, that she was just turning him off from a really ugly fight. I stood by the counter, dishwater soaking my shirt, as he put his arms around her flanks and pulled her into his lap. I thought about Dot, my mama cow and my baby cow inside her, and how I would see them without being whooped. Silky looked at me and said git out of here girl.
As Dot’s date got closer, I started to get more worried about her. What if she had a problem? Silky kept an eye on me all day, giving the chores near the north field to a farm hand. He made me sit in the chair under the weeping tree on breaks and next to it when he wanted to sit. He did it often because August had decided to be the hottest month I’d ever known. He would stroke my hair in his strange way, and I was happy to get back to even my most hated tasks, like cleaning the bat and cat turds out of the loft.
I couldn’t stand being away from her. I wanted to see Dot. She was mine. She had been on the farm for as long as I could remember. She had had three babies before this one, but I had never got to see it.
The only way was to sneak out at night. I would climb down the trellis from my window then go around the back of the barn. Since our house was most south on the farm, I would have to go around all the pastures to get to Dot in the north field. The easiest way there was sort of scary because right beyond the wires on the west side were woods, and in the woods was a really old cemetery. The graves were back from slavery times or something and it was spooky, but I could go the east way and avoid all that.
I chose Saturday night because Mama went to bed early on account of church early the next day, and it was the only night of the week that Silky joined her at the same time.
I took a flashlight but I didn’t use it because I was afraid Silky would see it and catch me. But I didn’t need to worry about the flashlight waking him up because he caught me anyway. Here’s how it happened.
I wasn’t even able to get past the barn. Silky was sitting in his chair under the weeping tree, which I never would have thought about because, well, because it was the middle of the night and it was dark as all hell, but he was a strange, strange man. Anyway, I must not have been quiet enough because he called to me.
I’d never been so scared, or sure of a beating, in my life.
Git over here, girl.
He turned an electric lantern that he had next to him on, and I saw his whiskey flask balanced on his thigh. He leaned comfortably in the chair and looked directly at me, lips pursed. I mean it sincerely, I almost, I don’t know, vomited or wet myself.
I’m real, real sorry Rick. I’ll clean out the loft till school starts, I’ll never talk back to you or Mama again, I’ll–
No worries, girl. He took a swig from his flask. I had no idea what to say. I mean, really, I had expected a slap right then and there, or a promise to be bent over his knee tomorrow, but he didn’t sound cross at all.
‘S alright, Laura.
He rarely called me by my name. He took another swig and smiled like he did at Mama.
Why don’t you come here and watch the stars with me.
He sounded very, very nice, but I was struck then that he was much more strange than I had thought. His greasy dry hair glistened in the lantern light and he smiled, waiting for me as the warm air grew hot and the cicadas screamed in the woods.
You’d be wise to, girl.
Nice. A very nice tone of voice, but mean words. At that moment I wanted to call for Mama, but the way he was still and looking at me so directly, how he looked at her, I went to him. He stood suddenly and I shrinked away, but he stepped to the side and gestured for me to sit in the chair. Then he turned off the lantern and I felt real, real sick. Through the weak starlight I could just make out Dot’s field to the north, and I felt his hand in my hair.
So silky. Silky, silky, silky.
I was so sick I was going to die, but all of a sudden a beam of light swept over us from the house like the second coming of Christ, and I heard my Mama’s sweet, sweet voice call out for me, and she saved me from whatever he wanted to do that night.
Basically, Mama saw enough from the porch to slap up Silky something fierce. I had never seen her so angry, not at him at least, but she hit him over the head and called him all sorts of names that the pastor, in a few hours, would preach not to use. He didn’t even fight back, just looked at her quietly, then turned on his heel and stormed out into the dark.
But, she didn’t make him leave. She stood there in our small kitchen and I saw her think about it. I hugged her side, on the verge of tears, not because I understood what had almost happened to me, but because I didn’t. I just felt the fear of having Silky’s hand on me and the fear of Mama standing there, not knowing what to do. I know now that she had adult considerations floating around her head–the accounts, the farm to run, loneliness–but at the time I just thought she was afraid that she had hit him. He didn’t come back that night. She put me to bed; I asked her to stay but she seemed distracted and confused so she left me there, crying and alone.
I suppose it had also been a hard night for Dot, because she delivered her calf. I didn’t get to see it, again.
We found out because Silky came into the kitchen that morning as Mama warmed up the cooking pan, covered in blood. At first I thought he had killed someone, maybe because he had been so angry that she hit him last night. From Mama’s face, she must have thought the same thing, but then we saw the bundle in his arms.
Dot’s, he said. Mama walked over from the stove, looking at him, and he looked right back at her. Then she peered into the blanket and went still. I jumped out of my seat.
Let me see her, let me see! My baby cow had finally arrived.
Ya want to see? He still looked at Mama, not me or the calf. Here ya go.
He kneeled so I could look into the blanket drenched in blood and womb water.
It was dead. My cow was dead. Silky said to mama,
A little freak a’ nature. Think we could sell him to the circus?
It was dead, but more than that, my calf had two heads. Four eyes looked at me, milky gray; four nostrils dripped with mucus, no air coming in or out; four ears and two tongues and two small, white dots on two noses, just like the mother. My calf–my calves–were dead.
Mama stood silently, Silky smiled up at her, and I screamed, louder than I ever had before.
Dot died too. There was too much wrong, and the baby had ripped her coming out. I had burst from the kitchen, dodging Mama’s hands reaching for me, sprinting over to the north field, where I saw her body in a slick mess of blood and birth fluid. We couldn’t sell her body, though. No one wanted a dead old cow, so we had to bury her in the woods, in that spooky old cemetery.
Her baby, however, made Silky some money. He took it to people, I didn’t know who, because I had kicked and screamed again when he said he was going to sell the freak, so I had been put in my room.
I never knew what happened to the calf until recently, when I saw in a newspaper that a special exhibition was happening in Philadelphia, displaying wonders of nature including a living headless chicken, a deer with chronic wasting disease, and a calf. A two-headed calf. The picture showed it, the two perfect faces with a white dot on each nose. I had seen my baby cows again. I never asked Silky about the birth. Part of me, the hopeful part, believed that the calves and Dot had been alive at the same time, that if only for a moment, they could breathe together and lay close together, knowing that time was short but loving each other like time was long. They had felt the summer breeze as a family, and for my two-headed calf, perhaps there were twice as many wonders in the sky as usual.
Inspired by Laura Gilpin’s “The Two-Headed Calf”