(Content Note: Miscarriage, Animal Death)
There’s magic in my mother’s cattle. Warm milk drips through my fingers and fills one, two, three iron pails. The cow lows, but she stills when I put my hand on her flank. I tell her not to worry. There’s still plenty for the calf.
I carry what I can from the barn to our farmhouse. It’s an old man with two faces, built by two eras. The eastern side slouches under a sod roof, built by Momma’s first husband who came with her from Philadelphia when all they had were their hands and homesteader dreams. Then he died fighting for the Union. The western side has two rooms of proper wood, built by my Ba whose hands made the railroad. He left for his old country before I was born, and the law made sure he can’t come back.
The only things he left me were his dark hair, dark eyes, and skin that don’t burn.
Momma always says, “You’re my railroad daughter, Pearl.”
But the townfolk always called me “bastard,” and when I grew curves, they called me “bitch.”
I heave my load onto the kitchen table and call for Momma. She’s not here. She’s probably minding the garden or foraging the prairie. Knowing I won’t be caught, I sneak a sip. The milk tastes buttery sweet and thick with cream. It’s the best in the county and why we can live, unbothered, at the edge of so-called civilization.
Momma says I haven’t seen real civilization like back East—that it’s made of iron and money and men without conscience. She says I’ve never seen it, and I never will. Because she’s never going back, and it’s not worth my going solo. The town train station is as close to real civilization as we gonna get.
A basket of new, soft cheese sits beside the door. I sigh because I know it’s my next chore. While I pack it up and secure the saddlebags to our pinto mare, Tansy, Momma walks in like a force of nature—sun-worn skin and wild, grey hair. Though she’s nearing sixty, she stands straight as an oak.
“I’m coming with you today,” she announces. I know better than to question. It’s not often she comes with, since she’s got so much business on the farm, but she speaks to the wind and barley, and sometimes they tell our fortune.
“Where were you this morning?” I ask.
“Looking for things we’ll need.” She opens her palm, revealing a cheesecloth full of foraged pennyroyal. Then she tucks it into her pocket and vaults into the saddle behind me.
It’s a five-mile ride into town, but Tansy navigates the tall grass and prairie dog holes as easy as the packed dirt on Main Street. Momma hitches her to a post outside the dry goods store, and I undo the saddlebag. I look down, so my hair hides my face from the townfolks’ prying blue eyes and gossiping whispers. “Stranger.” “Slant-eyed.” “Freak.”
The clerk, Fidel, greets us with a nod. He’s a stranger, too. A different kind, but it means he also knows how townfolk whisper. I think it’s why he’s nicer to us. I unpack my cheese at the register, and he counts them up while Momma scans the shelves behind him.
“So many,” he laughs, shaking his head in disbelief like he does every time. “I reckon that’s equivalent to two whole dollars. Your cows must either be blessed or cursed. Dunno which.”
“You know better than to talk like that ’bout Momma, Mr. Garcia.”
Momma smirks and points to the goods we’ll need. “A pound of flour, four yards of shirting, and the rest in scrip for later.”
“Anything for you, Missus Lovelace.” Fidel turns away to assemble our goods when the front door slams open. In walks a tall man with a grey mustache that’s oiled to two points long as bull’s horns. His silk cravat is stuck through with a silver pin that’s probably worth more than I’ll see in my lifetime. He’s got one hand tight around a mahogany cane and the other around a girl’s tiny wrist.
She can’t be much older than me—sixteen, seventeen at most. With golden hair done up in crowning braids. I’ve never seen a dress so nice or a face so pretty. She looks at me with wide blue eyes, and I know she’s never seen anyone like me, either. Maybe she, too, finds me a freak. She breaks her gaze when the man pulls her forward. Her slender legs stumble, and I notice how ill-fitting that pretty dress is, how it can’t hide her pregnant belly.
The man strides up to Momma and orders, “Madam, if you please—two bottles of laudanum.”
Fidel stutters, arms still full of our goods.
“Does he not speak English? Tell your boy I requested laudanum. I certainly did not travel a full week from New York City to find I won’t have the supplies I need.”
“It’s all right, Momma,” I mutter, taking a step away. “He can get his things first. We ain’t rushin’ to go nowhere.”
Momma silences me with a glare before coolly responding, “My apologies, Mister—”
He cuts her off again. “Madam, when your husband returns, you ought to let him know he should replace his hired hand with one of better stock, who takes proper service seriously.”
“Doctor. Mister Fidel here, as the owner of this shop, takes his service very seriously. And I am his customer. So you’ll just have to wait ’til we’re done.”
The doctor blinks. “He owns the shop? Then who might your husband be?”
“Don’t need one.”
The man tilts his head, taken aback by the statement.
Fidel intervenes, producing two bottles of laudanum. “Your order, sir.”
Momma shoots him a glare, too. The look’s chastisement enough.
“That’ll be eighty cents, please, sir,” Fidel squeaks.
“That’s blatant robbery! All I’ve invested, and this is how you receive me…” The doctor fumes, but he reaches for his money. The girl’s wrist goes white where his other hand digs into her skin.
“Transport means some things’re more expensive out here,” Momma states. “You’re best off working the land like the rest of us. Poppy tea’s good for pain management.”
He looks downright offended now. “And how would you know? You some herb-swilling witch? I’m fully board-certified.”
“I’m this town’s midwife. And I’m all too familiar with your kinda doctoring. Forceps and fevers, the killing kind.”
He scoffs, mustache twisting with irritation. “A gentleman has clean hands.”
Momma ignores him and takes one of our cheeses back from Fidel. “I’d love it if you could kindly take that flour off our earlier order. Promise we’ll return for it later.”
As Fidel recalculates our tab, Momma reaches past the doctor, she offers it to the quivering girl. “Now, what’s your name?”
The girl takes it but looks at the doctor before whispering, “Faith.”
“This here’s your welcome present, Faith. My daughter and I work a farm just north of here. Best cheese this side of the Mississippi. Try it. You’ll see. If you’d like more—or anything at all, and I mean anything—you come find us. Just follow the road through the barley.” Something more than cheese passes between their eyes.
As the doctor pockets his bottles, he pushes between them. “You had better not talk to my family without my permission. Faith is a good wife who knows better than to consort with loose women.”
They head out the door, I come out from the corner, and Momma concludes our transaction. “Now, who in the world was that?”
Fidel shakes his head. “Must be the rich quack the postman was talking ’bout this morning—just bought a good chunk of property from the railroad company, so’s he can rent to us at an even higher price. Says land’s good out here. Calls it a smart investment.”
As I pack the saddlebags, I ask Momma, “Why’d you give the cheese away? We sure coulda used that flour.”
“Pearl, I knew plenty of men like him back east: men who can’t stand the sight of a woman in their space—space they stole to begin with. And god forbid a woman know more than him. So in the end, we ladies only got each other.”
I’m putting Tansy to bed when I hear a sound that I don’t like, so I take my lantern in hand and slip into the night. An angel parts the grass before me. Her wheat hair flows down to her waist, prettier than sunrise. “Missus Faith! What’re you doing here?”
She’s in a lace nightgown hiked to her knees and shoes too pricey for dirt roads, but she begs, “You’ve got to help me.”
“I’m sorry, but I dunno what you think I can do.”
“But Malcolm called that woman a witch! You must be one, too, right?”
I roll my eyes. “Been called lotsa things. Ain’t no witch. Momma’s magic’s just real good cheese.”
“Please, we came through the Ohio Valley by rail, crossed the Mississippi by riverboat, and drove to your nowhere town by stagecoach. I’m so tired, but I still walked all the way here to find you.”
I think on what Momma said about relying on each other. At the least, we could feed her, let her rest, and send her back proper tomorrow. “You just wait outside while I finish up in the barn.”
She follows me into the stable anyway and watches my work with rapt attention. When I go to hang up Tansy’s bridle, she’s already done it.
“Thank you kindly. Guess we’re gonna see Momma.” I smile and offer my arm to walk her to the farmhouse. She steps bow-legged with the baby.
Momma meets us on the path, rifle in her arms and tobacco smoke lingering on her deerskin coat. She sets the gun down and takes Faith’s hand. “The wind said you were coming.”
“Can you really help me?”
“Help you how?” Momma asks, but I think she already knows.
Faith’s face goes red trying to push out words. She breathes deep, and tears roll down her chin. “I don’t want it,” she sputters. “I don’t want him. He made me do it, made me leave everything behind. I never wanted any of this.”
Momma soothes her by running fingers through her hair. “We can take care of you.”
Faith nods vigorously, too choked up to speak anymore.
Momma throws the coat over Faith’s shoulders and pulls her close. Then she tells me, “Fetch a pail.”
We head to the corral. While I use the lantern, Momma only needs the full moon. She already knows where the cattle sleep. The cow looks up when we arrive, but the calf keeps suckling his mother’s teat. Momma separates them and leads him away. “We’ll need milk,” is her only command before she disappears through the grass.
The cow’s confused by the late hour, but she lets me work. Faith hovers behind me, watching fresh cream pour from my hands. “I didn’t think you were actually her daughter,” she admits. “I thought you did the laundry.”
My spine bristles. “Well, I am.”
“What’s it like?”
“Milking cows? Or bein’ a bastard?”
“No, living here. The town. The prairie.”
“It’s nice. Quiet. Folks don’t bother you.”
“And men don’t tell you what to do.”
“Exactly. Momma sold regulators in the city ’til she was driven out by—”
“—by men like my husband?”
Faith places her hand on the cow’s forehead. She nuzzles her palm, so Faith picks some grass to feed her. But the whole time, Faith’s really watching my fingers. “Might I try?”
“Sure, ’course.” I step back.
She kneels and wraps her palm around the teat. “It’s warm.”
“Of course it is.” I place my hands around hers, and I thank the lord my Ba’s skin don’t go red. “Apologies, Missus, but it’s easier to teach by feel.”
“You don’t need to apologize,” she whispers. Even in the dim candlelight, I see pink flush her untanned cheeks.
I go slow at first, finger after finger in a gentle cascade. Faith moves under me. She learns quick and soon, she’s the one moving my hand, conducting the rhythm of dripping milk and my heartbeat.
When the pail’s full, we go find Momma. She waits by a tree, rope and rifle in hand. I know what’ll happen. I’ve watched her do this since I was born. This is a farm, after all.
But this time, Momma hands the gun to me. I’m shocked. I’ve never felt the earth in my veins. The cattle don’t bend to me.
Still, I weigh the stock in my hands. It’s cool and solid and comforting, the metal sister to the ground below my feet. When I raise the barrel to the calf’s forehead, energy flows from the earth into my bones. He closes his black eyes.
And I pull the trigger.
The rifle roars, but he goes down quiet. The earth still echoes in my chest. I reach out, expecting Momma to hand me the knife for the finishing blow. But instead, she gives it to Faith, who stares, dumbfounded, at the body.
“You have to do it. It won’t work if you don’t do it.” Momma’s words are an order.
The horror on Faith’s face hardens to determination. I show her where to cut. It’s harder than it looks. She has to really saw the knife through the thick skin.
Blood pumps onto the grass and her nightgown. Momma collects it in her canteen. Then she reaches into the pocket of the coat that Faith’s borrowed for the cluster of purple flowers. She crushes them and adds them to the bottle. Finally, she tops it off with our fresh-squeezed cream.
Our spell: mother’s milk, child’s blood, and a pinch of pennyroyal.
She nods and hands the bottle to Faith, who just stares. I make a drinking motion.
There’s trepidation in her eyes, but she puts it to her mouth. One sip, and she gags. Another, and she winces. One more. And down it goes. All of it.
Then she watches, blood still on her lips, as Momma and I hang the carcass on the rafters. The hooves will go to the dogs, the skin to the tanner. We split the belly, leave the carcass to hang, and take the organs to the house. We know better than to waste any of it.
Momma heads back to the farmhouse, and I follow with Faith on one arm and milk on the other. My hands are bloody, and so are hers. The fluid and our fingers intertwine as we walk.
When she crosses the threshold, she stumbles and clutches her stomach. I walk her, screaming, to my small bed, where she collapses on the mattress. She rolls onto her back, and I take her hand. It’s now damp with sweat as well as blood. I know magic isn’t tender, so I talk to ease her pain. “How’d you end up here, anyway? The wives usually stay back east.”
“Malcolm said there’s free land. No doctors here. Money to be made.” She pants through clenched teeth. Sweat beads on her forehead. “He said science says our boy will grow strong on clean air.”
“How d’you know it’s a boy?” I comb her hair with my dirty fingers. It seems to soothe her, like there’s magic in my touch, too.
She relaxes enough to say, “Malcolm said it’s a boy. That he should know. He’s a doctor. My father—he’s on the board—said Malcolm was the smartest—”
“Momma’s smart, too. Or else why would you’ve come here? Just ’cause something come out the mouth of another man don’t make it more right.” I twist her hair into bloody twin braids that run down her chest, like a warrior princess.
Her groans change into weak laughter, and her eyelids drift half-closed. She rests her hand on her round stomach. “The cow—will she miss the calf?”
“Only if she wants to.” I place my hand atop hers, and the earth flows from my touch. The child inside her pacifies. “Take it easy now. You’ve had a long night.”
She sleeps, but Momma waves me over. My night isn’t done yet.
“You’ve taken good care of her, Pearl.”
I blush. Compliments from Momma are rare. She lights a fire and sets our biggest pot on the stove. I pour in the milk. It’s tainted. Small trails of pink dance on the white surface.
“Never mind those,” Momma tells me. I know what she means. It’ll make the magic stronger.
She cuts the calf stomach into thin strips, and I add them to the pot. I don’t know if it will work. It’s too fresh. But the look on Momma’s face tells me to trust her.
It does. The milk separates over the low fire, and the surface gets soft and springy. Then I cut the curd to specified size. It’s late now. There’s still more to do, but most of it’s waiting.
Momma pats my head. “You’ve done well. Get yourself some rest, so you can take her back before sunrise.”
I sleep well that night, on the floor next to Faith with the deerskin coat as my pillow, and I wake when the first star fades. The fire has died, but the moonlight reveals several wheels of new, soft cheese drying on the counter, rinds dotted with purple. I lead a groggy Faith to the washbasin for a rinse.
She yawns when I help her onto Tansy. No protest when I mount behind her and wrap my arms around her swollen belly to take the reins. She dozes most of the way to town. I admit, I do, too. Luckily, Tansy knows the road.
The sun peeks over the horizon when we arrive at the hotel. I help her down, and I’m about to leave when I realize she looks disappointed.
“Something the matter?” I ask.
She puts her hand on her round middle. “That’s all? But you said you’d help me.”
“We did.” I turn Tansy back toward home. The cows’ll need milking.
We have so much veal, we actually need a cart and the both of us to bring it to market. Fidel greets us warmly, asking what we’d like in exchange, and he gives us a good price because it’s still early in the season. Momma buys lots this time because we’ve got wheels to take it home.
“—and a pound of flour.”
“That’ll be seven cents.”
“That’s more than last week.”
“Things gettin’ hard fast,” Fidel says. “Dr. Perkin’s been angling to raise the rents.”
Momma sighs. “Hopefully he won’t be here much longer. You heard anything ‘bout his Missus?”
I perk up at the mention of Faith.
“You didn’t hear? Poor girl had a miscarriage.”
“My, that’s downright awful,” Momma says. But I’ve known her long enough to know she’s thinking something else.
“She’ll be all right, though. The doc gave her a thorough examination. Said she just needed a few days’ bedrest.”
Like a demon at the mention of his name, the doctor strolls into the shop. Fidel starts shaking like he’s on trial, but the doctor’s come for Momma. Their eyes meet, and I see she’s just as tall as he is. He jabs his cane in her face. “My wife disappears for a night and won’t tell me where she went. Then she locks herself in our bedroom, refusing to see anyone—even me! But she gave me your name. What have you done to my family?”
“I heard about the miscarriage. Most unfortunate.”
“And I know you had something to do with it. What did you give her? I bankrolled this railroad, this town, sent you every cent I made in the big city! You’re a squatter whore with a fistful of grass, making good women sick. If you don’t tell me, I’ll have my sheriff throw you off your damn farm!”
Momma stays cool as earth. “Doctor Perkins, I haven’t been to town since we last met.”
Fidel nods, corroborating her story.
The doctor points at me. “What about her?”
Momma steps in front of me, but I don’t need a shield anymore. I have arrows on my tongue and heat in my veins.
But Momma lays her hand on my shoulder. I lower my fists at her touch, but I’m still tense. I know I gotta trust her. She faces the doctor with a gator smile. “Deepest condolences for your loss, Doctor Perkins. Please, if it’s any help, why don’t you join us for dinner tomorrow night? Up at the farm. I’m sure your wife would love to come. We’ll show you how harmless we are.”
The look in his eyes says he’s salivating at the chance to find something there, something incriminating to take back to the sheriff. The look says he’s underestimating us.
They actually do come. Not on foot or horseback, but by coach. It can’t get all the way to the farmhouse, so I come out to lead them on foot. The doctor wears a finer tailcoat than usual, velvet brocade, but Faith looks pale and worn. In the absence of her child, she wears a corset, laced breathlessly tight around a ruffled black gown. I take the dress’s train to keep it off the ground. The fabric’s worth more than anything I’ve ever owned. As we walk, the doctor complains about the mud on his shoes.
Momma opens the door and, to my surprise, greets them warmly. The house smells inviting, even if the doctor sneers noticeably at its haphazard construction. There’s veal bone soup on the stove and stewed field greens on the table.
“Welcome, friends.” She pulls out a chair—her chair, at the head of the table—and the doctor sits right down.
He huffs. “How can you possibly deliver children here? It’s unsightly.”
I pull out a chair for Faith and explain, “We go to folks’ houses for that kind of delivery. Here, we make cheese.”
She sits gracefully while he snorts, “Cheese? What kind of proper midwife is also a cheesemonger?”
I shrug. “Everyone does whatever, whenever, they can on the frontier.”
He smiles politely, if disingenuously, at Momma, but he still frowns at me.
“Why don’t you try some? We’ve a fresh batch from a few days ago.” The wheels from Faith’s visit still sit on the counter. Momma picks one up and hands it to me.
The rind is snowy white, speckled with purple, and splits smoothly under the knife. A pale, red ribbon winds through the creamy flesh.
I serve it on our nicest china, the set painted with blue cornflowers. He avoids eating until I hand him a smaller knife and a bit of hardtack.
He grudgingly spreads the paste on his cracker and places it in his mouth. When he bites down, crumbs tangle in the hairs of his mustache. I watch his mouth as he chews, moving from side to side.
“This is…quite good.” He struggles as if it hurts to pay the compliment. “What type of cheese is this?”
“Just our secret recipe, between my daughter and me.”
“It’s good. Shockingly good. How is it so good?” He continues to eat, enchanted by every bite, each one increasingly voracious. His comments are laced with the quiet anger I recognize as jealousy.
Momma sets the rest of the wheel in front of him, and he gobbles that down, too—this time forgoing the niceties of bread and cutlery. I prepare another.
Faith reaches forward to cut a sample, but he snatches it away and bites directly into the rind. I rest my hand on hers, and she draws back. I feel the magic, and it’s not for her.
“I need more,” he says.
I bring the rest, and he downs them one by one. Momma watches, arms folded. Curd and saliva cling to his lips, but he still demands, “More.”
I give him the final piece, which he digs into with too-large teeth, and it smears across his nose.
“There is no more, you oaf.” Momma yanks her chair out from under him, and he collapses on the floor.
“More,” he tries to say, but it comes out in a bellow. “Mooooo—!”
He tries to stand, but immediately drops to all fours because his fingers have merged and hardened into hooves. His eyes go black, and his ears elongate. The tailcoat splits along its seams, revealing a pink body sprouting thick fur. His mustache hardens into tiny horns, and his flaring nostrils thrust forward into a muzzle. Soon, there’s just a boy-calf kicking on its side, lowing in frustration.
“Now, Pearl,” Momma says, tying a rope around the calf’s neck. “Set the table for dinner. Ol’ Bess must be wondering where her dogie went, so I’ll be taking him out to see her. He’ll have plenty of time to fatten up before the season ends.”
She urges the calf to stand and it follows her out the door, seemingly unaware of the moment before.
I take dinner off the stove, and Faith lays out three place settings. It’s certainly charming, how formal she does it.
“What’ll happen to you?” I ask.
She shrugs. “Guess I’ll go back to town. He was a doctor. He had money. Might be able to make a death certificate and claim it back in New York.”
“But do you want to go back?”
“Think I have to.”
“Cause a man put it on paper?”
“When you put it that way—”
“You could stay here. We could always use another pair of hands.”
“I think I’d like that.”
She laces her fingers through mine, and we collect the scraps of velvet to use as rags. We know better than to waste any of it.
© 2021 Grace P. Fong