I don’t know Jeremy Mitchell or his wife, and I couldn’t possibly comment on the existential angst of cows. I look at Jeremy’s face and try to conjure the snapshot of him as a skinny thirteen-year-old, fumbling for my lips in the dark, but missing and catching the side of my mouth instead.
“The Absence of Cows” won a first place prize in our 2015 New Voices contest.
My mother has been staring at the cows all day. Well, to be truthful, she’s been staring at where the cows used to be. They disappeared while we were sleeping last Thursday. They were beautiful beasts, really. Brown or black with a white stripe that wrapped around their bellies. My mother has always loved the view from her front porch, even before the cows came; she once told me that living out here was like being surrounded by a painting of field and sky and nature going about its business. It bothers her, this absence of cows.
I started running by the cows last summer. Daniel left me, and I had no place to go but back to this town where I grew up. Now it’s been over a year, and I’m still here at my mother’s house at the crossroad near the Mitchells’ farm.
“All that movement,” my mother said when by September first I’d already run a ten-mile race. “Is it helping you?”
“Do you mean running? Helping me with what?”
“I suppose that’s why I do it.”
“It must feel good. The movement.”
“It’s pain,” I said. “But, yeah. It feels good.”
THAT WAS LAST summer. I’ve run five half-marathons since. Daniel returned in the fall. My mother busied herself with watching the mother cows as they nudged their babies toward the feeding trough. After he left again, I ran by the cows and up Farnum Road, by the open meadow with the little bridge, left past the stone walls that outlived the house on somebody’s property—so now they were just walling in nothing—and all the way down to the sheep farm where the two dogs with the devilish eyes guarded about a hundred lambs, the bells on their necks ringing in unison like a million wind chimes. I ran through the fall, into the winter with my body covered in fleece, my head wrapped in one of my father’s old wool scarves, then straight into this summer.
Then I injured my knee. I was five miles away from my mother’s house, crossing over a stream; I was running at a clip, trying to improve my time, when I nearly collided with a deer. It came barreling out of the woods and almost hit me head on. I was so startled I almost didn’t see the snapping turtle that had meandered out of a brook onto the pavement. It was in trying to avoid the turtle, not the deer, that I tripped and twisted my knee. I had to call my mother to come pick me up.
That was a couple of weeks ago. I’m convalescing and waiting for the moment to tell Ma that I need to go, that I shouldn’t still be here. She won’t stop me. She’s not that kind of mother; she doesn’t nag or ask me why I’ve made the choices I’ve made. She didn’t say anything the day I told her Daniel had come back, or when he left again.
I could go on living here forever, but for the fact that thirty-five-year-old people don’t do that; we’re not animals, living in packs. Humans need change. Maybe that’s why those cows left; they’ve watched all the humans coming and going and thought, We need a piece of that.
“Where are they?” There is longing in my mother’s voice when she speaks of the cows. When I was a kid, the farm was vacant. It was just a dilapidated old farmhouse and half of a barn. My mother would step outside our front door with her morning tea, take a deep breath and stare at it like a fresco on a wall. Sometime during my adolescence the Mitchells bought the land and built a new barn, fixed up the house. Then there were rows of tomatoes and squash and cabbage, pumpkins in the fall. They had a couple of horses that would roam the adjacent field. The first of the cows appeared the summer Daddy died. After I left home, I’d see changes in tiny increments during my visits. I missed the way it used to be, the simplicity of an abandoned house and falling barn. But my mother insisted she liked to watch the painting change.
“I don’t think you like change, Charlotte,” she’d say to me. Yet I was the one who’d moved to Boston, then to New York where I met Daniel. It seemed to me I relished change and Ma just liked to look at pretty things.
Now the Mitchells’ son runs the farm. Jeremy Mitchell. We shared an awkward kiss outside the gymnasium after the Eighth Grade Social. He’s got a wife and some little ones now.
“Why don’t you go over and ask the Mitchells where they are?” I ask my mother.
“Oh, I couldn’t.”
“Ma,” Something seems to be troubling her, something more than the cows. “What’s wrong?”
She tells me then; Daniel’s been calling again.
“So.” She looks toward the cows, or the absence of cows, and is silent.
“I just think you should go ask the Mitchells about the cows.”
“I don’t think you know me, sweetie.” She laughs, and I glance at her.
“I don’t think you know me.”
“And so it is,” she says. “I’ve got to stop looking over there. They must have gone off to be slaughtered. Or is the word ‘butchered’ with cows?”
“God, Ma. I didn’t think they were those kinds of cows. I thought they were milk cows.”
“I don’t know, sweetie.”
“The cows don’t know either. How strange to be born and not know if you are just destined to be meat.”
I follow my mother into the kitchen and watch as she boils water for tea. I take two cups out of the dishwasher and drop tea bags into both. I really want black coffee, but it seems decadent to grind beans and measure out coffee and water for just me, so I settle for Earl Grey. My mother pours the water. It’s a familiar routine for the both of us. When I was in high school, from the time my father died to the time I left for college in Boston, it became ritual, the making of the tea. After I moved, I started drinking coffee, but I’d always drink tea whenever I’d visit.
Daniel’s been calling. The words hover in the room above us, along with my retort: So?
My mother isn’t going to nag me, but she’s worried. If only I hadn’t blown out my knee. I feel like the wounded animal, left by the others for dead. Survival of the fittest and all that. I stopped running for a few weeks when Daniel came back. Daniel wouldn’t have cared if I continued to run while he was here, but I didn’t want to make any changes to the picture he had of me in his head. And when he left—the result of several hours of somber discussion in his car parked near the gravel pits on a cloudy Tuesday evening—I thought, At least I can run again.
Now, I’m nursing this damn knee. My mother stirs her tea; in the gentle clink of metal against ceramic, I see the two of us, both younger, grieving. Daddy was gone and we had to adapt.
“What did Daniel want?” I say, finally.
“You don’t have to be afraid to talk about him,” she says.
“Don’t you hate him?”
“Are you asking me if I think you belong with him?”
“I’m asking if you hate him.”
“I don’t think you know me, sweetie.”
THE NEXT DAY, out of the blue, Daniel drives up outside my mother’s house in a brand new red sports car. My mother leans against the porch railing, cup of tea in hand, staring at where the cows once stood. I sit in the rocking chair, my leg up on a small wicker table, grouchy again about my running moratorium, a cup of Earl Grey growing cold at my side. My mother drifts inside as soon as he steps out of the car, and I almost cry at the cliché my life has become. I half-expect a twenty-two year old college girl, maybe one of the interns from his office, to climb out of the passenger door.
He climbs the steps of the porch and looks at me as if he’d expected I’d jump up and hug him. I point to my knee.
“I almost collided with a deer, but instead I nearly landed on a snapping turtle.”
“In our car?”
I blink at him and point. “Is that your car?”
“So it is.”
We stare at each other.
“I was running,” I say.
“I didn’t know you’d started running. Same old clumsy girl.”
“I was dodging a deer. And a turtle. Lack of grace had nothing to do with it.”
I shift my body so I can see around him. The cows are still gone. Jeremy Mitchell walks across his land. Why won’t my mother just ask him about the cows?
“Excuse me Daniel,” I say as I jump up. I forget about my knee till the searing pain radiates upward and I have to grip the porch railing for a moment.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to talk to Jeremy Mitchell over there.”
“I have to ask him where the cows have gone.”
“Look, Charlotte,” Daniel grabs my arm before I can put my foot on the top porch step. “I came here to tell you—”
“Oh Daniel,” I say, pointing at the car. “You don’t really have to explain, now do you?”
He shakes his head.
“The only real tragedy here is that I can’t run right now. It’s kind of like being an old race-horse isn’t it?”
“I imagine the new one is faster and steadier.”
“That’s a terrible way to talk.”
I hobble down the porch stairs and make my way to where Jeremy Mitchell is standing.
“Good afternoon,” he says. If he remembers me from the junior high school kiss, he doesn’t show it.
“I’m wondering—strange question, I know, but where are the cows?”
He looks crestfallen. He turns to look at the empty pasture, then around and up, over my mother’s house. I follow his gaze and take in the greens, browns and blues of late summer. If this were a photograph, Daniel and his car would need to be digitally removed.
“What do you mean?”
“Left. With my wife and boys.”
“I don’t understand. How could your wife transport all those cows?”
“Your wife and kids?”
“No. They left in a car. The cows were gone when I woke up last Thursday.”
“How could cows disappear?”
When I return to my mother’s house, I try to walk right past Daniel, but he stops me.
“How could cows disappear?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Charlotte. I need to finish telling you–”
“You can have everything, Daniel,” I say, then I step inside and close the door on his mumblings about lawyers and paperwork. God, I need to run. As if in answer to my prayer, a sharp tearing pain runs across my knee.
“If I were an animal, they’d put me down.”
My mother comes into the kitchen while I’m making tea.
“What did he say?”
“He’s leaving for good. It was written all over his red sports car.”
“I meant young Jeremy.”
“Oh. His wife and sons have gone. His cows have vanished.”
“Ma, what if I can’t run again?”
“It’s just an injured knee, Charlotte. How could cows disappear?”
“I don’t know, Ma. Maybe the cows are part of their assets, and she’s taking them in the divorce.”
“I need to run again, Ma.”
“It will happen.”
“I need to move out, too. I’m too old to be living here.”
“You’re not penned in here, Charlotte.”
We both look over at the empty pasture at the Mitchells.
“It’s going to be alright, Charlotte.”
THE NEXT MORNING, I drive into town for coffee. At the last moment, I order two black, without sugar. When I return, I pull into Jeremy Mitchell’s driveway. As I step onto his porch, the door flies open and his wife nearly knocks me down. She looks at the two black coffees in my hands and an angry snort escapes her, then she storms around me and down the steps. I didn’t notice the black convertible parked near the road. She gets into the driver’s seat and she’s gone.
Jeremy Mitchell stands inside the door watching her vanish; he shrugs and I hand him one of the coffees.
“Sorry,” I say.
“Thank you for the coffee.”
“I used to run to town to get my coffee, but I’ve been drinking all this tea. I don’t even like tea. Then I came back here—anyway I can’t run right now, so I took the car.”
Jeremy Mitchell just stares at me.
“We went junior high together,” I say.
He nods but doesn’t say whether or not he remembers kissing me.
“That was a long time ago,” I say. I look over at my mother’s house to check that the porch is empty. Then I squint to see if she’s behind the front window curtain, watching. She’d just want to know more about the cows anyway, but the thought of her watching me fumble for words to say to Jeremy Mitchell—even from inside her house—is too much for me to take. I wonder if this is how it starts; if too many hours of sitting still and doing nothing makes a person lose her ability to be charming. I used to know how to hold a conversation. Now, I just stand here watching Jeremy Mitchell drink a black coffee and search my brain for ways to escape the awkwardness.
I’m about to hobble back down to my car when Jeremy Mitchell clears his throat and gestures for me to take a seat. I almost make an excuse—Oh, no. No. My mother’s waiting—but I sit. The silence continues.
Then: “I think I know where they’ve gone.”
“Your wife and children?”
“They know about the divorce.”
“They know she’s leaving me for good and that I might have to sell them—I don’t want to, you understand—so they’ve started walking to Connecticut. That’s where she’s living. Cows are very loyal creatures. They probably just got confused about where they belong. Do you think cows could be that smart?”
“I think cows—” It occurs to me that there’s nothing for me to say. I don’t know Jeremy Mitchell or his wife, and I couldn’t possibly comment on the existential angst of cows. I look at Jeremy’s face and try to conjure the snapshot of him as a skinny thirteen-year-old, fumbling for my lips in the dark, but missing and catching the side of my mouth instead. I search my mind; that gym is full of kids who are now heading into middle age.
“I’m getting divorced, too,” I say, but I think: I’m probably going to have a breakdown too if I can’t run again soon.
Jeremy stares across the pasture, past the tree line I imagine is supposed to keep the cows from wandering off.
“Do you know why?” he asks.
“Why are you getting divorced?”
“Daniel was—is—generally unfaithful. He bought a sports car.” I roll my eyes as a period on that sentence.
“I think she bought one too.”
“Look, you’ll get by ok. I took up running when it first happened to me, then I tripped over this snapping turtle-….”
Jeremy Mitchell hangs his head and I think maybe he’s crying. When I stand up to leave, he reaches up and grabs hold of my hand. I don’t like to be touched, not since my life fell apart. Even my mother knows to give me a circumference of several feet when she enters a room after me. I don’t return his grasp, but I don’t pull away, so it’s like poor Jeremy Mitchell with his missing cows and missing wife and missing life is holding onto a cold, dead fish.
“I need to run,” I say, finally, and he lets go.
“MA STOP, WILL you?”
“I am not going to date Jeremy Mitchell for God’s sake. He thinks his cows followed his ex-wife to Connecticut. I didn’t think anyone could lose it more than I did.”
“You didn’t lose it, sweetie.”
“I don’t think you know me, Ma.”
“It’s sad, what happened to you and Daniel, but you’ll persevere. We did, after Daddy died.”
“It didn’t happen to me and Daniel. Daniel made it happen. I don’t think it’s like after Daddy died at all. And anyway, if ‘perseverance’ is standing here and watching cows disappear and vegetables grow, then no thanks.”
“It’s very comforting to watch life take shape.”
“Until the things you thought were there vanish.”
“I don’t think you like change, Charlotte,” she says. “Anyway, Jeremy asked you over for dinner. It’s not like you have to marry him.”
“Ma, he thinks his cows ran away.”
“They did, Charlotte.”
“Not to Connecticut!”
“They went somewhere.”
“Ma, why are you doing this? You never nag me.”
“I’m not nagging you. I don’t think you know what nagging is.”
“It’s going to be alright, Charlotte.”
I look at my mother. So many years alone in this house. I’ve never asked her if she’s had any Jeremy Mitchells in her life since Daddy died. When I close my eyes, I picture her standing alone through the years, a permanent fixture with her cups of tea and her daily vigils, nothing but the seasons and the lines in her face changing.
“I just need to run, Ma. I don’t want anything else.”
She shifts her gaze from the Mitchells’ farm and stares at me for a long time.
“I think you should know, Charlotte, that you are very beautiful.”
I feel tears well in my eyes. “I’m not beautiful.”
“I don’t think you know what beauty is.”
My mother walks away, back through the screen door into the house. In a short time, I hear the clink of her spoon against her cup, the whistle of the kettle.
I had flat-out refused Jeremy Mitchell’s dinner invite, but later that day, I’m standing outside of his house, holding a pizza and a six-pack of beer. He opens the door, and another awkward silence envelops us. I almost take off, but when I turn back toward my mother’s house I feel the burning tug in my knee and I’m trapped.
“How could they have gone to Connecticut,” I say. “Or anywhere for that matter. Don’t you have them fenced in?”
Jeremy Mitchell stares at me for a moment more, then he steps aside and gestures for me to come inside. His house is neat. I thought he’d be a hoarder or at least his home would be sloppy; the digs of a delusional depressive often are. I stopped cleaning my apartment for months after Daniel and I split, before I came crawling back to my mother’s house. But Jeremy Mitchell’s house is clean and orderly. I follow him into the kitchen, where he takes the pizza box from me and opens two beers and hands me one.
We sit on stools around his kitchen island. One lone pan hangs from the rack above the island. Most of the counter space is barren except for an empty cylinder where I imagine a bunch of utensils used to go, and what looks like a brand-new toaster. There are nails on the walls instead of pictures, and the refrigerator door has only one magnet, and it holds up a menu from the pizza place I drove to for our dinner.
“Jesus Christ, she took everything, didn’t she?”
“How can you stand it?”
“I have to. This is my home.”
“But it’s empty.”
“Everything changes. We have to adapt.”
“Why? Why do we have to adapt?”
I END UP in bed with Jeremy Mitchell, and we have what can only be described as awkward sex. I think, as we are doing it, We have become the cliché. The ones left behind, thrown together by loneliness and proximity.
After, I try to get up quickly, but my knee gives out and I almost fall to the floor. His bedroom, too, is a wasteland—vacant nails on the walls, an empty nightstand, a closet door ajar, revealing only half a closet full of clothes.
I right myself and get dressed. Jeremy Mitchell pushes himself up on his elbows and watches me, this skinny naked girl trying to erase herself from the scene.
“I understand,” he says.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“I still understand.”
“Ok,” I say. “Good luck.”
I don’t want to be mean, but suddenly that’s how I feel. Jeremy Mitchell and his weird, empty farm house and his missing cows. The two of us, fumbling in the dark, unsynchronized. And me, repulsed by and drawn to the touch of another human being. I don’t know why I feel like blaming him for anything, but I need to get out before I say anything else.
I grab my clothes and get dressed as I limp my way in the semi-dark toward his door. I don’t even realize he’s following me until he speaks.
“Charlotte,” he says. “I—”
We stare at each other across the empty space. I don’t want to talk to Jeremy Mitchell anymore. I don’t want to be in this town with its darting deer and snapping turtles and empty pastures and people who sit vigil both mourning and accepting the absence of cows. And tea. And Jeremy Mitchell from junior high school standing there in cotton underwear with a torn elastic saying my name.
I’ll go back to New York. I’ll pull myself together. I’ll recover, then I’ll start running, slowly at first on a treadmill. Then I’ll go out in the streets where all I’ll have to dodge are cabs and bicycles.
Jeremy reaches out toward me, and his hands are cold as he pulls me into an embrace. My hands dangle at my sides, and I stare over his shoulder at where I imagine the kitchen clock used to be. Someone should take a photograph of Jeremy Mitchell’s empty house and barren fields as a caveat to couples who are thinking of getting married.
I start to cry. I don’t think ‘cry’ is the right word. The bellowing sounds that erupt from me sound like a wounded animal. I lean against Jeremy like a slab of meat, and he holds onto me while I shake and tear at the air with my voice. I think about my shrieks, waking my mother up across the street. Will she think some poor creature had a run in with a fox or a fisher?
Jeremy Mitchell pulls me tighter. I don’t realize he’s whispering something in my ear until I hit a lull in my crying. In the space, I hear:
“They’ll come back. They’ll come back.”
“My family. The cows. Your Daniel.”
I pull back and look at his face.
“None of them are coming back, Jeremy. They’re gone.”
His eyes are closed and he shakes his head.
“And I think you’re missing the point.”
I wait for him to say something, convince me, but he just keeps shaking his head and he hasn’t opened his eyes.
I grab him by his shoulders and shake him.
“Jeremy!” I shake him again. “The point is they don’t want to be with us and we don’t want them. We don’t need them.”
Finally, he opens his eyes and looks at me.
“That’s a lie.”
“It’s not. We have to persevere. We have to adapt.”
He looks puzzled, like he’s trying to remember where he’s heard those words before. He follows me through the front door. The moon is full and the sky looks like a planetarium tonight. Jeremy looks out across his pasture and then up into the vast universe.
“Cows are very loyal creatures. They mourn and love like we do.”
“I’ve got to run,” I say.
LATER, I AM drifting off into an agitated sleep when I hear a gun shot. Then another.
“Charlotte,” my mother comes into my room with surprising speed. “What was that?”
I’d already begun the process of dragging myself out of bed. I pull on a sweatshirt and running shorts and follow my mother out of the house. The air smells like gun powder. The night is still but for a few crickets, but underneath it all is a rumbling. At first I don’t realize what it is, then as it gets louder, I realize it’s voices. Someone is crying. My mother and I put on our shoes and walk toward the voices. A group of neighbors is gathered down by the Longleys’ house. A heated discussion is going on between Mrs. Longley and her husband.
“Why were you out here with my gun?”
“You were asleep.”
“You could’ve waked me up.”
“I was scared. I didn’t know what it was. And anyway, you get angry when I wake you up.”
“Will you stop? In front of the whole neighborhood?”
“I’m upset, Harry.”
“Well, our private business isn’t the issue. The issue is this dead calf.”
One of Jeremy Mitchell’s cows lies in the middle of the crowd. A baby, really, and dead.
“Why did you kill it?” My mother’s angry voice startles me. “Why would you shoot such a beautiful thing?”
“I couldn’t see what it was!” Mrs. Longley is hysterical. I think of my own wailing earlier this evening, Jeremy Mitchell holding me and assuring me the cows would return, bringing everyone back with them.
Jeremy Mitchell stands outside of the circle staring at the dead calf; his arms hang at his sides with half-open fists turned up toward the sky. I wonder if I should go over and say something comforting, but words for such an occasion escape me.
While I’m contemplating, my mother walks over and stands next to him. She gestures for me to follow her; when I don’t move, she shoots me a stern look, as if to say, He’s your friend.
But he isn’t really. I would never tell my mother what happened between Jeremy Mitchell and me, how I just walked away from him afterwards like he was a minor detail. How I didn’t comfort him. Sure, he’s a little crazy, but aren’t we all? Anyway, none of tonight’s behavior is like me. I’m usually described as a good friend. I was a good wife to Daniel. I don’t abandon people.
I walk over to where my mother is standing. Jeremy Mitchell doesn’t acknowledge either of us.
“Where did it come from, Jeremy?” I ask.
He just shrugs.
“Do you think the rest are—” I look around, up at the sky filled with stars and the full moon, down the darkened roads without street lights, the shadows of trees and mailboxes and fences playing tricks on my eyes in the moonlight. I can see why Mrs. Longley shot the calf. It’s hard to tell what is an object and what is an animal, what is predator and what is prey.
Jeremy Mitchell shrugs again. My mother moves out of the way. I put my hand on his shoulder, but it feels heavy and clammy, and his shoulder feels cold and sharp through his t-shirt. Pretty soon, I am aware of only my hand on his cold, sharp shoulder, like a slab of meat, and the urge to move it is overwhelming.
Then, Jeremy Mitchell gasps. And the rest of my mother’s neighbors gasp.
A low rumble comes from the darkened street that winds behind Jeremy Mitchell’s farm.
At first I don’t see them. I just hear the sound of their hooves hitting the pavement and their throaty moos echoing off the pine trees and houses and barns as they answer each other in the dark.
“How?” I say, and Jeremy Mitchell moves away from me, so my hand falls from his shoulder and swings at my side.
Everyone is stunned by the spectacle of this cluster of cows, like a slow-motion stampede, coming closer in the darkness. I hear a soft whimper, and I realize my mother is beside me. She takes my hand.
“Please don’t ask me to explain, Charlotte.”
“Do you think his family will come back too?”
“Please, Charlotte. I don’t have the answers.”
“Why are you crying? Can you answer that?”
“Look at them,” she says. “They’re beautiful.”
“As beautiful as me?”
My mother drops my hand.
“They’re part of the painting I look at every day.”
“So am I, Ma. I’m part of the rocking chair on your porch. And you just bring me cups of tea and watch me age. Nobody wants to be part of someone’s painting. That’s why the cows left. That’s why I have to keep moving. It’s why Daniel—”
“Then why are they back?”
“They realized they had nowhere else to go.”
“That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The cows are growing closer. The clicks of their hooves and their low, throaty moos lift up into the darkness. Jeremy Mitchell stands in the center of the road, facing his cows. Will they stop or keep walking, crushing him under their weight? I close my eyes and try to erase the image of Jeremy Mitchell, flattened like road kill under the hooves of the ones who abandoned him.
My mother must be thinking the same thing because she grabs my hand again. I try to force my hand to be a real hand and not a cold fish, but it takes effort. My mother squeezes harder.
“It’s going to be alright, Charlotte,” she whispers, but I can hear it in her voice, the doubt, the fear that one of these days, she’s going to say the words and they won’t come true.
We hold our breath. It seems like all sound stops—the breeze, the distant wind-chime sound of the bells on the lambs three miles away, the soft whimpering of Mrs. Longley—we watch as the cows inch closer and closer. Then, with a collective moo, they part in two streams around Jeremy Mitchell, walking on either side of him, single file. They walk so close to him, and he touches each of their backs as they pass him by.
And they do pass him by. They separate from each other then, groups heading east, west, north and south at the fork in the road.
And all of us humans, we just let them go. Even dejected Jeremy Mitchell doesn’t make a move to stop them. His arms are still at his sides and his fingers move as if he’s still running them over their soft backs. They really are beautiful. In the moonlight, we watch them meander away till the clicking and the mooing fade into the night. Jeremy Mitchell walks over to the Longleys’ yard and returns struggling under the weight of the dead calf. I watch him carry it across the road and out into his pasture. I feel a tug on my arm.
“Let’s go, Charlotte,” my mother says.
I SLEEP DEEPLY. I wake in late morning and wander through the quiet house. I look around for a note from my mother, but I don’t find one. I panic for a moment, thinking she too has disappeared. But I can’t picture it, my mother’s house without her, sitting on the porch or stirring her tea. I know the day will come, but it seems to me that then the house itself shouldn’t exist. A bulldozer should flatten it, and it should fall down easy, like a house on a movie set. I am about to fill the kettle, but I grind coffee beans instead and make a full pot for just me. My knee feels better today, just a bit, but enough that I can see the possibility of running. I catch my reflection in the hallway mirror.
“It’s going to be alright,” I speak the words slowly, staring myself in the eyes. I stand as still as I can and look for the beauty, but staring too long blurs the image.
“Charlotte!” My mother’s voice startles me from outside the open kitchen window.
I pour coffee on my hand and yelp.
I don’t even have to go outside to know why she’s shrieking.
I’m thrown off by the sight of them scattered across the pasture as if they’d never left and my mother in the foreground beaming like a schoolgirl with a crush.
I pour another cup of black coffee and walk over to Jeremy Mitchell’s house. I find him standing on his porch, watching over his cattle. It is another beautiful summer day, a few wispy clouds streak through the brilliant blue sky. I hand him the cup, and he nods.
“I’m happy for you, Jeremy,” I say. “Just don’t think this means your wife and kids are coming back.”
He just looks at me.
“I can’t explain what happened with your cows, but I know that it just doesn’t work that way with people.”
“They remembered where they were supposed to be. They remembered they’re part of the landscape.”
“Are you saying your cows were worried about hurting your feelings? Your wife wasn’t worried about your feelings. My husband wasn’t. People come in and out of the picture and I guess cows do too. That’s life.”
“Are you going back to the city?”
“How strange it will be,” he says, looking over at my mother’s house. “Without you sitting in that rocking chair.”
“MA,” I CALL out to her as I drag the last of my boxes to the front porch. I have rented a moving truck to take me and my belongings to New York. In a few hours, I’ll be looking out from my friend Patti’s upper west side apartment at the building across the street and the October sky above. In the distance, I see Jeremy Mitchell walking the pasture. His wife returned briefly in early September to drop off his two sons, then, my mother heard from the neighbor, she’d left for the west coast with some man. Jeremy’s two boys skip in the grass on either side of him; every so often, he reaches down and touches the tops of their heads. I didn’t talk to Jeremy again after his cows returned. I didn’t want to have another conversation that involved people or animals leaving or returning or empty rocking chairs.
I started running again two weeks ago; the dull ache in my knee reminds me that I am not all better. Not yet. I keep my eyes on the pavement beneath my feet; it’s safer that way.
My mother has been staring at the cows all day, her tea beside her on the table, one of my father’s old fisherman sweaters over her shoulders. I wonder if she thinks about sitting out here with Daddy all those years ago, looking at a different painting, the one of the broken down barn and dilapidated old house. And what she tried to see after he’d died, with me sitting beside her. And what she saw after I’d gone off to college. And what she’ll see when I drive away today. What will I see, on that day when I return and she’s gone? My mother looks away from the cows and smiles at me standing in front of her, keys in my hand.
“It’s going to be alright, Charlotte,” she says.
© Kristen Falso-Capaldi, 2016
Kristen Falso-Capaldi’s short story “I Can’t Hear You” was chosen as a top-25 finalist in the 2015 Glimmer Train Magazine Very Short Fiction Contest. She is the 2015 winner of the Victoria Hudson Emerging Writer Prize, and her story “Something Else Happened” was selected for the Editors’ Pick Award in the Fabula Press Aestas 2015 Short Story Contest. Her fiction has also appeared in the FlashDogs anthologies, Chicago Literati, Underground Voices and on The Other Stories Podcast. She lives in Rhode Island, USA. Follow her on twitter @kristenafc or visit www.kristenfalsocapaldi.com