i heard from this poet that you're not supposed to post stuff on your blog that is in the que for publishing. but i have a sneaky suspiscion no one will notice.
it's my last semester as an undergrad and ive been taking a fiction class. completely took me by surprise. i love writing and reading short stories. who wouldve thought? this story is being published in an anthology in south carolina. weird to be published as a photographer then writer. i like it.
I looked at Juda's wife and wondered how she'd react if she found out her husband was cheating on her. With several of the milk girls. I picture her beaming face turning placid. She’d just walk out, straight thin-lipped, without a word. Then I imagine her flat-hand slap his face as she sobs to the ground uncontrollably.
I’m always sizing up men. I wonder who cheats and if any men exist who don't. I look at the ladies too. The way their hands finger their hair, how firm their breasts look. No one could possibly cheat on her. As if a certain kind of woman could keep a man from cheating. That’s what we believe, isn’t it? The right combination of brains and beauty could puppet a man's penis, at least until gravity hits?
Most of the time I just keep my mouth shut. I guess it's easy to get caught up in the drama when all these women live in one compound, hormones throbbing, boobs bursting at the seams. I definitely get my fill just watching it all unfold from my hutch.
Juda keeps a faraway look. Like doctors do when they ask questions they don’t really hear the answers to. He’s really just a hometown dairy farmer someone talked into a strange but lucrative business idea. He comes in twice a day wearing Carhart browns and a three-day-old scruff. He looks like a rotten apple in a pile of pearly reds walking the halls of the compound.
“How’s my girls?” he asks every morning when he walks in the door after our morning yoga. The answers are always the same. Some of the girls flirt out of necessity. Because it’s awkward to have this man pull your breasts out and attach suction cups to your nipples. It’s like going to the gynecologist and striking up small talk while this stranger is feeling around inside you.
Two years ago they came to Scully, my hometown in south Alabama. We lived on grandma's land in her trailer, almost two hours from civilization. The morning they came it was raining so hard the house lit up from the inside. The sun-splattered rain made our white walls look like panels of lights. When they knocked, I was pulling a tightly tangled hair out of the scrambled eggs I had just made for my brothers. I was in my underwear and a long t-shirt. They were dressed in suits, had a lady with them. They were kind enough.
The boys didn't know what to think. They came in from the garden bare-chested. They stood staring at the suited strangers, open mouthed and mud smudged. I could tell momma was caught off guard but she was polite as a princess. She offered them coffee and we all awkwardly sat down at the same time, mom waiting for them to explain what they were doing so far from town, sitting in our trailer. Soon as she realized what they were proposing she stopped them mid-sentence to tell the boys to go outside. I stared at my stomach and tried not to show any excitement at the possibility of getting out of Scully.
I talked momma into it, really. I knew we were just barely scraping by, even though momma never said it. That week, we had macaroni and cheese for four days straight. I didn’t mind it and I knew the boys enjoyed it. Dad died of a heart attack a couple of years ago. And momma had my three little brothers and me to feed while she cleaned houses in the big neighborhoods nearby. I thought if I were gone, it’d be one less mouth for her to feed. It sounded good enough to me. A small stipend, free food, clothes, a place to stay, an education, and maybe college too, once I went dry. But college wasn’t something I had ever considered. Not until I met Atha at the farm.
Momma’s still hard on herself about the whole thing. She calls every Sunday and we have the same conversation. “Yes. I’m fine. Yes momma, I’m studying.” She sends me underwear in the mail every month: one package with three pastel, multicolor, high-waist panties, the same every time. It was the one thing I could bank on getting for Christmas every year.
We sleep in two rows of ten. It reminds me of that cartoon Mathilda, where they sleep with their feet pointing at each other in one long room. An empty bed to my left and eventually Atha to my right. Every day we get milked. Juda comes in, checks our breasts, and asks us some routine questions. If we're fit to burst, he attaches us to the milker. We’re supposed to produce a half-gallon everyday. The fresh girls produce half that much. And the Guernsey girls sometimes produce up to two gallons per day.
The Guernseys get special treatment if you ask me. They have massive shelves, triple d's for sure. Juda pays special attention to them, stopping at their hutches and shooting the shit longer than the others. They’re not fat though, just plain tig-ole-bitties. Juda would never allow us to get out of control. We exercise twice a day. He says if a girl is happy, she eats more and if she eats more, she produces more milk. “Breast milk you’ve ever tasted.” Then he chuckles at his own joke.
During the day I have these strange flashbacks about my best friends’ cow back home. Mary Jim asked me to come over one Saturday afternoon and help her do chores so she could go to some guy’s baseball game. I watched her hands move without thought. Each hand slid over a teat and gently pulled in rhythm. The udder looked velvety. I imagined rubbing it on my face to see how soft it was, like people do with dogs’ faces. I got up to look at the cow’s reaction. Her large oval black eyes closed slowly like she was daydreaming or on Quaaludes.
“Her name’s Belle,” Mary Jim said, breaking my stare. She looked peaceful, like she was in heaven with these strange hands pulling on her private parts. I suddenly realized what Mary Jim was doing to Belle.
“Does she feel it?” I asked and nudged Mary Jim out of the way so I could try.
She lifted the bucket at an angle so that the hot milk splattered my face. And then, when she wasn’t looking, I took the bucket and tasted the warm milk. But that’s the strange part; I never did that in real life. I always add that part. I guess its curiosity. But ever since the daydreams started, I've been thinking of tasting the milk we produce.
It all started when I saw Juda look at Atha different. I can always tell which girls he’s been with by the way his faraway look retreats and I see him forcefully shake his stare away. In that moment he looks almost bashful. I don’t blame him. Atha is thin and sun colored. She radiates, which could be the hormones too. They give us a shot a week to trick our bodies into thinking we’re pregnant. Some girls show signs of pregnancy more than others, but generally, the main trick is the milk.
Atha’s tiny bulge in her abdomen looks like a hiccup in her frame. She travels a lot, found us on accident while exploring the southeast. She travels alone, staying with strangers she finds interesting, asking questions and following the locals’ advice on where to go and what to do. One day she just showed up, asked lots of questions and signed herself up for a year contract.
“I could use the money to keep traveling. I’m doing it for the same reasons everyone else is,” she told me one day during rounds. “Even though we have to look like beached whales for a couple of months, I’ll have this funky story to tell the rest of my life. I mean, who lactates for a living?”
I watched the rubber cup suck up her nipple and Juda started the pump. She was small but still milked her quota. “Feel ok?” he asked and she bit her lip in a frown and nodded. She hated him. She told me it felt like a brothel here and Juda was just an ignorant dairy farmer turned pimp. But she bit her lip like the rest of us. It’s hard to give up the perks and then there’s the contract.
Atha’s been all over the world. She’s from a small town in Spain and her whole family travels like she does. It’s always been part of her life, a part of her education. She grew up traveling all over Asia with her parents and eventually decided to explore America on her own. Her parents think Americans are awful people, fat and lazy. But she believes there’s more to it.
She carried one bag and half of it was books. She only had a couple of shirts and two cloth pairs of pants. “I don’t wear underwear. It’s too hard to buy new ones in public markets.” She wasn’t like anyone I had ever talked to.
I picked up one of her books. It was light and I decided right then I wanted to read everything she had read. I stumbled through the whole thing and was confused about what it was really about. She suggested I look up words I didn’t understand. Sometimes she learned a new word too. She was always patient with me, always explained the real meaning to the stories. She requested books from Juda and the ones he could find, he had shipped here. I read whatever she said was good. And they always were.
“What’s this word, wanderlust?” At first she giggled at my questions and it stung because I didn’t know things. Not like she did. Her thick accent worked out my confusion.
When she saw how tenacious I was about reading, I think we settled into a healthy relationship. She was always by my side to explain things. The more we talked, the more I hated being in the compound. I read while running the elliptical, on our Sunday breaks, when I was supposed to be studying for classes.
I made all A’s and I even got my GED before some of the other girls in my class. I think all the reading helped. That and Atha was always helping me with my homework.
She left after her year was up. She was heading west, said she had enough of the south. “It’s like being catapulted into the past. Beautiful to experience, but too slow for my soul. It’s a village really,” she said. She promised to email. As it got closer to her departure, I feared losing her. I wanted to tell her, explain this knot of emotion in my belly that choked my throat when her shiny black hair fell into her face. I had to grind my teeth to keep my heart from ballooning out of my chest.
One night a few days before she left, I got out of my bed and slowly pulled her covers up. I slid in next to her small frame. I never realized how much taller I was than her. I mimicked her crescent shape and felt her warm me. I don’t remember what made me so bold. But when we woke up my arm was around hers and our fingers were intertwined.
When my contract was up, I told momma I had to see the West. I had saved my entire stipend because my free time was always spent reading. I told momma I needed to experience life on my own before I went to college. I didn’t know what I wanted to study, where I wanted to study or what I wanted to be. All I knew is that I wanted to travel. I wanted to experience the things Atha told me about. I wanted to be free like her. “The world is your oyster,” she often told me.
Part of me naively hoped to see Atha again. I knew she could be anywhere. She only wrote once. I wasn’t sad or hurt. I knew it was who she was. I knew when I said goodbye, it was the last time I’d see her. I felt lucky just to know her, to have had her in my life for a year, and to have spent hours reading the pages of the things she read and loved. I knew one year in a place like this was the closest to a commitment she’d ever make.
I sat next to an older lady on the Greyhound. For two years I hadn’t really told anyone my story. I never thought it was that noteworthy or maybe I just hadn’t had anyone to tell it to. But I found myself vomiting my whole story all over this lady sitting next to me. I talked for hours about the compound. About Juda and the girl he impregnated who had to go home early. About Atha and her books. About going out west and what I hoped to find. About what an odd little cult the farm was.
The lady next to me listened and said things like, “How strange,” the way old ladies do when they don’t completely understand what you’re saying but they don’t want to be rude. She reminded me of momma. She asked about how my family felt and what I would do once I got to California.
“Won’t your momma be sad while you’re gone,” she asked.
“Sometimes we have to feed our souls and sometimes we have to feed our bellies,” I heard myself say. It's something Atha says.
When the Greyhound pulled into San Francisco, I crossed the street and asked an old man sitting in a chair outside an apartment where the nearest grocery store was. He pointed and politely gave me directions, his chin slipping left and right, unnaturally covering his upper gums.
It was a huge two-story health food store, everything ridiculously expensive. I walked through the aisles, fingering the packages, wondering at the contents. When I got to the refrigerated aisles I stopped when I saw the brand “Nature’s Breast.” I smiled and looked around, hoping no one could see the blatant secret I was hiding. I bought the smallest package, my only purchase from the store. $8.50 for a four-ounce jar.
I sat on the corner next to the store in the heat, watching the bustle around me. My hair felt hot and shiny and my scalp itched. It felt good to be in a place I didn’t understand. There were so many people, everyone busy with their lives. It was like standing next to a beehive, feeling its importance.
I opened the only book I brought with me; the only one Atha gave me of her small collection from her book bag. I thought about what she told me. “Books don’t belong on shelves. They should travel from hand to hand.” I fingered her underlines and her notes in the margins over and over. I took tiny sips of the thick milk and it tasted foreign and rich in my mouth.