Bought bred, the new cow had cost three thousand dollars, and so as night fell with no sign of the calf, it was Arnold himself who trudged back and forth between the house and the barn, waving away the hired hands. "My money," he grunted. "My problem." A storm struck up, not snow but a roaring haze of fine slush that crusted his beard with ice. Far to the west, visible only by their bluish, luminous heat, the old gods of grass and grain bayed to the cloud-buried stars. Arnold ignored them. It was too early in the year for a sacrifice.
On the fifth trip, his youngest child joined him, silent as ever, silvery hair greased down from the rain, in her oldest brother's canvas coat. She liked their ancient hand-me-downs, though she was so small that everything trailed in the muck like the train of a wedding dress. Over the splattering sleet Arnold heard her rubber boots squelching in the wallow that had been the path. He waited for her to catch up before continuing to the barn.
The new cow had finally bedded herself for labour; Arnold checked the others, finding another at the far end who looked ready. Often happened like that, several at once. They huffed softly as he passed, as if remarking on what a cold night it was, and how pleasant the new ceramic heaters were.
"There's gonna be two babies tonight," Arnold said as he returned to the half-open barn door. "So you better go back to the house."
"I'm not cold."
"I don't want you in the way when it's go-time," he clarified. "Crying or whatnot."
"I'm not afraid of the blood."
He gave up. "Well, let's just wait, then." She doffed the wet coat and climbed onto a bale, only her eyes and a few pale curls visible in the low light. Strange critter, this one. She never called him "Daddy," never reached for his hand while they walked, listened to him so carefully that he stuttered into silence in the face of that expectant vacuum. As if she weren't his child at all, but some over-friendly neighbour's kid, a regular visitor who happened to like cows and chickens and listening to the old man talk. Twenty-four years between her and her next sibling, when Arnold and Marla had believed all that behind them. And then in what seemed the space of moments, it was diapers again, and bottles, and covering the outlets, and hand-me-ups from her own nieces and nephews. Not for the first time, Arnold thought that perhaps she should have been sent to live with one of them—safe in the city, instead of out here with two farmers pushing sixty, and a rotating crew of hired hands too busy to watch for a kid underfoot.
The new Simmental's glossy coat heaved as she worked to get the calf out, birthwaters flowing through the fresh hay and down the drain. Arnold wasn't worried; her papers said she'd already had two calves, the second almost a hundred pounds. The wind battering the cinderblock walls drowned out the cow's steady, heavy breathing, her placid moans. Yes, money well spent.
"What about the other one?" Clover said.
"I'll go check on her in a minute," Arnold said, but feeling the pressure of the child's eyes from her dark corner, added, "All right, you go. Stall 18."
She slid off her hay bale and pattered down the dimly lit corridor, returning at speed far too soon. "Something's wrong!" she gasped.
"All right. Stay here." That's farming, he wanted to explain. Something always goes wrong. You're too little to know it yet, that's all. But in a few years you'll catch yourself saying it over all sorts of things—boys, school, crooked fence posts. Something always goes wrong. And then we fix it. That's how it works.
But the cow was dead, bled out so silently and completely that for the stunned space of a minute all Arnold could think was that she'd been shot, even scanning the flawless walls for a bullet-pock, for there seemed to be no other way it could have happened so fast. Blood gurgled down the drain as he let himself into the stall and picked up the soaked, shivering calf. Its small head lolled in the crook of his arm as he carried it to the med room for a wash and warm, the fluorescents blinding after the cosy amber lights. He sensed rather than saw his daughter's presence in the doorway.
"Run back to the house," he said. "And get some blankets from your mama, OK?"
"Did the cow—"
"Blankets," he said.
But when she returned, dragging a muddy garbage bag full of bedding, the Simmental had also delivered—a stillbirth monstrosity. Arnold squatted in the hay, staring at the thing. Item one: He'd get back some of that three thousand dollars. How much would be up to Crutchfield or his agents, but he'd argue for half. Item two: The calf who had survived its birth, trembling, hungry and alone. Item three. . . item. . .
"What happened to it?" Clover whispered. "Was it the gods?"
Arnold wasn't listening. Well. Not a disaster. It'd happened before, hadn't it? The only problem was the girl; but if she hadn't fallen apart on seeing the carnage in Stall 18, she'd be fine now. "Wrap it up warm," he said, gesturing at the black-and-white calf. "Gotta clean this up."
But even with the twisted and truncated remains of her dead calf gone, and the stall hosed down and loaded with fresh hay, the Simmental bit and kicked at the interloper, refusing access to teats so visibly heavy that Arnold felt ghost pains of his own. He scratched what was left of his hair through his hat, thinking.
"She doesn't love her," Clover said tremulously, arms fastened around the calf's neck.
"Well, cows, see," Arnold began, and trailed off. World harsh enough tonight. Gods abroad, and a storm raging, and the girl just seven, not even double digits, two columns in the accounting book. There was one more thing to try. Worked a couple of seasons ago, if he recalled rightly. "Go stand in the hallway for a minute."
Even anointed with the monstrosity's afterbirth, though, the calf made no headway; Arnold swooped it out of the way before its skull got stove in. Desperate times. This next step he would certainly not allow the child to watch, and he locked the door on the med room before getting out the scalpel. "Well, I'm sorry," he muttered to the bewildered calf. "It ain't your fault. It's a smell thing. Not your fault. Pull this off and maybe you'll get breakfast out of it. Deal? Deal."
The stillbirth was a pain to skin, great cysts of clear fluid popping and flexing under its hide as he worked to free a big enough piece. He draped it over the calf, tied a few raggedy flaps as best he could, and brought it back to the Simmental. He and Clover watched in silence as the cow sniffed the calf—a pitiful thing next to her majestic bulk—and then slowly, thoroughly, began to lick it. Outside, something emitted a long, ghostly wail, whether of despair or triumph Arnold wasn't sure.
Back at the house, he crumbled a handful of summer sage into a dish of milk and put it out on the doorstep as thanks, braving a moment's slap of rain.
"Do they drink it?" Clover said as he returned, handing him a kitchen towel.
"Don't know," he said. "Myself, I'm of the opinion that they don't eat nothin' we eat. But it's rude not to put it out, and rudeness ain't our way."
She gave him a look that suggested that he could not possibly believe that discourtesy might be humanity's greatest offense, and he must surely have intended to discuss the dire consequences of failing to display appropriate respect, or rather, the combined terror and gratitude due to those who protected the grass and the grain, and the loss of whose favour meant that no one dared speak of the victims, nor drive past their blasted lands. But an adult's shorthand to save time or face was nothing new to her, and she nodded, while Marla came downstairs to fuss over her filthy clothing and soaked hair.
The summons came in late June, while Arnold was out patching a tractor tire, a painstaking job which brooked no shortcuts, and so it was the absence of sound that alerted him to the presence of the gods—the neighbour's boys playing on the asphalt pad behind the quonset fell silent, the crack of the basketball dribbling into nothingness; the cows cut themselves off mid-low; birds raced for the sparse trees.
Arnold looked up from the tire, and there they were: great translucent bodies pushing through the wheat and barley, a green-gold sea parting, heading for the house. He was up and running before he even realized what he was doing, before his knees informed him it was a bad idea, leaving black epoxy fingerprints on the back door.
Marla and Clover were staring at the summons between them, bright on the worn wood of the kitchen table—a green nest, woven grass and sagebrush, a little coil of fragrance and innocence, holding in its depths something darkly glowing. At the sink, Mrs. Collier from down the road stood openmouthed, still holding the mug she'd been rinsing. Marla's tea had spilled onto her placemat, turning the pale pink blood-red. After a moment, Mrs. Collier quavered, "Well! A personal visit from Those of the Hills and the Green! What a lucky girl!"
And Marla, too, rallied, and their voices rose in pitch as they discussed outfits, whether her patent-leather Christmas shoes might still fit, appropriate jewelry, and Arnold stared at the child and thought about what knife would do, and who to call in town these days to get a spot in the special cemetery, because they needed a while to set up the signs and dig the. . .
She was watching him, he realized, waiting for his reaction, and he'd trained her for that, of course, trained her for dogs and bears and coyotes and bulls—you don't move first. You wait to see what they do, and then you move. They move, and then you move. He exhaled slowly, and said, "Well, lemme just wash my hands, and we can talk about dinner."
"I can pick anything, right?" Clover said; her voice was brassy and distant with shock, a darkness already settling over her, gray over the bright eyes.
"Anything you want," he said.
They decided on spaghetti and meatballs in Grandma's secret sauce, and Arnold went back out to finish his patching job, and the boys took their basketball and went home, and after a few hours, the cattle unbunched from their knot and began to graze again.
A summons was not a request, of course, not a true request to which anyone might reply that they were unavailable, or that it was too far; a request implied that refusal was an option, and it was not. Their only grace lay in knowing that it was not. Indeed, it was a sovereign honour, being summoned, deemed not only adequate but desired by the only beings that were permitted to judge such things. Arnold told himself that a thousand times for the next eight days, watching the child run amongst the calves and weed the garden and nap with the dogs and sort her dolls to see which one she might allow to be buried with her.
On the eighth morning, Arnold woke to find Marla up and rummaging in the closet, knocking over boxes and bags. In the hallway a dog's nails clicked, someone curious about the noise. "No," he said, unnecessarily. "You already know you can't."
"Like hell I can't," she hissed, not turning. She unearthed the suitcase, like many of their nicer things left by one of the older girls, and stepped over the piles of clothing, heading for Clover's room.
Arnold managed to grab her just before she reached the scribbled and stickered door. "You know that's never worked," he said.
"There's a first time for everything."
"Yeah, and I bet they all said that, when they tried." He pulled at the suitcase. She locked both hands onto it and glared at him in the thin light creeping into the hallway.
"We've got till sundown. Technically. If I—"
"Technically. If I can just get her to—"
"You know what happens."
"Fight me on this, Arnold," she said. "For once in your goddamned life!"
But he fell silent, and his hand fell away from the suitcase, and after a moment she flung the thing at his feet and began to sob, backing away so that the sleeping girl would not hear.
Clover wanted to change before dinner, but Marla put her foot down: Did she really want to present herself splattered with tomato sauce? So she ate in her pajamas, and slurped and sprayed as much sauce as she liked.
"Was this one of our cows?" Clover asked, forking up a meatball.
"Yes. A boy cow," Arnold said. "A steer. Could probably find his number, you want."
"Good," she said.
"Well, if it's ours, then it should be ours forever," she said vaguely, waving her fork, then replacing the meatball and finishing her pasta.
Afterwards, teeth brushed, hair curled, scented with Mr. Bubbles and a dab of Barbie perfume, she was allowed to put on the blue silk dress and the slightly-too-tight Christmas shoes, and the three of them stood on the porch for a few minutes in the long, low summer light. Shortest night of the year, Arnold almost said, then thought better of it. His daughter's night would have no end.
"I'll take her," Arnold said under his breath.
"But it's. . . " Marla began, and hesitated; in truth there was no rule that a mother must take a daughter, a father a son. And to be there at the last moment. . . How to live with that? Of course it could be done, had been done since time immemorial. But how, how? She couldn't imagine. "Well, take the new truck, at least."
Kissed, blessed, face wiped, ribbons adjusted, Clover finally left her mother on the porch and let Arnold lift her into the truck, so that her dress wouldn't get dusty. He put the velvet-lined box containing his best chef's knife on her lap, watched her fingers curl protectively around it. Got too attached to things, he thought. Loved too much. Maybe not been loved enough. The way it works out here. "Hold onto that," he said. "Don't let it bump around. Ruins the edge."
It would have been a long walk out to the gods; he watched their wide, shivering bodies approach in the darkness as he drove. They set a sedate pace on the gravel road till it ran out, and he continued into the pasture, the smell of sage rising through the vents. Far above, clouds parted around the waiting crowd, their tapering bodies a star-filled blackness fading into the twilight, violet and lilac where they met the grass. The wind delivered the odour of rotting things, compost, crumbling old manure, overlaid with the high reek of ozone. Clover coughed, curled around the box.
He stopped a hundred yards from the altar, thrown up, as always, by unseen hands, just a few thick slabs of sod so hastily assembled that in the darkness it looked like a haystack. His heart was hammering, skipping beats. Too old for this, he thought. Too old to have had her in the first place. Our mistake. Mine.
"Are we walking the rest of the way?" Clover said.
He glanced at her, the stone of the summons still shining faintly through the pocket of her dress. "Out you get," he said, and came around the truck to help her onto the running board.
His worn plaid shirt reached her shins, but she looked like she always did, forever digging up and wearing her brothers' old clothes. He passed his belt through the sleeves of her dress and buckled it back on, the silk so thin he didn't even have to move up a hole. "Gimme your hand a second, and hold your breath," he said.
She nodded, and only faintly whimpered as he passed the knife over her palm. He took her hand and pressed blood onto the silk dress, his t-shirt, even his beard, her cool fingers brushing his eyelids. When he was done, she picked up the summons balanced on the bumper and blinked uncertainly. He knew what she wanted to say, what no one needed to say: It stayed with the honoree. No one else dared even touch it. Blasphemy's reward was not merely immediate death, but lands blighted for a dozen lifetimes over.
But though it burned and squirmed in his dry palm, he lived: the final test passed. In the far darkness, the chanting had begun. He must reach the altar before it ended, or the deception would be worthless. There was time enough for one last kiss, carefully placed on her forehead, the way she kissed the dogs, and one last piece of advice: "Wrap that hand up," he said. "There's clean hankies in the glove compartment. Stay inside the truck until your mama comes to get you. There's coyotes out there."
"I'm not afraid of coyotes," she said, and the tears finally came, running from eyes and nose. She wiped her face on her plaid sleeve.
"I know you're not," he said. He handed her the truck keys before he walked away, the dress billowing behind him, knife in his hand, towards the altar of the gods, their willing sacrifice willingly come.
This story originally appeared in Principia Ponderosa anthology by Third Flatiron Press.