This Friday, we’re pleased to present a short story by Scott Burkhead. Scott is an imaginative writer and has penned many short stories posted on his blog – one of those stories was the reason I sought him out. I’m proud to post this story, a bit of a Christmas miracle – in this month of Hallowe’en. If you have a chance, check out Scott’s amazing speculative fiction story: Sister Serenity and the War of 2059 – a guaranteed good read.
Asleep in the Hay
It’s a little sickening, moving like this. And it’s cold. There seem to be twelve of us, mostly female, although some near the front that I cannot see sound male. The floor bounces sometimes, and from time to time we swing to one side then the other. It’s been like this for hours. We’re thirsty and though it’s snowing, it’s hard to catch snowflakes in your mouth moving this fast. Our lips get wet from the snow but that isn’t much when you’re thirsty.
The man driving the truck is smoking and it stinks, the smoke flying back through the little open window between us.
Aside from the cold and the smoke and the sick swaying, everything seems nice. The air is mostly fresh and the sights are different. Where we come from we don’t see many people and the only machines are tractors and trucks and sometimes Miss Lou will drive her car. Today, especially for the past few miles, there are people and machines running here and yon like nothing we’ve ever seen before. I just hope where we’re going has good grass and water and not so much noise. There are also lights and sparkles everywhere. It looks like what Miss Lou did to the house back where we came from. Bright lights are something she always does after the cold days start.
The truck stops and we are led through a gate and made to walk down a path with a fence on each side. We stop in front of a big metal building. Music is playing somewhere near and some people are standing around blowing cold breath. Those ahead of me go through an open door, one by one. There is a loud noise as each one passes through. There is a person with red hair there, like Miss Lou. Well, hair like Miss Lou, this one is big in the belly and she doesn’t smile. She holds a little box that clicks each time the doorway is passed. The line is getting shorter now, and the person with the clicker is impatient. “Hurry up,” she says to one of the men standing by the door. “Move ’em faster, I got to get off my feet.”
The man standing by the door has hair on his face. He jerks his shoulders up, then down, and looks inside the door. When he turns back he pulls his collar close to his neck. The snow is much heavier now and I see that it reaches to the top of Red Hair’s boots.
Now there are only five in front of me and up ahead, past the door, I hear screams, and then the loud noise again. The one in front of me stumbles, then rights herself. There is a smell in the air that I know – it is the bitter smell that is on men’s hands after they’ve killed wild birds, or hogs. It is a bitter smell, and sharp. Now there are two ahead of me and there are no more screams but now I smell blood. I feel heavy, painfully so. It is late in the day and I haven’t been milked. Somewhere a bell rings and the line stops moving.
“What is it?” Red Hair asks.
“It’s all they can process today,” a tall man says, coming out of a second door.
“Holiday time anyway,” Red Hair says.
“Christmas Eve and time to party!” Hair Face says. Then he does a gay little dance. With his brown jacket and furry cap he looks like a calf standing on its hind legs, happy to be free.
The three of us remaining are taken to a nearby shed that smells like old hay. The shed has three walls, so it’s easy to keep warm. My udder hurts. I hope someone notices soon. Red Hair pitches hay and Tall Man brings us a bucket of corn. The snow is so heavy, I can’t see Tall Man until he is close enough to touch me. We hear a car up on the road making roaring noises. “Spinning, spinning, spinning,” Hair Face says. “Nobody going nowhere.”
Red Hair stands very close to my head and scratches me between the eyes. Her hand feels good and the corn makes my belly warm. “Just damn greed would make a person sell a milk cow for butcher,” she says quietly. Suddenly she cries out and doubles over. “Oh, oh, oh,” she says.
“You having that young’un now?” Tall Man asks.
“Not due yet,” Red Hair says.
“Maybe you ought to sit down – we’ll go in the big building,” Hair Face says.
“Not there. Maybe if I could just sit down for a minute.”
“No need going to the big building,” Tall Man says, “Power just went out.”
“We need to get her to the hospital,” Hair Face says, taking his glove off and pulling keys out of his pocket.
“Ain’t nothing moving out of here,” Tall Man says, pointing to where the road would be if we could see that far through the snow.
“God!” Red Hair says, her face all bunched up.
They stack bails of hay to make a wall in front and then build a half wall between them and us. Hair Face builds a fire and they lay Red Hair on a big pile of loose hay. She is crying. Hair Face sits beside her and holds her hand. “Why’s your husband let you work outside, somebody pretty like you?”
“It’s warmer inside, even with the power out.”
“I can’t watch what goes on inside,” Red Hair says.
Tall Man moves his chin up and down. “It’s messy.”
“Not just that. It’s the cutting and the scalding before they’re dead.”
“There ain’t much of that,” Tall Man says. “Just every once in awhile.”
Red Hair groans, “Can somebody stoke up that fire?” she says.
We eat all the hay and corn then lie down next to each other to keep warm. I’m on my side because my udder is a big hard bubble and it hurts. It is early, before light, when I hear noises and excited people and then the cries. I stand up and look. Red Hair is still down on the hay but now she’s holding a crying baby. The baby needs licking. It’s covered with blood and slime.
“What does it want?” Hair Face says. He’s sitting with his arm around Red Hair.
“He’s hungry. My milk won’t come.”
Hair Face and Tall Man each sit on a hay bale and stare at the ground. Red Hair and the baby are both crying. Still lying down, she rocks the baby in her arms, side to side.
“There’ll be a snowplow in here sometime later today, or tomorrow sure,” Tall Man says.
Red Hair cries louder. “He can’t last that long,” she wails.
“Anyway, there’s water left in the plant cooler,” Tall Man says. This makes Red Hair cry louder.
“That one,” Hair Face says suddenly, pointing to me. “Looks like she might still be fresh.” He looks like he’s seeing me for the first time.
“God, let it be,” Red Hair says, her face hopeful.
“We ain’t very smart to have missed this,” Tall man says. “And them that sold a milking cow for slaughter ain’t either.” He sits beside me with a flat shaped bottle in his hand. “I’ll rinse this out with the first milk,” he tells Red Hair.
It feels good to let go, to lighten the weight on my belly. I don’t usually get to see them drink it; they take it and go away. Now they all drink from me. They drink me warm like they can’t get enough. Red Hair tears some cloth off her undershirt and soaks it in milk. She puts the cloth in the baby’s mouth, lets the baby suck then wets it again. They only have the small bottle and when it’s full they drink that and then come back for more. They take the milk until I’m empty. I feel good, better than since I left Miss Lou.
“My Christmas boy,” Red Hair says to the baby.
The sun comes out but it’s still cold. I feel a little heat from the smoke that blows our way. Tall Man sits by himself near the fire. Hair Face holds the sleeping child and Red Hair’s eyes are closed. Hair Face walks over and scratches me between the eyes. He is still holding the baby. “As soon as we can get a truck in here I’m taking you home,” he tells me.
“You keep her until this baby is old enough to understand,” Red Hair tells Hair Face, rubbing her eyes, “old enough to know how a cow was saved just to keep him fed through this night and day.”
Okay with me. I think it’s better than getting back in that line. I hope Hair Face has plenty of corn and likes milk.