The little witch girl heard a terrible racket out her window one morning. Her cousin SherriAnn was staying over, supposedly babysitting. SherriAnn stopped painting her toenails long enough to look up and say it was a thunderclap but the little witch had listened closely and within the huge noise she recognized different barnyard animal sounds. Then there was a silence, then a cry, then another. The cousin rambled off and then the witch girl’s friend the bull came into the backyard, having walked from the farm next door.
He saw her up in her second floor window and spoke to her.
“I’ll probably never see you again, little friend. I’ve done something horrible.”
“My wife’s been pregnant…”
“I know, I’ve seen her when I bike by the farm. She was getting huge.”
“I was so proud. But early this morning she began to give birth and instead of giving one calf she gave two.”
“The farmer’s never heard of such a thing.”
Now, the farmer at Bull’s place was a known fool. One time the witch girl had overheard him beg her father to cut down a tree on their property because he, the farmer, was convinced it was an evil tree, threatening his crops, because once a twig had fallen onto the farmer’s head as he went past. There were assuredly many things the farmer had never heard of.
Bull continued “The farmer’s wife says it’s surely wicked; two calves at once. Once they see me they’re sure to kill me. He has his big ax and the woman is tricky. I might as well return and submit to whatever recipe they’re planning to incorporate me into.”
Swallowing her intense dislike for the farmer’s wife, the little witch tried to think clearly.
“But the calves are healthy?” she asked.
“They seem so.”
“Well then, that’s marvelous.”
The bull shook his big head mournfully and said, “I don’t think you understand, little witch.”
“But I do, Bull. Your wife had twins.”
“Humans do it sometimes, too. It’s rare and special. If you can give cows twins, the farmer should love you for it. Think about it. It means you make more cows, faster. Other farmers would wish they had you at their farms. They may even…” the little witch trailed off.
“They may what?”
“Oh, I don’t know. They will be very proud of you. They certainly won’t kill you.”
“You know how disorganized they are…”
The bull nodded.
“Well,” she continued, “It takes them days to do anything. Once they talk to someone with some sense they will be very proud. Plus you’re a father now. Are they sons or daughters?”
“I don’t know,” the bull said. “I’m ashamed. I went off before I even knew. But they were both standing.”
“Go back and see them.”
When the witch girl walked through the kitchen SherriAnn was hunched over a huge plate of nachos.
“Were you just talking to a cow out there?”
“He’s a bull.”
SherriAnn snorted to herself, spraying chip crumbs on the table.
“I gotta get out of here,” she said.
“I know!” the little witch girl thought, with such force that it was almost audible.
After a discussion with a smarter friend the following day, the farmer did come to understand and was able to ease his wife’s mind that there was nothing wicked about two calves at once. Some time passed and the bull was proud to watch his children grow strong. They pranced and mooed and their parents enjoyed them.
The little witch’s parents sent postcards from faraway places. The older cousin who was supposed to keep an eye on her had spotted an ex-flame on an ultimate fighting program on local television and had taken off to reconnect, leaving long strands of crimped blond hair behind her. Despite the clogged drains and stolen grocery funds, the little witch was very happy to be alone. Occasionally she spied on her friend, the busy new father.
Everything was going very well indeed.
Then one day the farmer went to town where he ran into his clever friend. The friend leaned up against his wagon and posed a question.
“Still have that bull that gave your cow twins?”
The farmer reckoned so.
“And are ye still in the market for one of my Duchess’s pups?”
The farmer reckoned yes. Duchess was a great one for birding, though times were hard and he didn’t know when his friend could expect payment.
“Well,” the clever friend started. He was tormented by his five daughters’ husbands, who stayed in his house and ate all his food while the women worked outdoors. He could hardly feed them all. “I’ve a cow and could use another, but I’ve got no bull to make it so. You lend me your bull and I’ll give you a pup free. If your bull give my Lilly twins then I’d split the sale of the second with you whether it be meat or milk.”
To his credit, the farmer knew he himself wasn’t the smartest of men. He’d been burned by bargains before, so he took a moment to think.
By and by his friend grew impatient.
“Will ye do it?”
A date was set for the friend would come by with some of his stronger daughters to borrow the bull.
At home, the farmer’s wife was vexed to have not been consulted but she found no fault with the plan. She didn’t care for dogs but the possibility of a little money put a smile on her and she daydreamed about new shoes and sucking candy.
Bull watched his family grow. He rarely broke free from his pen, from respect for his master more than anything for the pen was a shoddy one, but he did go one morning to thank the little witch girl.
Still alone, she had microwaved a chocolate cake from the freezer for breakfast and was devouring it at the picnic table in the back yard. Politely declining a slice, the new father thanked the little witch for her advice aftere his twins’ birth. He marveled at their skinny legs and clear eyes, and he remarked that he felt closer now than ever to his wife the cow.
And the little witch had been right. He told her the farmer and his wife hadn’t praised him. As a matter of fact he’d overheard that they were sending him on a trip down the road to visit another farm.
The bull didn’t notice the little witch wince as she put down her fork.
“Do you know what you’ll do at the other farm?” she asked him.
When she was very little and her dog was still alive, her parents were in town long enough to decide to loan her dog out to sire pups. She had rode along with them to the strange, far away farm though she’d been far too young and felt sick even now to imagine her princely Buff rutting that bitch.
Buff had gone away for days at a time before, and though she had missed him terribly while he was gone she always imagined he was off doing something heroic, saving the day, exploring uncharted territories. Buff humping that other dog, snarling, biting, flopping like a golden fish, it was one of those vivid, haunting memories. It put her off her cake.
The bull admitted that he didn’t know what was expected of him at the farm. The farmer said he’d only be gone for a day, and Bull could plow a whole field in a day if it meant he could spend the night with his family. He smiled at the little witch but she didn’t smile back, so he wondered was she getting a bellyache from all the cake she’d eaten.
“A bunch of grass to chew on is an excellent remedy for your sore stomachs,” he offered, but she only shook her head.
He didn’t understand her sudden mood change. He had thought she’d be excited for him.
His big body hulked over the picnic bench, puzzling. She was just moody, he thought. The bull had a simple relationship with his wife – she was a very direct cow – but the female humans, the farmer’s mercurial wife and even this little one who he liked very much, baffled him. While the little witch girl was very smart for such a tiny thing, Bull worried about her in that big house alone. With his big nose he gave her a paternal nudge on the shoulder. She regarded him with open eyes and smushed what was left of the cake under an extra paper plate.
“I guess I should go in and get to work,” she said.
“Aren’t you going to wish me luck on my trip?” the bull asked.
“Of course,” she said. “The best of luck.”
The other farmer came to borrow the bull. For help he brought three of his beefier daughters and to remind Bull’s dull owners of their incentive he had brought his dog Duchess along. She was handsome, her fur a rich warm brown with a perfect mask of black around her eyes.
Since Bull was so obliging, and the farmer’s fat daughters so disinterested, the trip was uneventful. Duchess tried to communicate with Bull for she was an ambitious dog and longed for news of the world but once he explained that he stayed on his own little plot she lost interest and ran ahead. Once Bull set hoof on the farmer’s land, one of the daughters grabbed his horn in a disturbingly casual way and led him to their own cow’s little pen.
The strange cow was white with black. She was smaller and dirtier than the bull’s lovely, glossy wife. Her appearance was so ghostly that the bull could only pity her. She seemed wild, and he reasoned that was probably why the farmer’s daughters were roping her to a fence post. If she was dangerous, no matter how scrawny, he was grateful to the big sullen women for their precautions.
Duchess reappeared, long enough to meet the bull’s eyes. She shook her head at him and trotted off.
Before he’d introduced himself to the shaking cow, the farmer and his daughters crowded the small pen. They jabbed Bull with sticks until there was nowhere to go but right behind the poor stupid cow.
Even the daughter’s husbands came outside and were surrounding the pen now, and they hollered and jabbed the bull enough to make him blush.
“Do it,” the cow said.
“Excuse me, madam?”
A broom landed on his haunch. Someone hooted.
“Do me,” the cow specified, “Get on.”
“I think you all misunderstand,” the bull stammered, I’m a family man, I –“
“Get up there,” they cried, “big dumb thing!”
Then the farmer was inside the pen with the bull and the mad cow, he came right up next to the bull, and reached his hand down and under so that the bull found himself ready despite his horror and he mounted the cow, who hissed and bucked at him throughout the process and was as far from his wife as could be imagined.
After the event, the cow fell asleep still tethered and the farmer’s daughters went away and the bull paced until the farmer finished a cigarette and his sons-in-law who’d torn themselves from their video game console long enough to witness the spectacle stopped slapping each other on the back for long enough for the farmer to load the bull back onto the cart and haul him home as the sunlight diminished.
That night Bull’s wife wanted to hear all about his adventure but he could barely look her in the eye. The calves had missed him and were hurt by his coarseness. As soon as night fell his family dozed off and he stormed over to the little witch’s house. She was still awake, burning Barbie dolls out by the shed.
“You knew, didn’t you?”
“Was it bad?”
“You knew and didn’t tell me!”
“You’re cut,” she said, standing and walking toward him. By the light of her fire she could see the shine of blood. Some of the farmer’s family’s lashes had broken his thick hide.
She reached up to his huge neck to trace along the side of one of his cuts, asking “Does it hurt?”
“No,” he said, ashamed and holding back tears.
“Let me help.”
She was already unrolling the garden hose. They didn’t talk but the cold water numbed him and he felt better, as he went home afterward, to have the stink of the other cow off his skin.
Soon word spread through the little town that the farmer’s friend’s cow was pregnant.
Another cart arrived to take the bull away.
And again he returned, having fulfilled the farmers’ expectations and unable to look his wife in the eye. It hurt her, the way he kept silent about his experiences beyond their little farm.
The bull and the little witch rarely spoke. She made a salve for his wounds to have at the ready for his sad visits.
The little witch’s parents would return home for a week or two, but they were missionaries or in a rock band, this point is unclear, and soon they would receive a call and take off, leaving their daughter behind. SherriAnn was gone with the ex-Ultimate Fighter, who’d been busted for steroids.
The little witch was once more relieved to be alone.
News reached town one day that a fair was going to be held, a celebration of the bounty and customs of the land. There were to be contests, and curiosities from far away places.
Bull was packed up for the trip. This time felt special, and he hoped for the best, that this time would be different. The farmer’s wife refused to miss the fun of the fair so she hired the little witch to come by to feed the animals left behind.
The farmer’s wife was in such high spirits that she braided a coil of wild roses to slip over the bull’s neck. He looked very fine, and his own wife was proud of him. Their sex life had waned since his travels began but the cow still loved her mate dearly.
The little witch had said nothing to her tortured friend. He asked her, sternly, as a father would, what she knew about such fairs. She’d held back before, he reminded her, and she acknowledged this sadly but she couldn’t bear to tell him what kind of marathon attempts at impregnation that these breeding fairs entailed.
What good would it do? Forewarning would only bring dread, the little witch thought.
Things might have been different, had she been inconsiderate or bold enough to tell him. He might have had a chance.
At the fair Bull was received as a king. People stopped what they were doing to watch as the farmer led him through the fairground to the livestock tent. Strangers fed him sweet fried snacks and moved their children safely away. Some joker offered Bull a bite of a hamburger, which he sniffed and was promptly sickened by. When they reached the livestock tent and he was backed into a stall of his own someone placed a bucket of beer in front of him he drank of it deeply,unsuspecting. Rose petals fell from the garland about his neck down into the booze.
Thirsty and nervous, he devoted himself to the beer until every last drop sloshed inside him. Another pail was sent for, men crowded around to shake the farmer’s hand and admire Bull. Leaning, he sniffed the new bucket but he was starting to feel queasy. He was having difficulty standing straight. The crowd around him and the wall around the crowd began to spin. Deserted by grace, he huffed down clumsily, kicking over the beer bucket in the process. The crowd called out, “the heavyweight’s a lightweight!” and “he’s gonna feel rough for his big day tomorrow!”
“Nothing like a good lay to fix up a hangover though,” a well-dressed man from the village elbowed the farmer in the ribs, and though he was a slow man, and not especially good either, the farmer felt this comment was going to far.
“Enough!” he yelled.
Men raised their eyebrows and pulled their hats and made their way elsewhere.
Bull managed to flick his ears toward the farmer and bow his big head in thanks.
When Bull woke to the sound of a crowing competition between roosters, the farmer was gone. Animals had relieved themselves throughout the night. The stench and the roosters’ increasing volume made Bull’s poor head pound. His heart beat too hard in his chest and he felt stiff and crackly, as if all moisture had left him. His tongue tasted old and unfamiliar in his mouth. He gagged.
These last few hours of Bull’s life are hardly worth inspecting in depth. He climbed a record number of twelve cows that day. His sight was bleary and his stomach lurched, the human crowds were so thick around him that he couldn’t see any escape that would have a less-than-catastrophic death toll.
Something about the thirteenth cow reminded Bull especially of his own cow, and it was then that his heart simply stopped beating. His legs folded beneath him, and his body fell to the ground.
First all was quiet. Bull’s eyes rolled back in his head and then closed. The crowd gasped. News travelled, from the roosters present and the cats slinking by to birds flying overhead to the rest of the animals at the fair and nearby, but soon all the creatures joined in a squall so loud that the little witch heard it.
She was in her own kitchen, wearing her bathing suit and making tea when the creatures’ wailing, miles away, made it to her ears as if she was there. Right away, she knew something had gone wrong with Bull’s trip. The teapot slipped out of her hands and shattered on the floor. Little bits of porcelain splashed up with the boiling water and stuck about her bare ankles but she hardly noticed, she was already out the door, running toward Bull’s house. Out of the corner of her vision she saw her parents’ van pulling up her own driveway but she didn’t care and kept running. Wet grass whipped her burnt feet. The neighbor’s farm was still. She’d have given anything to see the animals next door making a racket, but she knew it wasn’t the animals next door that she’d heard.
Meredith Counts lives, writes, and makes stuff in Michigan. A graduate of the Fiction Writing department at Columbia College Chicago, Counts is a Contributing Editor at the Great Lakes Review. She’s also co-editing a posthumous collection of poetry by Detroiter Jim Gustafson. Her writing appears online at Ms. Fit and Hypertext.