“I will slice you into beef!”
A large belch of cud breath hit her face, fermented greenery bound with bile and saliva.
Eth gave her familiar a shove, trying to push Cow’s face off her shoulder. The bovine shifted her head to the other shoulder just by craning her long neck. “Humans don’t slice into beef,” Eth said.
“Then what do they slice into?” Cow stepped forward, knocking the witch into the door she was trying to open, knocking her goggles askew.
“I don’t know.” Eth readjusted her eye-wear and squatted down so she could examine the lock on eye level. “Flesh.”
Cow’s spittle dribbled down the back of Eth’s dress as she spoke. “Everything is flesh, servant. Your people turn pigs to pork, fowl to poultry, and my babies to veal–”
“You’ve never had a baby.” She’d found Cow just a wee calf in her papa’s pasture, red the color of congealed blood except for a white blaze beneath her pole. They’d been together every moment since then, even when their physical bodies were distant. In that time, Cow had never given birth, though she gave milk just fine.
Eth pulled out her jaw harp, sliding it between her teeth and clamping her lips around it. She plucked at it with her fingers, hoping not only to find the notes to charm the lock, but to end the conversation as well.
All cows are my calves, Cow said in Eth’s mind, not content to let the subject drop. Don’t feign ignorance on my account. You’re the stupid one without answers.
Eth wasn’t a good witch. The ability to both channel her own powers into opening the lock and mind-speaking with Cow was beyond her. They both knew it, too. Cow had ceased speaking, but she continued to bore her will into Eth’s mind, forcing her to abandon the lock for a moment. She pulled the harp from her mouth, not wanting to waste more power than was necessary.
“We don’t call our flesh anything special, Cow. We don’t eat each other.”
“Maybe you should try sometime,” Cow said, aloud this time. “You can eat less of us that way and there would be less of you.”
Eth rubbed some sweat off her brow. Summer in the city was so much worse than back home. On the farm, they had breeze. “Can I please just open this door.”
“If you do, I will slice you into beef.”
“I’d like to see you hold a knife.” Eth stuck the harp back in her mouth and returned to plucking it, trying to hear the sound of the lock in response to her call.
Don’t need a knife when you have hooves. Cow had taken a step forward, her shiny black cloven hoof a hair’s breadth away from Eth’s back, her brisket pressed against the witch’s back. Eth closed her eyes, trying not to think about the 900 pound familiar looming over her and listened.
Not for the first time, not for the first time that week, not for the first time that day, not for the first time that hour, Eth wished she’d have gotten a different familiar. A nice snake, perhaps. An owl. A weasel. A rat. A tick. A flea. A louse. Even a nice case of bush thrush would be better than this.
That’s the thing most people don’t understand.
She twanged at the harp, getting closer.
She didn’t choose Cow.
Cow chose her.
Eth was just a farmer’s daughter, wandering through the wooded field, looking for Lizzie’s calf. The cow had wandered back to the barn that morning, placenta dangling proudly out, pleased with herself for hiding a calf so well. Eth was told to go find it and find it she did. Most of it, anyway. Bits were here and there, black and white patches of fur and flesh. An ear. A swish. Ribs with pale pink calf flesh hanging from them in ribbons.
Eth should have gone back to the barn, but there was a lot of things in Eth’s life she should have done differently.
She followed the trail of gore and guts down to the creek, where the grass gave way to sandy silt and shallow rooted trees. The old hickory had still been standing the last time Eth wandered this far away from the houses, but it was down now, its roots ripped out of the earth like an angry maw. So close to the creek, water had already pooled in the hollow left by the tree. And that’s where she found Cow, a tiny red calf with wide black eyes and a tuft of black and white fur in her mouth.
The lock responded to the harp, not so much unlocking as loosening, the real world melting slightly to accommodate the witch’s will. Eth felt it rather than heard it, but she stood all the same and jiggled the door. The latch gave way.
“I’m not going in there,” Cow said, her ears flicking back.
A hot blast of bloody air hit Eth’s face as the door swung open. She pulled her white scarf up above her nose and mouth and adjusted her goggles for a snugger fit. “You brought us this far. Then, you don’t want me to open the door. You don’t want to go inside. I never thought you’d abandon the herd.”
Cow’s one ear popped forward, as if she was hearing something from beyond the door while the other remained steadfastly back, showing her disapproval. “This is not about my herd.”
“If all cows are your calves, then all cows are your herd.”
“People know nothing about herds.” Cow took an uncertain step back, wide eyes going wider.
“Maybe, but I know a lot about cows.” Eth tucked her jaw harp back into her dress’s pocket and hitched up her skirt. “And the only thing scarier to a cow than this here slaughter house is being left alone outside.”
Eth stepped through the door, onto the metal grate beyond. The kill floor spread out far below them, but Eth could see the bronze gears churning, speckled red from their day’s work. High above, fan blades turned on a single shaft jutting out from the floor below, whining as they rotated, pulling up steam and heat.
The witch stepped farther in, gripping the railing to look down.
In her mind, she herd a single word.
The familiar click of hooves followed behind her.