Have You Ever Heard Cows Scream?
It was the summer I was six, sleeping in Sonia’s bed. Allez, réveille-toi, la laitière brûle, she said. And then, Tu’n veux pas l’voir? Not really a question but an incredulous rebuke. Sonia was seventeen and often climbed out her window in the middle of the night, and tonight the dairy farm across the road was on fire. There was no question that Sonia would witness it, and no reason not to bring me.
So over the sill we went. My palms scraped on the stucco; my pajamas, somebody’s hand-me-downs, were damp in the humid air. We crossed the courtyard, slipping on dew-wet grass. No, it wasn’t night, but early morning. We watched the sun rise. But first: Hop là! Down into the gulley of the old moat (drained after a cat drowned) where Sonia hoisted me high enough to see. Together we peered through the bars of the gate at the silos and haystacks. There were voices shouting but we couldn’t see any flames. The fire was inside the dairy.
Then the cows started to scream. What’s funny is I remember so clearly our bodies tensing in unison, Sonia tightening her grip on my waist, the sun rising behind the dairy, but I cannot remember what it sounded like. I only remember that it happened, that they screamed. That the shouting voices grew more frantic, that smoke began to pour from the building where I had visited the cows and stared at their udders in those metal contraptions and played with the dairy farmers’ children, climbing haystacks as high as we could go until their mother screamed and screamed that we would break our necks. But it was the cows that died. Mamy told me the next morning. That was why we had no milk at breakfast.
That Day, You Know the One
The French people are already at my house when the middle school carpool drops me off. The three of us in the backseat have been arguing over who flew a plane into the Twin Towers. Wesley Levenstein says his biology teacher said it was terrorists but my Spanish teacher told our class that it was just an accident, and there was no official announcement on the loudspeaker, no assembly in the gym or auditorium. We had to stay inside during our lunch break even though it wasn’t raining.
My front door is unlocked when I turn the knob, and even though it’s three o’clock in the afternoon my dad is home. He’s making drinks. The French people at our house are his colleagues, men in their late twenties and early thirties in button-downs and ties. The tunnels and bridges into the city are closed, they can’t go home, so instead they are in our backyard, chain-smoking. Inside, the television is playing the tiny plane and the fireball and the collapsing towers on loop. I ask my father who did it, and he says, Des gens fous. Crazy people.
I go outside, and sit at the table where we ate hamburgers during our last summer barbecue just a few weeks ago. Usually when you sit in our yard you can see and hear the planes overhead. Sometimes when a plane flies over really low my dad will look up and tell us what kind of plane it is and where it’s going: a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong, a British Airways flight to London. We live so close to the airport because of his job; he and his colleagues work for a shipping company. They specialize in importing cosmetics, which is highly dangerous cargo. Laurent, flicking ash onto our brick patio, can tell you why nail polish and hair spray are hazardous (they’re flammable). Bertrand, looking up past the pine trees at the sky, can explain why perfume, when mishandled in the air, explodes.
We are playing by the plum trees when a bee stings me, in a part of the orchard off-limits for precisely this reason. I have never been stung before. I cry as Jonathane drags me back to the house, hissing at me to keep my mouth shut, but in the kitchen I stand splotchy-faced and silent while my aunt Brigitte shakes her head and dabs at my elbow with cream. How did I get stung? She wants to know where we were.
Across the room where his mother cannot see him, fiddling nervously with the latch on a cookie tin, Jonathane mouths the words at me.
La balançoire, I lie.
– – –
The chase ends at the mule pen, where Jonathane dangles my Bunny over the rail before chucking him into the center. I scramble over the fence and land in the dirt; from the corner of my eye I see Jonathane taking flight, distancing himself from disaster. The mule is a dark blur approaching. It lumbers after me, lowers its head and bashes into me, muddy hooves stomping and kicking as I haul myself forward and grab Bunny by the ears with a grimy fist. I drag myself out under the fence rails on my stomach. Bunny is still in one piece. In the kitchen I lie naked on the long wooden table while Mamy tends to my bruises, and Tata Brigitte shouts. Jonathane does not reappear until dinner. He slips into his seat opposite mine. We meet eyes. I shake my head. Non.
– – –
I am half-undressed in the gap between Jonathane’s bed and the wall. Tata taps on the door. She knows we are in here. What are we up to? My leg twitches, knocks into the wooden wall. I hate this game. I am ready to be rescued. I start to sit up and Jonathane uses all of his weight to push me back down. He lifts one finger from my body to his lips. Shhhhhh.
We’re the ones who got walloped by the hurricane, all of our houses destroyed not by what you think of when you think of storm—pounding rain, thrashing trees (though there were those, and a violent wind)—but by the rising tides. The water flowed up our block and our lawns and filled our homes so fast that my neighbors had to leap up in the middle of dinner and flee to the attic. In fewer than fifteen minutes their little girls’ heads were below sea level and the furniture had begun to float.
But even before the hurricane, what made Long Island Long Island—different from the city, despite being just as crowded, just as hungry, just as indignant—was the water, the sheer amount of it, miles and miles of coastline, and the things you could get up to in the summers on those shores. We rode our bikes to the bay, carved our initials into the docks, swam in canals filthy with motor oil, burned our feet on jetties that baked all day in the sun. And at night we got drunk and skinnydipped and were harassed by the cops for being on the beach after dark.
Every summer some kid drowned, body sucked under for days before it popped up banged and bruised against the rocks. Never someone we knew because we knew better than that, we wanted to say. We wanted to dare our parents, our teachers, the cops, to swear to us that they had never hung out on the beach when they were our age, had never felt hot and angry and half-hopeful the tide might take them under and away. But we knew better than to say those things out loud.
You never lose that affinity for water, that love for the sour smell of high tide that comes in when the wind changes, carries with it the screeching sound of gulls. It’s easy to forget the warning: to watch out for the riptide. Because it’s easy to be caught unaware. At dinner. Your car parked in the driveway. The water’s not going to reach your house, it only came halfway up the lawn during Irene, when you carried all the furniture to the attic and stacked the rest of it and what a bitch that was and—
There’s just so much water. That’s all that I wanted to say.
Jessica C. Malordy is a fiction MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. She serves as Fiction Editor of Sonora Review, and is a founding editor of Misadventures.