fiction by Michael Henson
“Cows!” Sissy shouted. Her face, pressed to the glass, was shining.
There were cows and there were—“Baby cows!”—curious calves who watched them from behind a wire fence as they drove up the lane. A goat at the fence line watched them with the look of someone pondering a private joke. A barn stood out back; outbuildings and rickety sheds were scattered here and there. Somewhere nearby, hens raised up a mid-day squabble, but the children could not yet see them.
The lady who was driving stopped the car in front of the house. “Here we are,” she said. “This is where you’re going to live for a while, until we can get you settled.”
The children did not want to get settled. They wanted to get back to their mother. But since their mother was in Rehab and had charges on her head, there was a matter of custody to be settled. Their last father was gone to prison and their mother had been in and out of jobs or in and out of trouble nearly their whole lives. The Boy was twelve, his sister was four, and the last thing their mother said to him before she went off to Rehab was, “Look after your sister, little man.”
So he had been trying, the best he knew how. He had done pretty well, he thought, until the County found out they were living alone. So he did not understand why the County had to take them in now and take them into foster care.
But here they were.
The big, red brick farmhouse looked normal enough. But next to the porch, perched half-hidden behind a spread of flowering Rose-of-Sharon, lurked a large, gray satellite dish, the largest the Boy had ever seen. The Boy sensed a vibration coming off it as they passed, a low-grade growl, like the tremor of a distant earthquake. Sissy sensed it too; she gripped his hand and held it tight.
“Well. Ain’t you just the cutest things,” said the woman who came to the door.
The larger of the Ladies said, “Say hello to Missus Loudermilk.” So they did.
Missus Loudermilk was broad and comfortable looking, like a big, comfy sofa set in motion. She wore a plain blue dress that came below her knees and her hair was bound up in a net at the back of her head. She had cheeks as red as a pair of polished apples. “Come in, come in,” she said, and waved them all to come in through the door and into a darkened room where the windows were covered in heavy curtains. A large flat-screen television provided the only light.
A preacher program was playing and the preacher paced the stage to warn about the days to come.
An air conditioner chugged in one of the windows. After the heat of the yard, the room had a wintry chill about it. The woman pointed to a couch and a couple chairs. The children sat together on the couch and the Ladies from the County took the chairs. The children were dressed for the summer heat in t-shirts and shorts. But the air conditioning seemed to be set to just above freezing. Sissy shivered in her seat, scrunched her shoulders together, put her hands between her knees, and shivered again. The Boy tried to tough it out, but after a minute, he too shivered and sat on his hands.
The larger of the Ladies told Missus Loudermilk the names of the boy and the girl and their ages and they handed Missus Loudermilk a clipboard with papers for her to read and sign. She sat down to read them in the light from the television. She had muted the preacher, but he continued to stride back and forth across the screen. He was dressed in a somber, dark suit and the camera moved in close and then backed off, so that the television was bright one moment and dark the next, and Missus Loudermilk kept shifting the clipboard back and forth to catch its light.
The Boy was glad the sound was off. But still, in the moments that the camera moved in close, the man’s head grew to the size of a wash tub, the sweat beaded on his brow like a set of rivets, and he peered at them with drill-bit eyes.
Missus Loudermilk looked at the papers, then at the children, one after the other. “They’re kin?” she asked.
The Boy was White; Sissy was Black, so people sometimes wondered.
The smaller of the Ladies said, “Brother and sister.”
Missus Loudermilk raised her eyebrows and nodded. Finally, she signed her name in big looping letters at the bottom of the last page and passed the clipboard back.
The larger of the Ladies turned to the children and said, “We’re going to leave you here with Missus Loudermilk now. You mind her and Mister Loudermilk just like you would mind your own parents, and we’ll be getting you to your permanent placement soon.”
The Ladies left and Missus Loudermilk closed the door behind them. “You children just make yourselves at home,” she said. Then she sat back down in front of her television and brought the sound back up. In a moment, she seemed to have forgotten the children altogether. She filled the plush chair in front of the television and showed no inclination to move, or even to breathe. She was raptured into her program, utterly motionless as the preacher, a new one now, prowled the stage with his microphone in hand. This new preacher wore a maroon suit and white shirt open at the collar. The camera followed him as a pilot fish follows a shark. At the peak of his excitement, the preacher’s face and neck turned red as the apples of the woman’s cheeks. And when the camera zoomed in very close and the preacher’s face grew to gallon bucket size, his eyes began to look like separate, living beings, like creatures at the depths of the sea.
The Boy hoped the woman would soon snap out of her trance to offer them a glass of lemonade or a snack or to tell them where they could put their things or where they could go to the bathroom. Finally, without moving her eyes from the screen, she said, “If you’re hungry, there’s bread and peanut butter in the kitchen.”
The boy led his sister out of the darkened room and back to the kitchen where sunlight tiptoed catlike through the windows and nestled on a counter. He found the peanut butter and bread on the counter and a carton of milk and a container of grape jelly in the refrigerator. He searched the cabinets and drawers for glasses for the milk and plates for the sandwiches and a knife to spread the peanut butter and the jelly and then he made the sandwiches. There was a kitchen table, but no chairs, so they ate at a picnic table in the yard. The Boy tried to make a joke about loud milk and louder milk and Missus Loudermilk, but Sissy concentrated on her sandwich. “It’s not funny,” she said. A black and white dog of a mid-sized, indeterminate breed came to sniff their feet and knees, then settled himself with half-closed lids next to the table.
The picnic table was shaded by a grove of pear trees. Without their shade, the heat would have been unbearable. The fruit was ripe and heavy. First one pear, then another, and another dropped to the ground. One landed near their table, another closer to the back door of the house, then one –plop—dropped onto the table itself. They laughed at that, and the Boy found a couple of pears that were ripe enough to eat. Juice ran down the sides of their mouths and they laughed some more. Some of the fallen fruit had gone overripe and bees swarmed over them, drunk with the sweetness.
When they finished the sandwiches and the pears, the Boy and his sister took the crusts and cores and threw them over the fence for the chickens. “Look,” Sissy shouted, “Babies!” A brood of chicks followed behind a hen. She pointed, “Can I hold one?”
The Boy was willing to catch one of the chicks for her, but there was no way to get out of the yard, no gate to pass through, no stile to climb. There were the chicks and the chickens and there was the barn and the sheds and outbuildings and a garden all to explore, but everything was behind a line of wire fence. The anarchic chicks ran in and out of the interstices of the fence to peck at the seed heads among the spears of trampled hay. The children tried again and again to snatch one of the chicks, but they were too fast for them. The mother hen clucked them close; they ran back through the gaps in the fence and were free.
A flagstone path led from the house toward the barn, a hen house, a workshop, and a hut where the goat and a rooster battled in a game of barnyard king-of-the-mountain. But the wire fence crossed the path, so they could not explore in that direction. The fence, the Boy noticed, was new. He was used to seeing a glaze of rust across the wires of the fences he had known. But this wire still had a store-bought sheen.
“Come on, Sissy,” he said. They could explore in a different direction.
“But I want to see the baby cows.”
“We’ll see them later. Come on.”
She followed, but she pout-walked herself slowly enough that he had to wait for her at the kitchen door.
He wanted to ask the woman where they could go and what they could do and where were they to sleep and where were the bathrooms and all.
But Missus Loudermilk was still immobilized in her chair. Yet another preacher stalked across the screen, but Missus Loudermilk had not yet moved.
“Ma’am,” the boy said. He was polite, and he knew how to ask for things. “Ma’am,” he said, a little louder this time. He reached out his hand to tap her arm, but something held him back; he decided it was better to wait.
They spent the next two hours exploring the boundaries of the place. They walked down the long front drive to the front of the property. There was no fence there and they could walk out the front drive, past the line of stones set along the front of the property line and down the road.
“It’s hot,” Sissy said. “I want to look at the chicks.”
“Not yet,” he said. He wanted to know the limits of their placement.
“I want to go back.”
“Hold on.” He could not see far. The road disappeared around a curve to the right as it followed a little trickling run, little more than a ditch that ran on the other side of the road. It was all pasture on their side of the road and all forest on the other. Buzzards circled above the hills across the road.
“Let’s go back,” Sissy said. “I’m scared.”
“Hold on,” he said. There was no good reason not to go back, but he did not want to give in so easily. It was just that, sometimes, his sister got him so annoyed. There was never a moment she was not under foot, never a moment she was not hooked onto the tail of his shirt.
She went silent. She had learned that when he had come to the end of his patience, then it was time to stop.
For supper, Missus Loudermilk left her chair, emptied two cans of beef stew into a saucepan, warmed it, and served it to the children in bowls. They went back out to the picnic table to eat. The dog, roused by the smell of the stew, watched with interest.
As they ate their stew, a man on a tractor hauled a flatbed trailer full of hay bales into the middle of the next-door field where the cattle were grazing. The man stopped the tractor near the fence and he got off the tractor and mounted the trailer. He pulled a knife from his pocket, cut the strings off one of the bales, and began to fling pillow-sized flakes of hay down the hill into the pasture.
Here cow-cow-cow-cows-cow, he sang. Here calfy-calfy-calf. Yip. Yip. Heyyyy, he called.
The gathering cattle bawled their appreciation as they emerged from the treelines and the hollows of the pasture like great, detached shadows.
When the children came back into the house with their dishes, they saw that a man and a teen-aged boy had joined the woman in front of the television which was now turned to a show in which handsome people gathered around a couch and talked.
The three of them were eating chicken and fries from brightly colored boxes set on tray tables.
“Randy,” said the woman, “Show these children where they’re to sleep.”
The boy muttered something back and the woman said, “Because I said so.”
At this, the man—Mister Loudermilk—looked up. He was a thick man with a face the color of meat. He looked at the boy with a hard, brutal, contemptuous glare that seemed to hit him like a body blow.
Randy dropped his chicken bone to his plate and pushed his tray table away so he could stand.
“Come on,” he said to the children.
The children followed him up the stairs and down a hall to the back of the house. He was a big-boned boy, big and soft like his mother, with the same apple-red cheeks. He wore big, clunkety work boots with clots of clay along the soles and big, loose cargo pants and a big, loose t-shirt that billowed as he walked. His hair was dark and curly and fell to his shoulders.
At the top of the stairs there was a door to the right and a door to the left. “This one’s for the boy and this one’s for the girl.” He switched on the hall light and pointed down the hall. “Here’s the bathrooms,” he said. Boys were to the right, he said, and girls were to the left.
There were two sets of bunk beds in each bedroom. A single, colorful poster hung on the back wall of each – race cars for the boys, rainbows for the girls.
Sissy stood in the doorway and looked the room over.
“You can put your stuff in there,” Randy said.
Sissy still did not move. “I want to go where he goes,” she said with a nod toward her brother.
“Can’t,” Randy said. “It’s a rule.”
Sissy looked panicked. They had never been separated before. Before the County took over and brought them here, they had managed alone together for days and weeks at a time while their mother was working or in jail.
“Boys and girls can’t share the same room.”
The children stared at the bigger boy. He lifted his shirt by the shoulders and gave it a shake to fan himself. “We need to open some windows back here,” he said. “Get some air.”
Sissy stood in the doorway; she looked back over her shoulder to the room for boys. “There’s lots of beds,” she said.
“Like I said, boys and girls can’t share rooms,” Randy said. “County won’t let you.”
Sissy would not leave the doorway. The Boy asked, “Why not?”
“Boys and girls can’t share the same room. County would take our license.”
Sissy turned. She and her brother stared at the bigger boy.
“It’s the rule,” he said. “On account of perverts. Somebody could be a pervert. Think about it. Sometimes we get six or eight boys and six or eight girls. You couldn’t mix them all up like that, could you?” The Boy did not know what a pervert was, nor how he would know one if he saw one.
Randy looked the Boy up and down. “You don’t look like a pervert,” he said. “But that’s the rule.”
The Boy nodded. “But right now,” he said. “It’s just me and her. She’ll get scared all by herself.”
Randy shrugged. “I don’t know, man. It’s just the rule. County says it, we got to do it.”
Sissy was about to cry. “I don’t . . .” But the Boy hushed her with a nod. It was a complicated nod that said, Go ahead and put your things in the little girl room. We’ll deal with this later.
They had learned to communicate through a nod or a shrug or a cut of the eyebrow or a wordless whisper whenever it was not safe to use words. They were still taking the measure of this boy.
So this was one of those times.
Randy went into the room for boys and raised a window, then crossed the hall to raise a window in the room for girls.
“There,” he said. “That’ll make it better for you.” He lifted his shirt by the shoulders and fanned himself again.
“Breakfast,” he said, “is seven-thirty. She don’t like it if you’re late. That’s points off. Here’s the rules . . .” He pointed to a list of rules pinned up next to the door. “If you break any rules, that’s points off. There’s a chores list in the kitchen. If you don’t do your chores, that’s points off.”
The Boy asked what the points were for and Randy pulled his hair back into a pony tail, held it there for a moment, released it, shrugged, and said, “I have no idea.”
When Randy left, the Boy said to his sister, “Just go ahead and pick you a bed. When it’s bed time, I’ll come and read you stories like we do. I’ll stay right there until you go to sleep. We’ll keep both doors open. I’ll be right across the hall with the door open. It’ll be like we’re in the same room together.”
Sissy started to fuss, but he told her, “I’ll be right there. I’ll keep my light on. You can see me.”
Sometime in the night, a pair of owls started to hoot and bark, one in the far-off woods beyond the pasture, and one, it seemed, in a big oak tree just outside their window. The owls woke the Boy for a moment, but only for a moment. In the morning, he found his sister sound asleep, in a bundle on the carpet beside his bunk.
They re-read the laminated list of chores that was posted on the kitchen wall: Wash the dishes after every meal. Sweep the kitchen floor. Make your beds. Failure to complete your chores can result in loss of points and privileges.
They re-read the laminated list of chores that was posted on the kitchen wall: Wash the dishes after every meal. Sweep the kitchen floor. Make your beds. Failure to complete your chores can result in loss of points and privileges.
Missus Loudermilk came around at mid-morning to inspect and found that everything was done the way that it needed to be done. The beds were made, the floors were swept, the dishes washed and put up. So she went back into her trance in front of the television.
Lunch was peanut butter and jelly on white bread. Supper was beef stew out of a can.
The rest of the time, the children were free to roam. The goat reappeared at the fence line and was happy to nibble the spears of Johnson grass Sissy fed him through the fence. The chicks continued to tease and the children had no more luck at catching them than they had the day before.
The man from the farm across the fence came again at dusk to feed his cattle. Here cow-cow-cow, he sang. Here calfy-calf!
The cattle came bawling their gratitude in their varying voices – the high-pitched bleating of the calves, the big-lung bawl of the cows, and the belly-big bellow of the bull.
The children watched from the picnic table under the pear tree where they sat with their bowls of stew. The Boy had finished his, but Sissy slow-chewed a couple reluctant bites, then poked at the remainder with her spoon.
“Eat up,” the Boy said.
“I don’t like it,” she said.
“You liked it good enough yesterday.”
“That was yesterday,” she said. “Today is today.”
“That’s not how it goes,” he said. “It goes that was then, this is now.”
“I like to say it my way,” she said.
“Whatever,” he said. “Just eat so you don’t be hungry come the middle of the night.”
She shrugged, set down her spoon next to her bowl, and put her hands in her lap.
“I just don’t like it,” she said.
He was about to tell her, eat up anyway. You got to keep up your strength. But they were both distracted when the truck belonging to Mister Loudermilk roared up the drive.
The Mid-Sized Dog of Indeterminate Breed had been lying in the ruts of the lane. He raised his head, saw the danger, and jumped up just in time to dodge the truck.
The truck pulled up directly across the fence from the farmer and stopped with a spray of dust and gravel. Mister Loudermilk jumped out of the truck and slammed the door. He crossed the front of the truck, stalked to the fence and shouted across at the farmer.
“What did you tell them at the County about me?”
The farmer ignored him. He flung three more flakes from the hay bale down the hill and did not look in Mister Loudermilk’s direction.
Mister Loudermilk cursed the farmer; he called him names the Boy had never heard and names he would never have been allowed to use. Sissy sat with her mouth open and her eyes wide.
Randy got out of the truck and stealthily shut his door. He looked back and forth from one man to the other, then he crossed the yard to where the children sat at the picnic table.
He stood with his hands on his hips and nodded to where Mister Loudermilk continued to curse. The farmer, mounting his tractor to leave, continued to ignore him.
“That’s why the man built the fence,” Randy said. “On account of talk like that.”
Mister Loudermilk followed the farmer down the fence line, cursing the man and cursing his family and his ancestors, and all his contact with the County.
“They’ll lose their license,” Randy said. “If the County hears of him cussing like that in front of children, they’ll yank their foster care license.”
He looked at the bowls –the empty bowl in front of the Boy and the half-empty bowl in front of the girl. “Stew again?”
The Boy nodded.
“That’s bulls . . .” He bit down on the word he would have said.
He went back to the truck. Mister Loudermilk stood in the lane and cursed the taillights of the farmer’s retreating tractor. Randy pulled a bag from the front seat of the truck, walked it over to the picnic table, and pulled out a hamburger for each of them. He set a soft drink in front of each of them.
“Eat quick,” he said. “Before they see you. And hide the wrappers and the cups.” He took the rest of the bag into the house and they saw no more of him that night.
Breakfast in the morning was pop tarts and milk. Again. They did their chores and wandered the grounds until noon. Lunch was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Again. Before they could eat even a bite, a black, thunderous rain swept them off the picnic table and drove them back into the kitchen. They stood at the kitchen window with their sandwiches and watched the lightning crack open the sky and listened to the kettle-drum thunder.
After half an hour’s violence, the rain settled in like a tenant. The wind raised the pulse of it episodically, but it mostly droned on and on for the next several hours.
There was no one to tell them no, so they started to explore the house. In an upstairs room, they found a stack of musty books and that was how they got through the first hours.
It was still raining at mid-afternoon. By then, they had found some rubber boots and crackly yellow raincoats, so they went out into the rain. They stomped in the puddles of the drive until they came to a puddle that held a pair of night crawlers that were big as snakes.
Sissy screamed and would go no further.
“They’re just worms,” he called to her. She was already halfway back to the house, so he stomped after her.
Just then, here came the truck splashing up the lane. Mister Loudermilk stopped the truck in the usual place and Randy burst out in a fury. He slammed the door and stomped toward the house.
“You better come back here,” Mister Loudermilk called.
The children could not hear the words Randy used, but they knew by the sound of the words that he had cussed out his father. His very own father.
“You come back out here and help me unload these tools,” Mister Loudermilk called.
The children looked toward the house to see how Randy would respond. They heard nothing, so they looked back to Mister Loudermilk. The Boy thought maybe he could help with the tools.
But before he could make his offer, Mister Loudermilk asked, “What are you looking at?”
The children could tell this was not really a question and it did not need an answer. He was telling them to go away. So they did.
They stayed outside, splashing from one puddle to another, until time for supper. The goat followed them along the fence line, hoping for more spears of Johnson weed. The farmer came to feed his cattle. He smiled at them from his side of the fence, then went into the barn. He came out with a bale of hay, set it on the ground, cut the strings, and began to call out Here cow-cow-cow-cow. Here calfy-calf-calf-calf.
Sissy called too, in a high, thin voice, Here cow-cow-cow; here calf-calf-calf!
The rain had freshened the colors and raised ghostly forms of mist in the hollows of the pasture. The cattle—cows, calves, and the bull—emerged from the misty hollows.
From all the way in the house, they could hear the voices of Mister Loudermilk, Missus Loudermilk, and Randy shouting arguments back and forth, back and forth.
The farmer looked up. He, too, could hear the angry voices. He looked over to the children and shook his head as if to say, I’m sorry you have to stay in such a place where people talk to one another like that.
Somewhere within the house, a door slammed shut. More shouts shuttled back and forth.
When the Boy looked back across the fence, the farmer had mounted his tractor. He started it up, shifted it into gear, smiled at the children with an I’m sorry smile, and drove off down the lane.
Sissy had found a new patch of Johnson grass and she fed the spears of it through the wire to the goat.
It was nearly dark before anyone came to make them supper. The boy knew how to open a can and how to warm the stew, but neither he nor his sister had seen where Missus Loudermilk kept her supply of cans.
Finally, Randy trundled down the stairs. They heard him from the kitchen all the way to the front hall. When he saw them in the kitchen searching the shelves, he said, “Oh, didn’t she feed you yet?”
He stopped short, back-pedaled a moment, and opened the door of a walk-in closet. He came out of the closet with an armload of cans. “Do you want beef stew?” he asked. “Or chicken and dumplings?”
“Chicken dumplings!” Sissy called. “I like chicken dumplings.”
It became a feast. Randy dug into the refrigerator for a container of biscuits. He banged the biscuits open on a corner of the counter and opened two cans of creamed chicken into a wide cast-iron skillet. He placed the biscuits on top of the chicken and put the whole thing into the oven.
While it was cooking, Randy took the children out to the yard to show them where a tree swing was hidden.
“They don’t like the kids to swing on it on account of the insurance,” he said.
The children swung on the backyard swing for the next twenty minutes until Randy called them to the picnic table. He sat on one side of the picnic table and they sat on the other. He had just served them each a bowl of chicken stew topped by a browned biscuit when Missus Loudermilk came to the back door.
“Randy?” she called. “Don’t you want to come and eat?”
From behind the screen, she looked like a ghost. She had lost the apple-red color of her cheeks; she was just a darker gray shape moving behind the gray of the screen door. She was gauze on gauze.
“We’re having Kentucky Fried,” she said. “We got mashed potatoes and gravy.”
“I’m okay, Ma.”
“I said, we got chicken and we got mashed potatoes and gravy. Just like you like.”
Randy paused a moment before he answered. “That’s all, right, Ma. I’m okay.”
He tapped his spoon on the edge of his bowl.
“Yeah, Ma. I’m sure.”
“It’ll go to waste.”
He looked off to the fields.
“I’ll have to feed it to the dog.”
Missus Loudermilk remained behind the screen, a ghostly gray presence. Randy would not look her way. Finally, he asked, “Is she gone?”
The Boy nodded; she was gone.
Randy said, “Eat up, kids. It’ll get cold.”
Randy broke up the biscuit in Sissy’s bowl so she could get her food onto her spoon. Then she ate her whole bowl. Randy and the Boy each ate two full bowls. For dessert, they ate more of the pears.
After they had eaten, Randy told them he planned to leave home as soon as he next got paid. “Soon as I got that money in hand, I’m out of here.”
“Where will you go?”
“I got friends. I can go stay with one of them.”
The Boy thought about what that would be like, to be a teenager and to go where you wanted to go.
They talked until long after dark. Randy had questions for the children. He wanted to know: Where are you kids from? Where is your mom? Where is your dad? Why did you have to come here?
The Boy told him how they had moved from place to place all their lives and how they had different fathers and how neither father was around. He told him how their mother was in Rehab and had great hopes for getting better. And he told how the County had tried to separate them and put them in separate places because his father was White and her father was Black and how their mother said she wouldn’t allow them to be broken apart and she would get lawyers and appeal if they tried. And so, they were still together, brother and sister.
Randy asked the Boy, where would they go next?
The Boy wondered what it would be like, to be able to say I’m going here or I’m going there. But he had no idea.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Because he really did not know.
Michael Henson is author of five books of fiction and four collections of poetry. His work includes Maggie Boylan and Secure the Shadow, both from Ohio University Press. He is a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative and a founding member of the Urban Appalachian Council in Cincinnati, Ohio.