I want to explain.
No longer do I hunger for the familiar comforts: the meaty stews and steaks, the milk.
Like hiding a pill beneath the tongue, I retreat to the privacy of my bedroom and pour the warm milk into the narrow gap between the mattress and the wall.
I’ve made changes.
I’ve cut out milk. I’ve cut out meat.
I want to explain. I was raised on milk and beef. That’s how I was robbed of my swift, slender legs. That’s how I was given the shape of a woman.
I want to be clear. I was raised on a dairy farm. It’s true what you’ve heard. Animals can sense the pending storm.
Now I’m old enough to marry, but Father knows I’m not ready for that, not yet. Come nightfall, he gives me a mug of warm milk, he says,
“A little rest can work wonders.”
I retreat to the privacy of my bedroom.
The milk I’ve spilled has rotted the mattress, and come morning I cannot wash the sour odor from my skin and hair.
If Father knew, he’d call me ungrateful, he’d say,
“That was my sweat, my blood.”
I try to be honest.
I try, but the relentless clamor of cattle brings such confusion.
It is hard to chose words with care.
We live with the cattle, Father and I. We live with the grass, the mud, and the stones. A forest of Beech and Maple runs the property line. Deer feed on the leaves.
I try to see things Father’s way. I read the document that enables his perspective. The deed hangs above the stove, framed in wood and glass.
Father owns 600 acres of pasture. 200 head of cattle. The white farmhouse. The cluster of barns where the cows are milked and put to bed in winter.
Father does not own the forest.
At the stove, I prepare a stew of beef and root vegetables. With mortar and pestle, I pulverize tomatoes and thyme – a fragrant paste, rich in color and sweetness.
Come supper, I excuse myself.
The stew has cooked perfectly; I can tell by the broth. The broth has thickened and now it holds to bright chunks of carrot like an aromatic glue.
I refuse to taste it.
Holding my belly, I take my leave.
Father lets me go. He sends me off with a steaming mug of milk, he says,
“A little rest, a little sleep.”
My belly feels taut in my hands, like a barrel.
I want to explain.
I’ve made changes, restricted my diet.
My transformation is almost complete.
I grow leaner and leaner, long limbed and sinewy. I no longer require a brassiere. I sprint freely through the pastures. My hue is not pinkish. My skin sprouts smooth blonde fur.
The night is quiet, and I keep a window open.
I listen for deer.
It seems irrational to say so. The forest lies acres away. But I can hear the snapping of twigs beneath their hooves, the shuffle of dry leaves, their breathy snorts. They call out. They beckon.
I try to be honest.
The library is limited, but sufficient: a squat wooden shelf in the den. There’s a dictionary, a Bible, an encyclopedia of world history.
I keep a notebook of lined paper, leftover from my schooling. I copy down what is relevant, I map out the divisions.
Cattle, n. Property, article of property, moveable personal property.
Deer, n. A wild animal, a woodland animal, an untamed creature.
Clear-cut, twofold. I am very thorough.
The God of Adam separated the deer from the cattle, the forest from the farm. He is a deer let loose, he gives goodly words. How do the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed. You will be driven away from men and fed grass like cattle. He makes my feet like the feet of the deer, and sets me on high places.
I practice good penmanship, but ink on paper can say only so much.
The Yiddish word for “deer” is “Hirsh” – a common male name among Eastern Europeans.
And yet the men of that name were fated as cattle – corralled, slaughtered.
It is impossible to be precise.
But one must choose a side. I must choose.
I used to tend for the young of the herd. I was robust. My legs were thick, and my hips. Come spring, I sequestered the calves. I had to feed them in the morning. I had to shovel dung from the pens. It was important that my arms stay strong. The males, I raised for fifteen months before Father would sell them to slaughter. Their brown pelts were soft and warm, ever swelling then shrinking with their breathing. Father would sell all but one, or two – those he would slaughter himself to keep meat in our kitchen.
I am trying to explain.
I am trying.
Father has relieved me of my chores. I lie on the milk-stained mattress and hold my barrel of a belly. Father sits on the edge of the bed, still dressed in his dusty work clothes.
He lays a hand on my head, he says,
“You must take proper care of yourself.”
As a child, I liked to watch when Father slaughtered the bulls. Their flanks were dusty and dull, but their insides held such brightness.
Once, Father removed a bull’s stomach and set it down before me on the barn floor. The book, he called it. When he slit the stomach open, its folds fell apart like so many pages.
I crossed my arms in disbelief.
A stomach is a stomach.
I doubted there was ever a book so red.
Now I know better.
Slice open a word, and it will bleed.
A word can turn to rot.
I am trying to explain. I am trying to be honest.
I have never been so hungry.
I leave the bed and make my way down the stairs.
I carry the sour-milk stench like an illness, and Father follows, keeping his distance.
Outside, I stop at the edge of the woods. Crouching, I gather an armful twigs. I fashion a crown and place it on my head. The sun casts my antlered shadow on the grass.
Before me, Father stands, squinting in the light. He squints and says,
I can tell from his puckered mouth that those words have already soured.