The smell of cows always makes me nauseous. Not as much as when I first found out my mother had fallen in love with a woman, nor as bad as when our nosy neighbors thought they were living next to the bastard son of a Korean whore. No, that odor reminds me of the creatures and what happened to our heifer, and that alone is enough to make me sick.
We bought the calf from a farm ninety miles from our home, where we lived in an abandoned town in Huginn, Maine. We moved here after the incident in Portland. Abby said we would be safe in the old farmhouse, even though no one had lived there since Abby and her family were the last to leave in the 1940s, twenty years before. She would have been right if we could have just stayed there, but every now and again we had to walk the ten miles, past the trees with the odd carvings, to our truck and drive to Ashland to buy supplies. Buying a cow was my mother’s idea; a way to have a year round supply of milk without leaving the safety of Huginn.
We found an ad in the Yankee Trader and used a payphone in Ashland to call about the heifer. The calf was still available, but that call turned out to be our first mistake. By the time we arrived, the farmer was waiting, watching the rusting remains of Abby’s white truck drive towards his barn. His eyes followed from one end of the frame to the other, as if he was trying to decide whether he would trust his calf in such a beat-up old hulk. He pointed to the homemade wood cab resting on top of the cargo bed.
“You going to put her in there?” he asked me, ignoring Abby. If she was insulted by the slight, she didn’t let it show.
“That’s right,” said Abby. “Roger will hold him steady while I drive.”
“I hope your son is strong enough to keep her still. She may seem small, but she can kick hard enough to knock that wooden frame right off the back of your truck.”
“I’m not her son,” I said, blaming Abby for the farmer’s confusion. It wasn’t her fault, but it was always easier to hate her when people thought she was my mother.
“We drove a long way for that heifer and I don’t intend to leave without her,” said Abby.
“All right now, young lady,” said the farmer. “I didn’t mean any offense. I’m used to selling my stock to men with trailers meant for this kind of hauling.”
“I would have sent my husband, but he died in Korea.”
The farmer’s grin turned downward and I could tell he finally realized who we were. I thought he would refuse to sell the heifer to us, but I guess business comes before religion. “Well, I suppose if a woman wants to farm nowadays, then she should farm,” he said. “Tell you what, I can let you haul with my GMC. ‘66, steel construction with an I-6 engine. Suspension so smooth the boy and the heifer will sleep the whole way back.” He pointed to the blue truck.
His truck was nicer than ours. It was brand new and looked jumped right out of last month’s Digest.
“And how much are you charging for that?” Abby asked.
The farmer’s grin returned. “Oh, just an extra thirty-five.”
Abby scoffed. “My truck will do just fine.”
The farmer rubbed at his neck, but he gave us no more problems.
Before long, the calf was lying on a bed of hay next to me in the back of our old truck. Abby accelerated slowly onto the two lane road toward home—or at least the place Abby and my mother considered home. The first part of the journey would be the easiest; fifty miles of paved blacktop to Ashland. From there, it would get harder; twenty miles of uneven dirt roads and then we had to walk the calf the final ten miles to Huginn.
“Will we be able to get home before dark?” I called from the back of the truck bed, stroking the heifer to keep her calm. “You know how mom gets nervous.”
“Yes, Adeunim,” said Abby. The word was enough to raise the ire I had hoped for earlier. My mother taught me enough Korean to know it was a term of endearment for a stepchild. I was sure that despite their relationship, I was not Abby’s stepson.
Abby met my mother at a bereavement group outside of Boston a decade earlier. Abby had been attending for years, showing up a few days after her husband Arthur’s body was returned from Korea, sealed in a box and left that way at the military’s strong recommendation. The women in the group were either young Korean War widows or older World War II widows that never remarried. Their reaction when a Korean woman opened the door of the Dorchester Congregational church social room was a palpable hostility. It didn’t matter that her husband was an American or that he had died fighting the enemies of the United States. Instead, they saw only Mi-La’s features, pink-smooth skin, silky black hair and rounded eyes that looked like the heathens that killed their husbands. She ran from the room with Abby following her. Abby never went back to that group for consolation again. She found solace with my mother and whatever peace we had in this country evaporated as their love grew.
I tasted bile, groaned, and fought it down. The heifer was well-behaved and I didn’t want to barf on her. She couldn’t help her awful smell.
“Roger?” Abby noticed my discomfort. “Hang in there.”
I swallowed, said I was okay and changed the subject. “Do you think we’ll actually be able to stay here this time?”
“I’m hoping there are enough legends about Huginn to prevent anyone from bothering us.”
What legends? I thought as the urge to puke overwhelmed me.
“Damn,” said Abby. She braked quickly and we came to a stop at a metal barrier blocking a path running perpendicular to the logging road.
The calf remained still and I leapt over the side of the truck as if I were the confined animal, leaning over to grab my knees and sucking in the cool fall air, trying to force the nausea to pass. I knew we’d reached the end of the dirt road and would have to walk it, but it wasn’t until I felt less sick that I saw why Abby had slammed on the brakes.