THE HERD by Annika Neklason
by Annika Neklason
The cows are clustered together at the crown of the hill. From where Priya stands on the shoulder of the highway they look like shadow puppets, dark, shifting silhouettes backlit by the harvest moon. They seem small enough, insubstantial enough, at this distance to be knocked over by a strong wind, or even swept away entirely.
Beside her, Amo cups his hands around his mouth and moos at them. The low vibrato of the sound makes Priya shiver, but the cows are too far away; they can’t hear him. They don’t lift their heads.
“Got to work on that, man,” Ben says, coming around the hood of his Volvo. “You sound like a dying mule.”
“At least I don’t look like one,” Amo says.
Ben flips him off.
“Come on,” Vanessa says. She’s already straddling the fence at the base of the hill, her feet dangling in the dry grass. The tops of her socks are still visible where they’re rolled up over her jeans. She made them all tuck the cuffs of their pants in. To keep ticks out, she said, though she shed her shirt in the heat of Ben’s car and is now stripped nearly bare from the waist up. She’s still wearing her bra, some complicated cross-backed, front-clasping contraption that casts off a luminous pink glow in the dark, but the long planes of her abdomen and lower back are entirely uncovered. Priya thinks ticks are probably mobile enough to reach her stomach or her arms once they start walking up the slope, where the grass is tall enough to bury them up past their knees. She tells herself that’s the reason she’s still wearing her shirt, even though it’s sweat-damp and claustrophobic and she wants to look as free and uncaring as Vanessa, sitting on the fence with her back straight and the moonlight slanting over her bird-fine shoulder blades. Because of the ticks.
“Come on,” Vanessa says again. “My mom’ll kill me if I’m not back before she wakes up.”
Amo shoves Ben’s shoulder and moves to join her. He’s shirtless, too. Priya’s fascinated by the hollowness of his stomach, the way his ribs hang over it like branches in an arbor. Ben shrugged his shirt back on before they left the car, but the buttons are undone all down the front and the sleeves are rolled up above his elbows. Priya watches them scale the fence, Amo gracefully and Ben less so, and feels grateful for the paleness of Ben’s narrow chest, the way the fabric clings to his back where he’s still sticky with sweat. For the smattering of acne across the line of Amo’s shoulders. She hates herself a little for feeling it.
Amo turns to extend a hand back through the slats, toward Priya.
“Let’s go, Patel,” he says. “Move it or lose it.”
Priya goes toward him. Before Ben’s car pulled up in front of her house earlier tonight, before Amo came through the side yard to knock on her bedroom window, she’d seen him only from a distance: slumped over a desk at the back of her second period history class; moving through the hallway ahead of her, just tall enough to stick out from the mass of other students walking between periods, to follow in a crowd; stretching at the edge of the outdoor track as she ran warm-ups and Coach yelled those same words at her. Let’s go, Patel. Move it or lose it.
Now Amo’s watching her through the fence, close enough that she can make out the uneven regrowth of stubble along the line of his jaw, darker in the spots he missed the last time he shaved. She thinks he’s saying it in solidarity. Like he’s laughing with her about Coach, who tells her to move from the legs, not the stomach and thinks her last name is Patel just because she’s Indian. She doesn’t think he’s laughing at her.
“Come on,” Vanessa says.
Priya fits her sneakered foot between the slats of the fence and presses her palms to the flat wood at the top, hoisting herself up until she’s folded over at the hips. She swings a leg up, then the other. Amo reaches out to steady her as she drops into the grass, his warm fingers curling briefly around her forearm.
Vanessa pushes off the fence and lands beside them, light and purposeful. She starts up the slope, letting her hands dangle by her sides so that her fingers can catch and part the brittle blades of dead grass. She elbows Amo in the ribs as she passes him. Priya feels the easiness, the closeness of the contact, bare arm against bare chest, even as Amo flinches away from it and Vanessa moves forward, away from them.
Amo swears at Vanessa in Spanish and releases Priya’s arm to press a hand against his side. “What was that for?” he asks.
“For being slow,” Vanessa says, not turning around.
“We haven’t even started walking yet,” he says to her back. Ben laughs as he goes by, following her. Amo goes after them, swearing again, and Priya moves with him like a dog on a leash. When she opened her window earlier, bleary-eyed, to find him standing among the wild nasturtiums that grow thick and bright at the side of her house, Amo had said, Come on, get dressed. We have to go. It should have taken more than that, but it didn’t. It doesn’t. He goes after Vanessa and Ben, so Priya goes, too.
They wade through the high grass toward the top of the hill. The walking is difficult, tiring, like trying to run in dry sand. Priya stumbles over a loose stone hidden close to the earth and cuts her hands on the grass when she catches herself. The cuts are small and thin like paper cuts; they sting like paper cuts, too.
Ben helps her up. He’s breathing loudly, and the fabric under his arms has darkened in broad crescents. His palm is slick against Priya’s as he pulls her to her feet. “Sorry,” he says. He wipes his hands on his jeans and pushes his sleeves up further on his arms.
“It’s fine,” Priya says. She can feel her shirt sticking to her back, can feel the sweat beading on her own palms.
“Come on,” Amo says beside her, hoarse and heavy. “Come on come on come on come on. Some gringo’s going to jack Ben’s hotmobile while we’re scaling fucking Kilimanjaro over here.”
“They’re welcome to it, man,” Ben says, blowing out a long, warm breath that Priya can feel against her arm.
“Yeah?” says Amo. “Then you’re in charge of carrying me home.”
They’re almost at the top of the hill now. The slope beneath their feet is evening out; the cows are close enough that Priya can make out their smooth-edged spots and the brands burned into their flanks.
“Hotmobile?” Vanessa asks. She’s outpaced them enough that Priya can’t make out her features anymore in the dark; she’s just a silhouette against the lighter sky, all curves and legs and narrow waist. “Since when is Ben’s mom car a hotmobile?”
Priya tugs at the hem of her shirt and turns to look at the cows instead.
“Since my hot ass inherited it,” Ben says.
Amo laughs. “That car is like an oven, man. Anybody’s ass would be hot if they sat in there long enough.”
The seat warmers in Ben’s Volvo are broken. And not, as Ben pointed out when Priya first climbed into the backseat, in the regrettable but survivable sense of just not working at all. Instead they automatically switch on to the highest setting when the engine starts and can’t be lowered or turned off. Priya can still feel the phantom heat radiating up through her body even now, more than twenty minutes after leaving the car.
“At least I still have a license,” Ben says.
Amo flips him off, and Ben laughs at him.
A cow has turned to look down at them, one pitchy ear pricked toward the sound of Ben’s laughter. Its eyes reflect the moonlight; they glow pale and depthless in the shadow of its face.
“Shhhh,” Vanessa says. “Christ, you guys are loud enough to start a stampede.”
Amo responds by cupping his hands around his mouth and mooing again. This time the cows all turn, their eyes fixing on his face.
“Shut up,” Vanessa says. “Seriously, you’re going to spook them.”
Amo lowers his hands and turns them palm-out, toward the cows. “We come in peace,” he says solemnly.
Vanessa shoots him a dark look, and Ben laughs again. Priya keeps watching the cows, silent.
Amo knocks his arm against her shoulder. “Aren’t you supposed to bow or something?”
“What?” Priya asks.
“Cows are holy for you, right? Hindus?” He gestures broadly.
“I’m not Hindu,” Priya says. She crosses her arms over her chest. “I mean, unless you ask my grandmother.”
“Oh.” Amo blows out a breath through his nose.
Ben laughs at him again. “You asshole,” he says.
Amo shrugs, looking at the cows again. Some of them have turned away, dipping their heads toward the grass or moving toward the opposite side of the hill. One is folded down onto its legs, asleep, with its face hidden in the grass.
“They’re so big,” Vanessa says.
“Yeah,” says Amo. “Roughly cow-sized. What were you expecting, chickens?”
“Whatever,” she says. “They just look like they’re going to be hard to push over, is all.”
“We’ll put our backs into it,” he says. He walks toward the closest cow, lifting his hands like he’s approaching someone with a gun cocked toward his chest. “Shhh,” he tells the cow. “Stay chill, okay?”
Ben goes to stand a step behind him. “Won’t it just move out of the way?” he asks.
“Not fast enough,” Amo says. “Come on, are we doing this or what?”
Priya walks toward him, not looking at him. Looking at the cow. It’s both bigger and smaller than she imagined a cow would be from up close, both slower and brighter. Its eyes are enormous and round when it looks at her in return. It smells like fertilizer and like animal, warm and alive.
Amo loops his fingers around her wrist and drags her hand forward until it’s pressed against the cow’s side. Ben steps up beside her and puts his hands on it, too. She can feel it breathing, the rise and fall of its flank against her palm; she lifts her other hand and splays her fingers over one of its spots. She wonders if the cow’s supposed to be this thin. She can feel its ribs, separate and distinct.
Vanessa draws up on her other side, shifting nervously. “It smells awful,” she says. She runs a hand through her hair, and then runs it through again.
“Like shit,” Amo says. “Literally.”
They stand at the cow’s side, hands raised against its flank in a neat line. The cow’s head is turned to look at them. Its nose is only inches from Ben’s face.
“Okay,” Amo says. “Push on three.”
“One,” he and Ben count together. “Two. Three.”
“The thing is,” says Amo as Ben drives them back toward Mill Valley, toward their sleeping houses and dark bedrooms and parents that don’t know to miss them, at least not yet, “the thing is it turns out cows are fucking enormous, and kind of impossible to tip over.”
The rest of them hum in agreement. Priya watches the hills recede out her window and hopes the sweat bleeding through her shirt doesn’t leave a dark mark on the seat. She hopes her dad hasn’t woken up to find her gone. She hopes her hands and her shoulder didn’t bruise the cow’s side, where she pushed between its ribs and tried to knock it off its feet.
From the driver’s seat Ben says, “Maybe you just need to work out more, man.”
And Amo says, “I work out with your mom every night.”
Priya watches the first streetlights come into view, and says nothing.
She sees the first trailer a month later. She’s driving home with her father from a weekend trip to San Francisco, down the same highway, slumped down in her seat with her feet propped up on the dashboard and her cheek pressed against the window. The trailer is ahead of them in the next lane, but moving slowly; they edge up closer until they’re right alongside it and Priya can see the mottled brown and white heads and flanks pressed against the latticed side of the enclosure closest to her father’s Lexus. One of the cows raises its head and meets her eyes through the dusty glass of her window.
“Dad,” Priya says. “Dad, look at the cows.”
Her father glances over her, his knuckles tightening to keep the wheel straight, before he adjusts the mirror and faces front again. He grunts an acknowledgement, something distant and noncommittal.
“Where do you think they’re taking them?” Priya asks.
“Somewhere with water,” her dad says. His mouth tightens, the way it always does when the drought comes up. “Probably out of state. I heard they were taking some of them to Texas.”
“That far?” She turns to keep the trailer in view as they start to pull ahead of it.
“We don’t have the water to grow cow food anymore,” her dad says. “We’re having trouble just growing people food.”
“Cows are people food,” Priya points out.
Her dad drums his fingers against the wheel. “They’re inefficient. We can’t prioritize them right now, not when the state’s agriculture industry is hanging on by a thread.”
The trailer is far behind them now; Priya has to twist around in her seat so she can watch it out of the rear window. Eventually they outpace it enough that it disappears from view, lost among the hills and the highway signs and the other cars, full of other people driving home.
She sees another trailer passing through town later that week. She watches footage of ranchers loading up cows on the local news. She sees Amo slip into his seat at the back of the room late for history one morning, and remembers the feeling of the cow’s ribs beneath her hands.
The Sunday after Halloween she climbs up onto the roof of her house and sits for hours with her legs propped up on the angled solar panel her dad installed when they moved in last year. From this vantage point she can see the hills, smooth and gold like the haunches of an immense lion, stretching out toward the silhouetted mountains at the horizon. She can see the still-green lawns of the golf course, shaded by clusters of evergreens. She can see Pickleweed Inlet, extending from the mudflats to the broad edge of Richardson Bay. The water is bright with reflected sunlight.
She can see a long strip of the highway, too, cutting through the grass and the trees and the hills like a long gash. She watches the cars that go by, trying to pick out cow trailers, but from this distance it’s impossible to distinguish them from produce trucks and SUVs. She watches anyway; she watches until the sun sets and the cars become nothing more than shadows in the dark, and then she just sits on the roof and looks up at the stars.
Every time a car turns onto her street she sits up, wondering if it’s Ben and Amo and Vanessa, come to take her back to the farm.
They don’t go back until December, after they’ve finished finals and started in on the driest winter break Mill Valley’s ever had, or at least the driest anyone can remember. The manager of the country club finally agrees to shut off the sprinkler system, and the grass on the golf courses begin to die. Two brothers start selling Christmas trees out of a lot off Miller Avenue. Their needles are brown at the tips, and fall from their branches when the trees are lifted or shaken or touched.
They go back because Priya asks them to. She doesn’t have to go with them; she could ask her father to drive her, or maybe call herself a cab, or find someone else with a car. But Ben is the only person she knows who can drive her into the hills and who was also there with her that night in September, his hands pressed against the cow only inches from her own. So she calls him one evening while she’s sitting at her kitchen table, and tells him they should go see if the cows are still there.
“Why?” he asks her.
She doesn’t know why. Not why she wants to go so badly, and definitely not why he would want to come with her. “I’ll bring beer,” she says.
Ben is quiet. “Okay,” he says finally. “I’ll tell Amo and Vanessa.”
This time Priya is sitting on the front steps of her house when they pull up. Amo leans across the backseat to push her door open. She hands him the six-pack she took from her father’s office, still cold from the refrigerator under his desk.
“Alright,” he says. “Patel, bringing the party.”
She climbs in. The car is cooler than she was expecting. Ben grins at her in the rearview mirror as he pulls back out into the street. “I got my baby all fixed for Christmas,” he says. “They wanted to put the seat warmers back to normal, but I told them to just take them out. I don’t think I’ll ever want to warm my seat again.”
“No kidding,” Amo says. He pulls back the tab of a can, slurping at the beer that foams up through the opening. “I like my ass room temperature.”
Vanessa stretches a hand back from where she sits in the passenger seat, and Amo hands her a beer can. Their fingers touch briefly in the exchange.
“Hey,” says Ben. “Can you wait until we get out of the car? If I get pulled over with open containers in here I’m in deep shit.”
Vanessa ignores him and pops open the can.
“Don’t get pulled over,” Amo advises, taking a long drink.
Priya watches his Adam’s apple move in the dim light. Everything about Amo seems to be sharply angled and pressing outward: his Adam’s apple, his bones, his tongue, which rolls out to wet his lip once he’s finished drinking. It’s like he might shed his skin and expose his insides at any moment, like a snake.
Amo looks over and meets her eyes, the side of his mouth crooking up to expose a flash of teeth. “What’s in the bag?” he asks her, gesturing toward the plastic Safeway bag in her lap.
She shrugs, looking out the window.
“Don’t hold out on us, now,” Amo says.
“It’s nothing,” she says. “Just some fruit and stuff.”
“For what?” Ben asks. “Snacks?”
“Fruit’s a pretty shitty snack,” Amo says.
Priya watches the streetlights disappear behind them as the car rounds a bend. “It’s not for us,” she says. “It’s for the cows.”
Headlights flash over the windshield as someone passes them, headed the other direction; by the time Priya blinks away the spots left in her eyes by the sudden brightness, the car is too far behind them for her to make out the people in it. Vanessa reaches back from the passenger seat again, and Amo hands her another beer can.
“Come on, Vanessa,” Ben says, reaching out as if to take it from her. She twists away from him. “Seriously,” he says. “One, you’re going to get my license suspended. Two, you can’t have a second beer before I’ve had one.”
“You can’t drink,” she says. “You’re driving.”
“Whatever,” Ben says. “Wait. I think we’re there.”
He pulls off onto the shoulder of the highway. Priya opens her door and looks up toward the top of the hill. It’s darker tonight, the grass lit by only a thin crescent of a moon. She thinks she can see shapes moving, cows, but she can’t be sure. They might already be gone.
The others climb out of the car, slamming their doors behind them and going to stand by the fence at the base of the hill. Priya closes her door more gently as she goes to join them. Amo takes another loud drink from his beer can, and Vanessa gestures upward with hers.
“I see them,” she says. “Look.”
Priya looks, and she hopes.
“Yeah,” says Amo. “I see something.”
Priya breathes out a long breath. “Let’s go, then,” she says. “Come on.”
She hands Amo the plastic bag and starts toward the fence, pulling herself up onto her stomach and rolling over until she can drop down into the grass at the other side. Amo passes the bag back to her through the slats and then climbs over himself, landing awkwardly beside her and steadying himself against her shoulder. Ben and Vanessa follow, one at a time.
It’s colder tonight, too. Priya wishes she’d brought a jacket. She crosses her arms over her chest, fitting her hands into her armpits. The Safeway bag hangs down from under her arm so that it knocks against her hip each time she takes a step.
They’re almost at the top of the hill before Priya sees the cow. It’s alone, its head dipped toward the grass. She’d forgotten how big it would be. Her memory rendered it small, the way distance does.
Amo cups his hands around his mouth and moos.
“You’ve been practicing,” Ben says. “Now it’s more mule giving birth than mule dying.”
The cow looks up at them, its eyes only slightly lighter than the rest of its face. The night is dark enough that everything is just shades of almost-black. In silhouette the cow looks substantial, not as thin, as hungry, as Priya thought it would.
Amo moos again.
Priya reaches into the bag and pulls out an apple, cupping it in her palm as she walks toward the cow.
“It’s not a horse,” Vanessa says. “You can’t just feed it fucking treats.” She drains the last of the beer from her can and drops it into the grass, crumpling the aluminum under the heel of her boot.
The cow just watches Priya as she gets closer, as the slope evens out beneath her feet, until she’s standing in front of it on the flat crest of the hill. It’s only when it moves forward, lowering its head toward her palm, that Priya sees the other cows behind it, clustered together down on the opposite side of the hill.
“Cool,” says Amo. “It just sucked that whole thing up.”
Priya can feel the cow’s mouth, warm and wet, against her palm, and then it’s gone, replaced by the cool night air. Softened pieces of fruit drop into the grass at her feet as the cow chews.
“Gross,” Vanessa says.
None of the cows on the other side of the hill are looking at them. A couple are asleep. The rest are gathered into a tight knot, pressed up against one another as if to share warmth.
“Do you have another apple?” Amo asks Priya, stepping close enough that she can feel the heat of his body against her back. “I want to do one.”
She nods, reaching into her bag to produce a second apple. Amo takes it from her and holds it out to the cow, but this time it just turns its head away to look back at the others.
Amo lowers his hand and takes a swig of beer. “Guess it wasn’t that hungry after all,” he says.
“Or it just wants something better than fruit,” says Ben.
“I feel you, cow,” Amo says. “Holding out for a nice steak.”
Vanessa yawns, coming up beside him to take the beer from his hand. “That’s so wrong,” she says. “Cows can’t eat steak. Steak is cows.”
“McNuggets, then,” says Amo.
“I could go for some McNuggets,” says Ben, reaching out toward Vanessa and wriggling his fingers until she hands him the nearly empty can. She turns to press her face into Amo’s neck, yawning again.
Amo hands Priya the apple. “You give it a go, Patel,” he says. He slings his arm over her shoulders. It’s warm and heavy, the sleeve of his sweatshirt rough against the exposed skin at the back of her neck. She shivers. “You’re like a cow whisperer or something.”
Priya shifts under his arm, unconsciously sucking in her stomach—an automatic response to being touched. She holds the apple out toward the cow again. But it’s already shuffling down the opposite slope, leaving her to stand there, arm outstretched, and watch as it moves slowly, steadily, away from her, back to the herd.
Standing up to her knees in the long-dead grass with Amo’s laughter shaking through her shoulders, she watches as the other cows move to make room for it, letting it press into their circle of warmth. The relief comes over her like a living thing, like a warm hand curling around her arm: relief that the cows are still here on this hill overlooking the highway; that they haven’t been driven in the night to a distant field in Texas, where the grass is still green and rain still falls. Relief that none of them have been taken. But, mostly, relief that none of them have been left alone.
Annika Neklason grew up in Santa Cruz, California. She currently resides in Philadelphia, where she is pursuing a degree in English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the Bassini Writing Apprentice for Cleaver Magazine.