The Milkmaid’s Prayer by KJ Hannah Greenberg

Exposure to cows warded against small pox, but not against everlasting forms of scarring.

Clarabelle screamed when she saw the barn cat. It held not a rat in its mouth, but a newborn kitten. The tom had already chewed off the wee thing’s tail and was making work of the kitten’s back and face.

Nearby, the queen was unceremoniously plopping out the rest of her litter. She seemed oblivious to her baby’s fate. Busied with contractions, she was not inventorying her newborns. Although one offspring had met with bad fortune, the others were safely huddled together, a bundle of fur and mews. Later she could groom and feed them.

The unlucky, blind, deaf cat infant staggered from the point at which it had been dropped. Clarabelle watched its tentative steps. Surely it would die.

Nancy, all strong boots and loud laugh came into the barn. She espied the battered kitten, snatched it up and wrapped it in her kerchief. Holding that small, trembling bundle to her chest, she quickly left, dragging a pail of fresh milk with her.

Two weeks later, Sally peered, for the first time, from Nancy’s apron pocket. Her eyesight was blurry, but the world seemed a wonderful place. A casual moo, though, sent her back into a protective, balled-up position. Her world was Nancy, warmth and food.

Clarabelle smiled at the sight of the young cat diving into Nancy’s fabric. She exhaled as she pulled down once more on the two teats before her. In minutes, that side of the cow’s udder looked deflated.

Nancy brought live mice to Sally. Not wanting to suffer from their bites, Nancy handled those critters with thick gloves. The first time she offered one to her pet, Sally shied back into Nancy’s pocket. The second time, Sally sprang out and chased the tiny mammal until it hid in the hay. The effected cow lowed until a random queen restored bovine comfort.

Clarabelle sung under her breath as she milked. The cow, to whom she had attached herself, chewed in rhythmic indifference. Sometimes her chants soothed. Sometimes they made no difference.

Her brother’s beatings had left indentations where no man, healer, lover, or other, would ever find them. Exposure to cows warded against small pox, but not against everlasting forms of scarring. Clarabelle sighed and sang some more. The barn filled with soft dirges.

By her third week of life, Sally began to turn up under foot. Sometimes the cows shied from her, but most often they regarded the cat child as yet another member of that tribe of helpful barnyard creatures.

Sally’s back healed. Her tail never grew back, but her appetite for adventure increased. It was not so much the overturned pails that upset Clarabelle as it was the plaintive sounds of the young thing when it needing rescue. Often, she had to pull Sally, who disliked the clamor of the maids’ thorofare, from dark hidiholes in the loft or out from under troughs. Once, Clarabelle had to lift the kitten out of a filled milking bucket.

Eventually, Sally grew to be a fine Queen. She tutored her kittens in the art of mousing and proudly marched them among the unreceptive bovines. The majority of her litter survived to spawn addition generations.

Nancy did not live to see Sally’s progeny. A startled cow had kicked the maid in the head. Within days, her hardy body was laid to rest in a deep hole in the nearby woods. There was no comforting one of the goatherds, who hung himself shortly thereafter. Nancy had been loved.

Clarabelle, though, continued to shy from the pressing of the manor’s men. Not the cook with the balding pate and affectionate disposition, not the huntsmen with the loud dogs and fleet demeanor, and not the stable boy, all long, unruly bangs and much patched tunic had been able to advance into Clarabelle’s life.

At night, when she pulled her cloak over her legs and hips and settled her head on a small heap of straw, Clarabelle thought not of twilight jaunts along the periphery of the field, of clandestine, daybreak dips in the duck pond, or of any form of rendezvous during any of the hours inbetween. Rather, she thought of how her brother had forced her and of how she would never again let a man have that knowledge.

The cook partnered with the goose girl. The huntsman was assigned new service in a regional war. The stable boy grew up and ran away.

One season, a daughter was born to the manor. When she was just a few years old, her nursemaid brought her to the cow barn. Thereafter, the little lady insisted on feeding and on “helping” to milk almost daily. She selected a stool for her own use. Clarabelle showed her how to touch the cows in a way that would bring them release, not pain.

After that noble’s coupling of hands, Clarabelle cried. The little woman would be inspecting her husband’s fields and barns henceforward. That night, the milkmaid prayed, just a little.

She implored her maker to safeguard the new bride. She asked, as well, that sufficient rain be granted so that all of the farms in the area could harvest amble wheat and barley. She concluded with a small supplication, with a quiet request, that her brother be found dead.

KJ Hannah Greenberg and her hibernaculum of sometimes rabid imaginary hedgehogs roam the verbal hinterlands. Sylvan creatures of questionable means, they fashion stories from leaves, shiny bugs and items best left beneath rocks. Some of the homes for their writing have included: AlienSkin Magazine, AntipodeanSF, Bards and Sages, Big Pulp, Morpheus Tales, Strange, Weird and Wonderful, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and The New Absurdist. When not disciplining her imaginary friends, Hannah serves as an associate editor for Bewildering Stories. She has also worked for Tangent Online as a literary critic.

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