J.A. Tyler

One of the girls was always milking when the sun crested the hill, rambling through the gray brown stubble plains. Rattling down into their bowl. Skimming ladle blue from cloud white. It was sometimes the younger one and sometimes the older. It was never the boy. He was a crane. He hefted and shirked. Shoulders growing like tiny boulders under a stretch of skin. Leathered by early sun and midday sun and later sun. Seven days forever sun. Tattooed in red mirrored barbed wire and blood blisters and hives that molded themselves in the pits of his knees and his thin forearms.
The boy was allergic to the earth. He brushed by their weeping sad juniper off the back porch and colonies of peppered red sowed like seeds into him. He leaned his boy head on the rough and canyoned bark of their cottonwoods, standing beneath them in the scatters of white, eyes swollen in papery wasp nests. He rode battered sickles through arid wheat, feeling his chest turn to talons and scalding. He sneezed in between the passing gates of a herd, pinching one boy nostril and rocketing the other into breaking dust.
The girls' skin was still water, polished and clear. Tucked under legs. Girl knees turning and buckling with the weight of full milk buckets. Wooden slates and metal rings holding white. Their freckles constellations the father was always trying to read. Keeping them up in the moonless nights, the girls watching the stars and the sky, him making shapes and maps of their faces. Seeking guidance in the clarity of their skin.
A girl pleated the stool beneath her dress and went to, spitting milk into rivers. She was quick, the younger of the two. Unafraid of high kicking legs or the mindless switching of stiff breaking tails. She liked to see the buckets sloshing with white, breaking waves into the sometimes mud stable. Absorbed back in. Tricking the land to drink itself. Slowly and with care, like the lips of grandpa daft and his morning coffee. Like the pursed mouth of her father, clipping through a bottled world.
The older girl was slower with patience and the feel of a tortoise. Skipping only every other step and waiting for things. Silvery pins clenching the straps of her dress to the frontispiece, as a girl, buttoned up. Dotted in the splatter of ever-curdling dry heat, even for solid early mornings. Spurting too the milk into white ponds, forming lakes behind planked wooden dams. Tapping the slippery rhythm of girl fingers against the pink strings of cattle. Buckets full and mousy and tipping as she walked back to the house.
And it drug behind them, the girls most mornings, stringing about. Gray mane lioness and sculpted ribs, a cat licking spilt milk from grass stalks. And it followed them too, those girls most mornings, into the barn and around the gaping slats, pawing the buckets as they milked and filled. And those girls they kicked at it and threw rocks at it and screamed their little girl voices at it like pummeling a shore with tepid water. It broke stride but never retreated, more than not getting a lick of the waves as it overturned their buckets. This cat that wasn't theirs.
The boy listened to their swathing voices as the cat jumped in and out of morning buckets, flaring and riding those girls. Making them stamp their girl feet in girl anger. Until he couldn't listen anymore, like his father earless in the night, and reached for the rifle. The length of barrel that stood violent and unwavering in the perfect corner of the barn. Until he perched his elbows on invisible ledges and made to pull the trigger and the girls went both to scraping at him like at a spider's legs. Asking don't don't don't as the cat's tail slipped again over and beyond the reaching crest or wave.
It wasn't about the gun or the pink spray that ensued like when their father blasted open the heads of coyotes or jack rabbits. The disintegration of animal worlds didn't bother the girls, those girls, one or the other, tripping to milk before the rising of suns. It was because, they told the boy as he re-stood the rifle and impatiently waited out their voices, it was because it was their fight their fight their fight. And sometime, they went on tugging at his boy belt, the cat and its gray hovering will disappear and no one will have to fight with it for milk anymore. He believed them, those girls, because he was a smart boy, and because he knew about having a fight that was a fight that was no one else's.
A night soaked in darkness, grandpa daft walked out of his sleep. He branched into the kitchen on air still and hot, where he had put a saucer of milk beneath a rag, a hilled breach in the otherwise smooth landscape of the cutting board. The screened door bowed in as he went out, sucked back towards the house in a breezeless unhinged night. And like rain under eaves, grandpa set the shallow of warm milk by the trunk of the juniper, up and under the branches like shadowy depressions. Sifting through the cat's mangy fur as it cradled the milk in its rough hewn tongue. Mindless animals rubbing into one another, vast as night.
In the morning before the sun broke, those girls billowing like early clouds, the sky was still equally purple and blue and vague. And they skipped down the slope to the cattle, their breath smiling, carrying a bucket apiece to the shores of milk. And this morning not one but two girls took turns milking and watching, watching and milking, already finding the paw tipping at the buckets. And they smiled indistinct and without the break of sun, letting the cat sip and nestle. Seeing the gray mane and lioness like for the last time.
Some mornings heavy with endless sleep they drug their girl toes in the sharp dirt. Making small ripples of dust in working protest. But this morning, before the sun came about, those girls the two of them skipped and helped each other carry the smiling buckets. Taking a new path from barn to well, unwatched by the boy and father just now rising from straw mattresses, the mother just now waking grandpa daft to another day of hands folding and unfolding. And the cat, gray and stalking easily, following their swishing dress tails to the rock rim of the well.
In two hands, one from each girl, they lifted the buckets each to the top of the well wall, watching as the cat perched itself nearby, just within arm's length, just within the drink of milk and the slosh of buckets. And in two hands, one from each girl, they held its bare and tender throat, wrists scratching happily with the edge of pulsing claws. And with the girl fingers of two hands, one from each girl, they loaded rocks down the cat's mouth, breaking some teeth as they went. And the cat, for all its bellyful of milk, whipped and pinned, couldn't undo the stoning. Couldn't stop the girls, both girls this morning, loading it full of stones and tossing it, weighted and dying, down the belly of the well.
And when the boy raised the rope in the afternoon, tethered as always to the clattering bucket, the sound was full and like a burden. And with a layer of water came also that milking cat, its stomach rough like the edge of mountains, its mouth a terror of blood and half hearted fangs. The boy carried the cat, stiff and water logged, just beyond the hill, sun glaring now on its slowly drying fur, and buried it, one or two feet down, just beyond the reach of the coyotes and their father. Scratching the swelling hives on his legs. Not wanting his constellations too, turned into maps and shapes of the way those girls lived. Fervent and without filtration, girls at the well, shoving rocks down a cat's mouth.