a literary review
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
Some years ago, when the family coffers began to run low, my father took to sending me out into the mercantile world to sell a common object under an uncommon guise. Once, after splashing a daub of paint on a pigeon, he dispatched me onto the winding road into town with the mystical “Golden Pheasant of the Orient” on my arm. With an investment of gold paint and a glittering coin or two for the bird to “lay,” he reckoned I was sure to come back with ten pieces of gold.
I returned with twenty.
Encouraged by my success, Father sent me to another town to sell a dog that pissed beer (a wine bladder and sleight of hand). I then embarked on a trip to the north to sell our “self-slaughtering swine,” and I tell you, Father, the only thing trickier than hiding sausage under my skirts was pulling it out of the sow’s ear at just the right time.
So…do I carry on talking? My apologies, Father, I’m not familiar with confessions. I’m new to the city, and at church, and at well-nigh everything now, which is exactly what we were looking for.
We’ve started over before. Even without the tricks, we were doing well enough to have a cow for milk, money for bread and eggs, and a little bit of savings for emergencies. Mother began to hope we might finally stay in one place for a longish while, but then Father got that gleam in his eye. The next trick, he said, would be bigger, grander—and farther away, and then we’d have to leave the area altogether, given we were exhausting our roster of towns in which to offer our wares.
Father’s final trick was meant to be his greatest feat, his magnum opus, his masterpiece: the cow that produced gold. The obvious problem was: how.
Father called a family meeting to discuss means and methods, such as coating the udders with yellow powder, or slipping tiny, diamond-like chips of glass into the pail upon milking. If I could pull sausages out of a sow’s ear, I said, surely I could milk a gold necklace out of a cow. I imagined the shimmer of the chain as it slipped from my fist into the pail. I would hold the chain up with a flourish, and graciously allow a piece of it to be snipped off and rushed to the jeweler for testing. Of course, only the first few links would be real gold.
Now, for the record, Mother was against the magic cow caper. She thought we should call the whole operation off and save our funds, to take our leave and make an honest life elsewhere. But then we got tipped off that the man who’d bought the self-slaughtering swine had been asking after Father—our friendly barkeep put him off the trail, hoping to give Father more time to pay off his tab—and that put the fire to our skirts.
Preparations began in earnest. I’d already stitched the tiny tunnel under my petticoat, up through my blouse, and down my sleeve. Father hitched our calico mare Blinky to the cart and traveled farther than ever before, to a little town that would be on the route of our forthcoming evacuation. There, he made his first purchases, slyly seeding the soil with hints about an “experiment” as he haggled for a few gold links and a bale of hay. Mother and I scavenged wire from our deserted chicken coops and fashioned them into dainty chains, which we slathered with the rest of the pigeon paint until they were almost indistinguishable from real gold.
And so it went for weeks: we sold off our remaining belongings and made more chains, while Father made trips into that far-off town to buy hay and gold flakes or dust or coins, letting the townsfolk pry into ever more tantalizing hints about his project. I must say, it warmed my heart to see Mother and Father working together so, he complimenting her on a well-formed link, she praising him for a shrewd trade, and both of them trusting me to bring everything together.
Sadly, our harmony was cut short when word came that the pig-man had finally pinpointed our location and was fixing to make sausage out of Father, since none had come out of his swine. In all haste, we packed our bundles and piled into our cart, leaving only a few sticks of furniture behind as we embarked on our new life. The only animals left were our mare Blinky and the cow, whom I’d taken to calling Goldie, and while Father didn’t like the idea of naming animals we intended to do away with, he couldn’t deny the promotional value of her new moniker.
The Golden Ruminant
Our initial destination was a great distance away, and I began to wonder if poor Goldie would survive the trip. Father grumbled at her lollygagging, but I told him she wasn’t a long-distance cow, and was doing the best she could. Finally, after passing one wide, lonely homestead after another, we reached the center of town. Father straightened his back and tipped his hat when folks waved, but they were barely looking at him, eyes fixed instead on Goldie ambling along behind the cart as we rolled into the main square.
By this point no announcement was necessary to draw a crowd. Folks had been following us out of curiosity, and no sooner had we stopped, than they bustled around the magical cow they’d heard so much about. Father turned to me, eyes gleaming, and whispered, “Showtime!”
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen!” His hearty tone matched his jaunty leap down from the cart. “I won’t be coy: it seems some of you are curious about a little experiment I’ve been working on.”
The crowd murmured and nodded; ladies tittered with anticipation. Father’s face shone like a beacon as he flung one arm in Goldie’s direction. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is the astounding result of my work. I give you Goldie, the Golden Ruminant. My darling daughter, would you be so kind as to show these fine people what Goldie can do?”
I grabbed a stool from the heap of belongings on our cart, hooked a metal pail over my elbow, and climbed down from my perch while Father explained our circumstances.
“Dear neighbors, I speak to you today with a heavy heart. My dearest wife—” (and here he gestured toward the cart, where my mother lowered her head and folded her hands in her lap) “—her mother has taken ill, and we must hurry to her side. We don’t know how long she has left, but God willing, she will hold her daughter’s hand one last time before she passes on to the Great Beyond…”
I shot a glance at Father for laying on as thickly as he was. He saw me, and continued:
“I won’t belabor the details, friends. Suffice it to say, we’ve had to prepare our departure hastily. Our Goldie has wonderful powers, but speediness is not one of them. We cannot retain both her and any hope of making it in time. Therefore, we must sell her. But if we must suffer such a grievous loss, it would bring some small comfort to know that one of our neighbors might benefit from our predicament.”
Women murmured and offered Mother their apologies. Men folded their arms over their chests, impatient to hear the bottom line. Children squirmed—a cow was no great revelation to them.
I, meanwhile, placed the bucket underneath Goldie and took my position on the stool by her side. I cleared my throat and rubbed my hands together, ostensibly to warm them, but actually, to shake the end of the golden chain into position at the end of my sleeve.
“Ah yes. My girl, what would I do without you? An old man needs someone to keep him on course, doesn’t he?”
The crowd chuckled. Someone cooed, “What a good girl.” Someone else murmured, “If only my Eliza were so industrious.”
He had them utterly charmed, without a word on my part—indeed, probably because I hadn’t uttered a word, deferring to my dear father like a dutiful daughter should. I stifled a contrarian urge to slap Goldie on the rear and send her charging into the crowd.
“And now, with no further ado, my daughter will demonstrate Goldie’s special power.”
I grabbed one of Goldie’s teats in each hand, careful not to scratch her with the golden links peeking out from inside my sleeve. The first draw would be easy, given my back was to the crowd. I had enough chains to milk in several positions, as people would inevitably demand, and pulled on the chain with my pinky as I pretended to milk Goldie, whispering the secret phrase Father had invented at the edge of the town.
I tugged and tugged at the chain, but it wouldn’t come out. I replaced the secret phrase with a secret curseword, but the chain still didn’t budge. I dashed a helpless glance at Father.
“Yes, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “You are about to be amazed at what you see.”
I rubbed my hands together again and blew on them. “She doesn’t like it when they’re cold,” I said, hoping folks would read my flushed face as mere modesty. I tugged at the gold links and felt a knot of chains rise and fall in the pocket against my leg. They were tangled!
“Yes, indeed,” said Father. “Have your money ready, because you’re going to want our Goldie when you see what she can do.” His smile was stiff, his eyes darting from face to face. “You’ll be set for life with our cow and the magic words. With the secret phrase, she’ll respond to you and only you. Daughter, perhaps you’re not saying the right words?”
Father bent down to my ear and hissed, “What the Devil is going on?”
I whispered back and tugged on my links. His face went white as he saw the bulge of hopelessly tangled chains, an intractable lump that, thus far, only he and I had noticed.
“Go on, Daughter.” We both jumped at Mother’s voice—she had climbed down from the cart without our noticing, and now stood beside us. “Go ahead and milk her.”
I looked up at her, pleading silently for her to understand.
Her eyes flicked to my skirt and back to my face. She nodded. “Don’t be nervous, dear one. Just milk her as you always have.”
Father opened his mouth to speak, but she stilled him with one of her glances. I rubbed my hands together again, jiggling the bit of chain back up my sleeve. My heart pounded as I placed my hands on the warmth of Goldie’s udder. Cheek to her flank, I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled down on her teats, one tug after another, praying against all logic for the clink of metal on metal. My efforts were rewarded only with the familiar sound of liquid spritzing against the bottom of the pail.
I kept my eyes closed, not wanting to see the humiliation on my father’s face. Mother touched my shoulder and told me I could stop, then her arm brushed against me as she reached under Goldie for the pail. I kept my cheek against Goldie’s flank, breathing in the sweet tang of her milk and the flowery soap I’d used on her that morning, petting her as though she were the one who needed to be consoled, when in fact, she was the one keeping me upright.
I heard a gasp. Then “Goodness, me!” and “Lord Almighty!” and “Well, I’ll be!”
I opened my eyes to see Mother at the center of the crowd, holding the pail tipped outward, rotating like the hand of a pocketwatch so that all could see inside it. The faces surrounding us were etched with amazement and delight, mouths open with nothing more to say.
A stout man in a vest raised his hand. “I’ll give you forty pieces of gold.”
Another man raised his. “I’ll give you forty-five!”
A woman piped up. “You’d be daft to take less than sixty, and that’s what I’ll give you.”
My head swam as more and more voices yelled out increasingly exorbitant prices for our lovely but completely ordinary milking cow. Mother completed a revolution and turned to me, smiling. I looked down into the pail. Inside, Goldie’s milk sloshed and shimmered with gold!
My mouth flopped open, but she winked to quiet me.
Father, meanwhile, had climbed back onto the cart to better see the hands popping up to bid. In less than an hour, he was shaking hands with a red-faced farmer and hoisting a hefty pouch of gold onto our cart. Mother handed Goldie’s lead to the farmer, throwing the pail into the deal as well. “Mind you,” she warned him, “you can’t drink the milk. But you can sift out the gold with a little patience.”
It was my task then to whisper the magic phrase to her new owner. “Remember these words,” Father told the man, “and you’ll be the only one who can get gold from her. She may not respond for a day or two, because she’s accustomed to only hearing the magic words from my girl. But once we’re gone, she’ll get used to you, and she’ll stay as loyal to you as she was to my daughter.”
The farmer leaned toward me, eager. I cupped my hands around his ear and whispered, “A bucket of gold for the purest of souls.” He pulled away, and from the look on his face, I could tell he was a mite fearful that cow would only give him regular milk from now on.
He narrowed his eyes, then said, “Mabel, hand me a bucket.”
A small woman in pink stepped forward, dumped a bit of chicken feed out of a wooden bucket onto the ground, and handed the emptied receptacle to the farmer.
Father blinked, and my heart jumped. There was too big a crowd around the cart for a quick getaway.
Easy as you please, Mother intercepted the chicken feed bucket and dumped Goldie’s milk into it. She then handed the original pail to the farmer. “Goldie’s used to this one,” she told him.
“Don’t want to startle her out of production, do we.” It was not phrased as a question.
The farmer raised an eyebrow at Mother, then took the pail and squatted next to Goldie. Our cow shifted at the unfamiliar hands, but Mother stroked her back and she settled. A hush fell over the crowd. I held my breath and closed my eyes, listening for that familiar spill of liquid on tin.
After a dozen squirts or so the spritzing stopped. The farmer glanced at Mother and Father, then dragged the pail out from underneath Goldie, and everyone craned their necks to see. The farmer looked into the bucket—and smiled. He held the pail up and tipped it toward the circle of folks, showing off the glinting golden milk at the bottom. A cheer went up in the crowd. Hands were shaken, backs were slapped, and a town full of admirers waved goodbye as we rode away toward the city, one cow lighter.
The Right Mix
On one side of me, Father silently held the reins and stared ahead into our future; on the other, Mother rocked with the motion of the cart. Every so often, I turned to look behind us, not that I could see much over the jumble of our possessions. I waited until the townsfolk were a mere speck on the horizon before opening my mouth, but Father beat me to it with one word: “How?”
Mother smiled, enjoying our anticipation for a moment before reaching into her apron. She pulled out a small burlap pouch and handed it to me. I untied it. Father lost interest in the road—our mare Blinky was that trustworthy—and peered inside with me. It glittered with gold dust.
“What’s this?” asked Father.
Mother allowed herself a chuckle. “I held back some of your supplies, just in case. It took a while to get just the right mix of tallow and coal dust to hide the gold and match the inside of the pail. But it looks like I finally got it right.”
Blinky kept us on the road while Father gaped at Mother.
“The coating should hold for another milking or two,” she said. “Long enough for us to get where we need to go, anyway.”
Father reached across me to kiss her hand. After all the magic he’d concocted in his life, I’d never seen him look so proud.
And that was it. We’re here now, and we’ve given up that old life once and for all. I mean, really, how could Father and I hope to compete after Mother capped off our family career in such a spectacular fashion? We’ve changed our names for the last and final time, and mean to start over.
So, forgive me Father, for I have sinned. But you can’t share any of this, can you? I mean, it’s in your vows, isn’t it, like if you tell anyone what you hear in confession you get kicked off the pulpit and burn in Hell or something like that? Pardon me for being indelicate, I don’t know exactly how this works. Just please, don’t say anything.
And if it’s not too much trouble, Father: how many Hail Marys do I have to say to wipe the slate clean?
Tara Campbell (www.taracampbell.com) is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction editor at Barrelhouse. Prior publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Monkeybicycle, Jellyfish Review, Booth, Strange Horizons, and Escape Pod/Artemis Rising. She’s the author of a novel, TreeVolution, a hybrid fiction/poetry collection, Circe’s Bicycle, and a short story collection, Midnight at the Organporium. She received her MFA from American University in 2019.