She believes she believes in dreams. She knows they’re real, but she knows they can’t come true. Her dead husband, Mr. Cass, taught her that dreams were best forgotten, traded in for a cast iron skillet or a pound of bacon. Now, just a month after he died, Mr. Cass seemed like maybe he was a dream, one that had picked her up like a roadside stray thirty years before. This Tennessee farm life was not what she’d dreamt of back on the reservation. Maybe she’d forgotten her dreams, misplaced them somewhere. Maybe they were like the reflection she saw tonight and every night in the kitchen window when she was washing dishes–an image that faded when she got too close.
After she’d eaten enough baked potpie and had wrapped the rest in foil, she filled one sink with hot suds, the other with cold rinse water. She leaned over the chipped porcelain sink to work, her flat belly pressed against the counter. A dreamcatcher, a circle of hickory webbed with cat-gut, hung in her kitchen window. Her granny had made the dreamcatcher to save good dreams and make bad ones go away. But Mr. Cass hadn’t wanted anything to do with it “Get that damn Indian voodoo out from here. I ain’t sleeping under no dead woman’s spells.” Even without the dreamcatcher over her bed, she’d sometimes had good dreams. She dreamt once of a fair child that she cradled in her arms, blowing breath through its downy hair. Mr. Cass had awakened her from that dream with his coughing. He’d pulled the breathing tube off his nose and sat up cussing long enough to light a cigarette that he held beside the bed. He took one, two drags, then let it burn until it was one long ash. Like the dream of the blonde child, the ash had dripped placidly onto the rug and waited there until she swept it up the next day.
Dishes were fewer these days when it came time for cleanup. She piled two plates, a cup and saucer, and a handful of jelly jars into the sink. She picked up a glass. Her hand small enough to fit inside, she reached for a milk spot with a cracked fingernail. She thought of milk cows and the countless times she had rolled out of bed before sunrise to wash the udders with warm water and a dish mop before Mr. Cass came to milk them
“The heifer!” She threw her hands up. “How could I forget her!”
The jelly glass shattered on the floor. “Stupid, Okie, stupid. Stupid. Stupid.” She swept the shards into one hand cupped like a dustpan. She crawled on her knees to skim for more glass. Satisfied she’d found it all, she labored to her feet.
“Ow! What in the world?” Cut by the glass, her palm bled from a two-inch gash. She let the cut bleed to clean it out. She stood over the sink, blood peppering the dishwater, to wash out the cut. She doused the hand with alcohol and wrapped it in a clean dishrag. She squeezed the cut to stop the bleeding.
“Darn it, Okie, how can you be so clumsy at a time like this?” She tightened the dish rag around her hand to cut the blood. “The heifer needs you. She’s too old to be having her first calf.” Mr. Cass had just thought she wasn’t up for a bull. “Queer, I tell you. She’s a damn queer,” he’d said every time he walked past the heifer, every time he kicked at her. The Spring before Mr. Cass died, the heifer was carrying a calf. The vet checked her out, said not to worry, but the heifer listed when she walked. She lay down too much too often in the field.
Okie grabbed a flashlight from the pantry. She pulled her slicker over her head, cinched the hood tight around her round face. “I’m coming, heifer.” She remembered to lock the door behind her. The screen door clapped shut. The flashlight beam dancing solemnly in front of her, she sloshed through the mud and grass to the barn.
“I hate the rain. It never rained this much in Oklahoma.”
She pulled the heavy door open, turned on the lights. “I do hate this place at night.” She went to the heifer in the far stall. “Sure is lonely around here these days, with the cows most gone. How many cows did we have when you was alive, Mr. Cass? How many did the man sell off to pay for your burying? If I’d known it was going to cost that much. I guess I’d of just buried you myself.”
“I can’t believe it’s only been a month since you died, Mr. Cass.” She looked into the unlit barn rafters and spoke as if the darkness were someone she knew. “Seems like years or maybe more than that. Not that I minded you dying.” She wiped her gray-tinged black hair, whisked the curls out of her eyes. “Not like the time Granny died. I was sad then. Now, I’m lonesome, just lonesome.” She plucked a gray hair. She knew it was gray because gray hairs were always coarse and twisted and it vibrated when she pulled on it. She put the hair in her mouth to test its texture. “Old, Okie, you’re getting old. How many times in our life together did you say that, Mr. Cass? A hundred? Maybe. Maybe I can’t count that high.”
She listened to the rain and spun the wedding band on her finger. When did she get married? In sixty-six, Mr. Cass brought her here to live down the road from his folks, to work their little jumble of a farm with him. She’d made him marry her before she would lay down with him. In some town near Jackson, when he’d been drinking, he took her to the justice. In the side-room of the courthouse, with a little fat secretary as witness, the justice married them for five dollars. She’d kept her eyes to the floor, pretending to be a crack in the concrete, a break in the smooth cold hardness. At the fat secretary, she’d said “He never even asked me,” loud enough for everyone to hear but too candidly for anyone to listen. When she said “I do.” she’d felt herself slip into a crack that closed up with her inside.
Now, she sweated in her slicker, the barn full of hay dust and still air. “Hey, girlie,” she called to the heifer, “you doing okay?” She found the heifer on its side, a puddle of fluid around her.
“Heifer!” She fell to her knees beside the cow, put her good hand on the pulsing stomach. “Shh!” She stroked the cow’s head, pulled on her ears. “Okie’s here.”
When the cow had quieted down, Okie looked at its womb. Two black hooves jutted out. “Oh my goodness.” She threw up. She always threw up at blood, ever since the time Mr. Cass made her castrate that young bull. Mr. Cass had wrapped rubber bands around the bull’s scrotum to cut off the circulation. To castrate it, she’d bitten the soft skin of the scrotum, held it tight when the bull wriggled despite the knee Mr. Cass had wedged against its neck. She held a back leg away from her, and with the razor in the free hand, sliced the bull’s testicles off. The bull flailed with its legs and she was too slow to duck to kicks. She landed on her butt, the scrotum still in her mouth, blood drizzling down her chin. Mr. Cass laughed, “now that taking the bull by the horns.” She slapped at the scrotum, kicked it away from her, then shook the way she’d down as a girl when she’d run full tilt into a writing spider’s web. She could no more get rid of the feeling of the blood and the laughter than she had shed the sticky writer’s web.
Now, staring at the protruding hooves, she plucked at her face. “I got to get the doctor. I’ll be right back, heifer. Don’t go nowhere.”
She flicked on the flashlight to find the path. It was darker now, and the rain fell like a stampede. On the porch, she tried the knob. “Locked? How in the world?” She patted her pocket for her keys.
“Okie, you are so stupid!” she screamed. “You done locked yourself out.” On tip-toe she looked through the kitchen window. She saw her keys, a heavy bundle of metal, on the kitchen table. “Oh no. Okie, you are as dumb as Mr. Cass always said you was.”
She sat down on the porch, rain washing over her. She bowed her head, watched the reflection of the kitchen light in her slicker. “You getting too damn skinny, Okie,” he’d say out of the crumpled side of his mouth, “can’t do nothing without huffing and puffing.” Helping him work on the truck. “Goddamn, Okie, that ain’t no crescent wrench. You so dumb you can’t see?” Getting his supper. “Can’t you move no faster than that? Didn’t your mama teach you how to cook?”
She squinted at her black slicker. She shook her finger. “You knew good and well my mama didn’t teach me how to cook. She had her own fish to fry. You was always teasing me that way, Mr. Cass. I know you said you was just teasing me, but my feelings got hurt. A lot. Always calling me Okie instead of my name. But I got used to it.”
She stood up. “Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Get in that house and call the vet before the heifer and her baby dies.” She stepped back into the rain. “I don’t want to break down my good door. Maybe the cellar door’s open.” She went around to the cellar, feeling lighter, even with the mud caked on her boots. The slicker flapped around her like a broken wing. She threw the cellar door open to find the rain had beaten her there. Standing water reached her knees. She listened to the sump pump labor to overcome the flooding.
“Water, water everywhere…” She pushed through in the dark, afraid to turn on the overhead lights. With her flashlight, she found the kitchen stairs.
“I hate the rain. I always hated the rain. What I wouldn’t give to have me fire going right about now.” When she was little, her mother left one Friday night in the sheeting rain to meet a man: her grandmother made her feel safe with a slice of mince meat pie and a warm fire in their little house. When her mother stayed with the rainy man, her grandmother had kept her safe in that little house the same way she’d tended their fire to keep it from ashing over.
Atop the stairs, she remembered that the slide bolt was thrown. “Maybe if I put my weight into it.” She backed down one step, then threw herself against the door. “Ow! that was stupid.” She headed back done the stairs for something, anything to bust down the door.
“The ax. That’s what I need.” She sloshed to the far side of the cellar where Mr. Cass kept the heavy tools. Like a little girl at Christmas, she pointed at a handle sticking out of the water. “Whoa, this thing’s heavy. This ain’t no ax, it’s a sledge hammer.” She swung it to her shoulder. “Guess I’ll have to make do.”
At the door again, she choked up on the sledge handle. “One, two…three!” She slammed the hammer through a panel. She tossed the sledge into the water before unlocking the bolt. “Good girl, Okie.”
Covered with mud and sopping wet, she called information then dialed the vet’s number. “Miz Middlidge, this is Okie. I need the doctor to get over here quick. My heifer’s in trouble bad. I don’t know how long she can wait for him. Is he going to be back quick?”
She wrote the doctor’s number on the foggy window. To pass time, she finger-painted the memory of her granny’s crinkled face on the glass. “What was wrong with you, Granny, that turned you into a angel? Mr. Cass said maybe it was the cancer, but I think maybe no. You didn’t die all miserable like him. Coughing and choking, hooked up to a air tank so you could breathe. You died all quiet in the night. Maybe God called you to tell him some stories like you done me. Your stories is all I got left of you. Except for this thing.”
She touched the dreamcatcher. “You told me to decorate this with my memories. But I ain’t got nothing worth keeping.” She took the circle down. “Keep this.” Granny had said when she offered the circle with hands like antique lace. “At night, when your dreams come to you, this dreamcatcher will catch them all. Your bad dreams will stick in the web, and the sun will kill them when it rises. Your good dreams will find their way through the web and drip back into your head before you wake. If you have faith in yourself, then your dreams will come true.” Granny’s words fresh in her head, she strummed the catgut strings, traced the web-like pattern with her finger. “…when the bow breaks, the cradle will fall…”
She screamed when the phone rang. Her hands flew to her face. She turned around again and again, her hands fluttering on her face, covering her ears. The dreamcatcher rolled along the linoleum and settled against the stove.
“The phone, Okie, it’s phone. Get ahold of yourself. Get ahold of yourself. It is the phone.” On the seventh ring, she answered. “This is Okie. Hey, Mr. Doctor. The heifer, it’s her time. She looks bad. But the calf is half out. But she might be dead by morning. I ain’t yelling at you. No, sir. It’s just the heifer. Okay. All right. In the morning.”
She hung up the phone and hung her head. “Pour thing. She’s going to lose that baby.” She remembered first coming to the farm when Mr. Cass’s mama and daddy were still around. “Things didn’t seem so bad back then. How long was I here before your mama and daddy burnt up in their house? Maybe a year? Was it that? A shame about your daddy. I always liked him. He made you behave.” Treat that girl right, Cass. She’ll be the mama of your children one day. “No, he was wrong. No babies for Okie.” Since their deaths, she found herself alone and lonely, snared by a man with stiff hands. She held onto the tight wire she called home, washing the dishes and cooking the food, wanting babies she couldn’t have.
Outside, the rain came down harder. From the window, she could barely make out the barn. She yanked out a galvanized bucket to fill with hot soapy water. She dropped a sponge into the bucket, not caring that she’d sloshed water on the floor. She checked the knob . “Fool me once.” Through the rain, she called, “Hold on heifer, Okie’s coming.”
In the barn, the heifer thrashed in the straw bed, her breath labored, her eyes glossy marbles. “Easy girl. Okie’s here.” She stroked the heifer’s neck, patted her head. “We’ll get you through this.”
Sponge in hand, she scrubbed the calf’s protruding forelegs. The hooves did not move. “That’s what I thought, heifer. That calf is dead. Dead as a doornail.” She pressed the sponge to her breast. “You poor girl. You’re baby’s dead.” She crawled hand and knee to heifer’s head which cradled in her lap. “Heifer, Okie’s going to take care of you. Your baby’s dead, and if we don’t get that calf out of you, you’re going with it. Don’t think I could stand that now.”
The heifer smells to Okie like hay and dirt. The dirt reminds her of the day Mr. Cass found her on the roadside, hitch-hiking to Oklahoma City, the day after her grandmother had died. Her hair tied behind her neck, she still wore the patterned dress she’d worn to the funeral.
Mr. Cass pulled over, cigarette perched on his lower lip, to holler out the window,
She bent down, holding the suitcase with two hands in front of her. The blowing dust they called wind spread her hair across her bronze face, beyond her face, so that she looked through it like a venetian blind at the man behind the wheel. Under a fresh tee shirt, his shoulders rolled forward, his nose rolled down to his chin. His Adam’s apple stuck out, it seemed to her, to the length of his chin.
“Anywhere, except here.” She slapped at the wind. She pulled the hair from her mouth, tried to smile for the man. The wind teased her.
“That’s where I’m headed.” The car door sprang open. “Get in. I’m Tom Cass. Glad to meet you. What’s your name?”
“What kind of name is that?”
“My granny give it to me.”
“Couldn’t she thought up something easier to say?”
She rocked back and forth, the heifer still in her lap. “What’s so hard about Kenowauha? Even dumb old Okie can say Kenowauha. Kenowauha. Kenowauha.”
The heifer murmured: its eyes rolled. It pitched its weight back and forth, struggling to get up.
“No, no. Lay down. Lay down.”
She pushed against the cow, who circled the pile of straw, the calf’s hooves bouncing behind it. A stream of fluid bubbled from the womb, sprinkling the straw.
“Lay down!” She slammed into the heifer. The heifer stumbled, kneeling on its forelegs. “Go down.” She pushed on the haunches. The cow tumbled to its side, murmuring, groaning. Air exploded from its lungs as it hit the dirt floor.
“Good girl. Now let’s get that calf out of there. I’m going to get the truck. It’s got a good wench. Be still til I get back.”
She found the truck in the tractor shed and backed it into the barn. A few feet from the stall, she cut the engine and turned off the headlights. After pulling out some slack, she hooked the chain around the dead calf’s knees. She scrubbed the legs again to remove the slick birth cheese. The heifer rattled a breath.
“Easy. Okie’s here.” She whispered advice into its ear. “Now, I like to know what’s going on when somebody’s working on me. Here’s what I got in mind. That baby of yours is dead. I don’t know how else to tell you that. That’s what the smell is. I’m real sorry.” She pulled at its ears. “We got it get him out, though. I hooked up this here winch off the truck. I’m reckoning to pull him out with it. It’s liable to hurt you, though, if you move around. Just hang on.”
After checking the chain, she unlocked the winch. “When you first brought me to the farm, I couldn’t hardly keep house, much less keep up the farm. But Okie’s picked up a thing or two along the way.” She turned the handle on the winch. The chain tightened: the wince squealed and complained. She put her weight against the crank. Her hands slipped off, barked against the truck’s grill. She shook off the hurt, grabbed the crank, and shoved the handle.
She leaned into the winch, laid on the handle until she doubled over.
On command, the winch jerked around. She caught herself before she slammed into the hood. The calf’s forelegs skittered across the straw, twisted in the chain, ripped from the body. Behind Okie, the legs lay like tattered cloth. The rotted head protruded from the womb, its eye sockets empty.
“It’s stuck! The legs tore clean off.”
She covered her mouth. The heifer scraped the dirt with its hooves. Okie felt for the hood behind her then backed away from the mangled calf. She stumbled some when she bolted for the door.
Outside, the rain fell. She staggered into the darkness that seemed to wrap around her. In the distance, the lights from the windows tempted her to run away from the dead calf to her clean kitchen, away from the rain and the cold and the heifer. She drooped to her knees. Mud splattered her thighs. The night seemed like a web she had tumbled into and the windows were moving farther and farther away. “You getting too damn old...if you have faith in yourself…can’t do nothing…your dreams…you so dumb…will come true… Goddamn, you, Okie…if you have faith in yourself, then your dreams will come true.”
“No, Goddamn you, Mr. Cass.” She wiped the mud from her pants, pulled her sopping hair away from her face. “Ain’t nobody here to help the heifer but you, Okie. Vet won’t come. Mr. Cass is dead and buried. Nobody here to see how stupid you are this time, nobody to take over when you screw up. Better get it right.”
The cow’s eyes were closed when she clipped the line around the calf’s neck. She turned away from the calf when she untangled the legs from the chain. She did not look back before she shoved the crank handle down. The line sang as it tightened. The winch squealed and she did not quit pushing until she heard a sound like the pop of a canning jar. The carcass slid out of the cow. She leaned on the truck to catch her breath.
A paint tarp was stacked in a front stall. She spread it over the carcass. “We’ll call somebody tomorrow to get rid of this for us.”
While Okie covered the calf, the heifer climbed up. She walked her stall, straining, until the afterbirth was purged. The cow sniffed at the calf, licked at the ears.
“It’s dead. I know how you feel.”
She led the cow to the fresh straw in another stall where it closed its eyes and rested.
Later, with the truck back in the shed, the lights out in the barn, she walked home. She warmed some pot pie on the stove. She found the dreamcatcher at her feet and returned it to the window. As the pie heated, she finished the mess she’d left in the sink and let the dishwater drain. She covered her hands with dish soap, bubbles forming like lace. As she washed, she watched the light dance in her dreamcatcher, then sat at the kitchen table to enjoy her meal alone.