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Sonje wished she had the energy to glare at the lazy farmers in the fields while she ran up the steep hill. But alas, the blazing sun burned the back of her neck and she was supposed to turn ninety tomorrow. When she’d been their age—thirty or fifty, twenty or forty, really, the exact number didn’t matter, what mattered was that all of them were less than half her age—being seen in the vicinity of an old lady panting and struggling like this would’ve been enough to get a kid clobbered to its senses, so it could remember its manners. But kids these days? Kids half her age? Oh, no. No such thing as offering an old lady with snow-white hair some help. To think that she’d given them her precious cow’s precious milk when they were sick and wounded!

Maybe, to them, Sonje didn’t seem like she was running at all. To them, perhaps her “speed” wasn’t speedy enough. After all, Sonje had been known for her slowness since childhood. “Sonje the heavy-footed.” That was what the villagers of times past had called her. Villagers long dead.

But for heaven’s sake, couldn’t these villagers right here, very much alive and comparatively young, see how hard she tried to effectively heave the air in and out? Couldn’t they hear her? It simply didn’t make sense that the definition of the word “run” depended on absolute speed. If that’d been the case, anybody except the Olympic gold medalist would be forbidden from using that word because everybody would be too slow in comparison. In Sonje’s carefully gathered opinion of ninety years, the word “run” depended on how much the person performing the act was straining themselves. Hence it should’ve been abundantly clear to these youngster farmers that Sonje was most definitely running and needed some help, not strolling or ambling and therefore should be left alone.

She really wished she could have a cup of Anabelle’s milk.

Ah, but impossible! Also, Sonje should know better than expect anything from humans. For nearly all her life, she’d guarded the village of Eldham against unnecessary sickness and sorrow, together with her dear cow Anabelle. But of course these younglings didn’t know that, just as the villagers of times past hadn’t known just how much literal truth their use of the word “heavy-footed” carried.

Only the cicadas kept her company with their steady buzzing. They hid under the thick foliage of the zelkovas. Those trees had been growing all around Eldham decades before there’d been an Eldham. Thinking about the days in which she could’ve covered this short stretch in a heartbeat, Sonje wiped off the sweat stinging her eyes.

Or at least, that was what she’d wanted to do. But instead, she ended up merely brushing the frayed sleeve of her ancient sweater over her face. Some sweat drops ended up in her mouth. They tasted bitterly salty. Desperate. Like Sonje herself. Too old but too stubborn. Too angry to let go.

She should’ve carried around some milk. Even if she was too scared of abuse and overuse and uncontrollable greed, she should’ve kept a little bit in a vial…

A sad mooing sounded from the top of the hill. Sonje gasped. Which one of her cows had mooed? Oh, she wished her hearing was as well-developed as a dog’s, but it wasn’t. She only thought the mooing sounded like Anabelle; she couldn’t be sure.

She heaved up her old skirt. When she stumbled forward just a bit more, she saw the battered wagon of Tielo the village butcher parked in the front gravel yard. Herrick, her middle-aged grandson, sat on the porch. He stared down at one of those things called smartphones, which cut people off from everything that was actually going on in their surroundings. Nobody in Eldham owned a smartphone. The village was too small and most people had lived here for generations, so they didn’t have anyone elsewhere to urgently call. And given that the farmers of Eldham already had trouble noticing old ladies running and panting within a six-foot radius, their lack of cell phones was a good thing.

Herrick’s face was blank, emotionless. His black eyes, which could be hopelessly deep and terrifyingly lost if he glared at you (at least, they used to be so in his teenage years), presently looked also dull.

Quite idiotic of him, to come to the countryside in the summer while wearing a long-sleeved gray shirt. Anyone with common sense knew that gray shirts were the worst when it came to pools of sweat showing through under your arms. But he didn’t seem to recognize his own misjudgment. And it wasn’t any random gray shirt either. The fabric, even from this distance, looked expensive. Sonje was no clothing expert and she’d gone through too many wars and depressions to ever have owned a single fancy dress, but she recognized quality when she saw it. What kind of person in their right mind would wear something as precious as that on a sweltering day like this? But of course, if Herrick were a person who understood the concept of preciousness, he wouldn’t be here. Stupid smartphone, making an idiotic person even stupider.

But Sonje appreciated the one positive side effect. In a way, Herrick had thrown himself right into an out-of-body experience. The smartphone had taken him elsewhere and othertime. So maybe, if Sonje could just keep her breathing calm and quiet, she could slip around the house unnoticed. Perhaps the butcher would cooperate with her. He was about the same age as Herrick, but he knew Sonje. And by “knowing,” Sonje meant that he actually understood why she hadn’t sold Anabelle all these years. Well, not the precise reason, but the general preciousness of the cow. That was what Tielo understood. Sonje had always assumed that Tielo had seen so many cows in his life that when he saw Anabelle for the first time, he immediately realized that she was no normal cow. And because of that, very sensibly, Tielo had kept away from Anabelle. See, Tielo knew that you just didn’t mess with affairs that existed beyond your own realm, unless such affairs were thrust upon you, like in the case of Sonje.

Sonje liked Tielo very much. So much that she’d allowed the boy to call her by her name. No nonsense about “Mrs. Rapp” and “Yes, ma’am,” and similar such silliness. With people she liked, she preferred to skip the formalities and get to the point. No amount of otherworldly power could undo the memory of wasted time, and Sonje simply hated the idea of waste and missed opportunities. (Nevertheless, with people she didn’t like, she did exactly the opposite. She liked to squeeze in all the formalities she could, so that whatever business those people wanted from her, they’d have to labor long and hard to get it done. That’s right. Sonje Rapp could be feisty. But swear to heaven, hell, and the in-betweens: she’d always used her own time, never the milk’s.)

At any rate, unlike Herrick, who’d never liked home much, Tielo had been born and raised here. Then he’d gotten married here and gotten himself four children. Now, you have to know this: those children were more like Herrick. They liked their modern gadgets and news from big cities. They liked new and fresh. But Tielo? He was like Sonje’s son, Herrick’s father, when he used to be alive. These innate preferences didn’t necessarily pass on from family member to family member. They didn’t spread evenly throughout a village either, generation by generation. That was how sometimes, someone like Sonje found a kindred spirit in someone like Tielo, half her age. That was also how sometimes, someone like Herrick could potentially find kindred spirits in people like Tielo’s children, also half his age. Although, Sonje guessed that if those children were really like Herrick, they wouldn’t like Herrick for the mere fact that he dared to be double their age. Some kids simply decided that everyone over twenty was old and how could those elderly live with themselves and go on existing?

A damp breeze blew. Herrick looked up from his smartphone, grimacing and coughing. Finally, his soul had returned to his body from the smartphone trip. With a frown, he fidgeted. Silly boy. The more he did that, the more his sweaty boxers were bound to attach and detach from his buttocks. When the sun blazed like this, the intelligent thing to do (unless you worked in the field) was to sit calmly in the shade that a house provided. If only Herrick hadn’t paid a surprise visit, that was exactly what Sonje would’ve been doing at the little community center by the cemetery.

Now Herrick glared at the half-collapsing barn directly attached to the house. The stench! he seemed to say. Well, what had he expected? The barn was basically the house and vice versa. They shared one roof and were made of the same ancient wood. The whole structure had been built a century ago, when it’d been normal for people and livestock to share heat from the same fire throughout the winter season.

A century ago, long before that freezing night when the miraculous connection had happened.

© 2021 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.

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