Three Milk Maids Meet at Midnight
The grass of the cemetery was untouched by hoof or paw, though sometimes a few of the longer-necked bessies would stretch over the fence and nibble on the sweet shoots above the grave of Seighilde. The Ladies of the Bucket did not think old Seighilde would mind, for in life she had been a milk maid like themselves, and to milk they all might one day return.
Anisel spread the blanket among the tombstones, Gemme unpacked the cups and plates, and Berticea opened the first bottle of ouzo. Each sat on her own stool, which with their buckets were the symbols and tools of their trade. The first drink was in silence, milky liquor in chipped china cups as the moon rose above the trees, in respect for the departed. As the spirit burned their lips and throat, the mood settled on them, and with somber diction and sober chuckles the milk maids began telling their stories.
Berticea growled her story through a ruined throat, her one good eye gleaming. The fields of the dairy where she worked are struck through with sinkholes and hidden canyons amongst the turf, sudden precipices that plunge to darksome depths, and the old maids say that it is one of the entrances to hell. Perhaps then the devil’s hands are not so sharp of eye, and strange black-haired billies with iron teeth and flashing eyes may escape to wander amid the nannies, who give birth to darkling kids.
“They bite clean thro’ flesh and bone, when they a-chance, and bleed the ma’s teats summat awful. We thought he’d weaned off, but as I got her teats to flow the damn kid sniffed it and came at me. Well, there was nothing for it. I brained the bastard with the milking-stool, but the beast rose up agin. He tried to circle about me, but wary was I to his tricks and caught him again with the stool, right acrost the teeth. You can still see the marks.” Berticea sipped her ouzo, gazing into the depths. “Lost the bucket, tho’. Kid kicked it in the ruckus. Came right out of my pay-packet.”
The ladies nodded, but offered no greater condolence or sympathy as Berticea drained her cup. Such was the facts of life as a Lady of the Bucket. Anisel fetched out the biscuits as Gemme refilled the cups.
Anisel had been with the Horse People for a season, and had many stories to tell of the herds, their strange ways and customs. She showed off the hairy jack she wore on a strap about her shoulder, the bulging skin fat with koumiss, and explained how she had won it.
“In the thrice-ninth yurt of the thrice-ninth pasture, there was held a great contest for all the daughters, for in the language of the Horse People, the word for daughter is the same for milk maid, to see who was the most skilled. I did not think to win acclaim, for I was new among them, but I took my place in the rolls. There were many strange contests, and many women faltered. We began milking horses and asses, then cows and goats, yaks and oxen, cows and dogs, and finally stranger beasts were brought before us—bats and allocamelus, horses with six legs, nursing fauns whose teats are like those of human women, and many women left the competition because they were afraid, or failed to bring forth the strange milk. I acquitted myself well, but the final trial was a dissertation on koumiss before the senior Ladies of the Stool in that yurt—and I had not yet learned all the lore of their magic milk, and so lost the full competition. They have invited me back next year to try again, and gave me this handsome bag as a prize for my efforts.”
So Anisel passed the bag around, and all three took a draw at the lip of the bag. Neither Berticea nor Gemme would display any distaste, but it was clear by the long draw she took that Anisel had developed a taste for the stuff, and a stronger stomach for it than either of them.
Now it was Gemme’s turn for a tale, and the cattle on the adjoining field lowed and the wind picked up, and the moon hid its face behind a cloud. She had drank the most of any of them there that night, reaching for the bottle of ouzo to refill her broken cup, but the two noticed her hands did not waver at all as she poured it again.
“Farmer Hansel married a trull, pretty to look at and stubborn to get her way, but weak with constitution and unwilling to do her proper work. She was a harsh mistress and found fault with all the girls did, and so would charge them penalties or refuse them pay for any error she found or imagined. Many left rather than put up with her abuse, and the remaining became overworked, so that the cows in the field went unmilked for days, and raised their voices in the night in hunger and pain. Now queen bessy of this great herd was Antachuka, who had calved a hundred twins and gave forth naught but cream. So poor was Hansel’s care that this treasure died for neglect, wandering out of its place to some lonely corner where illness or injury took it, and he had not but himself and his wife to blame—but she died on a full udder.”
At this the other Ladies of the Stool paled a little, though Gemme could see it not in the darkness, and the cattle seemed to low longer and louder.
“So it was the day after the day after she died, the cattle were sore a-frightened and hag-ridden, wet with sweat. There was not that Hansel could do, but fearing bewitchment he drove them to a far pasture. So it was with some surprise the next night the farmer’s wife herd the lowing in the field…and it seemed to her that the cow came right up to the side of the house, and the next morning she found the imprint of a wet nose on the window-glass, but never could discern what it meant. For two weeks this went on, and the farmer’s wife thought herself going mad, alone in the farmhouse with this strange lowing at night where there should be no lowing at all. And a great stink developed, as of the rankest cheese or spoilt milk, and of rotting meat. It was strongest near the window where the farmer’s wife found the nose-print every morning, but again she could not guess what these things meant. At last she saw it early one morning by the window, the ripened corpse of Antachuka, nose pressed up against the glass. So she called me.”
Gemme found the ouzo bottle empty, and wrested the cork from the next with a smooth and practiced pull.
“Not at first, of course, but none of the other girls had the stomach to take it, or perhaps they disliked the farmer’s wife too much and wished for the haunting to continue ‘til Antachuka forced herself on the farmer’s wife, and made her suck the milk out. I was not inclined, but I had Antachuka in my hands before and did not wish the poor thing such a painful fate. So the next morning I met her there outside the window, on my milking stool, and there was a bucket ready for her. I spoke to her like it was the old days when she had just calved and the milk was heavy on her, and the corpse moved as it had done. Now though as I reached for her teats I saw how badly she had been used, for the milk had gone rancid and worse with her death, and I knew this was no living organ I pulled in my hands but a dead sack of flesh filled with clotted, half-rotten milk poisoned with all the foulness leaking from her dead body. So at first it would not come, and then it was if the flesh sweated and wept between my fingers, and then the first spurt—it was brown and pink.
“The smell was a solid thing, worse than any puss-riddled udder or pail of butterfat left out for a fortnight, for there was in it all the foulness of shite and oozing putrescence of the great dead cow, and tiny rips formed in the flesh through which leaked out heady gasses that caused me to gag and choke, yet never did I stop, even when the teats came apart in my hand and the udder collapsed into the bucket, followed shortly by all the innards and pent-up juices not yet voided by the undead thing. The thing that had been Antachuka gave up a sigh that might have been the echo of a grateful moo, or perhaps merely the final breath escaping from collapsing lungs, for the whole of the bovine collapsed around me, and it was only by grace I moved away in time.”
Anisel sipped her ouzo.
“What of the farmer’s wife?” she asked of Gemme.
“She tried to hold my fee, and gave the cunt a kick that sent her to the floor so hard as not to rise again soon.” said Gemme.
Berticea filled the cups.
“And what of farmer Hansel?” she asked of Gemme.
“He returned with the cattle, and paid me in full with thanks and without complaint.” said Gemme.
“But what of your bucket and stool? Were they not ruined?” asked Anisel of Gemme.
“No,” said Gemme “For I was not so foolish to use my own. I bent the wife over a log and bound her arms and legs to use as a stool, and used their chamber-pot as the bucket. It was because of this rough treatment the farmer’s wife wished not to pay my fee.”
To this the Three Ladies of the Bucket drank their last drink in private, in honor of those others that would come later, and the moon came out once more to show the sleeping darkness of the herd on the neighboring field. Then they packed up their things and took up their stools, for it was nearly the hour before dawn, and time again for them to ply their trade.