The Grass is Always Greener
I've moved to this blog for my writing, as the previous one was focused entirely on one project, whereas I've produced a lot more than that over the last year and a bit. So this blog will be dedicated to all my writing, and also for typing up things I've learned through writing.
To get things going, here's a short story that I'm trying to get published. It starts in a decidedly rural setting, but soon descends into a mix of sci-fi, mild horror and a keen thread of black comedy.
The Grass is Always Greener
It all began when Gerald Merryhew discovered that intelligent cows tasted better. Even today, there's nothing on record that describes how he came by this startling revelation; if asked down at the Three Bells, he'd simply say that it was farmer's intuition.
Merryhew's farm had never been a large one, two fields sandwiched between other much larger farms, but he lived simply, despite receiving a hefty legacy from his father. While others had moved onto the new-fangled milking machines, Gerald, perpetually clothed in tweed trousers and jacket, liked nothing more than to roll up his shirt sleeves and personally milk each cow. Of course, this took much longer, but as he told anyone who cared to listen, "A woman appreciates the personal touch; why not a cow?"
Deirdre, Gertrude, Diana, Erin, the list went on, a dozen in all, and as he visited each one, they would chew the cud quite peaceably as he subjected them to the local gossip. Each one masticated steadily as Gerald regaled them with the story of who was seen shinning down Mrs Peakin's drainpipe, or whatever rural tidbit caught his fancy. The fact that he never received a response from any of them failed to worry him.
Life changed course for Farmer Merryhew one morning as, stood in front of his grubby bathroom mirror, he happened to glance out of the fogged-up window. His hand, caught in the motion of scraping a blunt razor casually along his jawline, froze in place, then lowered, leaving the last few greying bristles to their business. There, seen through the top of the window where the condensation had not quite crept, something extraordinary was happening, and he gently wiped his forearm across the window, achieving in a single movement more cleaning than the bathroom had seen in months.
Revealed in the damp pane of glass was the view down his driveway, which bisected his two wire-fenced fields. A wooden gate was set in each fence, opposite each other, to assist in the speedy movement of the animals. Currently, his cows were stood ruminating in the left-hand field, while the right-hand field held the dilapidated milking hut, the compact refrigeration unit for storing the milk prior to sale, and a small vegetable patch. Knowing that pastures are susceptible to over-grazing, Gerald made it a priority to switch the fields over each year, content with a loss of income from the empty field in exchange for happy cows.
One such cow, Brenda, had detached itself from the main group and was nosing at the gate. The farmer watched as she appeared to identify the simple piece of rope thrown over the adjoining fence post, then snag it with her probing tongue and gently unhook it. Then, with something approaching guile, she pulled the gate open just enough to escape then closed it behind herself, hooking the rope back over.
Frozen to the spot, Gerald looked on in horror as she trotted into the driveway; he was sure that she would seize on this chance to escape him forever. Then the errant bovine approached the gate on the other side and, more confidently, unhooked it before entering the field.
By the time Farmer Merryhew got to the gate himself, the black-pied Friesian was cheerfully munching on the grass, apparently not aware of the stir she had caused. He could only stare at the escapee, her calmly flapping lips moving as blunt teeth ground her meal into digestible matter.
It was a simple matter to get her back into the field with the rest of the cows, but Gerald's mind was already spinning, even as he re-fastened the gate. The day's milking was, for the first time, conducted in eerie silence as his mind fairly crackled with possibility. That evening found him fastening a second piece of rope to the gate in addition to the first, and setting his alarm clock slightly earlier.
Dew speckled the grass as he sat listening to the dawn chorus, his stubble scratchy against his hand; finally, his nearly-sleepless night and diligence paid off as Brenda once again detached herself from the main group and approached the gate. The first rope came off with studied indifference, and then the thought seemed to penetrate her brain that things were different. A snuffling investigation ensued, and within a minute the second rope was also dangling loose, the gate swinging open to permit her exit.
The farmer's eyes narrowed. To be honest, he wasn't even sure this was abnormal behaviour for a cow; he knew enough to keep them as good company, but the actual nuts and bolts of their physiology was a closed book to him.
One hurried trip into the village later and Farmer Merryhew was back, armed with a proper metal latch for the gate. Once again, the milking was achieved in total silence, but if they noticed, the cows chose not to pass comment.
The following morning brought only further revelations as Brenda once again conquered the new opening mechanism in mere seconds, and so a kind of strange rivalry began between cow and man. Each day Gerald would come up with ever-more complex gate locks, and each day Brenda would overcome them with apparent ease. Two weeks passed before he began to flag, imagination finally running dry.
One morning Gerald awoke early, as was now his habit, and went down to sit and watch Brenda take down the most recent effort, a monstrosity of wood and metal that required her to hold down three paddles simultaneously and tongue a recessed button. A mug of coffee steamed between his hands as he waited for his challenger.
A skin had begun to form on the now-cold coffee when he finally realised something was wrong, and went to investigate. He hopped over the gate and saw immediately that the other cows were grouped strangely around something on the ground. A hard lump seemed to settle in his stomach; the black-and-white haunches separated to reveal the corpse of Brenda. Distraught, he checked her over, but nothing could be done; she was cold.
He shed a tear for his worthy opponent, then climbed into his old flat-bed truck and drove it into the field before dragging the meat into it. The rattling contraption, bottle-green where it wasn't rusty, made some quite horrific noises as it wound down toward the village where Matheson, the Butcher, waited.
This was, of course, not the first time this had happened; other fondly-remembered cows had passed on, destined to be shared out by Gerald. Matheson took the choicest cuts for his shop while the farmer travelled to several houses like a carnivorous Father Christmas, leaving packages still oozing vitals on doorsteps and in grateful hands.
The grisly job completed, Farmer Merryhew returned to his house and primed the oven, intending to enjoy his last memories of the cow who had given him such pleasure. Into the oven went potatoes and parsnips for roasting; fresh carrots from the veg patch went into a saucepan and a fillet steak was soon sizzling in the pan.
The plate heaved with the weight of food on it, and his steak knife made a satisfying noise as it sawed through the steak. That first bite was to be Gerald's undoing; as his teeth closed on the hunk of meat, the juices released from it seemed to explode on his tongue, more delicious than anything he had ever tasted; it was truly divine.
In his mind, there could be only one answer; Brenda's unusual intelligence had caused some change to take place in her body, some fundamental alteration. The revelation was like the Titanic's prow, piercing the fog on the way to destiny; suddenly his path was clear.
A new sign went up at the bottom of his driveway the following morning, and interested village-folk were drawn to it. 'Gerald Merryhew's Intelligent Cow Farm' it read, crimson paint still slightly wet.
"What's all this then, Gerald? You been at the moonshine again?" asked Mrs Hegarty from down the village shop.
"This," the man replied, his sweeping arm encompassing his two fields, "is a revolution! You wait and see, oh ye unbelievers!"
"Ah, 'tis just old Gerald beefin' up his reputation," called a young wag, and with much hilarity the villagers began to disperse. The farmer just smiled, shook his head and went to get his tools, his eyes shining with an almost religious fervour. Before the sun was halfway to the horizon, the cows were sharing their field with what amounted to a cow Boot Camp.
When the milking was done as quickly as possible, the rest of his time was dedicated to moving the hefty beasts through their paces, over small tilting bridges, through areas that required ropes to be pulled and barriers lifted, on their way to the prize at the end, freedom into the un-grazed field. What followed were three fruitless weeks for the farmer. As his frustration mounted, Gerald realised that these cows were not possessed of the same brainpower Brenda had exhibited, preferring instead to stand in the spaces between the obstacles, their eyes dull and disinterested. Not a single one showed that spark. It helped not a bit that the village children had taken to watching him from the fence and adding their own advice;
"She's goin' to have to hoof it to get over that!"
"That's not an injury, she's just milking it!"
One night, sat in his kitchen consuming the last Brenda-burger, he came to a conclusion. Training them would yield no results, and his hopes of breeding intelligence into the herd had died with Brenda. A phone call to his bank assured him that he had the funds for his next plan, and the following morning he put a call through to his nephew, Tristan.
Family was not something Gerald had ever really had time for, but he was in occasional contact with his brother and, in turn, his nephew who worked for PharmBio, the multinational pharmaceuticals giant. Calling Tristan at work was a fairly daunting prospect, but the ideas still fizzing in his brain spurred him on, and he endured the gales of laughter that greeted his proposal.
"You want to do what?" the young man asked, once he had finished laughing.
"I want to make my cows intelligent," the farmer said, enunciating each word carefully. "Is it possible?"
There was silence, then Tristan's voice again. "Possibly; it's not something I could just give you, though. The research guys are working on something that might be right, for making mice brighter, but you'd have to be careful with it. And it'd be expensive."
The young man named a figure that, a month ago, would have caused Gerald's buttocks to clench instinctively, but now caused him no bother at all. "I'll have the money wired to your account; I'm sure you can sort it out," and down went the phone.
A month later a long box was delivered, and the farmer's hands fairly shook as he carefully opened it on the dented kitchen table. Inside lay a syringe, packaged in an airtight plastic wrapper, and a tall bottle of clear liquid. A handwritten note lay on top. 'Dosage: 5ml to subject once a day, to be injected subcutaneously. Do not overdose.'
Maths had never been his strong point, but Gerald knew that a cow was a damned sight bigger than a mouse, and he spent ten minutes scratching indecipherable calculations on the box lid. Eventually he gave up, threw the package away and took the bottle out to his cows.
Jamming the syringe into the valve on the bottle, he drew out what looked like an eleventh of the liquid, then approached Frieda. She completely ignored him as he injected her.
"You'll taste so good when this gets done with you," he muttered, patting her on the rump, then moved on to Justine. By the time he got to Diana, the bottle was empty. "Ah well," he muttered to the unfortunate cow, "maybe you'll serve as a comparison with the others."
His sleep was restless the following night, dreams doing their best to attack him while he tossed and turned in sweat-soaked sheets. Finally, before dawn, he awoke, unable to contain his excitement any longer. Flicking the light switch failed to produce any light; perhaps the electric was out. Gerald cursed, and hurriedly dressed in the dark, before stumbling downstairs and straight out into the pre-dawn greyness.
The field was empty.
Not empty of equipment; the cow Boot Camp had been broken down and moved to one side, but empty, in particular, of cows. The gates were closed, the fence unbroken, but the field was most definitely empty.
His gaze went to the other field, a small moan escaping him. The milking shed stood alone in the field, a ramshackle wooden longhouse designed to hold all his cows in separate stalls while he relieved them of their milk. The door was ajar, and even as he watched a cow nosed its way out and began to crop the grass.
He vaulted the gate and ran into the field to check on the cow. The hope which had sprung up in him was quickly dashed as he realised this was Diana, the dumb cow. Sudden rage gripped him as he resisted the urge to kick the animal.
A quiet sound from within the milking shed caused him to turn around, to gently pull the creaking door open and enter the dusty space within. It was dark inside; he flicked the light switch, but nothing happened. Frowning, Gerald recalled the lantern left from the pre-electricity days, with some matches, and he began to fumble for it in the darkness, the door throwing a slanted rectangle of light onto the floor. As he ventured beyond the light, there was a crash as the door to the shed swung closed behind him, then the snick of a lock closing.
The darkness seemed to be all-encompassing, pressing against him like velvet; his fingers still scrabbled for the matches he knew must be hung on the wall, but slowly, like a mountain stream trickles through the rocks, the thought filtered into his mind that the milking shed did not have a lock.
His hand raised blindly in front of him, Gerald felt the wooden wall ahead of him, then followed it into a corner. A small cardboard box rattled as he knocked into it, and he picked it up; a matchbox, the feel of the rough striking surface on its side reassuring him, and the tinny rattle of a single match.
Swallowing the cold fear that was permeating his mind, Gerald brought the long match up in front of his face and tried to strike it. On the second attempt, the match caught, and a wan circle of orange light was cast.
Four pairs of eyes met him, black and shining with bovine intelligence. Flabby lips were pulled back from yellow teeth in surreal smiles. They moved slightly, their breath causing the small flame to flicker; beyond them he saw other dark shapes standing around the squat square of his oven, the door open, his battered frying pan on the hob.
One of the cows surrounding him leaned forward, and he shrank back, trying to bury himself in the corner; he heard the hiss of gas and the clicking of the electric lighter from his oven. The cow opened its mouth, its breath stale.
"Moo," it said, and, pursing its lips, blew the match out.