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Bessie

Forrest Green

 
     I was enjoying one of the deepest, most fascinating bouts of sleep I had ever experienced. I was soaring over a beach side landscape, my arms unfurled and guiding me through the warm, summer air as I dipped and swung like a bird in the sky. The massive ocean churned and turned beneath me, continuing in its ever present clash with the sandy shore. The sun shone down brightly on a couple walking hand in hand, birds sang in harmony, and someone screamed in agony off in the distance. That was when the prodding in my side jolted me back to reality. A very crusty-eyed, unhappy reality.

     "Jones," the flashlight shone directly in my eyes. "hey man, get up. There's trouble on wing C."

     "You're new here, aren't you?" I muttered without moving an inch.

     "Yeah, first week on the job. Why?"

     "It would be a shame for me to have you fired before you even get your first paycheck. Get the light out of my eyes, now." It quickly became obvious to the newcomer that I didn't at all enjoy being woken up in the middle of the night. Although given my occupation, one would expect I was used to it.

     He retracted the beam of light with the quick flick of a switch, and threw me my night-robe from a chair without a word. I put the robe on, moaning in protest at the cold floors unwelcoming effect on my bare feet. I shot a glance at the clock - 2:48 a.m. Why, why, why . . . I began to ask; then I heard the scream again. A shrill yelp not far from my own room.

     I followed the night watchman down the hallway, lagging a meter or two behind him as he jogged briskly along. He would grunt his disappointment when he had to stop while going through doorways, holding the door from swinging back in my face and shooting me dirty looks. I didn't care. I knew where C wing was, but didn't pay attention to where we were going, or in what direction. While following the man's heavy footsteps, I heard the shriek twice more, each time growing in intensity and volume. Finally, we reached a room, outside of which several other night watchmen and people in long robes stood nervously, obviously bothered from the disturbance coming from inside. Now that I was closer, I could also hear objects being thrown or dropped on the floor on the other side of the closed door, between the deafening shrieks.

     Fastening my robe and gaining my composure, I cracked the door open, trying to peek in to see whose room it was. I was almost blinded as a plate shattered on the other side of the door, accompanied by another scream, and ceramic shrapnel flying everywhere. I jumped back, running my hands over my face to make sure I hadn't been hit, and looked up at the metal plate fastened securely over the doorway. 204-C, it read. I turned around to face one of the doctors on duty.

     "204-C, that doesn't ring a bell for me."

     "Bessie," he said, his eyes wide with fear. Was it fear, or merely caution? I couldn't tell. "Bessie Walthrop."

     I knew that meant that she was probably from the Walthrop farm on the far side of the state, but I wasn't sure. I wheeled back around to face the door again. With a deep breath, I jerked it open, practically throwing myself into the room, and slamming it shut quickly after my entry. I was greeted with a blood-curdling yell, and a hoof smacked neatly into my midriff with an ample amount of force.

     I quickly moved into a corner, catching my breath and taking time to evaluate the situation. The room was a wreck, with broken pieces of dinnerware and tray fragments scattered everywhere. There were bits of Bessie's dinner stuck in the strangest places, and several pieces of furniture that had been badly mangled with some very forceful kicks. And there, in the midst of all the rubble, stood Bessie, her four legs planted firmly on the ground, her eyes wide with alarm and a string of saliva dangling from her trembling lips. She screamed at me, "No more MILK! NO MORE!" With that, I could successfully evaluate and plan to remedy the situation.

     Through the years, science had provided the human race with many technological advances, none of which affected the relationship between man and animal any more than the brain wave vocalization unit. The invention had been created in the early twenty-first century by a Dutch farmer, Sven Howlett, who had grown tired of dealing with stubborn chickens not laying eggs. The unit was a tiny implant, connected to the dorsoventral folds of the larynx membranes, or the vocal cords, and was pre-programmed with the entire vocabulary and language of the farm animals respectively. It was also capable of transforming human vocalizations into the language of the animal for conversational purposes. Howlett had spent much of his life decoding and mapping the sounds, squawks, screeches and yells heard on his farm. He was later crowned a scientific genius for his work, and received numerous awards for his invention. The first few trial runs of the BVU however, were not as successful as the final project ended up being, as one might have expected. Upon entering the coup for the first time, Howlett asked his famous first test subject, 'Chicken A', (Howletts' imagination was disputably slim at times) "How are you feeling today, Chicken?" The chicken had promptly answered with "Nicaragua."

     With more and more implants being used in both experimental and recreational fashions, the result was astounding. People were learning that ordinary, everyday animals had much more to say than just the average bark or howl. Sometimes, what they had to say required some serious human attention. In my years working at the Farm for Emotionally Disturbed Animals, a case of MRS, or Milk Repudiation Syndrome, was not entirely rare. It was a mental disorder in which the patient, or the cow, became entirely confident that she could not or would not produce milk. Bessie had been under close evaluation during the last few weeks as a result of her behavior during one of the lunch hours. Another cow from her rehabilitation group had provoked her incessantly, making her upturn a few tables and cause close to a thousand dollars damage to the dining hall in the C wing. Bessie had experienced a hard life growing up on the farm, but she was improving. Slowly.

     I dodged under another plate which she had chucked from her mouth with a quick flick of her head. I raised my hands in defense as it shattered against the wall above my head. "Bessie!" I shook my arms vigorously, hoping to keep her from throwing anything else at me. "We've been through this before!" She stood perfectly still, her whole body shaking now, the mad look still in her eyes. I was one of the few people at the farm Bessie trusted, and we both knew this, but it also took a little time to calm Bessie down from one of her rampages. I inched my way over to her, keeping my hands outstretched and palms up, showing her I wasn't going to try anything funny. I grabbed one of the torn blankets from the floor and wrapped it around her. She was beginning to calm down as I spoke again. "I've told you Bessie, nobody is going to make you do anything you don't want to do. I've also explained to you why cows are expected to give their milk. We humans do feed and take care of you."

     "For the most part, " she mumbled, still shaking slightly, but breathing normally. "But what about these plates? A-and this room!? Where's my natural habitat?" She jerked her head out of my grasp and looked around the room with wild eyes. She was beginning to get worked up again, but I stood my ground. "I think this entire humanization idea is totally moronic. Rehabilitation . . . ha." She snorted, meeting my gaze with one of her own. "I think we could do fine by ourselves."

     I began to say something about the vicious predators in the countryside that would happily eat a cow before a human could prevent them from doing so, but decided against it. It would be best to not do anything that might set her off again. Instead I knelt beside her, placing a hand on the flat of her head. "You can do fine on your own, Bessie." She started to retaliate, raising her head to speak, but I continued. "You can, and you're learning to. You're not ready yet, though. You couldn't get along with the other animals from the Walthrop place, and that's why you're here. The humans do something for you, so you can do something for them. It's a trade, and we both have to survive."

     She didn't speak another word, but instead drew a blank look on her face and sighed heavily.

     "So, what was with all the commotion, Bess? Did you have the nightmare again?" She nodded quickly.

     "The automatic-milking machine nightmare, or the maniac farmer nightmare?"

     She was quiet for a moment, then said, with some hesitation, "Aut . . . automatic milk . . . milking machine."

     Sympathisizing with her pain, I was quiet for a moment, stroking her head gently as the minutes passed solemnly. When I was sure she was all right, I called for the door to be opened, and we made our way towards the entrance, slowly.

     "Just go get some sleep. Haynes is going to take you out to the barn so you can rest easier."

     "You mean no more time in isolation?" She pleaded with her large, brown eyes and a mournful look.

     "We'll talk about it tomorrow during private time."

     It was such a good thing that I was there to console these animals when they truly needed it. It always ended up being such a good feeling. Perhaps because decades ago I would have never imagined being able to speak directly to a horse or a goat, or have a conversation with a cow. Decades ago, if you would have told me one day I would serve as one of the head social psychologists on a wing of the Farm for Emotionally Disturbed Animals, I would probably have laughed at you, and then taken your temperature. Haynes, an older man and a doctor on the premises, approached Bessie gently, speaking carefully to her. "There, there Bessie, it's all right now. Let's get you outside."

     "Be careful with her," I signed to him in standard American Sign Language, a way for the staff to communicate around the animals without them knowing what we were saying. None of them had learned to read yet, or so we hoped.

     Haynes nodded, a wry smile stretching across his face as he took her leash, fastening it loosely around her neck, and led her down the hallway. He stopped before reaching the first set of double doors, as if an idea had struck him, and leaned over to whisper into Bessie's ear. I could hardly discern what was being said, but my body reflexively tensed as I swore I heard, "Hey, I know just what would make you feel better. Would . . . would you like some ice cream Bessie?"
 


Acknowledgments

I acknowledge Terry Heller and the Creative Writing Workshop class for their input, and I acknowledge the 1994 Upward Bound program and the Eastern New Mexico University campus in Portales as well as the computer lab there, which was where I was bestowed with the idea of the Farm for the Emotionally Disturbed Animals.


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