Sweet, thick air spread out like dampness itself as 217-82 took to the naked Earth for the very first time. It was 5:39am in Destin, IA, and already the air was hot wool out of the dryer. 217-82 huffed and snorted the July morning with her tulip-sized nostrils and thought: “water.” That vital element she mostly knew as thirst became her North Star as she padded away from Mario Sentito’s largest cattle facility.
Dozy with heat and distraction, it was Mario’s son, James Sentito, who had failed to bolt the sea of cows in during his rounds. 217-82 drilled her little mind through the incessant typhoons of shit at her ankles, the din of the other lowing beasts who, like her, were bored, aching and near-delirious with thirst. She’d hoarded energy to focus on Mario and James and the other staff. She studied their every move in hopes of taking advantage of any small opening in the mammoth mathematical vise that was her life.
That same morning, Bernard Moran, 87, was en route to his new home at Verdant Pastures in Doe Valley, IA. His daughter, Felice, and his grandson, Drew, were in the car with him. Felice wanted to get Bernard checked in “nice-n-early” so she could take Drew back to school shopping and make it across the state again come sunset.
Bernard kept his thoughts about this journey buttoned up. His daughter was spiriting him away to his new “living facility” in the dark of morning so it would be “quick-n-easy.” Less stark. Less like his own flesh-n-blood was depositing him in an ant colony where he’d wait to die. He watched Drew reading a comic book with the flashlight feature of his mother’s phone. To Bernard, this sight was remarkable— unfathomable in most of his lifetime.
James Sentito, 17, planned for law school. The idea was etched in him cause he wrote it there—no other Sentito would have. He pictured himself thriving far away from Destin. Sleek wood, a black-robed man (or maybe a woman) maintaining order. The only scales would be held by a blindfolded female statue. The only shit to muck would be in words, in submitted documents and objects in sealed bags. When he failed to latch the facility that housed 217-82, he’d just returned home from a summer get together with his Destin peers who’d farm the way his dad did—or whatever crazy foodtopia the system came up with next. His mind was rubied with Milwaukee’s Best, Curve perfume, and the gauzy humidity that lingered in the dead of night. He went through his duties with fat fingers. James Sentito was not his father’s favorite.
The second thing 217-82 felt that July morning was her body. 217-82 could motor. Her shit-caked limbs had abilities she’d hardly realized. With each step, her body contracted and released, her head bobbled. Her hooves made arches in the earth. The feeling was alien: her powers impressed her. Without the din of her thousand neighbors, she could hear her breath and snorted just because. Her tail swished her buttocks with a fresh sensation. What people call pleasure.
Bernard, Felice and Drew were passing through Destin, IA at the exact moment that 217-82 arrived at a small pond, highway adjacent. The pond belonged to no one but was at the edge of Cecil Blake’s 88 acres of corn. The warm, runoff-laced water embraced her. Wet and musty—217-82 felt strangely at home. Bernard spied the cow entering the pond just as the sun was beginning to turn the whole world a shimmery brown butter color. Bernard pressed his spotted fingers to the car window. He thought to motion to his grandson but then decided against it—this scene felt like it was all for him.
The cow lifted her head above the water to help her tongue explore this new, wet little planet. Bernard caught sight of something on her soft ears. An orange square shaped like those clasps on bagged bread. Her tongue lashed water and air—whatever she could get. It balled up something in Bernard Moran, seeing an animal in the dawn light relish that filmy pond. It brought his mind back to Verdant Hills. He expected the place to smell of death.
At the same time, Mario Sentito’s transport van pulled up to the opposite end of the pond. Swirling police lights flanked either side. Felice rolled to the shoulder, thinking they were coming from behind her. As the green pond containing 217-82 became surrounded, the cow did not cease moving her legs. Really, those legs could motor. She found that when the pond was deeper than she could stand, the churning of her legs enabled her to propel forward, like a water bug. 217-82 churned in a circle, motoring without the ground. She didn’t know what flying was, or she did.
James Sentito’s 1996 Honda Accord was the last car to arrive on the scene. Cecil Blake’s son had texted. A heavy pallet at the bottom of his stomach had replaced any and all hay-party kickback. He shaded his face with his palm from the dawn that was becoming a blaring hot yellow. In the pond he saw the escaped cow pause and stand with most of her body shielded by dirty green water. His father’s molasses tone coaxed her. Between his voice and the bleating of the cops’ hand radios, he heard the patient, lovely sound of a single cow breathing.
James never saw his father mistreat animals. In fact, Mario Sentito smiled warmly when asked about his work. His father said, “Come on, sugar” to the lock-kneed cow. It was the way he spoke to the Sentito’s spaniel, Dizzy. “Come on, Bessie-girl,” he cooed, drumming a thigh. James felt something ghoulish cast over the space between the pond and his entreating father, like a mossy net. At the edge of the pond his father became that mythological undertaker. No—he was the man who drove the boat. James didn’t love literature class, but he remembered, linked it, and shuddered. Resolve ground in him. Leave Destin. Go to the courtroom and shovel something heavier than cow shit. Get dirty doing something else. In the water, 217-82 let out one prolonged moo.
Drew pointed to the cow and remarked that he wanted to go for a swim, too. Bernard insides fluttered at the scene and Drew’s response. He said to his daughter, yes, he wanted to swim with Drew, too. And again when she said nothing. He suggested a town pool in Tyler where he used to take Felice. Felice had gotten the car back up to speed on the highway and rolled her shoulders and pursed her lips. “Daddy,” she said.
“I’m not done, you know,” he said to her, after a while. Drew looked up from his comic book. “You never asked me if I was all done. You never asked me anything, Felice.” The car moved along and for a bit no one spoke.
Felice said, “Daddy, don’t worry about anything,” and turned the radio to bluegrass, his favorite. A handful of miles later, Bernard Moran saw some bright orange wildflowers. He thought of the bathing cow’s ear tag fluttering in her stolen dawn.
COME ON, READ ANOTHER
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charlotte Hammond lives and works in New Jersey. Her fiction appears in Pithead Chapel, the Scores, the Basil O’Flaherty and others. Flight was inspired by the true events of a female cow’s escape from a factory farm in 2002.