Bertha, that’s her name, Bertha the cow, that’s the name you would give to her; that or Bessie, or Bella, or Babs, one of those B names, the jolly good fun ones, with the daisy chains and the aprons and a few too many scones, but we’ll go with Bertha, that suits her best; Bertha the cow, and if you watch, watch carefully, and listen, Bertha, Bertha the cow, is going to tell you where your missing child has gone.
Come on, Bertha! Is what you might say, we know what you’re like, those noisy shouts you do to try and will something into happening; the yeys the groans the come ons!, but don’t worry, Bertha’s on it, Bertha the cow; she’s an expert, she knows what she’s doing, and even though this will kill her (that’s part of the process, that’s just part of it you understand, this process, the divining), even though this will be her last action on mother’s lovely green earth, she knows exactly what she’s doing, you’re in safe hoofs (hands).
Let’s gather and watch as she noses the lantern, feeling the toughened paper and the orange ink (that’s the hallucinogen, that ink, that’s the key ingredient), testing the twisted metal with a quick slurp of her tongue, seeing those first few flashes of insight: just shapes and colours at the moment, nothing tangible, but at least she knows its working, knows she’ll be able to help, knows she’ll reach that asphyxi-point and see, in death-blinded eyes, that very location where your missing child currently is. And then she’ll tell us and we’ll moo it, and hopefully you’ll translate, and all will be super lovely again!
She eats the message first, Bertha, Bertha the cow; she wraps it with her tongue and whips it straight off down her gullet. Come home little Suzy xxx – ooh, that triple kiss really got to her, to Bertha; she’s quite sentimental really, well we all are; we’re milkers so we all know what it’s like to lose kids, it happens to us all the time, all the time, and its never not sad. She’s ready now, Bertha, she’s determined and we press in close as she takes her first quick nibble of the lantern paper.
Come on, Bertha! We moo it now, just cautious rumble-moos and anxious nose-huffs but it helps her, emboldens her, and she hooks in a big wet clump of the stuff and we flinch as she gives out a quick growl and her eyes bulge, lashes flickering, and there’s a squeak as she munches down on the metal and it slips across her teeth. We tighten our circle, bow our heads; one of us nudges the flaccid thing to help and Bertha lurches forward and takes in the stub of wax, the black wick, the core of it all, the heart of it, and she thrashes her head to help with the chewing, to fight the taste, and then swallows and –
Bertha! Come on, Bertha! – it sticks there, yes? It-
She tries to breathe but-
Wire around her gullet, a clog of waxed paper, and-
We snort, all of us, as one: a might harruufff, because she can’t forget her purpose. Little Suzy xxx. Come home little Suzy. Kiss…
-she collapses, a whompf of flesh on dirt, legs hoisted like waving human arms, like the arms you used to send the lantern, a high-up salute, a hope-
-she screams it, her last breath pulsing inside her chest, sent back with a message, flung up to the head and then-
-the bloodness of her eyes seeing truth, the bloodness of her eyes; seeing it, seeing truth! She sees it, she sees the truth. We twitch ears and…Bertha…Bertha!…she sends it to us. In the cow way; the last shudders of her body, she sends it to us, the truth.
We totter away. Bertha isn’t Bertha anymore, that part of her is gone. We chew the cud, spread out. But we’ve got it now, the truth; its in our brains, clotted there. So; come to the road-corners of Under Nook Farm, where the hazelnut leans over buckled-fence, where the ravens nest, where owl rests, just past trough, with the sheep-folk behind you and the houses to sunrise-side. Come there, any time you like, and we’ll tell you where you’ve put little Suzy. Just come and ask! Wave your hand at us, we’ll come over! We’ll huff and moo it to you. We want to help. You send us the lantern, we give this back.
It’s what Bertha would have wanted.
David Hartley is a short story writer based in Manchester. He writes strange stories about strange things for strange people and his work has appeared in Ambit, Black Static, and Structo among many others and has a collection of flash fiction called Spiderseed published by Sleepy House Press. He tweets various bits of nonsense at @DHartleyWriter.