I searched the field for the rest of the placenta. The heifer gave birth to the calf earlier that day. She walked the field now; part of the placenta still hung from her backside like wet bread dough. Her calf followed close behind, suckling on that bloody slug. His hooves wobbled on the rough ground. His jaw left a trail of blood and saliva as he chewed.
I wanted to chew on it too– to be the calf and remember what it was like to be young, at ease, and irreverent again.
The cows disappeared in the woods behind the field when I came upon a depression in the grasses. It was warm. A splatter of blood and a slick mass, like the spongy fat cut from a thick steak, laid in the center. This was it; her birthing ground. I sat on the dirt and poked the placenta with a nearby twig. The sludge drew in the twig tip like the doctor’s finger when he examined my cervix earlier that day, and told me the words I knew I would hear but was too sick to accept in my head.
I leaned back and felt the warm sun on my face. I startled when I felt bare feet behind me, since I thought I had been alone in the field, and heard no one approach.
Five women stood behind me. Each held a glass jar with a bird skeleton hung from the center by a string. Their eyes were closed except for one woman. Her eyes were open; shining, gray and shaking slightly as if nothing kept them inside her skull except the skin of her eye lids.
The woman with the rattling eyes spoke first.
“Sometimes when I laugh, I put my hand over my chest so that my heart doesn’t leap out of its cage. It almost did once and I smelled my blood spew outside my ribs, where my heart tried to dig out like a mole. I spit on my heart mole to keep her from running away, and they said I was a fool for loving her.” The woman reached into her glass jar and broke off a piece of bone from the bird skeleton. She laid it at my feet. “Please know me: I am Tamara with Dead Eyes.”
Another woman spoke up, one of the rest with eyes shut. “The wolves, they came. And they ate, and they ate me when I was alone.” The young woman revealed her hand that was deformed and missing fingers. She wiped tears from the corners of her eyes with her three-pronged hand. “When they ate my body, they also ate my mind. When I struggled, they said it was my duty to obey and believe them when they said I was worthless. Please know me: I am The Birdsong.” She reached into her jar; her remaining three nimble fingers cleared off the cob webs that hung around her bird skeleton, and she broke off its beak, placing it on the ground.
A gnarled woman, the shape of a willow tree, stepped toward me. She had sway, confidence, even in her curled form. “You will know me: I am Grandmother Lu. I refused to carry myself like a swiftly cut goat bleeding on an altar. I chose no altar to ooze on when they said I was a burden. I wore age around my neck, fine and pure in their faces, and that made them uneasy because they were jealous.” The old woman put her jar up to her lips and tilted her head back revealing a thick wash of blood across her collarbone like a necklace; the bird’s skull rolled into her mouth. She stuck out her tongue and the bones dropped down like the saliva did from the calf’s mouth. “They said I was a pity.
And I said they were animals, all of them.”
A woman with fiery red hair gathered all the bones together in a pile that laid at my feet. “When I hit the cold water, I sank and I sank and I sank until I didn’t think the lake had any more breathing room left. And I had no desire to even try to tread. Even so, I heard them on land above me say witch. In the black water deep, at first I saw the gray void where eel and snake slithered, but then color surrounded me, and I witnessed light; the end of the world. My eyes froze shut and I inhaled once more to fill my lungs faster. Please know me: I am the Pythia.” The Pythia flicked one of her bones onto the small pile.
Now, the smallest woman with a humped back crouched down to the ground. She put her ear to the field, listening to the dirt; the field’s heartbeat. “We are the wailing women from beneath, and we shiver and we shriek for the centuries. For the women who came before, and those who are to come. I am Maryam, the Great Mother.” She rested one of her last remaining bird bones on top of the others. She plucked a hair from her frayed head and began rearranging the bones collected. “We lay underground with shut eyes. Under rock and bramble and animal and feet above. We taste the salt in the dirt that crumbles over our faces until we find cause to surface.”
The Great Mother opened her hand, and a complete bird skeleton woven together with her hair laid in her palm for me. “We will wail with you.”
The heifer called for her calf then. Her moo was insistent, shaken. I stood and turned toward the creature, hearing the desperation in the animal’s voice. My lungs felt heavy like they were filling with water, and my stomach with stones. I looked back toward the women, who were gone– just flattened grasses where I once sat.
As I walked toward the heifer, I saw two wolves pawing at the ground a few feet away from her. Their paws were stained red and their jaws pulled at red flesh at their feet. It was the calf. I ran toward the wolves, screaming and waving my arms. I saw the calf lying in the field, his rib bones almost completely clean of meat. The calf still had a sliver of placenta hanging from his mouth. The wolves charged me; they gnashed at my arm, opening my wrist and a stream of red blood poured down my palm, littering the grass below.
I felt my warm, thick blood. It ran feral upon release.
Another wolf sat on a hilltop, watching his pack devour me. He hugged his chest, panting in joy as the beasts grappled over my skin, tearing it to shreds. Buzzards flew overhead, waiting to land.
The wolves’ aggression kicked up dirt in my face.
The ground below the wolves began to shake. I began to shake. I could taste the salt in my mouth, and I knew I would be fine. The salt from the soil rose to the top, and it boiled the wolves’ paws, their backsides. Garbled howls overtook the field. The wailing women had come.
Their irreverence pleased me.