Image: “Bend to the Moon,” by Kelly Weber, watercolor, 4×6,” 2018
By Jacqueline Vogtman
The farmer was driving a deserted county road in the early darkness of fall when he found the girl. He was on the way home from burying his wife. His brother sat in the passenger seat, and it was he who spotted the girl first: a shape moving on the side of the road, white nightgown, white teeth, whites of the eyes. Slow down, the farmer’s brother said, and then the farmer saw her too. She kept close to the tree line, looking this way and that. When she noticed their truck, she ran away, back into the woods. They pulled over.
We should get her, the farmer’s brother said. See what’s wrong.
The farmer sighed. You go, he said. I’m tired.
His brother opened the door, and then the farmer thought better of it.
I’ll do it, he said. You stay here.
The farmer clicked on the flashers and walked into the woods. He looked around, the darkness punctuated every few seconds by a pulse of orange glow. How would he find her? Why was he even looking? His mind was foggy. In the last few weeks of his wife’s dying, he had not slept. And then to get through the burial earlier this evening, he had drunk some moonshine his brother had brought. He was about to turn around and walk back to the truck when he heard a twig break and saw a flash of white.
You okay? he called after the girl. You need help?
The girl stopped running, though she did not turn around.
We’re not gonna hurt you, the farmer said.
The girl turned around, and he saw her face. So much younger than he had thought. Dark, hair wild, uncombed, studded with leaves.
We can help you, he said. He knelt down, opened his hands like coaxing a frightened dog.
She walked toward him but kept her distance, stopping about a dozen feet away. When he turned to walk back toward the road, he could hear the slightest crunch of leaves behind him and knew she was following.
When they got to the truck, he asked the girl where she came from, where she was going. She did not answer. She was shaking as she huddled between them in the cab. The brothers looked at each other. Neither of them suggested going to the police; lately, it seemed that lost girls got more lost when the cops picked them up. Besides, the brothers never felt comfortable in a police station, always felt they were under suspicion for something they didn’t do.
The farmer looked down at the girl’s feet, bare and dirty and cut up. The hospital? Hospitals these days were overloaded with the dying, the last decade seeing an exponential spike in cancer diagnoses, young and old and middle-aged all falling ill with a variety of new mutations of blood and bone, livers and kidneys and colons riddled with tumors. The doctors wouldn’t waste a minute on a girl with bloody feet.
I got too many mouths to feed already, the farmer’s brother said. And you know Nance would never let me bring this girl home.
The farmer’s jaw tightened. He thought of his house, silent and empty. He thought of the farm, falling to ruin. He thought of all the days ahead leading to winter, the shorn field, empty like the house. He started the engine and drove.
The farmer’s name was Noah. He was among the last of the small farmers. Factory farms had all but driven these farmers to extinction, but there were still a few old holdouts in the Midwest refusing to let go of their land. Noah knew, however, it was only a matter of time before he gave up his farm. With his wife gone, and their one child also dead from cancer at the age of sixteen, and with his bones aching more every day, he knew he could not keep farming for long.
When he pulled up to his house after dropping off his brother, the windows were dark and the porch light was out. He led the girl by the hand so she wouldn’t trip. At first, she jerked back like his touch was flame, but he told her again that he was not going to hurt her. He held his hand out, palm up, until she gingerly touched it and they made their slow way through the darkness. He opened the door. He never locked it, even though he knew crime had risen in tandem with the cancer rate. Illness did that. People didn’t fear the cops as much when death was right around the corner.
He turned on the lamp and looked around: the couch where his wife lay, every night, tartan blanket wrapped around her skeletal body, until she needed a bedpan and IVs full of drugs and her bodily fluids were leaking everywhere, at which point she had to be moved to the special hospital-issued bed in the room that used to be their daughter’s.
It was late, but the girl would need a bath before she slept. Noah led her to the stairs, and with some coaxing, she followed. He showed her the bathroom, but she did not enter, simply peered in at it like she had never seen a bathroom before. He started the bath for her. He poured shampoo under the running water to make bubbles, like he used to do for his daughter. When the tub was filled, he left her in the bathroom with the door closed and went downstairs to fix himself a sandwich. He made one for the girl too.
When he returned to the bathroom and knocked on the door, there was no answer. Then the girl opened the door. When he peeked in, he saw that she was still standing where he had left her, fully clothed and dirty.
Don’t you want to take a bath? he asked. He sat down and stirred his hand in the water. It’s warm, he said.
She approached the water and dipped her hand in.
Yes, he said. Now just get undressed and sit in the tub, and you can wash yourself with soap, like this.
He took the bar of soap and rubbed it between his hands, lathering. She followed suit, then splashed her hands in the water. When she took them out, she looked at them with fascination. And then she smiled.
Seeing her smile made him smile too. It had been so long since he’d done it that the sensation felt strange on his face. He left again, and when he came back after eating his sandwich, he found her sitting in the tub, arms hugging her knees, hair still dirty and full of leaves. He turned around so his back was to the girl and asked, Do you need help washing your hair? No answer. So he turned around again, and, feeling less ashamed because bubbles covered most of her body, he sat by the tub and tilted the girl’s head back. Then he lathered shampoo into her hair, pulling out the leaves and small twigs that were stuck in it, pinching out the bloated ticks that clung to her scalp. He poured cup after cup of water over her head, and it seemed with each pour, she relaxed further, until by the end, her head was heavy as it lay back against his hand, and the weight of it in his muscle memory was so much like his daughter’s. He used to give his daughter baths up until she was about the girl’s age, when his wife said it was no longer appropriate, as she would soon become a woman. And their daughter did become a woman, for a few years at least, until her womanhood turned against her and she developed melon-sized tumors on her ovaries and she was dead within a year. It had been one kind of grief to have his previous three children die during childbirth or within the first few weeks of life; this was common in their country now, and everyone had their theories about why: chemicals in the water, pesticides on the plants, pollution in the air, viruses or immunizations, mutations from the medication most people were on to stave off depression, anxiety, pain, all the other afflictions of life. But it was quite another kind of grief to have raised a child and watched her grow, taught her how to farm and cook and play catch, to have read her storybooks at night and made her breakfast in the morning, to have sat on the couch with her and her mother at night watching old TV shows, to have held her while she cried over all the things that kids cry over as they grow up: the consciousness of death, the breaking up of friendships and first loves, the realization that some people had so much and other people had so little.
He raised the girl’s head from the water and dried it with a towel. Then he took the edge of the towel and dipped it in the water and cleaned her face. It was not his daughter’s face, after all.
The next morning, Noah was up early to harvest the corn. He drove the combine through the field for a few hours and took a break mid-morning. He thought he should be there when the girl woke up. When he went into the house, he found her at the sink, washing dishes left over from the previous night.
You don’t have to do those, he said. Sit down. I’ll make you something to eat.
The girl looked as if he had woken her from a dream, and she dropped the plate she’d been holding. He rushed over. The girl tried to pick up the pieces, but he led her to the table and pulled out a chair. She sat, and he cleaned up the broken dish. He then toasted some bread and fried an egg. He put it in front of her, and immediately, she stuffed the food into her mouth.
Where are you from? Noah asked. What’s your name?
She didn’t answer. Then he had an idea. He found a pen and the back of a medical bill, and he placed the items in front of her.
Maybe you could write your name?
The girl took the pen in her hand. At least she knew how to hold it. That was a good sign. But on the paper, she did not write her name. Instead, she drew pictures. Not stick figures exactly, but childish drawings of people. One noticeable trait most of the people in these drawings shared was a protruding midsection. As Noah looked at the drawings longer, he realized they must be pregnant women.
Are those women having babies? he asked. He stuck his abdomen out, pantomiming a ballooning belly. Did you live with a lot of pregnant women?
She nodded. They were getting somewhere. But what did it mean that she lived with a lot of pregnant women? Was it some kind of commune? A cult?
Noah got another piece of paper. On this, the girl drew the same women, but this time, she drew very large breasts on the women, with wavy lines emerging from the breasts.
Were the women you lived with breastfeeding? He pantomimed holding a baby to his chest. Were they nursing their babies?
She nodded, then shook her head. He got her another piece of paper.
The next picture she drew was harder to understand. Here were the women, some of them pregnant, all of them with extremely large breasts, but attached to those breasts were thin lines leading to a rectangular structure.
What is that? he asked.
The girl kept drawing, page after page, until the table was covered in paper, but Noah still had no idea what she was trying to show him.
I’m sorry, he said, shaking his head. I just don’t understand.
Noah spent the rest of the day on the combine, then after dinner, he tried again to talk to the girl. When after a half hour she still didn’t speak, he sat with her on the couch and watched TV. They were watching an old show that had originally aired when he was about her age, just over fifty years ago: a comedy called Mork and Mindy. In the opening credits, the alien Mork emerged from an egg. This elicited from the girl the first sound he heard her make: laughter. It was childish and bubbled up from deep inside her, and it made him laugh, too. It reminded him of when his daughter was a baby, how every first thing was a miracle. Her first smile, her first laugh. He remembered her first laugh. It was a hot summer day, and they were lying on a blanket in the back yard, having a picnic. His wife was worried the baby was getting too warm, so he blew on his daughter’s face, ruffling her wisp of hair, and she giggled for the first time ever. Over twenty years ago, and he still remembered the sound.
The girl fell asleep on the couch near midnight, so Noah had to carry her to bed. He put her in the spare bedroom, because the room that his wife and daughter had died in was too full of the scent of death. The spare bedroom lived up to its name: just a bed and a night table, curtains, and a pale imprint on the wall where the crucifix used to hang. Folded at the foot of the bed were some clothes for the girl, his daughter’s old clothes. The girl was light, but still his bones ached as he carried her upstairs and bent down to put her in the bed. He was out of breath. He had not been to the doctor in quite a few years, not out of fear but because between his daughter and his wife, he was so sick of hospitals, not to mention it was almost impossible to get an appointment these days and so damn expensive when you did. He figured if he were dying, there was nothing he could do about it anyway.
When he went back downstairs, he looked again at the pictures the girl had drawn. In the last one, the women looked like they were hooked up to some kind of machine. Something about it looked familiar to him. He stared out the open window at the dark field, inhaling the scent of the neighbor’s wood-burning stove. In the distance, a cow lowed. He looked down at the paper again and it dawned on him: the picture the girl had drawn reminded him of the machines his brother used at his dairy farm. The women in these pictures were hooked up to milking machines.
The next morning, Noah spent just two hours harvesting corn, and when the girl was up, he put his work aside and drove her to his brother’s farm about five miles away. His brother’s name was Zeke. Younger by six years, Zeke had fared a little better than Noah in those things by which one measured a man’s life: a larger house, three living children, a healthy wife, and a dairy farm that was as close as it could be to thriving, mostly due to the fact that middleclass people were willing to pay good money for organic milk in the hopes that it might help protect them from the cancer epidemic. Wealthy people, of course, no longer drank milk.
During the ride over, the girl sat silent beside him. She still hadn’t uttered a word, but in most other respects, she seemed fine—healthy and able to understand him.
We’re going to see my brother, he told the girl. Is that okay?
She nodded and looked at him. Her eyes were dark as soil.
When they got to the farm, Noah found his brother behind the cow shed.
How is she? Zeke asked, his voice low. She talk yet?
Not yet. But I got her to draw me a picture.
A picture? Zeke chuckled. So butterflies and rainbows gonna help you solve this mystery?
It’s not butterflies and rainbows, Zeke.
Noah took the picture from his back pocket and showed it to his brother. The girl kept her distance behind them.
What the fuck? Zeke said. He grabbed the paper from Noah’s hand.
What do you see in that picture?
I see a bunch of titties. Looks like your girl has a dirty mind.
Look again. Look at this. Noah pointed to the lines coming out of the women’s breasts, the rectangles to which the lines were attached. What does it remind you of?
Zeke looked closer, then uttered, Shit. It’s a bunch of women getting milked.
Yeah, that’s what I thought, Noah said. But I don’t know what to make of it.
Zeke whistled, long and low. You’ve never heard?
Never heard what?
I forgot you’re so damn old you don’t go on the internet. Boy, have I got a story for you.
Listen, Zeke said. This is the stuff of legend. You see things online, and people talk about it in the bar. I’ve always considered it bullshit and haven’t even thought of it in a couple years, but that picture reminded me.
Anyway. It was probably about ten years ago. There were these conspiracies popping up online. About how rich people never got sick anymore. Or how, even if they got sick, they had some kind of antidote that cured them and made them live longer. It all seemed pretty basic to me. Rich people got better healthcare and better health in general because they’re eating organic and vegan and all that. But these conspiracy-theory guys, you know, the eat the rich types, they’re saying it’s something else. Some kind of secret serum. And that it’s only being given to the rich and famous and powerful, because they want all us poor peons to die off, since basically our population is a drain on the earth.
You’re right, Noah said. That does sound like bullshit.
They had stopped in front of the milking parlor. Zeke chuckled and peeked in at his cows attached to the milking machine.
Hear me out. The secret ingredient, supposedly, is breast milk. Not just the regular kind, but especially the stuff they call “liquid gold,” the colostrum that comes from a woman right after she gives birth. And this serum is super potent because they give these women drugs or hormones, so when those rich people drink it or inject it, they don’t get sick, and they don’t age, and they don’t die. I mean, at least not at the rate we’re going.
That’s ridiculous, Noah said. He pulled his jacket tighter around himself despite the sun. They kept walking past the milking parlor. The girl was still trailing them by a dozen or so feet, out of listening range.
Sure, I thought so too, Zeke continued. But the other part of this story is that there are whole farms of women, hidden farms, factories where they hook women up to machines and use them for milk, like cows.
Where would these women even come from?
I don’t know. Kidnapped? Prostitutes, maybe?
From behind them, they heard the girl cry out. She was standing in front of the milking parlor, looking in at the cows. She rushed into the building. Noah rushed after her.
What’s the matter? Noah asked.
Mama, the girl said, pointing at the cows.
Over the next few weeks, Noah would ask the girl a couple times a day if she wanted to talk, what her name was, and if she could tell him where she came from. She never answered. She seemed eager to help him, though, so he let her. She did work around the house and then began following him out into the fields. During the third week, he decided to teach her how to drive the mower, and about a week later, the tractor, and finally a couple weeks after that, the combine. Despite the fact that her legs barely reached the pedals, she took to it all quite easily and was surprisingly strong.
By Thanksgiving, the corn had been harvested, and the field was bare. Noah stood looking over it at dusk, and he considered the strange luck he’d had in finding this girl, who’d ended up being such a good helper. Without her, he might not have finished in time, and his yield—and profit—would have been much less, barely enough to repay loans and keep the power on, not to mention to pay all the medical bills left over from his wife’s and daughter’s illnesses.
He took the girl to Thanksgiving dinner at Zeke’s house. She wore one of his daughter’s old dresses, and at the sight of her walking down the staircase before they left, his eyes watered. Over the past few weeks, he found himself crying at strange moments. Sometimes, he’d walk into a room and not know what he had come for, or worse, where he was. There was one time he looked in the mirror and didn’t even recognize his own face, and more than once, he looked at the girl and really believed she was his daughter. In fact, that was what he thought when he first saw her walking down the stairs, and when he realized she wasn’t, he started crying.
The girl walked up to him and looked into his face. And then, standing on her tiptoes, she reached up to wipe away his tears. The gesture made him want to cry more, but he swallowed hard and took a deep breath, not wanting to arrive at his brother’s looking like he’d been weeping. Zeke and Nancy already worried about him too much.
With their own parents long gone and no other family in the area, Thanksgiving dinner was not a big one: Noah and the girl, Zeke, Nancy, and their three kids. Nancy had roasted one of their own turkeys and had made almost everything else out of their homegrown food. Before they ate, they held hands and said Grace. Only Noah and the girl did not join in.
Noah was hungry and looking forward to his first big homecooked dinner in months, but when he began to eat, the pains started. He winced and ran to the bathroom. When he threw up, there was blood. He flushed and cleaned off the toilet seat. When he returned to the table, he was no longer hungry, just tired.
Everything okay? Zeke asked.
Noah nodded and told his brother not to worry. Nancy asked him if he needed to lie down, and he told her he was fine, he just wanted everyone to enjoy their dinner. In a moment, everyone resumed eating and talking, but during the rest of the meal, he could feel the girl’s eyes on him, her young forehead wrinkling with worry.
Noah’s condition worsened over the next few weeks. He was unable to keep food down, and his bones ached to the point where it was a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Though he wasn’t eating, his abdomen began to swell, looking almost as big as the bellies of the women in the pictures the girl had drawn. He had sweats at night and was cold in the day, even sitting by the fire. He watched the girl going about tasks he would have done, like cooking and cleaning and feeding the chickens. He wondered what would happen to her if—when—he died, and he decided he had to find out who she was and where she had come from. So one day, after weeks of being shut in the house, he suggested they go to the library.
The girl surprised him by repeating the word. Library, she said, like a younger child would, with berry at the end. She rolled the word in her mouth, as if she had never heard it. It made him wonder where the girl was brought up, if there could have been any truth to his brother’s story about the human milk farm.
At the library, he sat down at a computer and let the girl wander the stacks. It had been years since he had used the internet, but he went to the one search engine he knew and typed in a few words. Human milk factory resulted in a few hits about factory dairy farms. Women milked resulted in a few pornographic sites he quickly clicked away from. Finally, Breast milk serum yielded some interesting results. The first thing he found was a company called Fountain of Youth, which sold an antiaging serum that included human breast milk as an ingredient. So the story wasn’t entirely bullshit, after all. On the company’s website, however, and in all news articles mentioning the serum, it was noted again and again that the breast milk in the serum was actually created in a lab to be an exact replica of human breast milk, and none of it came from real women. Noah looked at the price. One ounce of the serum was over five hundred dollars.
Next, he clicked on a few blog posts that echoed the story his brother had told: women kidnapped, mostly immigrant women or women from inner cities and poor rural areas, serving as human milk-makers for an expensive serum that promised to reverse aging and protect people from cancer. And not only were women kidnapped and forcibly milked, but they were also forcibly impregnated in order to keep their milk production going. According to one blog, male babies that resulted from these pregnancies were killed upon birth, while female children—at least in the first few years of the project—were kept alive to use as milk makers once their bodies reached maturity. Eventually, though, the corporation decided to discontinue this practice, as they found raising a child to maturity was expensive and time consuming. It was easier to just continue kidnapping immigrants.
Noah wondered what happened to the young girls born in those first few years. The article did not say. Would they have been killed, too, once the corporation decided not to use them? Perhaps not. It was one thing to kill a newly born baby and quite another to kill a toddler. Looking at the date of the article, Noah realized the girl was just old enough that she could have been one of these children.
He clicked out of the website and got up to look for the girl.
He could not find her. He looked in the stacks of children’s books, and she was not there. He looked by the DVDs, and she was not there. He looked by the CDs, and she was not there. He asked the librarian if she had seen a little girl, about ten years old, dark eyes and hair. The librarian asked her name. Noah stammered a response, trying to explain that she was not his child. The librarian looked at him suspiciously, so he apologized and walked away while the librarian called after him, Sir? Sir?
He walked down into the basement and found the girl there, playing with the puppets. He sighed and took her by the shoulders.
You scared me to death, he said.
She cocked her head. Death? She reached out and held his wrist, as if she were feeling his pulse. No, she said.
He almost laughed.
Winter came, and with it, a wracking cough Noah could not shake. The girl watched as he coughed blood into tissues, and she brought him soup and water and blankets. She helped him walk to the bathroom. She herself still bathroomed outside, even in the cold. He was too tired to teach her how to use the toilet. Even with his own daughter, he had let his wife do the dirty work of potty-training.
Noah no longer knew the date, but he could tell it was close to Christmas based on the cars driving by on the highway with trees strapped to their roofs and the lights he saw on houses in the distance. Zeke had stopped by the previous week to ask after his health. Noah said he was fine, but Zeke looked doubtful and went into the kitchen to ask the girl how Noah was really doing. Noah could hear his brother growing frustrated that the girl would not speak. He wondered again what would happen to her when he was gone.
I’ll check on you next week, okay? Zeke had said before he left. You really should see a doctor.
As the days passed and he got sicker, Noah felt a primal fear rise from his core. He thought he had accepted the inevitability of his death, but there was something in him that resisted it. He did not want to see a doctor, but he also did not want to cease to exist. He couldn’t bear the thought that he would not live to see another spring, another crop of corn. The thought that the seasons would keep going while he would not be there to see them was unimaginable. He remembered something his daughter had said when she was very young, maybe four years old, just beginning to understand life and death. Days aren’t going to end, right, Daddy? she’d asked, fear in her eyes. No, he’d reassured her. They just keep going.
One night, he woke in a fever. He had shit the bed. He called out to the girl, still not knowing her name, simply crying, Girl! Help!
She ran in, wearing his daughter’s pajamas. She did not balk at the smell. She simply lifted him up—he was that light now—and helped him to the bathroom. He was able to make his own bath while she cleaned the bed. She then helped him back into bed and stood over him as he moaned. She seemed to be thinking.
Up, she said. Go.
He did not have the energy to resist. If she brought him to a hospital, so be it. At least they would give him medicine for the pain and he could die in peace.
When they got outside, he barely felt the cold. They hobbled to the truck, and she put him in the passenger seat.
Are you sure? he asked. Her foot barely reached the pedal.
She nodded, her face set and serious. She looked like his daughter did when she was drawing a picture. Such concentration a sort of love. That was something he’d miss.
The girl started the engine, put her foot on the brake, and then shifted to drive. She was tentative at first, jerking the truck down the road, but eventually, she settled into a smooth crawl. It was well after midnight, small snowflakes floating slowly through the air. Each one felt precious; it might be the last one he saw. There were no other cars on the road. They passed by a house every few miles, mostly dark, some with trees glowing in their windows.
A few miles up the road, close to where he had originally found the girl, she pulled the truck over. She got out, then walked to the passenger side and opened his door.
Where are we? he asked.
Home, she said.
Noah wasn’t sure how long they walked in the forest. Half a mile? Three miles? Time was strange now. He leaned on the girl for support. Deep in the woods, a smell hit him. Even in his present state, he could tell what it was. Rotting flesh. The girl walked faster, averting her eyes from what looked like a large pit in the ground. As they kept walking, the smell abated but not completely. Eventually, they found a path leading to a dirt road, and they saw something shining through the dark. A chain-link fence topped with razor wire.
There was a small opening at the bottom of the fence. The girl slid under it.
Where are you going? he called.
She reached through the fence to touch his hand.
Come, she said.
He looked at the buildings inside the fence. There were several barracks and some barns and sheds and other outbuildings. It was hard to tell in the dark, but the whole compound looked huge, like it could house thousands of animals. Or women.
He crawled under the fence where the girl had entered, his whole body one ache. He followed the girl.
The ground was red dust. The first building they passed was brown and shuttered. He and the girl walked past at least a dozen more barracks, silent and dark, until he saw her slip inside one of them. He followed. When he entered, he was hit with a new smell: urine, musk, sweat, and something sweeter. Human milk.
He heard a cry. Tasha! Tasha!
The girl rushed toward the voice, and Noah followed, steadying himself on the edges of the metal cots lining the room. Before he could reach the spot where the girl had stopped, he had a coughing fit that went on for so long he almost passed out. The girl and the woman she embraced both turned to look at him. The woman gasped.
No, the girl said. She ran toward Noah and grabbed his arm, letting him lean on her while she brought him over to the woman.
Tasha, she whispered. Who is he?
The girl took Noah’s arm and rested it on the woman’s lap, wrapping the woman’s fingers around his wrist. His blood, so slow in his veins. He wondered if she could even feel it. In the lightless room, he gazed at her face, her dark eyes, her abundance of dark hair. She looked alarmed. And tender. Her fingers soft on the loose skin of his wrist. Her skin so young, smooth. Her belly so big under her nightgown. Her breasts already leaking.
Mama, the girl said. And she lowered Noah’s head to her mother’s breast. The woman slid the nightgown off her shoulder and slid her nipple into Noah’s mouth. So strange, to be a suckling child again, and yet so natural, to fall back into this primary position, the mouth knowing how to move, the throat knowing how to swallow, the dying body still knowing how to respond. The girl rested her hand on his shoulder. His eyes were almost closed, but he could see out of the corner of his vision the other women starting to take notice and sit up, one head after another of long, dark hair rising from thin pillows, their nightgowns shining like candles, their bodies swollen with milk or with child, all of them silent, staring at the girl who had made it out and came back just to save him.