I am eight. The lights of the farm across the road from my home are an archipelago of hovering dots.
Moos float disembodied in blackness, startling me. White noise in the dark night. My father works there. The family business, generations old, the farm Upstate. He is inside one of those lights, birthing a calf. The phone had rung in the middle of the night summoning him to pull the bloody legs and slick body out of the wailing mother, lying in a bed of hay. She would get 24 hours with her mom then would be separated.
I was born the lactose intolerant daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of dairy farmers. I wonder how I got here. I want to move to a city. I know I won’t work the farm, won’t continue the lineage. Neither will my special needs little brother. I want to bridge the space. I feel guilty about it, but mostly just odd.
My biggest wish is a neighbor will appear, building a house to break up the endless trees and fields, bringing perhaps a girl my age to play with.
My mother lines the house with art supplies and saved empty yogurt cups to bring to school for her job as an art teacher. One day her teacher friend comes to visit. I see the car trailing dust up the farm road as she arrives. She has brought her friend, a Japanese woman who is here on vacation.
I’m excited. Not many people visit the farm, and never anyone from Japan. Japan has gongs and chimes and whirling neon tv shows. Rice and geisha paint. Japan is the sound of paper in the wind, hanging off Kiyomizu-dera, wishes twirling whirly gigs, dropping stars.
My brother is a whirling boy in the bedroom next to mine. He hides Ritalin in sofas. His static fills the empty spaces in my family. He is a bomb that won’t stop going off. No one talks about it.
The Japanese woman is happy to meet me. She says she has a neighbor back in Yokohama who is my age, a girl named Mika. She is sure Mika would like a pen-pal. And wouldn’t I like one too?
She takes my address and a picture at the kitchen table. It is summertime and I’m wearing a short-sleeved white T-shirt with different colored hearts on it. I have my red hair up in a pony tail and am wearing long pink dangle earrings.
When she leaves I watch the dust stir back up and settle, the car eaten by distance. Japan has never seemed so far away, and so close.
Later, while wandering alone after school in the small white calf hutches, pretending they are an apartment complex, I spot a Jersey calf, brownish red instead of black and white. I, too, have brownish red hair so imagine we are related. Her marble eyes roll toward me, fringed with enviable lashes, her pink tongue wraps around the bar she is kept behind, wishing hopelessly for milk from the metal.
I love her. “This is Butter,” I reintroduce her to my father with the name I’ve chosen. I try to pet Butter in between the metal lattices. I want to be a farmer in this moment, like him, to please him. Yet Butter recoils, knocking her body against the plastic walls.
“Be more gentle,” Dad says. He reaches out his hand and she steps forward, unafraid. He has worn, hardworking farmer’s hands. I mirror him. I aim to pet her small nose. Then she disappears.
On Saturdays I ride to the cattle auction with my father. I pretend it’s a field trip, in a pickup with a rollicking tractor trailer of doomed animals strapped behind us, into the green mountains of Vermont. I am the only girl there. A cow is led into the center of a sawdust covered ring. Men wearing dirty denim yell out bids. My father never leaves the house in his dirty farm denim. He always cleans up, even if he’s just going to the grocery store. But here everything seems soaked in blood and mud. An auctioneer rattles words and prices like he’s slinging something heavy. Another man hits the animal’s hind bones with a wooden cane to keep it moving. Hearing the slap hurts my own body. The bovine pirouettes, like a ballet dancer in a music box.
After, Dad and I walk across the parking lot for pie and milk.
When Butter disappears I assume she’s escaped. She must be in the big barn, absorbed into the invisible crowd. But one day while riding my pink Huffy bike down the long farm driveway it hits me: Butter has been killed and no one told me.
My first letter from Mika arrives with neat handwriting on the envelope and a puffy cow sticker sealing the back.
“Mrs. Fukagawa told me that your father has many cows on his dairy farm,” she writes. “I will try to tell you about Japan and my life. Your friend, Mika.”
Friend. I write back. I trace the kanji at the top of her stationary, asking what it means.
But even then I understand: distance and closeness are roughly translated things.
Sarah Herrington‘s work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Poets and Writer Magazine. She is at work on a novel.