Members of the Tri-City Literary Writers Group sipped green tea and waited in the farmhouse’s spacious kitchen. They’d been together for five years and recently switched their meeting location from a coffee shop to this rural dairy farm, after reading a newspaper article. This was their third meeting and they were excited.
Seen through the large windows over the twin sinks, the gray sky threatened rain—a clammy morning transitioning to a muggy day. The women occupied three of the six chrome-legged, cracked vinyl chairs that surrounded a matching laminate-topped table. It was a large kitchen with old white enameled appliances. Blue cabinets covered in generations of paint loomed on opposite walls, broken only by the sink windows. The kitchen’s back door served as the house’s main entrance. Like most farmhouses, the front door was only used for weddings and funerals.
Tiffany Roberts, the writing group’s fourth member, was home with a migraine—though group leader Madison Fairchild suspected Tiffany objected to the farm smell and was making an excuse. Madison sympathized to a certain extent, but the earthy odor of manure, urine and rotted hay was part of the experience…the total Bovine Artistic Therapy™, as praised in the newspaper article.
Madison had winced at the odor as well but after a short time she no longer noticed it. The trick was not to forget to shower and change immediately after therapy. Poor Tiffany had gone straight to a wine-tasting last month and, though no one confronted her at the event, she heard about her “Farm Scent” afterwards.
Phaedra Alexander, the raven-haired young performance artist of the group, shifted her tea from hand to hand, sliding the cracked ceramic mug back and forth. “What do you suppose is taking Lydia? Do you think the herd’s out of balance?” She cast a furtive look at backdoor and the mudroom, the cleanup space between the door and the kitchen. It led to a dairy barn some twenty yards out from the house. In the barn were the twenty cows that weekly provided the group with bovine truth; authentic limbic responses to their writing dilemmas. The herd’s holistic honesty challenged the group’s sincerity and centered their writing. The cows fertilized their imaginations.
Madison placed her hand on Phaedra’s flannel-covered forearm. They all dressed down for the sessions; jeans and work shirts…despite being well-heeled college grads. Lydia always provided Wellies, tall rubber boots. “You know Lydia needs to settle the cows,” Madison said and gave Phaedra a pat. Madison, known as Maddy or simply Mad, was the oldest member at fifty-six. She’d once been a gymnast in college but no longer exercised…or denied herself food. She had first read about Lydia’s farm
Judith Berman cupped her mug in both hands and sipped the tea. “I expect to get through a lot today. My first chapter is so scattered. You would not believe how I’ve been looking forward to this session.” Her gaunt face seemed out of place below her wavy red hair. She was a business attorney, and their newest member. Even in jeans and a work shirt she looked slim and sharp. Writing was her chosen creative outlet and she made sure everyone knew it. “My publicist set a book signing date for next October,” she added.
“That might be a bit ambitious, Judith,” Madison cautioned. “You don’t even have a publisher yet.”
“Or a first draft,” Phaedra added.
“We’ll see what the cows say,” Judith replied. Madison regretted asking Judith into the group but Tiffany’s attendance had become spotty over the last year and Phaedra’s recent performance successes had boosted her artistic confidence to near unbearable levels. Professionals like Judith usually dabbled in writing and were eager to accept an older and wiser author’s writing advice. Not in this case.
The back door opened and Lydia stomped in, pausing at the wire boot cleaner to scrape caked manure. She was big and muscled from a life of hard work. The dairy farm had belonged to her father and would have passed to his two sons if either had wanted it.
“The girls are ready, ladies.” By girls, Lydia meant the cows and by ladies she meant the writers. She flipped her long brunette braid back over her shoulder. Her face was broad and blunt. At forty she’d resigned herself to living alone and making her farm profitable. “Bovine Artistic Therapy” was her own invention. She came up with it after reading about a horse ranch that had made “Equine Artistic Therapy” pay off.
“The morning milking was a little off, but I’m thinking the girls are excited about today’s meeting,” Lydia said. “There is definitely connectedness in the air—a lot of body energy in the barn. It’ll be a productive session for sure.”
Maddy, Phaedra, and Judith made appreciative noises. Anticipating the first session of the day always excited and focused the group. Lydia had learned this and played the group’s buttons. “The cows were telling me they feel there’ll be definite breakthroughs today.”
Phaedra pumped her arm. “Yes! I knew it.”
Judith sniffed, “Sorry, Phay, but I think they were picking up on my first chapter.”
Lydia held up a cautionary hand. “Bring discord and selfishness into the barn and the cows will know it. Nobody will get answers.”
The warning had an immediate affect. All three writers nodded and Judith looked, if not embarrassed, at least mildly contrite. Having done the therapy thing for over a year now, Lydia enjoyed the control she could wield over these women and had to remind herself to stay within bounds. The three Tri-City authors were but one of five writers’ groups that paid for her cows’ advice and inspiration. Lydia smiled inwardly and doubted she’d ever grow tired of her role as a sage cow interpreter—a kind of doctor of Delphic dairy dialectics.
“Okay, then,” Lydia said. “Are we all focused and ready to face the herd?”
The women agreed they were. Lifting key phrases from equine therapy literature and replacing the word “cow” for “horse,” Lydia had advertised her bovine therapy on the Internet and was amazed at the response. Creative guidance, life coaching, and big-animal-emotional-healing were all trendy activities that paid big money. Lydia had always chuckled when she’d read about similar programs and considered it mumbo-jumbo, but the dairy economy was on the ropes and if people would pay good money to hug her cows she wasn’t going to refuse them the chance. Who was she to deny the creative process?
“I hope they’re seeing the future today. I’ve got some very, very important questions,” Judith said as a way to explain her earlier gaffe.
Lydia thought a moment. Personally she had no illusions about her Holsteins. Cows were cows: stupid beasts, lovers of routine who led dull lives of child bearing, milk production, and ultimately were turned into Big Macs. She felt little attachment to any of them. “I believe this weather has them a bit on edge, but that means the herd has turned inward. You’ll get good answers about character development and relationships today. It’s a good day to ask about plot and resolution.”
Satisfied, Judith smiled.
Lydia clapped her hands. “Okay, then. Shall we get at the truth, ladies?”
The barn air was redolent with cow effluent. Lydia loved words like “redolent” and “effluent.” They sure beat stink and manure. She was picking up quite a vocabulary working with writers and just thinking in terms of three-syllable words made her feel better about this new enterprise. She milked three times a day and had accustomed the cows to being questioned mid-morning, before they filed out to the pasture. Cows were sensitive to change and Lydia rejected several suggestions that the writers roam free in the pasture to commune with her Holsteins. For one thing, cows could kick. And cows would eat practically anything, not a good habit when writers seemed prone to leaving pens, note pads, and cell phones everywhere.
“Let’s spend a moment centering,” Lydia said. They walked up the middle of the barn alley separating the cows and stopped to bow their heads for a minute. Bare electric bulbs lit the shadowy interior. Left and right a line of cow rear ends protruded from the stalls. Most of the cows were still feeding and paid no attention to the group. The barn was an ancient wooden structure with a peaked hayloft and a red paint job with white trim. Lydia had installed steel stanchions in place of the former boxy wooden stalls, but the place still had a closed-in primitive cave-like feel. The low, cobwebby ceiling of rafters seemed to compress the cattle odor despite the electric fans running at the doors. Lydia had worried at first that writers would be put off, but to her surprise many of the woman writers felt the barn’s dark oppressive atmosphere was like a womb.
Lydia noticed a Holstein arching her back and grabbed Judith’s arm, pulling the writer away from a healthy gush of urine. “Judith, I think you’ve been chosen to go first.”
Judith smiled. “This one?” She pointed at the cow that had nearly drenched her. Lydia nodded and Judith stepped to the animal’s broad side. Placing both hands on its flank, the writer closed her eyes in concentration.
“All right, then,” Lydia said and let a moment pass. She then said softly. “Okay, she senses you and is ready to tell you the unvarnished truth—what you need to know.”
Judith rubbed the bristly cowhide and talked to the cow. “I can’t seem to get out of chapter one. Every time I think it’s perfect and try moving on I reread it and start changing things. I want to finish my novel in the next three months, in time to be reviewed and slotted as a best seller. What should I do?”
Lydia had trained her groups to wait patiently for answers, which often gave her time to frame a generic response if nothing specific came to mind. It also gave the cow a chance to physically react to the writer, which reinforced the whole bovine part of the therapy. Indeed, the Holstein shifted its stance and Lydia emitted a satisfied, “Ah ha.”
Judith’s eyes popped open and looked eagerly to Lydia, but Lydia held up a hand, telling Judith to wait, implying the cow was not through considering her question.
In the beginning, Lydia had stumbled on her cow replies, sometimes missing the mark, sometimes hitting them dead on. She’d learned that providing direct, specific answers like: “Give your character a reason for why she quit her bank job to become an astronaut,” or “Tell your readers the story has shifted from Duluth to Bermuda,” was the wrong way to go. She had to embrace the writer, not just their work. With experience she learned not to critique but rather concentrate on what the authors needed to hear.
“Okay, Judith,” Lydia finally said. “You felt the way she shifted her position? She’s telling you to shift your expectations. She says you’re worrying too much, spending too much time on your beginning. Trying to perfect that first chapter is unrealistic, especially if you don’t know the rest of the story. Her moving around was her way of telling you to leave the first chapter and move on.”
Judith patted the cow affectionately and spoke with emotion. “But it’s so hard. I want it to be right!”
Two stalls down, a cow bellowed. It had finished its feed and was ready for the pasture.
“You hear that?” Lydia said. “The herd knows what you’re going through, but they are telling you the truth. Move on. They know you can do it. Put chapter one away and start chapter two.”
At the end of the barn a cow stomped its hind leg. Lydia smiled. The girls were working with her today. “Hear that? There you have it. No buts, Judith.”
Judith sighed heavily, but it was a sigh of acceptance. She leaned into her cow and gave her a hug. “She’s right. I’ll lock the first chapter in a drawer.” Placing her forehead on the cow’s back, Judith said, “Thank you.” She gave the cow a teary hug and Lydia put an arm around the writer.
“Trust her, Judith. She knows what’s best.”
Phaedra was next and as she settled on the cow across from Judith’s, Maddy took Lydia to one side and whispered, “It’s just amazing, Lydia. Your cows told her exactly what I’ve been telling her for months.”
“The cows don’t lie.”
“It’s incredible,” Maddy added and squeezed Lydia’s arm affectionately. “Your cows have brought this group together—given us focus.”
The rest of the sessions went smoothly, with Phaedra gaining valuable insights into the script for her performance piece and Maddy getting help with her novella. Lydia let the cows out to pasture and the writers retired to the kitchen to recap, make notes, and critique last month’s writing. As the water was set to boiling for another round of tea, Lydia stowed the Wellies in the closet and watched the writers clustered at the table. The tension she felt from them earlier was gone and they laughed and joked as they took out pads and pens.
To a one, they were professional women, college educated and city-bred. That they listened to her was amazing, but then they weren’t listening to her, they were listening to her cows. To Lydia it made no sense when she thought it through. They all must be brighter than that. They paid good money for advice she’d scrounged from a few used fiction-writing books. She couldn’t help shaking her head every time she thought of it. The only rational explanation Lydia could come up with was that smart people needed to let their brains go on vacation from time to time. It was the only way she could describe it.
“Lydia,” Maddy called to her. “Could you clarify what the cow told me about my plot twist?”
“I’ll be right there,” Lydia said and adjusted the flame under the kettle. Through the screen door, she heard the distant lowing of her herd. They were settling in for a quiet afternoon of grazing.
Terry Faust writes urban fantasy, mainstream young adult novels, and humorous science fiction spoofs. His short works have appeared in Tales of the Unanticipated, Stupefying Stories, and several Minnesota Speculative Fiction anthologies. Fancy Pants Gangsters recently produced his short story “Good Service” as a Redshift Theater radio play and Lakes Area Radio Theater produced his radio comedy “Dirt in Duplicate.”
As an assistant organizer of Minnesota Speculative Fiction for the past ten years, Terry has led critique workshops, participated in readings, and conducted writing presentations. His latest non-fiction project is a book based on the stories told by little library book exchange keepers. Photography and making weather vanes are his two other passions.