WHEN THE COWS COME HOME
by Ashley Fernandes
“He’ll come back when the cows come home,” said Mama, using her wooden spoon to point at the mushy peas and potatoes on my plate. “Eat up, or you’ll end up just like Charlie.”
I glanced out the window as I imagined Charlie coming home, leading a pack of mooing cows by a bunch of ropes down the driveway. He would grin that grin of triumph, like he always did when he did something that the rest of us would never even dream of doing. Unlike us, Charlie was never afraid of Mama. At only fourteen, he was bigger and weighed a good hundred pounds more than her. He could have easily snatched that wooden spoon out of her hand and snapped it right in half.
On the other side of the dinner table, Arlo kept his gaze down, avoiding eye contact with Mama and me. He lifted a shaky fork piled with peas to his mouth and closed his lips around it forcefully. I could hear the sound of his throat clamping as the peas tried to make their way down, but his gag reflex made otherwise. His eyes seemed to well up, and I wondered if he would cry. Good thing Mama didn’t notice. She was too busy watching me scarf down all the contents of my plate with no problem at all. Mama wasn’t the best cook, but she knew how to intimidate someone into doing what she wanted them to do. Someone that wasn’t Charlie, of course.
When Mama left to stop a pot from boiling over in the kitchen, I laid a hand on Arlo’s shoulder, glancing back and forth to the doorway. “It’s alright, Arlo,” I said softly. “I know Charlie will come back someday. If the cows come home or not.”
“How do you know that?” Arlo whispered, his voice gargled. It sounded as if the peas had come back up and he was trying to hold it in his mouth. “It’s been three years, Mary. Charlie’s never coming back. Not for some mushy peas every damn day.”
“Don’t you have hope?”
“I did once. Not anymore.” He sighed, setting down his fork, which made a little clang against the plate. “Charlie’s gone. He ran away and left us here to tend to Mama’s sore feet and chores. We just gotta accept that he probably has some better life now, somewhere he buys food from grocery stores.”
“Did I slave over the stove and make that wonderful meal for you to talk and spit all over it?” said a voice from the dim hallway. Mama stood beneath the doorframe, pointing her wooden spoon – now wet with steaming hot liquid – right at Arlo. “I don’t think I raised you to be so disrespectful. I will not have another Charlie in this house if it’s the last thing I do.”
I heard Arlo gulp, and I knew he had swallowed those mushy peas again. “No, Mama,” he said, clenching his fists. “I was only talking about how nice this meal was yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that.”
“Are you talking smart to me?” Mama’s face was menacing now, her eyeballs bulging out of her skull like a night owl and the corners of her lips turned up to reveal smoke-stained teeth. She held up her spoon high in the air as she came closer, steam still rising to the ceiling, and smacked it hard against Arlo’s cheek. I winced as Arlo’s scream pierced through the still air of the dining room. “I put that in the oven just for you. Gives it a nice little heat, all the better for showing rude little boys who’s boss.”
When Charlie disappeared, Mama didn’t cry. When we went looking for him, Mama stayed home. When we held a vigil for him behind the barn, Mama stood there with her arms crossed the whole time, staring into the eyes of Charlie’s only picture. It had been taken two years before his disappearance, so he had grown a bit since then, and his cheekbones were fuller than it was in the picture. I tore that picture up and threw it down the well because I couldn’t bear to look at it any longer.
The day Charlie disappeared, he threw up his dinner. Mushy peas and over-boiled brussel sprouts splattered all over the floor. Mama came in and saw what happened, her wooden spoon raised in agony. She was angry, but Charlie didn’t care. He refused to clean up his mess. Then he spit on her polished boots, and that only made her more furious. She dragged him away by the ear to the barn outside, and he came back in with a black eye. Charlie didn’t touch his dinner after that. The next day, Charlie was gone by sunrise.
Mama told Arlo and me he ran away. She tried to catch him, but he ran too fast. Her knees would ache for days after that, and Arlo and I had to scrub the floors until Mama saw sparkles.
“He’ll come back when the cows come home,” Mama would say again and again as she served us the same meal every night. “Eat up, or you’ll end up just like him.”
The night Charlie disappeared, he snuck into my room carrying a suitcase to tell me he’d be back someday for me and Arlo, and that I shouldn’t miss him too much. That night, all the cows managed to escape from the barn. When Arlo was cleaning out the stalls, he found Charlie’s suitcase buried in a hay bale. Arlo assumed he had left it behind by accident.
“He’ll come back when the cows come home,” Mama said. What she really meant was that he was never coming back – those dumb cows saw a chance for freedom and wouldn’t return for anything. And for that, I knew she was proud of me. For all those times he smart-mouthed Mama and spit out her food like the immature boy he was, I had taken revenge. For Mama.
He tried to run away. I watched him from my window as he ran to the barn to let the cows out in one last act of defiance. But I followed him. I shut the barn doors behind me as he unlatched the last stall door. His face fell into a wave of relief when he realized it was me and not Mama.
“Oh, it’s you,” he breathed. “I told you I’d come back for you soon. They won’t call out a search for me, but for you they will.”
“I don’t want to leave, Charlie.”
He squinted at me. “What?” he said, his voice cracking. “What are you saying, Mary?”
“You’re a rude boy, Charlie. You’re mean to Mama.”
He tried to run past me, thinking he still had a chance, but I jumped on his back and threw my pillowcase over his head, tightening it around his face until his squirming subsided and he fell to my feet. Then I dragged his limp body to the well. That way, if anyone found him, we could say he was being foolish sitting on the edge of the well and fell backwards on his own. Boys were always doing stupid stuff like that. Luckily, no one seemed to suspect the strange stench coming from the bottom of the old well. It was just old, and a perfect place for mildew and mold to grow, that’s all.
When I walked back to the house that fateful night, Mama was waiting on the front porch. She had heard everything. She put a hand on my shoulder and led me back into the house, a manicured finger laid lightly on her lips.
Three years after Charlie disappeared, Arlo was starting to defy Mama, too. Now it was his turn to see just what that entailed. This time, I had Mama by my side. We looked at each other as Arlo stared down helplessly at his mushy peas, and we smiled.