‘See? There's the eyes, nose, horns.'
We mooed at it — listened close to hear it moo back.
We were like sisters, you and I. On weekend adventures, doubling in denim dungarees, we were two zookeepers. Our zoo was the local woods, and it was ours to keep.
With jelly sandals suck-slapping or wellies suck-squelching, we skipped past knobbled stumps, all frog-eye bulging. Raced round oaks as resolute as bears. Waved at the swaying aspen, arms flailing in the breeze, orangutan-free. Herded journeys of giraffe — or paper birch, as we later learned they're more commonly called.
But it was Cow Tree we adored. Half-way high, the grain warped, creating two unblinking eyes of bark. Above, broken branches for horns. Below, a drooping muzzle that jutted, black grottos for nostrils.
We helped each other climb it. Hopscotched round imagined cowpats. Caressed its mossy dewlap, shushed and soothed it, laughing.
On the verge of our real lives beginning, we retraced our lives led until then.
Past the gasping willow, forever eavesdropping, her mouth a permanently shocked socket from all our teenage talk.
Past old gran, nursing a crooked back, her trunk grown zig and then zag, clutching a cane where lightning had struck. ‘That'll be us one day,' you said, your arm vine-wrapped around mine.
Past trees we no longer recognised, bearing the carved initials of boys.
As that last summer drank us down, Cow Tree was always watching. One evening, sat under its canopy, we swigged from a wine bottle borrowed from my parents' cupboard, planning our uprooting. For me, university, up north. For you, an apprenticeship, down south. I watched you stroking Cow Tree's flank.
‘So old,' you said. ‘Strong.' As if it could bear any weight without breaking. You offered up the empty bottle.
‘Cow,' I teased, hiccupping.
Today, we bump into each other with our own little ones. Each girl eyes the other suspiciously, as well as the woman the other child calls ‘mom'.
‘We were best friends at your age,' you say to yours. I want to give a good reason — jobs, partners, family, life — but each sprouting excuse shrivels to nothing on my tongue.
Our two girls start to chat. We try talking too, but every topic we touch leaves us splintered. So, we stop and sit, together but apart, on a green bench missing a slat along its back.
In front of us, there are trees. Behind us, trees. And maybe, I think, that's all they are? Trees. Trees that bend and break, snap and fall, and eventually rot.
You're about to say something when it hits us — the fresh smell of dog shit. We look down and it's there, matted on your trainers, which are whiter than white except for where they're brown.
‘Fuck's sake,' you whisper, standing, body-twist to check where it's got, and it's that, the deadwood drag of your foot through grass, which sets me off. Then you're gone too, and we're two witches cackling.
And that's when I hear the faint sound of mooing.
's stories have appeared in Truffle Magazine, Janus Literary
and The Hungry Ghost
, among others. He won 'Best Micro' at the 2021 Retreat West Awards. He lives in the UK. Find him on Twitter at @JDMontgomery_