Every afternoon Nandi traces her dreams into the ribs of a bull with no name. She nestles her face into his side, feels the movements of masticated grass through the corridors of his gut, and sometimes her voice joins the rumble, a Texas girl’s scat with a jazz band of cicadas. The bull’s hide is jet black and oil-slick with sweat, rank with the earthen wild of muscle and grit, and when Nandi stretches her anemic arms around the creature she too is strong. Two thousand pounds of strength pulse through her chest with each of the bull’s soporific breaths. Two thousand pounds of strength help her face another stone-silent dinner and another untethered day.
The bull is not tame, but he loves Nandi.
When Nandi’s mother left for Abilene, she took the dog but left a pair of Stella & Dot earrings that were missing one of the crystals. I’m sorry I’ll miss your prom, my sweet sparrow, the note said. Hugs and kisses and see you real soon.
Her father changed the locks, even though no one ever locks the door. He took out a box of clothes she left behind and ceremoniously dumped them on the front lawn. They stayed there for three days until it started raining and he had to trudge back out in his wellies and bathrobe to haul them to the trash. The plates with the little pink roses also went in the trash, replaced by Kroger styrofoam. Her father took up smoking again. He took up late nights in front of the computer, playing poker with people in Korea. He took up women, younger and younger, until the last one asked to borrow Nandi’s sweater and offered to paint her nails and exclaimed how much Kylie sounded like Nandi and then he drew the line. Albeit a shaky one.
When Nandi was little, she would run through the empty fields behind their house and pretend she was flying. She was a finch that would turn into a crane, and the crane would quickly become a hawk and then a raptor, but always she would fly, spinning and morphing and dancing in the wind. A bird is free when it has a nest to which it can return.
Now all she wants to do is stay close to the ground. The ground does not move. The currents in the air, they always change, but the ground, it does not move.
Nandi goes to school just often enough for her absences to go unnoticed. She sits in the back corner of every class, draws flowers in the margins of her notebook, searches the faces of all the boys for a future of security and finds none. She slips out at half past two and bikes the back roads to the cattle farm. Her frame is thin, so she wriggles snakelike under the electric fence.
The tag clipped to the bull’s ear reads 402, and she will lose him, too.
They lie side by side in the damp grass. Nandi’s fingers scritch his belly and start tracing the thoughts she doesn’t have the courage to commit to paper. One day I will not be alone. One day I will live by the sea and I will stop holding my breath and clenching my throat and swallowing fire instead of air. One day it will be safe.
She misses her father the most.
The bull encourages Nandi in Morse code through flared nostrils. His chiseled face is fierce. It is the face of an animal that would demolish anyone who threatens his charge.
And the cows, the gentle cows, brown eyes deep as pools, they trot to greet her as a baby of their own, boar-bristle tongues bathing her in affection.
She misses her father the most.