Then there was the sound of the rain slapping against the window. Mrs. Fischer was sitting on the edge of the bed in her bathrobe. I could see that she was speaking, but I couldn’t hear her so I told her that I was mostly deaf. My hearing was particularly bad in the morning. I read her lips. She said: “Don’t you have a hearing aid?” I did have a hearing aid, but it didn’t work well in the morning. There was a doleful silence, and I walked out of the room.
It was her house. Her children were sitting in the kitchen when I walked in. They were waiting for breakfast. They were dressed for school so they must have dressed themselves. They looked at me as if I were there mother and they expected me to feed them. They must have been eleven and nine. They didn't say anything, but I told them that Mrs. Fischer would be out in a minute. It was strange to refer to her as Mrs. Fischer in front of her own children, but I didn't know what else to call her. I didn't know what Mrs. Fischer’s first name was. I felt sorry for the children just sitting there with nothing to eat so I found bowls and cereal in the cupboard. It was the kind of cereal with a cheerful animal holding a bowl of his own cereal on the cover. I doled out into the two bowls what little cereal was left. The milk expired that day. Then Mrs. Fischer came into the kitchen where we all were. Mrs. Fischer looked me up and down like I was the choicest animal of whichever category at the county fair. "There you are," she said. I could hear her now.
When I got to the house, I decided that I'd never go home with Mrs. Fischer again no matter how good she looked. There was a message on my answering machine. I worked as a hand on several ranches in the area, and people were always calling. They had the idea that I had a way with cattle. So when I got home that morning, there was both a message on the answering machine and a note from my brother. The note read: "Call the woman in the message." I played the message, and it was a woman explaining how she was having cattle trouble. She said something about Dr. Biel before the machine cut her off. Dr. Biel was the vet.
Her farm was 60 miles away. It should have taken an hour to get there by car, but I knew a back way through the neighboring reservation where you might speed and never get caught. It was the normal practice to separate cattle into steer pair and heifer pair and have them graze separately so you could keep track of them, but here no one separated the cattle. No one cared. The people who owned the cattle leased the land from the tribe. They couldn't buy the land as it was tribally owned so they leased it. Tens of thousands of acres of it. I passed through the reservation and nearly passed the house of the woman that had called. I was driving a Chevy Malibu. Mrs. Fischer said it was an ugly car, but you should see the car she drives. Pot meet kettle.
I could see the woman I was to meet as I pulled the car in front of the house. She was completely still, as if someone had taken from the wall a painting of a woman in a white dress and placed it right in front of the window to confuse people. But as soon as I began to scale the steps up to the house, the woman in the painting moved. She opened the door after the first knock. She said something to me, but she spoke so softly that I had to turn my left ear towards her face to hear. She repeated her words. She said: "I'm so glad you came. And so quickly." I told her that I had to come today as I had another place to be the following day. As she listened to me, she fingered the pearls of her if-you-have-to-ask-you-can't-afford-it pearl necklace. When she’d decided she was done listening to me, she began to walk and I followed. We went straight through the house. We came to the back lawn where the cattle grazed lazily as cattle do. There was a very old man tending them. His skin was cracked and browned in the sun though I’d never found it particularly sunny in this part of Montana. The cattle were dying of a disease, which is what I’d suspected from her message on the phone.
I approached a calf sitting on the grass and introduced myself by rubbing the back of his neck.
"These cattle have Schmallenberg," I told her.
"What did you say?" the woman asked, approaching me more closely.
"They have Schmallenberg," I said, but this time I made sure my face was turned toward her. When you're deaf, sometimes your words aren't clearly understood.
"No, I don't think so," the woman said.
"It's a congenital disease, Ma'am."
"I know what it is."
I placed a hand under the calf's chin, and he said: "Help us."
The woman told me to follow her into the house, so I got up from the grass as the calf turned its face towards me. The old man watched me closely as I scaled the back steps. When we were inside, the woman said: "When I first moved here, I knew there was a spirit, but no one would believe me. I told my husband, and he asked me what a spirit would want to bother me for. I didn't do anything to it. I'd just moved in." I didn't know anything about that, so I just followed the woman until she finally stopped, which she did in the living room. This was where I’d seen her earlier and thought she was a painting.
"We can’t stay here,” the young woman, Hedy, said. “We have to go and visit my mother and see what she wants to do. She lives on the other side of the state, but she'll know what to do."
"There isn't much you can do, Miss," I told the woman. "Butchers won't buy sick cattle. And you'll have to notify the State Department of Ag so they know you have an outbreak."
"No, I don't think so," Hedy said. "I don’t have to notify anyone. I'll go and ask Mother what she wants to do."
"Can't you call her on the phone?"
"She never answers her phone," said Hedy. "You'll drive me there and we'll talk to her."
"I can't, Miss. I have to be somewhere tomorrow."
"I don't care how much it costs," Hedy said. "I'll pay you $5,000. Whatever you want. Just cancel your appointment and ride with me."
I wanted to tell Hedy that I couldn't go with her. I couldn't go and I didn't want to, but I couldn't get the words out. I opened my mouth to speak, but only air came out. The circulating dust in the house that we called air.
I made a phone call while the woman watched. She didn't change her clothes when it was time to leave. She threw a light coat over her dress and said: "Let's go.” She saw that I hesitated, but she didn’t care.
In the Chevy, she said: "It must be satisfying strong-arming people. Cattle."
"What did you say?" I asked her.
"I said it must be interesting working with cattle all day. I'm sure it makes you big and strong."
"I don't know about that, Miss."
It was several hours to Hedy's mother's place. When we reached it, Hedy invited me in. "Come in," she said. She knew exactly where her mother would be. She told the maid that I was helping her on the property and someone would clean up the mud from my boots later. I told Hedy it was old mud and it wouldn't track on the floor, but she didn't hear. It's possible that I didn't say anything. We found Hedy's mother in the dining room. She was sat by herself at the head of a long table that seemed as if it had been hewn from a single tree.
"You took your sweet time," Hedy's mother said.
"I didn't think I would come at all," said Hedy.
"Well, you took your time," said Hedy's mother.
Hedy sat at the table near her mother, but I remained standing where I was by the door. The talk between Hedy and Hedy's mother soon descended into an argument. Even if you couldn't hear them, you could tell by how forceful their words were and how tense their bodies had become that they were gradually raising their voices and becoming increasingly more irritated with one another. Hedy's mother had an empty plate of food in front of her. There wasn't even a crumb. At one point, Hedy looked at the plate repeatedly as if aggravated that she hadn't been offered anything to eat.
"We'll come back later when it's time for the Schmallenberg meat," said Hedy, turning to me finally.
"I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"I said we'll come back down at suppertime and have something to eat. You can stay in the guest room upstairs, the one at the end of the hall. Or you can sit down here. I don't care."
Although Hedy was beautiful, her face always had a pained expression like a person who was very late on their way to work. This expression intensified when she argued with her mother. I left the room and went out into the hall. There were deer heads and leather saddles, which you commonly see in old farmhouses like these. I chose a certain chair since it was close to a table where magazines had been placed like in a veterinarian's waiting room. The topmost magazine had to do with interior design, and I chose that one to read. I didn’t have a reason. I opened it, and inside there was an article about a French actress named Juliette Binoche who was taking the magazine readers on a tour of her apartment in Paris. She seemed proud and elated to be showing off her apartment.
I briefly went up to the guest room that had been allotted for me, but it seemed that as soon as I got up there, I was called back down. It was the maid. I couldn't hear her words distinctly to say if she called me by name or said, "Supper's ready." I only heard a sudden bark from a strange person, and I assumed I was being called down to supper.
Several hours had passed since I'd left Hedy with her mother. I'd assumed that Hedy had spoken with her mother about what must be done about her Schmallenberg-infected cattle, but when I saw how they glared at one another I realized that they had been discussing old matters. Hedy's mother was distinctly the older person, but she had beautiful hair without any hint of gray and there was something in her demeanor that was youthful. "Supper will be served shortly," she said to me as I took a seat at the table. She said it as if I was a guest and not simply a worker that had come with her daughter. It was charitable and polite of her, or so it seemed to me. Supper appeared soon enough, brought out by the maid. As soon as the maid appeared, I knew it was a meat dish. The maid pushed the plates on a serving cart. She had napkins with images of steer heads on them, which she handed to us. She served Hedy first, then me, and Hedy's mother last.
Hedy regarded the food on her plate, and her face resumed its pained expression.
"Do you think this is funny, Mother?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" asked Hedy's mother. "It’s just meatloaf prepared from cattle with Schmallenberg. I'm demonstrating to you that even if you can't sell the cattle, you can put them to good use. See?" And Hedy's mother carefully cut herself a corner of meat off the tasty-smelling meatloaf rectangle and brought it up to her lips.
"You can't serve meat with Schmallenberg to people," said Hedy. "It's banned all over the world. It's a contagion."
"It isn’t a contagion," said Hedy's mother. "See, I'm eating it. I'm not sprouting two heads or growing a tail. Nothing of the sort. Just eat your meat, Hedy. It's getting cold."
"It's just like you to do something so ridiculous," said Hedy.
"There's nothing ridiculous about it," said Hedy's mother. "You're the one being ridiculous with your insistence on being dissatisfied and contrary."
Hedy's mother had styled her hair in a bouffant hairdo, which suited her face shape but also made her threatening, as if she had prepared for battle. Hedy and her mother began to argue again, and soon I couldn't make out their words anymore. I only heard when Hedy said: "You're terrible. I wish you had given me up for adoption."
My only good memories of being a boy were when I’d go to South Dakota to visit my brother and his family. He's my half-brother. I used to stay with Luke and his father, who was like a character in a sitcom. Luke’s father was always reading the newspaper and making loud slapping noises with the pages: yanking them perfectly straight and flipping them loudly. I couldn't always hear him because I had poorer hearing aids back then, but even when I couldn't hear him, I pictured the sounds. At times I hear sounds as tiny people dancing across my field of vision. That's how my ears translate the sound.
My half-brother's father used to hunt and bring all manner of dead animals home. When I was a boy, I thought hunting was cruel to the animals. Because he had a job working as the town's only attorney, Luke's father primarily hunted things that he’d caught in traps. Some of the traps were near the house. The sound of the trap doors falling and capturing the animals is something that I’ve never forgotten.
Hedy and her mother continued arguing. Their staccato voices were like military boots marching in parade. Or tiny military people parading across my field of vision. It seemed silly that Hedy had come to her mother's house solely to argue with her. People tend to have settled patterns with other people. I stopped listening to them and turned my gaze to the window where the rain had stopped.
Then I noticed that Hedy wasn't at her position at the table. She was standing behind me, and I could see her in my peripheral vision. I had eaten most of the meat on my plate as I was sure that Hedy's mother hadn't meant what she’d said about the cattle being infected with Schmallenberg. Schmallenberg causes arthrogryposis, scoliosis, and all manner of orthopedic problems in cattle. I couldn't make out Hedy's words, but when I turned round completely to face her, she was yelling: "I'm speaking to you. We were both speaking to you. Why aren't you listening?” With a rapid hand movement, Hedy ripped my hearing aid out of my ear and tossed it onto the floor. She stepped on it and crushed it under her shoe.
I pushed my chair back and marched out of the dining room. I went up to the guest room where I'd left my jacket. I fumed as I sat in the room on the edge of the bed. Then I stood up and paced a while. I didn't know how late it was because there wasn't a clock in the room and my mobile phone had died on the way. I decided it was silly to stay up angry, and as there was nothing to do, I prepared for bed. I took off my clothes and folded them neatly atop the dresser in the room. The tag of my sleeveless shirt was coming off. It had an L for large. It was a size too big for me. In the mirror, I saw the space behind my ear where the behind-the-ear hearing aid and cord had been.
I quickly fell asleep, and I was surprised to find that I slept more soundly that I’d any reason to expect. I awoke some hours before dawn, which I understood from the bleak and onward-marching darkness. I knew there was someone else in the room with me. I sat up in bed. My eyes adjusted to the dark, and I saw that there was a woman standing in the room wearing a floor-length dress. It was Juliette Binoche, and she said: "I'm sorry that you ended up in a house full of strange people. I'm sorry, honey." She approached the bed and reached out for my hand. I quickly dressed, and when I was done, I took her hand and left the room. We descended the stairs with careful footsteps. Juliette said a few words as we walked from the last stair of the staircase to the house's door. Her voice was soft and elegant, which is how I imagine Juliette Binoche's voice to be.
We left the house. The Chevy was parked not far off from the door, and the tall grasses in front of the house were higher than I remembered. I walked with Juliette to the car, and I suddenly heard the rat-a-tat her shoes made against the ground. It had begun to rain again. I heard the sound that Hedy made when she turned in her bed in her room. The sound of the rain slapping against the window.