Dublin2019’s Irish Fiction Friday continues with a fantastic short story by Irish writer Nigel Quinlan. We hope you enjoy this modern fairy tale, which will leaving you hungry for more. Special thanks to Nigel for sharing his story with us.
Nigel Quinlan is an Irish writer, born in Limerick and living in Tipperary. His children’s fantasy novel, The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox, published by Orion in the UK and Roaring Brook Press in the US, was noted as an “exhilarating debut” by Kirkus Reviews. His stories have been published in Albedo1, and his half a short story collection, This Way Up, with Dermot Ryan, was published by Aeon Press. “A Cow For A Queen” is based on a piece of local folklore, “The Legend Of Knockshegouna,” which can be found in T. Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends And Traditions Of Southern Ireland, or rather an extremely vague and mangled version Nigel heard before he found the full story. He’s pretty sure that the full version would not have inspired this story, so there’s a lot to be said for vague and mangled.
A Cow For A Queen
By Nigel Quinlan
When the second butcher’s shop opened in Cloughjordan, there wasn’t a single person in the village who thought it would last. Cloughjordan already had a butcher’s and he did just fine, thank you very much. While nobody begrudged the newcomer the opportunity to throw his money away on a foolish venture, neither would they be flocking to his counter to sample his wares.
But what an odd shop it was. Fred Armstrong rented a house on Main Street and sold meat from his front door. He never invited anyone in, just took their request and their money, grunted, and went back inside, closing the door. The customer was left waiting on the street, wind, rain or shine, anything from two to twenty minutes, before the door opened again and a bundle wrapped in greaseproof paper was thrust into the customer’s waiting hands.
There was outrage. The other merchants were aghast. Cloughjordan had no place for this sort of cowboy operation. The health and safety regulations that were being flouted alone could bring a lightning raid from the sort of government department that left scorched earth in their wake.
The queues outside Fred Armstrong’s house grew longer and longer. Word spread that his meat was delicious, delectable, mouth-watering and reasonably priced; but it was limited. Only a certain number of cuts were available for sale each day, and only beef. Once they had tasted a sample of Armstrong’s beef, however, nobody much cared for pork or chicken. All that mattered was that they reached the top of the queue and received their piece of meat. Even the cheapest, stringiest of cuts, even the lights and offal were better than anyone else’s juiciest sirloin.
Dismayed, Charlie the butcher, John from the Centra and Pat from the Quik-Pick cut their their orders for all sorts of meat to the bone. No matter how low they slashed their prices, their chicken, pork and beef sat in their refrigerated displays and slowly spoiled, untouched and unregarded. The stock in Charlie’s freezer could have fed the village for a year. In gloomy despair, they thought about reporting Armstrong’s illegal trading to the authorities, but dared not. They ‘d be murdered in their beds by his maddened customers.
By now, a mere month after he had opened, nearly everybody in the village was a customer, or wanted to be. Even the vegetarian hippies gave up their principles and dined on burgers and rib roasts, salivating as the rich juices cooked and the smell filled their kitchens and wafted through their houses. It was some sort of meat madness. Fights broke out in the street when positions in the queue were disputed. People camped on Armstrong’s doorstep from the early morning hours. Housewives dared not come home without some piece of Armstrong meat for their ravening families.
But every day, sooner or later, the meat ran out and Armstrong no longer answered the knock on his door, however loud or desperate. He ignored all pleadings and brooked no favourites. Only then, fearful and grudging, would the unlucky leftovers move on to Charlie’s or the Centra or the Quik-Pick to poke through their inferior offerings. Some would force themselves to buy something. Others would give up in despair and go home, preferring to starve.
Siobhan was one of the few to resist the delicious meat. Partly because she had just never really liked the stuff and partly because she could not look at a plate of mince or chicken or rashers without seeing the tiny young calf or chick or piglet it had come from looking up at her with huge round eyes brimming with tears and asking her why, why did she have to be so cruel? So, even though her Mum and Dad and her brother devoured their shepherd s pie or their spare ribs or their cow s hooves, Siobhan would sit, turned slightly away from them, and poke her potatoes and carrots without enthusiasm – vegetables had become a bit of an afterthought lately and tended to be over or undercooked – trying not to listen to the sounds of eating or smell the savoury, greasy aroma of cooked meat.
She hadn’t had much of an appetite lately.
Her house was right next door to Armstrong’s, and despite her meat free diet, Siobhan found herself spending larger and larger portions of each day standing at the butcher’s door. No sooner would the breakfast things be cleared away then it was out you go to Armstrong’s and no amount of complaining or stamping her feet or crying or raging would persuade her parents to relent. They had to work, David was too young to trust out on his own and it was the middle of the summer holidays, which meant she had nothing better to do.
Teeth gritted at the unfairness, she tried to make the best of it, stealing a chair from the kitchen, bringing her books, her phone, her earphones, but still. The other people in the queue freaked her out. Their glassy stares, their hungry mouths slightly parted to show eager teeth, the way no matter how early she was pushed out onto the street she was never the first there and, freakiest of all, the way none of the other people in the queue minded being there. No wait was too long, no weather too hot or too wet, no day too long and stultifying and boring. Siobhan found herself wishing she was back at school. There’s nothing to make a girl appreciate the value of a good geography lesson than having to spend day after day after day watching the road and the dust blowing past in the wind, surrounded by silent and staring meat-eaters.
David would try to keep her company. He had the five-year-old’s knack for self-entertainment and could crouch by the kerb for hours, inventing epic stories and games with nothing more than a twig and a pebble and maybe a bottle-top. Siobhan envied him, sitting in the warm lassitude of boredom, contemplating the idea of running away from home. She didn’t want to run away from home, she quite liked her home and her Mum and Dad and David. It had all changed, however, when Armstrong moved in next door. It was all his fault.
Something had to be done.
One night she set the alarm on her phone to wake her at three in the morning, then lay awake all night waiting for the alarm to ring. When it did she rose, dressed and crept out of her room, down the stairs, through the kitchen and into the back garden. When someone touched her hand and spoke her name she froze, rigid with terror until she realised that it was David.
A hushed, one-sided argument followed in the moonlit garden as Siobhan urged him to return to bed and David ignored her and wondered what they were doing and where they were going and wasn’t she scared of the dark, cause he wasn’t, except the really dark bits with monsters in them, those bits he was scared of, but he had his space ranger pyjamas and his atom-blaster gun so he d keep Siobhan safe and she didn’t have to be scared at all.
Siobhan gave up. It wasn’t as if she was doing something dangerous. It was just a prank, or at least that’s what it’d be if she was caught. She resolved not to be caught.
With David at her back, covering all the scarier shadows with his atom blaster gun in case any monsters would have the temerity to show themselves, she lifted the loose slats from the fence and slipped through the gap and into Armstrong’s garden. When Mrs Hall had still been alive and Siobhan had been a lot younger she had used this gap all the time to visit the kind old lady and talk to to her in her warm kitchen and drink lucozade and eat curranty cake. When Mrs Hall had gotten sick and had to go to a different place the house had been left empty. Mrs Hall had died years ago – Siobhan still remembered crying at her funeral as the most intense thing that had happened in her young life – and the house had mouldered and the garden had fallen into wildness, full of brambles and nettles, so Siobhan hadn’t used the gap in years.
The first thing that happened when she went into Armstrong’s garden was she walked into a clump of nettles and brambles. Pain flared along her left hand and thorns ripped at her shoes and trouser legs. Luckily she hadn’t worn shorts, though she didn’t feel very lucky. Armstrong hadn’t cleared the garden, apparently. She waved her hand to cool the angry hot pain, pulled her feet free, then turned and hoisted David up onto her shoulders to keep him clear of the hostile vegetation.
Navigating her way through the tangled wilderness was a tricky, frustrating job, hard on the shoes and trousers, made doubly so by having an excitable five-year-old on board who had to be hushed every ten seconds and who kept twisting and turning and wriggling as though he wanted to dive head-first into a thicket of nettles. She kept expecting the lights of the house to come on and Armstrong’s gruff voice angrily demand to know who was there.
The house remained dark and silent and Siobhan threaded her way to the relatively clear and flattened area between the back of the house and the shed. In the pale, silvery light she saw that a path had been worn between the back door and the door of the shed. Despite all her efforts and resulting agonies, she really, really did not want to break into Armstrong’s house. Now that she had reached this point, she realised that her plan had been a little vague on the next step. Fortunately the shed offered her a workable option. Check out the shed, then go back to bed with at least a tiny feeling of accomplishment. Because in the end, how could she possibly have imagined that she could have somehow stood against the ravenous appetite of the village and her parents? What could she really have done this night that would have ended the reign of meat?
Feeling a curious mixture of relief and resignation, she lowered David from her shoulders and approached the door of the shed. An enormous padlock hung from the shiny metal bolt, securing the shed against anything short of a battering ram. The backdoor of Armstrong s house was, from what she could see, literally rotting on its hinges. A burglar could break in just by breathing on it. What was so important about the shed that it needed and expensive-looking bolt and padlock? Maybe he kept all his money in there. Well, she had no intention of stealing the guy’s money, but her curiosity about the shed was overwhelming.
Alarmed, she realised that David had nipped round the side of the shed, and when she followed him, he was shinning up the crumbling stone wall to the window. Joining him, she hung precariously from the sill with toes jammed into gaps in the wall, and tried to see in. The window was too filthy to make anything out, though the wooden frame proved to be in an even sorrier state than the back door and crumbled to dust under their scrabbling fingers. With a creak, it came away from one of its rusting hinges to hang lopsidedly from the other, allowing Siobhan and David to push it up and poke their heads through a little.
The shed was darker than the night outside. They blinked and peered but could not penetrate the murk. Siobhan swung back a bit for a moment, wondering what to do next, trying to figure how long it would take to go back to her own house and filch the torch from dad s drawer. This allowed David to pull himself up and through the window before Siobhan could so much as squeak a protest. Trying to grab at his vanishing legs she lost her grip and her toes slipped out of their cracks and she fell backwards into the grass. Landing in a crouch, she launched herself straight back up the wall. It was much too late to do anything other than to hiss after him to get back there right now, this instant, or they were both going to end up in jail.
David cheerfully ignored her, declared that he was going to find the light, and dragged something across the floor to the door. The window was much too small for Siobhan, so all she could do was squint helplessly into the darkness and hiss at him to for God’s sake come back.
Something moved. Something that wasn’t David. Something large and heavy and breathing.
The light came on and she screamed, barely managing to clamp a hand to her mouth to stifle it.
David stood on a chair, a rickety old thing held together by wire and string, one hand on the switch beside the door, blinking in the sudden rush of light. The shed had been painted red. Floor and ceiling, walls and door were all splattered and sprayed with varying shades and thickness. From the wooden beams that ran along the ceiling hung rows of knives and saws and cleavers and cruel-looking instruments she couldn’t put a name to. They too were stained with red, but also orange with rust and black and green with age and mould. In the centre of the shed was a large wooden block, like a table. Its surface was covered in cuts and scars, bitten deep into the wood by knives and cleavers thrust by a strong hand.
Limping out of the corner where it had lain until disturbed by their arrival was the monster.
Bigger than a horse, it filled the shed with its bulk, its breath heaving and whooshing. Standing on four legs, coming closer, it was dripping, dripping, as though it had just emerged from a shower. Dripping red stuff, like the paint on the walls and the floor. Except this stuff was the paint. Its body glistened as it moved, and she realised that she was seeing meat. Meat and blood and muscles and fat and sinew. An animal stripped of its skin, raw and trembling like an anatomy lesson come to life. The large brown eyes sought her out and held her gaze.
“David,” she whispered loudly. “Get out, please.”
She couldn’t look away from those suffering eyes until they turned to look down at David, who had walked right up to the monstrosity and patted one of its flanks. His hand came away bloody.
“Poor cow,” he said.
“David,” she begged. “Turn off the light and get back up here. Please, David. Now.”
At last he shook his head regretfully and wished the creature good night, then walked back to the light and turned it off, dragged the chair under the window and climbed out. Trembling, Siobhan paused only to throw up in a thicket before hoisting him back on her shoulders, scrambling through the garden to the gap. She washed the blood off his hands in the bathroom and put him to bed before crawling between her own sheets and pressing her face into the pillow to blot out the nightmare that kept swimming before her eyes.
With sore eyes and a hollow head she dutifully trudged out to join the queue after a breakfast she barely looked at. Her innocent cornflakes had been swimming in blood. Her father had said something about frying up the liver in the fridge so they could eat with relish the inner organs of the beast, and she had fled.
Sitting on the edge of the footpath with her knees drawn up and her arms around her legs she wondered what to do. The thing in the shed kept limping into her mind. There was no way she could face Fred Armstrong and ask him for meat without being violently ill and hysterical. She could not, would not take any more meat off that man, nor bring it into her home, nor suffer it to be cooked. With a sinking feeling, she realised that she was going to have to run away from home after all.
With the decision made, she felt resolved, and began planning what to take and what to leave behind. Her absence wouldn’t be noticed until dinner time, when her parents would be discommoded the absence of any meat, so she had all day.
David came out of the house and started talking to a little old lady who was hanging around the tail end of the queue. It was irritating, but she’d probably have to take him with her. She couldn’t leave him behind to eat that stuff every night. It just wasn’t possible.
As she watched, the little old lady, hunched over and wrapped in a thick old woolen shawl even on a hot day like today, reached out and took David’s hand in her own crabbed claw and led him across the road and down the street. Siobhan stared, amazed. David had been diligently instructed in the varied and colourful dangers posed by strangers, no matter how kindly or generous they appeared to be, and that little old lady was the picture perfect image of an evil old witch, so what the heck did David think he was doing? Flipping five-year-olds.
The weird thing, though, was how fast they seemed to be moving. In the second it took for these thoughts to flash through Siobhan’s mind, David and the little old woman were halfway down the village. Siobhan jumped to her feet and went after them. By the time she reached the other side of the street they were turning down the Step Road, surely breaking several land-speed records, pretty good for a hopping little boy and a hobbling old woman. Or maybe her horrible discovery and her sleepless night had unhinged her from reality and she was going mad.
She started to run, sprinting down the Step Road, watching the two tiny figures turn left way up at the triangle, and then right into the woods. After that it was hopeless, wandering through the tangled paths, calling David’s name at the top of her voice until she went hoarse, then calling some more no matter how much it hurt her throat. She knew she had to get help, but when she tried to find her way out it seemed to have vanished. Retracing her steps just led her deeper into the trees. The woods weren’t that big, she couldn’t get lost, she was just scared and confused and turned around. Her phone told her it wasn’t getting a signal, so she couldn’t even summon help.
When even the tiniest hint of a path had disappeared and she was clambering through undergrowth and over fallen boughs and fighting her way through thick tangles of vines, she finally found them. The trees that had been closing in around her suddenly spread out, and there was a glade, filled with golden light as thick as honey and cool green grass and birdsong. Butterflies fluttered on wings white and yellow and scarlet and David pursued them with his arms waving and his laughter like the music of silver bells. The old woman sat and watched from a large piece of wood shaped like a throne which was draped in thick garlands of wild flowers. The scent was sweet and warm and heady. Siobhan stared at it all in a daze, her panic forgotten.
Then the old woman turned to look at her and Siobhan realised she wasn’t an old woman but a young one, beautiful and regal and poised, in a dress of green velvet embroidered with gold and edged with scarlet. Her long russet hair was gracefully braided and hung to her waist, and a simple gold circlet sat at her brow.
“Well,” said the queen. “You’d better come in and sit down. We have a lot to talk about.”
Head swimming with perfume, sweet and intoxicating, Siobhan entered the glade and lay herself down in the soft grass at the woman’s feet. The woman laid a gentle hand on her head and stroked her hair, and all Siobhan’s cares and worries and nightmares fell away, and they sat together and watched David sport in the summer light for the longest time.
“Would you like to stay here with me forever, Siobhan? Would you like to live in this place where there is no pain and no care, to be forever young with your brother, away from the wickedness of the world? Would you like that, Siobhan?”
Siobhan nodded eagerly. Yes, she would like that very much.
The queen’s face was grave.
“Then there is something you must do for me first.”
Her graceful fingers gestured, and a vision swam into the air above the clearing. A bright summer’s day on a rolling bogland of yellow grass and gorse and bog cotton. Across the uneven plain, as steady and sure as though it were a paved road, came the queen, leading a vast crowd of extraordinary figures. Some were tiny, no larger than the palm of Siobhan’s hand, and they swooped and darted on transparent wings, hovering like dragonflies, plucking rare orchids from beneath the gorse to weave into the queen’s hair. Others were the size of men and women, though not their shape. Covered in tawny fur, or with skin coloured blue or green, with horns curling from their foreheads and hair like cornstalks or garlands of willow. Some had the feet of goats, others went on all fours like wolves. Some were tall as trees, and their eyes glowed from under craggy brows, frightening and wild and angry.
Strangest and most magnificent of them all was the queen and the animal that bore her. A cow the size of a horse. There was nothing bovine or domesticated about this animal. It was to the calmly chewing friesians in the fields of Ireland as a dinosaur is to a lizard, or an eagle to a chicken. A cow like that could win the Grand National without breaking a sweat. Her gait was noble and sure, her muscles strong, her eyes keen and full of calm wisdom. Siobhan knew those eyes.
“My court, my retinue. Long vanished into trees and ditches, crushed under the foundation stones of a thousand houses. And my companion, my friend. The great red cow, Borua, my last remaining friend. You have seen her.”
Siobhan nodded. The scene changed, darkened. Wind howled and rain spattered through trees. A terrible moaning filled the night.
“We were glimpsed one day, the two of us, by a man. Some men can see us, though they are rare and we hide ourselves as deep as we can. We walked through the woods together one day and he saw us, and he laid a trap. A pit was dug and cunningly concealed. Into that pit we both plunged. With a toss of her mighty head Borua flung me to the edge where I pulled myself to freedom. I wept. I wailed. I could not save my friend.”
Siobhan was crying at the aching grief in the queen’s voice. Blinding light flooded the darkness and a truck roared through the woods and stopped. The vision vanished.
“He took her. Imprisoned her. You know what unspeakable crimes he performs on her every day. Your neighbours feast on her torn and tortured flesh, which grows anew each night. He will not let her die.”
She looked at Siobhan, and Siobhan shrank from her wild, blazing eyes.
“You must bring her to me. Release her from this bondage. Then you can join me here and live forever in peace and happiness.”
Everything faded. The light, the glade, David, the queen, all swam into mist and drifted away, and Siobhan found herself sitting on the rough ground at the entrance to the woods. The last thing she heard was David asking her to bring his space ranger atom smasher gun as well. A woman walking her dogs looked at her curiously as she went past and asked her if she was alright. Siobhan wiped her eyes, nodded, climbed to her feet and trudged home where she was put to bed by her incandescent parents without any supper for not getting any meat. Nobody mentioned David.
The thing was, as she lay on top of the bed still fully dressed, she actually knew the story of the fairy queen riding the cow. She’d heard it in school years ago, and like the rest of the class had giggled at the ridiculous notion of anyone, let alone a queen, riding a cow. As far as she could remember it was supposed to have happened, well, somewhere else, not Cloughjordan and not the woods, though nearby. Knockshegouna Hill, on the road to Birr was where she finished and somewhere out on the plain was where she started from. Modreeney, wasn’t it?
Whatever glamour the queen had put on her had worn off. If she could she would have put the whole thing out of her mind as a weird dream. Unfortunately, she could not forget David. Or maybe she would, in time, just as her parents had. Nor, in all conscience, could she leave the poor animal in the shed next door to suffer horribly just so her neighbours could have fresh meat.
It was tricky. She hadn’t the first notion how to rescue the cow. If she somehow rescued the cow, the queen would throw a glamour on her, and she and David would vanish into the woods never to be seen again. This was bad. This was even worse than knowing you hadn’t studied for an exam. If only she’d stayed in bed last night and never seen that poor cow. Then she’d probably be queuing at Fred Armstrong s for meat for the rest of her life. No thanks.
Once again she rose at three. This time no small hand reached up to put a fright through her and she felt a pang. If anything happened to David she’d never forgive herself. Even if the queen stole her memory of him, part of her would always know that she had somehow, horribly lost something precious and dear to her. His space ranger atom blaster gun lay on the floor of his room and fitted snugly in the pocket of her fleece.
On her way through Armstrong’s garden she stooped and picked some nettles. Mrs Hall had shown her how to do it without getting stung. She put them in the same pocket as the atom smasher gun.
At the door of Armstrong’s shed she stopped for a while and took some deep breaths, her heart going like mad in her chest and an unpleasant sense of wrongness all through her body. She raised the lump hammer she had taken from dad’s toolbox, wrapped it in the towel she’d taken from the bathroom, and began to awkwardly strike at the lock.
It took forever. The towel muffled the sound of the hammerstrikes, but each time it was hit, the lock rattled against the bolt, and there was nothing she could do about that. To her frightened ears it sounded as loud an orchestra tuning up. Setting her shoulders, she bashed and bashed at the lock until, muscles aching, wrists sore, she felt as though both arms were about to fall off.
Then the lock fell off the bolt and landed on the ground with a quiet thump. Groaning with relief she set the hammer down and tried to make her arms work again, waving them up and down. Then she remembered why she was here and threw away the lock and turned on the light. Once more the cow came limping out of its corner.
It was still horrible. It was even more horrible knowing the story.
“I’m here to save you,” she whispered, and the ruined cow looked at her, then nodded its great head once and raised a hoof. A thin chain ran from the leg to a hoop fixed to the wall. Siobhan forced herself forward, gagging at the sight of the tortured flesh and the smell of raw meat and ordure.
The chain wasn’t tied or fastened or locked. It had merely been wrapped four or five times around the shinbone. Unlike the rest of the meat hanging off the cow’s body, the shinbone was black and crisp and smelled rotten and off. Once she loosened the chain and pulled it way, a shudder ran through the cow’s body. Siobhan thought the poor beast was going to die and fall on top of her. The cow’s flesh rippled, and parts of it seemed to grow and spread, knitting with muscles and bone. It was disgusting. She looked away, and there was Fred Armstrong, standing in the doorway with his bloodstained apron and his butcher’s cap. Did he sleep in them, she wondered.
“Knew I heard something,” he said. “Come over here.”
Timidly, she stood and walked across to stand before him, head bowed. Would he call the police? Her parents? She was in trouble, she knew. But he wouldn’t want anyone to discover his secret, either, so maybe he’d try and put a scare in her and let her go.
“Next door’s girl, aren’t you?” he grunted. “Trying to steal my cow. Who put you up to it? Charlie the butcher? Well, now. Back up there a bit. Hup!”
He pushed her back to the big wooden block, then lifted her up, and she was sitting. Then he put a hand on her shoulder and she was thrown flat on her back. He reached up and took something down from where it hung on the beams overhead.
“What are you doing?” she squeaked.
Armstrong examined the instrument he had in his hand. It was long and had a serrated edge.
“Little extra in tomorrow’s meat,” he said, and she screamed and struggled helplessly under his powerful grip. He studied her with a professional detachment, the instrument held up, as though deciding where to start.
She brought the nettles out of her pocket and whipped them across his eyes, though without much force. Armstrong howled, dropped the instrument and fell to his knees, one hand to his face, the other grasping at Siobhan’s fleece as she rolled off the block and dashed for the door.
Once out of the shed, she turned, and saw the cow squeezing its great head out after her, the body following. Not allowing herself to think about what had nearly happened to her, she changed her plan. Instead of bringing the cow through the fence and around the side of her own house, she launched a mighty kick at Armstrong’s back door and crashed through into his kitchen, which was dark and smelled of burnt grease and rotten food.
She charged along blindly, groping her way through the length of the house, along slippery floor and damp walls, veering to avoid lumpish shapes and unidentifiable objects. Hooves clattered in pursuit, and things broke and cracked and shattered, marking the cow’s passage close behind. The front door was newer and too solid to attempt to kick down so she had to unlock and open it the conventional way. When she stopped to grapple with the handle and the lock she realised how scared she was and how sure she was that Fred Armstrong was directly behind her with a knife and a saw, ready to skin, bone and joint her. She wrenched the door open and fell out onto the street, stumbling along in the middle of the road.
The cow loped past her like a gallumphing express train, then stopped and looked back at her and gestured with her head. Siobhan balked at the idea of climbing on the bloodied back, in part out of squeamishness, and in part convinced that she would only hurt the poor abused creature. Then she heard a roar, and Fred Armstrong lurched out of the house. Though she could not see them clearly in the light of the orange streetlamps, she could imagine his face and eyes, the streaks of angry red spots, the swelling skin, the tears streaming down.
Without giving the matter a second thought, she climbed onto the cow s back. The cow performed a little dip as Siobhan made her jump and in a moment she was perched high, slipping a little, and sliding. As she anticipated, the cow’s surface was slimy and wet and horribly smooth. Yet she could feel it moving underneath her, replacing itself, regenerating. Borua was getting stronger very passing minute.
Siobhan expected the cow to flee straight to the woods. Borua had other ideas. She turned to face Fred Armstrong, who was running down the street towards them, waving his knife, demanding the return of his livelihood. Borua lowered her head. Siobhan pressed herself against the cow’s back and hung on for dear life. They charged.
It was no match. One insane butcher against a ton and a half of angry fairy cow. He flew high, fell under the flailing hooves, rolled to the gutter and lay still. Borua gave a contemptuous shake of her head, and with enormous dignity, trotted away down the street and into the night, to the woods. By the time they got there she was covered in long, thick red hair. Siobhan hugged her magnificent back and wished the ride could go on forever. Around them the night was warm and still, mysterious and silent and alive.
Borua picked her way along the paths, then through the trees. The queen was waiting for them in her glade. Moonlight slanted through leaves and branches, dappling the grass with a silver glow and filling her eyes like water overflowing from a well. She sat in her wooden throne, gently stroking David’s hair as he slept peacefully curled in her lap. When she saw Borua she gently laid him down on the grass and ran forward to tearfully embrace her friend and companion. Siobhan slid from Borua’s back, her mind filling with the heartbreaking scent of night-blossom. A gentle, beautiful ache of love and longing caused her heart to swell. The thought of staying in this place forever was a joy to her, and all other considerations melted away like dew under the noonday sun.
The queen turned to her and smiled, her gratitude and her love flowing from her in waves that washed through Siobhan, leaving her giddy and helpless. Then Borua’s great head came down and nudged her, pushing her away. The queen frowned, and Siobhan resisted, stepping deeper into the clearing. David stirred in his sleep, then sat up, rubbing his eyes.
“Did you bring my gun, Siobhan?” he asked. She went over and sat beside him and reached into her pocket. In the moment before her hand closed around the nettles, she saw the queen, her face of loss and sadness, and Borua, looking intently across at her. In the cow’s glistening eyes, she glimpsed a farewell.
The sting of the nettles burned into her fingers and palm and she cried out. Her head cleared and the clearing and queen and the cow dissolved into moonlight. With David beside her, she sat once more on the rough stony soil of the wood’s main entrance.
After a while she picked herself up, put David on her shoulders and walked home. Dawn was spreading through the sky and Fred Armstrong was moaning feebly from his gutter when she reached her house. Considerately, she put a call through to the ambulance service before she went to bed.
The magic mystery meat vanished, and so did Fred Armstrong. There was grumbling and resistance, and an entire generation would spend their days reminiscing about the succulence of Armstrong’s meat, and long to taste once more the luscious juiciness of his steaks. Though reluctantly, grudgingly, they renewed their acquaintance with the shelves and fridges of the Centra, the Quick Pick and Charlie the butcher, it was a longing that would haunt them their entire lives. As customers, they tended to be exceptionally picky.
Siobhan’s parents, a bit dazed and thoroughly ashamed of themselves, were solicitous and considerate and let her pick their next holiday destination and cooked her favourite meals for her until she told them to cut it out and things went more or less back to normal.
Siobhan had her own longing to contend with. She remembered much of what had happened that summer as though it were a particularly vivid dream. The memory of the beauty and peace and enchantment of the clearing, by day or by night, pierced her soul, and she sometimes wandered the woods, searching for something, scared she might find it.
David, on the other hand, never mentioned his time with the queen, though he often asked after the cow, and Siobhan would reassure him that she was fine and free and happy and, yes, her skin grew back and she didn’t hurt anymore.
Neither of them would ever touch meat.