FOLLOWING THE COW’S PATH • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

He split her like a bloodwurst and left her like butcher’s ware — cold dead meat drawing flies.

But Friedegunde my sister was more — not a surrenderer and not silenced. I held my scream, knowing she hadn’t screamed but fought — breath all saved for the fight.

Tight in her broken hand was a fine stamped button from his coat.

Men hereabouts wear that sigil in fealty, but only two would sport it in gold.

Graf Ingulf was a rough harsh man but said to have honor, in his way. Ingo his brother did not.

I told no one. All holding justice in their hands dined at Graf Ingulf’s table.

I kissed my sister and swore with the taste of her blood in my mouth I’d find justice myself. Then I ran shouting for neighbors to help me carry her home.

***

She’d laughed when we called her Gundele — said pet names didn’t suit a big strong girl like her.

She’d been walking home with the egg money from market day when he’d stolen the only thing of value — leaving the few silver pennies, spattered with her blood, on the ground. Now I was alone but for chickens and the little cow.

I felt as though my heart was bounded up with thorns.

***

It had been every night for a month now, the same thing.

Hear me, and follow me, said my little cow Mandelchen, and we will find justice for Gundele.

It didn’t feel like a dream.

***

I went to milk her next morning. Such depths in her great dark eyes!

Afterwards she flicked her great brush of a tail and knocked the wooden cup off its nail, straight into my hands. Then she stamped.

“Well, little heart,” I said, “if you’ve a plan in your head you are smarter than I am,” and I let her out.

***

Though knowing the way to the common meadows she wandered close to the road instead, and I kept walking and wondering what strangeness this was.

And just past the hard curve — where great trees blocked and shadowed the morning sun — were blood and broken smashed things — panting of terrified horses and moaning from human throats.

A broken axle, the two liverymen dead — and Sabine, lady to Graf Ingulf, crawling from the carriage, her little maid after her, sobbing.

It was as though my dream of vengeance had veered off-course and yet I felt myself masterful.

“I’ll help you, my lady!” With my arm bracing her and the little maid pushing, we got the countess Sabine out onto the rutted verge. Her belly was a hillock, precariously rising from torn skirts.

Mandelchen bellowed behind me. I fished out the cup from my pocket, filled it with hot sweet milk and knelt to Sabine.

“This will strengthen and hearten you, my lady.”

She drank as though starved and I filled the cup again for the little maid, bruised and cut but not worse.

The horses too were bruised and frantic; one lamed but the other sound.

“Help me,” I said to the girl and we unhitched it.

“The village is nearer — have them bring a wagon filled with hay.” I ripped a badge off one of the crumpled men.

“Show them this — they’ll come quick enough back with you.”

I knelt so she could scramble up by my shoulder; the horse dwarfed her but she managed to grip on and knee the beast right.

Again I filled the cup. Gräfin Sabine’s color warmed with each swallow; she was tender-faced; I’d say poorly matched to her lord.

“By God’s grace the child will be unharmed,” I said.

“It is my first,” she said; “much rides on it.”

“God sorts all as He will,” I said.

I tore a strip from my shift and soaked it with milk — such full udders, and not long after the morning milking! — and I cleaned the lady Sabine’s scratched face. “You will not lose your beauty, my lady,” I said.

“Let God take it but grant me the child,” she said.

***

They were quick with the wagon — grim-faced to be dragged into Graf Ingulf’s business. The little maid began to climb down but I told her stay and pillow the Gräfin’s head.

The lady Sabine gripped my hand as they lifted her. “That milk — it eased me as nothing has these six months gone. I must have it, and you to bring it — you and the cow both I must have.”

I told them not to rope Mandelchen to the wagon.

“She will follow, as a little sister clings to the elder,” I said.

***

Graf Ingulf and his brother were a three-day ride from the burg; it would be a week, nearly, til they rode thundering back.

“Not everyone will rejoice, my lady, that you survived the danger,” I said. Since that grim morning she had kept me close.

“No,” she said.

“The axle’d been cut before it splintered. I will guess the coachman knew and had been told where to drive fastest; his foot betrayed him, my lady — he was caught in the traces and couldn’t jump clear.”

“Who can prove that now?”

“I can; the axle was saved out and hid in the wagon that brought you home; and it lies beneath the straw my cow sleeps on. I told them to leave the tending of her to me.”

“Are you some sort of angel that you come to save me?”

“I am an avenging one; Ingo your brother-in-law ravaged the life from my sister and left her for the crows.”

I showed her the button that I had kept pressed against my heart, covered as it was with my Friedegunde’s blood.

“This is her life’s blood spilled on the sigil of your husband’s house but you know as I know it is not your husband’s button.

“We have one enemy between us, my lady, and God will show us how to make him pay his debts.”


Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)


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Every Day Fiction

  • Stan Long

    yesterday’s gothic tale of revenge and still witnessed to this day – well shod

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    The regular rhythm doesn’t serve the excitement the story describes and deserves. A greater effort at cadence and variable rhythm might help convey the tale of double injustice and the search for its reconstitution.

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    I meant of course, the search for the reconstitution of justice.

  • I wasn’t sure I liked it at first. It was a little confusing for me, but that’s probably just me. I did like the ending because it wasn’t your typical revenge story where the mourning brother kills the perpetrators family. Instead he sought restitution for the killer’s sister-in-law whom he tried to murder also.

  • Carl

    Ingo is in deep, deep, guano. I kind of expected to see him torn limb from limb by the end of this piece, but I like the promise of future retribution even better.

  • Carl

    Incidentally, in response to #4, I guess it’s never explicitly stated, but it seemed clear to me that the narrator is a plucky milkmaid, not an avenging brother.

  • Kathy

    I really liked this story,but was not sure why Sabine was targeted. There is no mention of rivalry between brothers. Was it that Sabine is carrying an heir – a potential rival to the brother Ingo(“It is my first,” she said; “much rides on it.”) He, it is implied, is the one responsible for her “accident.” Maybe he’s responsible for her pregnancy, too. Also, I think if “all holding justice” dined at Ingo’s table (instead of his brother’s), her decision to seek justice another way would be more understandable.

  • I like that it was not the standard revenge story and the cow was an interesting character. It could easily be a longer story – there is more than enough here to expand.

  • …or did the milkmaid saw through the axle after the accident to implicate the man who was the object of her vengeance?

  • MaryAlice Meli

    I, too, see this as a longer story. I very much like the tone and language style that captures the time period though I don’t know when that is, just not in the recent past. The characters have potential for growth as does the situation.Please do expand this with another short or more. Look up the flash suite contest from Defenestration.com. They want three (I think) flashes linked by character or story theme. December deadline.

  • John Brooke

    Not my cup of tea, however it was a clever reenactment of those times and compellingly penned. It rates 5 stars from me in the Genre it depicted.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    What I find the challenge and pleasure of flash is hoping the reader will feel that a moment out of a fully-existing world has been revealed–that you feel the characters are alive and continue to live after the story ends. I’m also really leery of ruining that by going on too far. If you have enjoyed the characters, are thinking and wondering about them and feeling that they are fully human, then I know I’ve really achieved something astonishing.

    @#7 Kathy: I saw this one as two people with parts of a puzzle who come together and make the whole picture for each other. The MC knew Ingo’s reputation and Sabine knows how his position is threatened if she bears an heir. Now both of them fully understand what he’s capable of. It is implied he is the younger brother and therefore subordinate to Ingulf, so it is Ingulf’s “table.” The MC wouldn’t necessarily be aware of rivalries, just that one brother was known as of bad character; Sabine might know, perhaps, that Ingo had bastard or legitimate sons whose positions became even more subordinate if she bears an heir, and that she can expect no good wishes from him.

    @#10 MaryAlice: I am really grateful for how much you (and many regular commenters) support my writing. I find that I don’t do well, writing to prompts or for contests etc. Every tine I’ve set out with deliberate purpose to write something, it just has no life in it. When I’m lucky, I manage to catch what falls out of my head and get it down on paper…
    @#10

  • joannab.

    five stars from me. this is a glorious story. the staccato style of the writing is perfect for the plot. the title is perfect for the story. the story reached in and grabbed me. that first sentence! and it kept me right up to the end and beyond because i won’t forget this one in a hurry.

  • Kathy

    Sarah, thanks for clarifying. An interesting concept for construction of the story. As I commented on another of your stories, previously posted, “I do enjoy your writing.”