They will eat us.
I’d heard that ever since I was a calf. For a while, as I grazed and grew to become a steer, it gave me the same purpose and comfort it gave to all of us, but not anymore. No.
Our future eaters tended us carefully and even spoke to us, but they could never understand our rumbled answers. We talked to each other in the herd on those long days with nothing to do but chew. We told each other about pastures. We listened to birds sing as they perched and flew, watched busy insects, obeyed noisy dogs, and learned to tell the seasons by the long change of weather and the slant of the sun.
I learned that my mother had seen almost ten summers, and I would see only two. But we could live much longer, and I wanted to.
Worse than that, our too-few days would be spent inside fences. I had smelled the flowers of one spring and perfumes on the wind from blossoms I’d never get to see. Insects flew from one flower to another, going wherever they wanted. Birds visited distant fields and forests. Why could they do more than I could?
“They have no purpose, those birds and insects,” an older steer told me. “Being here in this one field is all we need. Look at them. They avoid being eaten. Their lives mean nothing.”
I didn’t believe him, but I watched. I saw how those insects and birds did everything they could to stay alive. Only the grass seemed content to be eaten, but it regrew, never killed by my teeth. It avoided death, too. Insects wanted to visit every possible flower. Birds wanted to travel to places far, far away. Nothing could stop them but death, and they had wings to flee death for a long time. Was that a purpose?
Then that steer showed me one kind of insect, a butterfly, whose young actually ate a plant that made them poisonous so no one would even try to eat them.
“They’ll all die anyway,” he said. “They’ll just die later, in more horrible ways.”
I studied that poisonous plant. Its pink flowers had a sharp, sweet scent. A striped, crawling young butterfly chewed on a thick leaf as fast as it could. We cattle never hurried, but butterflies did. And I understood why they had to.
“It has more than a purpose,” I told that steer. “It has an intention. It wants to do something.”
He didn’t answer, just stared at me with big brown eyes. He watched me eat one of those leaves — but I inspected it first to make sure no insect was on it. Young butterflies didn’t want to die, and I didn’t want to kill them.
No leaf ever tasted more bitter. I could barely swallow, but I kept eating more until I felt ill. Then as soon as I was better, that same day, I found another plant and ate every leaf that wasn’t food or home to any eager butterflies.
“You’ll be eaten anyway,” he said as he watched.
He was taken yesterday. I searched the pasture all day today for more poisonous plants.
Yes, they’ll eat me. But they’ll regret it. And they might even learn. Until they do, in my mind, I’m flying over fences to fields filled with flowers of colors I have never seen before.
Sue Burke is a writer and translator who has lived in Milwaukee, WI; Austin, TX; Madrid, Spain; and is now in Chicago, IL. She has published short stories, poems, and articles in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and her novel Semiosis will be published by Tor in February 2018.