After Glyn found them, she forgot whatever it was that had brought her to the barn in the first place. It was nearly three hours since everyone had risen and gulped down as much coffee as they could handle, snatching bites of toast in between, before heading out to tack up and ride. Two hours since Glyn had put up the last washed cup, leaving her kitchen clean and ready for the next round, while she gathered eggs, milk and cream, checked on the goats, fed the dogs, and started the first of what would be 10, maybe 12 loads of wash.
Glyn’s movements were automatic, each and every chore so familiar so often done as if the air contained the precise passageways through which her body moved and reached. Her preparations for breakfast were well on their way when she missed whatever it was and went into the barn. She heard them first. Heard noises she failed to put words to, however familiar to her they seemed, noises that drew her to the single lit stall. As Glyn moved silently past the few cows and horses still inside, their large bodies stirred. The sharp ring of horseshoe against wood startled her, made her pause. But the other noises continued. There was a short laugh she recognized. It was Dob.
She knew what she was about to see. But she couldn’t stop, couldn’t slip away. It felt as though she were someone else, and that person was hypnotized, helpless but to walk forward toward that light.
Her husband was pressed into the back of one of their cowhands, the new one, the female one, his pants around his knees, hers down to her ankles, her shirt open to the waist. One of Dob’s hands was inside the shirt, while one breast, pale and large, blue-veined and rosy tipped stuck out brazenly, tauntingly. Dob’s face was in a grimace, eyes squeezed shut in what looked like pain, but the rhythmic breathing, familiar grunting sounds told Glyn it was not pain. The woman’s mouth was in a perfect ‘o,’ her eyes half-shut in a look that was almost holy in its concentration, its joy.
Glyn gasped and turned away, stumbling out as quietly as her weakened legs could carry her, her face hot in the cold November wind. Once inside the house, she forced herself to continue with the meal, painfully conscious that in ten minutes or less her kitchen would be filled with milling cowboys, loud and hungry, sweaty and smelling like horse. Dob too. And the woman, Jesse.
Slam! Down came the heavy iron skillets onto the stove. She slapped bacon in one and sausage in another, turning on the heat and adding grease to a third for the potatoes which were sliced and waiting in cold water, next to the peeled onions, and a green pepper.
What she’d witnessed made her nauseous. But she was not surprised. She’d known her husband slept around. She’d known and didn’t mind, as long as the proof of it remained out of her reach. Nothing beyond a curious absence, an unexplained lateness. A certain relaxed look about his eyes. The rare but occasional smell of a stranger’s perfume that clung to his shirt. She didn’t mind, as long as he was discreet, as long as he didn’t leave her. Sex for her had long since ceased to be anything but a duty, their three boys grown and gone. Glyn was sorry they never a daughter, but after a difficult third pregnancy, the doctor advised them to quit, and Dob had himself ‘fixed’ as he called it and their procreating days were over.
Knowing Dob was doing it and seeing it were two different things. She was a little surprised at the lack of anger, or disgust she thought she ought to feel, but the image that filled her mind was the expression on Jesse’s face. Jesse’s joy.
The smell of a freshly hot oven brought her back to her task. She saw that she’d forgotten the biscuits. The batter stood at the ready in a large ceramic bowl that had been handed down to her by her mother, from her grandmother and before that her great-grandmother. There were chips around the edges, chips that corresponded to hard times and heavy use. The ceramic was scratched in several places and recently Glyn had discovered a faint crack running down and through the bottom. But it held batter still, just the right amount for a dozen hungry cowboys, and Glyn stopped daydreaming long enough to roll out half, and cut and toss the dough into a waiting pan. She paused to stir the frying things, and rolled out a second batch, cutting and flinging dough until the pans were filled with evenly spaced white disks. She popped them into the oven and checked the clock.
Jesse. Glyn remembered how she’d shown up late summer looking for work, looking for all the world like a short plain man, a dirty sheet of paper in her fist which held her references.
She remembered the moment both she and her husband realized Jesse was a woman. Not by her square plain face, redeemed only by a generous mouth. Not by her figure which was completely obscured by loose-fitting clothes. But by her voice. It was rough-edged and gravelly, compelling, and entirely feminine in pitch. And then she moved, breathed deeply or coughed, Glyn couldn’t remember, only remembered the movement of her shirt, the evidence of breasts undeniable as her shirtfront moved in different time than her shoulders. She hadn’t meant to stare at her chest and slid her eyes away in time to notice Dob was staring too.
“How long you been ranglin’?” Dob asked when he finally moved his eyes back to her face.
“15 years,” she’d answered. “20, if you count when I was a kid, on my Dad’s place.”
Her references were good, one of them a rancher across the border that Dob knew, so they hired her, Dob whispering in Glyn’s ear after she left to tend to her horse, whispering a single word “Dyke,” and laughing as he followed her out.
Glyn flinched when he said it. The word was angry-sounding. Harsh. It held a level of meanness uncommon to Dob. She’d always found him to be a gentle man. Gentle with her, gentle with the livestock, gentle with the boys. Glyn remembered when their youngest had been thrown from a horse and broken his collarbone. She could see as if it were yesterday; the boy’s body cradled against Dob’s chest as he carried him, howling, into the house. She could hear Dob’s voice, soothing and
low, quieting the boy’s howls down to a whimper. She could almost feel his hands as if it were her own body and not the boy’s as he lowered their son softly to the couch.
Dyke. Why had he said that? She wondered briefly what two women did together. She pictured them kissing and a different four-letter word came to mind. Soft. But she cast it quickly from her mind, shoving it aside with the same mild revulsion she experienced when coming across one of the magazines the cowboys sometimes had besides their bunks, the garish pink of all that nakedness, the occasional shock of a naked man pressed against a woman, or inside her mouth, and one time, two men fondling each other.
She didn’t hold an opinion about homosexuals. She went to church and knew they called it a sin. But her faith was of the practical kind. She prayed for rain, or less wind. For clear roads when her family was traveling. For health when they were sick. If she thought about it at all she figured what people did in private should remain private. Like Dob and his infidelity. She didn’t want to know.
The sausages were starting to burn. Glyn tipped them out onto a plate just as the first couple of hands sauntered in.
“Whew! S’cold this morning. Smells awful good, Glyn.”
By the time Dob entered Glyn’s attention was taken by frying the eggs. She only realized he was there when she turned to set a bowl full of scrambled on the table. If she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes, looking at him now she’d never believe that twenty minutes ago he’d been avidly fucking their cowhand. He looked tired and cold and hungry, just like every morning. And just like every morning the sight of him struck her as a fact, a piece of her life, nothing more. It surprised her that she felt so little. Shouldn’t she be angry?
Jesse came in a few minutes later. She said nothing and her eyes were hooded. This wasn’t out of the ordinary for her, but now it made Glyn wonder. How long had they been doing this? How many breakfasts had she served them with the smell of Jesse’s sex still on Dob’s hands? The space where she’d expected anger began to fill with something, but Glyn didn’t give it a name. She was staring at that mouth, the one so recently curved into a soft wet ‘o.’ And she could just make out the
swell beneath her shirt, the slight swaying as she sat of that large white breast.
“Shit, Glyn!” Dob stood up and Glyn turned around to see the potatoes were on fire. She started to grab the skillet handle with her bare hand but as her fingers started to close, the hot iron warned her, singing her palm and she wrapped her apron around it, managing to move it to a cold burner where the fire stopped quickly. She set about saving what potatoes she could and dumped out the blackened remains.
She managed to cook the rest of the meal without burning anything else, and it was devoured quickly and in silence, and then they all set out on their next rounds, leaving Glyn alone.
On most days this moment filled her with relief and a little envy. Relief at the quiet; the short but definite respite before dinner when she would clean the dishes, the pots and pans, then set about her own morning chores. The envy was for the cowboy’s job. She longed to ride with them. It was hard work, especially this time of year with the cold. But it was outdoors on horseback, across the plains, the cold biting your lungs, the landscape stark and beautiful. Rounding up, fixing up, and surveying the creatures and fields they’d been looking after all their lives. She longed to be one of them, but even caretakers need caretakers. And that was her job. If she didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.
As she scraped dishes, and scrubbed pans, the hot soapy water stinging her singed palm, she thought, I could really use that daughter. It was easy to imagine her here; she’d be dark like Dob, pretty, working in harmony as Glyn had with her mother. She pictured her married, with her husband over there at the table, hunkered over the food with the other hands, while she and Glyn took care of everyone.
Glyn blinked and frowned and this time saw instead her daughter dressed in jeans and boots, sitting down and being served, her work gloves next to her plate ready to be donned the second she finished eating. Ready like the other cowboys to go out and ride.
She blinked again and this time saw what was before her, an empty table and a silent room. She’d never raise her to her own life. Glyn’s life. If she had been born, she’d be gone now, to school, to town, to another life, like the boys, her brothers. All gone.
The image of Dob and Jesse in the barn filled her mind and she groaned. Did Jesse make him happy? What would happen when she left to go wherever the cowhands chose to winter? Her stomach grew taut, but the application of good hard work took over both mind and body. And by the time she’d made it through the dinner, and then past that through supper she felt she would be all right. That she could pretend, as they were doing, that nothing had happened, nothing that needed her
attention. Nothing she could change.
Dob was predictable as sun-up. Each Sunday night, he’d touch her shoulder as they readied for bed, just that, his large and calloused hand on her night-gown covered shoulder and look at her with raised eyebrows. The question was for form’s sake only. She never said no. This Sunday was no different. When his heavy hand fell on her shoulder it felt like a pronouncement, and a release. He still needed her. She guessed that maybe when that stopped, it would be time to worry. But for now, he needed her body and Glyn was glad.
She went into the bathroom with the usual unspoken prayer. Let him be quick. There had been a few times that he had rubbed her raw, that she had bitten holes in her lips trying not to cry out. It was easier now. Now she’d found the tiny bottle half-hidden behind the small supply of ‘feminine’ products at the big town’s grocery. Small and odd, out of place among the boxes offering ‘freshness’, and the overstuffed bags assuring ‘protection.’ This bottle promised to eliminate ‘feminine dryness’ and it took her awhile to realize that it wasn’t referring to an obscure medical problem of someone else. But to her specific ‘problem.’
She didn’t like applying it. Had never liked touching herself. But tonight she wasn’t thinking about that. She was thinking about Jesse. Her face. She had looked so happy. Glyn hadn’t always hated sex. As a teenager, sex was power over large handsome boys, who could’ve taken it if they tried, but always seemed so lost, so helpless. Each one needed her to tell them ‘yes.’ And then, too, sex was in slow and pre-defined stages, and always hidden, secret, in the dark. Kissing first, which led to heavy petting. Her breasts fondled, first through the clothes, then under them. Then he would take her hand and press it into his crotch. She liked the feeling of him, through his clothes, hard and growing harder as she rubbed. And when it escalated to intercourse, she enjoyed the way he seemed to need her. Needed her body to do this thing.
She and Dob married young. She wasn’t pregnant. She’d been as careful as she knew. And he had too. He’d wanted to be ‘sure’ he said. She wondered but never asked him ‘sure of what?’ She liked his quiet air, his lanky build, bow-legged walk. The security that came with the 400-acre ranch his father was going to leave him.
Glyn remembered the early days, before her first child, when Dob brought her into his father’s house, into their very own room. How every night he would grab her and they would wrestle, laughing and trying to keep quiet, trying to keep it within the thin walls. But knowing that no one would stop them, or even mention the noise. The freedom of pleasing him then made her giddy.
Then the children came and it was hard to enjoy Dob and his needs when she was always so tired. So it turned into a routine. Another task. Something they did whenever Dob wasn’t too tired. Glyn didn’t mind. It was all part of the job. Being caretaker.
But Jesse was different. She seemed to like it. Why else would she want to stand naked in a cold barn, in a pile of dirty straw and let him heave himself inside her? What reason could she have for making Dob happy?
The more Glyn wondered, the clearer the image came, that open mouth, that hanging breast.
“You coming out tonight?” Dob’s voice shattered the image and Glyn saw that her hand was wet. She carefully cleaned off her hand, an embarrassed heat rising from the top of her chest to her face. Touching herself and liking it was wrong somehow.
She went into the bedroom and climbed beside Dob. She lay on her back and let him slide his hands up her legs, pushing up her nightgown, feeling heat from his hands, heat that she liked but then, too soon, he rolled on top and was inside her. He began pumping slow and steady.
The image of Jesse’s breast filled her mind and she found herself shaping her mouth, like Jesse’s, into an ‘o.’ What would it feel like? The image of her own face pressed against that breast filled her mind. She could feel the flesh giving, her lips closing around the nipple.
She said it so softly she didn’t think Dob noticed, but a sudden heat in her belly was making her move with him, and that was the thing that made him stop.
The stopping was excruciating. Something down there needed to be touched, she was surprised and confused, but she said, “I’m fine. Keep going.” And tried not to press herself up and into him, although it suddenly seemed like the only thing on earth that she wanted.
He was stiffening, becoming rock hard which meant he was almost through and she squeezed herself around him, and pressed her pelvis up and felt something breaking, something flipping inside, something turning inside-out and she was scared and wanted it to stop but it was awhile before the shuddering eased she could unclench her arms, her legs, and lie quietly beneath him.
She kept her eyes closed, hoping Dob would remain silent, and after awhile he rolled off and away from her, his breathing slowing down as he drifted quickly into sleep.
Glyn lay awake for a long time, wondering at what had happened to her. Was this what happened to others? Did Dob feel like this when he started making those painful sounding grunts of his, those coughing noises as he spurted away inside her? Was this what happened to him? And Jesse’s mouth, her ecstatic face, was she feeling, could she possibly have been feeling this?
When word came that a big storm was brewing, Dob offered to drive anyone without a vehicle into town on Saturday, drive them and their horses in so they could move on to whatever winter work they could find. No one wanted to risk being caught this side of the mountain pass on horseback during the blizzard.
Friday’s supper was grim and quiet as everyone hunkered over their plates, the early darkness increased by gathering clouds. The storm wasn’t due till Sunday, but weather blew in so fast in the mountains, everybody wondered if they’d make it out in time.
Saturday, Glyn was up before dawn throwing down a good breakfast. She was pouring out the biscuit batter when it happened. The bowl was heavy and she held it the way she always had, the way her mother had taught her, in one arm, resting the edge against her hip as if carrying a child. She felt the surprising give as the bowl broke in two, her empty arm suddenly light as the two pieces folded together and she was forced to watch helplessly as they fell in a straight line to the floor. They crashed into the hard linoleum with surprisingly little noise, but the floor had no mercy and Glyn stared at a large shattered pile at her feet, not knowing if the rising cloud was from the flour or the pottery’s own dust.
She knelt, putting her hand inside the dust as if her eyes were playing tricks, longing for the whole, and finding only dust and shards.
She pictured her mother’s face, and then her grandmother’s face, thinking how every day their faces were becoming more apparent in her own, the same drooping flesh above her eyelids, same sharp lines around her mouth.
They were both dead now, her mother and her grandmother, shattered against the hardness of their chosen lives. Me too, thought Glyn as she sifted idly through the mess on the floor, I’m dead too.
The sharp quick sound of boot heels on linoleum made Glyn lift her head. It was Jesse. “Glyn, you okay?”
Glyn stared at Jesse’s face as if it were a map to guide her away from the grief she knew lay just beyond this moment. Her skin was dry and freckled from the sun. Her nose was straight and strong, and her mouth broad and smooth, lips slightly chapped, a shade or two darker than the surrounding skin. Fine lines sprayed in two delicate fans from the outside corners of her eyes, and for the first time those eyes looked directly into Glyn’s, their pale blue completely unveiled, giving Glyn the impression she was being seen. That Jesse was noticing her as something more than her employer, kitchen drudge, the rancher’s wife.
“You’re not.” Glyn hadn’t meant to speak and as Jesse said, “I’m not what?” and frowned she looked away as the first wash of grief over the broken bowl came over her. You’re not dead, is what she meant, but tears were streaming down her cheeks and she wanted Jesse gone, and the kitchen empty so she could clean up the mess and cry in peace. But Jesse was squatting in the dust, her hands on Glyn’s shoulders, hot and firm saying, “Hey. Hey… Easy there.” There was care in those words,
and a softness making the gravelly voice almost hoarse, the way passion can and Glyn wiped her cheek with her hand, feeling the grit of dust becoming a pasty mud. She closed her eyes, squeezing back tears, fighting the overwhelming desire to let herself be comforted.
“Easy now. It’s okay,” Jesse said as she pulled Glyn against her soft breasts, wrapping her arms around her back and squeezing tight until Glyn in all her resistance, had to give in, her stiff body collapsing against her, had to give her weight to those strong arms, her face to the soft hot burrow of Jesse’s neck.
Her crying became a thing in and of itself. She had no thoughts except relief, release, how good it felt to be held. As the tears subsided, Glyn became aware of several things; the heat of Jesse’s neck against her face, the soft rise and fall of her chest with each breath, and how Glyn’s own hitching breath was causing friction where their breasts met. Her womb felt warm and needy, that same sensation she’d had the other night with Dob, and she pressed her face tighter into Jesse’s neck, her lips against her pulse, and although Jesse’s arm around her back tensed up, she didn’t pull away. Glyn’s breathing became labored and she felt faint, her body started shaking, but she lifted her head and pressed her face to Jesse’s, mouth on mouth, opening her lips and making a soft, strangled cry.
Jesse started to pull away, but was having trouble staying balanced, rocking backward onto her heels and Glyn wasn’t about to let her go, putting both hands on her head and holding it there, until her shaking caused her face to bang against Jesse’s, lips against teeth and she could feel pain and Jesse managed to get one of her arms between them and push her away.
“Jesus!” Jesse staggered and fell onto her hands, crab-walking backwards until she reached the cabinets, and used them to pull herself to her feet. There was a smear of blood on her face, but Glyn couldn’t see the source. Jesse stared hard at Glyn her face screwed into an expression of loathing as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
It hadn’t sunk in yet, what she’d done, but Glyn had to look away. She couldn’t stand the look on Jesse’s face. The inside of Glyn’s head felt swollen, useless brain matter pressing painfully against the back of her eyes. Her tongue moved across her lip and found a split there, tasted blood. She was aware of Jesse leaving the room and then the sound of sizzling meat bringing her back to her duties. She stood on creaky knees and flipped the sausages, then moved to the pantry where she kept the broom and dustpan and began to clean the mess. She pulled down another bowl. Smaller. She’d have to make two batches. And began to mix the dough.
She managed to avoid thinking about it all throughout the cooking, the serving, seeing Jesse hunched over her food with averted eyes. Through final house and bunk check as the hands loaded up the vehicles if they had one, Dob’s truck if they didn’t. Her numbness remained right through all the good-byes, the compliments on her cooking, the last look around.
Glyn watched as Jesse climbed into Dob’s truck. From behind you wouldn’t know she was a woman at all. Glyn’s face felt hot, and her stomach began to tighten as she pictured Jesse telling Dob what she had done. She won’t, Glyn told herself firmly, but she felt the small amount of breakfast in her stomach trying to push its way into her throat and she swallowed hard.
The brake lights came on as Dob prepared to move, waiting for the other trucks to clear the gate before pulling out behind them. Glyn wondered if Jesse was looking in the side-view mirror. She imagined what she’d see. A slump-shouldered, red-faced woman. Did she look abandoned? Sad? Pitiful? Glyn prodded the swollen split in her lip with the tip of her tongue and felt heat between her legs. Jesse’s mouth had been so soft.
The line of trucks was getting smaller. The sound of tires kicking up rocks was fading and Glyn was getting cold. The wind was moaning as it wrapped itself between the barn and the house, pressing Glyn’s skirt and coat tight against her, her hair in her eyes. She shivered as she held the hair away from her face, peering through the gloom of the approaching storm for one last sign of them. And there it was. Off in the distance as the trucks began the long ascent to the mountain pass she could just make out the rising dust from the road like smoke from a steam engine, rising and dissipating in the wind.
Julia Rust lives and writes in the shadow of the Tappan Zee Bridge in the Hudson River Valley. (The cardboard carton, she assures us, is really, really cozy.) She has 20 years experience as a performer in regional and local theater. She has completed one novel, Crossing Lines, and is deep in the throes of two more. A short story from a collaboration with a fellow writer was published recently in The Cortland Review.
Julia writes: "I saw a call for submissions for a short story collection entitled Rode Hard, Put Away Wet edited by Sacchi Green and Rakelle Valencia. They were looking for lesbian cowboy erotica, and I thought, what the hey, and put my hand to it. I spent a few years in Wyoming as a kid, then again at a two-year college in Casper. I was never a cowboy, but my sister worked on a ranch a couple of times and I had a pretty clear idea what it involved. I am not, however, a lesbian. I’ll confess tosome bi-curiosity, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that women are beautiful but men turn me on. Still I wanted to write a story that included a lesbian sex scene and have it be effective. At least I wanted to try.
What happened, however, is a thing that used to bug me about my writing, although I’m beginning to count on it now, how the story I set out to write is never the one I end up with. The character’s voices, Glyn’s in particular, were so strong to me, they evolved into living breathing creatures, and I couldn’t force what wasn’t meant to happen. I had the two women left alone in a blizzard, the power going out, pulling up blankets by the word-burning stove together, but it just didn’t work. My characters were not happy. The lesbian theme sort of dropped out and the predominant feeling that was left was loneliness, and fear of aging. Thanks again, to Sacchi and Rakelle for the seed that became “The Rancher’s Wife.” And thanks to Doug Lawson for liking the story enough to put it in The Blue Moon Review."