The Mouse and the Elephant


Nora sat hammering a rock, calves in the dirt like a kid at recess. She missed a lot in translation—whether the handcuffs found in the hayloft were a sex joke; whether the rash on Samka’s inner thigh was a sex joke—but when Jean-Michael had passed her a hammer, heavy in her hand, she got it: break the rock. It sat, half buried, on the chalked outline for the volunteers’ new shed. Nora dug around the rock, pulled and pushed. She hammered. Chips sprayed like sparks. Blisters formed, sore, on her palms.

Early that morning Samka had looked up at the sky and said the clouds promise a snowstorm—les nuages promettre la neige—dreamy and lingering, leaning so far back her dreadlocks hit a puddle and her shirt rose to her ribs. Jean-Michel had a weakness for exposed abs, abs like hers: taut, hard-edged. He’d sent them all straight up the mountain for construction duty.

It didn’t smell like snow. Still, Nora worked with the others: they were fixed, unflinching. They rushed to finish the shed. Jean-Michel felled a tree with a chainsaw, handling the machine with practiced ease. A wave of sawdust obscured his body. His son Sev, blond and calm, collected pieces of bark, tacking the delicate shingles onto a plank of wood. Igloo the sheepdog ran back and forth, trying to herd the birds in the trees. Jeremie and Angel hammered together the frame of the shed. Angel knelt in the dirt as she held two planks, steadying herself against the vibrations. And Samka did what she called “supervision,” from above, spread across the roof like a sunbeam, reminding them all that the shed would keep their wood dry, their fire hot, their bodies warm, repeating herself in Spanish and then English, though no one was listening.

Nora paused. She pressed her blisters gently, hoping to work them into calluses. She was too focused on her hands to hear the chainsaw cut out and flinched when Jean-Michel’s shadow overtook her.

“With enough hard work,” he said, “even the mouse and the elephant can, you know.

He raised his eyebrows and twisted a stick in his fists. The others laughed. Nora blushed, stomach clenching. She gripped the hammer. Her blisters stung.


§

Jean-Michel was sixty-five. His hair was black. His face, unlined. In trees he saw not beauty but uncut furniture. His ex-wife, Suzie, who still co-owned and co-ran the farm, did not let him inside the main house. Her house was moated in rows of leeks and onion sprouts and clung to the edge of the land. It faced the barn, midway up the mountain, the mountain one of many in the Hautes-Pyrénées. The volunteers shared a single, solar-powered cabin, called La Milonga, at its peak. Jean-Michel had named the cabin after his favorite Argentine dance, he explained, on Nora’s first day. He then said he’d danced in Buenos Aires, but left out the details as to when or why or for how long.

The volunteers spent drunken nights betting where Jean-Michel slept. He’d party at La Milonga and disappear like mist. They’d roll dice: Was he in the haystack? Pour another drink: The barn? Pass a joint and laugh: Ouais, avec les bêtes.


§

Nora worked in the barn after lunch. Down the mountain she went, to the farm named Les Cascades for the river that never quieted, not even at nighttime. Jean-Michel told Nora when she first arrived—oversized backpack and the wrong sort of boots—that les cascades were usually quiet this time of year, muted with snow, but it was fifteen degrees in March; no tourists were skiing on the mountain top, no tourists were stopping at the farm on their way to the village below. Jean-Michel never mentioned money, but they all felt its loss. Volunteers ate meat once a week. Shifts in the gift shop were rare.

Inside, the barn was quiet but for the sound of the goats butting their heads through the metal fencing to lick up and chew the hay and little green pellets that someone—Sev or Suzie—had laid out for them along the ground. Nora walked past the goats, past the sheep, and out the door, toward the cows.

Volunteers didn’t milk the cows—all four were pregnant and temperamental—but had to muck out their stalls. The cows had their own, separate barn and seemed aware of its exclusivity, smug even, despite the heavy smell: manure lying hot on wet hay. They stood, bored and swollen, waiting to be picked off like prom queens, eyelashes thick and blinking. Nora hated the cows, hated that she’d never again feel or smell clean, hated that she’d thought running away to a farm in France would mean peace but hadn’t considered how unfit she was for physical labor, wrists thinner than the wooden handle of the shovel she was busy pressing down and out of the shit-clotted gutter. But when she rested by the stall nearest the barn doors, craggy gray mountains against the clear blue sky, she couldn’t bring herself to hate the smallest cow, Fifi, pregnant for the first time, Fifi who kicked at flies instead of flicking her tail.

From the goats’ barn, Nora heard the static fuzz of the radio dial, and then a quick crescendo of classical music. Sev was ready. Good, she thought, stepping over a growing puddle of piss. Gross.

Together, they milked forty goatsstarting by hand, attaching the suction cups, and finishing by hand. If Nora removed the machine too soon, breaking the seal with her thumbnail, it hurt them: breasts not empty. If she left it on too long, she’d learned, it hurt: blood sucked into the milk, the whole batch spoiled, pale pink. Nora had done this exactly once. Panic had shot through the goat’s square pupils. Now she watched, eyes level with each belly, as the machine slowed.

Debussy filled the barn like wind chimes rising. Sev told Nora that goats were calmest with classical piano. “Tu aimes ça?” he asked one, scratching the wiry top of her head and then under an ear. He unstuck the milking machine and slapped her rump. The goat skipped and hurried along the ramp, back toward her stall.

“But sheep?” he said, grinning. “Sheep listen to anything.”


§


That night, they filled jam jars with wine, then whisky, daring each other to share darker, riskier stories. The firewood was stacked neatly in its new shed. No snow coated the ground, but more than one volunteer had a layer of sawdust blanching their hair. Jeremie told the others he was in Rabat for the Arab Spring last month, before he’d left journalism. He watched a child get pulled by the legs from the crowd.

“Her arms were bloody, face too, awful,” he said, shaking his head. “I blocked some men. But, I took pictures, so—.” Their eyes turned to his camera, lying dormant on the table. Jeremie unrolled a cigarette and sprinkled weed on top of the tobacco. He licked and twisted it together.

“Un café?” he said, passing the lit spliff to Nora. She laughed. He kept his stash in a plastic Nescafé tub. It was a relief, after a full month, to understand his joke without overthinking. She had two weeks left on the farm and, finally, she’d stopped hesitating before speaking French, though she still constructed most sentences with “je vais” to avoid conjugating other verbs. It was only last night she realized Sev’s name was not Seth, and why he’d assumed she was from Barcelona.

Nora shuffled a deck of cards. Sev sat on the bench next to her. She shuffled again. His warmth on her leg was welcome; they were far from the fire. Jeremie and Sev began a game of chess. Samka stood by the oven, chopping leeks into a vat of couscous. She walked over for occasional drinks, pushing Sev’s chess pieces to more strategic squares.

“You know why we left Italy?” Samka asked. Nora didn’t think Samka and Angel were the sort of women who needed reasons for leaving. She thought they felt the tides, rushed forward and retreated.

“It was a beautiful olive grove,” Samka said. “The farmer seemed nice enough. He gave us our own trailer. We picked the olives and put them on the donkeys. They did most of the work.” Samka patted Sev’s hair and pointed. With one hand, he swept Jeremie’s bishop and slid a knight in its place. Swift movements of fingers like this made Sev seem older than eighteen. It was a confident gesture. Nora felt her hip kiss his. From the wine, his lips looked red as a girl’s.

Nora knew where Samka’s story was headed. She didn’t want to listen. One more drink and they’d all go silent, sated. Slugs under rocks in each corner of the room.

“We were in the middle of a conversation,” Samka said. “Talking about donkeys. I had a skirt on. He put a finger in me.”

Jeremie reached across the table to cover Sev’s ears. “Assez! Le bébé a peur.”

Sev swatted him away. Sev was allowed to sleep at La Milonga whenever he liked. He’d convinced his mother he was learning better English, this way. Nora had said the same about French to her own mother, who couldn’t understand why she would quit a salaried paralegal job to shovel shit on a farm.

“Like he was testing a cake,” Samka said. Then, laughing, “I was done.”

“My boss, once, made me act like his dog,” Nora said, her voice settling into the tone she’d used before, flippant and low, a register for girlfriends in bars. She described the animal, holding up her hand to show Rosie, shoulder-tall, a Bernese mountain dog with thick soft fur and searching eyes. The lawyer had identified as a dog lover. As Nora explained how her boss hated paying for parking, she felt a familiar heat fill her chest. It was more than hatred. He was entitled to free parking, so deep rooted was his belief, that he’d often keep his car running, double-parked, with Rosie in the front seat. He showed up one morning at Nora’s desk and said, “Rosie’s at the vet. Come on, you’ll do.”

They all looked at her, waiting for more.

“The point is,” Nora said, “here was this man, whose job paid my bills, who didn’t realize how screwed up it was to equate me with a dog. And to avoid paying, what, two dollars in a parking meter?” Under the weight of the thick wool sweater, Nora’s skin prickled, itchy and hot. She pulled at the neckline.

Jeremie lit a cigarette. “Fuck that guy,” he said, waving out the match.

Another morning at the law firm, Nora had opened her desk drawer to find a dog collar, white with pink rhinestones. She was in a new country, in a new year, and still she felt choked.


§


The fire crackled and sent gray smoke through the room. Angel danced by the flames in unhurried circles, red wine in hand, a sash heavy with gold coins clinging to her hips. Nora made the mistake of watching for a moment too long. Angel set down her drink and leapt over, pulling Nora by the shoulders off the bench and onto the dance floor.

“Ici,” Angel said, loosening the rose and gold sash and retying it around Nora’s waist.

Angel wore boxer briefs she pretended were shorts. When she moved, the curved line of her quadricep cut into view. Her hair was short and uneven, wild shocks of grass. Angel placed Nora’s hands along her own body, one on her hip, bone jutting through the elastic band, one gripped tight in her fist. Nora’s hand felt clammy, slack. Angel demonstrated the steps—slow, slow, quick, slow—hips so close they moved as one.

“We should dance for Jean-Michel,” said Angel, “as a thank you.”

No one knew and no one asked why Jean-Michel had traded the dance floor for the farm, left Buenos Aires for unseen Sazos. The volunteers could tell he missed this former life, each initiated by one of his wine-stained welcome parties. “Dancing in the mountain air,” he’d say, “keeps a man young.”

Samka joined in. She stood behind Nora, hands on her hips, pressing right then left, to guide her. Nora felt her spine go rigid. She wished that would stop.

“Tic, tac, comme ça,” Samka sang, hips pulsing, arms floating like scarves.

Samka and Angel were Basque, which, Sev said early on, meant they were crazy. He’d crossed his eyes, stuck out his tongue, then quickly apologized, as if he knew rude didn’t suit him. There was something alluring about the couple, an electric wave Nora could feel but not see clearly enough to admit out loud. She’d come home from feeding the animals one evening, legs aching, body sore, and found Samka and Angel in the living room, surrounded by piles of hair like un-swept hay. Angel’s usually shiny black hair lay matte and lifeless on the ground. A few of Samka’s dreadlocks fell like severed fingers. They were naked, small brown nipples as twin secrets exposed, long legs draped over one another, lathered in thick white lotion they hadn’t rubbed in all the way.

“We live by the lunar calendar,” Samka had said, as if that explained it.

Nora’s head hurt. Fog nestled in the valley. She didn’t like the idea of performing for Jean-Michel, but she didn’t want to be seen as stuck up, or prudish, or lazy. Her first week, she’d pulled a muscle in her neck sweeping the barn, quick furious strokes. She tried her best to work hard, to fit in, to view their nudity as not necessarily sexual. A body is a body. People, like animals, are bodies. Flesh muscle bone. She was skeptical of the way Jean-Michel hovered, then ghosted, unseen. It was exhausting, discerning between the harmless and the ones aiming to hurt. Meat and marrow and hide. She wanted to be freely sexual. Rather the snake than the mouse. Rather wild boar than the cow.

She looked to Sev, his eyes level with the pawns. She smiled thinking of her first week here, how he’d pointed at the objects in the barn and named them in French, then English, repeating the French again, for her. She liked his blue eyes, bright like mountain nights. The pink knuckles on his pale, freckled hands.

Nora slipped outside. Air. What she liked best about the farm was its air, how it stung the throat, not just cold but hard, as if with its oxygen she breathed in icicles. She sometimes focused so hard on breathing it hurt, heart racing, her nerves rendering an involuntary act impossible. The stars outshone the lights of the village below. Out in those darkened woods Jean-Michel wandered, wild boars cozied up to rocks, Igloo the dog muddied his fur.


§

At 1:00 AM, the phone rang. The volunteers were lazing near the fire, asleep or almost. Jeremie and Nora lay parallel on the floor, hands as pillows behind their own necks. On the couch, Samka and Angel nested together, stirring only when Sev called out that it was Jean-Michel.

Samka and Jeremie began joking about where he was calling from, one-upping each other and laughing. “Je crois qu’il est en prison,” said Jeremie.

“Parce qui’il a tué Suzie,” said Samka.

Angel reached back to slap her, and said, “Chut,” adding something in Basque.

Nora yawned, turning away from the others. Curled on her side, she wanted nothing more than to go upstairs and sleep in her own bed, but she couldn’t stand, too tired from the day’s chores and the night’s wine, curious, too, about what was going on.

“Fifi est morte,” Sev relayed, waving his hand to quiet the others. Nora’s stomach clenched. Not Fifi. She thought of high school French, when she’d read Camus: “Aujourd’hui Maman est morte.” Meursault smoked cigarettes by his mother’s coffin but didn’t cry. Nora worked detachment to her forehead, envisioned it smooth and unlined. This was a farm. Animals were born here to die.

“Au matin, nous devons élever la vache,” said Sev, after hanging up on his father. He sat on the couch and poured more wine. “He needs two of us. If that’s not enough, he’ll call for more.”

“Pas moi,” said Angel. “No way.”

Angel and Samka spoke so many languages they got away with little physical work. Their main job was the farmer’s market, which they liked to say was exhausting, but it meant they saw people, actual people, aside from the other volunteers. They spoke, they laughed. They took money and passed over tommes de brebis-vache. They stopped at the village pub before driving back up the mountain and pretended not to have gin on their breath.

Jeremie pulled dice from his pocket. “Loser goes with Sev.”


§


The morning smelled like ice and worms. Nora dodged one, thick and wriggling, as she followed Sev and Igloo the dog down to the farm. She thought about heartworms, tapeworms, how small beings fell larger ones, unseen. Fifi est morte. She worried she’d open the barn door to a dead pregnant cow, or worse, a dead cow and dead calf.

“Tu sais,” said Sev, “c’étaient les miens.” He didn’t point or make eye contact, so Nora wasn’t sure what he was naming as his own.

“Quoi?”

“Les bottes,” he said, pointing at her feet.

Nora felt her cheeks blush, hot in the icy air. “Boots,” in French, sounds exactly like “butt.” Sev’s mother had dropped this pair into her lap, along with thick wool socks, after she caught Nora slathering her blistered heels in Neosporin. A goat had eaten the Band-Aid wrapper. She’d meant to thank Suzie, but could never seem to find her. She also assumed they were Suzie’s boots, but now realized that was ridiculous, the woman well over six-feet tall.

“You can have them back,” she said.

He laughed and said he’d worn them when he was about eleven.

Jean-Michel had told them to hurry, but neither did. Instead, they waited as Igloo bounded into the woods, chasing some small, skittering creature, and back out, mud soaking up his legs. Nora told Sev about the substitute teacher she’d had in high school French, an overwhelmed Cameroonian woman who didn’t understand why the popular boys kept asking: “Comment dit-on ‘seal’ en français?” only to erupt into laughter when she pronounced it and wrote the word on the blackboard, in all caps.

“Un phoque?” asked Sev, and, hearing it aloud, groaned. Now it was his turn to blush.

“I know,” said Nora. “C’est stupide.”

Igloo circled her, rubbing mud onto her jeans. Nora caught him by the collar, and held him close as her boots fell in heavy steps down the rocky path. She preferred the company of Igloo—his warm fur, curled in her fingers—to the cows or goats, though she had a soft spot for the newborns, the kid goats and lambs. Jean-Michel let her bottle-feed the smallest ones, name them, too. She’d chosen Ginny for the lamb, always hot and wriggling toward milk, and Graham for the runt goat with a bent ear and bent leg. Each animal born this year was named with a G. Jean-Michel tracked the years with the alphabet. Fifi, Nora realized, was a year old.

The rush of the waterfalls pushed the two along. Little avalanches of gravel ran ahead of their feet. Nora liked the sound of the water, its constant presence calmed her, though she knew she was supposed to long for the quiet of snow. Igloo lunged toward the low, wiry bushes beside the path.

“Is that a snake?” she asked.

“It’s not snakes you have to worry about,” said Sev. “Wild boars are the problem.”


§


At the farm, Sev and Nora did what was necessary: peeled off their rubber boots and tiptoed in socks across the clean entryway, strewn in black-and-white goat-hide rugs and slippers, a forgotten gift shop. By the barn door, they stepped into blue jumpsuits and back into their boots, clothes designed for hosing off. The barn was quiet. Nora could only hear the soft mechanical suck of the milking machines. Sev’s mother must be taking care of the goats, she thought. Suzie was a woman who floated around the grounds, busy and invisible.

The two walked toward the cows. Their footsteps were muted with hay. When she pushed open the door, Nora called out.

“Good, hello,” said Jean-Michel. “Fifi is struggling.”

The cow let out an awful sound, eerie and low. The air was thick and sickly.

“I thought,” Nora said, “Fifi est morte?”

“Oui,” said Jean-Michel, kneeling by the cow. He lifted a hose and washed Fifi’s back. The water ran red to the floor.

“Morte?” said Nora. “Dead?”

“Dead, no. Dy-ing,” said Jean-Michel. He didn’t bother looking at Nora. He handed his son the hose and walked away, toward the storage shed.

Sev knew to take over washing Fifi and also to soften the news, by saying: “Fifi est en train de mourir.”

Nora kept her eyes on Fifi’s—shock wide, with a dark, flooded waterline. She asked Sev to explain, please, in English.

“We have to raise the cow,” he said. “Not from the dead.” He let out a quick laugh, as animals kicked dirt. When Nora didn’t laugh, too, he spoke faster: “We will lift her so she is out of the blood and the shit when the veterinarian comes. We have a, euh, hammock.”

Fifi, exhausted from giving birth, had fallen into her own waste, and stayed there all night, in too much pain to move. She was infected, her blood turning septic.

“We give her antibiotics, then her milk is no good,” said Jean-Michel, returning with the canvas hammock and rope. “Nous sommes biologique. She dies, then the meat is no good.” Nora rested her hand on what would be Fifi’s shoulder. “Pauvre fille,” she said, rubbing gently. Fifi lay still on the dirty floor. Her back legs were swollen, dark with blood. Her uterus hung, raw and shining, prolapsed; the organ, exposed in the stuffy air, was as red and wet as a heart in a surgeon’s glove, the sort of red that begins to dim outside of the body. “Pauvre maman.”

At Jean-Michel’s instructions, they surrounded Fifi, cheeks pressed to hair. They breathed through their mouths. They pushed, readjusted their shoulders, and pushed harder. Sev whispered her name, encouraging Fifi to stand. Every muscle, every breath, three shoulders, six hands worked together, pressing, pressing, raising the cow that outweighed the three combined.

Fifi lurched. She tried to stay upright, but her knees collapsed. Her hooves skidded on the slick wood.

“Okay, okay, girl,” said Jean-Michel, rubbing Fifi’s back. “Let’s give her a break.”

Nora’s face was wet, with sweat or blood she couldn’t tell. The hours-old calf lay in the next stall, nosing fresh hay. Lucky guy, Nora thought, we could call him Goldie or Gamble.


§


When Nora arrived at La Milonga, she headed straight past the others, into the shower. She managed to pull a clean shirt over her head, before falling onto her bed. Alone, her chest pounded, restless, and she knew she wouldn’t sleep. She thought about home, wondered if she could cancel her return flight, put off the real world for another month or two. Nora had calmed her mother by saying she’d earn more money if she were fluent in French, even work as a translator, though she’d made that up, not wanting to bother her mother with what had happened, not having the heart.

Without focused tasks, the night would stretch in front of her, endless. She figured she may as well get up, and rejoin the others. But when she heard the knock at her door, she lay still and called out. She knew without asking it would be Sev. He slipped into her room, closing the door quietly behind him. Nora watched his eyes, and then his fingers trace down her bare legs. She was calm, with his watching, with him.

Sev was heavier than expected. He wore his belly with a sexy confidence, wide chest, thick, strong legs. She’d grown heavier, too, pale doughy curves, milk-bred. Nora moved her hand to his chest, kissing him. She tried not to feel a breast in her palm. She dropped her fingers, hoping he hadn’t noticed. But she knew Sev’s blood was leaving his brain. He wouldn’t care how she touched him, only that she was touching him.

Nora’s vocabulary failed her. All she could think were the phrases she’d learned in the barn: Je vais nourrir les bêtes. Je vais faire la traite. Nora talked about agriculture as she pressed her chest onto Sev’s, skin to freshly washed skin.

He looked shocked, but he laughed. He slapped her ass and asked: “Tu aimes ça ma chèvre?”

She couldn’t answer except by laughing more. It was all too ridiculous, and how good it felt, to let their bodies go slack and warm with pleasure on top of pleasure, deep fatigue, full belly laughs. Sev whispered into her ear as he gripped along her body, in French and English and French, again.

“Nora,” Samka yelled, unheard on the stairs. “Time for our dance.”

Samka pushed the door open and looked down at the two of them, lying on their stomachs now, the same pillow muffling their laughter, a pink sheet tangled like a fleshy root around their legs, asses slapped red and raw in the cold air. They looked up, still laughing, as Samka retreated, a hand over her eyes, laughing, too.


§


Soon after, Sev went to bed. “Too awkward,” he said, then rushed to add “and so tired,” kissing Nora on the mouth, an abrupt press. Nora was surprised not to feel this as a dismissal, not to worry about what he was thinking. Already she was beginning to enjoy the temporary. Already she was learning not to dwell on each unknown element of her life, to worry less about what it all—Sev, Fifi, Jean-Michel, Samka—meant.

Downstairs, Samka and Angel danced, scarves tied around their hips. The coins clinked in a languid rhythm, arms rising as if through honey, and then lowering, and rising again. It was impossible for Nora to look away, her head nodding to the thrumming beat.

She felt her hips sway. The surprise of Sev’s visit, his confidence in his body, with hers, that laugh!, made her feel looser, more fluid. She’d been clenching her muscles tight since she first stepped on the cold, muddy farm. She felt them, at last, release, muscles warm. She looked down at her feet, remembering the milonga rhythm—slow, slow, quick, slow—and began dancing, not caring whether Jean-Michel watched. She didn’t need a partner or an audience. She could simply dance.

Jean-Michel sat by the fire, sipping wine. He caught Nora ’s eye. He said something in a quick mix of French and Spanish she couldn’t understand.

“Don’t look down,” he repeated, in English. “Look at your feet and you’ll fall.”

Angel and Samka moved together, Samka leading, chin held high. Angel crouched and kicked out her leg. Her foot traced a slow, melodious circle on the floor. Nora looked to the fire, but Jean-Michel was gone. He had his own, private reasons for leaving, she now knew. Outside, the mountains stood calm, commanding. Music like sawdust flowed through the air.


 

photo of the author in a blousy green shirt, standing before a door painted pale pink

NICHOLE LEFEBVRE is a writer and artist based in Oakland, California. An alumna of Hedgebrook and the University of Virginia’s MFA program, she has published fiction and nonfiction in Catapult, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.