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ISSUE:  Fall 2023


The ants arrived on Marfa’s first night at the ranch. They crawled into her bed in ceaseless organized columns. The creatures were harmless and died easily between her thumb and forefinger, but kept coming, and Marfa could not sleep. Around four in the morning, half awake, she realized why. They were all heading for the upper-left quadrant of her back, and she knew, with the certainty of dream logic, that this area was Engelond. 

Not England—Engelond, of Chaucer’s time. She heard her father’s voice, reading the original Middle English out loud in his heavy Russian accent:

And specially, from every shires ende 

Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende, 

The hooly blisful martir for to seke, 

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Marfa’s father had taught her to love Engelond. First through Agatha Christie, then through Chaucer. A wiry, philosophical engineer, her father loved the wickedness of Christie and the loopy rhythms of Middle English, a distortion of the language he’d learned late in life and thought very funny.

Pure, putrid Engelond, cows and dogs and foul undergarments. Milk slopping onto tables, infants crying. Wigs, sweaty lovers rutting in straw. Engelond! 

The ants had smelled Engelond and marched, little crusaders in glinting armor. 

Was this imagination? Lunacy? Marfa knew nothing of either. 

Marfa was an ordinary person in her late thirties, indistinguishable from the other women at her government job. Marfa, too, ate organic frozen meals for lunch that were neither healthy nor tasty, and she, too, ambled silently home at the end of each day. Her looks were vague. Even her Russianness had faded; now that her parents were gone, she barely spoke the language. Texas had blurred the Russian right out of her.

“Marfa?” people repeated. “Like the town?”

And with these words, she became just another curly-haired person with a big face. Welcome home, the bodies of the Texans beamed, pushing their carts alongside her at the grocery store. But inwardly, minutely, she rebelled.

“My little bureaucrat,” her father had often said, with his characteristic tenderness and total lack of delusions, when she went to visit her parents in Fairbanks, Alaska, a city so cold and far away that it might as well have been the mother country. “Yes, Marfunka, how well you would have done in the old Soviet offices.” 

Despite a history of famine, and grandparents sent to Siberian labor camps, and homes where people threw vases and knives and called women whores—despite all that might have warped them, Marfa’s parents had managed to love their only child completely and almost perfectly.

Marfa had not made anything of her life, nor did she intend to. Avoiding the usual immigrant trap, Marfa had intuited that achievement was unnecessary to honor her parents’ sacrifice. All they had wanted was for her to be alive, happy. 

And she was happy, visiting them for Christmas each year, tucked under a blanket on the couch. Her father in his armchair. Watching British mysteries together as it snowed outside. Her father joked at the TV about the aristocracy, class division, the goofy detective. The two of them rapt, drinking tea. 

“What you two like so much about these shows, I’ll never know,” Marfa’s mother said from the kitchen, making golden pies and thick savory pancakes with green onions and sour cream. 

Marfa liked the shows because her father did. She wasn’t sure how she really felt about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; couldn’t quite describe what she did for work; had no partners for her mother to idealize to Aunt Olga during expensive calls back home to Russia. It didn’t matter—during these visits home, she was a happy baby on her parents’ couch, swaddled with warm, crowding stars. She was love itself—the love of her parents. To make something of her life would be to twist this love into silly shapes, like making balloon animals from the sublimely mysterious matter of the cosmos.

The only problem was that when her parents died, so young and quick, one after another with their weak hearts and bodies malnourished in childhood, the love retreated with them. Now, her parents were dead stars, and Marfa was the light they gave off—visible for now, but doomed. 

Grief transformed her from a happy baby into an irritable toddler. She had no other family in the States. Everyone else was in Russia, and she didn’t even really know them. The war depleted any interest she might have had in going back. Her job became a kind of grim nursery, holding and feeding her for eight hours a day, a place to do simple, repetitive tasks, like go to the bathroom and wash her hands, have a snack, and punch at buttons. 

Who would care for her now that her parents were gone? Once charmed by her outings with friends—picking at hummus plates, toying with gossip and advice—she was now aghast at what had always been true: Nothing of importance was ever exchanged between them, and if one of them moved away, they would never see each other again. 

She now understood her colleagues’ occasional scowls, and scowled herself. She started saying things like “What a day” and “I need a vacation.”

And she did need a vacation. She needed a vacation from her coworkers, walking to the coffee station with stiff joints, like plastic dinosaurs. She needed a vacation from her body, which hurt all the time now—a web of cells that could be caught in a fist and crushed.

Marfa’s elbows glowed with restlessness, resentment. Her mouth twitched. 

Dreaming of her vacation, she primarily pictured herself wearing her new robe, which she’d bought at Target for less than ten dollars, which in turn meant this bit of fleece was contributing both to underpaid labor and environmental disaster. But boy was it plush—and nice. She would wear it and relish how nice it felt, and that would be enough.

But where was she supposed to go? 

She gave the fate of her vacation up to the night sky. Standing on her porch one evening, in the selfsame robe, she tossed the question into the air like a dingy rubber ball. 

The ball bounced back, cleansed and transformed by the sky, with a streak of cosmic spit and dust. Ranch, it said. A cabin in a corner of a sprawling ranch. Rustic, but not too much. Nature, but a fence. Still Texas, still hot, but good AC.

The next morning, she found an Airbnb listing for a “special experience” on Painted Cattle Ranch. A one-bedroom cabin, a well-stocked fridge, a large TV with every streaming service, decorative touches Texan and elegant alike, and all the roaming she desired. A weeklong stay.


A man who introduced himself as “Jerry the butler” picked Marfa up at the Painted Cattle Ranch gate in an old Land Rover. Marfa had never heard of ranches having butlers, but then he drove her past the gaudy limestone mansion, fashioned after the look of a castle, where the owners lived. The size of it! It even had a little tower. Marfa imagined the inhabitants wandering down stone hallways and calling out each other’s names to see who was there. Sitting before the fire on chairs footed with carved lion heads, reading gilt-edged tomes. Hosting lavish dinners in tuxes and off-the-shoulder gowns. Marfa had, in fact, brought her own gown, for the formal dinner at the end of her stay that was part of the package. 

As they made their way along the dusty road, Marfa saw only one person on the property: a mustached man in a cowboy hat and denim, standing outside a humble home, surrounded by goats. The man set down his water pail to wave at Marfa and Jerry as they passed. A few goats turned to look and cocked their heads. 

“That’s Bob, the caretaker,” said Jerry. “He manages the goats and the cows, and the land itself, really. He’s been here thirty years.”

There was a long silence as the Land Rover lurched over the gravel road. 

“The Grandcourts have only just started hosting people at the ranch,” Jerry said. “You’re one of the guinea pigs.” He winked. “They’re a very private family,” Jerry continued, “but they look forward to sharing the wonders of the property with folks.”

Marfa, who knew the comforts of insularity, nodded. It was brave of the Grandcourts to open up their home.

Jerry drank from a tall can of beer as he drove. Old semicrushed Lone Stars rolled at his feet. 

“Are you really a butler?” she asked, feeling a little naïve.

Jerry glanced sideways at Marfa as he drove. “The Grandcourts, they’re an old English family. They like their fusty British ways.” He chuckled.

Marfa clapped her hands together like a child, unable to help herself. “Oh, I love the British!”

Jerry said nothing, and Marfa blushed.

They passed cows who watched them. Some had long horns sharp enough to kill a person. The mythical longhorns, like a Texas football fever dream: Here they were, in tense clumps. 

Every few minutes, the Land Rover came to an abrupt, ugly halt and Jerry got out in his ratty velvet jacket and cowboy boots to open a cattle gate, pull forward, and then close the gate. He was balding, with a comb-over. His long body curved a little to the left, like he was trying to get away from something on his right side. 

“You like swimming?” Jerry asked. “The river’s by the big house. I can take you.”

Marfa imagined Jerry standing at the lip of a dark midnight river, about to jump. 

It took longer than she’d expected to get to the cabin. It was flung out on the sprawling property, the farthest structure from the main house and, it seemed, any human presence at all.

The cabin was a miniature version of the Grandcourts’ home, a tiny manor playhouse built for a child and abandoned in a clearing of dead summer grass. 

Inside, the cabin was clean and luxuriously stocked with puddings, delicacies, all of the things she liked plus a few creepy little salads. Heavy candlesticks on the fireplace mantle, like in murder mysteries. Rustic antiques. Elegant cracks in the walls from whence the ants would come.

After showing her around, Jerry paused on the porch and said, with his long back to Marfa: “There’s something you should know. The Grandcourts make a lot of their money from overseas labor, very bad scene.” Like my Target robe, Marfa thought. “They have mining interests too, precious stones, quite violent.” Men underground, Marfa thought. “It’s terrible, but in a way, I feel sorry for them.”

Without saying goodbye, Jerry the butler walked to the Land Rover and drove away.

Nausea and fear passed through Marfa like wind through grass. Then the wind was gone and her body was still again. What an odd little man, she thought, and closed the door. 

Marfa unpacked her clothes and arranged them in the bedroom’s chest of drawers, which wafted hot, cedar-scented air. Texas heat was still trapped in this cabin in little pockets, but the AC kicked on with reassuring force. 

When she got out of the blue-tiled shower, it was cold enough to put on her robe and stretch out on the cowhide couch with a glass of wine, her wet hair smelling overpoweringly of the Grandcourts’ organic strawberry shampoo. The bottle of extraordinary vintage had a little cursive note: “Welcome, Ms. Gobrovnik.”


Marfa felt sequined and dusted with gleam on her first night in the cabin. Like a mysterious, shiny fish under the stars, making a pizza with the fancy appliances of the kitchen, dancing to the radio loud, no one around to hear or see. Outside, the tips of the trees rose and rose. 

And then she slept. The beautiful hair of the trees washed over the property. Engelond came with the ants. 

The next day, Jerry stopped by with a little dog. “Compliments of the Grandcourts, just while you’re here,” he said. “If you might bring the dog back at the dinner, it would be most appreciated.”

The dog was wet and trembling. Big bunny eyes. Marfa held the dog under her shirt to warm him. 

“By the way,” said Jerry, “have you seen Bob, the caretaker? The guy with the cowboy hat. Mustache.”

“No,” Marfa said. “I haven’t seen anybody at all.”

“It’s just that we haven’t heard from him since yesterday. The goats were out of food and water this morning.”

Marfa imagined the goats hungry and thirsty in their pen.

“It’s not like Bob to leave the ranch,” Jerry said. “Let me know if he drives by or wanders through.”

After Jerry left, and since the dog was too nervous to offer any comfort anyway, Marfa worked up the courage to ride the provided bicycle down the dusty road. She wheezed and burned in the sun until a wild hog, dark and enormous and with its golden-streaked babies in tow, leapt right in front of her bike. Marfa screamed. 

What other surprises would the ranch offer? 

As the hogs grunted off, Marfa imagined Bob the caretaker standing outside her kitchen window, bleeding. Behind him, the ranch enormous, heartless somehow. 

Marfa returned to the cabin feeling both brave and terrified. The dog hadn’t moved from its spot on the floor. Nobody was outside the kitchen window.

“I can do anything I want here,” she scolded the little Chihuahua mix, chest heaving from fear and exercise.

“I can eat broccoli,” she went on. “I can roll around in the yard like a barrel. I can say, ‘fee-fi-fo-fum’ out loud like a giant. I am in charge.”

The dog looked up at her with terror and awe.

She petted the dog and felt better. Marfa liked that the creature was more afraid than she was.

The days and nights rocked back and forth like a crescent moon stuck in the dirt. Day to night, night to day. Coyotes howled, insects she had never seen before came down the chimney, and each morning she woke up with welts from some new bug bite. She ate fine foods and wore her robe.

Through it all, the ants remained very engaging. They spoke to her all night about buttons, how buttons undid things and did them again. The ants had placed a button on their faraway Engelond altar, which they spoke of constantly as they marched. “After we defend Engelond, we will add a new gold button to our altar,” they muttered, curving around Marfa’s shoulders and arms.

By her third night on the ranch, Marfa had become the Queene of the Ants. The ants would do anything she said. She ordered the ants to march to the cupboard on the bookshelf, to break down the cardboard in the recycling bin, even to make a formation of the Scottish flag on the wall. It was fun to tease these very British ants, then make it up to them with soothing words about their strength and gorgeous armor. 

Lying in bed, she thought about her parents. Work had steamrolled her feelings, made them flat and dizzy as cartoons run over by trucks, reaching their little hands out wanly for help. But here, her feelings had time to grow plump and present, and her parents’ deaths poured around and through her. She remembered summers at their house, eating smoked fish at the coffee table they’d never replaced with a real dining table, even long after they could afford to. A conversation rising and falling, cool air from the windows. 

Marfa wept for her parents, whose lives had meaning and love, in whose love and meaning she had lived. 


By the fourth day in the cabin, Marfa began to unravel, spending so much time alone, inside, with her feelings and the ants. She took the Grandcourts up on their offer to do ranch activities. 

Jerry dutifully and wildly retrieved her in his Land Rover to ride a horse, pet a lonely goat. (Bob the caretaker had not returned.) Tie an inner tube to the river dock, because she was too frightened to swim. 

“Say hi to Penelope if you see her,” suggested Jerry as he lowered Marfa down into her inner tube. “She’s the Grandcourts’ daughter. Gone out on her canoe today.”

Marfa floated on the river. Nothing happened: a vulture overhead, the sun on her skin. A cow, a reddish shape with scary horns, emerged on the other shore. Marfa considered how easy her life was compared to that of her Soviet ancestors, who must’ve had so few moments lying idly in the sun. 

The cow stared at Marfa as it drank the greenish water. 

After a while, Marfa saw Penelope drift into view in her canoe. Penelope’s long orange hair trailed down her back. Marfa imagined little fish looking up at Penelope longingly through the water, wishing her hair closer so they could suck at the tips. Orange hair, blue-green river, black fish. Penelope looked quiet from afar, and a little tragic, like a trapped princess.

The clouds came in. Penelope pulled the canoe up to shore in a slosh. 

The daughter of the Grandcourts rose from the canoe and sponged off her hair with a towel. She looked at Marfa.

“Have you seen the witch yet?” asked Penelope. Marfa thought she detected a slight accent. Continental, maybe.

“Excuse me?”

Penelope laughed. “Oh, I’ve always thought there was a witch somewhere on the property. Maybe not far from your cabin?” She squeezed the remaining water from the ends of her hair. Damp, the ends had darkened to a copper. “Or maybe not a witch. Some kind of roving spirit. Something that doesn’t want us here.” 

The princess laughed again. “Sorry, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I hope you are enjoying your stay.”

Before Marfa could answer, Penelope headed back to the castle through the lawn, the towel around her shoulders. 


On the fifth day, after an afternoon nap with the little dog rising and falling on her stomach, Marfa stumbled to the porch. A snake flopped across the doorstep. Lumpy with voles. A nice rattle at the tip of him.

“I ful see how you love the golde grasses, and wants to put the golden huskes in your satchel, and takes them awaye,” said the snake. 

So the snake spoke in Middle English! The ants would be pleased. 

“Thou art greedie,” the snake concluded, fat and unimpressed.

Marfa didn’t know what to say, except, “Ye are moste welcoom in mye queendom, where I am Queene of the Ants.”

The snake scoffed in a hissing way. “Thou arre alwaise lookyng at the thinges in this cabinne, and thinking how muchhe they coste.”

It was true. Leather-backed chairs. Crockery. Wines. Everywhere she looked, Marfa saw the wealth of the ranchers.

“Thy obsecion with money disgustes me,” said the snake, whose name was Alberto.

“You’re right. Well, perhaps I’ll just slip into the stone wall with you, Alberto,” said Marfa. “Then we can be rich in mice together. And cozy too.”

“You’ve dropped your accent,” said Alberto, hurt. He slithered away.

Just when Marfa had begun to feel ill from the disappointed snake, her nights with the ants, the angry and uneasy feeling in the land, the trembling dog, the missing caretaker possibly covered in blood, Penelope’s witch comment, Jerry’s odd admission about the ranch and its brutal origins—she was rescued by an envelope, which Jerry slipped under her door, deliberately and without a word, like a postman, the Land Rover gone behind billows of dust. 

The Grandcourts’ dinner invitation was printed on an impossible cream card, of a weight and texture transcending Marfa’s stationery vocabulary. Thicker and more elegant than cardstock, smoother than watercolor sheets, and possibly woven through with something other than paper, like silk. 

Oh, she dreamed, tomorrow she would run the shower to steam her blue gown, and cover up her insect bites with makeup. She would look splendid on her last night at the Painted Cattle Ranch, feasting with the Grandcourts themselves.

The ants agreed. She would look wonderful in blue. 


The ride in the Land Rover was bumpy as always, and the little dog trembled among the Lone Stars. Marfa worried about the grime getting on her dress, rogue pools of beer staining her satin shoes.

Jerry seemed a bit strained, frowning as he drove. Marfa was a little hurt that he hadn’t said anything nice about her gown. He was uncharacteristically low on wry, friendly quips, just when she was feeling chatty and excitable. 

When Jerry got out of the car to swing open the last cattle guard, his face bore a seriousness she hadn’t seen before. 

Marfa had a strange vision of Jerry in his cabin. In the vision, Jerry was looking at himself for a long time in his cabin mirror. Reflected behind him, a bare room with a few old paperbacks on the floor and a bedframe out of the Dust Bowl. Jerry slicking his hair back with more pomade. His eyes dry, everything about him dry except for his hair. His shoulders shaking as he put his face in his hands. He wanted to be in the river, but he felt an odd pull toward the fields. Whatever the force was, it did not have his best interests in mind. Marfa saw him stepping out of his cabin, pacing up and down the road, resisting, dirtying his boots. 

But then Jerry, the real Jerry, got back into the Land Rover, drove into the main property, and hopped out again to close the final cattle guard. The clang of the metal broke the vision. 

Marfa picked up the little dog for comfort, and told herself the vision was nothing, a meaningless blooming from her newly developed imaginative capacity, just a weird little gift from her sleepless nights with the ants.

Nine p.m.was deep blue from the moon and very warm. The moon blued everything. The castle had a special grandness to it in the nighttime. Marfa put the little dog down, and the dog ran off into the dark. 

Inside, the castle was cool. Goosebumps arose on Marfa’s arms. She had a sense that the ants would be rather interested in her goosebumps. 

Jerry led her down curving walls to what felt like the innermost chamber, the dining room. Branches scraped darkly against the green-stained windows.

A big slab of malachite for a dining table. An iron light fixture hanging over the table, refracting spikes of light. Real candles. Two doors, painted a pale gold, one on either side of the fireplace. An oil painting of a slim and shadowy man, certainly Mr. Grandcourt, hung above the fireplace.

“How medieval,” Marfa burst out, her voice loud in that cavernous space. Only then did she notice the family at the table, so still, almost marbleized, before their empty plates and full goblets. Mrs. Grandcourt, Penelope, and a young man who must’ve been the son of the house. No Mr. Grandcourt.

No one introduced themselves.

Marfa blushed. Her blushes always ran down her neck and into her chest, mottling her skin. Jerry showed Marfa where to sit—next to Mrs. Grandcourt—and then sat down next to Penelope. He poured Marfa some sherry and pulled out a Lone Star for himself from his velvet jacket.

“Ms. Gobrovnik,” said Mrs. Grandcourt at last, raising her goblet to Marfa. “We’re so delighted to have you here.” Only then did she smile, and Marfa relaxed a little. 

“How are you finding the cabin?” she asked. She had the same continental accent as her daughter and was dressed in various golds. 

“It’s wonderful,” Marfa said. “Thank you so much for having me.” She took a sip of her sherry. “I am a little surprised by all the animals.”

The son, newt-like and nearly eyebrowless, looked down into his lap. Penelope moved her orange curls over to one shoulder, then the other. 

“Ah, yes, it’s very wild up there, I suppose. None of us has stayed out at the cabin, so we aren’t too familiar with the environs.”

“Well—there’s a lot of ants,” Marfa began, but realizing she couldn’t go too far down that path, continued, “and I saw a snake.” Thinking better of that too: “And, well, quite a few wild pigs. Just leaping across the road! I’ve never seen that before, even though I’ve been in Texas for years.”

“You know what scares me?” Penelope said in a soft voice. “The cows.”

The son tittered in his seat, then frowned and stared into his sherry. 

“The cows, darling?” said Mrs. Grandcourt, amused.

“I’m with Penelope,” said Jerry. He sipped his beer. “A couple months ago I was walking around on the ranch, must’ve been three a.m., and I got lost. Completely. Then I walked into this herd of cows, and they just stared at me. They looked like ghosts.”

“Or witches,” Penelope chimed in, glancing at Marfa. 

“Or witches.” Jerry nodded. The two of them seemed to have some kind of understanding. Marfa could tell that the Grandcourts loved Jerry, that he was perhaps their only tie to the outside world, and that in his rawness, his dustiness, he was real to them, and trustworthy.

“By the way, has Bob turned up yet?” Mrs. Grandcourt asked.

“No, not yet,” said Jerry. “I drove around the property today, looking for him.”

“This is worrisome.” Mrs. Grandcourt swished her goblet elegantly. “If he’s not back tomorrow, the authorities ought to be involved. And speaking of missing men, I wonder what is keeping John. First Bob, and now my husband!” She tapped her sapphire ring against the malachite table. Marfa wondered uneasily if the sapphire was related to those mining interests Jerry had mentioned. “Jerry, won’t you go check on John? He was watching football in the den a few hours ago.” She said the word football with distaste. 

“Yup,” said Jerry, and was gone on his long legs.

When Jerry left, no one spoke for some time. The son seemed to transform back into marble. Mrs. Grandcourt looked preoccupied, tapping her ring. Penelope wrapped a lovely scarf more tightly around her shoulders, and Marfa realized she and Penelope must be the same age—an aging princess. 

With no one to talk to, Marfa turned her attention to the dishes. Most of the food was covered with bronze lids, so she satisfied herself with the heavy golden knife and fork, the decanters of wine, an uncovered dish of muttons (what were muttons, really?). A basket of rolls seemed available for the taking, however, and Marfa grabbed one, spreading the warm bread with butter and some kind of savory marmalade, a burgundy color.

Marfa caught a clearing of Mrs. Grandcourt’s throat. She realized with shame that none of the others were eating, not even the rolls. 

Of course, they were waiting for Mr. Grandcourt. How rude and provincial they must think her! Marfa put her roll back onto her plate, where it wobbled like an overturned bug.

Blushing and unsure of where to look, Marfa considered the room. Dark blue and pearly. The wood dark. Cowhide chairs. Poor cows, she thought. She considered that the cowhides might have been sourced from the cows at the ranch itself, and felt ill.

Marfa wished desperately for Jerry to return. 

The son got up in his black suit. “Billiards, Mother,” he said in a high voice. “I’m going to play billiards until Father returns.”

The son walked through the gold door to the left of the fireplace.

“The men of this ranch—” Mrs. Grandcourt shook her head. For a moment she seemed like any other middle-aged woman irritated by her family. “Even Jerry,” she said, “wanders off for hours at a time, diving into the river and such with his clothes on. I wonder if he has even gone after John. For all we know he’s roaming the ranch.” 

Marfa remembered her vision of Jerry, pacing up and down the road, being called into the fields by some unknown power.

Penelope covered a yawn. The branches had stopped scraping against the windows, the night gone still. Coyotes howled and yipped outside.

Marfa was in despair. She had expected geese, ducks, pomegranates! And there they were, perhaps, on the covered dishes in front of her, but she could not eat them.

Penelope spoke Marfa’s thoughts out loud: “I feel faint with hunger. I’m going to lie down.”

Mrs. Grandcourt frowned as Penelope got up in her light-green satin gown and walked through the gold door to the right of the fireplace, the door her brother had not chosen. 

Now it was just Marfa and Mrs. Grandcourt at the malachite table. 

“I’m sorry,” said Mrs. Grandcourt. “We had wanted to give our first guest a nice dinner, and everything is going wrong.” 

Mrs. Grandcourt said this with such sincerity that Marfa felt tears coming to her eyes. In a way, Marfa did feel that there was something to apologize for. Engelond, this Texas version of it anyway, had turned out to be a more frightening place than she had imagined. The rich blues and greens of the room turned in her stomach like a snake, like Alberto in an evil mood.

“Please,” said Mrs. Grandcourt, “if you do not mind waiting a bit longer, I will go retrieve my husband and children, and we will finally have our meal. Excuse me.” She stood up and went into the gold door on the left.

Marfa was completely alone in the dining room. She drank the rest of her sherry quickly, and, feeling warm and afraid, reached for one of the mutton legs (if that’s what they really were) and bit down hard. The meat was delicious—lamb. 

The coyotes outside had started up again. There was a rumbling from beyond the left door through which Mrs. Grandcourt and her son had disappeared. 

The mysterious gold doors, the missing caretaker and patriarch and butler: This was a murder mystery, and Marfa wanted to be among the survivors. Marfa knew, quite sharply, that she must get out of the castle, out of the ranch. She must go home.

She walked quickly down the curving hallway, taking bites of mutton from one greasy hand as she went. At last, Marfa found the front door and started back on the road.

Her car was parked by the Grandcourts’ castle—she could see it, her beat-up little sedan, under a large oak—but her keys were in the cabin. It would take over an hour to walk to the cabin and back, and the chances of running into a rattlesnake, one who could not speak Engelondish, were high. 

Perhaps it was safer to get to the highway, try to flag someone down. But how foolish she would look in her blue gown in the middle of nowhere. Nothing to say for herself except that a man named Bob hadn’t shown his face in a while and a family was late for dinner.

Coyotes yipped along the river.

She was going to do this properly. Walk bravely back to the cabin, get her keys, look out for rattlesnakes in the road. It would be all right.

She tripped on the gravel road in her chunky heels. Her gown was tighter than she would have liked. “You look like a blue sausage,” her mother would have said, matter-of-factly. At eleven years old, Marfa had played the role of a birch tree in a skit put on by her Russian tutor, singing in a white dress. Everyone had said how delicate she looked. Now, she was sweating in a dusty blue gown, swinging the cattle guards open with savagery and fear.

Her Russian lessons with the tutor had taken place in a damp basement, a talcum powder smell. The tutor’s black eyeliner was applied in two parallel lines, ignoring the curve of her eyelids. She had hair like a terrier, bobbed, and she was very strict. Marfa had often imagined running out of the basement into a secret garden. Angels opening the gate to let Marfa in. Nothing is required of you, the angels would sing, lowering their candles all around her. Drinking tea together, having sandwiches. All of them speaking Russian impeccably, even Marfa.

Maybe I’m recalling angels right now, thought Marfa, because I am going to die.

Every step was difficult. There were creatures in the bushes. 

“You’re almost at the cabin, Marfunka,” she said aloud to herself. “There’s the last cattle guard.”

Just before Marfa could open the gate, a large reddish longhorn, much like the one she’d seen during her inner tube float on the river, crossed in front of the gate and blocked her way. The cow shook its head, horns six feet across. In their smooth length, sharpened at the ends, they looked like weapons carefully sculpted by the earliest peoples of this land.

Marfa backed slowly into the tall grass off the road, where rattlesnakes liked to hunt. The longhorn hoofed the ground, snorted, backing Marfa farther into the dark. A fog settled around them.

As the cow approached Marfa, ten or twelve other cows emerged from the fog. The cattle herded around Marfa in a moving circle, watching her.

She saw another large shape in the fog, far off, and realized it was the Land Rover. Jerry. Jerry had listened to the cows, the cows he was right to be afraid of, the cows that had called him into the field at last. Maybe the others were out there too: Bob the caretaker and Mr. Grandcourt and Mrs. Grandcourt and Penelope and the son.

Marfa squeezed her eyes shut. “Mamochka,” she said, “Papochka.” Praying to her parents.

She crouched and rolled up into a ball as the cows hooved and crowded around her. She could hear their horns clacking against one another’s as they moved in some kind of ritualistic rhythm. Marfa opened her eyes for a moment to see them pounding the grass into a circle, a circle that was getting tighter and closer. It was a miracle that they were able to herd together without piercing each other with those horns. It was their control: They had total control over every movement. This was a dance they had done before. 

Marfa closed her eyes again and made herself as small as she could. Maybe they would pity her insignificant body. She was a lowly government worker, composed of microwaved burrito bowls and grief. She wasn’t like Bob the caretaker, torturing the cows for thirty years, or even Jerry, driving wildly and desperately around the property, knowing too much and unable to change things. She wasn’t like the Grandcourts, hardening into sapphire and marble, taking and taking from the cows and this land and the lands across the sea.

The hot breath of the cows was upon her. They snorted over her head, their snorting and breathing was all she could hear. 

As she wept, Marfa felt a muzzle on her, warm and velvety, moving the hair off her neck and tickling her nape. She felt more muzzles working her over. 

Marfa’s eyes closed in a new way, with frank and confused pleasure. Maybe the cows would decide to kill her. Maybe their muzzles and dry, rough noses would be replaced with horns soon. Indeed, the tip of a horn grazed her back as the cows drew closer. The sharp point didn’t cut through her dress, but made an exploratory sound, like a scissor testing the cloth. 

Then the cows quieted, touching her with their faces. Muzzles neither searching nor hungry, but curious, gentle even. A lover’s touch, maybe. What a silly end, what a silly story this turned out to be. The Cows Who Loved and Killed Me. Touched by a Cow. The Deadly Love of Cows. No, all that was drivel. Marfa was no writer. Her only genius had been in the ants. 

The ants! No, she wasn’t a Grandcourt, and she wasn’t a saint or a sage, but she remembered now. She was the Queene of the Ants. It wasn’t much, and she could never explain it to another person as long as she lived, but her queenhood was something the cows might understand.

As soon as she thought it, the knowledge made a shield around her, a hardness like the ants’ armor. The muzzles lifted from her body in a kind of jolt. The cows had their answer: Indeed, this creature wasn’t a Grandcourt. This Queene of the Ants had passed their test.

Marfa heard their grunts diminish. Their retreating hooves beat the ground into clouds of dust that coated her, filled her nostrils. 

In the growing quiet that followed, Marfa raised her head, and for the first time since the cows had encircled her, she opened her eyes fully and looked around. The beasts had moved back into the far field. Their rumps looked homely as they retreated. 

Soon the cows were gone altogether, and Marfa could see nothing but a field bristling with grasshoppers, and the desolate Land Rover in the distance.


Marfa was on the highway. She had made it to the cabin, grabbed her keys and wallet and phone. She had quickly changed her shoes, leaving her plush robe and everything else behind, and run all the way back to her car, not daring to look anywhere but straight ahead. 

Before she had pulled out of the Grandcourts’ driveway, she thought she had seen Penelope on the dark river in her canoe. Trailing her hand in the water and singing. Maybe Penelope had been in cahoots with the witch-cows.

“Yes, the cows are the murderers in this mystery,” Marfa said out loud in the car. “If Jerry and Bob and the Grandcourts are found dead tomorrow, I trust the cows have their reasons.” It was like one of those Agatha Christie endings where you kind of saw where the killer was coming from.

She drove as into a long dark tunnel, at the end of which was her house. 

Marfa had never been so happy to see her small, neat house. She stood in the living room with all the lights on, crying, her gown tattered and covered in dust. 

She visited all of it, all that was hers. The round dining table with its two chairs, only one of which was ever used; the refrigerator with the salsa jars, yogurts, and wilting spinach in a tub. The lamp with its cozy yellow light in her bedroom, the dresser with the birch box of pins and cheap necklaces from the grandmother she had never met. A brush wrapped in years of blondish hairs. Her bedside table, with the framed photograph of her parents, each with an arm around Marfa. Marfa beaming between them with her big simple face. 

She got into bed still wearing the blue gown, turned off the yellow lamp, and sighed under the covers. The moon, which had seen everything, continued to watch her. A few crickets outside, a car starting. It was now perhaps one in the morning.

“The cows have had their revenge,” Marfa said out loud into her dark room. “The cows, the witches, have had their revenge on the ranchers for what they’ve done to the lands and the creatures. The witch-cows have done it. Papa, I have solved the mystery.” Her father would be proud.

Soon she felt the ants. They had come all the way from the ranch, or maybe these were local ants. It didn’t matter; the ants all had the same purpose. 

Marfa lay there in the dark with the ants upon her, knowing herself to be the Queene of the Ants, her insides taking shape where they had been formless. The stars of her father and mother shone into her body. Residing in such a quickening space, the stars were not yet dead. 

Our Queene, we are yours forever, the ants assured her, covering her shoulders and upper back with kisses. Our purpose lives on in thine own flesh. 


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