MOONCALF TRIPTYCH

by Christina Ladd

Content Warnings: Death

1.


Once upon a time, a mooncalf was born to a poor farmer’s only cow. The thing was wretched to behold, with two half-formed faces growing opposite one another from the same place in its skull, and one foreleg short and spindly, terminating in an in-turned knob. The farmer prayed that it was dead, but it lowed, high and soft. It tried to rise on its malformed limb and stumbled, the same as if the farmer had tried to lift himself up by putting his weight on his wrist.  

The mother turned around and began to lick its head.

The farmer knew he should burn the creature and dump its ashes in a deep, dark part of the forest. However, he was so poor that he could not afford for it to go to waste. So he cut off its head and its malformed leg and threw them in the midden, for the earth was frozen with frost. Then he cooked up the rest. His family ate very well, and his children survived the winter, while the children of many other poor farmers did not. 

The mother cow, forlorn and bewildered by the lingering scent of her newborn, began alternately to dig at the midden or to pace her grazing ground. She would sometimes break the fence of her enclosure and go wandering over the fields. 

One morning, the cow wandered into a neighbour’s land. It did not eat the new shoots of grain but only went pacing to and fro. The neighbour found this strange, and when he brought the cow back, he resolved to spy. He found the farm near-identical to his own, threadbare and splintering. So why should they survive so well while his own family suffered? His littlest daughter was in the ground, and his eldest, too. 

The cow began to dig at the midden, and the neighbour followed her. There in the stink, he found the terrible skull and the malformed foreleg like a witch’s wand.

He took the bones and showed them to the men of the village. Swift as rumour, they banded together and burned their neighbour and his family in their home. Then they divided his lands between them and what possessions had not gone up in flame. They could not decide, however, what should become of the cow. Some argued that it, too, should be burnt, for it had birthed an abomination. But others said it had led them to the witchery and was therefore innocent.

As a compromise, they killed the mother cow and divided her up among them, and what children remained to them were healthier, for a little while. 


2.


Once upon a time, there was a mooncalf born to a poor farmer’s only cow. Despite the cow and the bull being russet, the only part of the calf that was red were its eyes. The rest of its body was white and knobby like deep roots. The knots were thickest along its spine, lumps obviously akimbo even while still coated in the thick birth slime. The farmer prayed that it was dead, but it lowed, high and soft.

The mother turned around and began to lick its head.

The farmer knew he should burn the creature and dump its ashes in a deep, dark part of the forest. However, he could not bring himself to be so wasteful. So he allowed the calf to live and hoped that it would grow strong enough to pull his plough despite its deformities.

Soon winter was upon the land. The farmer was so poor that he brought his animals inside the house, as much to ensure that his children didn’t freeze as to protect the cows. His daughter was afraid of the mooncalf, but he soon found his son asleep beside it. In the morning, the strange whiteness of the mooncalf seemed to him like the dazzling snow outside, terrible but beautiful, too.

Thenceforth on cold nights, the family slept between the cows. They were very warm, and though they were hungry, the children survived the winter, while the children of many other poor farmers did not.

His neighbours blessed the poor farmer’s good fortune to his face and cursed it behind his back. They were poor farmers, too.

The mooncalf grew and grew into a fine young bull and soon could pull a plough at great speed. The nubs of flesh and stubs of bone grew along with it, but the family no longer paid them any mind. They tended their fields and harvested them in due time, and the mooncalf eased their burdens. 

When winter came again, they found themselves certain they would survive the season and rejoiced. They even brought the cow and the mooncalf inside to warm their revels and gave them sweet apples along with the children.

A neighbour heard the commotion on his way home from the village and snuck closer to see the cause. He cried out when he saw the mooncalf being brought inside, its rippling white flesh like mushrooms engulfing a dead tree.

The neighbour told others what he had seen. Then he led them to the house where they could see for themselves. They went with torches raised, and once they had satisfied themselves that the mooncalf was as wicked-looking as promised, they set the house to burn. But the mooncalf raised its head and moaned, a high and eerie sound. And it would not stop, nor would it cease prancing and jabbing until the family had to flee its mad capering.

The family ran out of the house just in time to see the thatching collapse in a cloud of sparks. 

The neighbours were stunned by the appearance of the mooncalf but found their wits in time to surround the family. They advanced until the mooncalf, who was white as rushing waters, stepped in front of them.

It planted itself firmly and drew up to full height. The strange lumps all along its back protruded like dragon spines.

Then the mooncalf charged. It tore into the crowd with flashing hooves and trampled all who stood staring. And as the rest tried to flee, it chased them down with powerful strides and ground them into the earth.

When it was finished, its fierce gallop became a meek trot, and it returned to the family with shy eyes.

The family, who had stumbled from sleep into a succession of events less believable than nightmares, stood frozen. The cow, however, stepped forward and licked the mooncalf’s head. And the mooncalf submitted to it.

Then the son went and patted the mooncalf’s side. ‘Good horsie,’ he said.

‘We cannot stay here,’ said the poor farmer’s wife, recovering the thread of her wits. ‘They will come for us.’

‘We must give them the mooncalf,’ said the poor farmer.

‘It protected us!’ his daughter cried. 

‘And the town will not be satisfied with its death alone,’ his wife added.

‘What can we do? How will we live?’ wondered the poor farmer.

‘We have our stores,’ said the daughter. ‘We have a cart.’

And so they put all the surviving stores from their home in the cart hitched to the mooncalf. Then, for good measure, they took the stores from their neighbour’s farm since he would no longer need them.

Then they began to walk until they reached the deep, dark part of the forest. And maybe they are still there, protecting and protected by the terrible mooncalf. 


3.


Once upon a time, there was a mooncalf born to a poor farmer’s only cow. The creature was finely formed from tail to shoulder, but its head was unnaturally large, and its eyes were shallow pits. Instead, it had a single eye in the centre of its forehead.

Out of pity, the farmer snatched the mooncalf up before its mother could so much as lick its head. He dealt it the mercy blow and burned the body until the bones cracked and crumbled. Then he collected the ashes and took them to the deep, dark part of the forest.

The ashes were in an old rag he had thought to discard. But when he was about to leave it, he thought it might yet make a patch for a shirt or at least a little extra insulation for a coat. 

When he went to shake out the ashes, a voice cried, ‘Stop!’

He whirled around to find an old woman hobbling toward him. He made the sign against evil over his chest; the woman was obviously a witch.

‘Do not spill the ashes here. They will sink into the soil, and the plants will grow strange, and the waters will run with sour magic.’

Though she was undoubtedly wicked, the poor farmer saw the sense in that. ‘What should I do?’

‘Give them to me.’

But the poor farmer did not like to think what a witch would do with them.

The witch sighed, seeing his hesitation. ‘I will only make soap from them. Soap is a clean thing; it cannot be wicked.’

But the poor farmer went with her to see that it would indeed be done as she said. He watched her boil the ashes in her pot with scraps of fat and insisted she put in nothing else, not even the sweet vervain, to make a better smell.

When the mixture cooled, the witch scraped out the soap and gave half to the poor farmer.

‘Let me see you use it first,’ he said.

The witch sighed again. Then she proceeded to wash a kitchen rag in a little bowl.

The cloth came out clean. So did the witch’s hands, young and pliant as a dairymaid’s. 

Both of them gasped.

Very slowly, the witch broke off another portion and pushed it toward the poor farmer. She had left herself only enough to lather her own body if she were careful.

The farmer understood. He would not speak of this and would bring the soap home to his family. After all, it was clean magic, not evil. Probably.

‘What will we do?’ he asked his wife.

‘If we use it, they will burn us for witches. And even if they don’t, we will only grow old again on this miserable plot of land. Let’s sell it,’ she said.

They went to the baronet and demonstrated the soap’s power by using a sliver. He was greatly amazed and paid them enough to live well for a full year. Then the baronet gave half the soap to his wife and half to his mistress.

The next winter, a plague struck the whole region. Rich or poor or in-between made no difference: all died. Except for the baronet’s mistress, who had long since taken her young new face and found a richer teat.

Christina Ladd: 

Christina Ladd is a writer, reviewer, and librarian. She will eventually die crushed under a pile of books, but until then she survives on a worrisome amount of tea and pizza. You can read more of her work at Strange Horizons, Vastarien, Speculative North, and others. 

You can also find her on Twitter @OLaddieGirl.