"Long week, honey?"
I pulled my face from Tess' soft soft fur, where I'd been resting my head for the last... ten, twenty minutes? The farmer leaned on a shovel above us, thoughtfully blocking the light of the spring afternoon sun. I let myself rest in her shadow a second, just like I'd been resting on Tess.
"Oh, not so bad, Ma'am, considering." I cocked my head and smiled weakly. She smiled too. I could hear her breath slowing from whatever task had occupied her moments ago, I could see the sweat drying where she'd rolled up her button-down sleeves. But all I could smell was Tess' soft fur where I'd been resting my head.
"Considering, huh..." she shrugged comically, then crouched down to hand me the brush; Tess looked over with thoughtful eyes, and lowed expectantly. "You can talk to me about it, y'know." Whenever we spoke she'd poke at my guarded shell at least once -- half in mockery, half in mercy -- and then let me get away with being guarded and vague. As always, I turned to Tess' coat and changed the subject: "how're the newborns?"
"Finest calves I've had around here!" She chuckled in her soft contralto. "Haven't decided what to name 'em yet. But Mama Bess is doing just fine, she's recovering with the others." She shifted from her crouch and sat down, leaning against Tess as I brushed her. She glowed in the sun; she loved her cows. "I'm proud of her."
"Oh, I can tell, Ma'am," I giggled.
I'd insisted on calling her "Ma'am" since I first volunteered here, mucking out stalls and such for some precious time with the cows. I'd also insisted she not pay me, as my wife was bringing in enough for more than both of us at the time. Volunteering was the couples' therapist's suggestion -- "y'know, give your life some purpose, give yourself things to do." I'd moved out here to be with her, but living together brought out all the cracks in the relationship, and before I knew it I was signing papers for the first gay divorce in the state. Since then, I'd been less diligent in my duties, slipping bit by bit until a day like today, where I was just lying on Tess, like Tess was taking care of me instead of me taking care of her like i was broken like i couldn't help anyone much less myself i felt so pathet--
I took a deep breath. "Sorry I dozed off like that."
"You know I don't mind, honey, it's just nice having you around." I tried to hide another grimace; though I should be grateful, the pity hurt too. I *liked* being helpful. Couldn't even keep up appearances. "Tess 'n' Bess are always happy to see you, it's like you're one of their own!" She chuckled again. "Tess, Bess, 'n Jess."
I smiled again. She was the only one who called me Jess; it was an icy 'Jessica' back home. "I just don't want you to have to worry about me, Ma'am. I'm fine, you know, I'm fine."
"Oh I know you're fine," she repeated wryly, looking me up and down and raising her eyebrows exaggeratedly. I'd been skinny most of my life, but relationship weight had brought out my curves. Didn't help that the farmer always sent me home with fresh milk in cool glass bottles, with that succulent layer of milkfat just under the cap. So these days I let slightly-too-thin and slightly-too-tight clothes show off my breasts and thighs. Overall, I felt pretty good about the changes -- and the farmer, lean and gangly, was never far off with a compliment.
"Wish you weren't the only one who thought so" I sighed, trying for a joke that just came out wrong. Silence. I always fucking do this, I try to pass off something as a joke and it just comes out sad and then she pities me and i drag the mood down even when i just want a normal fucking afternoon conv-
"Did you get your own bed yet, honey?" she asked. "Oh, we don't have to talk--" I protested, and she cut back in. "Now, now. You're always talkin' about it even when you're not talkin' about it, because it's something so big in your life that it'd be hard not to talk about!" She got very expressive, dancing her hands around her head as she spoke, trying to ham it up a little for me. I see through her when she does this, I thought, but she sees through me more. "I guess you're right," I laughed back, lowering my guard just a bit.
"...no, not yet. We still sleep on the same bed, just on opposite sides." "That's no way to live! a girl like you, all alone on half a king-sized?" she protested. "I'm telling you!" I hollered along, punctuating with my brush strokes. (Tess lowed thoughtfully, resting her head on the grass, content to listen.) "She hasn't said I need to move out," I continued, "she knows I gave up a lot to come out here, she knows my chronic health stuff isn't gonna just clear up, she knows I have a big fucking hole in my resume--"
"Oh," she moaned quietly, "just in your resume?" I secretly liked her teasing, but made sure to roll my eyes. "Like, I have a roof over my head, a little settlement money, I have a few ideas of things to try next. It's going to be fine! In fact, it's already fine, it's fine right now, and it's been fine for years, and as I just mentioned it's going to be fine. All I have to do is just..." I realized I'd been brushing the same part of Tess' fur for ten, twenty seconds, I couldn't tell how long. It was the spot I'd been crying into just a few minutes ago. "... I'll just figure something out!"
Silence again. The farmer was a good listener, the kind who also knows when to speak up and fill space. I wish she'd fill it right now, but she was silent just blinking thoughtfully as i spill my stupid fucking guts out trying to pretend i know how to be a real person around anyone anymore--
I felt a weight fall onto my shoulders, wrapping around me with soft warmth. It was the farmer's coat, flannel lined. "I know, I know, honey" she cooed. "But look: even though it's spring, it's still March and it's still cold around here and nobody feels good when they're cold." She was... right, it was cold, I just hadn't noticed. How had I not noticed? I felt the jacket's heat surround me around me. "Also, no one feels good when they're hungry, so I'm sending you home with extra milk. Heat it up before bed if you like, it'll help you feel even warmer." She patted my shoulders and I shivered a little. Her hands hesitated minutely as she pulled away. I looked up at her and saw her smile, half-shadowed in the afternoon light. "You're always welcome here whenever you need a break. You've been a great friend to me, and you're like family to the cows." Her smile deepened.
I smiled back. "Thank you Ma'am."
She patted me again. "Anytime, honey."
As she walked away, I returned to Tess, my brush strokes smooth and regular now. A calm collected into my head and settled down in my chest, just above a new, funny feeling in my stomach.
"Moooo," Tess lowed.
"Moo to you too, sweetie."