Cowgirl and Laundry Boy

Celeste Chen

When Cowgirl opens her eyes, she doesn’t remember the magpies, nor does she see them lingchi the sky, each tail a hilt, each wing a blade. The sky bows, slivers between their bodies, and a group of men from the next town over cradle their foreheads and peer out from underneath logged fingers. Curiously, they watch. They describe the shape of the flock to each other. A collapsed bridge, the tallest man says. His friend laughs. No, gussets. Just birds, the least imaginative of them grunts. There is a fourth man too, but he stays silent. What use is there in looking up? He bows his head, lets the sun lacquer his skull with gull-grey light, and shuts his mouth. Laundry Boy, the men call him. They’d caught him several towns ago, where he’d been wandering out at night. They can still recall the picture his head had made, its gibbous shape bobbing in the dark. A moon, the least imaginative man had thought aloud, and all three had smiled before grabbing Laundry Boy by the braid and dragging him away. Later, they marveled at their quarry. How dark, his rope of hair. How rough, the skin of his palms. With starched tongues, they nodded at each other. This was the one who’d stolen from them.

Cowgirl soon comes upon the men as she guides her horse through the dusty streets. They call out to her as if she were carrion. Come drink with us! She wants to say no. She’s here on a mission. A mission? This is news to her too. She tries to remember this mission. Can’t. The men are raucous in their boredom, and they jab their thumbs at Laundry Boy. Look, he could be your brother, the tall man says. There’s a pause because this is supposed to be a joke, and he swings the silence like an axe. Times his next words with Cowgirl’s swallow. Drawls out: He could be your lover.

And it’s true. Laundry Boy looks familiar. Certainly not a brother, but a lover? Cowgirl looks closely. Maybe she does remember him. Something about the nakedness of his throat. One long stem. Human. Cowgirl winces at this realization. Human? Ah. This has always been their tragedy, hasn’t it? Laundry Boy tilts his head. I’ve seen you before, his eyes say. His brows beetle together. So he remembers too.

The men mistake Cowgirl’s silence for rejection. Their faces grow dark. How startling she is, atop her grand horse! They’ve never seen her kind around these parts. Not like this, which is to say: Vertically. Not like this, which is to say: Detached from the opium pipe. How much would she fetch for? Maybe they could take turns with her first. Right behind the saloon. Push her face into their pants till tears dribble from pear-pip eyes. The tall man smacks his lips and places a hand along Cowgirl’s ankle, that pale wink of skin. What woman would dare to bare her legs, he’s thinking, and the moment stills and he sighs but the sigh doesn’t come from his mouth but rather from his belly and once he was a boy who lived by a lake that’s since dried up, turned to sand. He’d eaten fish every night and then dreamt about it, what sour empty dreams they were. Oh, the sound of it frying, the way his mother would grin. Can he see her now? He can’t remember her hair or her hands or her smile, can’t remember anything at all. His eyes are heavy. He’s a cowboy with a sack full of scalps slung across his back, and they flap, ears on, leaking secrets and he’s never felt so alive as he does now, lungs pruned, eyeballs glossy like the bellies of animals he’s since gutted, just as Cowgirl guts him now, slices him from penis to jugular in one perfect (Perfect! he nearly thinks. Perfect!) movement, and before him his life spills as the sack of scalps spills mother mother all of it spilling back into the thirsty earth. Oh to be dust. Grease and teeth. Mother.

The man’s friends scream, but Cowgirl and Laundry Boy ignore their terror. Aghast and with hearts pounding, the men flee.

I’ve been waiting for you, Laundry Boy says to Cowgirl when the air is quiet once more.

Waiting for me?

Yes. I’ve crossed an ocean and caked my clothes in stolen gold. Here, I’ll show you.

Laundry Boy asks Cowgirl if she can weave, if she can still pull clouds from nothing. Fingers tingling, Cowgirl says yes. Laundry Boy nods. Please, then. Please. He asks so politely, this man of hers, and so Cowgirl plants the air with rain.

Ah! Cowgirl watches as Laundry Boy’s clothes shimmer. Rainwater the color of morning piss pools at their feet and gilds their toes. Gold! I caked myself in gold, Laundry Boy laughs, but Cowgirl wants to cry, wants to fold Laundry Boy into her arms. What use are myths in the face of such riches? She stares at the body of the tall man and his split-peach chest.

Cowgirl shudders. She knows her mission after all. My love, she says. Let’s leave this barren land. This bowl of nothing. Laundry Boy nods, and Cowgirl tips her head up-up-up. She lassos the night and strangles it till the magpies swoop down. My friends! Cowgirl cries. How I’ve missed you. The magpies chatter. They make a bridge. Gusset the darkness. Feather to feather, beak to beak. Cowgirl and Laundry Boy step into the broken sky.

Wake up, son. Quick, now. The morning is bright. A-Wing says there’s gold in the river here. No? Come now. It was just a story. I know you like the original — the cowherder and the weaver girl. I just turned it inside out. Why? Well, here in California, things are different. Nothing like home. Home? Yes, we’ll be back soon. Yes, I promise. We’ll be back soon.


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