"We're starting them up," Mary says, smiling at me. And we are. The cacophony of each car is dulled a little by the chorus of the one before.
The dairy car is next. Mary and I like to linger in dairy implements. She is a real farm girl, not like me. Sister Crock had her on recommendation -- a nimble girl and a handy cook. Mary's father was reluctant to let her go and now he sends messages for her; they follow us down the stalls from dairy to dairy, on a milk cart, on a truck, refreshed at a tiny hotel and then spoken by an awkward man hoisting himself into our women's car. "The Maloney girl," he'll say. "I have a message for the Maloney girl." Mary dusts her hands or smooths down her apron as the man, always a similar-looking sort of man, blushes. "Your father, your father says keep well...and he loves you."
Sometimes they leave off the last bit, the love refrain. And we know they had meant to say it, right up until they swung into the car and saw us, three women on a train full of animals, playing house.
Mary drinks in the dairy implements. She explains to me what she knows, the indoor stuff of cream separators and churns and pats and butter makers and thermometers and hygienic wraps. Mary's future is in cows. She is secretly engaged to George, the son of a neighboring dairy farmer. She takes notes about herd testing.
"It's the way of the future," she says. The future is all around us, in shiny Babcock testers, in huge signs where the luggage racks should be:
All the money in the bank comes from the soil
Cheap cows are costly cows
Grow two blades of grass where one grew before
Get rid of the old scrub bull
Sister Crock is restless, she hurries me and Mary along, her red midi cape flapping around her ample shoulders. The sitting car awaits. As head of women's subjects, Sister Crock doesn't want to miss anything. We push on in single file through plant identification, tobacco, sheep diseases, and honey.
Poultry is next. The poultry car is kept dark to reduce the anxiety of the birds. It is dimly studded with the beady eyes of hens, pullets, cocks, and roosters. There is no air in poultry, just the acid stench of shit and another smell too: newness, birth, the unfurling and drying of feathers still sappy from the egg. Orange incubation lights sway over the chick cages like giant lampreys. Mr. Ohno, the Japanese chicken sexer, is there, sitting on his haunches in the corner practicing some leather craft. He jerks upright as we enter and then bobs down again in a deep bow. He is immaculate in pinstripe trousers, a long swallowtail jacket, and a silk tie of the deepest scarlet. My eyes settle on his feet, which are, as always, encased in white toe socks worn with heavy wooden clogs. Mr. Ohno's smile is so broad it stretches the part in his brilliantined black hair. He nods formally at Sister Crock and Mary, but stands in front of me.
"Miss Jean. I show you, Miss Jean," he says, taking my hands in his. Then he reaches quickly into one of the wire cages and pulls out a tiny chick.
"Feel he-yah," he says. "He-yah." He guides my fingers over the warm pink rim of the chick's sex, searching for the spine. I think I feel something, the smallest knot of tissue, then Mary giggles and Sister Crock clears her throat noisily and it's gone.
Mr. Ohno snatches the chick away triumphantly. "Ees boy. You feel boy, Miss Jean!"
He bows again and returns the chick to its cage. Sister Crock tells him in her loud, lecturing voice that we are not intending to stop, but are just passing through on our way to the sitting car. He nods at her and bows once more in front of me.
"What number are you, Miss Jean?"
Copyright © 2005 by Carrie Tiffany
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