The Milking of Elm Farm Ollie
“I wish we’d brought a different cow.”
It wasn’t the boy’s place to complain. His family was promised good money for about an hour’s work. And he’d never been up in a plane before, which was pretty exciting.
But he didn’t like how Nellie Jay was acting. Something about the way her tail flicked, as if to ward off non-existent flies. The nervous buckle of her legs with each tilt of the cargo plane; the way her body strained against the improvised leather harness that held her mostly in place. A weird gleam in her bovine eyes.
’Course, Nellie Jay hadn’t been up in a plane before, either.
“We needed this one,” the publicity guy responded. “Your family claimed she was a direct descendent of Elm Farm Ollie — the original Nellie Jay, later dubbed Sky Queen. Are you saying that’s not true?”
“No, no,” the boy said. Never argue with the guy who signs the check, his father taught him. “She’s the real deal.”
“Because we’ve spent a lot of time and money on this stunt. Got Dairy Mart to partner with us. Even the Mayor’s watching below.”
“She’ll be fine,” the boy said, smothering his skepticism. The plane lurched slightly, but he didn’t let the motion bother him.
The adults, like Nellie Jay, wore safety harnesses. The boy hadn’t been given the option. He pulled a small wooden stool next to Nellie Jay and moved himself into position.
The publicity guy aimed his camera for the OnTube video, and the market lady opened a large cardboard box. Empty milk cartons filled the box, with small handkerchiefs attached by strings to each of them: parachutes, like the ones on toy army men, but with the Dairy Mart logo printed on the cloth.
This stunt intended to recreate a moment from this day in 1930, at the St. Louis Air Expo, when the original Nellie Jay became the first cow in an airplane, the first cow to be milked in flight. Samples of her product were parachuted to Expo crowds below.
The boy positioned a metal pail beneath the cow’s udder. Her ancestor was a famously active producer, needing to be milked several times a day. Our new Sky Queen would live up to her legacy, since her glands were swollen particularly full. A gurgle came from the udder, like the growl of a hungry stomach, so loud it could be heard over the plane’s engine.
“Move to the side a little, Huckleberry. I need to get both of you in the shot.”
The boy ignored the mocking nickname, but moved aside as he was told. He reached for a full, hanging teat.
“Now hold on a second. I want a few still shots. Okay. Now go ahead and tug ’em.”
In rhythmic, alternating sprays, he directed squirts of milk into the bucket. The stream hit loud against hollow metal, then shifted to a spongier sound as the bucket began to fill.
He didn’t like the color of the milk. A dark yellow ran through it, like spoiled butter. It seemed thicker, too, almost as if it curdled into the pail; the teats felt wrong in his hands, with lumps repositioning inside as he squeezed.
But he’d learned Money Man didn’t like for him to complain. The guy didn’t work on a farm, so he’d think all fresh milk looked like this. Sadly, the Dairy Mart gal was probably just as ignorant.
He continued his rhythm, leaning his head against the cow’s body to try to calm her. The pail was almost full, but the udder hadn’t decreased in size. Another loud gurgle sounded from the swollen glands.
The plane lurched, and the liquid sloshed over the top of the pail. The boy ceased milking, and once the plane seemed settled, he lifted the bucket by the handle using two hands and walked slowly to the seated adults.
“Help me with this, would you dear?” The woman opened empty cartons and used a measuring cup to pour milk into them. She handed him a cup, and they filled cartons while the man filmed them. It was difficult to get the milk into the opening, with the strings and parachute cloth in the way, and the odd cloggy texture of the substance, like badly mixed cake batter.
Nobody’s going to try to drink this, he told himself.
Across the hold, Nellie Jay swayed back and forth. Her legs tensed, like she wanted to run.
He and the women had filled several dozen containers and stacked them on the bench. There were still a lot of empties in the cardboard box.
“Tug some more out,” Money Man told him, as he adjusted a headset microphone. “Amber, the pilot tells me we’re over the fairgrounds. Let’s drop out these souvenirs.”
A section at the back of the plane opened. Without rising from the benches, Amber and Money Man started tossing filled cartons toward the back. Air currents caught them, chutes puffed out, the souvenirs floated out the back of the plane.
The boy didn’t want to milk the animal again. He held onto the bench, grabbed an empty harness and held tight.
“Keep moving,” the man said. “What am I paying you for?”
A loud series of gurgles. Across the plane, the cow began stamping hooved feet. Instead of a “moo,” she emitted a low, angry growl.
The udder swelled. Streams of dark, gray liquid began to spray from her teats.
A faint smoke rose from where the liquid plashed onto the floor of the plane. The metal hull hissed beneath the animal. Nellie Jay’s legs scrambled like she was trying to walk on ice. They splayed, and her body dropped hard.
The udder burst beneath her.
The boy wanted to look away. He couldn’t believe what had come out with the hard clumps of gray-black liquid.
Money Man screamed into his headset, instructed the pilot to fly over an unpopulated area. At the same time, he pressed the button to close the cargo door.
It didn’t close fast enough. Nellie Jay growled. The parasite scrambled out the back of the plane, falling to meet floating souvenirs of infected milk, the waiting crowds of fairgoers below.