The air was cold in the barn, and Dave Peters’s breaths came out in white puffs. “Magdalena Katalena Hoopensteiner Walleniner Hokum Mokum Pokum was her name!” Some of the notes were a little high, but he sang them out anyway, trying to fill his mind with them. “She had two hairs on the top of her head; one was alive and the other was dead.” The cow swished her tail back and forth and chewed slowly on some hay. The cold didn’t seem to bother her much.
“Won’t be long now, lady,” he said, and pinched his first two fingers against his thumb to strip the cream out.
Dave’s hands were getting awfully cold—they weren’t yet used to the fall chill and he never had been able to get the hang of milking with rubber gloves on.
Now Rod Wilson—that was a different matter. Dave laughed to think of how Rod could milk a cow with gloves on, ride a calf without a rope, swim across the narrow part of the lake and back in less than two hours. But not for long—the lake would be frozen up before long. He thought how they would have to go out boating again a time or two before it was too late. No—it was already too late.
He stood up and lifted the heavy bucket over to the can. One more cow and then—warmth! He turned to their big holstein, who had been waiting in the adjacent stall. “She had two teeth in the front of her mouth;” he sang, a little off key, “one pointed north and the other pointed south. Oh, Magdalena Katalena Hoopensteiner Walleniner Hokum Mokum Pokum was her name.” And he leaned his loose blond hair against the cow’s tight black and white hair and breathed his white breath down toward the bucket as he milked. The singing stopped—it was useless—and he shut his eyes against the cold air, pushing his head against the cow’s flank and trying to lose himself in the rhythm of the tug, tug, tug, squirt, squirt.
Rod Wilson, Dave thought, sounding the words in his mind. Why? And he thought of that morning at school when between the second and third periods he overheard in the hall, “Rod’s not sick. He died last night.”
The cow was warm, and Dave hunched himself closer. He wished he could use gloves like Rod. It hadn’t taken long for the story of what had happened to sweep through the school; it went like a fire in the wind. Dave heard all the details, even though he didn’t want to: out late at night in his boat, dropped something into the water by accident, dove out to get it, never came home. It was all conjecture anyway, Dave thought. How were all those people who weren’t there supposed to know what happened?
Just a few more minutes and he would be done. It was so cold. Dave picked up the rhythm, listening to the changing sound of milk squirted against milk as the bucket filled. If the cats would come in, he would give them a taste. They were experts at catching the stream of milk in their mouths—Dave didn’t have to be a good shot. But sometimes he deliberately missed and hit them on a leg, the tail, or their bodies. Then they would lick it off fastidiously. Real economists, those cats.
Rod was a better shot at it than Dave. Dave thought of the summer night a couple of years before when Rod had been helping him with his chores so they could go out on the lake together. Rod had the holstein, and Dave had the jersey, and things were going along pretty fast before Rod started shooting him with milk. But Dave had the advantage—he had a cow between him and Rod, and Rod was in clear view. At least the last pint from each cow, before stripping, landed not in the buckets but on the cows, on Rod and Dave, on the walls and floor. They had started laughing so hard that Dave’s dad came out to see what was up. He failed to see the humor in their battle.
Dave started stripping the big cow and tried to swallow the lump that kept rising in his throat. It made it a little hard to breathe. He had to open his mouth to let the air in, and that made it seem a lot colder than breathing through his nose would have done.
In a few moments he was finished. He lugged the bucket over to the milk can that stood in the corner. This cow gives entirely too much milk, he thought. He tipped the bucket and drained it into the can, watching the milk seep down through the filter. Then he put the bucket on the floor and removed the filter. It would go into the trash pile; the rest would go into the house for washing. Next summer his dad promised to pipe hot water into the barn. Dave wasn’t sure he liked the idea. That meant more minutes in the cold during the winter—and that his mom would no longer offer to wash up the equipment.
The filter dripped warm milk down his fingers and onto the floor. That milk-squirting battle he and Rod had had was nothing compared to what happened after Dave’s dad left that night, Dave thought. He remembered he had started it that time. They were just finishing Dave’s chores—Rod’s parents were wealthy, and he never had many chores to do—and were still damp from the squirting. It was then that Dave had thought, I wonder if this filter will stick to Rod’s back. The moment of thought became the moment of action, and the barn was soon filled with flying filters, milk-drenched; their clothes started dripping, a few filters hung on the ceiling and walls. And yes, Dave smiled, the first one had stuck on Rod’s back. It had taken him completely by surprise. In fact, Dave had won that battle. They were teachers back then; and Rod almost had his Eagle award in Scouting. Dave had taken a little longer to get his.
Now they were priests and almost ready to graduate from school. Almost every Sunday they sat together to bless the sacrament. But next Sunday, Dave thought—and he threw the filter as hard as he could against the wall. Then he let the cow out. After their filter war there had still been some hanging on the walls the next morning when Dave had gone out early for the morning milking. Maybe this one would freeze and harden and hang there all winter. Rod would have gotten a kick out of that.
Some friend you are, Dave thought. Here your best friend dies and the next day all you can think of are the milk wars you had and some silly thing he would get a kick out of.
He was finished early and almost impulsively went out of the barn through the cow’s door, and instead of heading to the house across the lawn, he headed toward the lake through the corral. Rod always ran to the lake, Dave thought, and started to run himself. Not too much longer and it would freeze over. Then he could go out and skate on it.
Rod’s mom hadn’t liked the idea of them skating on the lake. “What if the ice isn’t thick enough?” she wanted to know.
It had been Rod’s idea, and he had the answer. “We have a safe and scientific answer,” he said. “A certain depth of ice will support a certain amount of weight. We drill down and see how deep the ice is at different points of the lake. If it’s well over the danger point, we know we can go out on it.”
Dave stopped running and started to walk. It was too cold to run; the air burned his throat and lungs. Rod had all kinds of crazy ideas and they always seemed to work.
He wouldn’t have stopped to walk, either, Dave thought. He would have run all the way and then would have been waiting cool and comfortable at the boat when you came up. Dave could keep up when he wanted to; he could even sometimes win their races. But not in the cold. Dave never could run in the cold.
I wonder if it gets cold in the spirit world, Dave thought. I wonder if Rod can run there.
Dave reached the boat and squatted in the dirt beside it. I wonder who put the boat back, he thought. I wonder how they found him and how they knew where to put the boat. He thought of how that had been his idea, to build the boat, and how he had shown Rod how to do it. Now that was something Rod wasn’t good at—he had wasted a lot of good lumber trying to build his share of the boat. Dave remembered what Rod had said when Dave had mentioned it once: “I’m not too good at this, and I need to learn. What if you die or something? There wouldn’t be anyone here to show me how to build things. I need to learn.” And then he had laughed and shoved Dave, and they had started wrestling. That was another thing Rod was good at. Dave could beat him almost all the time when it came to pure grapple; but if beat meant pin, Dave was the sure loser.
I wonder what Rod’s doing right now, Dave thought, and then he began to whistle softly to himself. He was a little afraid. The quiet night, black and starless, the black and quiet lake where his best friend had drowned the night before, the thoughts of spirits and ghosts—he began to whistle the tune to “Magdalena Katalena” very softly to himself. But as he did, he thought to himself, I’ll bet Rod wasn’t afraid last night. And then he thought, as he shoved the boat out into the lake and jumped in after it, wetting only one leg and that only to the ankle, that it all wasn’t fair; it just wasn’t fair.
He turned his back to the front of the boat and began to row in deep and heavy strokes. It isn’t fair, he thought to the rhythm of his work, that Rod should have to die when he was so capable and so happy and so spiritual—how could a guy like that drown anyway?
He rowed on out to the spot where he heard that Rod had drowned and sat back in the boat and looked up into the sky. It was as black as the water beneath him, but the water scared him. If it could get Rod, he thought, what would it do to me? And he saw in his mind Rod’s face, white in wet blackness, a pale oval beneath the boat, clawing up to air but never finding it. Dave tried to shut the vision from his mind. He thought of the roadshow earlier that year, in the spring, when Rod had played the turnip and Dave had been the dwarf. Rod had been in Dave’s garden, a turnip almost as large as the gardener. They had laid him on Dave’s kitchen table up there on the stage, and Dave had brought out a knife to cut through his red and whiteness.
No, Dave thought to himself and sat up in the boat. You’re really morbid, aren’t you, Peters? So he tried to see Rod somewhere else, and where he saw him was at a special stake meeting as one of the youth speakers. “I’ve been assigned to speak on why I’m going on a mission,” he had begun, and Dave had groaned. What an awful way to start a talk, he had thought. But he did have to admit one thing: even if Rod wasn’t the best speaker in the world, when he spoke people listened because they knew he meant every word of what he said.
Dave gripped one oar by its end and squeezed it hard. What happened here last night? he thought. How could you let yourself drown? It’s unfair! And then Dave finally leaned over the edge to look into the clear black water. He thought of the legends that always circulated around the town in the summer that the lake was bottomless—and that giant prehistoric fish had been seen by skin divers again that spring.
The lake had been where Dave and Rod spent their free time. That blackness was a deep blue during daylight hours, the kind of blueness whose color by itself invited one to enter. Dave could see Rod, standing on the bow of the boat, clad in cut-off jeans and no shirt, saying, “See ya later, pilgrim!” and then jumping in. He could stay underwater longer than anyone else Dave knew.
He dipped his hand into the water. It was terribly cold, the kind of cold, he thought, that could cramp a person’s muscles in a moment. Why had Rod jumped in? Dave wondered. He knew better. He should have been more careful. They had lots of plans together—plans that would make him be careful. Like Ricks College next fall, where they would room together in the dorms; like the missions they had planned. Rod would be glad to see him make it. Dave remembered the long talks they had had about missions and girls and the gospel and their parents. They had shared fears and doubts. But later Rod became set and firm, his doubts gone. He knew where he was going. And he always knew the right things to say to help Dave make up his mind to do what he knew he should do—even though it sometimes took a lot of discussing before those right things came out.
Dave looked back up at the sky—there were stars out now; the clouds had parted some—and he felt the lump growing in his throat again, and thought, Don’t be stupid. Crying won’t bring him back. And he thought, I’ll bet Rod wouldn’t cry over you. He’d just smile and touch your hand at the funeral and whisper, “Take care, buddy. See ya before too long.”
But those thoughts didn’t help, and Dave’s throat swelled until he felt he couldn’t really breathe, and the white puffs that had been coming from his mouth and nostrils nearly stopped for a moment. And then the hurt pushed itself up and out his eyes so they glistened in the darkness and his breath caught, then rushed out, then caught again, and his eyes glistened.
And he lay back in his rowboat and sobbed in the dark over the lake.
“Why did it have to be you, Rod?” he said out loud. “You were the good one, the strong one. I won’t do much good here. But you were good; you could even milk with gloves on—” and then he smiled through his tears and laughed a little even while he was crying.
“Rod would think you’re a pretty dumb guy,” he said to himself. Then he whispered. “We were pretty good friends, weren’t we, Rod?”
He leaned over the edge of the boat. The white puffs of air floated over the water. They were coming more freely now. Heavenly Father, he said in his mind, Rod was a pretty good guy, and I’m sure you were proud of him. You know we were close friends—best friends—and I’m really missing him. I think we did everything together. I’m feeling kind of alone.
Then he closed his eyes tight, and felt the cold tears on his cheeks, and thought. All I ask of thee is to help me become the kind of person Rod was. I want to see him again.
Dave sat up straight on the boat’s crossbar. He and Rod had had a boat race once. A neighbor had loaned them his boat. They were going to go two out of three, but they didn’t need to. Dave won the first two races. They had laughed and teased each other, and then Rod had jumped out of his boat and swam in four or five quick strokes over to Dave’s boat and started rocking it till he had swamped it.
We haven’t had a good tussle like that for a long time, Dave thought.
And then he said, half aloud, “Beat you to shore, Rod.” He started rowing as hard as he could, puffing out the white air until his lungs felt raw. Getting a little out of shape, aren’t you, Peters, he thought to himself. Maybe you ought to go out for basketball this winter.
The boat hit the bank and he clambered out, getting both feet wet and not caring. He pulled the boat up completely onto the bank and left it there without looking back. His house was over a mile from the bank, and his folks might be getting worried, he thought. He took off in an easy run, singing under his breath, “Her lips stuck out like two big weiners; she used them round the house like vacuum cleaners. Oh, Magdalena Katalena Hoopensteiner—” his white breath clearing the way through the black night before him.