Before he fell sick, Sam once joked—at least, you thought it was a joke; you were both high at the time—that when you raked the curds to force their separation from the whey, and the metal rake scraped loudly on the bottom of the curding vat, he could hear the voices of a thousand little curd-balls screaming, Hey, watch where you go putting that rake, man. He voiced the curds' complaint in an exaggerated high pitch, and you responded in your own parody of a deep bass: You will feel my wrath, worthless curd-balls. Then Sam continued in his highest voice: Why you gotta be talking cheese, man?
You both laughed, but part of you felt love and sympathy for the lowly curd-balls, both because you had made them with your own hands from mere milk, and because you heard Sam's silly voice in them.
The feeling was different now that you were alone in the cellar where the cheese was aged, and you distinctly heard—over the sound of the rumbling wheels on your cheese-laden cart, and over the sound of your squeaking milk-stained sneakers, and over the sound in your brain that was the constant slow-burning grief for Sam's deteriorating health—yes, you distinctly heard a monotone voice that seemed to emanate from the direction of the storage racks: Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart.
Even when you were high, you were not one to hear voices, or take signs from the universe. You didn't actually believe in astrology. Or was it astronomy you didn't believe in? You mixed up terms sometimes. But you knew the voice couldn't be from Sam, who hadn't mustered the strength to rise from bed in weeks. His terminal brain tumor had left him a broken man at twenty-seven, joylessly baked on medical weed to numb his pain.
You looked behind you, half-expecting to see a ventriloquist—a figure you pictured in the plain black suit-and-tie of an undertaker, with side-parted 1950s hair—sitting on a milking stool, trying to appear innocent.
There was no ventriloquist.
You drew closer to the storage shelves lined with blocks of cheddar, leaned in and turned one ear toward the cheese. The same way you used to turn your ear toward Sam to hear him when you would go out together to concerts and clubs in Burlington before a day off. And how you still turned your ear toward him in the quiet of his bedroom when he couldn't seem to raise the force of his voice beyond a whisper.
You heard footsteps above—Sam's mother, Vicky, moving dolefully through the farmhouse kitchen, or Elinor, the visiting hospice nurse, fetching pills from the fridge—but no voice spoke a further sentence or even the semblance of a word. You unloaded the cheese from your cart and rushed out into the natural light.
Before dinner, you sat in the chair beside the double bed you shared with Sam, your laptop resting where its name implied. You looked over the screen at Sam, as if worried that he might see what you were searching—like it was something illicit, maybe a dating site for the girlfriends of the soon-to-die. You felt guilty even having imagined such a website.
Sam was sleeping. You looked back down at the screen, typed in the browser, Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. You added quotation marks before and after, in hopes of surfacing an obscure match, and pressed Enter, generating more than 8,000 results.
Quickly scanning the results, you saw Job 1 repeated over and over, which seemed an impossibly specific reference to this cheesemaking life being your first and only real job. How could the internet know that? you wondered. It wasn't until you noticed the sources of the top results—bible.com, biblehub.com, biblegateway.com—that you placed the reference as the biblical Job. You clicked on various links, and learned these were Job's first words after being told everyone he loved had just tragically, incomprehensibly, died.
Your first inappropriate thought was how weird it seemed that this news made Job talk of getting naked.
You looked over at Sam's bedside table, where he had a copy of the Bible, which he had started reading for comfort when he still had the strength and mental capacity to read. That was weeks ago now, but the Bible was still close at hand. You picked it up, examined multiple dog-eared pages, but none of the marked locations were Job; none were even Old Testament. Sam only seemed to have studied the New Testament and its relative gentleness.
In sleep, blankets pulled up to his neck, Sam's wasting body and mind were hardly evident. His sleeping form beneath the covers could still have been mistaken for the fit, young dairy farmer you first met.
You set the Bible down, closed your eyes. You thought it odd how sharply you and Sam had diverged in relation to rest: Sam unconscious nearly all the time now; you utterly unable to sleep.
Side by side with Vicky in the kitchen, you were aware how the shared loss of Sam, not yet fully actualized but still potent, had worked rapid changes in both of you. In less than a year, you two had transformed from Sam's nose-ringed girlfriend and over-worked mother into something more like a biological mother-daughter pair at that point in life when the duties of care and responsibility have begun to blur but have not yet reversed. Some days Vicky was the comforter; other days she raged and you consoled.
“Have there been ghosts on the farm?” you asked, as if inquiring about a fox or a door-to-door salesman.
“Hmm, might depend who you ask, but I don't really think in terms of ghosts.” She looked out the window above the counter. “But I once kind of thought Sam's father had been reincarnated as a cow with a certain look in her eye.”
“I mean, not in a literal sense,” Vicky said. “More like the essence of someone captured in another form. She was the cow-ness of my Walter.”
You were silent a moment, rinsing the last cup.
“I wonder if anyone is reincarnated into cheese-ness,” you said.
“Don't Buddhists draw the line at living animals? But who knows, maybe animal products are in the realm of possibility.” Vicky stacked the dinner plates on the actual—not-inspired-by-Country Living magazine—farmhouse shelf above the counter. “Wait, did some ghost visit you?”
“I just heard something strange I couldn't explain. No big deal.”
“Are you sleeping enough?” Vicky asked. “You know, I wonder if you could use a break. We'll be fine if you want to take a weekend away, maybe see your family.”
“Thanks,” you said. “I'm okay.”
“What if I sent you away instead? I could tell you we need someone to man a booth at the state fair. It's always a big profit-maker for us, and I need you to do it.”
“I might, if it would be good for you,” Vicky said. “Think about it.”
Days passed. There was evening, and there was morning, and there was evening, and there was morning, you noted to yourself. And you heard more voices—or really the same voice, pronouncing more Biblical lines—always when you were alone in the cellar adding cheese to the shelves. They were short tirades, never long soliloquies, and spaced hours or days apart.
I have no peace, no quietness, the voice announced one afternoon. I have no rest, but only turmoil.
You scanned the shelves for signs of chaotic movement, but the cheese's restlessness seemed only mental, not physical.
Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? the voice asked the next day, as rain poured outside the cellar, and the summer humidity in this quiet dark down-below reminded you of a placenta. You thought of the abortion you'd had after learning you were pregnant with Sam's baby—as you always referred to it in your mind—just days after the first seizure that led quickly to his horrific diagnosis. You hadn't told him about the pregnancy or its termination; he was too burdened already. Now, you felt relieved at not having an infant, and guilty for feeling relief, and bereaved for not having birthed more Sam-ness into the world.
The days dragged on endlessly, hopelessly. You milked, you curded, you shoveled cakes of dung. You carefully avoided having to be in that room where Sam's life leaked away, and you longed for something, anything, to break the monotonous dread. You daydreamed of a nice epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease, or maybe a new and still unnamed agricultural plague, one that could demand all your attention, and from which you couldn't possibly return to Sam's side, for his own immunocompromised sake. You also thought of the state fair, which seemed less appealing by comparison, with its hordes of delusionally happy people.
Returning to the cellar, you were shaken again by the voice, as if you wore a fancy shirt and the voice had seized you by its collar: Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again.
You finally realized: in this biblical drama, you must be God—the one who made and condemned the suffering cheese. Was it in your power to dole out and withhold happiness? You stared at your hand, pointed your finger at the cheese shelves in your best imitation of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, but could only picture yourself as the white-bearded fraudster George Bluth in Arrested Development’s Living Classics Pageant. No light shone from your fingertip onto the rows of cheese. You put your hands in your pockets, turned, walked away, aware of the strength in your healthy human legs.
You cornered Elinor upstairs in the hall, asked how you would know when Sam was ready to depart, when the time was close.
“Everyone passes in their own way,” Elinor said, infuriatingly. “Sometimes I'm confident we're a few days from the end, and I usually know when we're hours away.” Elinor broke eye contact with you, swept her gaze along a trail of framed eight-by-ten school photos of Sam, tracing the arc of a life from his bedroom door to the top of the stairs and down toward the outside world; the opposite wall bore no record of his recent return.
“But some people, especially younger folks, are harder to predict. So I stay out of the oracle business. I let families know, whenever the end comes, it'll feel sudden and unexpected. You want to do what you can to prepare but you should also know there's no way to feel totally prepared.”
“If that's what you let families know,” you said, “what advice do you give girlfriends? I mean, like, bedroom etiquette, or yes or no on using pet names in eulogies?”
“You're family, too,” Elinor said a little sternly. “Of course this is devastating for you in a way that's different from Vicky's experience. But don't dismiss how important you are to Sam and Vicky.”
Elinor reached out, touched your arm. The only other touch you had felt recently was Sam's, usually more a grasp than a touch, which you now realized made you feel beseeched upon—like he needed things you should be able to grant. Elinor's touch asked nothing of you.
“Shouldn't I be praying for a miracle?” you asked. “I mean, I should be, but I can't make myself pray. Why not?”
Elinor cleared her throat. “Prayer is a comfort for some people, but there's no law to it. If you're trying but you still can't pray, it probably means prayer isn't something that would comfort you. That's not a failing.”
“Well, it is if it would work, if all I had to do to heal him was want it badly enough to pray. Then not praying is a pretty obvious failing.”
“I don't believe that's how prayer works for anyone, and you don't either, so let's just agree to agree on that.”
Elinor smiled. You wanted her to reach out and touch your arm again, but she went into Sam's bedroom and left you alone in the hall, not sure where you were headed.
In the cheese cellar, the temperature stayed fifty-two-ish degrees, but your body veered from deep chill to sudden sweats. To calm yourself, you tried speaking to the cheese like it was an injured bird you'd found outside a sliding glass door. “There, there,” you said. “I won't hurt you. I just want to help.” You hoped the absurdity would signal your brain to get its shit together.
You rested both hands on top of the blocks of cheese, closed your eyes, and thought about miraculous healing—tried picturing Lazarus risen in his tomb. But the soundtrack in your mind was of the time you and Sam got high watching a YouTube video loop of tragedy-magnet Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds surreally imploring Lazarus to dig yourself.
The familiar voice of the cheese interrupted your reverie: Are not my few days almost over?
You opened your eyes, half-expecting to see the voice in the form of a cockroach scurrying away. But the voice continued, still unseen: Turn away from me so I can have a moment's joy before I go to the place of no return, to the land of gloom and utter darkness, to the land of deepest night, of utter darkness and disorder, where even the light is like darkness.
Jeez, you thought to yourself. Enough already. Who do you think you are?
But that night, at Sam's bedside, you wondered if turning away might give him a moment's joy.
A few mornings later, you woke, wept, caressed Sam's head, kissed him deeply on the mouth, and then left him unconscious in his room and went out to the truck loaded with cheese and supplies for the state fair. He was in the same condition he had been for days, but you'd convinced yourself Sam needed you gone to let go. You believed you were probably seeing him alive for the last time, and rationalized you were doing this for him, while knowing it was at least as much for you.
Vicky stood in the doorway, thanked you and wished you a safe trip. Like a cheating spouse, you couldn't meet her eye. You waved, circled round the dirt drive with its lone Hemlock in the middle, passing back through your own dust.
You drove south for hours, first on the interstate, then the state highway, and imagined continuing past Rutland, through the Green Mountains, over the border, across Massachusetts and Connecticut, all the way to New York City. You would sleep in the truck in your farmgirl overalls, living off your cruel summer's worth of cheese, selling it on the streets like fake designer watches.
But when your exit came, you obeyed the map app's commands and arrived at the fair.
You smiled your way through the day. You cut sample cheese into cubes, skewered the cubes with toothpicks, laid them on wooden boards and ate more than your hunger demanded. You assembled and reassembled teetering pyramids of wax-papered cheese. You bagged orders, swiped credit cards, tucked cheerful flyers into outstretched hands, and no one knew your love's life was slipping away.
In quiet moments between customers, you heard the voice of the cheese, fainter in this vast hall.
The eye that now sees me will see me no longer, the voice intoned. You will look for me, but I will be no more.
All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned against me.
A trio of teenagers lingered over the free samples, tooth-picking cube after cube into their mouths. They accidentally toppled one of your carefully constructed pyramids, and laughed nervously. When they left, the cheese declared: People open their mouths to jeer at me; they strike my cheek in scorn and unite together against me.
You had never sold so much cheese in a day. The endless complaints you heard did nothing to deter buyers—maybe even attracted them, although no one outwardly acknowledged the voice. And even as the cheese stock dwindled, the litany was unceasing.
I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me.
At last, the vendor market closed and you put the few remains in a cooler. You heard a final lament before sealing the top: I will soon lie down in the dust.
Instead of returning to the truck, you left the cooler and other supplies, and walked out the public entrance of the vendor market into the warm night of the fair.
You were drawn—by the lights, the screams, the sweet smell of powdered sugar—to the midway, with its games of chance and rides of recklessness. You swallowed two pot gummies, and bought yourself a huge cotton candy, because the old Sam would have bought you one, would have torn off a long strand, held it against his face like a handlebar moustache, and you would have still tasted it later when you kissed. You’d loved how he delighted in delighting you.
You strolled in a way you hadn't strolled in months, and felt almost like Sam was there at your side. Was he already a ghost, you wondered, and was this how it would feel? You were aware of the phone in your pocket, that it hadn't seemed to vibrate all day. You didn't check it.
You tossed rings at old-fashioned milk bottles, and landed one, winning a small plush iguana that you tucked in your breast pocket. You thought of getting a pet when you moved to your own place, then banished the idea, but not the warm feeling of it.
You rode a giant slide, enjoying momentary weightlessness as you rose over the swell and returned back down.
Soon after, or maybe not so soon, a man in alligator boots caught your attention. He sat atop—casually straddled—a metal fence that formed the circular boundary of the Scrambler ride. He was a long-haired, bearded carny, but an oddly beautiful one, like from an old Hollywood epic about biblical times—the kind of movie your streaming services were recommending recently, clearly having hacked your web searches. The carny could almost have been Sam, if Sam had left his family farm behind. It wasn't an unthinkable alternate life to picture Sam having chosen. You tried to picture choosing it yourself, which was more difficult; you were not such a free spirit.
You inched toward the man on the fence, but kept your eyes on the mesmerizing movements of the Scrambler, with its two-person seats bound to an axis by spidery arms, each one speeding across the circle, seeming like it would slam into other seats all doing the same on different trajectories. Yet the geometry worked flawlessly; none collided.
Where your carny sat on the fence, one leg dangling inside the ride area, the shiny metal seats kept flying straight at him, coming within inches of his knee before stopping and angling off again. He couldn’t have looked more confident and relaxed, like he knew the machine's perfection from having engineered the fucking thing himself.
The ride slowed, stopped. The carny pivoted his long leg over the fence, dropped his alligator-clad feet to the ground. He opened the gate, released the riders.
“You look like someone who wants to get scrambled,” he said, eyeing you.
“I do,” you said, unsure if you'd lifted your voice enough to make it a question.
“It's invigorating,” he said, smiling like a dispensary budtender. “You won't forget the feeling.”
People mostly younger than you raced through the gate, mounted their seats. You recognized the teenage trio who collapsed your cheese pyramid earlier. They hung on each other equally. You weren't sure of their genders, nor whether they were three friends, or a couple plus one, or maybe a throuple.
“Come on,” he said to you, beckoning. You followed, and shuddered at the loud metallic bang when the gate closed. He didn't climb into one of the compartments and pull you alongside. He went around diligently checking everyone's doors and seatbelts until he reached the three teens squashed into a two-person seat.
“Uh-uh,” your carny said, shaking his head. He made one get down, and led the two of you to the lone empty pair of seats. You both climbed up, and your carny smiled as he secured the seat belt across your laps. “See you on the other side,” he said, and turned back to his post.
The kid next to you stared straight ahead at nothing, looked a little heartbroken, facing the wrong way, unable to make eye contact with the others. You knew you were not even a decade older, but felt wise to the world. You wanted to tell them to savor such innocent grief.
“What's your name?” you asked.
The teen answered, not in a whisper, but you couldn't make out what they said.
A deep groan began to emanate from within the central body of the ride. The spider-arms rose, lifted you, and began to rotate, accelerating as you traced an angular pattern across the circle. Soon you were ripping from one furthest point to another, flung against the kid next to you each time your seat shifted direction. They grabbed your arm, tucked their head into your shoulder, like you were their mom and they had lost the shame to show it.
Every fifteen or twenty seconds, you were briefly face-to-face with your carny, close enough to reach out and touch his knee or grab hold and hug that alligator boot. By the third time around, you felt your stomach rebelling against this whiplash. Those increments between carny-viewings grew endless, and you took longer and longer breaths in, shortened your breaths out, as if teaching your body new rules. You tried to make your face a message imploring your carny to stop the ride, but his hand didn't move to the switchboard, and his expression didn't change. The teen next to you made owl-like screeching sounds, which you recognized as cries of exhilaration.
Finally, the ride began to slow; the teen let go their grip from your arm and you almost pulled their hand back. You knew it was only a matter of time before you would vomit. The giant machine's lazy deceleration felt unnecessarily prolonged. You turned your face away from the kid, looked down at the trampled grass passing slowly beneath you, but the vomit still didn't come. When the ride fully stopped, the kid unfastened the seat belt and hopped off without a goodbye. Your throat itched so much you wanted to put your hand inside to scratch it. You swallowed what little saliva you could gather, stepped down, and staggered toward your carny standing by the open gate.
The eruption of your milky pink insides brought a burning that dropped you to your knees, head down as if you had learned to pray at your carny’s scaled feet. He didn't make a sound, didn't dance backward in disgust, and you didn't bother trying to keep the splash of warm liquid off your hands or the tops of his boots.
When you were emptied, the burn turned to cold. You pictured the cells in your throat donning sweaters, closing their tiny doors against the chill. Your carny softly palmed your bowed head.
“You'll feel better,” he decreed.
What do you know? you thought, wiping a grotesque spot of pink off an alligator boot. Have you been there, to the edge of darkness, and said it stops now, and will come no closer?
by Blair Benjamin
Pour Me Out Like Milk and Curdle Me Like Cheese
"I love collecting strange fragments of ancient scripture energized by the centuries they've endured and the vast number of human imaginations they've touched. These fragments have launched many stories and poems—but none more directly, or more bizarrely, than this story."
Blair Benjamin’s writing has appeared in Atticus Review, Bluestem Magazine, Gone Lawn, The Madison Review, North American Review, Pithead Chapel, Spillway, Tampa Review, and The Threepenny Review, among others. He is the Founder and Director of the Studios at MASS MoCA, a residency for artists and writers at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.