‘The Cow’ by Peter Thai
Introduction by Allison Grimaldi-Donhue
We received around one-hundred-twenty-five submissions for the first Queen Mob’s Teahouse short story contest, many of them excellent stories. There were some stories that dealt directly with the theme “With(out)” Salvation” looking at a wide range of religions from diverse perspectives; there were also stories like this one by Peter Thai, that takes salvation or lack there of to mean many things, to be less clear and perhaps even more tenuous.
Upon first reading the most I could say for this story was that it disturbed me. For a week it haunted my dreams and visions of it left me feeling unsure of myself. It was this uncertainty that kept bringing me back. The story is violent. The story unfolds like a poem. It is the mixture of the primordial and the vacuum of the contemporary that is to never return.
The characters are cruel and innocent in their way and are in search of something original within themselves, as shown here in these beautiful lines:
The lead boy, stained by effort and the pollen of wildflowers, half exhausted, cracks open an old can of primer from some long forgotten project. He begins to paint crude figures on the walls (aurochs, equines, deers, emojis).
There is a conservative bent that often guides Anglophone fiction. In a world that is so often averse to risk it felt so right that the winner of the first Queen Mob’s Teahouse Short Fiction Contest should be taking great risks. The authors that seem closest to Peter Thai right now might be Lisa Robertson, Ariana Reines or someone like Michael Kimball in his The Way the Family Got Away— inventing a new language, a new vision.
If “the idea of poetry is prose” as Walter Benjamin wrote, then it is this kind of prose; a prose that creates a new image of our lived reality and changes our perception of that reality.
The cow lies in a stall among other cows, feeding upon feed, being (from time to time) impregnated by grasping hands, having (from time to time) her bellowing calf dragged away, and knowing (from time to time) that mechanical tubes will, at regular intervals, relieve her of her hard won milk. She has, upon her hide, the marks of impatience, the scars that accumulate on the farm; roughly shoved or beaten or electrocuted by those unwilling to indulge her natural sloth, her slow lope, her vacant bovine stare. It is night. No buzzing fluorescent lights throw shadows among her herd, no farm hands coax her towards tentacled machinery, no milk extracted, bottled and shipped. There is only a void of time, a patient waiting for the sun to rise.
Three boys, by the burning glow of their smartphones, wander into the shed, quiet and timid as they locate their cow. They sooth her with unintelligible words, halfgasps and groans. They lead her, in practiced procession, from the stall, beyond the lowered gaze of her milkmates, away from the metallic milking machine, past the gate and into the uncovered night sky. Two of the boys walk to either side of her, their phones aglow, their hands on her heaving flanks. The lead boy, solemn, bedecked in denim shorts, a farmer’s son with a farmer’s tan, limbs sinewed from the baling of hay, eyes reverently focused ahead, throws upon the floor, preceding the cow, handfuls of wildflowers: baby’s breath and bachelor buttons, scarlet flax and indian blankets, sulphur cosmos.
The cow’s world is a brown horizon, a feedlot that spreads itself in every direction. No frolicsome pastures meet her eyes as she exits the milking shed only a vast expanse of dirt and mud and shit. Crickets murmur their assent to the movement of the four figures. The stars, for a moment, break through the dust and grime and gaze upon the scene. The boys lead her (the cow) to a barn which houses fallow tractors, miscellaneous farm equipment. They (the tractors) sit in their own decay: no rusted earth to overturn, no further fields to harvest. The boys exalt in their nearness to their cow, in the earthy smell of her. They (the boys) are not burdened by the clock, by the need to reach a quota, by their livelihoods dependent on the slow movements of this she heifer. Their hands will know no aches nor pains, no carpal tunnel nor early onset arthritis, know no insurance claims denied, no immigration status questioned, no ICE raids and deportations. They, consequently, move slowly, rhythmically.
The cow’s heart in the heartland is strange. Aortic meter, hollow palpitations. A closed mouth moaning is all that she can produce. She wants to say that she is in partial mourning; for the calf she will never see again, for her heavy udders (laden with milk) that will reach only the mouths of human babes; that she has the accessories of motherhood but not the actual thing, that she will remain forever pregnant, in perpetual maternity, always about to become but never becoming, as if forever in purgatory. She wants to say that she has seen her milkmates, at the age of five or six, used up by the burden of constant motherhood, constant milking, loaded into some dark endless tunnel of a truck and shipped off to the slaughterhouse. She wants to mourn their loss but all that can escape her mouth is a moan, a desperate wail.
The boys, by now, are hard. Their erections push against their denim shorts. They shift around in their pubescent bodies as if trying to find more comfortable positions. Their awkward limbs reach and grasp and gently stroke her (the cow) . The two torchbearers hold her fast and block her view.
The lead boy, using a step stool, standing behind her, wild with sweat, mounts her, and begins to thrust with uncontrolled spastic rhythm. He finds himself in a soft haze. There is the pronounced heady smell of concrete as he inhales. There is the taste of cold metal on his tongue as he licks his bone dry lips. To his eyes the scene recedes and disappears. There is only now the long rigid plank of the cow’s back. Small mountains bloom along the leathered surface. Indentations rise like geologic time. Summits shift with each tiny movement clocklike, precise. At the peak of the ridge the world, for him, before in constant motion, now pauses, and he lets out a low groan. He spills his seed upon the straw. The earth grows damp from his exertions.
It occurs to the cow that deep in her belly, past her manifold stomachs, a new life has begun to form. How many calves has she birthed? How many cycles of pregnancy has she undergone? She can not recall. She knows the feeling though, knows the sensation of a growing fetus. She can sense it. Though this time it is different. There is a lack alongside her calf, a void in which something else has wormed its way. There is no kicking, no movement, just the speeding of her heart, the bracing, pounding speeding of her heart.
The torchbearers begin their vigil, sitting in various meditative poses, chanting in slow gregorian chunks of speech. The boys’ voices become heavy with panting, low brooding noises, animal in nature; grunting and cursing, bursting with primitive phonemes and diphthongs as they build new vocabularies of worship. They slather and sweat with the effort of their songs, vibrate to the irregular tones, muscle their bodies into contorted shapes. The lead boy, stained by effort and the pollen of wildflowers, half exhausted, cracks open an old can of primer from some long forgotten project. He begins to paint crude figures on the walls (aurochs, equines, deers, emojis).
The boys watch the strange topography of the cow’s burgeoning belly, the seamless lines that begin to bulge. The belly grows in tandem with the stick figures formed on the wall, the strange indecipherable runes emanating from the boy’s hand. The cow’s abdomen becomes engorged and enlarged, hangs low distending, stretching, pushing, pulsing. The fervor of noise and motion reaches a peak.
With a great groan the cow loses her bulk, deposits her calf on the barn floor. The calf, dazed and covered in amniotic fluid, lies on its side. It squirms, livid that it has been forced from floating comfort into this hellish realm of hard packed dirt. It tries to rise but can only manage to rock itself back and forth. The boys, up until then, immersed in their ecstasies, do not notice the calf. But eventually they hear its pitiful whine, its bleating call. They gather round and stare. The calf has no legs, no appendages at all save the tail. It has no eyes no ears no snout, only smooth skin where these orifices should be, hollowed out areas covered in paper thin hide. A slit for a mouth and an anus are the only openings in its uniform flesh, only distinguishable by the shape of the skull. Its tail reaches all the way from one end to attach to the back of its head, a grotesque rainbow arc of leather. The most prominent features are the calf’s udders, 24 of them neatly lined along its belly, fit to bursting, leaking onto the dry floor, so large that it can not balance itself upright.
The boys raise the calf up, raise it up and hang it by its tail on a hook attached to a barn post. The calf now sits there, dangling on its perch, like some hospital IV bag dripping its vital fluids, letting out shrieks and cries as its milk begins to stream down towards the earth, a white waterfall, a cascading sheet of liquid, a dispenser. The boys crawl to it on hands and knees, and with grateful hearts and open palms, begin to suckle.
Story first published at Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
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