Literary Orphans

Cows by Laurence Klinger


Two cows moo.

They don’t know why.

Or maybe they do.

They’ve heard about the slaughterhouse; the word came as tiny vibrations in the blades of grass.

The two cows stand side by side looking in the same direction, looking at the lighthouse on the edge of the cliff where the pasture ends.

Once, they heard, a cow fell down that cliff into the sea.

That cow, they heard, woke up hungry in the middle of a very dark night and grazed her way to death.

The two cows know their end is near. They can’t bribe the farmer; all they have is milk.

If they get greedy, they’ll plunge into the sea.

If they just stand on the grass like cows, it’s the slaughterhouse.

Salvation is above, but cows are too heavy with kindness to float like stars.

The blades of grass.

The ones eaten and the ones stepped on.

And the virgin ones, waiting to be stepped on or eaten.

They didn’t know, before they emerged from the soil. They didn’t know, before they emerged from the cool darkness, that life and death would be so black and white. The roots had told them – low soothing voices in the dark, like mothers – about the sun and the gentle breeze and the sound of the sea nearby.

The roots hadn’t mentioned the cold, the itchy dew, the frost, the tempests with their lightning, the insects and, most importantly, they hadn’t mentioned the biggest threat of all, the cows.

Blades of grass can’t detach themselves from their birthplace. Waiting to be flattened and crushed, at best, or pulled and chewed, or both, the blades of grass can’t go back to the dark damp womb.

The lighthouse.

Guiding the boats, not the cows, although the cows might think otherwise. And all because the lighthouse turns its head a complete turn every so often and wastes light on the pasture. Cows don’t need to be illuminated, and neither do the blades of grass nor the heaps of cow dung that spot the land.

The ship that hit the rock, that time, it wasn’t the lighthouse’s fault. Many lives were lost, the newspaper said, on the page that flew from the farmer’s house over to the pasture where it landed on the blades of grass, giving them a bit of daytime shade for the first time since they were born.

It wasn’t the lighthouse’s fault. The man in charge of changing the light bulbs, the man that comes in the little boat three times a year and opens the glass face of the lighthouse and sticks a new set of fiery eyes inside, forgot to do his job. He docked and stepped out of his boat – the lighthouse saw it all – and sat on the grass for a rest and a smoke, but ended up sleeping. Who knows what dreams he dreamt, when he woke up he forgot why he was there. So that corner of the ocean was dark for a long time. And people died.

That newspaper page. It had gone into the machine as dark and dead pieces of wood and come out as paper, clean and blank and hopeful. But then it had gone into another machine to get printed all over with bad news. It had been tied with twine to other pages and made heavy, and flown into another town. And from there to a hot truck. And from the truck, hurled at the farmer’s doorstep. The farmer had picked it up, scanned his eyes over it, made a bitter face at it, coughed on it with a whiskey breath, and tossed it over a pile of other papers in the backyard before running to the lighthouse with perverse curiosity, to see if he could still catch a glimpse of a floating corpse or two.

Back in the backyard, a blast of wind had made the paper fly to the pasture, not too far from where the farmer was. That same night, another blast of wind had pushed the paper over the cliff and into the sea where it floated until soaked and then it sunk to the rocky bottom, where it still is, under the skeleton of a cow, commanding no attraction. It’s old news.

Algae saw the cow sink.

It sunk slowly in spite of its weight, and when it hit the bottom it raised a cloud of sand that blurred the waters for a long while.

Algae saw the cow move its head and legs, and let bubbles out of its generous snout.

Algae had seen sunken ships here and there – maybe the cow was one of them. After the cow became a skeleton, the rib cage a perfect hull, the long leg bones the masts, broken and collapsed, the doubt went away; for sure it was a ship.

The cliff stands proud, a majestic threshold into another world.

It knows it is a warning, and it knows that if it didn’t exist, all the water from the sea would flood the land. No more cows and farmers. The seagulls would live for a while but, having nowhere to land and rest, would soon disappear.

If it didn’t exist, it knows, there would be no place to build a lighthouse. And without a lighthouse all the ships in the sea would crash into the rocks and into each other, and the ocean would look like a battlefield.

The artists, it knows, would no longer paint marine landscapes, since the cliff –  with its color and verticality –is what gives landscapes their movement and saves them from being two tedious horizontal bands of blue. The sea and the sky, and nothing more.

The cliff is proud. It is the sun and the eyes of nature, the dam containing the apocalypse, the savior of all living things, the muse, immortal.

It is also somewhat arrogant.

The slaughterhouse opens its wide mouth to let a new herd in.

One of the cows looks back. It can see beyond the mass of brown bodies.

It can see the pasture, then the lighthouse, then the ocean. But it can’t see where the ocean ends because right now it melts into the sky.

Then it sees the gates closing behind the herd, erasing that view forever.

Had it been more adventurous, it would have experienced the fall.

Speed. Flying. Splashing. Even if only for a few seconds, it would have experienced something uncowly.

The roots of grass.  Voice over voice over voice, all whispering at the same time, no interruption. Muffled whispers in the dark.

Sometimes, for a brief moment, they can peak at the sky through a hole left by a newborn blade of grass and feel a whiff of fresh air. Then the earth closes again.

That’s all they know about the world outside. That’s all they want to know.

They can feel the thump of a cow’s hoof, and hear thunder, and only imagine what is going on.

Darkness breeds rumors and rumors are the fuel for their whispered stories and legends.

The roots of grass are engrossed in their own stale world. And faithful to their only possession –ignorance – which they treasure and teach the next generations to adore.

Wherever there are cows there is cow dung. It’s as sure as day and night.

Neat, redundant piles. Consistent in smell and color. Clones. Their repetitiveness and predictability does nothing to help elevate their self-esteem.

Dung knows it’s dung. No pile is worth more than the next pile. No matter what their shape is, they’re all dung.

They do give birth to mushrooms and they are known to be good for the soil, but all piles perform those functions equally well. No effort is required. There is no motivation. A bubble of quiet sameness inside the anarchy of a free world. A world of crazy seagulls screaming into cows’ ears, and violent waves eating away the cliff. A world of plants growing without control, roots lying, and men killing cows to eat.

Meanwhile the dung just sits there and stinks, unable to even remember where it came from, after being numbed by such strong gastric acids.

Not even the blades of grass can recognize in those piles what used to be their sisters.

And Night falls.

Night the soother.

The stars look down and see the cows sitting, and the lighthouse shining faintly, and because from where they are the stars can’t hear the heavy breathing of the cows nor the threat of the distant thunder, and because they can’t smell the dung, and the wounds on some of the animals, it all looks perfect and peaceful to the stars.

Distance is a healer.

Because the stars live in their cosmic surroundings, where almost nothing expires or suffers, and because they have other worlds to peer at and distract them, they see the pasture as a happy place, and everywhere else as a happy place, as if the whole world were a quiet pasture dotted with gentle beings.

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Laurence Klinger was born in Brazil, but has been living in Chicago for the last 30 years. His short fiction and political articles are published in France, Brazil, the Netherlands, and in the U.K. He has written two books of short stories, and was a top ten winner among 19,000 entries in Writer’s Digest Annual Writing competition, literary fiction category. Laurence has just finished writing his first novel.


O Typekey Divider

–Art by Kaia Pieters