Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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The Cow

I used to think of this creek as a river
springing from mineral caverns
of moonmilk and slime,

but really it’s just a slow thread of water
that comes from somewhere up north
to trickle its way out
near the edge of our property.

And I’ve always imagined
the toolshed as it is,
though it was once
an outbuilding for a watermill
whose wheel and timbers
have been reborn
as exposed rafters and flooring
for the Old Money in the valley.

The day before my grandfather died
he drove a diesel flatbed
to the edge of the creek
and paid ten day laborers
to unload this shed.

He left his will on the shed floor,
which wasn’t a will
as much as it was a quick note
scrawled on the pink edge of an invoice
for a few bundles of chicken wire.

I found the note
and showed it to no one.

This shed should have the smell
of seed packets and mousetraps.
It should have a calendar
whose pages haven’t turned since Truman.

The sounds of usefulness and nostalgia
should creak from its hinges,
but instead there’s nothing
but a painting the size of a dinner plate
that hangs from an eightpenny nail,
a certain style of painting
where the wall of a building
has been lifted away
to reveal the goings-ons of each room,
which, in this case, is a farmhouse
where some men and women
sit around the geometry
of a kitchen table playing pinochle,
a few of the women laughing
a feast-day kind of laughter,
and one of the men, a fat one
in overalls with a quick brushstroke
for a mouth, points up
as if to say something
about the death or the rain
or the reliable Nordic construction
of the rafters.

A few of the children
gathered in a room off to one side
have vaguely religious faces—
they’re sitting on the floor around their weak
but dependable uncle
who plays something festive
on the piano. The piano
next to the fireplace, the fireplace lit,
a painting of the farmhouse
hanging above the mantel.

What passes for middle C
ripples away from the uncle, the children,
the pinochle game—
the wobbling note finally collapsing
in the ear of the cow
standing in perfect profile
at the far right of the painting.

The cow faces east and stands knee-deep
in pasture mud. The pasture
is a yellow, perspectiveless square,
and the cow, if you moved her
inside the house, would stand
with the sway of her back
touching the rafters.
Perhaps the fat man is referring
to the impossibility of it all,
the inevitable disproportion,
the slow hiss of something he can’t explain.

The cow is gray and blue
and orange. This is the cow
that dies in me every night,
the one that doesn’t sleep
standing up, or sleep at all,
but stamps through the pasture muck
just to watch the suckholes she makes
fill with a salty rot-water
that runs a few inches
below the surface of everything here.

The cow noses through
the same weak spot in the same fence,
and every night finds herself
moving out beyond the fields
of her dumb, sleeping sisters.

The cow in me has long admired
the story the night tells itself,
the one with rifle shots and laughter,
gravel roads crunching under pickups
with their engines and lights cut,
the story with the owls
diving through the circles
their iron silences
scratch into the air.

The cow in me never makes it past
the edge of the painting—
and she’s not up to her knees in mud,
she’s knee-deep in a cattle guard.
Bone and hoof and hoods of skin
dangle below the steel piping
into the clouds of the underworld.

The cow cries, and her cry
slits the night open and takes up house.
The cry has a blue interior
and snaps like a bonfire stoked
with dry rot and green wood.

The cry is a pitcher of ink that never spills,
until it does, until it scrawls itself
across the fields and up into the trees.

The cry works in the night
like a dated but efficient system.

The cry becomes a thread of black water
where the death-fish spawn.

On nights like this
the cow inside me cries,
and I wake as the cry leaves my mouth
to find its way back to the shed,
where it spreads
through all the little rooms of the painting
like the heat building up
from the fireplace by the piano.

The cry makes a little eddy
around the fat man’s finger.

It turns the pinochle deck
into the sounds of the creek
trickling into nothing.

The cry watches my grandfather
weeping over the only thing
he said to my father
in two decades,
which he didn’t say at all
but penned onto a crumpled invoice
that found its way to the nowhere
of my hands.

The cry in the cow
in the painting in me
rotates in the night
on a long axle of pain,
and the night itself
has no vanishing point.   

“The Cow” was originally published in Home Burial (2012), and is used by permission of Copper Canyon Press.

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