Nate and Kelly didn’t notice the cows ahead until they suddenly found their way blocked. They were out for a walk with their dog in the county park, and earnestly talking, they’d passed obliviously through a gate to cross a field leased by a local rancher. Clouds like loose feathers floated in a blue sky and amber hills, dotted with cows, rolled to the horizon.
Nate clapped his hands to shoo them away, but instead of tottering off, as they usually did, they lowered their heads and stood their ground. Mmmmm, they went, one by one, picking up the complaint from each other and shuffling their hooves in place. They were spotted black and white.
Nate clapped again and shouted at them.
Mooo. They stared at the threesome passively with opaque eyes. Long ropes of slobber hung from their flabby lips.
Dusty barked and ran up to one of them, stopping short of its legs. Moo-oo-oo. The cow tossed its head and blew through its nose, at the same time clopping its foot, and Dusty backed off.
“What’s wrong with them? Why are they acting this way?” said Kelly nervously.
“I don’t know.”
Nate decided to plunge ahead, clapping and shouting, into their midst, and at the last minute the cows stepped aside one by one. Dusty, barking furiously, followed at Nate’s heels.
“Come on,” Nate called to Kelly.
She walked cautiously as if balancing on a log. The cows followed her with their blank stares, but didn’t move back to the trail. “I don’t like this,” she said.
As they proceeded on up the trail, the cows trudged alongside, lumbering, stumping. Mooo, mooo, mooo.
“Stupid cows!” said Kelly. “I hate these stupid cows.”
One broke off into a trot and crested the hill ahead of them. Reaching the top, Nate and Kelly saw more cows on the other side and three little half-year calves.
“That must be it. They’re trying to protect their calves,” said Nate.
“That’s cute. I can relate to that. Maybe I don’t hate cows after all.”
They’d been talking about whether to start a family. Nate was a third grade teacher and Kelly taught gymnastics, and they didn’t make a lot of money. But they’d moved from the city, even though it meant a cut in income, to a small rural town tucked away in a valley among these hills, because it was quaint and neighborly, and you didn’t have to lock your doors at night: the right environment for children. Nate, especially, wanted a simple, all-American life that would be as far as possible from his own difficult upbringing.
At another fence with a gate they left the cows behind and headed into a copse of oak and madrone. A pungent, moldy smell like old books rose from the ground. Speckled shafts of sunlight fell softly through ragged holes in the canopy, and the air sighed. Nate, smiling at Kelly, took her hand.
“Let’s start as soon as we get home,” he said.
She squeezed his hand and giggled. “Oh Nate.”
On Monday one of the kids in Nate’s class crayoned a picture of a house with all the windows colored over in black. It disturbed him. This was the kind of town where children could be expected to draw blue skies and yellow suns with smiles, green trees like cotton candy, houses with peaked roofs and chimneys with puffs of smoke, and in the foreground, stick figures playing with balls and bicycles—which mostly they did. Once one kid depicted a dog biting a little boy, but then, the boy who drew it was the son of a policeman.
What was behind those blacked-out windows? The child, a boy, had always seemed normal in all ways, and was a good student, though a little quiet.
The picture conjured an unpleasant memory. Nate was about the same age as this little boy. “See that out there?” His mother took him to the window and pointed at a dark blue Buick parked across the street. In the driver’s seat a man sat as motionless as a cardboard cut-out. He was Anglo, unlike their neighbors who were all Latino, with short square hair. The cardboard man suddenly came to life, glanced over, his mother waved, the man turned his head back and stared straight ahead again.
“That’s the F.B.I. They’re watching us,” she said.
“They don’t like what we stand for, our politics.”
Nate stared at the car and didn’t feel afraid.
“If that man ever comes to the door, or any policeman does, or any stranger, and asks questions, and your dad and I aren’t here for some reason, you mustn’t say anything. Give them your name but that’s all. Don’t tell them anything about us. Don’t let them in the house.”
Then he was afraid.
Looking at the picture, he remembered that fear and even felt a surge of it again.
He came home to find Kelly rolled into a pretzel-shaped yoga pose, Dusty stretched out on the mat beside her. He told her about the picture of the blacked-out windows. What reason did little Freddy Burger have to be afraid?
“Hmm,” she said, starting to think about it, but she was still so twisted up it came out like a grunt.
Nate assumed she wasn’t interested.
He whistled for the dog. “Come on, Dusty, I’ll take you for a walk.”
Three blocks away was a park where dog owners gathered in the shade of tulip trees and maples to throw balls, and children played on swings and climbing towers in a fenced-off area nearby. Kelly took Dusty in the morning, Nate in the late afternoon. As he approached he saw that DeeAnne, the kindergarten teacher, and Dan, who owned the Willow Creek Cafe, were there with their dogs Godfrey and Fu Manchu. The autumn leaves spattered the grass in swirls of red, orange, and yellow, the sun cast a copper glow. Nate loved these few minutes at the park in the afternoons: the rituals of dog care and the neighborly coming together with fellow citizens. He even enjoyed the bland conversations about weather. He’d grown up listening to too many contentious arguments among adults and endless rants against whatever misguided policy the government was embarking on at the time.
DeeAnne was kneeling on the grass in front of Godfrey, holding him by the collar and earnestly entreating him. “Now Godfrey, the street is dangerous, understand? You don’t want to rush out onto the street now and get hurt, do you?” Godfrey hung his head and looked ashamed.
Dan said howdy. DeeAnne stood up. “Nate, Dan here just told me that Mary Burger was kicked to death by one of her Guernseys while she was trying to hook it up to the milking machine.”
“Oh my God!”
“For some reason the cow went berserk. Isn’t that little Freddy Burger in your class?”
“Yeah, he is. And today he drew a creepy picture of a house with all the windows blacked out. No wonder!”
DeeAnne looked aghast. “You mean he came to school this morning even though his mother had just been killed?”
“But I don’t think it happened till late this morning,” said Dan.
“Oh, I see,” said DeeAnne.
Nate was puzzled. “So I guess it wasn’t connected after all.”
“Cows are frightfully dumb,” DeeAnne remarked offhandedly, and threw a ball for Godfrey.
Dan and Nate threw their balls too, and the dogs went scampering off in all directions. The dogs knew whose ball was whose and didn’t fight over them. When he returned home, Kelly was in the kitchen, with the radio on, starting dinner preparations. Just then the news came on, and she switched it off.
“Oh no, keep it on,” said Nate. “I want to hear the news.”
He wanted to see if there was any mention of the incident at the Burger’s farm on the local report.
“Nuh uh, it’s always the same, bad news, the times are terrible. We know that already,” replied Kelly.
Nate loved teaching. When he’d started in at the school, parents, as well as students, were unsure about him at first, even poking fun of him because he was so odd looking with shoulder length, wavy orange-red hair and a small, pug-nosed, freckled, gnomish face. A hippy, they said, but he proved himself in the classroom and soon he was known about town as good people.
Like all teachers, however, he sometimes had bad days, when no matter what he did his lessons failed. The next day was like that. It began with one of the kids acting out, Simon Miller, the veterinarian’s son, who kept knocking words off the magnetic board on which his small group was trying to construct a poem. Each time a word went up, he bumped the board and went into peals of laughter. Nate tried to calm him by laying a hand on his shoulder and speaking to him softly. Under his palm he could feel the boy’s anguish squirming like a tiny furry mole, but he failed to subdue it. The whole class then turned skittish. Nate had brought a beautiful poster picture of a mandala to class to use for both an arithmatic lesson on the concept of zero, or changelessness, and a writing lesson. But it did not spark the kids’ interest and they wrote things like, “I want to smash that round plate,” or “Mr. Goodwin is a big zero. Ha, ha.” This was not at all the way these kids usually behaved. He realized the children, with their keen senses, had tuned into waves of Simon’s disturbance and telegraphed it to each other. Nothing he did pulled them out of their distress. At the end of the day he felt flattened by defeat.
Kelly was off at a community center in another town teaching gymnastics. Nate was aware how their move had obligated her to drive all over the county to teach in various places—she hadn’t had to do that before—while he only had to walk five blocks to work. She’d never complained, never made anything of it; still, he felt he owed her.
He went to the park with Dusty and found the group of doggy ball throwers arguing about mad cow disease. Kevin Miceli, of Miceli’s Auto Repair, said it wasn’t a problem in the U.S., and Dan said, “I’ll bet you there’s more than you think. They don’t test for it adequately.”
DeeAnne sidled over to Nate. “Kevin’s just told us John Miller went to look over the Burgers’ dairy cows to see if any of them had mastitis, or some kind of bovine virus, because of that one cow, and you know what? A couple of them went wild and he got kicked too, only he’s not badly hurt, thank god, and he had to shoot them with a tranquilizer gun. Well, they don’t have mastitis but he’s drawing blood samples to look for a virus. He’s still over there.”
“How did you find out about this, Kevin?” Nate asked.
“He called me from the Burgers. He had an appointment at my shop today he had to cancel.”
While he waited for Kelly to get home, Nate cooked the dinner. He was still upset by his day at school. Black and white cows kept trotting through his fretful mind. As soon as they sat down to eat, he told Kelly about John Miller and then about little Simon Miller and the magnetic board.
“It’s scaring me,” he said.
“Oh, it must be a coincidence.”
“No, I don’t think it was.”
She sighed. “Don’t be such a worrywart, Nate. It’s your parents acting up again.”
He fell easily into gloom. A therapist he’d seen for a while attributed it to the way his parents had seen fascism around every corner, and were always in despair.
A day later one of his most well-behaved kids took a pen knife out of his pocket at recess time and started jabbing it at the other children, and Nate had to wrestle him from behind. In the afternoon he hurried as soon as he could to the park, foreseeing some kind of new cow incident.
Nearing the group, he called out anxiously, “Any news of cows today?”
Dan laughed. When Nate drew close, DeeAnne looked at him closely. “Why Nate, you’re pale. You look positively scared. You’re taking it all too seriously!”
He was ashamed, the way he used to be when he was a little boy and said something that caused a moment of splintering disconnection. Once he’d told his classmates that the Boy Scouts was a right-wing organization, and not only was he left standing alone at the bus stop every Wednesday afternoon, they jeered at him for months
Stanley Hale, a musician, said, “Cheer up. Hey, why does a cow wear a bell around its neck?”
“Because its horn doesn’t work.”
“Oh Stanley,” said DeeAnne, rolling her eyes. Turning to Nate, she said. “Today MY kids were acting out. You’re not the only one!”
Then Billy Avila drew a picture of soldiers marching with guns. Nate’s math lesson was interrupted by flying spitballs. At the park Nate learned that, the day before, on the Warner ranch, one of the workers had noticed cows from all over the grazing lands massing in one field, mooing and pacing cloddishly along with seeming purpose. When the worker investigated, the whole herd had shuffled towards him, not stompeding exactly, but plodding implacably forwards, until in the end he turned and ran. In the evening he’d regaled the local bar crowd with his adventure, and now the story had made its way to the park.
The park became the center of cow news. The concerned, with or without dogs, started to gather there in the afternoons to discuss the latest event. They were still a minority overall. Most people in town agreed with John Miller, who declared the cow behavior within normal bounds.
The dogs became skittish; a number of fights had to be broken up. Everyone agreed that this was probably due to the fact there were more of them together than usual, as well as newcomers.
Irma Simpson, not a dog owner, came over to report that over the weekend friends of friends of hers had been trapped all day on a log that jutted into the stream that ran through the county park. Facing a large bunch of cows balking on the trail, some of them clumping towards them, the couple backed off instead of shouting and advancing, and the cows pursued them. Fifty sluggish, shambling cows tailed them down the trail until, nearing a stream, the couple turned and plunged down its shrubby banks thinking they would find shelter in the riparian thicket. But at least half the cows followed, relentlessly trampling the willow and alder. The couple spied the log and sought refuge on it. Still the cows closed in on them, butting up into the shallow water at the stream’s edge, so that the couple inched themselves out to the very end of the log, where they sat all day while the obdurate cows switched their tails and stared vacantly. Not until nightfall did the cows file slowly back to pasture, and the couple snuck out. In the dark they could hear the herd’s huffing, sighing breath.
At the park they argued about the cause of all this unaccustomed and rather aggressive behavior. Kevin thought it might be a new disease, something that had crossed over from squirrels or groundhogs.
“I have seen some pretty peculiar squirrels,” remarked Stanley.
“There’s also the possibility of airborne germs let loose by terrorists,” said DeeAnne.
“Or by our own government,” Nate added. “They’ve done it before, you know, over the San Francisco area in nineteen-fifty. And who knows how many other times.”
“Oh come on Nate. Let’s not carry this too far.”
By now Nate’s students had become routinely disruptive and were drawing pictures of airplanes raining dashes of bombs onto peak-roofed houses, armies like ants marching over rolling hills, streams of fire coming out of their guns, and dead bodies on the ground.
He listened for reports on the local radio station but heard only music and cheery advertisements, no mention of anything out of the ordinary. They discussed this at the park. The group was now certain that something was terribly wrong, something was going on. The behavioral problems Nate had experienced among his students were noticed in all the classes of the school.
“KFOW? That’s owned by Clear Channel,” said Jason Nakahara, one of the newcomers to the park.
“Why don’t we call them?” suggested Irma.
“No use,” said Jason. “There won’t be anyone there. They laid everyone off in that station a year ago and now it’s all pre-recorded and run from Oklahoma.”
Parents started to phone Nate and other teachers and accuse them of frightening their children with stories about terrorists or monsters. Nate was certain that for his part he’d been extra-careful never to let on to the kids any of his anxiety, and he always did his best to soothe them when they came to school all jittery and worked up. However, some of the parents threatened to take him, among others, before the School Board. Here was yet another worry for him to stew about. It became harder to perform in his teaching. At home, he was dejected and morose.
“Oh come on,” said Kelly. “They can’t touch you. Last year you won Teacher of the Year Award. You know you’ve done nothing wrong.”
“They don’t care. They turn against you, just like that. Someone makes an accusation and the next thing, others go along with it without asking for any proof. What do you hear at the park in the morning?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. No accusations, no worries about cows or anything else. We just talk about the weather if we talk at all. Everyone’s in a hurry to get to work.”
“Well it’s a smaller crowd there. It’s not a real sample.”
Instead of preparing lessons or making love to Kelly, he surfed the Internet for news long into the night, while Dusty, roused by his wakefulness, ran whimpering to the window at every small night noise, a car passing on a distant road or the wind stirring the leaves of the front yard tree. Kelly lay alone in bed.
Stories on the Web abounded, of cows that ate the clothes off the clothesline at a Swiss girls’ school, cows in Australia stampeding from a barrel-shaped furry monster. Stray voltage in a field in Kansas caused strange behavior in the cows and failure to produce the expected quantities of milk. A cow in New Zealand exploded from excessive internal gas. But nothing about cows in his county. No one else in the group found any news either.
Kelly was spending more and more time contorting herself on her yoga mat.
“Have you heard about anything strange in other parts of the county?” Nate asked her one afternoon.
“No,” she replied, smiling.
“And still nothing at the park?”
“Do you know what happened today? Frankie Spector ran at me and butted me with his head. Out of the blue. For no reason. And then started screaming. So tomorrow I’ll probably find out about a cow attack.”
“Mmmm.” She shook her head and rolled into a new position.
“Is that all you can say?”
She sat up and shouted, “Oh jeesus, Nate, all you think about is cows, cows, cows. I’m just trying to have a life for myself! And what happened to making a baby? Never mind, I don’t want a baby with a crazy father.”
Dusty, unused to their fighting, cringed in the corner of the room with his tail between his legs.
Seeing that, Nate repented. “I’m sorry,” he said.
He sincerely meant it. He kissed her and helped make dinner, washed the dishes afterwards, and snuggled with her on the couch to watch a reality show on TV. Yet when she got up, stretching and yawning in a significant way, and announced “Bedtime,” he said, “I’ll be there in just a minute.” He reasoned to himself that he had to make just one quick check on the Web news. But he couldn’t stop. He stayed up most of the night, finally sacking out on the couch for a few hours in the early morning.
A month from the day of Kelly’s and Nate’s encounter with the cows, the news passed through town that a herd of Guernseys at a ranch a ways off had trudged across their pasture and bunched together at the barbwire fence beside the road. In their lumpish, unyielding way they pushed and bumped against each other until, quite accidently, the fence gave way at one of the junctures and those cows directly behind the new opening were able to escape. These plodded down the road, while the rest of them, at other parts of the fence, shuffled and mooed, too obtuse to find their way to the gap.
The Monday following, a large herd of black Angus massed and lumbered down from the amber hillside fields where they’d been grazing, tottering and swaying forward in an inexorable roll, burst right through the fence and moved down the road: a wall of hebetude on the hoof.
Then in all directions cows started to converge, trampling the ground into dust. They mooed, slobbered, farted, and spread their dung. On numerous roads traffic was brought to a standstill.
In town, the dogs howled as they sensed the movement of the cows. The school was temporarily closed after a gun was found on one of the sixth graders, and the state threatened to put it in receivership.
Still—and this Nate could not for the life of him understand—few people acknowledged that anything was wrong. A small article about the cows did finally appear in the tri-county newspaper, and it made light of the strange behavior. Except for the afternoon group at the park, people in town went about their business as usual, driving to and fro, honking at the herds on the roads and sitting patiently in their cars waiting for them to move on. Pedestrians circumvented cow pies as if they were only a minor inconvenience. They made cow jokes. Cows, in their boobishness, their opacity and relentless immutability, became an endless source of mirth.
It took Kelly twice as long to get to her jobs, she spent half the day in the car, but she insisted she didn’t mind.
“I know how to relax and be patient,” she said to Nate. “That’s what you need to learn, Nate. You get so hysterical about everything. It’s such a shame. If there’s anything I’m getting impatient with it’s you.”
“But look!” Nate said. “Look out there! See all those cows!”
And she shrugged. “So what?”
People were concerned about the state of the schools but, except for the afternoon group at the park, attributed the violence to teacher incompetence, “lack of discipline.”
Arguments even began to occur at the park as some suggested a mass slaughter would be appropriate and others vehemently disagreed.
“Obviously we can’t kill all the cows, and where would the slaughter stop?” Nate pointed out.
“All right then, but what can we do?” asked Kevin, and no one had an answer.
Dan said he was going to stop serving beef at the cafe.
“That’s silly,” said DeeAnne. “I refuse to give up steak.”
Nate was no vegetarian, but he could not bring himself to eat the beef stew that Kelly served him one night. It would have been like eating cockroaches or worms, something disgusting and proliferating. He pushed it to the side of his plate, Kelly glaring at him.
Then members of the group started defecting. They grew uncertain of their own perceptions, or they could no longer withstand being laughed at. First Kevin Miceli stopped coming. When Nate saw him in the grocery store and asked where he’d been and had he heard anything recently, Kevin looked abashed and replied, “Oh, I think we were working up a lot of hot air over nothing.” Day by day fewer people showed up to discuss the situation.
One day Dan suggested they go with the flow. “We can’t fight it. We can’t do anything about it. We might as well live with it and get on with our lives,” he said.
DeeAnne agreed. “Nate, you’ve got to consider it. Maybe the parents are right. Maybe we’ve stirred the kids up with our fears. Maybe we’re the problem.”
Irma Simpson announced that she and her husband were getting a divorce and she was too tied up with it to come any more.
Nate felt himself alone and betrayed. He took a leave of absence from his teaching. He spent all day as well as all night on the Web and found a few other serious cow watchers. It was beginning to happen in other parts of the country, he discovered. A listserve was formed and all up-to-date news as well as theories about cows were posted daily.
Kelly bought a used Stairmaster and exercised an hour a day on top of her yoga. Sweat glistened like jewels on her sleek body.
“Feel these muscles, Nate,” she said.
“Oh, very nice.”
But he had no desire.
In one of his lowest moments a word came back from his childhood: “organize.” “Organize!” his parents were always saying. “We’ve got to organize against the war!” When a school bully beat him up, they told him, “Organize!” But how do you organize against the force of dumb animals moving in a herd? His parents hadn’t prepared him for this!
He ground his teeth when he saw Kelly bouncing along on her Stairmaster, a Walkman in her ears so she wouldn’t have to listen to his fretting. She stopped talking to him.
He felt the cows drawing near. Their hot breath poisoned the air. When he wasn’t looking for news or support on the Internet, he watched out the window.