Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Cow

The interpreter took a cardboard box from the top of a bookcase. Dust balls chased it to the floor. “I forget to clean up there,” he said.

The box contained video cassettes, some commercial, some home-recorded. He picked out one with a colourful jacket, and removed the tape. He placed it into the VCR.

“Not many people use VCRs anymore,” said Stacey.

“I suppose not.”

They sat cross-legged on the carpet to watch. The tape started, not at the beginning. It was a promotional video, apparently produced by the tourist department of a small, Caribbean country.

“Where’s that?”

“Anguilla,” said the interpreter.

“Where’s Anguilla?”

“Northeast Caribbean. A little island, about 15 miles long, shaped like a Paramecium.”

He told her the story of the end of Plan A, speaking over the buttery narration and tinkly music of the video.

It had happened seven years earlier, when the interpreter was a post-doctoral fellow at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. The project for which he was funded was to investigate the effects of hurricanes on tropical and subtropical intertidal communities, ecologies at risk for various reasons related to global warming, including increased hurricane intensities. The previous season’s most ferocious storm, Hurricane Ferdinand, sent him to Anguilla.

He rented a car at the airport and found his way to the road that meandered along the southern shore. He was heading to Mother Mary’s Guest House, what was to be his home base. It was a slow drive, speed limit 30 mph, which he didn’t mind because he had never driven on the left before and around every corner lurked an untended goat.

Glimpses of the turquoise sea came and went among the hills, and eventually he came upon it, Mother Mary’s, a two-story limestone house painted pink with a white wooden veranda. He parked in the circular drive. As he stepped from the car a large, beautiful woman, like a Queen of Hawaii, came floating down the steps.

“Hello, I’m Mother Mary. Are you the professor from America?”

“Um, sort of,” said the interpreter.

“Welcome to Mother Mary’s,” said Mother Mary.

After unloading his gear, the interpreter drove farther east, seeking a short route to the shore. Many promising roads were closed off, impassable due to hurricane damage, so he continued parallel to the coast, hoping to find a curve that would bring him close enough to the sea that he could park his car and walk. He was surprised at how arid this island was. He had expected lush vegetation, but this was dry scrubland dropped into the ocean. When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, “Get out of my head,” he said to the ear worm.

Finally he came to a bend where the sea seemed only a few hundred yards away, although over a cliff of indeterminate height. He did a U-turn and parked on the shoulder, next to a barbed wire fence.The interpreter stepped through the fence without snagging his clothing, and walked into the field. The terrain was hilly, with shrubs large enough to hide a cow, which turned out to be significant. About two hundred yards in, he heard heavy footfalls, but too late. He was rammed from behind, lifted off his feet and jettisoned 30 feet. He landed, winded, in a curled heap.

He opened his eyes and saw two things. A faded plank, about five feet long and eight inches wide, and a pair of cloven hooves.“I didn’t need to be here,” he said to himself as he struggled to his feet, plank in hand. This was what he always said when he travelled to somewhere far from home and found himself in a dangerous situation. He swung the plank and hit the creature broadly on the side of its head. It snorted, backed off slightly, and then pawed the ground for a second attack.

“I didn’t need to be here,” repeated the interpreter, what he had also once said in a boulder-strewn, shadeless desert in Baja California, 110 degrees heat, his canteen empty. It was also what he had said at La Perouse Bay, northern Manitoba, seated on a quad that wouldn’t start, being circled by two curious polar bears and with only dummy shells in his shotgun. Most recently he had yelled these words through the mouthpiece of a snorkel, caught in a surge channel in Bermuda, being dashed against ragged rocks, stung by Portuguese man o’ war tentacles- -that was a bad one. But somehow in each case he escaped with his life, more or less intact.

He turned the plank as the creature charged, raised it high, dodged to the right and as he did, brought it down like an axe blade, striking the skull as though splitting cord wood. The plank bounced from his stinging hands. The creature roared and ran one way. He roared and ran the other. He fell through the fence, ripping his shorts. As he dug in his pocket for the keys, he realized he was bleeding -- a lot. He put his hand up inside his shirt. He pulled it out. Both sides were fully bloodied. When I find myself in times of trouble…

He drove much faster than 30 mph on his way back to the guest house. He felt dizzy, and barely avoided a goat. “I’m shocky,” he said. “Have I lost that much blood?” He saw the sign and turned into the circular drive. He opened the door with his knee and tumbled from the car. Mother Mary came down the steps. “I think I need some help,” he said. “I’ve been injured.” He turned to show his blood-soaked back. He hoped the sight wouldn't cause her to faint.

Far from it. “Oh my,” said Mother Mary. She took him by the shoulders and pushed him firmly against the car. “You sit still, stay flat against the car, and don’t worry. I’m also a registered nurse.” She yelled for someone named Vincent.

After he brought the first aid bag, and as Mother Mary tended to the interpreter, washing, disinfecting, compressing, bandaging, Vincent did something silly. He phoned the police and told them what he guessed had happened to the American visitor.

The interpreter was lying on a cushioned bench on the front porch when two police officers arrived. They wore impossibly crisp white shirts with dark blue epaulets. One went into the guest house. The other came to speak with him. He sat up painfully. It was hurting more now, and breathing felt heavy and painful.

“Can you describe your assailant?” asked the officer.

“It was a cow,” said the interpreter.

“A cow?”

“Or a bull.”

“You were stabbed by a cow?”

“With its horn.”

“Sir, I need you to be frank with me. What is your purpose for visiting Anguilla?”

To study the intertidal life,” said the interpreter. “To see what hurricanes do to it.”

The officer stared as though the interpreter had said nothing. “Sir,” he said, “what would you say if I told you my colleague was at this moment searching your lodgings, looking for evidence of illicit drug trafficking?”

“What?” said the interpreter.

“You’re lucky you weren’t killed.”

By the cow? What?”

“What happened, really? Look, I’m not particularly interested in you. I’m more interested in whom you were sent to meet. Be completely honest with us, and depending on your criminal history you might simply be sent back to America without charges. Now, what were you carrying, how much, and to whom were you carrying it?”

“Drugs?” asked the interpreter. “No, no, no. Look, it’s quite simple. I flew from Washington DC, where I work, to Miami, Miami to San Juan, San Juan to here, rented a car, drove most of the length of this island, wandered into a field to get to the shore, to find a study site, and was gored by a cow.”

“Sir, that is patently ridiculous. Who assaulted you? We want a name.”

“It was a cow. A brown, angry cow.” The interpreter looked to Mother Mary for help, advice, wisdom, a hint? She shrugged.

“May I examine the wound?” asked the officer.

The interpreter lifted his shirt. Mother Mary, wearing blue gloves, gently peeled back the dressing. The officer put his hand to his chin as the other cop entered the room.

“Odd,” said the other. “Jars, plastic bags, nets, snorkeling gear, notebooks and literature about sea creatures.”

“And collecting permits,” said the interpreter. “Did you see the permits?”

The first officer waved the second over. “What does this look like to you?” he asked.

Hmmmm, not typical knife or machete. Ten centimetres long, four centimetres wide, deep at one end and shallower at the other. The muscle tissue looks bruised and compressed; perhaps some has been gouged out. I would guess he’s been struck obliquely with a sharp-ended pipe, a length of rebar.”

“Or gored by a cow,” said the interpreter. He started coughing. He reached for Mother Mary’s arm. He couldn’t catch his breath.

He told his story, keeping one eye on the video, which was little more than the record of a helicopter flying up one side of the island and down the other, pausing to circle places of note.

Eventually Stacey said, “This isn’t helpful. You’re way too much back there.” She walked on her knees to click off the TV.


“You’re dwelling upon things in the past. You do that a lot.” She knee-walked back.

“Is that bad?”

“In your case, yes. You have to think ahead.”

“I don’t do that,” he said, as if trying to get things straight.

“Not enough.”

He unfolded his legs and lay flat on the carpet. “That cow really hurt me,” he said. “And it wrecked my trip. I got nothing from that trip. I spent a week in a foreign hospital with a collapsed lung, and then I had to limp back to DC with all my money gone, with no data, nothing to publish, at a critical time in my trajectory. The baby boomers hadn’t started retiring yet, and universities were retrenching, retooling toward molecular approaches, meaning jobs mostly for the lab-rats. Only hyper-productive field-types were finding positions, so a lost research season meant almost certain career death.

“When my US visa expired, I came back to Canada, eventually moved here where I knew a few profs, but was treated like old news, could only get first-year, single-session teaching jobs, and I had to keep reapplying to the same people at the same places every session, as if they had no idea who I was. The rejection--it broke my heart, burned me out. And then someone showed me an ad to become an interpreter. What the hell. How hard could that be? I figured it would last a year, maybe two, and in the meantime I’d find a way back into Plan A, before my shelf-life expired.”

“But one or two years turned into six or seven,” she said.

“And then I get struck by lightning and am treated like a leper.” He rubbed his eyes. “That damned cow.”

“You’re heaping a lot of blame on the cow.”

“That cow effectively ruined me.”

“It wasn’t just the cow.”

“I hate the cow. I hope I really hurt it.”

Stacey placed her hand on his chest, above his heart. “We must forgive the cow, and move on.”

“I’m not sure I know how to do that,” he said, staring at the ceiling.

Her hand slid down into the space between his arm and body so that she hovered above him with her hair hanging, her breath swarming. She lowered her face, and he raised his, and they kissed. They stopped, to look at each other.

The interpreter said, “Do that again. It was sparkly.”


swamp4me said...

Never, ever trust a cow...even if it helps you eventually get kissed by a sparkly female ;)

Aunt Debbi/kurts mom said...

Stupid cows. My family ranches. Each and every cow I have ever met is stupid and potentially deadly.

Hugh Griffith said...

Swampy & Aunt D: Your opinions of cows convince me I struck the right note. Thanks.