The Cow in The Lake (originally published in Diagram)
At the lake I saw the cow. This is something I remembered from my childhood. Three or four times a year an animal—usually a deer or cow—would walk onto the partially frozen lake during the winter. The ice would crack and the animal would drown. When my brother and I still lived here, we might be able to save the animal, but with only my father, he had no choice but to wait until spring and pull the bloated carcass from the water. I watched her go under, he said. We stood at the edge of the water filled with mud and green. I was out here just walking and I saw the cow walking on the ice and then, boom, she went under, he said. You remember deer. They kind of try and put their legs up on the edge of the ice in the hole they created. But not a cow. Not this cow. It just went under and never came out and now look, there she is, he said. The lake was huge, encircled with dead weeds and grass just beginning to gain color from the sun now high above. This isn’t going to be easy, said my father. From bloat, the water inside the dead cow had expanded the dead cow into roughly three times the size of a normal cow. Worse yet, instead of drowning and dying at the bottom of the lake, or eventually from canoe waves ending near shore where my father could break down the body, this cow had death ballooned directly upward from where it went downward. That is, this giant dead cow, was floating in the center of the lake, illuminated by sun, clouded with flies. I had never seen anything like it. Once, as a teenager, a pair of deer had drowned and become entangled. But the bodies eventually washed up on the shore of the lake and I remember my father expertly untangling the legs of the deer which to me at the time appeared mashed in wet skin, tongues out, eyes bulging. I remember, I think, crying, seeing the tangled dead deer because it appeared so sad to see them together like that. My father had to chop, with an axe, one of their legs. My father had to ask if I was crying and I said I wasn’t. The cow was also incredibly sad, but absurd, nearly not real, outside reality, in its huge state of floating on top of the water and appearing, unmovable. My father threw a large rock with two hands and watched the waves expand outward, hitting the cow, and not budging it. We would have to go into the water. I took off my blue overalls on instinct, which I imagine is something from my childhood when my father and brother and I had to go into the lake for dying animals. My father did the same. For a moment, we both stood at the edge of the lake in nothing but our underwear, air cold, sun warm, horse and hunter somewhere far behind us in the woods, watching. Frogs had laid eggs in messed puddles of white foam on top of the water where my bare feet entered. I stepped on brown weeds and my toes sank in the mud. I walked into the lake until it reached my waist, the cow on the water getting larger as I sank lower. My father was at my side, ripples of water moving from him and colliding with the ripples I created. I forgot how hairy he was, and in the thought, remembered his stubbled face from my childhood. Cold, said my father, and he took a deep breath and went under the water. I walked into the lake until I couldn’t walk anymore and had to swim with my father toward the dead cow. We both swam with only our arms and heads out of the water. The sun mocked our faces. I thought a snapping turtle, starved from winter, would eat my toes, which seems like a very childhood fear to have as well. Some memories, feelings, were coming back to me. She’s floating because of air taken in before going under, said my father, wadding in the water next to the dead cow. The air creates pockets in the body not even the water can get to is why she’s floating like this. I swam around the cow which was somehow lying on her back, legs straight and aimed at the blue sky which was beginning to gauze over with clouds. The air began to feel warmer because my body was so cold from the water. I frog kicked my way around the floating dead cow, swatting away insects and smelling the rot from thawing flesh from the brown and white spotted animal. My father was still talking on the other side of the cow. He threw the rope over. He said the reason a cow walks onto a frozen lake is dehydration, which in his roundabout passive aggressive way, was him blaming Rainbow Farm on the opposite side of the road where I had previously seen car headlights run between trees. Another piece of rope came over the cow and he continued to discuss the poor care Rainbow Farm showed its animals. For a cow to become distressed enough that it leaves a field, crosses a road, and walks onto a frozen lake for water, is abuse, torture, a crime, he said, followed by his voice rising and asking who was going to swim under. This I didn’t remember from pulling deer from the water, but this cow, this cow was different, unlike anything else. Going under, I asked. One of us has to swim under the cow with the rope and then we tie it off around the body, he said. You’re the young one, he said. I treaded water, holding a rope in each hand, my face dipping down until my mouth ballooned with liquid and I spit it out in shimmering arc, hitting the cow. The ropes under the water looked cloudy, worm-like, as they wiggled near my kicking feet. The cow’s face had a film of white fungus and the mouth was eaten away by fish, eyes solid black circles that held the sky’s reflection. I shouted to my father I would go under. Just before I dove under the water, I heard a gun go off and the blast shook the water above me after I was under the water. I figured it must have been the hunter in the woods where the horse followed my father. Those eyes. Underwater I thought of my brother living in a tree. What do you save first if you can’t remember what’s worth saving? I pushed my body in a downward angle, feet momentarily coming out of the water, freezing, and then I pulled my hands from my chest and outward like opening curtains and swam under the cow. I could only see several feet with my eyes open under the water, everything was a cloudy yellow with blurry strands of green in the deepest distance, which was about four feet, I figured. Directly beneath the cow, I ran a hand over her spine which was a hard, unbreakable feeling, then I touched the skin outside the spine—short haired, silken, soft—and surprised myself how long I could hold my breath before terror. Underwater, the cow looked like a pear with its wet skin layering off as I swam by it with both ropes in my hands, making sure the ropes ran across her body. I broke the surface of the water not realizing how close to my father I was. I had swam upward after passing by the cow aware of my father’s blurry legs in the cloudy lake water but in closing my eyes and swatting my arms to my side, flying upwards, had somehow moved directly under his legs and embarrassingly swam up between his legs, my right shoulder splitting him hard and forcing him to flop backwards splashing in the water, cursing me. Luckily, I still held the ropes and the cow was ready to be towed to shore. Sorry Dad, I said catching my breath in heavy gasps. Didn’t see you there. He took one of the ropes. I was out of breath, not accustomed to any exercise in over ten years, even though I was a strong swimmer in this very lake as a child. We began swimming back to the shore, each with a rope in our arms, yanking on the massive dead cow which budged a few edges and began to float across the water. I couldn’t believe how strong my father was, he barely breathed through his mouth, the farm-years had polished him hard. But not me, each frog kick with the rope in my hands felt like I was pulling a wall. Both of my calf muscles folded in on themselves when I tried one big kick in order to right myself, prove myself, to my father, and the cow, which was beginning to tilt and angle from my father swimming yards ahead of me. I let go of the rope but soon realized I couldn’t use my legs to hold me above the water and I went under before I screamed for my father whose wet head, all hair, I last saw. I wasn’t scared, but surprised on how fast my body sank to the bottom of the lake. What happens before you drown is your lungs feel stomped on and your eyes bulge. I saw my father coming down through the water for me, his body monstrous in the blurry green water. I kept kicking my feet, that is, my mind was telling my legs to move but when I looked down they weren’t moving. My arms were so useless. I could see the cow at the top of the water, the body like a giant ship, moving, my father had done all the work. Something else happens before you drown which is you unwilling open your mouth for air. It’s your body going full desperate. I swallowed gallons of water and screamed, bubbles rising to my father’s arms who came down over me, hands under armpits. He positioned himself underwater next to me so he could push off from the muddy bottom where my numb feet were. I could then feel the muscles in my calves convulsing and I tilted my toes toward my knees to try and stretch the muscle. My father held me underwater, squatted, and pushed off. Together we rose toward the surface, my father kicking wildly, his legs wrapping around my body momentarily, his body squirming as he struggled with me weakly wadding my hands, careful not to hit him, again. I saw the ropes floating above me on top of the water. They were beginning to go under, which I imagine my father knew, so he began kicking even harder, his belly rubbing against my belly, his old mouth blowing bubbles and water near my open dying mouth as he shouted in underwater shriek. We held each other, or more precisely, my father held me. We ascended from the bottom of the lake, through the green water, and breaking the surface of the lake we entered the crisp air. A horse at the edge of the lake was growling. We both gasped and spit water and flopped on top of the water as the cow floated passed us, headed toward shore where the horse now ran. My eyes hurt. Later I would see them filled with blood. Grasses were waving all around the lake. My father asked if I was okay as I vomited a steady stream of water I imagined would never stop. I felt my stomach deflate, and I hurt all over, but I could swim, and tread water, and the sun warmed me. My father looked at me like he had never looked at me before. I can’t describe his expression, I can’t describe anything that is real. In the moment, my father and I treading water, only wet heads visible, he looked at me in a way that made me think he was remembering when I was a child and he couldn’t believe I had become this man. His eyes were very wide and loving, but his expression still held his usual indifference at all. But his eyes. The contact with me there in the lake with the cow hitting the shore and the horse going wild. I didn’t stay to watch what his axe did next.
Photo By: Bust It Away Photography