Reflections in the Eyes of a Dying Cow

by Joe Winter

The woman stood facing the stove. She poured the lentils into the pot and stirred. Cool mountain air blew through the open kitchen window. Outside a curtain of rain fell from the edge of the overhanging roof.

The man sat at the table, contemplating the bottle of red wine set in front of him. He reached out and spun it slowly on its base. He imagined he held an axle around which the entire house and everyone in it rotated. �Tell me honestly,� he said. �Do you regret coming to the island?�

�The girls are happy,� the woman said. A breeze caught a loose strand of her blonde hair, lifting it off her shoulder.

�That�s true,� the man said. �But they�re children. What about you? Are you happy?�

The woman stirred the beans and said nothing. The man wondered if she considered his question too ridiculous to answer. Then she said, �It�s been a series of sacrifices, hasn�t it? We knew it would be. I suppose I didn�t realize . . . I didn�t anticipate there would be so many, so much we�d have to live without.� She set the spoon down beside the stove. �And it seems that�s all we ever do now. I�m tired of sacrificing. I�m tired of poverty.� She rubbed her eyes. �I�m tired of eating lentils.�

The man turned the bottle around in his hand, reading the label as it scrolled between his fingers.


The next morning at sunrise the man went to work tilling the corn fields behind his landlord Mr. Aquino�s house. The rain had stopped, but at this time of the year and on this side of the mountain it never stopped for long. Ocean borne cloud formations billowed overhead and intertwined with layers of fog blown in from the south. Bursts of sunlight occasionally punched holes through the swirling canopy, and in these moments the overwhelming greenery of the landscape shimmered as though electrified.

The man kept his eye on the rotary tiller dragging behind the tractor, holding a straight line.  He was not a farmer. The work he did for Mr. Aquino was in trade for the rent he owed on the one bedroom guest house he lived in with his family, plus a generous share of the food he helped grow. The man had worked as a commercial fisherman before coming to the island, but he enjoyed working Mr. Aquino�s fields, despite its non-monetary rewards. He enjoyed working outdoors.

The man had tilled one field and was half way through the second when he saw Mrs. Aquino standing beneath a stand of papaya trees. She held a paper bag and a plastic jug of water. The man completed the rotation and shut off the tractor. He climbed down and walked a furrow over to where his landlord�s wife stood waiting for him.

They sat on her porch eating spam sandwiches. Mrs. Aquino had not yet said a word, a natural reticence the man recognized as general among the native born members of the mountain community, if not the whole island itself�a trait he admired and tried to emulate.

�Roscoe says his cow is dying,� Mrs. Aquino said, apropos of nothing.

The man pulled a long draught from the jug and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. �Uh, huh.�

That may or may not be as far as Mrs. Aquino intended to carry the conversation. Politeness dictated the man simply acknowledge he heard her and leave it at that. He ate the second half of his sandwich in two bites. A drizzly mist began to fall around them. The man stared out over the fields. The Aquinos grew sweet corn mostly, but also spinach, kale, and beans, plus smaller plots for cucumbers and tomatoes. And of course papaya. Other members of the church who lived nearby grew bananas. Some, like Roscoe, kept livestock�pigs, goats, maybe a milk cow or two.

�The cow�s got gut worms,� Mrs. Aquino said between bites of her sandwich. �Stomach all ruptured out. Roscoe says she can�t eat. Got to be put down, he says. . . . Maybe he�ll hire one of them vaqueros from the ranch.�

The man chewed the food balled up in his mouth and swallowed.

�He can�t do it himself?�

�Oh, no,� Mrs. Aquino said. �Roscoe could never kill something like that. Too big. Besides, I don�t think he got a rifle.�

The man dragged the end of his sneaker over the rich loamy soil. He tried to imagine what the aboriginals experienced 500 years ago, coming ashore to this convulsing and primeval land, a land not yet fully formed and still drenched in the placental blood of its mother. They communed with newborn gods and goddesses as violent and implacable as the island itself. To honor them they built idols with fierce faces and ravening mouths. To satisfy their hunger they offered the blood of animals and human beings.

�Tell Roscoe I�ll do it,� the man said.

Mrs. Aquino nodded her head once, barely. She folded up the rest of her sandwich and stuffed it in her mouth.


The next day the man stood with Roscoe in the small pasture of guinea grass and ragwort that grew behind his house. The afflicted cow stood fifty yards away beneath a mango tree. Its skeletal frame contrasted starkly with its grossly distended abdomen. The cow lowed once, a plaintive sound that was somehow muted with resignation.

 �It won�t be like it may have been for you working on that boat,� Roscoe said. �She�s no fish. Even the way she is now she�s still got a half-ton on her, at least.�

 �I don�t know if it matters how big they are,� the man said. �Nothing that lives is happy about dying.�

Roscoe hitched his thumbs into his jeans and sighed. �Suppose so,� he said.

Walking the man back to his car Roscoe asked him what kind of gun he planned to use.

�I don�t have a gun,� the man said.

�I could probably get a hold of a rifle. Jennings has a .22, I think�

The man shook his head. �That won�t do it.�

�What then?�

�I�ll bring my sledgehammer with me tomorrow morning.�

�A sledgehammer?�

�It�s quick, it�s clean, and it�s painless. If done right. �

�If done right you say?�

�I�ll do it right.�


That evening the man ate flat bread, cheese, and lentil soup for dinner with his wife and two daughters. He drank a glass of red wine. He did not drink a second glass. He had lost the urge to drink since they had arrived on the island. This, along with the lentils, resulted in him dropping about 15 pounds. His pants now hung loose around his waist, and the angles and planes of his face stood out more clearly in the mirror. He thought his wife would notice these changes, but she said nothing about it. She had never been much of a drinker herself, but lately she had gotten in the habit of drinking wine during meals. Sometimes she drank after meals as well.

About an hour later the woman bathed the children in the tub, dressed them in their pajamas, and tucked them in the double bed they shared next to the bed she shared with her husband. The woman left to finish cleaning and to prepare meals for the next day. The man pulled up a chair and read his daughters two chapters from Island of the Blue Dolphins. They were happy girls. The man felt an almost clairvoyant certainty they would remain here after him, that the island would be their home for the rest of their lives, no matter where their travels took them.

The man shut off the light over the bed where his daughter�s slept. They were turned towards each other, breathing in time. The man looked through the door to the kitchen where his wife stood at the sink scrubbing a pot. Dark sweat stains had formed under each arm. She wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist, a dripping wash cloth clutched in her hand. A glass of wine sat on the shelf above the sink.

The man got up and closed the door. The bedroom was dark. He crossed the floor and looked out the window. The clouds had cleared and stars wheeled above the black slope of the mountain. The man had seen night skies this clear working in the middle of the ocean, but never on land. Filaments of the Milky Way stretched across the sky from Cygnus in the west to Orion rising in the east, spiral arms rotating around the galactic core. The man got down on his knees, bowed his head, and softly chanted lines from the Hin�rio de Cura, the Hymn of Curing:

I climbed a hill of thorns
Stepping on sharp points
The Stars told me
In the world, everything can be healed.


The man arrived at Roscoe�s house at 7 a.m. the next day. He open the trunk of his car and took out the 10-pound sledgehammer. The lower end of its 3-foot long hickory handle was wound in black electrical tape.

Roscoe stood on his front steps, drinking a cup of coffee. He went down to meet the man as he walked up the drive and together they went around the back of the house. Beneath the mango tree the cow lay on its haunches. It turned its head and looked at them. Its dried and swollen tongue lolled out its mouth. Its distended belly looked close to bursting. Its wasted hind quarters were smeared in feces.

The man breathed in deep through his nose.

�She�s too weak to stand,� Roscoe said.

The man became aware of the hammer�s weight in his hand and crouched down, laying the head in the grass and holding the handle with both hands upright between his knees. The long strands of guinea grass glistened with dew, turning the steel head of the hammer wet and black. The man swallowed.

�Can I have some water?� he asked.

�I�ll get you some,� Roscoe said. He laid his hand on the man�s shoulder. �You alright?�

�I just need some water,� the man said.

Roscoe headed back to his house. The man remained hunched down in the grass. He did not look at the cow under the mango tree. He did not listen to its labored breaths. His attention was turned inward. He made the Sign of the Cross and recalled a line from Hemingway�s The Old Man and the Sea: �Blessed Virgin, pray for the death of this fish, wonderful though he is.� He remembered the time he had spoke that prayer aloud on the boat, nearly delirious after a 36-hour shift. �What�s so fucking wonderful about a fish?� someone had said.

Behind his back the man heard Roscoe coming with the water. �She�s no fish,� he said quietly to himself.

Roscoe handed him a canteen. The man thanked him, unscrewed the cap, and upended it over his open mouth. He swallowed the cold water.

He gestured towards the cow. �Has she had anything to drink?� he asked.

�I tried to give her some last night, and again this morning before you came. But she wouldn�t take any. I don�t think her stomach can handle it.�

The man handed back the canteen. He hoisted up his hammer, resting it across his shoulder.

�Pray for me, Roscoe,� he said. �Pray that it�s quick, that it�s clean, that it�s painless.� He advanced a few steps and looked back. �Pray for my family.�

Roscoe�s face was grave. He nodded and turned back to his house. �Fetch me when it�s done,� he said.


The man walked under the shade of the mango tree and stood in front of the cow. Black flies spun around its face, drawn to the yellowish discharge that encrusted its eyes and nostrils. The man held the hammer in both hands across his waist. The animal regarded him unevenly through the halos of circling flies. Then it lifted its head and bawled, a rasping sound like tearing cardboard. The man leaned over and waved off the flies. He laid the palm of his hand on top of the cow�s head, damp with sweat, and focused his intent on the suffering of the animal. He received it within himself and combined it with his own. He felt a weight like a stone around his neck pulling him down. He shut his eyes and saw a cascade of images. Some he could identify, others were entirely unknown to him: he saw mandalas, some glowing, others overlapping and unfolding in fractal-like progressions; he saw swastikas in both Hindu and Buddhist form; he saw anthropomorphic totems of unknown origin and meaning; he saw Mithras holding his knife to the throat of the bull; he saw bare-chested priestesses wearing bird masks and carrying bowls of blood. Then he saw images of his own life emerging through the layer of symbols. He saw the fishing boat pitch and yaw against the waves; he saw pots dragged up from the deep teeming with crabs; he saw his daughters sleeping face to face; he saw his wife dressed in ceremonial white, her head down and her hands folded together in supplication. Lastly he saw the whole world suffused in light rolling through space and circling a ball of fire, and from some hidden place he heard a chorus of voices chanting a hymn:

As estrelas me disseram
No mundo se cura tudo.

His heart swelled within his chest and he offered it up.

The man opened his eyes and rose to his feet. He wiped his hands on his jeans and tightened his grip on the handle of the sledgehammer. He circled around the animal. The crests and knobs of the skeleton beneath its sagging hide rose out of its body like the silt-enshrouded timbers of a shipwreck on the ocean floor. He came round the other side and looked into the glassy black surface of the cow�s eyes, sunken in their orbital sockets. He saw reflected there the outline of a figure, its limbs foreshortened and stretched out, wielding some instrument of expiation and mercy.

The man stepped closer to the head of the cow and stood to one side. He brought the hammer up high over his shoulder, rotated his torso, and stood poised for the intake of a single breath. �Blessed Virgin,� he began, and swung.

BIO: Joseph Winter is a writer born and raised in Massachusetts and living with his wife and daughters in Orange County, CA.  He has work that will be appearing in Word Riot and Thuglit.