On a summer morning when mist polka dotted the valley and cows stirred
behind wooden fences, a truck spilled a load of peas across the road. Cars
crushed the peas, raising up a cloud of scent that smelled like dry powdered
babies; like buds unfurling through layers of bark; like salmon fry churning
in pebble-bottomed streams.
I smelled the pea mash for miles before I reached it, and when I did my car would go no farther, though others had. I got out and a cow walked up to me, a stinking cow, with spots and a horrible distended udder that almost dragged on the ground. This cow smelled like an old egg; like an overspent credit card; like a woman lashing her neighbor's boy with a stick as if he were a snake, saying until she was sure the boy was dead, "Trust me. Your mother perished."
The cow said to me, "Get on, you must ride me now."
"The other smell," I said, trying to be polite. "I want that one."
"Ah," said the cow, "you are like all of them. You think you are too smart for me. But you will ride."
Just then a tiny swallow, a speck of a bird, flew down from the sky. "When you get on that cow, and I might add that in another minute you won't be able to help yourself from getting on," he said. "I will come fly with you from time to time. Sometimes you will see me out of the corner of your bespectacled eye, and sometimes, many times, you will not."
"If I may give just one warning: I will not come to you as a reward when you pretend you are riding something more exalted than a stinking cow."
I had no choice. I could not help myself from getting on the cow. I could not see the swallow, but I heard him sing as he flew away. His song sounded like dirt being turned over by a smooth blade in the spring; like yeast billowing in balmy dough; like a warm soft mama's hand smoothing out the hair that pulled free from a pony tail.
"When you have the urge to strike your neighbor's child with a stick," the swallow said in his final twitter, "Try to remember that I once sang this song to you."
I have not been able to get off the stinking cow since.
© 1995 by Priscilla Turner
Priscilla Turner is a writer and editor who lives in Seattle.