by Nick Norton

Maybe the animals sensed it, something latent or ambivalent. And yet in broad daylight, believe me, I harboured no dire thoughts about cows. I could drink milk. I ate cheese without queasiness or skin eruptions. Roast beef I would even submit to, if Mum cooked it. This has all changed.

How now.

How now brown…

How. Now. Brown. Cow.

I am learning the rounds and spaces of speech all over again. But the brown cow? The cow jumped over the moon? Such monsters should never be allowed in the nursery.

How now? I worked hard and, come the weekend, played hard: pulling on the Lycra, Mountain Bike and I hitting the dirt, wheels spinning over rock, down through streams and grass and mud and again up, weaving through forest to explode into a horizon. Even at the extremes of peril, on Mountain Bike I felt safe. No puncture or skid ever sent me into a ditch. Falling off is for wimps. Only – this day – I was persuaded to walk.

Walking is a treacherous pastime. Walking is deadly movement for, when you are slow, nature comes close, and that includes our own nature.

We were bickering even on the bus. Each landmark marked a silly niggle, a point of order. As the city fell away, scudding like an exhausted breaker over parkland, you said I was late. It was exactly the other way round of course because you were meant to call for me. You whined about motion sickness. Then as the bus laboured past the tarn you started on at the weather, as if it were my fault. No, I insisted, we should not turn back.

High on the moor we got off the bus. You admitted to a hangover. I said the fresh air would do you good, laughed that you should suffer, and asked where you went last night. You said nothing about that. We walked five easy miles and for you the sun was always too bright in between clouds that were too wet. The soil was soft, the boulders hard, the mean outcrops knocked your toes and shins as if on purpose. You were beginning to doubt the map and when begging to go back you called me ‘Daddy’ with that pained ha-ha grin on your face; at which point I was more than willing to see you turn heel and head for home. As you flounced downhill I sent a few choice expletives bowling along after your cagoule, a buttercup exclamation point diminishing to a comma, shrinking to a gold dot, to nothing.

The dry stone walls, lichen covered limestone, the mosses and heather and the clouds all regrouped. I was alone now.

Now… Hat pulled down and rage burning off the drizzle; okay, I thought, okay. Legs could stretch, lungs expand, eyes down, and thus the path swirled by. I saw nothing but my determined limbs as I began my march in earnest. Then I stopped and looked. To catch my breath, to try and clear the fuddled mesh of fantasy and fear that clung to the insides of my skull. How? I saw nothing. Nothing that I recognised. How now? But you had the map. I was not lost, this was a moment of hesitation. I was not lost, this was a healthy reassessment.

Curlews did a square dance in the sky. Lapwings dive bombed one another. Sheep stared me out. Cows followed me. I met no one, found no familiar contours or signposts. It was impossible to get above the rough pasture. A thick spongy grass spiked by thistle, measured by sheep dung and interrupted by deep trodden mulch where the cows supped water. When I veered upwards the mountain beat me back by means of a treacherous bog whose beer brown liquids sucked at my calves, leaving me cold and pendulous, swinging heavy wet boots along the lee side of a stone wall, calcified sea stacked to shoulder height. I zigzagged along the valley edge in search of a cairn, a style, a boot-print; anything at all to suggest that I was still on a path. By now the cows were getting close and I was starting to shout: “FUCK OFF!” This only made their eyelashes flutter and widen over those lustrous, obsidian stares. “FUCK OFF!” One animal lifted its tail like a lever and a gush of steaming crud fell to the ground. I don’t know if it were this that marked the signal or the large, melancholy MOOO which followed. Maybe the two combined. No matter, the assault surely followed.

With gentle certainty they came closer, and closer still. They breathed on me. I found myself pressed into a corner, the rough limestone wall taller than I. Pushing at them I found myself running on the spot, slithering around on the slick mud in an effort to remain vertical. Then a cow carefully, deliberately, head butted me. I laughed, though it hurt, for it was ridiculous. A dam and her calf came up on my right and her large grey-red tongue smacked out to rough up my face. Disgusted, I pulled back and slipped, toppling into the ammonia slime below. One beast pushed forward and stepped on my leg. Cows are very, very heavy. I screamed and this seemed to make them even more curious. Another stepped on me, the calf was confused by all this and it skidded on its uncertain legs, tumbling right over me. My frantic kicking panicked the mother. She lunged, bowing to butt my head sideways, almost taking it off my shoulders.

It was never that they showed anger. They seemed surprised or slightly worried, which made them turn around all the more on my body, pushing at one another in an attempt to work out what the herd was getting so excited about. I was flattened and scattered and trod in and peed on and wetted by big pink cushion noses and then left. Days and nights it rained, the herd milling around, haphazardly crushing my bones into the earth. They lolled and mooed and munched and pooed. When the sun came out they went. My eyes no longer did anything. I felt the earth swell and contract beneath my many parts. I was stamped across by heavy armoured beetles, laced around with a curtain of worm mucus; microbes made deafening sea-like noises.

My lips, puckered, could raise a kiss above a puddle. My words had gone, so I whistled. This attracted a pewter hooded jackdaw. The white bones of my spine caught its eye. The bird took a hold and pulled but the earth would not release me, so it went. The night came and dew moistened the ground and I whistled from out my puddle. Jackdaw came once more and pulled and pulled but the earth enjoyed my company. The day dried up the puddle and the night dampened the earth and then the rains returned and I whistled from out the mud and the bird came again. It had brought a mate. They clacked their beaks around my backbone and heaved back their pewter heads and out I came like a wheezing concertina. From the earth beside me I managed to say thank you, which gave my rescuers a fright. They hopped off in a flutter to perch on a wall and watch.

To the best of my ability I then pulled myself together. Only, you must remember, cows are very heavy and the earth can sometimes be very very greedy. Still, it can also be made to serve a purpose, so what I missed of my lungs and chest and belly I padded out with cow manure and mud, my legs I packed around with straw. One foot was missing and most of my fingers. Of my skull there was nothing to be found, not even splinters, so I picked up an ear and my lips and stuck them to my stumpy torso and, whistling, began to limp downhill. The jackdaws by now had decided that this was going to be fun. They glided from off the wall to land one on either shoulder. Thus I could see through their sharp blue eyes and I began to search around for materials to more successfully piece myself together. My foot was not a problem for I soon found an old trainer that the bog had sucked from off some startled, mushroom dazed teenager. The fingers were eventually made up by twigs, pens and tent pegs. The head was more difficult. At first I tried a round stone. The rock just marimba’d down my spine, sulching through my muddy chest and coming to rest in the bowl of my pelvis. I felt centred. Next I came across a dog chewed tennis ball and this worked fine. The tennis ball was good, until in a sudden downpour I made the mistake of swallowing and now the tennis ball is quite efficiently playing the part of my liver.

Progress, not surprisingly, was slow. The jackdaws got bored. They flew away often, sometimes for days at a time, leaving me tasselled up in fencing or tripping blind over heather. At no point dare I lay down lest the earth reclaim some part of me. During the night I leant against a wall or tree, owls dropping from cushioned wings to puncture the backs of shrews, frogs, mice, and I would practice my words.

Low in the valley I found a field of cabbages and selected a large one. My best head yet. With two poked in holes for eyes I could dispense with the jackdaws. My pewter crowned friends were by now entirely cynical about this enterprise. Glad to be released from their duty they spiralled high, daring vertigo, and then flew away. Cabbage leaves kept my stalk neck warm. The ramblers I passed nodded brisk hellos and held onto their grins even as they swerved around my uncertain gait, urgently calling their dogs to heel. The closing winter weather was not good for my head. Eventually the vegetable turned black and began to reduce to slime. Luckily I had by now come to the canal. Following an icy towpath that led directly into town, a burnt out car allowed me to swap the cabbage for a headlight and with the addition of an old donkey jacket I was beginning to look quite respectable. A battered flat petrol tank was strapped over my chest. A wellington boot to replace the foot that had worn away. An exhaust pipe served as a crutch and to augment my crotch I found a gear lever most amusing. It made me smile. I sheltered from the snow in a workman’s hut where there was precious little else to do but shift gears and try to make sense of my words. To make myself complete I found an abandoned crash helmet. It slotted nicely over the lamp but stopped up my whistling. The few words that I had, the ones I had kept special, were hidden now, muffled. I knocked on your door and you opened it and I said “How now Brown Cow”, I wanted to apologise. You slammed the door on my outstretched arm and ran. In my confusion I tried best I could to pick the muddy bits of me from out your hallway carpet. But you were screaming. Someone set their dog on me. It stole my hand and scarpered, wagging its tail.

Other prose by Nick Norton may be found in The Honest Ulsterman, Brittle Star, Vignette Review, The Periodical, Coil, Inventory, em, Glossy. Of his 2016 book, AKA: A Genealogy of the Saddle, Patrick Keiller wrote, “A joy to read, Nick Norton’s wonderful book brings a headlong, associative sensibility to the literature of landscape. I wish there were more books like it.” This is Nick’s second story for Fictive Dream.