Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter

The Magic Christmas Cow

© 2001 Susan Canavarro

Bessy, a black and white cow.


Part I

On Monday at the local grocery store I saw a big beautiful black and white cow standing next to the check-out stand just waiting to be milked.
I went up to the girl behind the counter and asked, “Aren’t you going to milk this cow?”
She looked at me as if I was crazy and went on doing her checking, ignoring me.
“This cow needs milking. Don’t you think somebody should do it before her udder bursts?”
The girl looked at me with some irritation and finally said, “Look, Lady, you wanna milk its teats, then go right ahead. I’d like to see ya try it!” She chuckled aloud.
Undaunted by the salesgirl’s rudeness, I went up to the cow, said hello, patted her on the nose and said, “Everything’ll be all right soon, Bessy. Just you wait. I’ll fix it so you won’t be standing here in pain any longer.”
I pulled up a little stool and began to milk her, pulling down on each teat gently but firmly, her warm milk spilling first on my hands and then into the bucket. Bessy the cow began to moo very softly, contented. She turned her head to give me a loving nudge.
“Don’t stop,” she whispered in my ear.
The milk flowed. It smelled warm and sweet. I was pleased as cream. So was Bessy.
The girl behind the counter came over to watch. When she saw milk streaming into the bucket she exclaimed, “Geez, how’d you do that? You really are crazy, ain’t you?”
This time I laughed. “No, You’re crazy because there isn’t any real milk in the bucket. The cow isn’t real. It’s just cardboard, don’t you know that? It was just our imaginations going wild.”
She looked astonished, turned in a huff to go back to the counter where she was checking out butter, sugar, milk, cookies, chicken steaks and Canadian bacon for one of her customers, muttering under her breath the whole time, “Old People!”
“Man, that younger generation!” I muttered.
Bessy turned her head towards where I was crouching by her belly and winked. She knew. A middle age lady like me, she understood.

Part II

I went back to the store on Tuesday to get the milk chocolate Petit Ecoliers they didn’t have on Monday, but I also wanted to see if the milk cow was still there. She was gone. The same rude girl was behind the cash register checking groceries.
“What happened to the cow that was standing here yesterday?” I asked her.
The girl’s eyes rolled to the back of her eye sockets, “The cow? Oh yeah, the cow. She croaked.”
“She croaked? When? It’s only been a day since I milked her.”
“Late last night. Whatsa matta, did you wanna milk her again?”
“No, I want to buy her,” I replied. “I want to give her as a gift to my sister. She collects cow things, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know. Does she milk ‘em too?”
“Look young lady, don’t be smart with me! After all, I pay your paycheck, you know!” Then I said, “No, of course she doesn’t milk them, she pays someone to do it for her.”
Again the girl’s eyes rolled to the back of her head. I can imagine what she must have been thinking. But what she didn’t know won’t hurt her.
I asked her where they might have put the cow, and she curtly said, “Oh, go on, it’s in the back. Go an’ ask one of the guys. Maybe he’ll get it for you.”
I walked slowly to the rear of the store to the meat department. At least, that’s what I thought she meant to say, the meat department. God, they’ve probably butchered poor Bessy and put her in the freezer for good!
There was a handsome young man in his early twenties standing by the door of the freezer. An East Indian in a white turban and a long white coat with a name tag that said Eric. Eric? Hm-m-m. “Eric?” I rushed up to him, hoping I wasn’t too late for the inevitable, “You haven’t done it yet, have you?”
He raised his eyebrows, “Done what?”
“Listen, the girl up front told me you might have that black and white cow back here in the store room.”
“What cow? Lady, we’ve got lots of cows back here. How many do you want?” he asked, chuckling. “Hey, Sam, we have a lady here who wants some cows!”
The whole store heard. A low rumble of mooing and laughter roared thru the aisles.
“Look, I’m just looking for that cardboard cow that was out front yesterday. You know, the black and white one that needed milking? I want to buy her as a gift for my sister.”
With a sudden look of understanding and a slight smile dawning on his face, he said, “Oooh, that one! Now I get it. Well, I think we can handle that. And probably more. Are you sure you only want the one cow?”
“Yes, of course. I want just that one cow. Why? How many cows do you have in there?”
“Well, come with me, Lady, and I’ll show you just how many cows we have. I hope you’ll be able to recognize your cow,” he muttered under his breath.
“What did you say?”
I went with him to the bowels of the freezer. The hair on the back of my neck began to rise, my skin broke out in goose bumps. I was feeling the cold icy air of the freezer. I shivered. I was about to faint from fear and cold, with my eyes shut now not knowing what to expect, anticipating the worst. Bessie might be frozen solid, so frozen she would crack, oh my God, never mind crack! She might croak if I pick her up too roughly.
“Here they are, all one hundred and fifty of them!” he laughed.
“My eyes flew open. One hundred and fifty? A hundred and fifty black and white cardboard cows? You’ve got to be kidding!”
And wouldn’t you know it, they all had the same markings, the same spots. There’s no way I could pick out Bessie in this herd. I just stood there in total amazement in the midst of a stockyard freezer of cardboard cows! But, oh, so silent they were. The sound was nothing like the terrible moaning and lowing you might expect to hear if it were a real stockyard. I wonder what Venée would do with a hundred and fifty cows? Now, that’d be a Moo collection to match all.
While still in a cold daze I heard the young man ask me”…do you want? Unless, of course, you can find your particular cow. Even if you do find her, you can have the others if you want them. We haven’t been able to give them away.”
When I realized he was asking me a question, I came back down to earth, turned to him and asked, “Could I move around a bit to see if I can find Bessie?”
“Sure, be my guest.”
I started to move to look behind and around each cow that I could reach. I had been in the freezer now about fifteen minutes and I was getting colder. I moved quickly. Then, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, with the same oblique eye that Andrew Wyeth chose a painting subject, I saw them, heavy, laden with milk, very pink teats! Bessie’s teats!
“I found her!” I yelled. I pointed, “That’s her. That’s the one I want!”
“Ok, Lady, whatever you say. She’s all yours. But be careful when you pick her up.”
“Why? She’s only cardboard.”
As I was holding Bessie in my arms I looked up at him, he smiled and winked.
Oh my God, Bessie, what have you done now!

Part III

That Christmas I gave the cardboard milk cow to my sister. She kept it in her dining studio area. She leaned the cow up against the cupboard under the window. When I last saw Venée she was smiling, radiant. She had lost a lot of weight. She looked fabulous. Contented. We hugged each other, said hello, and she began to tell me the story of how the cow had affected her life.
Excitedly she said, “It’s a magic cow, Suzi. Ever since you gave her to me my life has been turned around.”
“Well, you do look different, happier, more content. But, Venée, how can that be? She’s just a cardboard cow?”
Of course, I knew that Bessie was magic. After all, she had winked at me, cuddled, mooed, given me milk. And the young man at the grocery store seemed to have a special understanding of her udder significance too. But still, I wanted to hear it from Venee. I didn’t want her to think I was totally mooed over.
“Every morning when I get up to turn the heat on in the living room,” she said, “that cow is glowing. It’s as if there is an inner light coming from her. And the studio is already warm. Her light has warmed the entire living room, dining room and studio. It’s amazing.”
Venée began to smile. She seemed so content, so at ease with herself now.
Very quietly she leaned over in my direction, glanced over at Bessie and then back at me, and whispered in a hushed tone, “That cow winks at me every morning!”
“Suzi, she winks at me every single morning!”
“You’re kidding, I’m sure. She can’t possible have winked at you, Venée.  She’s only cardboard. You’re imagination is really going wild, isn’t it? You’ve been staring at her too long, that’s it. You know there’s a theory that the more you stare at something, the more it appears to be moving, like staring at the eyes of a portrait – after a while they seem to follow you around the room.”
“No, no, she really winks at me,” she said. “She turns her head slightly as I walk into the room and slowly, deliberately lowers one eyelid. And you know? After that she begins to make a soft lowing sound, as if she is saying hello. She’s happy to see me, Suzi! Really.”
Of course, I’m sitting there on the edge of my chair, pretending astonishment, but knowing full-well how Bessie can communicate when she wants to.
“So, after she moos at you, then what happens?” I ask. “What else does she do?”
“That’s all!” Venée said, throwing her arms up in the air in a gesture of frustration. “It never goes any further than that. And, you know, she never winks at David. She’s as stiff as cardboard when he enters the room.”
Maybe there was something special about Venée that David didn’t share, I thought…something special about me, about the young man attending to the freezer, and about my sister.
I said, “Maybe she’s only capable of relating to people whom she feels have a real empathy for black and white cows.”
“Yeah, probably. I’ve collected black and white cow things for years,” she said.
“I know. Maybe she’s picking up on that, and David doesn’t share that empathy and interest in all things cow-like.”
“No. I don’t think that’s it, Suzi. David likes my cow things. He contributes to my collection. Don’t tell anyone this, but my David moos at me every morning, too! So he has lots of empathy.”
“I laughed. He moos at you?”
“Yes! Isn’t that wonderful? He moos at me simply because he knows how much I like black and white cows. Now that’s empathy for you.”
“So, what did David do when he first saw the cow?” I asked.
“Nothing. I don’t think he even noticed her. He walked right past her.”
“You mean, he didn’t see her on his own? And you didn’t point her out to him?”
“No, I didn’t,” she giggled. “And he didn’t see her on his own.”
“Well, there you have it. My guess is that she’s not reacting in the same way to David as she does with you because he initially ignored her. He must’ve hurt her feelings. Cows are sensitive creatures, you know.”
With cow authority I said, “That’s the only reason I can think for why she doesn’t wink and moo at David.”
And then it occurred to me, the young checker girl at the store, she was rude to me and to Bessie. And the young man, well, I don’t know his relationship to Bessie, but it seemed to me he was at least a little more concerned and sympathetic. Perhaps, behind closed doors in that meat locker, something moosterious happened with Bessie to enlighten him, too.
My sister looked thoughtful for a moment. She was quiet, a smile dawning on her lips, her face glowing with awareness. She looked at me, then at Bessie, then back at me. You could sense the cogs moving in her brain. Suddenly she burst forth with, “You know about this cow, don’t you?”
What could I say, “Yes. I know.”
“How? How did you find out? Why didn’t you tell me?”
I told her about my experience milking the cow in the grocery store. I told her about the rude young grocery clerk and about the man in the meat locker.
She laughed with abandon, “You saved her from freeze-dried oblivion, Suzi! You milked her pain. With your imagination, you gave that cow a gift of life, a gift which she is now giving to me. That’s why she’s not responding to David – because your gift was to me, Suzi. A gift of life.”
“Sounds reasonable, I guess.”
My mind was reeling.

© 2001 Susan Canavarro  The Magic Christmas Cow. All Rights Reserved. No copying or use of text or images without written permission from the author, Susan Canavarro.

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