It was one of those nights when the fog was thick. We drove slowly in the halo of our own headlights, mesmerized by the rise and fall of the car over hills, hearing the growl of the tires and sensing but not seeing the miles of impenetrable forest on either side; pheasants snoring, hares chatting each other up before bounding off, dozing deer. At one point, a white owl flew into our path. It swerved in and out of the light, night hunting, causing a melodramatic gasp on my part. You didn’t budge, nerves of steel. For me, this was a sign. Even though I no longer believe in signs, I still have the same feeling about them as when I did believe, something mysterious and promising that gets me in the chest, as if I’d just had a brush with infinity. Then it was gone again.
We had been to some dinner or another with Parisian friends on the other side of the Perche and we were on our way home, slightly inebriated and still euphoric from all the banter, but silent. Both of us were concentrating on the road as if we were driving together and the non-driver (me) could help the real driver (you) if anything unexpected or frightening jumped out at us, as we knew it could. I’d hit a few wayward pheasants in my time. They are slow birds and positively blimpish until they finally get going, tending to thump heavily into the windshield and bounce off again like bumper cars. Then, more recently, in broad daylight just outside of St Ulphace heading back from a garage sale, we were sideswiped by a boar. We saw a streak, the car hesitated then continued on, and when we looked in the rear view mirror it had disappeared. Just shaken its greasy, hairy hide and blundered back into the woods. Cost a pretty bundle to fix the car, and when we saw the dent, we knew we’d been lucky that it hadn’t caught us head on. There had certainly been no feeling of mystery about that incident.
When we got home, the fog had cleared a bit. You went straight up to bed, and I said I wasn’t tired yet because I wanted to sit outside and sneak a smoke. I was sneaking smokes again, which is pretty silly, since you smoke like a fiend – short dark cigarillos that you say you don’t inhale so there’s no risk – but you can’t lie to a liar.
I went outside and walked behind the house into the garden. It was early April, heavy sweater weather and I could smell the wet earth and hear the squishy sound of it as I moved towards the end of the property in the pitch dark to where we were separated on all sides by barbed wire from the fields where the cows graze. The fields around us are all owned by the same farmer, Charles Dufau.
When you live next to cows, the way we do, you fall into their rhythm in more ways than you can imagine. You share a certain intimacy with them, their flies, the sudden unexpected contagious lowing for nothing in particular, and the appearance of stiff legged calves gamboling around. All of this reaches a peak during the noisy 24 hours when they are separated from their mothers to be turned into veal.
Years ago, the cows had been very much a part of our lives. They knew us. In those days, there was no garden, we were creating it, so we’d spend entire days out there in all kinds of weather and they got used to us. When our Labrador was bored, he’d go into their pasture and rile them up a bit, and when the cows got bored, they’d get out during the week while we were back in Paris and trash our new flower beds. You would go to the edge of the property and give them cut grass when their side of the field had been grazed bare. That was our undoing, of course. It got to the point that when they saw you coming, they’d cross the field like a single beast, trotting at first, then picking up speed in a bumbling stampede to come up to you. They were your fan club, our faithful, friendly neighbors. Nowadays though, we mostly ignore them. They don’t get out anymore because the old farmer has spiraled the barbed wire. And we certainly don’t feed them. We have become an estranged couple, staring at each other across the fence like chiens de faience, china dogs, as the French say, and that’s just about it.
There were no cows out there tonight, just the silent silhouettes of dozens of shrubs and trees, so I got my cigs from their hiding place in the garden shed, circled around along the vegetable patch and sat in front on the wooden bench. The front of our tiny house sits directly on the road, separated by a small brick courtyard and a wrought iron fence. It faces south, and when it’s sunny I sit there and lean against the warm stone, or like now at night under the bright cone of the overhead light. The fog had dissipated somewhat, but still clung to the tarmac in earthbound clouds that broke up completely now and then to reveal a perfectly clear sky, and an icy ring around the moon. I was thinking about the growth spurts of the plants at night, and I was also thinking that we had been here almost twenty years, which was amazing in itself. L’Américaine and le Docteur; who would have bet on us lasting, and in the country besides.
Back when gardens and trees were as foreign to me as French table etiquette, I wasn’t convinced by this place. This was your idea and I just came along for the new adventure. Recently, I sensed the balance shifting. Sitting in the chilly moonlight and the dispersing fog I imagined the deep red stalks of the peonies uncurling, the bobble headed jonquils and the foul smelling rapeseed waiting for the slightest bit of warmth to turn acres of farmland into a yellow so bright it would make your teeth ache. My fascination with the land had come slowly, creeping up on me when I wasn’t looking, until one day I woke up attached and now even allowed myself to feel at home. I had started staying on through the week to work sometimes, but when I suggested you do the same now that you had more free time, you suddenly discovered an urgent urban persona that needed feeding and ran back to the city. I didn’t get it, but we had been together long enough to understand when unseen demons were at play, so I said, “très bien, mon cheri,” and figured you’d come around eventually.
I was probably on my third cigarette when I heard a huffing sound and movement on the road. The cows emerged from the fog all at once, large disembodied heads first, then tan hides, a huddle of bodies, frightened not so much by the dark as to be out of their familiar enclosure. Moving up to our wrought iron fence to what probably felt like safety, they had the dazed look of penned animals dizzy with unexpected freedom. I knew right away that the green gate had opened and the herd had gotten out. The cows got moved around depending on the season and at this time of year they stood knee deep in slick muck across the street. Set free they took up the entire road in front of the house, snorting fog, each one burrowing its nose in the neck or the butt of the other, nodding in their heavy cow-like way, huge black eyes, dull and friendly, placid as a crowd waiting for a bus.
The cows might never have moved if I hadn’t, but they started when I opened the iron gate, trotting down the road out of the light, then stopped just as suddenly as if a brake had been pulled. I followed. My idea was to coax them back into the field, which meant getting the entire lot to make a U turn because they were facing downhill. I imagined yelling and waving my hands in the air, with a stick as a prod, but as I got up close I felt their numbers in the dark and could sense their skittishness. On top of that, these were Dufau’s cows. They were the brothers and sisters of the cows that used to follow you around like a mother duck. As I moved closer I could imagine you saying, What do you want to do that for? Leave them alone. Come up to bed. That was your solution to things. With enough inaction, you thought, most things would sort themselves out on their own. I suppose it came from you being a doctor and having to deal with real problems like sickness and death at the hospital, so you would definitely be in no rush to force an issue such as a bunch of cows in the night. And it came from you being French. Of course, I am neither, and at the sight of those cows, I had to act. I realized that this was Saturday night and there was a party at the local Salle des Fetes. I had seen the lights next to the church across the valley and heard the music. Two cars had already come careening by in front of our house and disappeared around the bend as I sat smoking, and another could come by any minute. And if ever that happened, if ever some silly calf got itself slaughtered before its time in front of our house, it would be my fault. Encore l’Américaine. You would sniff if I said that to you, and you would say tu t’en fous, and shake your head. You would remind me that the old man Dufau hadn’t talked to us for more than fifteen years because we were engaged in a surreal Gallic feud that was going to continue from generation to generation until we had all forgotten why we were no longer speaking. Then, if I happened to say, but we did kill their cow, you would snort and roll your eyes. But shrug as you might, it was true. Sometimes people actually killed other people’s cows, tipping invisible scales.
For back then we were not only friends with the cows, we were also friends with the Dufaus. When we bought the house our backyard was an apple orchard and Charles Dufau, in blue serge work pants with a black beret screwed to his head at all times, and his son, Daniel, a shy, muscular kid with tight curly hair, came with their tractor and pulled out every one of those stumps as the trees died off. They mowed the lawn, turned the soil for new beds and called to tell us when we’d left a light on or a door open. We’d offer them a drink after they finished working and they’d talk to us about the cows; how they’d put a video camera in the barn that hooked up to the house when one of them was calving, how they all had names and how difficult their life was. Then we killed their cow.
We weren’t there when it happened; we got a call in Paris. I answered, standing in the living room in our apartment watching the office workers in the building across from us bent over their computers and heard Charles Dufau say something about a dead cow. I didn’t understand him, because the context was off. “Vache morte?” A doorbell rang. I stared at the red light blinking on my answering machine. Mr. Dufau was waiting so I said “quoi?” He finally said there would be an autopsy, and I said “ah bon?” and he hung up.
The old man wouldn’t talk to me after that. He had decided that l’Américaine was being obtuse on purpose. When you got him on the phone he explained that one of his cows had been found dead near our property, that it was pleine – pregnantand that it had certainly been poisoned by something in our compost pile, which was on the corner of our property and his fields. Because when we were not there, the cows helped themselves. They were like kids raiding the refrigerator when their parents were out. They’d stick their heads through the gaps in the barbed wire and have a feast, and like kids, they didn’t know when to stop but with disastrous consequences. In this case, the poor girl hadn’t even made it home, she just keeled over several feet from our compost pile, a goner.
From that day forward Monsieur Dufau never talked to us directly again. As if we no longer spoke the same language, all further exchanges were held via an interpreter, usually in the person of Gaston Fleurie, the village mayor. The good man would arrive in the garden, the first time with the autopsy report (Elsie had been killed by dried yew clippings from the hedge near our water basin: a particularly violent and painful death, I’m afraid) and Charles Dufau’s grievances, to which we would respond. We plead guilty. Mr. Fleurie transmitted. We said we were sorry, Fleurie transmitted again to no avail. Finally, when we learned that we were actually insured for killing cows (suggesting that inadvertent bovine murder occurred with a high enough frequency to find its way into the small print of home insurance policies next to acts of God) we figured that after a reasonable period of mourning, a truce would be declared. But this was not to be.
For, even though it was an accident (we are not natural born cow killers), the slaying of his heifer-with-calf confirmed what Charles Dufau already knew: people like us did not belong in the country, especially not his country. Being not only wasteful and stupid but also dangerous, we were not to be trusted. As if to hit the final nail on the cow’s coffin and Dufau’s ideas, the insurance experts spent months debating whether the cow’s head was on our property or theirs when the yew was consumed, taking pictures and sending us endless forms, before finally paying Charles Dufau for his loss.
I was a bit chagrined by the silence that followed. The fields around felt empty as deep space without the cows. Dufau moved them elsewhere, planted barley for a few years and doubled the barbed wire, which seemed understandable, but the day he went so far as to put up metal highway separators around part of our land, it was clear that he was no longer keeping his cows in, he was keeping us out. We naturally gave up over time, and the Dufaus became the stubborn neighbors in the story of how we killed a cow. But there is another story I don’t tell, because in that one, Charles Dufau is half right.
The truth is, in the early days, for us the Perche was an escape from the more serious events of life. Compared to scrambling to find a job, organizing alternate weekends with children and finalizing divorces, the house was light years away. We’d arrived with a car full of gardening books and begun digging. We dug for years, long backbreaking hours, tearing out briar patches for the view, uprooting thorn trees, hoeing, tamping, watering and planting ourselves into an exhausted stupor before returning to the city on Sunday. During that time, up until we did their cow in, we took the Dufaus for granted, as if taking care of our land, finding us local help and making us feel welcome was part of the natural order of things. That Charles Dufau had chosen to disregard his visceral mistrust of Parisians, or worse, Americans and swallow his resentment as he watched us buy up farms that local farmers could no longer work, went unnoticed. It never occurred to us that while we turned the abandoned orchard into an incongruous island with trunk loads of kerria, spirea, irises, roses and lavender, cosmos and clematis for nothing but the fleeting pleasure of being able to lie in the grass or wander amidst an abundance of blossoms, bees, butterflies and scents for a few months of the year, Dufau was grappling with having enough land to graze his cows and grow their food.
Once Dufau’s cow died, there was no talking to him because he disappeared into the great rural divide and we went back to being everything he stood to loose. Looking back, I can’t say we ever reacted with much more than slightly amazed horror at the idea of the dead cow, and our ignorance of yew, which it turns out is absolutely common knowledge (At the end of our story someone inevitably says: “L’If, mais bien sûr!) was just further proof. Overall we treated the incident with an amused condescension that I have never dared adopt in all my years as a foreigner but didn’t manage to avoid with a Dufau and his cows. And tonight they had decided to come back to haunt me.
By now, the errant cows had disappeared, swallowed up into the Bermuda triangle of the next curve and the gloom of the road. One second they were there and the next they were gone – eerie almost. I walked down the road thinking they might have gone over a hill into a field, but saw no sign of them. Tant pis, I thought. I certainly wasn’t about to go chasing them around in the dark. But I had come this far and although I could have called it a night, I didn’t. Standing alone in the street, I saw a tiny window of opportunity, a kink in the wall to be chipped at because it was there. In response to your imaginary, A quoi bon? I figured, Why not?
Shrugging to myself and the invisible you, I went inside and looked up Dufau’s number in the phone book. Making the call, I was prepared to be hung up on or worse, but as it turned out, there was no answer at all. I left a message telling the Dufaus that their cows had escaped, and I figured that they were probably at the Salle des Fetes themselves, evoking another potentially epic rural tragedy in which Charles Dufau or Daniel, drunk, runs into his own herd on the way home. But you can only do so much. Then I locked the door, turned out the lights, brushed my teeth to get rid of the taste of smoke and crawled into bed. You stirred and asked, “What have you been doing all this time, counting stars?” and I said, “Something like that”.
The next morning when we woke up the cows were all back in the field across the road behind the green metal fence, chewing complacently as if nothing had happened at all. There was no sign of the Dufau’s and when I told you the story, we had a good laugh at the idea of me playing Rawhide in the dark. It turned out to be one of the first balmy days and you spent the morning trimming roses while I cleaned the hedge. The unexpected warmth drew out the first hints of spring; wisteria buds curled like newborn mice, knobby lilacs with a petal or two, and as I was trimming the spirea I found myself face to face with a blackbird in her nest. She stared me down at first, a dark furious stare, then suddenly flew off, screeching above my head, leaving three gaping scrawny-necked creatures and causing a melodramatic gasp on my part ; as if it were a sign, or a brush with infinity. This was why we continued slaving away, I thought. Then I hid the nest with branches.
Later, I saw Daniel Dufau on his tractor in the far field, grim and unsmiling, closed up in his cabin like a fish in an aquarium, spreading fertilizer on the sea of dark soil around us. In the afternoon I sat in the front in the sun and drank my coffee watching the cows. After a while, I wandered across the street up to the fence and they all crowded around as if we were old friends. No grudges here at least. I petted and scratched a few of the largest heifers and said, “So girls, you had some kind of an adventure last night, huh?” But I could have been talking Greek to them, for all they cared. There was not a peep out of them. Looks like these were Dufau’s cows, after all, and they weren’t telling.