Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play.
It is possible to read Lydia Davis’s new chapbook, The Cows, as a bucolic parable. Over the course of the seasons, Davis observes and photographs three cows in the neighboring field, musing on their motivations as they move about and interact. What could possibly activate their seemingly random decisions?
One thinks there is a reason to walk briskly to the far corner of the field, but the other thinks there is no reason, and stands where she is. At first she stands still where she is, while the other walks away briskly, but then changes her mind, and follows.
She follows, but stops halfway there. Is it that she has forgotten why she was going there, or that she has lost interest? She and the other are standing in parallel positions. She is looking straight ahead.
They are, as Davis, says, merely “protected domestic ruminants,” but that only increases her curiosity about their inscrutable, well-fed, and protected lives. It becomes tempting to ascribe personal or social motivations for otherwise random actions. But in the end, at dusk, the futility of such thinking sets in.
They are still out there, grazing, at dusk. But as the dusk turns to dark, while the sky above the woods is still a purplish blue, it is harder and harder to see their black bodies against the darkening field. Then they can’t be seen at all, but they are still out there, grazing in the dark.
Simultaneously, one can read The Cows as a Keatonian comedy, enacted in the jerky motion of ancient silent film.
So often they are standing completely still. Yet when I look up again a few minutes later, they are in another place, again standing completely still.
They are often like a math problem: 2 cows lying down in the snow, plus one cow standing up looking at the hill, equals three coes.
Or 1 cow lying down in the snow, plus 2 cows on their feet looking this way across the road, equals three cows.
Today, they are all three lying down.
But this being Lydia Davis, the MacArthur Fellow and translator of Proust and Madame Bovary, one also thinks of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pecuchet, those two hapless city-dwellers who decide to become gentlemen farmers with comical results:
They already saw themselves in shirt sleeves, beside a flower bed, pruning roses, and digging, hoeing, handling the soil, transplanting things. They would awake to the sound of the lark and follow the plow, they would go with a basket to pick apples, they would watch butter-making, grain-threshing, sheep-sheering, and bee-keeping, and would revel in the lowing of the cattle and the smell of the new-mown hay. No more copying! No more boss! No more rent even! For they would own their own home! And they would eat chickens from their own poultry-run, vegetables from their own garden – and would sit down to dinner with their clogs on! “We’ll do whatever we please! We’ll grow beards!” [Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pecuchet, from the translation by A.J. Krailsheimer]
They are so black in the white snow and standing so close together that I don’t know if there are three there, together, or just two – but surely there are more than eight legs in that bunch?
Lydia Davis, The Cows. Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2011 [Quarternote Chapbook Series #9].