an Essay by Robert O’Connell
My favorite characters in As I Lay Dying are the cows. When I read the book for the first time, I underwent what I take to be the standard cycle of eagerness, confusion, and excitement cut with a kind of forfeiture of readerly strictness. At times during my reading, the Faulkner-schooled literary world felt like a room full of friends who had all heard a joke just before I walked in, and who waited for me to laugh as one of them repeated it. But the cows—my reaction to each of the cows was the same. I adored them, and I adored what they did to Faulkner.
They pulled from him a style altogether different than the one he used to evoke the book’s star animal, Jewel’s fiery and mean-legged horse. When a cow appeared, things quieted and narrowed. Two cows attend Dewey Dell’s stated desire to terminate her pregnancy and her ultimate difficulty doing so, each one slow and moaning but written with a suggestion of totemic wisdom, bovine Watchers. Near the end, when Dewey Dell enters a drug store after hours in an ill-fated attempt to procure a fix for her situation, her younger brother Vardaman waits on the curb and spots a cow:
I hear the cow a long time, clopping on the street. Then she comes into the square. She goes across the square, her head down clopping . She lows. There was nothing in the square before she lowed, but it wasn’t empty. Now it is empty after she lowed. She goes on, clopping . She lows.
The creature’s simplicity abstracts her. Parsing her power requires of Vardaman a dive into something less precise than logic, a blemishing of definitions. “There was nothing in the square…but it wasn’t empty. Now it is empty after she lowed.” The cow is aimless and magical. Maybe her magic resides in the slow ease of her existence in a world where existing can be a frantic undertaking; maybe it comes from her plain and harmless desire where big desires can cause trouble.
Whatever the case, the appearances of the cows gave me the most straightforward pleasure of any of the book’s components. The effect was that of an orchestral swell giving to a single note.
“Look at the cows,” I said. My mother was driving us west across Kansas; I was grade-school age. Her mother sat in the passenger seat, my sister and I in the back. We were going from our house in the suburbs of Kansas City, on the Kansas side, to Colorado, where we spent a week every summer (my father had to work and would meet us there mid-week). We had likely passed fifty cows by that point, but I had looked up from my book or magazine and had wanted to say something, and these new ones had given me the opportunity.
“Cattle,” my grandmother said. “When there are bulls and cows, they’re called cattle.”
My grandmother and grandfather had run a ranch in western Kansas before my grandfather died, and she could be persnickety about such things. She was forever leaving little fingerprint smudges on the window during these drives, pointing out the types of hay bales or the stages of the wheat-threshing processes we passed. I, on the other hand, did not much care, and for much of the rest of the day’s drive, I played at forgetting her lesson.
“Look at the cows,” I said whenever we passed a bunch of cattle, trying to get a rise out of my grandmother but receiving diminishing returns. First she repeated herself in mock outrage—“Cattle!”—then she turned around with her mouth bent into a performative frown, and finally she stopped responding altogether, and my mother recommended that I find a new way to pass the time.
Both of my parents grew up in Kansas, but their Kansases could hardly have been less similar. My mother lived on the ranch with two sisters and one brother, the nearest town twenty miles away and the nearest neighbors a quarter of that distance. She did 4-H, entered pie-baking contests at the fair, and scheduled her piano lessons for when her mother would have to drive into town anyway. She sang to the cattle, and once incurred her father’s outrage when she lit a string of firecrackers and set off a minor stampede. My grandfather worked hard, she told me. He rose when there was still a lot of dark left and went to sleep when night was just beginning. For fun, he read Louis L’Amour westerns and flew a small plane. When my mother went away to college in Baldwin City, Kansas, he flew her there.
My father grew up in a Kansas City suburb. One of nine siblings (Catholic), he played football, basketball, and baseball, and he needed to cross only lawns and driveways to reach any number of friends’ houses. He attributes an encompassing knowledge of mid-century American television to countless hours spent hiding out of the way of his sisters’ squabbles in front of the basement TV. He ate Ho Hos and Lay’s.
My own childhood takes my father’s as an antecedent, at least in regards to setting. I can chart my increased freedom by the streets I was allowed to cross and the means by which I was allowed to cross them. I walked my block, rode a bike around my neighborhood, and then drove to my high school. I mowed the lawn and stepped back into the air conditioning, or shoveled the driveway and stepped back into the heat. I played basketball and watched TV, squabbled with my parents over grades, and accumulated the string of adolescent problems that eclipse a week entirely and are forgotten the next. The daily facts were not particularly Kansan; most of the scenes could have played out the same way, I think, at the periphery of Pittsburgh or Minneapolis or Dallas.
During those yearly drives across Kansas, my mother would occasionally point out one of the landscape’s trinkets—a bird uncommon to the area, an anachronistic piece of farming equipment—and my sister and I would pull our headphones from one ear, say, “That’s cool,” replace them, and look back down. The drives, some fifteen hours long, were to be endured, and though diversions were welcome, anything broadly categorizable as nature did not, to my thinking, count.
A common thing happened: I moved away and came to miss home. I did not miss it, though, in quite the manner I might have expected. At college, first in Massachusetts and then in Iowa, I felt the odd pang of nostalgia cutting the rush of emancipation, wanting for a moment to be back in my old house with my family in the room and people I had known for a decade or more populating the surrounding blocks. But I also started to notice (cultivate?) a steadier longing.
This was for Kansas itself, specifically for that part of it—near-total, geographically, but minor in my experience—that had dashed past my window during those drives. The Kansas of my mother’s stories, which I now pained to remember, and of the paintings of John Steuart Curry, whose affinity for the state I could now understand and a book of whose art I bought and put on my bedside table. Flat, resolute, empty Kansas.
Part of this, I am sure, was a ploy for dramatic self-definition, an attempt to give a life pretty short on weightiness and struggle a shadow of regret. Combining with a strain of homesickness, this resulted in potent cliché. If only I’d appreciated it when I had the chance. That sort of thing. I would fall asleep looking at my ceiling and thinking of Kansas, and I would also kind of look at myself doing all that looking and thinking and feel very impressed.
Seen from a car traveling eighty-five miles an hour on a highway, western Kansas seems like an illusion, like spatial molasses. You are going very fast—you know you are going very fast, because you can hear the whir of the engine and you can feel the power of the wind against the window when you put your forehead to it, and you know the wind-howl that would result if you opened the window, and you can see the mile markers growing larger and readying themselves like kids lined up at the top of a waterslide then finally blazing by in green streaks—but you are not proceeding. Whatever sliver of land slips out of your rearview passes below the earth’s crust and reappears in front, at the horizon line. In every direction but straight forward and straight back, where the highway makes a gray stripe, lies some variation of yellow, brown, or green. There are varieties of trees and fences, but you have seen every tree before, and you have seen every fence before.
The ground is a sheet. The sky is an overturned blue bowl. There is an eighteen-wheeler’s exploded tire; you have seen it before. One border, the horizon, composes the scene. Below it is yellow-brown-green-gray, above it blue. You slow for an unincorporated town, pass through it in three minutes, and gain speed again.
It is boring. Then, given enough hours, years, attention, or distance, it is beautiful. You stare and stare at it and do not record every detail—you cannot—but this doesn’t matter, because you have seen it all before and will see it again, in an hour and in a year. Every creature is a hero. Two horses stand muzzle-to-hind swatting each other’s faces with their tails to ward off flies. They are small, two hundred yards back from the road, but they are the only living things in sight, so they are significant. There is the huge sky, the endless land, the gray stripe, a tree, a fence, and the horses with their whirling tails.
Or there are blackbirds, circling a tree as if tethered to it by invisible string. Or there are cows chewing, still as stains on the grass.
I remember a rare time when we drove west without aiming for Colorado. I was ten, maybe, and my sister was eight. My mother thought we should visit our great aunt, who lived in a Kansas ranch house similar to the one in which my mother was raised. The house had heavy green carpet and an old wooden radio with golden dials. It smelled like obsolete medicine. When I stepped outside at night with only a bare bulb above the front door behind me, I looked into nearly perfect black, the moon and stars seemingly cut out of the darkness.
The two days we spent there were in turn lazy and tedious. There was no television, and the summer heat thrived in the bare landscape, so my sister and I fought—over who could sit in which chair, over snack allotments, and mostly over the radio. The final fight came on Sunday afternoon. My mother declared it my sister’s turn to pick the station and left the room. I ignored the order. My sister shouted at me and tried to yank my hands from the controls. I laughed at her, and she ran out redfaced.
My mother returned with a face redder than my sister’s and told me to pack my things. Though we were supposed to leave the next morning, we were now going to drive home immediately. This was an unprecedented tactic, a response to a weekend of ceaseless bickering, and I did what she said. I packed in silence, carried my bag to the car, and after a short, loud lecture—I cannot believe you two. The moment we get home, you are writing letters apologizing to your great aunt—we set off.
The silence lasted until dusk, when one of us tried asking a reconciliatory question. Do the birds here migrate? or, What’s that? with a gesture towards a pivoting irrigator. Certainly not, How much longer? She answered, and we hazarded another. By the time darkness fell, we were laughing, and the final couple hours before we saw the glow of Kansas City passed easily, the only thing distinguishing this drive from any other being the pointed avoidance of the topic of the car radio.
I like this memory. Within the scope and scale of my childhood, what happened that night seemed miraculous; now, it is funny. Drastic trouble evaporated in the course of a drive. The straight road sapped my mother’s anger, or maybe the sky and the fields stoked her mercy. We were rescued.
What did the drive look like? I know that it looked yellow outside when we left my great aunt’s house with set faces, purple when we began to speak, and black when we laughed. Beyond that, nothing. Though I spent the first part of the drive silent and staring—I didn’t dare reach for the zipper on my bag, viewing it as a potential alarm—I do not remember what animals we passed, or if the sky was clear or clouded.
I remember and combine, invent. I find slivers of Kansas’s spare beauty in its scattered opposites or relatives. I don’t live in Kansas now, but I see a mountain and think of air. I see an ocean and think of land. Giacometti, I decide, is Kansan, with his thin people stark over their flat bases. Miles Davis is spacious and windy and Kansan. Amelia Earhart, of course, is Kansan, fallen out of the sky somewhere and disappeared below the ground. Faulkner’s cows, tranquil and plain amid deep Mississippi turmoil, are Kansan.
When I go back to my childhood home now, I make no attempt to drive west and look more closely. I do not even think of it, surrounded by family and with old friends to see. I think I would be disappointed if I were to try.
I couldn’t go there anyway, after all, because it can only be gone through. Or heard sideways in a story about firecrackers and cattle, or in one about radio battles and redeeming drives, or spotted in shadows on ceilings. It is a kind of eternal setting—the least land that land can be—that figures in enough slow hours and enough old stories to develop into a mental coating. It is inherited, maybe. It is there.
Robert O’Connell graduated from the University of San Francisco’s MFA in Writing program in December 2015, and his work has appeared at The Atlantic online, VICE Sports, The Classical, and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis.