Heat sears through the shins of my black jeans. Tree branches burn in a battered circular water trough filled with ash drifts. Huge flakes burst silently into the sky with blazing edges that fade as they float down again. They stick in my hair, smear across the thighs of my pants. A gold field and sage hills roll toward a pink glow. It’s not dawn yet. Outside the fire’s glow, it’s freezing.
A nervous blue healer struts past a pitchfork, past an abandoned swing set, past a wooden dining room chair cushioned with dead mesquite leaves. The cows lower their heads to look at her through the slats of their wooden corral. There are four of them. Three black, one hazelnut. One of the black cows has a crooked horn that curls nearly into its eye. They look at me with their long eyelashes. Cows always look at people the same way—like they’re not gonna tell us any of the stuff they know because they don’t intend to waste their breath on idiots.
A five-foot high metal ring the color of American cheese looms up behind me. A maze of wooden fencing forms narrow lanes leading from the cows’ corral to the metal cheese wheel. The cheese wheel leads to a cement ramp that leads to a narrow platform between two cinder block walls. Gates of beige metal bars close off either end of the platform, which is just wide enough, just long enough for a cow to stand in.
The platform shares one of its cinder block walls with a little cement building. At the bottom of that wall, there is a metal door. It is just high enough, just long enough for a cow to be dragged through. It leads down a cement embankment into a cement basin with a sunken drain.
A Mexican guy saunters up to the fire. Frio! he says. A one-word statement like a command you give a dog because it’s not capable of understanding complete sentences. He doesn’t assume I speak Spanish. I’m glad. I’ve forgotten almost everything I learned when Garth and I hitchhiked through Mexico. I can’t even tell him my age. I’ve forgotten the word thirty. He asks if Garth and I are married.
“No,” I say. “El es mi no… no…”
“Novio,” the man finishes for me.
“Eres de aqui?” I ask.
He’s from Mexico, six hours from Nogales. I tell him I’m from Portland, Oregon.
“Es muy lejos?” he asks.
“Si. Muy lejos. Al norte.” My brain is a plugged up bathtub. I can’t get anymore words out of it.
The fact that no one thought to teach me Spanish as a child bothers me as much as the fact that I’ve eaten tons of hamburgers and never seen a cow slaughtered.
Listo! he says. He strides toward the cows, jumps onto the fence. The new sun blinds me when I stand. It’s bright and cold as shaved ice. The Mexican grunts and whistles, waving a big stick at the cows. They shuffle and snort into a narrow wooden lane, where they wait ass to nose. For them, the lane is barely shoulder width.
The Mexican pushes a tree branch through the fence slats behind the first cow in line so the others can’t follow her. Once she’s inside the metal cheese wheel, another man pushes a big metal wall. It bangs and clangs around the cheese wheel like a hand on a clock, closing the cow into an ever smaller space. She gets scared. I can’t see her over the cheese wheel wall, but I hear and smell a loud, heavy stream of piss. It trickles under the cheese wheel.
The cow lumbers up the cement ramp. The Mexican closes the beige barred gate, trapping her between the cinder block walls. I can see only her huge black hairy butt. I can’t see the guy with the silver piston gun. SNAP! It’s a sharp, powerful, precise sound. Coldly exact. She keeps moving her head, the gunman says. SNAP! The cow crumbles all at once with a loud thud, knobby knees cracking against cement, hooves kicking at the bars. She’s not quite dead.
I follow the Mexican into the cement room. Garth and Steve stand watching. They’ve been cutting up already slaughtered cows.
A young man stands at the ready. He wears rubber boots, a red rubber apron and a metal rack of knives on a chain link belt. The metal door in the cinder block wall lifts inward. The Mexican steps into the basin, grabs the cow by a horn and pulls. Red Rubber Man helps. As her huge bulk tumbles awkwardly down the embankment, she kicks at the metal door, thick blood sliding off her lolling tongue.
Her writhing and their pulling leave her lying half in and half out of the basin. Its high curb digs into her heavy ribcage. A thick chain hangs from the ceiling. Red Rubber Man dodges her flailing head and kicking hooves to wrap the end around her hind ankle. Gunman picks up a hose, squeezes the trigger on the spray nozzle. The sharp jet of water hisses against pavement, against the cow’s black hair. Blood and shit wash into the sunken drain. They say you shit yourself the moment you die. Or if you’re scared enough. I can’t tell if this twitching, squirming cow is dead or scared.
The winch’s mechanical whine pries at my nerves. The thick chain goes taught, lifting the cow slowly into the air, back feet first. Her slack tongue drags along the cement, leaving a sticky jelly-red trail. Gunman drags a gray garbage can below her suspended body. It says Inedible in black sharpie. It’s topped with an off-white funnel the size of a merry-go-round. Red Rubber Man approaches the cow’s neck with a knife. One front leg snaps inward, curling against her chest, and he freezes, waiting.
The silver blade sinks into wet black fur. Blood gushes from between two loose flaps, coating Red Rubber Man’s forearms, painting the white funnel dark crimson. The cow’s head swings wildly, splatters blood on the wall. Gunman sprays it off. It’s all reflex, he says. But some are worse than others. You just gotta be careful. Once she’s still, Red Rubber Man slices at the loose neck skin, peeling it back little by little until it hangs around the cow’s head like a wet, bloody lamp shade.
Red Rubber Man drags his blade across the base of the cow’s skull, around her throat, severing layer after layer of tissue until her head hangs from a narrow white cord. Finally, it snaps loose, tumbles into his arms. He lifts it laboriously onto a rack. The big gray sandpaper tongue hangs toward the floor. Gunman aims his hose at the head. Ragged skin, muscle, veins and cartilage flap under the piercing high-pressure drill of the water. He shoves the nozzle deep into the flesh. Water dribbles out the nose and mouth onto the fuzzy severed ears that lie on the floor. They are tagged with the number 102.
The Mexican draws a blade down the back of a leg, peels the fur off. He gouges and saws at the knee joint. The head was nothing. This really gets to me. The Mexican twists and bends the leg as his blade grinds into the joint. Finally, with a sickening crack, it snaps off. Whistling a tune, he pushes the plastic flaps aside, opens the door, carries the leg outside. I think of the drifts of ash in the big bent trough, the flakes that rained down on my hair and jeans.
The motor drones again through the ceaseless hiss of the hose, lowering the cow onto two parallel bars. She’s on her back with her feet in the air. Red Rubber Man drags his blade down her throat over her high-peaked chest, down her soft pink stomach. He grabs the udder by the nipples, slips the blade beneath it. Suddenly, it’s balancing on his palm like a basketball. It hits the bottom of a gray garbage can with a heavy slam.
Red Rubber Man skins one side of the cow while the Mexican skins the other. Beginning from the center seam, they slice with amazing precision, separating skin from muscle, making a slish, slish, slish sound. The inside of the skin is white. I think of Indian tee-pees. The muscle is foggy lavender red, netted together by webs of yellow plasticy fat. They peel the cow’s hide all the way down to the spine. It drapes over the metal bars in lank, wet folds. It looks like a table cloth.
The Mexican saws at the base off the rubbery whip tail while Red Rubber Man digs into the throat. His prying and jabbing eventually reveal a ribbed white tube the size of my forearm. It looks like a giant worm or a part from a machine you’d see in a hospital. Red Rubber man grips it and pulls. My neck tenses. I swallow and look away.
The cow is still moving. She has no head and no skin and someone is yanking on her esophagus, but she is moving. The whole purplish, fat-marbled mass of muscle squeezes, pulls and squirms in slow, swirling waves, as though an ant colony is dancing a ballet just underneath it. I have never seen anything move like this. At first, I can’t tell if it’s really happening.
I couldn’t tell if she was dead when she collapsed. Or when they pulled her through the door. Or when they hoisted her into the air. She must be dead now. These must be electrical impulses, something akin to chickens running around without heads. What if this decapitated, mostly skinless amputee cow gets up and stampedes us?
The Mexican stabs his knife into the cow’s back leg. I feel the jab in the back of my knee. He drags the blade down the bone. I inhale sharply as it zaps down the back of my calf. He peels the skin off. Again, he twists the leg and saws into the knee joint. Again, that sickening crack. I cross my arms over my stomach, wrap my hands around my elbows. They feel like the weird jelly you find in cans of Spam.
The non-stop spray of the hose thickens the air into a clammy smog that stinks of blood and wet animal hair. It swamps my pores. In the eerie half-cold fog, with its stumpy front arms sticking up and its white table cloth hanging down, the cow looks like the centerpiece for a Christmas dinner from Tim Burton’s worst nightmare. I suddenly realize that I’m no longer thinking of this hunk of flesh as an animal. It is now food.
When did this cow stop being a cow?
The whining winch motor lowers a metal bar. A large hook dangles from either end. Red Rubber man drives one hook into the flesh of each stumpy back leg. A Sawzall roars to life in his hand. The jagged teeth scream right down the center of the ribcage and tear through the cow’s spread-eagled crotch.
The winch motor groans and strains, lifting the body into the air again. The table cloth skin now hangs from the spine like wilted fur wings, dripping watered-down blood. A tangle of slimy entrails tumbles from the sawed-open ribcage. The cabernet-colored kidneys are smooth as river stones. The stomach looks like a God-size condom filled with purple worms and vanilla pudding. Red Rubber Man heaves it into the inedible can with a groan. The cow’s body is an empty cavern.
The Sawzall blade rips down the cow’s spine, grinding each hockey puck-size vertebrae in half until the body swings apart. Each half hangs from its own hook by a rear leg stump.
It must be dead now. It’s definitely not a cow anymore. An hour ago, there was a cow. She was alive. I saw her. She stared at me through the fence slats, listening to my pathetic attempts to speak Spanish. She probably spoke Spanish better than me at that point. Now there is only meat. Where is the cow? Her head is on a rack. Her blood and bowels and skin fill garbage cans. Her muscles hang from hooks. Her legs burn in the fire. But where is the cow? Where is the part of her that was looking at me? Where is her mind, her consciousness? Is it wandering around, disembodied?
I’m convinced that it was the cow’s mind and not her body that made her a cow. I’m convinced it is gone. That’s why there is no longer a cow here even though every part that makes up a cow is present in the room. But when did the cow’s mind leave? I should have recognized the moment at which the cow ceased to exist. It should have been definite and obvious. The difference between life and death should have been absolute. Unmistakable.
I wander the farm trying to grasp the moment at which the cow ceased to exist. It feels like trying to read in a dream.
I stroll past the wooden maze. The hazelnut cow, number 905, lowers her head to look at me through the slats. She is definitely a cow. She is definitely conscious. She is next. Gunman and the Mexican shoo and grunt her into the metal cheese wheel, up the ramp, into the cinder block cage.
I’m on the other side of the building this time. I lower my head to look at her through the slats. She bangs around in her cage, big eyes wide open. Let’s give her a little kiss and settle her down, Gunman says. He presses the barrel of his silver piston gun against her forehead. SNAP! She crumbles, her pale pink nose jams painfully against the metal bars. She squirms and writhes. Soon her mouth is wrapped around a bar, dripping blood. She continues to kick and jerk. Her hooves make a violent racket against the metal bars. Gunman has to shoot her two more times.
I bet that one’s pregnant, he says, as the metal door lifts. They’re always harder to kill when they’re pregnant. They just don’t wanna give it up.
A little plastic cow lies in the dirt at my feet. I wonder if number 905’s disembodied mind wishes she was plastic. The door opens and I notice a sign on it that says, Proud to be animal welfare approved. Red Rubber Man drags out a gray bin full of blood.
I don’t feel bad. Animals kill animals. And its’ riveting. People pay every month to watch cheetahs tackle gazelles on the National Geographic channel. Yet somehow, the fact that humans watch animals kill other animals on massive high-definition flat-screen televisions makes us different from animals. Our minds are more advanced, therefore we should be more civilized. We invented televisions. We also invented religions and politics that give us much better reasons to kill each other. Animals kill each other to eat. We kill each other because…um…uh…because…
Oh! I know where the cow’s mind went! Heaven! That’s another thing our advanced and civilized minds invented. I search the sky for the cow’s mind. I find only a spastic black and orange butterfly battling sunbeams. The sky is empty. No heaven, no minds. I don’t think the sky even knows why it’s blue. It’s icy and unscathed despite pregnant cows and pregnant women getting shot underneath it every day. Or maybe the stars are age spots and the clouds are wrinkles and the sun’s a big cancerous tumor and the sky is just too old and sick to give a shit.
I don’t know where the cow went. I know I feel better now that I actually saw a cow slaughtered. When I drag my steaks across the grocery store scanner, I’ll see big eyes fringed with hazelnut lashes. I’ll smell the piss of fear. I’ll feel a sandpaper tongue dragging blood across the pavement. When I sink my teeth into a medium-rare steak, I’ll hear the powerful precision of that coldly exact SNAP!
So you still gonna eat meat after this? Red Rubber man says from the porch as he lights a cigarette.
Yes, I say.
The cow’s flesh will be in my stomach. I still won’t know where her mind is or when it got away. I’ll think of that mass of slowly swirling muscle and wonder if thoughts are just wires sparking, just another bodily function of no more significance than a loud fart.
Why do we need to believe that we are special enough to deserve whole entire heavens to preserve our farts?