by Cory Martin
The gentle man who approaches this week is much like the others. He isn’t rich. He smells faintly like the animals he tends. He doesn’t smell much different than me.
His eyes roam the stalls lining the street before they pretend to unconsciously stop on me. It isn’t long now until Gopastami, and some preemptory acknowledgement of a wandering cow won’t draw too much suspicion. He bends at the waist and leans his forehead close to mine, a prayer to Devi upon his breath. His fingers fumble with the decaying hemp collar around my neck. He pauses when he finds what must have been left for him by my visitor a few nights ago. His breath out is long, breaking around my forehead and tickling my eyelashes. It is a more pleasant tickle than the flies. I turn my head restlessly to the side, to aid in any outward impression that this is a meeting of chance and free of any other kind of circumstance. Reflected in my large eye, the subtle movement as a tightly rolled envelope disappears beneath folds of clothing.
These second visitors are always the same–the same spirit in so many different packages. Men aren’t as different from each other as they choose to believe. But my first visitor, he is always the same in that he is just the one. Himself. The first man smells differently. He wears a spinning dial of metal around his wrist, but he is also like the men who run and buy from the stalls. He spares me kindness with something fresh, purchased along the way. When he leaves, there is that particular feeling beneath my collar, and I expect the second visitor within a few days.
It is a lonely time—an uneventful time—before the business between the first man and the second men continues.
I make my way to a friendly part of the market before the sun begins to rise. A vendor there gives me smiles with spoiled fruit. Spoiled fruit from the hand is heightened in sweetness by its age, and nearly not bad at all to eat. Spoiled fruit foraged in a trash heap when the vendors have closed their stalls is putrid and quickly swallowed at the insistence of one’s stomachs.
I hear the padding of flat, fanned feet against the packed dirt behind me and a rush of giggles as a herd of man’s offspring runs past. They swat playfully at my flank with colorful tassels that scatter the flies and offer a momentary respite. My head bobs to the happiness of their sounds as I pick my resting spot. It has been a few days. I am waiting for the first man.
In the long heat of the afternoon, I seek shade and worry that their need of me is through. I like being part of something. I was part of something before, but I can only remember enough about it to miss it. I make myself seen in this part of the market, hoping I will someday know what to make of their use of me.
The vendors do a happy business as the streets flood with people. There are more cows in the market than usual—their horns painted brilliance, clacking jewelry clatter around their heads and their sides as they walk. Some of them wear nicer robes than the man or woman leading them. In all of the commotion, the desire to be a part is strong.
Stepping from the crowd, a herd of women stops before me. They are tall. They are proud. Some of them are just learning how. The one who stands before the others is wearing long pants. She smiles and calls me Devi.
Their arms are heavy with decoration. They close carefully around me. They are industrious and clean the grime from my hooves and dust from my horns, which are then colored from a pot of paint a beautiful shade of gray. One of the women wraps a silk scarf about my ears and shoulders.
“For you, Devi. I dyed it myself.” She kisses me above my nose and backs away to look at her work.
The woman wearing the long pants lowers herself into the dust. She brings my head around to look me in the eye.
“Do not be sad that you no longer belong, Devi. You are one of us. Our mascot. Each of us once belonged. It was difficult and often hurt. But we are no longer owned. We are not property. It is all thanks to you and the people who arranged for us to purchase our own freedom. We will see to you, and you will be both free and part of something great.”
She places her own kiss above my nose and rubs my neck and chin with the flat of her hand. Then each of the women holds a fresh piece of fruit or chapatti for me to eat from their palm. Before they depart, they ask for my blessing, and I wonder what a street cow can offer the likes of mankind. I do my best to look meaningfully at them.
And I continue to try to make myself seen by the first man.
This piece is a response to a writers group prompt “from the perspective of a cow,” written shortly after discovering PUNJAMMIES and the International Princess Project–an organization with the mission to “create pathways to freedom for women escaping the ravages of sex slavery to achieve lives of hope and dignity.” It’s a highly fictionalized account of a cow unwittingly (as a cow would) playing liaison between the organization that secures the funds to free women from human trafficking in India and the locals they work with to complete the “transaction.” The streets of India are home to stray cows like American streets home stray dogs and cats. Many of these cows were once family pets, belonging, and the cow in this story likes the feeling of being a part of something once again. We can all be a part of making a difference.