I am not entirely convinced that Roxane Gay is a single entity. I intend to find out at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, where she will sit for panels and interviews on both Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23
It is dark inside the cow. Space is limited; you can crouch or curl or squat on your haunches. My favorite position is fetal: chin down on my stomach, knees drawn up in a tight ball. I sleep like that most nights. Cup my head and close my eyes. I don’t really need to close them. All around me is darkness—to the left and to the right, I can see nothing. The cow is seamless. After it has eaten it is gassy, a thick blanket of mist that shimmers and smarts, clouds everything. My head grows heavy, falls into my chest, and my body, always weak and sickly, topples, exhausted, onto the methane mattress that holds me. I sleep with my knees bent, my hands tucked between my thighs. At some point, my body sprawls; my arm drops. The contact with the cow’s insides stir me and my eyelids flutter open. It is early morning. Before day starts; daybreak. I know because of the space, the air. I can breathe again. Before dawn, the cow’s body temperature drops and its belly is empty. The space expands. I unbend my spine, shake out my wrists and roll my ankles. I have about an hour of freedom before it starts again: the process of feeding. It’s endless. All day the cow grazes. It chomps and belches, farts fat flammable clouds. From inside, the cow reverberates and rolls. Each bite is a bulldozer, swallows like thunder. I block my ears and clasp my knees, try to close the cow out but it is impossible; the cow encloses me. By midday it is fat, swollen and grinding in heat. Nothing is as hot as the inside of an animal. Nothing is as empty. My throat burns, tears come to my eyes, mixing with the noxious cow fumes and my own perspiration. My head grows dizzy—a sense of falling even though I cannot fall; the cow holds me. There is no escaping it—the assault continues until evening. I have long since given up crying. I no longer beat my fists against the cow’s innards. I breathe the hot gas and feel myself slipping. Each day, I lose more of me. My body is small and wiry, muscles balled tight from crouching. I can make a fist in the pit of my belly, always so hollow, hungry from masticating grass. My teeth have turned soft from chewing slop; milk teeth. I run my tongue and try to remember the taste of solid food, of meat, steak T-bone, chuck, and short ribs. I see the pieces laid out in shiny silver trays and smell the burning charcoal of the braai. My stomach knots, hungry for the sizzle of fat and flesh thrown on the skillet so the outside is charred and the inside bloody. I take a bite and try to hold the memory in my mouth, try to make it hum and squirt but already it is fading. Nothing coagulates. Steak is indistinct; merely a sucking, a metallic recollection which teeth can no longer bite into. Liver is long gone. I have no recall, neither taste nor texture. It doesn’t matter. There is no question of eating cow now. I am trapped like that ancient mariner in the old saying: water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink. Sometimes I feel that I am floating on an ocean, an endless night, a night longer than night, an infinite timespan of complete darkness. I am listening to the distant echoes of Ishmael’s voice, the strange dual between Ahab and Moby Dick fought over and over. The words grow faint as hunger and thirst consume me. There is no meaning here to anything but desire. I am eclipsed by need, and grow thirstier by the hour. There is nothing to drink inside the cow. It is not wet, only damp, an unfixed, liquid architecture, cloying and corrosive so my hair clings to my forehead. I can imagine my appearance—if there were anyone to see me. There isn’t. I am alone in the cow. In the beginning, I was consumed by a terrible solitude. Funny what you miss: touch, the simple feeling of pressure on your skin or another’s breath in your ear in the morning. I sometimes still remember things, people, and places, but always the memories are fleeting, worn and faded. Snapshots from a life that could be mine or someone else’s entirely. The sun on my skin. And the wind. An immense and fresh lightness, enveloping. A party is going on somewhere in the distance, the hum of voices, smoke rises and with it the smell of meat roasting…each day the memories grow fainter, become mangled things of meat and bone and ligaments. I no longer know who I am or how I came to be here, inside a cow. I tell myself stories from old nursery rhymes: Mina-moo and the Cow that Jumped Over the Moon. I think of the rumors of dead astronauts, endlessly orbiting the globe in rusted metal containers, and then of the Bible—Jonah begging God’s forgiveness from inside the stomach of a whale and of Herman Melville, of Ahab on the high sea with loomings and sunsets and the whiteness of the whale, its soft underbelly. I think it would be so much easier if it were a whale that contained me. All that space, imagine! A whale is a cloud. It is a warehouse—you can stand erect inside its arched ribcage, spread your arms and turn in circles or curse God down its gullet toward a distant echo. A cow is altogether more contained: a container. Over the years, it has shaped me, the space so ill-matched to my proportions; my head hangs and my spine cups, a hump almost like a Brahmin cow—only my cow is not Brahmin, a least not how I picture it, from the outside I mean, in my mind’s eye, the inside looking out. It lacks the girth and the high proud head. No, mine is a Hereford or a Shorthorn, an agricultural animal bred for meat production. It is one of many—a head in a herd grazing in the vast veld plains to the North of the country, all so alike with their wide, placid faces and swish fly-swatter tails. So why this cow and not another—one to the left say, or the right? It is possible that it doesn’t matter? That my cow is in no way special? Do all cows contain a person? Something intrinsic, a part of their basic makeup along with the rump and the hump and all the other parts that I am continually naming. Or maybe it is where we come from—have come to come from. Mothers have become redundant; civilisation so advanced we no longer need them. Why go to the trouble of swelling and waddling when you can off-load your burden into an animal surrogate? Imagine the convenience: milk on tap when it pops out the belly; the hot pink teats and the pipes flushed white and frothing. But I show no sign of popping. I am not a baby but fully grown. Could it be that someone simply forgot to fetch me out so I remained trapped long after gestation? Now it is too late. I am beyond birthing, too big to fit through the birth canal, even a cow canal, which I imagine is very wide, as broad as a river. The water is dark, shimmering. As I watch the surface is broken by seven cows, fat and well favored—that rise up and graze in a meadow. Close behind them: seven thin ones, ugly and gaunt, that devour up the fat cows. I wonder if that’s what happen to me. If I was gobbled down by a skinny cow, like Pharaoh’s dream in the Bible. Could it be the cow itself is God? A holy cow. Hathor, the divine sky-cow of the Egyptians or Prithvi, the Vast One of the Hindus. The membrane enclosing me is mighty and all-powerful. The cow is airtight, a fully contained system. It has orifices—yes, I know this. I name them: the mouth and the nose, the rectum. But these are very far away—especially the anus. To get there you must travel through forty meters of intestine, through loops and twists. Progression through this space is difficult. At the beginning, an inexpressible, sticky sensation, then an invasion of viscosity. A dark and wide shaft. I grope along the walls and ducts until I know every hollow and fold. I crawl forward without hope or expectation, a consistent downward angle, the shaft narrowing until I’m pushing into mud and dung and blackness, all around me, everything closing, smelly, turds soft as corn mush, the hunger in its guts, intestines painted in shit and urine. There’s movement but no direction. I can only gurgle and squirm; everything soft and wet and shapeless. The nose poses a similar problem. The whole construction of the cow! It is all so convoluted, with chambers linking to chambers. A maze. I am deep inside. I imagine the stomach, maybe not directly, but somewhere close, an auxiliary chamber. Maybe it is the womb? A few times I have doubted myself. I have started to think I’m a part of the cow: an internal organ without a function or a tumor sprouting in the surrounding flesh, a pale pustule like those of a poxed cow udder. Or maybe a baby, a yet unborn calf embryo or whatever one calls a cow only just conceived, still in the early stages of cowdom. The thought makes my chest tight, a sudden stab, so I lift my hand, touch my face, to feel for myself. My nose. My ears. My mouth. All human. Not a cow by any definition I can remember. But by now my idea of a cow has become rather vague, abstract. Like a puzzle, it is composed of parts and colors. It is hard to put the whole cow together. The pieces seem to move independent of each other. I see things in them—maps, faces. Sometimes even cuts of meat—the rump and the shin and the shank. The colors are muted—greys and dank browns bobbing, walnut and dirty whites— so it’s impossible to say what is the figure, what is ground, impossible to establish a relative relationship between us, the small world, and all this contained space, without a precise dimension. How to measure my home, which is to say, how many names can you give to an animal’s geography? I have heard stories of lost worlds, tales passed from mouth to mouth, from another time, not yet so distant, when the Himba people of Namibia divined their future in the entrails of slaughtered cattle, foresaw the German colonists in the twists and scrolls of intestines. The death that came after; water poisoned and thousands chased from their homes, incarcerated in concentration camps across the country. Maybe I am incarcerated, condemned by the crimes of my forefathers, Norwegian sea captains and German mercenaries paid by the British with heads of cattle and a new country, stolen land grazed barren and the people evicted—how many dead, how many buried in vast boneyards where life is rendered into glues and fertilizer? How many faces powdered white, whiter still, with bonemeal ground from tailbone and coccyx, hoof and hand? I try to read, scan my prison for messages. I run my fingers, but the walls are slippery, out of reach. I can’t ever get close, lean in enough, for a better look at their complexity. I do not know what lies in my future. I have no choice but to wait, to endure. Over the years, I have become adept. I have learned the patience of cows. Their stoicism, stubborn and ancient. How they bide time and give it a kind of solidity. The trick is to suffer, to undergo, to be passive with respect to what is undergone. The trick is to travel inside, to follow the cow. The cow is constructed by repetition. Every day is the same—each footfall predictable, head and body swaying indivisible. It rarely varies its path or pace, from the paddock to the veld and back, it steps and heaves, heavy and benevolent. One need only lie still to become a part of the darkness, the softness, the animal that rests and moves without tension. Occasionally the balance is disrupted. Something happens and I am spun, flung off my feet. It is always so sudden, no warning before it lurches forward, trots or gallops. Really, it is not suited…its whole being in rebellion against this acceleration. The udder swings and flops, threatens to upend, squirt milk in every which direction. Legs that skitter and hop. From the inside, it is an earthquake. I long for my previous body, so taut, nimble, hard, and full of legs; it would have allowed me to move with the cow, to keep pace. Instead I am twisted and twirled, spun like a kitten in a dryer. Every step is a full cycle, round and round, giddy, breathless. I have come to fear these eruptions. What sets the cow in motion? Is it in real danger or merely startled? Sometimes I think the cow senses my fear and runs faster. We egg each other on. The relationship is like that—reciprocal, give and take. We do this: listen to the body, gauge its violence, take flight. I can feel us exchanging heat. I think the cow is trying to communicate, to send me messages from the outside world. It is more a feeling than a vocalisation. Of course, the cow makes noises. It makes cow sounds. It moos—what we call a moo but is really a low moan, an old sound like the bows of trees bending or the hulls of boats when they shudder and scrape. Then the huffing of the herd, jaws grinding and stomping feet. It unnerves me. No matter how many times I hear it, I am unsettled, heart pitter-pat, my hands icy. But not even this ever prepares me for the horror of the bellow. It comes from far below, from the bottom of the throat— from the base of the larynx, from the voices one seldom hears, beyond the commonness of the everyday, composed of a balance between breath and sculpted air, rising into a throbbing, seemingly deep in the cow’s belly, deeper than I am, in its bovine history, in the ancient myths of cow killings and massacres: the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of the Eighteen-Fifties that left the earth blood-soaked; the droughts that proceeded it, bovine ghosts, just skin and ribcages, scattered amidst shrubs and bushes so dry they rattled; the slaughter houses of the global industrial farming complex and the meat industry, meat sliced by machines and packaged in Styrofoam and clingwrap to be shipped to McDonald’s in distant destinations. It reaches me—not so much as sound but as vibrations. A giant wave of fear throbs through the cow. As the sound enters, I feel my muscles bunch. I crouch low and await the end, some terrible violence. It never comes and even if it did maybe it would not be so terrible, not even an end—for me at least, but rather a beginning—a break that will offer a way out. A single chance among thousands. Many times I have dreamed it, dared to hope. I picture the scene in the abattoir. Try to remember the procedure, the gloved hands and the stunner. The overly dramatic music that builds up and then the shock: a thousand volts of electricity plugging the temples. The cow doesn’t die. It is merely paralysed, rendered immobile but fully conscious. It feels everything. The hook that sweeps down and pierces the skin, upends the cow so it hangs, hooves paddling air, frantic and then more slowly as the blood begins to drain, pooling in concentric brown circles. Circles within circles, so many cows! They use conveyer belts to move them. What a picture—all those upside-down dripping cattle flying to the slaughter. The final blow is the blade. Always, I hope it will be like a spitbraai, where they slice from the outside—crispy bits and fatty nuggets first, before driving inward, the lean juicy center, that small space that conceals me. I imagine the butcher’s face when I pop out: SURPRISE! Like a stowaway on a ship or those call girls delivered in giant sponge cakes for stag parties and bachelor nights. Yes, just like that. I will lift my hands. The joy of unfurling fingers, bones balled so long that the knuckles are numb. Next my legs—what remains of them—little sticks with knees like knobs that click into place. My eyes take forever, blinking to shake the cow goo that seals them. Retinas reel against the light. They pinprick then slowly expand to see: the butcher; he is ugly of course, has to be with his bloody apron and big hairy neck. I tell myself I won’t care. I imagine lifting my chin to meet his gaze. The sudden swoon when he reaches out his hand, just the lightest touch like he is afraid he might break me. Then more daring, stretching down to gather me up into his arms, like a baby, swaddled then lifted onto his wide shoulders. I will put my nose in his hair and let him carry me, jogging above him, triumphant as we exit, out the butcher shop and off to his lair, a tiny, dirty flat somewhere deep in the heart of the city.
Stacy Hardy is a writer based in South Africa. She is an editor at the pan-African journal Chimurenga and a founder of Black Ghost Books, together with poet Lesego Rampolokeng. Because the Night, an anthology of her fiction, was recently published by Pocko Books, London. Her new work is an attempt to rethink being human, the human body and the body of text, outside colonial knowledge systems and via the tropes of disease and animality.