Last night I had a bunch of writers that I trust over to help workshop the stories in my thesis. It went really well. One of the highlights of the evening was the critique of my story, “Running of the Cows.” Aaron Christopher, of Urban Samurai, who grew up on a farm in Kansas reminded me of the simplistic nature and value of cattle – and well, that no matter how powerful and large a heard is, they will most likely not be able, or willing, to charge and break through a ten-foot brick wall.
Our talk about cows got me thinking about one of my favorite cow stories, “A Mother’s Tale” by James Agee. This is one of the best allegorical short stories in print. The story is from the point of view of a mother cow. The reason that I say it is one of the best is that you can truly read this story in two ways and get two meaning from it if you are willing to dig a little.
One way to read this story is to simply enjoy the story of a mother cow that worries about the fate of her children. There are many myths floating around the pasture about what happens to those who get onto the train. Some say that the train takes you on to greener pastures where the honeysuckle is plentiful and always in bloom.
However, there is another version of what happens when the train stops. One of the cows made a gruesome escape to tell his tale. This is the story that the mother is telling her children hoping to raise change their minds about getting on the train when it makes it stop at their field. It is a heroic tale worthy of Homer and The Odyssey.
The other way to read this story is dig deeper for meaning. The first simple meaning could be that this story is really an argument for animal rights and vegetarianism. You can sure make that argument. However, the cow that comes back could be seen as Christ. He has wounds in his hooves. He came back from where no cow has come back from before. However, in stead of a proclaiming the glory of some God and all those wonders that await those who take the train ride, he tells a tale of a killing floor. So this story is elevated out of simple allegory, cows are humans, this special cow that returns is Christ, and that the train is the rapture.
The end is also wonderful. It brings us back to realty. The mother’s kids enjoyed the story, but they ask, “What’s a train.” This signifies to the reader on one level that yes, these are cows. One the other, it should make the reader think more critically about the stories that we read and hear. Who do you believe? What do you believe? Do you believe what the masses tell you, paradise is waiting? Or do you believe the person who has second hand knowledge of a supposed factual event from a survivor?
Agee, James. “A Mother’s Tale.” James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, Shorter Fiction. New York: Library of America, 2005.