“I remember that cow,” my nephew says. “She’s the one we pulled out of the mud with the tractor.”
“No,” I say. “She got stuck in a tree.”
“The one who got electrocuted from her water bowl?”
“The crazy one who dropped dead in the milking parlor? Heart
I shake my head.
“How about that young one, the show cow? Died in her sleep out in the pasture?” (Head tucked into her barrel the way calves sleep, fields sloughing off mist, trees alight.)
“That one broke your grandfather’s heart.”
He’s quiet for a minute. Six foot three, my book in his hands as small as an invitation.
“Oh wait: Remember that one who couldn’t calve? We hacksawed the calf out?”
“That cow bled to death. But you weren’t born when that happened.”
“She wasn’t the one who swallowed something and choked. I know that. You shoved a garden hose down her throat.”
“Didn’t work,” I say.
“Well,” he says. “Still.”
“The cow in the tree wasn’t any of those.”
She didn’t hang herself in a stanchion, didn’t break her leg on the truck coming home from the fair and have to be shot, didn’t have her cancerous eye removed too late, didn’t drown in a gutter of manure. “Why can’t I remember her?” he asks.
The day we buried my father, this nephew waited for me in the house’s only empty room. Soundlessly, he wept, and we returned, he and I, dry-eyed to the noise of the funeral feast.
“I made this one up,” I say. “There never was such a cow.” A phantom cow who never dangled between tree limbs, sunset, autumn, in another life.
Whose imaginary bulk my nephew, a child, never towed with the tractor out to the cedar swamp, unhooking the chain from her stiff legs, one side of her face rubbed clean to the cusp of the eye socket from being dragged out with the rest of them, out of the end of the story.