i started this short story a few years ago when I was staying with a friend in India. it all started when i saw my first sacred cows. solemn steps, faces long with importance, deference expected and demanded: each beast clearly realized its worth. regal heads rarely blessed the earth–offerings from their supplicants were offered over bowed heads in worship. the beasts were regal–an observation I have never made about cows in the United States. it made me ponder how a cow from Texas would fair in this environment? would she simply look around and understand her new worth? or would she still be looking over her shoulder for the slaughterhouse?
and how would the sacred cow react in Texas? would she even see the ax fall?
On balmy Sunday afternoons, while I watched families walk sleepily out of church towards their cars, my mother would read to us in the park by the Lake Eola plastic swan boats. She always preferred post-modern poetry, something I developed a taste for later in life as a literary defense mechanism. But she also read biographies aloud; every week we lived another life: Mother Teresa, George Washington, Karl Marx. Her favorite was about an avant-garde jazz saxophonist, Albert Ayler, who ended up jumping into the East River at 34-years of age. We read that one three times. She once wondered aloud if he had regretted his decision to jump in his last moments. “It’s a long way down,” she mused. I was more interested in why he was suicidal in the first place—he was, after all, a successful jazz musician. “Some people just don’t fit in this world,” she said. “He was like a cow from Texas thrown in the middle of Varanasi, India. Everybody was making way for him, worshipping him even, but he knew, deep down, he was just a T-bone.”
She died when I was thirteen. Many people have told me this was “unnatural” and “tragic.” But I prefer not to think about it that way. She was just a cow from Texas in the middle of India. She knew she was just a cow, out of place in our little family. Even my worship couldn’t persuade her of her own worth.
I was twenty-five before I found her journal and understood her fascination with Albert Ayler and the reason we threw away any correspondence with my father or my grandmother. During our childhood we never spoke of my father. The one time I defied the unspoken rule and asked why he had gone, her normally vivacious eyes became hallow and glazed-over. “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” she said. But she never did.
One day I asked to see my birth certificate, after a friend next door bragged she had seen hers, and gazing at the crinkled paper I saw his name: Moses Cartwright. It sounded like a respectable paternal sort of name. Through the years my perceptions of him changed: Moses the matador from Spain, who fearlessly battled fierce bulls without blinking an eye. Moses the street performer in Venice, who juggled and spit fire. Moses the cruel pirate, who took my mother as his concubine off the horn of Africa. In the end, Moses became a specter, an abstract idea that I wasn’t interested in understanding. Sometimes I would feel his presence in the house, mostly when my mother was sobbing in her bathroom. I would lie down on the cool, clay tile outside and try to comfort her through the crack under the door. In the end, it was the Disease that took her from us, but it was easier to blame my father.
After mother died, we went to live with my grandmother, even though I am quite sure that was the last thing my mother would have wanted. Grandmother lived two states north of us in Hudson County, Tennessee. I had never met her and only knew of her shortcomings. “She’s a fanatic,” Mom would say.
The day we moved we were told to fit all our belongings into three cardboard boxes and this restriction caused the martyrdom of hundreds of mementos. Silent tears poured down my face as each painting she had created, each ceramic bowl she had chipped in the dish washer, each piece of her clothing—the scent of her still fresh on each t-shirt and cardigan—was one by one placed in the “donate” pile. Her laugh, her smile, her life, were being tossed aside and forgotten by two greasy moving men and a rusty van.
My boxes were soon full of whatever I could salvage: her copies of Brideshead Revisted and the Albert Ayler biography, her toothbrush, her costume jewelry, and her almost empty perfume bottle, which smelled of cardamom and lilac. The photo album she started was also saved, each page bringing on a wave of nauseating emotion. “Alistair and Effie, newborns!” read the first page. There we were, side-by-side, pink, screaming, and angry at the bright lights and our new surroundings. “First Day of School!” was not far behind; Alistair looked dapper in his pleated black shorts and polo shirt and my mauve and green plaid jumper made me look like a rag doll, black stringy hair in pigtails and cheeks rosy with nerves. By the time I arrived at “10th Birthday,” my eyes wouldn’t focus. There she was, hazily hugging my brother as they both watched me unwrap a gift. Her green eyes and luminous smile concealed the demons slowly decomposing her mind: the leering voices I heard her talking to at night, the depression that sometimes left her catatonic, and the mood swings that were sometimes self-destructive and always confusing. I can still see the chipped Moroccan tile in her bathroom, ruby liquid dotted and dashed across the blue and yellow designs. She was signaling for help but, at ten years old, I could not understand the bloody Morse code. The wounds would always heal into little mountain ridges on her arm; and while she read to us, I would sit in her lap and run my finger up and down the summits and valleys. She never seemed to mind.