Cows will Dance

“I have cobbled these shoes to hobble the miles. . .” said the poet Padraig. And so it is with us, the bedraggled and the mourners, the dreamers and screamers, and all our sorry lot. Shod in scraps of leather, clothed in garments ragged or mismatched, we weave our ways down roads that writhe off the page and out of sight. . .

It has been a long road that brought me back, finally, to the soil from which I first grew. No easy road, Padraig would agree, but hardly so hard a road as I wished to believe it once. A road no harder than many, and easier than many more. No road is easy, in the end, until you’ve traveled a harder one.

There were many stations along that road. They come back in bits and flashes now, an old magic lantern show, revealing facets and layers I could make no sense of when they were happening. In my mind I see some person or place into whose presence the road once delivered me, that may have seemed ordinary enough at the time, but now I see patterns, wreaking within me some great change I never noticed till later. At other times, some power entered into me, and seemed for a while as if it were “mine”—but it never was, and I was only what I was: in that power that seemed to be in me, for a few moments, and then when it was done, as ordinary as dust again.

The power I’m thinking of here is the kind that maybe should be written with a capital “P”—not a power that a politician or ruler could ever quite conceive, let alone possess. But I ponder such men often: perhaps it is the very lack of power, the terrible and terrifying lack that confronts us with our own insignificance in the vastness of the universe—perhaps this is what drives such men to the things they do.

In any case, there is a weaving of patterns here that only now am I beginning to understand. The power of eschewing power, the weakness of embracing it, the poverty implicit in the pursuit of wealth, and the suffering that those who seek such things wreak on those who don’t, the flow of people through all these threads—all these things are woven into this story in ways I can’t, don’t need to, understand.

What I know that is that it’s change that I’m trying to describe, here, and the only language I can find when I try to do so is to describe the changer.

* * *

So it’s Mohini I remember first, now, when I think of those times when the roads seemed new, and the weavings seemed so much simpler. Then Norman, and then Ken, and Liz, and Julie, and Judy, and so many others, faces that no longer have names, and memories that barely have faces. But Mohini dances ahead of them all like some spirit from the realm of faeries.

Her mother might have been my clue to who Mohini was. She called herself Catholic, her mother did, but the old power ran deep in her veins. She asked where I came from, who I was, where I was going. I might have said a dozen things about what I hoped or who I thought I was: I was so full of romantic nonsense in those days. But to such a woman as this, only the truth, the simplest and barest truth, could be spoken. I came from a farm, and hoped to return to farming some day. “Ah,” she said, “You can make music, and the cows can dance.”

But I’m ahead of myself. Time was linear then not this intricate tapestry I see now when I look at these things. It was Mohini I was speaking of, not her mother. Mohini was another matter: Power untried, unlearnt, and vast. She was a musician indeed, and I a flute on which she played her strange music. Long ago she laid that flute aside, and still the unearthly melody echoes.

 She was dancing the first time I saw her. She came dancing out of a dark night rich with the sweet incense of hashish. It was in Montreal, and my world was new and wonderful, a symphony of disorderly and discordant movements in procession toward the 200th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven. She had bangles on her arms and spangles in her hair. She danced in that broad avenue, straight into the arms of another man, a wild man with wild hair and music and laughter, humor, talent; charisma, machismo quintessimo. Who was I to her—a farm boy, young and shy—compared to such a man? But my want and need burned, a raw wound of proud flesh. And later that night, as he led her to his bed, and as she went, laughing, dancing still, she turned, looking back across her shoulder into my eyes. And looking, saw at that need, shamefully naked, and smiled, a Mona Lisa smile floating in a smoky haze.

Yet such need has a power of its own. How else to explain that only a few days later, she slept curled against my shoulder as we sped down the trans-Canada highway in Norman’s VW microbus with a “Happy Birthday, Ludwig” sticker on the back bumper? The road unfurled itself before us, torpid, like a snake unwinding out of winter into spring. Crazy Norman was at the helm, singing raucously with whatever was on the radio—Beethoven or Jethro Tull, Kodály or King Crimson—and passing the pipe to me across her.

It was Norman who had engineered this trip, and Norman’s microbus that took us on a great twisting loop that wound out of the Cleveland night into an astonishing sunrise in the Shawangunks and the Schunemunks, to New York and Passover with the Norman family in the Garment District, where we celebrated the Seder; then on to Boston—old city, filthy city, crawling with vermin, Mecca to the young and hairy. On April 22, we rolled into Boston in a state of grace like a pair of scrofulous Jesuses to Jerusalem, to celebrate the first Earth Day. On the university radio station, we were celebrities for a moment, talking of broken tires in weedy lots, singing love-songs to the muddy waters of the River Charles. Then on, the next day, up through New Hampshire and Vermont, to my parents next—“if you were my daughter, I’d tell you to marry him,” my mother said to me—and though mountain passes still emerging from snow that astonished Norman, and finally on to Montreal, which we entered like a guerilla army in the dark—and where we found dancing Mohini with her cortège of satyrs and night-fauns playing bamboo flutes along darkened boulevards.

She was delicate, all tiny bones and spicy brown skin, and there was little else to her; like someone who needed to be protected, kept warm, even. But she was a force to be reckoned with. Long black hair curling and wild as the night she came out of; a beauty mark on her forehead, and clothes cut of some raw cloth; a body that smelled faintly of herbs and spices. A Gypsy, she seemed to me. Her people had come out the north of India in her own lifetime; but the same blood that had flowed in the veins of those ancient nomads, who left their homeland a thousand and a half years before, still flowed strong and pure in hers. And she followed in their footsteps, dancing.

So it was that Sault Sainte Marie, and Mohini’s mother, had become our next destination. We were to be for her nothing more than a ride—but love at that age blooms like weeds in vacant lots, and lingers behind, a slow, sweet burn. And even the sweetest burn leaves white scars that last long after the burn is all but forgotten. The scent of her hair, coriander and marjoram, flowing like smoke down my shoulder, caressing my face as I breathed its fragrance, smoldered in me. There was in me some thing that reached into her, too, and she snuggled tighter into my shoulder. Looking back from the vantage of years, I see not a pair of lovers, but two children turned loose in a strange world.

In some dusky little Ontario town we wandered into, looking for a bathroom when she awoke, children playing by the roadside screamed “Hippy! Hippy!” pointing as we passed. We laughed, and pointed, first at them, until they laughed, and ran, then I at Norman and he at me, across Mohini—“Hippy!” I said, and “Freak!” said Norman. “I’m hungry,” said Mohini, “and I want to pee.”

* * *

Late April can run cold in Ontario, and when the late moonlight came canting through the windows of the microbus, and we had nothing left in us to drive us any further, we parked on the gravel roadside. There was no traffic on that road in those days; little enough in the daytime, none at all to bother us at night; it was a land freshly emerged from wilderness. We lay together in the back, she and I, one thin sleeping bag beneath and another above, our chapped lips kissing, clumsy with sleep. Her body burrowed shivering into mine, while Norman curled in the front seat, alone and grumbling. We never made love, that night, (nor on any other, if we speak of love that is “made” with bodies) and for that Norman later could hardly forgive me his front-seat sacrifice to give us privacy. But what happened between she and I as we slept and kissed and slept again was stranger, and even more terrible and wonderful than love that is “made.” A seine was cast, woven of starlight and flute music, and I the fish that was caught in that net, not knowing whether to seek the open water or the singing starlight. And Mohini—was she the fisherwoman, or was she the silver minnow flashing in the light? For years I wondered, but now I think, both: the catcher and the caught.

Time and the flowing road brought us to her father, first—a dark and sullen man, at least as strange to me as he must have found us who were unwashed, wild and hairy. He dished out bland curry and sent us on our way with no less charity nor any more love for Norman or myself than for a pair of beggars in the street, and hardly any more tenderness for his daughter than for us.

But then came evening, soft and golden, its light like honey flowing in off that greatest of all Great Lakes, an evening young as a white flower, and that evening brought us to the “Soo,” and her mother, who welcomed us into her bosom, not one but three lost children. She gave us towels and scented soap, pointed us to the bath, and after, fed us a feast of dainty foods and little cakes and wine. She saw love with a keen eye, saw what I couldn’t, and she studied and examined me with such grace and warmth that I knew of nothing but hospitality. I would be a parent four times over before I could guess the discernment concealed in that gaze. And what she saw, what she judged, was that here was a boy worthy of a daughter’s love—and by virtue of that, worthy also of her own.

It was then that she told me of the dancing cows in India. “Don’t laugh,” she said, when we did. (I remember our laughter now. How to describe such a thing, after so much dust? It was laughter pure and light as the morning sun playing through the beads of dew on the green leaves, laughter rich and soft as the golden light from lamps in ancient halls of feasting. It was a primal laughter dancing down the moonbeam edge of time, borne before pain ever was given name, and yet bearing pain with it as it came.) “I have seen it,” she said, “in India, by the light of the full moon. The farmer goes into his fields with his flute”—nodding to my wooden recorder—“and plays to them. And they dance. You will do this, too.”

My heart aches an old unassuaged ache, remembering the gravity of her words and the answering lightness of our laughter. What truth did she see in me that I did not, could not, till the autumn leaves blew wild and cold, and all the cows gone home?

We talked late into the night, her mother and I, till even Norman the Loquacious nodded away, and Mohini dozed against my shoulder, delicate fingers laced through mine. Her mother told me of India, and of her childhood, of her coming to Canada, and her life there. As the night wore on, she told me things for which there are no words, things which only now do I begin to know that she said. And it was then as the others slept that she told me again that someday, I, too, would teach the cows to dance.

Morning rose, and Norman with it, eager for the road. Mohini asked me to stay, then. Her mother, too, asked me to stay. We could stay with her, she said; she would help me find a job, and then we could find a little place of our own. Such joy it would bring her, to have her daughter near by, and see her happy. And I said No. What oblivion does it take, to tell a Goddess, “No?” Still, it is the change that is wrought that matters here, and not the wreakers of that change.

Norman took me to one side to say “You know you can stay, man. You don’t need to come for me; I don’t mind finishing the trip alone. Maybe you should stay. I can send your stuff up when I get back to Cleveland.” And I said No. I’d promised to be back at my job next week, and I couldn’t let them down. My menial, anyone-can-do-it job. Later I learned how little weight that promise had carried: my boss, seeing me actually return, was astounded, and asked me, “why?” Crazy Norman looked at me as at the craziest human being he had ever seen, and said the only thing he could say: nothing at all.

* * *

Leaving, then. Leaving Mohini. Leaving welcome, wonder, and wisdom. Leaving a mother and a home such as I had never known. Leaving two tiny figures, waving in the distance.

Something was crushing down, the more distant they became. The U.S. border, now, looming close. Norman looking at me. His face says, “Are you sure, man?” but his voice says nothing. Weight. A grayness, flowing, hanging at the border like a fog bank.

Details assert themselves. The border guards will search the bus. Rumors, horror tales of Canada to U.S. border crossings, haunt us. Strip searches. Disassembled vehicles. Fear. Fear is the enemy. They will smell it, like dogs. Our hash and pot are all gone. We stop, search the van, clean it, sweep out all evidence. Just how thorough are these bastards, anyway? Rumor has turned them to a Cerberus of cruel and demonic intelligence.

So we come to the border. The border police are little gray men. Their reputation exceeds them. They lean in the window, sniff the bus’s permanently embedded pot smell, look around without opening the door, shrug, bored, ask for our ID’s, origins, destinations, and wave us through without another word. Norman looks at me, wild eyes wide. “That’s it??” I shrug, like one of the gray men. I’m already turning gray inside. Prisons are easy to get into.

Speed, now. Across the tip of Michigan’s tongue, to the Mackinac Bridge. A harp, slung high across the water, stretched tight and singing against the gods’ erumpent breath. I’m at the wheel now. The vibration hits us before we reach the bridge’s upper arc, then behind it comes the wind like a wall. I turn the wheel thirty degrees, tacking into the wind, and hold it there for the next mile and a half, a sailboat, slipping at sixty miles an hour across the gale.

Then the lower peninsula. Big woods. Logging towns. Vermont without mountains. Instead, Lake Huron on the left, for a while, then just trees. Paul Bunyans twenty feet tall stand in the squares of villages barely big enough to hold them. I look, and ponder. White, sedate houses. I remember the lusty violence of the loggers in towns where I grew up, men the police stayed clear of if they could, whole towns where the law would prefer not to go. There were white sedate houses in those towns, too. We hide our bestial selves, slouched behind primrose porches. Here, Dairy Queens offer three choices on their menu, each choice either in vanilla or chocolate. We’ll drive all night.

Morning in Muncie, Indiana. The town smells of flowers and sunshine. Norman has friends everywhere, here; music and parties abound. But I am falling into that fogbank we hit at the border, and can’t find my way out. That my thumb and the road north were the easy solution, I was too deep in that fog to see. Norman is a flurry of everywhere-ness, flitting from one gathering to the next party, from reunions with old friends to bedroom rendezvous. I tag along—or make myself scarce where grace and modesty require—all the while hardly knowing where I am, knowing only the smell of flowers, and an ache of emptiness I still have not admitted to.

An evening or two later found us crossing the Mississippi. What circuitous navigational madness led us to Muncie first, and then to Minnesota? No memory remains to explain this weirdness. Maybe Norman had a Mayday date in Muncie that couldn’t wait. Or maybe we just wanted to cross the Mackinac Bridge, and that was reason enough both of for us. Whatever the reason may have been, May the second found us crossing the great river, a long drop down to the water through lush trees and honey-dripping evening light, echoing of our entry into Sault Sainte Marie, and all seemed right again. To this day, golden light flowing in off the water can bring that feeling home to me. Across the river and on into Rochester we went, Norman buoyant enough to float us both, and myself as mellow as that river valley sunlight.

Rain followed close on the heels of the sunfall, and in raining Rochester we stopped to rest—Norman resting for two days straight in the arms of our host, lubricious Cheryl, while the rain poured down, and Nixon bombed Cambodia, and I sank into a surreal tapestry of Cheryl/Norman sound effects from the bedroom Salvador Dali’s art in the book I was studying. But when the furniture began to bend and melt and merge with the ecstatic moans from the next room, I took the microbus out  for dinner in some middle-Minnesotan diner, and then to the movies: “Midnight Cowboy.” Rain, pouring now. “Everybody’s talking at me, but I can’t hear a word they’re saying . . .” Rain, like bullets, like little black bombs shining in the street lights, falling over Cambodia. Ratso Rizzo, dying on the bus. Street lamps, bending, melting, in the rain. Everywhere I went, there was a tiny woman in front of me, with long black hair falling like rain. Every time I saw her, I’d gasp, and every time I’d gasp, she’d turn toward me, and every time she turned, the face I saw would be as white, as American, as devoid of any beauty mark, as Richard Nixon’s.

Dreams of horror that night, on a lumpy couch. Norman and Cheryl slept, too— mostly—but when they woke the moans that flowed from them into my dreams were of anything but ecstasy. Bombs were falling, the world bending, twisting like trees in the rain, Ratso Rizzo, dying, over and over again, on every street corner. The tiny black-haired woman was in my dreams, too. Sometimes she’d turn toward me, and her face would indeed be Mohini’s, but adorned with Salvador Dali’s mustache. Then the beauty mark on her forehead would slowly open into a Cambodian bomb crater.

For all the nightmares and all they might have foreshadowed, morning broke clear and bright, the sun ebullient. Over breakfast in that shining dawn, I spoke of my dreams—of Dali and Midnight Cowboy and Cheryl’s moans—and we laughed in the sunlight, and Norman joked as he so often did, “Nick’s the only person I know who can get a contact high without any contact.”

We were on the road early, driving into the sun, laughing again and singing to the radio. My journey to the Underworld was done, it seemed; nothing could dampen such a day as this. Perhaps Mohini really would come to see me in Cleveland, as she had shyly said she might. And then I would wrap up my job, pack up my things, and together we would head back to Vermont and the family farm. We had dreamed together, and what a dream it was; when she’d spent the time she needed with her mother, and had time to think it over, how could she resist such a dream?

So we went, between song and laughter and dreams, as the day wore on. Midday found us singing with Simon and Garfunkle,

                       Oh, Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart,
                              You’re shaking my confidence, daily—
                              Oh, Cecilia, I’m down on my knees,
                              I’m begging you please, to come home

                       Come on home
                              Pom, pom pom
                              Come on home
                              Come on home. . .

The radio announcer came on, interrupting the song, and at first we kept singing, unwilling to be stopped. Then the words broke through: “. . . demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio. At this time, it is believed that four have been killed. We will bring you more details as soon as they become available. . . .”

Hills and trees and road all spinning around us; the sun and blue sky made no sense the news made no sense four dead blue sky white clouds spinning silence, silence, turn off the radio, spinning, like wheels, wheels, god please let the wheels turn north, but no, the wheels are taking us back straight back spinning to spinning Ohio.

I am remembering Washington, six months before, where we had marched in unison, silent but for the soft rise and fall of two million feet, down Pennsylvania Avenue, and then somewhere a lone voice began singing, All we are saying, is give peace a chance, and then those around us joined in, and soon, a million voices singing, Give peace a chance, but singing softly, gently, chanting, begging, All we are saying, is give peace a chance. And now, this, this darkness, spinning, darkness falling, like bombs on Cambodia, the only chance we are to be given.

For this, we returned to America. For this, I left Mohini, and her mother. For this darkness, slowly, softly, spinning. Not to die for our country, too late for that, just a few hours later, and we might have been there, we’d heard about the demonstrations, talked about stopping there, we might have been there, too, to face that hail of bullets. But no: too late even for that. Time, only, to bury our dead. All we are saying, is give peace a chance.

Our great Mother
who art in Sault Sainte Marie
silent is your name.
May silence come
may bombs be done,
here, as it is in heaven.
Give us today
our daily dead
and forgive our cries
as we forgive those
who rise against us. . .

No. How can we? How can we forgive? How can we be silent? Silence is surrender. What is to forgive? How to forgive and not forget, to bow the head, and lift up  the voice?

But we were silenced. Forty years have come and forty years have gone, and with every year, we grow more silent, till our voices dwindle to nothing. We grow fatter, and more complacent. Cows. How will we ever learn to dance? Bought, sold, now we have been bought and brought to this:

the names of the past,
names of horror—
Dachau, Auschwitz,
Birkenau, Mauthausen—

echo now
as the empty halls
echo with screams:

Abu Ghraib

names to name
the horror
that is our future

Where, now,
is your precious voice,
O Brave Land?

* * *

I did go back, you know, eventually. Went back looking for her, ready enough now to abandon the stench this country had become, and seek something new and fresh with her. But too late. Everywhere I went, there was some trace, and nothing more. In Toronto, I searched the streets two days and two nights until I found people who had seen her. They said she’d been there, and left the day before, with some young red-haired Irishman, heading for Montreal. In Montreal, I found someone who said she’d gotten married, changed her name to Mohini O’Flanahan. But there was no trace of anything more than the name, hanging in the air, nothing more to be found. Someone said they’d gone to Québec—so off I went again, down the river to Québec.

My thumb found me a ride with some expatriate just come north after three years of chewing onions and carrots and peyote with the mountain Indians of Southern Mexico, where he had studied their ways and their healing. We traveled together, silent and companionable, along the river, where the “sun poured down like honey”—but no “lady of the harbor” was to be found.

In Old Québec, I was taken in by a boy with a room. Younger even than me, he was slight and dark and beautiful, devoid of English, and painfully shy. He would have been a new Mohini for me in a heartbeat, if I had only asked, but I knew nothing of love of that sort, then. I spent weeks basking in the soft Old World dreaminess that floated in that place like a murmur of ghosts, and practicing my French with him as tutor. By the time I could speak well enough to be trusted by those in the streets, and began asking questions, the trail had gone cold as the cobblestones. I couldn’t even tell if she’d been there at all, or if only some rumor of her had passed through. By the time I reached Montreal again, the lips of the street were as sealed. It was a dead end.

* * *

But where is it that the threads of this story rebind themselves? This much I know: that it was the horror of war returned that first brought these memories flooding back into my consciousness. But it was the change, not the changer, that was speaking. She, the changer, has blown and faded in the winds until I barely remember her face. The mother is dead, surely; the daughter, too, for all I know. But outside my window, the wind is murmuring softly to the trees. I wait upon that wind. I wait to become the hollow reed through which that wind may blow. I wait for the time when the cows will dance.

2 responses to “Cows will Dance

  1. anitamohan

    What dreamy prose- And a great, haunting image to circle around- “the cows can dance.” My favorite kind of writing fuses prose and poetry as this piece does.

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