63: Sacred Cows

63: Sacred Cows

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grand and Great

Sacred Cows

Last weekend my grandson noticed for the first time the cow skull I have hanging on the living room wall. As a longtime admirer of Georgia O’Keeffe, painter-laureate of the Southwest, I came home from Santa Fe several years ago with one of those bleached skulls that have become a trademark, of sorts, for her and her desert art. It hangs on the wall just to the left of my front door, and I use its horns as a hat rack.

One day I walked into the room and found four-year-old Bennett standing stock-still beneath it, a dead-serious expression letting me know his little mind was whirling. So I stood by him, not saying a word, just to give him moral support wherever he was going with this new discovery.

It was a full minute before he turned to me and asked: “Did you kill it?”

Before I could say a word, he shot a mouthload of more questions: “Did you shoot it with a gun or stab it with a knife?”

“How did you get the skin off?” And, finally: “Why do you have dead things on your wall?”

I tried to explain, going into way too much detail, about Georgia O’Keeffe and how she painted pictures of the desert; and because deserts are so dry, lots of cows and other animals die in the heat; and the sun beats down on the bones and turns them white and blah blah blah.

Bennett didn’t get it.

“Did a cow die in your yard and turn white, and so you picked it up and hung it on your wall, so you could think about O’Creep?”

One of the things Bennett and I like to do together is drive over to the pasture about half a mile from my house and visit the cows. Occasionally one of the cows in that pasture gets loose and wanders around in the neighborhood. He and I had found one in the middle of the road and had to go knock on the owner’s door to tell him to come get his cow before somebody ran over it. Bennett’s question was not all that far-fetched.

I explained that actually I’d bought the cow skull at a flea market, that out West there are lots of cows, and people sell their skulls to tourists as a kind of souvenir of the desert. We then made a short detour in the conversation while I explained what a flea market was. He wanted to know why there were no fleas at a flea market, but there were cows. Why wasn’t it a cow market?

“Good question,” I said.

“I live in the West,” says Bennett when we got back on the subject of skulls, “and we don’t have cows.”

“Well,” said I, “Houston is not the desert. The cows I was talking about were desert cows that died in the sun and a famous artist painted them as a symbol for her part of the country — its austerity and its beauty.”

“I don’t think a dead cow is very beautiful,” Bennett says. “I think it’s really sad.” He looked up at me, such a mournful expression in the drop-dead beautiful eyes he got from his mother and grandfather. “I think you should take it down and bury it in the backyard and put a nice sign over it so God can take it up to heaven with all the other cows.”

I was stumped. What’s a grandmother to do? Should I rip it off the wall and have a cow funeral? I hate to admit it, but the skull cost me eighty dollars. It makes a great hat rack, and to me it really does represent a part of the country I love for its hard edges and sun-baked magic. To me that landscape is about life, its challenges and sacrifices. I think of it as the workshop of creation, with its blazing lights and fearful clouds, its muscular, bone-bare mesas and flowers that surprise with their audacity to bloom where they are planted, no matter what. That skull means a lot to me. Besides it makes a great conversation piece.

Except in this case.

“When you get a little older, you’ll understand,” I said, wanting to kick myself the minute I said it. I had hated that phrase when I was a kid. “When you grow up you’ll understand” was a cop-out for adults too lazy or too dumb to explain things properly. But leave it to Bennett to get the last word. “My daddy’s a grown-up and he wouldn’t like dead cow heads hanging on the wall.... ”

If you’re curious as to how this situation worked itself out, well, I don’t know if I did the right thing, but I didn’t take it down. He and I met several more times under the hat rack to chat about it — like where the eyeballs were and what happened to all its teeth, and is that why his mom puts sunscreen all over him when he goes to the beach — so he won’t get bleached and his skin dry up and fall off?

But the only thing I convinced Bennett of in all my explanations was this: his grandmother is slightly crazy.

~Ina Hughs
Chicken Soup for the Every Mom’s Soul

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