Fiction

Eating Fruit with Cows

It wasn’t the usual Indian cow.    Its smooth hair and long tail made it unlike other cows in Mallapatti which had short, dirty tails and plain brown, tufted hair.   This cow lumbered daily up the street and back.  Maud watched its white domed head nod and the black splashes across its sides swing in and out of view.  Its colours made her wonder whether it had followed her from home.  Other cows in the city were either tethered or uninterested in walking; they just stood about, munching and gazing, never working but always looking as if they might be claimed by some one at some imminent moment for some useful task.  But Maud never saw one being milked, in fact she never saw one receiving any kind of attention, either devotional or practical.  They were noticed only by rickshaw drivers and cyclists, who drove round them like traffic cones that possessed some mysterious authority over the movement of all vehicles.  From the roof of the Pradesh Lodge Hotel Maud watched the cow’s command of the road.  She sat there for an hour every late afternoon, from quarter past five, watching the languorous, busy life of Mallapatti beneath her and the sun’s journey down to the belt of trees in the distance.

Maud was working, for two months, at Mallapatti’s Oriental Library where she was advising on the conservation of a small collection of 14th century manuscripts describing early Muslim invasions of South West India.  She spent all day at the library from Monday to Friday.  She left at five o’clock exactly and went straight back to the hotel in order to watch the sun setting.  Every morning before she left for work Maud went to the market for a bunch of small sweet bananas, a pineapple, a loose-skinned orange and a mango which she ate for her breakfast back in her hotel room.  She kept the skins for the cow and on her way out of the hotel at a quarter to ten in the morning she put them in the concrete rubbish bins from which all Mallapatti cows find their meals.  One day her visit to the market was delayed by some twenty minutes and Maud ate two of her bananas on her route back to the hotel.  As she passed the cow on its journey up the road it seemed to nod its head slowly in the direction of the empty skins which hung from her fingers.  Maud held them out and the cow took them from her with a slow, dry, pink tongue.

The next morning was Saturday and Maud woke late, the sun already high in the sky.  Her mouth felt dusty and her skin felt damp.  She was startled into consciousness by a low sound at her window.  A kind of hum that seemed to be an attempt at a grunt.  It was the cow.  Its wet flared nostrils pushed against the glass of the window and saliva dripped from its mouth.  Dazed, Maud pulled the curtains shut again.  She could still see the cow’s stocky shape through the thin curtains and its suddenly flattened, large shape looked portentous.

Maud dressed hurriedly, while the shape at the window waited for her.  She pulled back the curtains and looked immediately into the cow’s serious and unblinking eyes.  The saliva from its mouth and nose was now dripping down the window pane.  ‘I have nothing for you’ said Maud to the cow.  ‘Go away’.  She had not yet drunk her glass of warm water, but she could not stay in the room under the cow’s gaze.  She gathered together her bag, purse, keys and shawl.  As she left the hotel Maud heard a clattering noise from the side of the building which led into the alley that ran alongside her room.  The cow was backing out onto the street.  Maud didn’t stop but strode purposely towards the market.  At the top of the street she glanced back and saw, without surprise, the cow lumbering in her direction.  But instead of following its usual route back down the road the cow followed Maud to the market.  Maud was surprised that despite the number of turns they took the cow didn’t lose her.

At the market, Maud bought, as usual, six small bananas, a ripe pineapple and a mango.  Unusually, she also bought a pomegranate.  Maud liked one of her pieces of fruit to vary each day.  The cow followed Maud back to the Pradesh Lodge Hotel, down the side alley to her window.  Maud made herself a cup of warm water and drank it while she prepared her fruit.  As she peeled and chopped, she watched the cow staring at the growing mound of discarded fruit skin.  Feeling she understood the purpose of its visit, she began to relax.

The cow waited patiently and Maud did not rush her breakfast.  It was Saturday after all.  When she had finished she rinsed her bowl and knife and opened the window towards the cow.  Maud held out the banana skins first, then the pomegranate peel, then the large pieces of skin from the mango and the pineapple.  As she held out the smaller pieces she felt the cow’s tongue scrape her fingers and its wet nose cool her skin.  There were still four bananas left that Maud usually saved for her afternoon break, but today she gave them to the cow.  Unsure whether to peel them she held them tentatively towards the cow.  Its long tongue reached for them and each banana disappeared slowly and deliberately, tail to stalk.  Maud enjoyed watching and smiled at the way the stalk turned at the corner of the cow’s mouth before disappearing.

She woke on Sunday morning to the sound of the cow’s steady breath.  They followed the same pattern as before.  This time Maud gave the cow all her bananas, keeping the mango, pineapple and, today, the dates, for herself.  On Monday she left more flesh on the pineapple skin and ate only half of the mango.  On Tuesday she ate only the pineapple and a pear.  As time went on Maud began to notice with some satisfaction that the cow was getting fatter.  She could no longer see its ribs.  It began to develop a discernible stomach.  Meanwhile Maud did not notice herself getting thinner.  As the cows ribs began to disappear, so Maud’s began to protrude.  One by one from the bottom up.

After three weeks of morning visits the cow began to appear in the evenings as well.  After six weeks of daily visits, morning and night, Maud began to feel a little concerned.  Her time in Mallappatti was drawing to a close and, indeed, the cow itself seemed to convey a greater urgency, arriving earlier in the morning and leaving later in the evening.  It was never demanding, exactly.  It accepted whatever fruit Maud gave it in the morning, but in the evening it did not want to eat.  Its eyes, which had initially seemed sleepy and blank, now seemed to gaze intently at her.

Maud was almost up to speed at the library.  The cataloguing was complete and Maud felt that the library’s permanent staff could be trusted with the longer term, more laborious preservation of the manuscripts.  So, five days before her departure from India, Maud took an extra day off.  She felt sure that if she spent the whole day with the cow she might understand its purpose.  For by this time, almost six weeks after the cow’s first appearance, Maud felt convinced that the cow wanted more than a daily fix of fruit.

Maud went early to the market and bought a large bunch of bananas, a pineapple, a papaya and six apples.   When the cow’s moist nose pressed against the glass she was prepared.  She had chopped fruit ready in a transparent plastic container and her rucksack was packed with a flask of water, a penknife and torch.  She left the hotel quickly and went to the end of the alley.  The cow was already backing out towards her, fleshy hips swaying from side to side.

She stood and waited.  She offered the fruit to the cow, but as she had suspected the cow did not like to stand still and exposed in the middle of the street while eating.  Instead she turned almost immediately down an adjacent alley.  Maud followed.  At the next corner the cow turned in Maud’s direction.  Maud held out an apple.  The cow’s tongue rolled in into its mouth and she began to walk once more, all the while chewing slowly.  They walked together down a quiet narrow street.   In the distance horns blared urgently.  But there were no rickshaws here.  Some children learnt out of a window to call to Maud, but otherwise the street was empty.

Maud had never been down this street before.  And she had never seen such a quiet street before either.  The further they walked the quieter it got.  Occasionally the cow stopped and Maud opened her box to give her a piece of mango or a banana.   Very quickly the houses began to shrink to single-storey huts, trees began to interrupt the buildings and the sky began to expand.  They had reached the edge of the city.  Maud had not had much spare time to investigate Mallapatti but she knew that her hotel was a good four miles into the city and that they would have to walk for at least an hour to reach the suburbs.  They had been walking for only twenty minutes.

There were no suburbs here.  The city had just suddenly stopped.  The houses had been replaced by shacks which had equally quickly been replaced by smooth, sandy boulders.  Boulders strewn everywhere like litter.  Maud felt as she did in the city, the urge to tidy up.  The sky was huge here, and increasingly hot.  The fruit box was empty now but the cow kept walking.  Maud had forgotten to keep any fruit for herself and was beginning to feel weak.  She put her hand out to the cow and let it rest upon her smooth back.  The cow seemed to slow her pace a little.

Gradually even the boulders disappeared.  Maud and the cow walked across a flat, dusty, hard land.  In the distance, layers of hills solidified the horizon.  In-between an occasional leafy tree broke through the haze.  But something else lay between them and the hills which Maud had not noticed at first.  The ground shimmered ahead of them.  Maud had thought at first that it was a trick of the sun’s heat but as they got nearer a lake came into view.  The thought of cooling her dusty, bitten and itchy feet appealed to Maud but as they approached the water’s edge she realised that the lake was a creamy white colour.  As they got closer still a yoghurty, fermented odour rose up. The ground began to slope down towards the lake and to compact into damp sand.  Freed from dust, Maud took off her sandals.  She left them along with the empty plastic box beside a glossy green bush.  Without any hesitation the cow and Maud walked towards the water.  She did not roll up her trouser legs.  The smell of milk was comforting to Maud.  She wanted to allow the water to calm her skin, to soothe away the heat of her journey.  The lake floor sloped gradually and the water level rose up Maud’s legs.

She had reached the middle of the lake and it made more sense to continue to the other side than to turn around.  By now only the cow’s domed head, black eyes and pink nostrils were visible as she accompanied Maud across the lake.  Maud’s body was heavy with milk, as if it was soaking though her skin as well as her clothes, but she moved easily though the water.  As they approached the other side and as the water level diminished Maud found that the heaviness had become real and that her body had grown rounder and fuller as she had passed through the lake.  On the bank waiting for her was a basket of fruit.  Mangoes, pineapples, bananas, dates, a papaya, a water melon, tangerines, pomegranates and a custard apple.

Maud sat in the sun, the milk drying out of her hair and her clothes.  She smelt of yoghurt.  She sat and ate all of the fruit, using her penknife to open the larger pieces.  Her skin felt soft, her lips felt full, her hair lighter.  As she finished eating she realised that the fruit had been resting on a long coil of jasmine and frangipani flowers, of the kind that Maud regularly saw decorating temples and women’s hair.  Maud unravelled it and wrapped it round the cow’s neck.  The milk had evaporated from her hide now and, as Maud arranged the lengths of flowers she realised she was adorning an ordinary, brown Indian cow.

In the final days before her departure from India, Maud returned to her established routines.  But the cow no longer followed her to the market, nor did it appear at her bedroom window to share her breakfast.  At quarter past five on her last evening Maud sat on the roof of the Pradesh Lodge Hotel to watch Mallapatti’s nocturnal life emerge from doorways as the sun set.  A brown cow strolled slowly up the street.  There was something about its unhurried, purposeful pace that Maud recognised.  Around its neck was wound a garland of young jasmine flowers, as creamy white as fresh milk.

 

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Kate Hendry writer

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