CONJUNCTIONS:50, Spring 2008

King Cow
Shelley Jackson


                                                                                         For Sean
KING COW IS THE FATHER of the tiny country we call The Fore-
ground. Everything is concrete there. Everything has been concrete
for forty years. King Cow himself is concrete, almost as concrete as
his statue, which is made of concrete, with steel reinforcing and peri-
dot eyes. No ghosts cross the bridges that connect our homeland to
the mountainous mainland. Even echoes die out over the water, and
weather finds somewhere else to go. Traffickers in dreams and omens
have failed to establish trade routes to our cities, and obituary col-
umns must outsource, since we have no dead, or if we do, we don’t
remember them, since memory too is a sort of ghost.
     “The dead are among the world’s most fearsome and disciplined
guerrilla organizations. To safeguard our nation and our people, I am
classifying all foreign bodies as haunted,” said King Cow, in his Im-
mensely Popular mask. “I am further classifying the entire mainland
as nowhere, and naming it Nowhere.” Cheering crowds tossing
clover, greasing the statue of King Cow with fat. King Cow agleam!
His eyes the day!
     The king replaced his Immensely Popular mask with his Fund-
Raising mask. Rain of amethyst, citrine, peridot. “Political hay is a
cash crop,” said King Cow jubilantly. “If I get any richer, I’ll buy me
some money!”


King Cow’s names:
King Queen, The Chief Porker, Mr. Concrete Head, The Lord of Beef
Cattle, The President of Procurement, The Ombudsman of Talks,
Death Head of State, General Electric Pork, The Editor, The Depart-
ment of Immensely Popular, The Twenty-five-member Advisory
Body, Mr. Similar, The Impenetrable Man Cow, The First Armored
Oinker, The Rarefied Infrastructure, The Arm of Queen Elizabeth,
The My My Fellow, The Sole Author, The Mother’s Conjecture.


King Cow is the father of our country, but he has a mother’s ways:
he shares. Citizens clinging to his advisory body are rewarded with
that perfect food we call M.I.L.K., or More Is Less. . . . (We don’t re-
member what the K is for. Memory is a sort of ghost, and there are
no ghosts here.) Last year, King Cow produced almost four thousand
gallons.


King Cow’s udders:
     Number of nipples?
     Seventeen.
     Jutting?
     Perkily.
     In hue, Pepto-Bismol or Mr. Bubble?
     The latter.
     Describe them.
     Leathery but moist, a bead of white forming at the tip. Slightly
puckered around the holes.
     Why?
     Decades of giving suck.
     Describe the udder.
     The udder proper is swollen. Swollen and pendulous. In hypothet-
ical state of repletion containing a net fluid volume of sixty-eight
kiloliters, figure obtained by multiplying number of subjects by aver-
age suckle strength by time suckling by M, the milk constant.
     Is there anything more pleasant than sucking on the teat of our
king?
     No.
     Complete sentence please.
     There is nothing more pleasant than sucking on the teat of our big,
motherly king.


King Cow holds a gala. He performs a daring baton trick and gives
a talk critical of King Kong. “He’s a porker, but I am scientifically
the biggest. My very body is feature length. My eyes are the day!” He
puts on his Reputation mask.
     Spectators: “Woohoo!”
     “Take this clover away! Bring me flowers! Poppies, I think . . . ,”
he adds.
     Now trucks and Jeeps and motorbikes are crossing the bridges,
laden with seed. The entire country is under cultivation. Fields
replace our tiny desert, our small jungle, our clover meadows. We are
all farmers now and we are plowing and we dream of harvest and we
wait for rain. That’s how it is in the land of King Cow: his need is our
need.


Recurring dreams of the populace in this period:
     poppies
     poppies
     poppies
     poppies
     poppies
     donkey eating poppies
     poppies


One day a man with a telescope came to King Cow and reported
sighting a fat female beluga whale under the bridge to Nowhere. “Go
to increased surveillance,” said the king, replacing Friendly Leader
with Law Enforcement.
     The whale was next seen posing for photographs near Port Fore-
ground. From his Bureau of Investigation King Cow acquired two
pictures: one of her fine, bold, nationwide abdomen, one of her small,
sharp eye.
     Under the mask, his face grew speculative.


King Cow dictates a memorandum:
     Some bridges to nowhere take the form of a circle.
     Opium is the opiate of the masses.
     The letter K: do we need it?
     Something was eluding him. “More poppies!” demanded King
Cow.
     Thirteen tons of poppies were brought. A mountain of poppies was
raised in the forecourt of the palace. Scores of people were injured in
a poppy landslide. King Cow looked at the poppies. His eyes were the
day: partly cloudy.


King Cow found himself looking forward to his weekly briefings,
where the whale was reported playing the sitar, doing a crossword,
listening to a cellist. Fascination of King Cow.


Dreams of King Cow:
     whale playing in poppies
     whale playing in a jeweled aquarium
     whale in a veil
     Queen Whale
     King Cow being offered a cigar


If he had not banished ghosts, he would have said that he was
haunted.

     “I wish to woo,” said King Cow to his advisers.
     “Woo who, your Majesty?”
     King Cow mistook this for jubilation and did not answer.
     After some consultation, the advisers said, “Woo whom?”

King Cow went down to the water, surrounded by his retinue. He
put on his new Courting mask. “My new world, my global warm-
ing,” he called, “I am yours!”
     “It’s not mutual, pig,” she replied.
     “I’d like to be a little oinker,” said King Cow, “but I’m all beef.
Some people say my eyes are the day,” he added nonchalantly.
     “What’s that supposed to mean?”
     “Oh, radiant, I suppose. You know how subjects are.”
     “No,” she said.
     “I know a trick,” he said, signaling for his baton.
     “So do I. Close your eyes,” she said.
     He did. When he opened them again, she was gone.


King Cow raised a billboard facing the water reading “Discover King
Cow!” and “Beef and Beluga, an Idea for Today!” and “Try My
M.I.L.K.” and “Now With Extra Fat: King Cow!”
     He reshaped 1.5 tons of pork fat into a sculpture of the whale.
     He hired the cellist to play day and night on the beach.
     He dropped fliers offering a twenty-four-hour test drive.
     Finally, the whale lifted her head above water. “You’re bothering
me, pig,” she said. “If you don’t desist, I’m heading south.”
     “You don’t understand,” said King Cow. “I’m asking you to be my
queen! It’s a concrete and lucrative offer! How can you refuse?”
     “Like this,” said the whale, and flipped a fin as she dove.


Headlines of the local news organs:
“Spurned!” “Rejected!” “King Receives Marching Orders from Cold-
Hearted Beauty!”


King depressed.


Dreams of King Cow:
     whale attending a cello concert with a leading Indian sitar player
     whale denouncing King Cow’s human rights record
     whale in a television commercial for M.I.L.K. substitute
     whale starring in a Hollywood movie
     whale receiving an Eastern-style massage from King Kong


King Cow woke panting. “Poppies,” he moaned.
     “It’s too soon to harvest again, your Majesty,” said his advisers def-
erentially. “But in the meanwhile, here are seventeen adolescent
girls who would like to suckle, sir!”
     “Poppies!”
     “But your Majesty!”
     “Poppies!”
     “What shall I tell the girls?”
     “Poppies!”
     Every last petal was harvested. The land was scraped bare, until
from shore to shore The Foreground was nothing but soil and con-
crete. The last poppies—tiny, bruised—were heaped around the bed
of the king.
     He gave them a weary look. “More,” he said, closing his eyes. But
no more would grow, though the advisers had the soil lashed, beaten,
threatened with handguns, and tortured with lit cigars.
     The king lay in his own manure. He chewed cud. He refused to
give suck. Gradually his M.I.L.K. dried up, and the land went into
drought. Many people died. Among them: every last member of the
elite cadre that guarded the bridge to Nowhere.


In subsequent weeks:
     Everyone’s memory improved.
     A man claimed to possess a haunted telescope.
     The attorney general’s office was heard to be investigating allega-
tions of weather.
     Seventeen adolescent girls claimed to hear the music of a phantom
sitar.
     A farmer swore that his boots were haunted by the ghost of a
Manhattan socialite, who peered at him through the eyelets.
     An electrical contractor believed his abdomen to be haunted by
the ghost of a mathematician, who incessantly proved theorems.
     In the once lush palace gardens, a ghost poppy issued from the soil.


In an effort to please his majesty, a proposal to euthanize the letter K
was carried out. “Ing Cow is better than Ing Ong,” said King Cow,
with the ghost of a smile. His eyes were the day: brooding, rain-
soaked.


Ghosts surged across the bridges, defying the posted signs and the
barricades. Ghosts toppled the statue of King Cow, which crushed
the now rancid statue of the whale. The ghost of a donkey trudged
in a circle around The Foreground. A child spoke in the voice of
an eighteenth-century mullah; a spa worker claimed to be Queen
Elizabeth. A nightmarish letter K began appearing in books, and the
ghosts of poppies grew everywhere, but thickest around the palace.
     King Cow began speaking in tongues. In omens, echoes, equiva-
lents. Nothing was concrete, certainly not his greasy fallen statue.
He saw cosmic theorems in crossword puzzles. With every breath,
he inhaled the opium of a billion ghost poppies. “I’m a mad cow,”
he cried.

The seventeen girls thought of a way to bring back the king’s desire
to live and with it, his M.I.L. They went to a shipbuilder and said,
“For the love of the Ing and all of us, build us a whale of a ship!” The
shipbuilder complied. In less than a year, the whale ship set sail,
crewed by seventeen girls and a sitar player.
     When he heard the distant sound of music floating over the wave-
lets, King Cow lifted his head for the first time in months. A bead of
milk formed at the end of one of his nipples. The courtiers raced to
lip it up. King Cow threw them aside. He galloped to the harbor,
hooves ringing through the streets. On the dock he stood listening,
his nipples weeping. The people clasped hands and watched.
     Then the king plunged into the water, his beard foaming on the
tide like sea brack. He swam steadily out to sea, following the ship.
     Some think the girls betrayed the king. Some think they saved
him. But ever since, whenever the water is not clear but creamy, and
foam streaks the billows with white, we say that King Cow is in
love.
     The clover has grown back, but among it, ghost poppies still
bloom. Our children have never tasted M.I.L.K. and do not miss it.