Conjunctions:50 Fifty Contemporary Writers

King Cow
—For Sean

King Cow is the father of the tiny country we call The Foreground. 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 peridot 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 columns 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 Immensely 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 Department 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 remember 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 hypothetical state of repletion containing a net fluid volume of sixty-eight kiloliters, figure obtained by multiplying number of subjects by average 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 Foreground. 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 warming,” 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 deferentially. “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 concrete. 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 allegations 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, equivalents. 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 wavelets, 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.

Shelley Jackson is the author of The Melancholy of Anatomy (Anchor Books), Half Life (HarperCollins), hypertexts including Patchwork Girl, children’s books including Mimi’s Dada Catifesto (Clarion Books), and SKIN, a story published in tattoos on 2,095 volunteers.