Peter and the Cowheads

by Jim Farrar (1980)

It was wintertime. Peter was bundled in layers of clothing, hunkered on a hillside under a gray morning sky. The air was clean and cold and a deep breath bristled his nose hairs and filled his lungs with ice water. He had been crouched there for about an hour, his eyes cold when he blinked, his feet slowly going numb. He thought about nothing and listened to the quiet. Peter stood and noticed that he was hungry. He then walked over the hill to the side facing the city, retracing his steps of earlier that morning.

It took Peter about twenty minutes to reach McGill's, a coffee and breakfast shop on the outer lip of downtown. It was warm and humid inside and thick with the rattle of dishes and plates and the murmur of conversation. Peter took a table near the window facing the street. The glass was steamed near the corners on which he drew a smiley face with his ungloved hand. He pulled off his other glove and began to unzip and unbutton his layers of clothing. The waitress poured him some coffee, set down a glass of water and asked if he knew what he wanted.

"A number three please," Peter replied with a polite smile. The waitress nodded and turned, and with a snap of her gum went back to the kitchen. Peter poured milk into his coffee from the tin creamer on the table until it matched the color of his beige cup. He took an ice cube from his water and put it in the cup to cool the coffee. Staring idly out the window, the coffee cup warming his hands, Peter first saw the cowheads.

There were seventeen of them. They wore heavy coats, thick, loose trousers, boots, and gloves. The only part of them not covered were their heads, which were those of cows. At first Peter thought they were just people with costume cowheads, but as the herd passed, he noticed the veins in their ears and the movement of their eyes and understood that they were real.

The last of them had gone by and Peter sat stunned. The clank and mumble of the the restaurant eventually brought him back to the real world. He looked around the room and saw the people still eating and chatting and realized that none of them had noticed the cowheads. Peter grabbed his things and ran out the door after the herd.

They were easy to follow, as they left a clear trail in the still early morning snow. Peter passed some weather-worn bums who seemed entirely unimpressed by the herd. The trail led Peter to Greenleaves, a trendy health-food restaurant. It was Sunday, so Greenleaves served breakfast, and inside Peter found all seventeen of the cowheads. They were seated at consecutive tables and were still wearing their coats and gloves. The restaurant was otherwise empty so Peter took a seat near the back and ordered an herbal tea from a thick waitress. He found that the cowheads all ordered the alfalfa-sprout salad, without dressing. They were mostly quiet as they waited, only occasionally mooing softly amongst themselves. They were colored brown or white with black spots, some were all black, and two were all white and they all smelled lightly of mown hay.

Their salads came and they used forks but did not remove their gloves. They ate slowly, taking a bite and chewing it for a long time. Peter became quite warm and noticed that he had not taken off his coat or sweater, and then did so. The cowheads finished and one of them reached into its coat and pulled out some money. It left a tip, got up from the table, paid the cashier, and was followed out by the others. Peter got up from his table, leaving behind his untouched tea and ran after the herd once more when he was grabbed by the large-boned waitress and asked sternly to pay his tab. Peter hurriedly did so and ran outside. Moments later he charged back into Greenleaves, snagged his coat, sweater and gloves and ran back outside. He followed their track to a bus stop, where it ended. Snow began to fall as Peter looked dejectedly down the street.

Peter boarded the next bus that came and checked at each stop for the track of the cowheads, but he soon realized his efforts were useless. Merchants had begun to clear the sidewalks so even if he could find their tracks again, it would soon be lost.

Peter sat on the bus the rest of the day, riding around downtown over and over. He watched people get on and get off, shaking the snow off themselves and their packages, laughing with each other, or frowning along, or just waiting.

He finally got off where he had gotten on and began to walk home. Peter was very hungry and he wondered about the cowheads as he made his way through the snow in the dark. He didn't know what he would have said to them if he could have gotten the nerve to speak. He saw himself standing in front of the herd; them staring at him calmly with their wet eyes, their moist noses steaming; he staring back at them, squinting his eyes in search of something to say. The herd would then walk around him, mooing softly to each other.

Peter neared his house and saw the back porch light through the snowfall. He went into the laundry, shaking off his clothes and pulling his feet from his boots; his socks pulled past his toes. He shuffled into the kitchen, microwaved some pizza, and poured a glass of milk. Peter decided that it was better that he hand not spoken to the cowheads.

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