On our first date, we went to see the fistulated cow. The fistulated cow had feather-soft eyes, had a hole cut into her side, had a plastic plug placed over that hole, had a name. The fistulated cow’s name was Buttercup. My date’s name was Jack. During gym, while we stretched together on sticky blue mats, Jack had described Buttercup as a cow with a window surgically placed into her hide so you could see right through to her guts. The inside of a cow, Jack said, is out of this world.
When we walked up to Buttercup in a field, I did not yet know about Jack’s theories concerning things out of this world, concerning alien-directed climate change and a dying planet and selentropic plants from other solar systems. I knew Jack went around school reading science fiction books and I knew he wasn’t very good at basketball and I knew his family had come to the United States on the Mayflower. I knew his father worked at the university and was an expert in large-animal surgery. I knew a year from now, next fall, Jack would probably go to a far-off private college and I would probably stay home with my mother who’d just lost her job. I would probably stay home with my mother’s sadness and my mother’s coupons and my mother’s talk shows. I knew—or thought I knew—what would happen to both of us: Jack would become a professional in a distant city while I’d work at a fast food place in Raleigh, grilling up Buttercup’s poor sisters.
But I tried not to think about all that I knew when Jack and I approached the cow. Instead I concentrated on how the moon was out and full, although it was still just early evening. Jack shone a flashlight through the plastic plug covering the hole that had been cut in Buttercup’s body, and under the flashlight’s beam I saw something shifting around in there, hay and grass being digested. Sort of gross. And sort of lovely.
A fistula, Jack explained, was a permanent hole surgically placed between the external world and an internal organ. The plastic plug covering up the hole in Buttercup’s side was removed only for reasons educational and scientific: Surgeons reached into Buttercup and pulled out useful healing juices. Veterinarian students observed the digestion process in Buttercup as it was happening in real time. I thought about that phrase. Real time.
Cows have four stomachs, I said finally. Don’t they?
Jack said no, I didn’t really have it right, it wasn’t that cows had four stomachs, but a single complicated stomach, a stomach with four compartments, four chambers, very different from human stomachs. I wanted to know the names of the four chambers. But Jack said he was no expert on the ruminant digestive system. He could only remember the name of the chamber we were looking at now—the rumen.
It’s the hugest part of the cow’s stomach, he said. All those enzymes are in there, simplifying the complex stuff. The rumen is where things begin to break down.
He took my hand. He told me about gut flora. How the fistulated cow was fed well so it’d have great gut flora. And how when other cows were in surgery, Jack’s father would reach into Buttercup and pull out some of Buttercup’s gut flora and put that gut flora into the bodies of sick animals, helping them to recover more quickly. This process was called transfaunation.
Inside Buttercup, I imagined a field of flowers. I imagined Jack reaching into Buttercup and pulling out a healing bouquet of Queen Anne’s lace, and then giving the bouquet to me with a romantic flourish of his hand. I looked at him sidelong.
Do you want me to remove her plug? Jack asked.
Will things spill out of her?
No. She’ll be fine. They do this all the time for the transfaunation stuff.
When Jack unplugged the plug at Buttercup’s side, I was sure he would reach into her stomach first. But instead Jack grabbed my hand and pulled it into Buttercup’s side without asking either Buttercup or me if we were ready. The warmth of her insides was so startling, I jumped a little bit, the slightest convulsion, and Jack smiled smugly as if he’d just made me come or something, although he hadn’t. I was pretty sure he hadn’t.
I removed my hand from Buttercup. Jack said my cheeks were red and I said how could he tell, it was dark. He shone the flashlight right on my face and I cursed at him, told him where he could stick that flashlight. He grinned. He said he’d always appreciated my honesty.
He was reaching around inside Buttercup’s stomach himself now. I didn’t want to watch. After a while, he plugged her hole back up and told me to close my eyes and open my hand. I did. I was envisioning it again—that bouquet of Queen Anne’s lace. Instead he put a hard seed into my waiting palm. I opened my eyes. Jack said this seed had come from Buttercup, from when he reached into Buttercup just now. I said no way. He said yes way. He said it wasn’t the first time he’d found a seed like this in her rumen.
Listen, Carley, he said. Plant this seed and put it on your windowsill but only at night, okay? When the sun is out, move the plant into the shadows. The closet. Wherever. I’m telling you, the thing will grow in the night. It’ll bear fruit. Based off the moon’s light. It’s the first step those alien fuckers are taking.
Taking to what?
To take our planet away. Duh, Carley.
Then he laughed, so I figured he wasn’t serious but was just flirting. He had floppy hair that he kept pushing out of his eyes. On the drive home, he said plant life was moving from a mostly heliotropic model to a purely selentropic one, and soon the whole earth would respond more to the movements of the moon than the sun. This shift was all the work of lunar aliens who were slowly colonizing the planet, changing it bit by bit to fit their temperament.
Global warming isn’t caused solely by us, he said, but is being helped along by outside forces. As soon as we really get to destroying the planet, other life forms from other planets will make themselves more fully known and take advantage of our weakness. They’ll square off sections of our skin, too, will fistulate us, will try to see inside us that way, to understand how we grow, function, process.
He spoke in such a dreamy tone, I thought he was just telling me fiction ripped off from the books he read. I thought this was all just some weird-dude whimsy, presenting me with little love poems of science fiction. Maybe I thought this because he had more money and so I believed he was smarter than me. Or maybe I thought this because to my own surprise I so badly wanted to kiss him. The other guys I dated hadn’t talked to me, had just tried to take off my shirt, to pull down my pants, to expose me. But Jack? Jack was telling me stories.
Before he dropped me off at home, I recited some lines from the nursery rhyme where the cow jumps over the moon and Jack nodded, said yes, exactly, and where do you think that rhyme comes from?
I don’t know, Jack. Where?
The aliens wrote that rhyme.
I smiled. And he kissed me. Very gently.
When I got home, I didn’t plant that seed he gave me. I put it in my underwear drawer. We didn’t talk about the seed again. He never asked me about it. We became busy with other things, each other’s bodies, brains, etc. At least for a while.
When Jack was hospitalized, my mother took my hands. Compartmentalize, she said (regurgitating Dr. Phil). Trust me, Carley, compartmentalize. Don’t let this derail you. Your grades in school have just shot up. You’re on a path now, I can tell. I’ve always had a sense for these matters.
It’s the opposite, I said. Aren’t you actually supposed to do the very opposite when things like this happen, do not compartmentalize, isn’t that what they say?
My mother shook her head. No, no, nope, the way you digest a tragedy, a broken relationship, anything bad and unexpected, is compartmentalization. Trust me. I have a sense for these matters, too.
The rumen is where things begin to break down. If you have the right view, if the right hollow space has been made between the outer and inner world, you can see that breakdown start to happen in real time.
After my first date with Jack, I looked up the other compartments of a cow’s digestive system. The reticulum is the second stomach, or the second compartment. It’s simultaneously the place of trapping and the place of softening. If the cow eats part of a fence, the reticulum will trap that fence part, prevent it from going forward, prevent it from potentially working its way into the cow’s heart. At the same time, the reticulum is also where the grass that a cow eats softens and turns to cud.
A place of entrapment, a place of softening. All at once. As if entrapment and softening were synonyms.
They’re not synonyms.
What maybe trapped Jack: His own mind. The story he created. The selentropic system. The idea of alien colonizers to this earth. The idea of colonizing my thoughts with his specific alien/cow beliefs. The idea of his own ancestors colonizing this country with their specific god/Christ beliefs. The sun moving closer to the earth. The greenhouse effect. Wildfires. Ultraviolet rays. Maybe an imbalance in dopamine and glutamate. Maybe growing up with cows like Buttercup whose insides he could see at too young an age.
What nearly trapped me: My mother’s unemployment. My father and his weekend calls (“Hello and how’s school”). The pictures of women I’d found in my father’s studio apartment. Long, lengthy, rail-thin, no clothes, women more see-through than Buttercup. My father’s look when he saw me looking at these women and the way I heard him talking about my mother on the phone once, calling her “the bitch.” Jack. The way I so blindly believed in Jack and how he looked at me. Like there should be more of me, not just more of my body, but more of my words in the world. (He said to me once, write me a love poem. I wrote him a sequence of terrible sonnets. He said what about free verse? I told him I liked having a form to follow—it allowed me to be weirder and more truthful. To both soften words and to trap them quicker, too.)
What maybe softened Jack: The florid poems about gut flora I finally wrote for him. His father’s eyes when he talked to Jack about the farm he’d grown up on. Buttercup’s eyes. The softness of the inside of Buttercup. All those photographs of polar bears on shrinking glaciers. When I told him I was falling in love with him and we had both cracked up, like, how did we get in this genre, and he called me Meg Ryan.
What definitely softened me: When Jack got hard. The books Jack lent me. The warmth of the inside of Buttercup. The smoothness of the inner wrist of Jack. Sex. The skylight in Jack’s bedroom through which the sun shone. The idea of a stomach with four compartments to sort everything out. Researching ruminant stomachs at the same time I began to look into colleges. The way the third compartment of a cow’s stomach, “omasum,” sounded in my mind: an exotic brain-massage of a word. Omasum, omasum, omasum.
The descriptions of “omasum” I found online: a compartment with many folds.
A water-absorbing thing.
For months, Jack didn’t talk about aliens or selenotropism. But then all of a sudden, around the time college apps were due, he started mentioning them again, all the time. He’d call me up and ask me if I’d seen the latest statistics, if I’d read that article he’d sent me about the new thermal stresses being placed on mussels, about how stunned even the scientists were at the swiftness of melting things, about a new study indicating that the water in the brain was affected by the moon just like the tides of the sea, and of course, the alien colonizers knew that.
And then, for two weeks, he stopped talking to me all together because I told him he needed to relax with the alien colonizer thing. He told me I was a bitch and that he’d thought I, of all people, would understand, and I told him he sounded dumber even than a rom-com dude, he sounded like a whiny wannabe songwriter, all angst and entitlement, no substance. Then? No dates, no texts. I cried at night sometimes, yeah, but mostly I was mad. He had talked to me like other guys I’d dated had talked to me, had called me the name my father called my mother, and I felt like I’d gotten fooled.
Then I got a call. Jack had tried and failed to kill himself in his parents’ bathtub because nobody believed his visions of rising oceans and extraterrestrial invasion. He was placed for a time in a psychiatric hospital. His mother was the one who called me. His mother did not like me very much—barely spoke to me when I went over to their house—but her voice on the phone was so hushed and sad, I felt a new lurching intimacy with her. After she delivered the news, I was not sure what to do. Should I send her family a bouquet of flowers? What kind of flowers? I didn’t send anything. I didn’t say anything. No, that’s not true. I said, on the phone, I’m so, so sorry.
Which was the same as saying nothing, really.
To compartmentalize as my mother wishes, to digest more properly, I must filter this next part of the story by taking on a different perspective, one with some necessary distance: Let’s say it wasn’t me who refused to visit Jack for several weeks, but some other girl. Let’s say this other girl finally received another call from Jack’s mother, a shaming call about how Jack had been asking after her, and let’s say this other girl agreed to make a visit.
This other girl showed up in the psychiatric hospital, found Jack perched on the edge of a marshy green sofa. His torso was much skinnier, his stomach shrunken, and his head tilted in a funny way. He looked like a boy who tried to turn into a bird, but changed his mind halfway through. When he saw his girlfriend walking up to him, he jumped a little.
Oh, wow. Hi, Carley. Wow.
This other-Carley, this girl said, You grew a beard.
Jack lifted his hand to his chin, as if in doubt. Yeah, he said. I haven’t shaved in a while. No razors allowed in here.
A blue hospital bracelet dangled from his bandaged wrist. The girl looked down at her own naked arm, the fine serpentine squiggle of a vein. Jack continued to rub his fingers along the bottom of his chin. The girl tried not to be shocked at the way a person’s mind and chin could transform so quickly into something beyond recognition.
The girl said, It doesn’t look bad.
The girl looked away from him and examined the visitors’ lounge, which was painted a pastel pink seen primarily in Easter egg dye and women’s cotton underwear. The walls were covered in framed macro photographs of flowers: pixelated petunias, monstrously massive marigolds, red roses like large wounds. A chess table sat in one corner of the ward, and a bookshelf filled with old encyclopedias sat in the opposite corner. There were also other people in the room, but the girl could not bring herself to focus on them.
Jack moved closer to her on the couch, and the silence between them acquired an animal stillness. The girl saw the beard on his face as a slow-breathing beast, creeping past his cheekbones, readying itself to smother his mouth and cover his eyes until he was speechless and blind. The beard became a filter for the real Jack, the funny Jack, the sexy Jack, the weird-but-charmingly-so Jack, the Jack who told stories.
His body, warm, crept very close to the girl. He was inching toward her. The beard transformed again. It turned into the steel mesh of a radio speaker emitting a kind of desperate bleating. Jack was crying? She moved away from him on the couch, though she knew the right reaction was to betray no terror, to stay calm, to simply change the topic to something ordinary.
He moved again, closer to her than before. He apologized for not being more honest with her about how much his fears had seized him. He was trying to protect her. But he saw now that he shouldn’t have hidden anything from her. He wanted to kiss her. His hand rested on her arm, the fingers recollecting. The girl stood up abruptly, looked first to the nursing station, then to the exit.
My mother’s waiting downstairs. I have to go, said the girl.
But I’ll come back soon, she said, like a child remembering manners.
Suddenly Jack seemed totally disinterested in her. She walked away without kissing the person who had been her lover, who had done nothing wrong, only gotten lost in his mind. The girl’s mouth had gone dry. Was she actually grateful to the beard? It had made it easier to treat Jack like a stranger.
The doors leading outside the hospital were glass. She had barely noticed them, coming in, but now she saw there were many doors in a long line, as if the hospital anticipated a great rush. The glass was smudged with the prints of people trying to push their way in and out. The girl stopped in front of one of the doors and examined the pattern of smudges, tried to see past them. She felt for a moment that she should go back upstairs and apologize. Then she leaned forward and let the pads of her fingers smear the glass.
That night she dreamed about the fistulated cow. But instead of a little plastic porthole into its murky insides, a large plate of glass covered all four compartments of Buttercup’s stomach. The large plate of glass was like a window, a skylight, and each of the cow’s four stomachs were lit up like small glowing suns. That sheet of glass turned the cow’s stomachs into a bovine solar system, the cattle becoming cosmic. The girl’s subconscious, the complicated folds in the girl’s mind, re-saw Buttercup as something else, something otherworldly, something alien and, in fact, spectacular.
The final compartment, where the food is at last digested, where the nutrients are at last sucked up, and where all that remains is at last allowed to turn to shit. After Jack was released from the hospital, I met him at the Starbucks in the mall. Jack ordered something without caffeine. He was drugged up on all these new medications, dead-eyed and dull. He didn’t mention the moon or aliens or colonizers. He was clean-shaven but it didn’t matter. I still didn’t want to kiss him. I was so ashamed about how much I didn’t want to kiss him that I could hardly look at his face. Looking at his face would expose something horrible in me, something intolerant and fearful. I didn’t want to see any of that shit. Not in myself.
I made an excuse about having to leave the mall early. I stopped talking to him, even in school. I stopped thinking about him much. Was I scared I might catch his despair? Was I scared his ideas were already too deeply planted in me? The word “transfaunation” would blossom in my mind sometimes, out of nowhere, and make me cold. I blamed that word, somehow, for sending Jack to the hospital. And I worried that word might send me to the hospital in the future, too.
I’d decided to apply to a wide range of colleges and got into a place that gave me what I thought at the time was a decent scholarship. My mother sobbed with terror and with pride. But once I was at school, away from home, I couldn’t seem to concentrate anymore. My grades fell. The scholarship was retracted. I returned to my mother after one year with a horrible academic record and a mess of student loans. I told her I was taking a little time off and she said yes, okay, she understood.
I visited the fistulated cow once on my own after I went back to my mother’s. It was a different cow now. Named Blossom. Blossom!
I didn’t work in a fast food place but I did start waitressing and one day, at the diner, I met Brad, handsome, funny, firmly rom-com material. He’d just gotten some tourist industry job on the Outer Banks. Brad didn’t tell me stories about a future of aliens, but he did tell me stories about the future we’d have together, a dog that we’d teach to shake hands, a nice house near the ocean, sure, a kid or two even. Because I wanted to get out of my mother’s apartment, Brad and I moved in together fast, not into the house he had described, but into a first-floor apartment that yes, was near the sea.
Too near the sea. As the months passed, the ocean moved closer and closer to our home, and I spent a lot of time arguing with Brad about how we might get flooded out. Brad said I was being paranoid. Paranoid like Jack had been paranoid? I wondered. Jack’s parents could afford to put him into a nice hospital but me? If I lost it like Jack, what would happen to me?
After a while longer, Brad said he was just not feeling it. He just was not. And, also, he was sleeping with someone else. He moved in with this person and said I could stay in our apartment until the end of the month, or longer, of course, if I wanted to pay the rent myself.
I visited my mother, just to get away for a few days, and in my childhood bedroom I found the seed Jack gave me, still in my underwear drawer. I took the seed back to the Outer Banks with me and I planted it in a small pot on my windowsill and I moved it out of the sunlight during the day and let it bask in the moonlight at night. I told nobody what I was doing because I did not want to seem crazy like Jack and because I mostly didn’t think anything would happen.
Except that seed sucked up all those lunar nutrients and grew. Grew fast and fat and beautiful. Grew not into a flower, but into something kind of like a tomato plant and kind of not. Like something from another planet? Yes. Sure. Or at least like something redder than anything you’d see in the supermarket. Spindly vines running amok. I lost my appetite. My stomach shrunk. I watched the new plant grow.
Alone in my apartment, with the ocean at my door and debt piling up, I started thinking about Jack more and more, about how I was pretty sure he really had performed some sort of transfaunation of ideas on me, thinking he was enlightening me, healing me, when he was actually making me feel sick.
And I started thinking about how the temperatures this summer were the hottest ever.
And I started thinking about how close the waves sounded.
And I started thinking about the way the maybe-tomato plant grew with the moon.
If Jack had been proven right about those things, who was to say he was not right about the rest? The earth scorching up for good, the colonizers testing our planet, planting alien seeds into our livestock, then coming for us when they’d decided we’d pushed ourselves close enough to our own destruction.
One night when I couldn’t sleep, when the wind was really howling outside, I picked up the spindly plant on the windowsill and looked hungrily at its red fruits.
I told myself I didn’t want to eat one of the plant’s fruits. If I did eat one of those maybe-tomatoes, another seed might be planted in me. I knew eating the fruit might mean acknowledging something real in Jack’s vision and that was dangerous. If I ate the maybe-tomato, I was conceding that maybe soon I might open my eyes onto a new world. I might find myself with a glass plate installed over my chest, just like Jack predicted. The fistulated woman the alien colonizers kept for purposes educational and scientific.
A rhyme forced itself into my thoughts: Hey, diddle, diddle. The cat and the fiddle. The cow jumped over the moon. I was ravenous. I ate one of the maybe-tomatoes.
And almost immediately everything looked stranger. The moonlight in the room brightened like a veil had been lifted. The black sky looked like a frothing sea, the stars like a naval flotilla. My stomach hurt. My stomach really hurt.
The vomit should have tasted like that sour fruit I’d just eaten but it didn’t. It tasted like grass, like the sweet way grass smells, like a field.
I wanted to call Jack. He was right. I would tell him that over the phone. And I would tell him that the alien colonizers, when they came (which, yes, they were coming), would put me in a desiccated pasture scorched by wildfire.
They would peer into my insides, into the real seal-slick muck of me.
There’s her heart, they would say, and through the window they’d installed they would study my heart’s chambers, its compartments, its universe of flaws and degradations, its perpetual failure at digesting loss, sadness, shame, pride, because a heart is not a stomach, because digestion (the colonizers would decide) is not what this particular and singular hollow organ was ever designed to do. No, it had its own uses.