“Landscape and Dream”
from The Best American Short Stories – 1994
I feel a sense of peace when I drive through the farmlands in our area, when I see the cows and the farm houses and the barns where the cows go. These scenes give me a glimpse of that simpler life, a visual escape from the complicated modern world. But my thoughts are naïve, I know that. I know nothing about dairy farming or how to live a life like that. I don’t know what kinds of struggles there are, the difficult parts. I only imagine the simplicity of hard work and that refreshes me. It’s foolish. I know that.
I was drawn to Nancy Krusoe’s “Landscape and Dream” because I wanted to feel that same tranquility. I got something different, something cold and raw.
A young farm girl narrates this story and she describes the barn where she goes every morning to help her father and brother milk the cows. She is little and has just a small job. One day she will be in a kitchen instead, because bigger girls and grown women don’t go in these barns.
The scene is peaceful at first, made so by the immense, but calm bodies of the cows. But as the girl describes her mother and the kitchen window, you get a different sense of what life is like here. The girl feels connected to the cows, is part of their experience. She loves them. They find their stalls, wait to be milked, know their place, like her mother in the kitchen. The girl feels so connected she eats the mix of oats, along with the cows. And then she thinks of her mother.
In the kitchen, it isn’t a happy time of day: cooking breakfast, half moon, half dark. My mother stands there waiting. Anyone could come, even cows could come to her flower bed outside the kitchen window, could lie down and wait with her for the farmer – and the daughter – to return. There is nothing to stop them from coming to her, coming to her window, nothing at all.
There’s something lonely about those words, someone could come, but there is much waiting.
Next the girl describes the farmer (her father) and how sometimes men beat their dairy cows. She watches her father beat a young cow with an iron bar. It’s an ugly scene. The girl wonders, “Is the cow crying? Heaving, trying to stand up on her feet (her feet are so pretty – little hooves like tiny irons), which slip again every time he hits her.” She doesn’t recognize her father when he takes off his glasses, sees his swelling eyes and a raging face. But these scenes will go unreported to her mother in the kitchen, who still waits.
Finally, the girl tells of a recurring dream in which phantom men on horseback rise from the earth and circle the farmhouse, coming to take her away. But like her mother, the girl stays. “Like her, I became a cow and I became a mother. I became the barn and the hill, the lake and the water cows drink from the lake, the salt and the saliva in their mouths. I became, for a while, entirely these things – nothing more. And this is not enough.”
There isn’t much hope in a scene like this, except perhaps the young girl’s determination to make something more of her life. But I liked it anyway.
Nancy Krusoe is an American author who was born and raised in Georgia. She wrote this story as a student in a Theory of Fiction class in the creative writing program at California State University. Her work has appeared in Magazine, The Santa Monica Review, American Writing, and The Georgia Review. I was unable to find additional information about Krusoe, except for a book called Hens, Cows, Canoes/Wallpaper, co-authored by Krusoe and Lisa Bloomfield, published in 2008, but currently out of print.
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