A Confederacy of Cows
Molly looked and saw that the field was emptier than it had been.
She shrugged and dipped back to the grass. It wasn’t her concern. There were others who were monitoring such things, surely. Molly bit off a clump of grass and chewed at it idly.
Her field was wide and verdant, bathed in near-perpetual sunshine. All was well. That there had been a dwindling of cows in recent weeks need not be a concern to her, for Molly had likely miscounted. There was ample space to roam and perhaps the others were not missing, but simply feeding on the grass of the other side of their hill.
But there had been the wolf.
That was an unclean thought. Belinda, the elder mother of their herd, had dismissed the sightings of a wolf as nothing more than rumor. “There is no wolf,” she said before heading back into her barn, and that was all there was to know of the subject.
But Molly had seen it, stalking in the night.
Hadn’t she? No, of course she hadn’t. There was no wolf, Belinda had confirmed that. And even if there were, the wolf was not a concern. And even if it were a concern, Belinda would handle it.
Molly chewed more grass.
The sun marched steady across the sky until, eventually, it tipped and rolled behind the horizon. Night dropped sudden onto the field and Molly’s head began to loll. Sleep took her away to a dreamless darkness. A howling woke her from it.
The night was moonless and the field was sunk in deep shadow, but Molly could make out the outlines of the other cows, still and sleeping. Beyond them was the dark line of the fence. Something moved near it. A large shape, but ducked low, shoulders rounded as it wriggled beneath the fence.
It padded across the grass on silent paws. Molly clamped her eyes shut. There was no wolf, she must be mistaken. And, if there were a wolf, Belinda would handle it.
There was a scream. Prolonged, full of pain, it pierced her ears, but Molly kept her eyes shut against it. She did not open them again that night, wishing she could close her ears in the same way.
Morning came hours later, casting golden light once more upon their field. Molly saw that it was now even emptier than it had been before. She was not alone. There were murmurs.
Belinda gathered them shortly after sunrise. “Friends,” she said to them, her voice a deft balance between friendly candor and unfaltering authority, “there is rumbling amongst you of an intruder on our field. I have gathered you here to assure you, once more, in no uncertain terms, of a simple truth: There is no wolf.”
Most sighed a breath of relief. If there were a current of consternation which still remained, none gathered there gave it voice. Belinda spoke on, unopposed: “Rumors are dangerous and it is important that they not be allowed to spread lest they grow into wild conspiracies. I will say again, there is no wolf. Any who speak of such things do so only to sow distrust. If you care for others, you will report these dangerous conspirators to me directly. There is no wolf.”
The cows all nodded, even Molly. Though she had seen what she had seen and heard what she had heard, Belinda knew better than she did. They were safe. There was no wolf.
Molly spent the rest of the day grazing, filling her stomachs with grass and basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun. She ate more than her fill. There were less bare patches, less crowded swaths of tall, swaying lawn. When night fell, Molly was content and satisfied and sleep came easily.
Until the howling came again.
It sounded very much as it had the night before, but now a second wolfvoice joined it. Molly opened her eyes and saw that she was not the only cow stirring in the field. Others had heard. They shifted away from the fence as, wreathed in darkness, two shadows shifted there. They slipped under the fence, one after the other, to slide noiselessly across the field.
As Molly grouped with her fellow cows, one stepped forward, even as the wolves moved closer. Rosie, a young heifer. She tilted her head and bleated.
The wolves froze and exchanged glances. Molly stood in a line with the rest of the herd, looking on in wide-eyed amazement as Rosie stood alone before them, facing down the wolves. The fur about their shoulders bristled. One snapped off an angry bark and they began their advance once more, but Rosie stood her ground. She lifted her snout to the sky and let out a low, rumbling bugle that rattled the very air.
The wolves sank low to the grass, whining against the sound, but Rosie’s call carried on. None of the herd stepped forward to join her, but neither did they retreat. They only looked on passively, Molly among them. One of the wolves took a tentative step forward, but Rosie pitched up her voice, an angry, obstinate sound, and stamped her hooves hard against the grass. The wolf whined and turned, beating a path back under the fence from which it had entered their field. The other followed, but not before chancing a look back at the cows. Molly saw a flash in its yellow eyes before the night swallowed its form and the field fell once more into still quiet.
“We must speak to Belinda,” Rosie said urgently as she turned back to the herd. “They may return with more of their pack. We can drive them back if we all move together.”
The rest of the cows shifted on uneasy hooves. Belinda had told them there were no wolves. She had warned them of the danger of speaking of such things. Yet, they had all seen them. She would not be happy to hear of this, particularly if they were to wake her in the night. Perhaps it was better to just ignore it, thought Molly. The wolves were gone now. They were safe. There was no reason to cause more commotion.
“Come on,” urged Rosie, pushing through the line and making a path across the field toward Belinda’s barn. “She must know as soon as possible.” The herd did not move. Rosie looked down on them, puzzled. “Won’t you come with me?” she asked.
Molly turned her head. None of the herd spoke.
“We must tell her,” Rosie said again, her tone more urgent now than before.
“Belinda said there were no wolves,” Molly heard from one of the cows. The words were spoken timidly, hardly above a whisper.
“We saw them,” answered Rosie. “We all did. They stood right there and meant to take one, or maybe even more, of us away.”
“It was dark,” answered another cow. “I don’t know what we saw.”
A rumbling spread through the herd, agreement and the sound of heads nodding. Molly looked from side to side, as if for encouragement, and then found herself nodding along as well.
Disbelief washed over Rosie’s face only to be replaced with a harder emotion shortly thereafter. She squared her shoulders resolutely. “Well, I know what I saw,” she told them and then plodded away toward the barn.
Molly watched Rosie go. None of the herd followed her. They stood together for a while longer and then dispersed. The night remained quiet. Molly eyed the fence once more before sleep stole her away again.
Morning brought Belinda down from her barn. Rosie came along in tow. The herd assembled before them, eager to put the events of the previous night behind them and lap up the assurance of order that Belinda no doubt would provide them.
“Friends,” she addressed them, “I understand there was a disturbance last night. I want to assure all of you — and I stress this — there is nothing to fear. None of you are in danger.”
Molly sighed, thankful for Belinda’s words and the peace of mind they provided. The rest of the herd shared in her relief. All except Rosie, whose face remained stern and unflinching as she stood silent beside the elder cow.
“The safety of this herd is my paramount concern,” Belinda continued. “Above all else we must place order for that safety to be preserved. Make no mistake, you are not in danger, but that does not mean that we cannot be threatened. Paranoia, speculation, conspiracy — these are the true threats that we risk arising. Do not let them take hold of you. Listen to me, for I love and will protect you all: there is no wolf.”
Rosie snorted. “We saw the wolf!”
Murmurs rippled through the herd. Belinda quieted them. “This,” she said in her firmest tone, “this is the threat I speak of! This, friends, cannot be allowed. Wild conspiracies will drive us into panic. It is only by good fortune that these baseless claims did not provoke a stampede last night! I will not allow such dangerous rhetoric to divide us!”
The murmurs turned to grumblings. Molly saw the anger springing to the faces of the herd. She followed along in kind.
Rosie approached them, her eyes wide and pleading. “You all saw them! We drove them off. They will come again and if we do not stand together, they will pick us off one by one until there are not enough to defend those who remain. There are wolves!”
“There are no wolves!” Belinda roared and now the herd took up the same cry. They stamped and snorted, driving up a cloud of dust. Molly did not hope to be seen as a dissident herself and so joined in, though, in the far corner of her mind, a voice reminded her that she had indeed seen the wolves.
“We cannot allow such conspiracies to spread within our herd,” Belinda said, raising her voice above the rabble. She turned to Rosie, chin held high as she looked down on the younger cow. “Though it pains me greatly, I am afraid you must be banished from our field. You pose too great a threat to our herd.”
Rosie looked at her as though all sanity had left the world. “You promised me you would help us. You told me you had dealt with wolves before!”
A gasp surged over the herd, but Belinda hopped atop its rising wave. “She twists the truth even further to her ends! Indeed I have dealt with wolves before, which is how I know we are safe from them now. You cannot stay here. We do not want you.”
The herd exchanged glances. Molly did not move, uncertain of what was appropriate. Belinda huffed and took a pointed step toward Rosie, blowing steam from her nose in a torrent gust. She stamped a hoof and took another step. Now, other cows joined in, following. Soon, they were moving as if with one mind, one purpose. Molly moved with them. Rosie tried once more to reason with them, but her voice was drowned out by the stamping and huffing of the herd. Tearfully, she turned and fled from them as they drove her out and over the fence and into whatever the wild frontiers beyond their field held in waiting.
“Friends,” Belinda said to them when it was done, “this was no easy thing that we have done, but it was the right thing. You are all safe. I will protect you. There is, and never was, any wolf. Let us not speak of them again and leave this unpleasantness far behind us.” She smiled at them. “Come, let us graze and be happy in the warmth of the sun!”
And so they did and so they were. Molly’s days passed as they had before, lazily and with a mouth everfull of grass. Though her mind often drifted back to the memory of that night and the look in Rosie’s eyes as they drove her over the fence, Molly refused to dwell on it, stifling the thought whenever it reappeared. Sunny days gave way to cool nights and, before too long, the howling returned. Molly ignored that, too. She always awoke to a warm day and grass to eat, though the field continued to grow emptier and emptier.
Slowly, the herd had moved farther from the edge of the fence. They were few now. They never mentioned it. Belinda rarely left her barn, never at night. Whispers of wolves more and more filled the ears of the herd. Molly didn’t want to think of it. She chewed more grass.
When the moon was once again filled, a round glowing rock in the night sky, the howling was tremendous. She could not shut her ears to it. Molly awoke, afraid to open her eyes. The field was awash in the pale light of the moon. A half dozen shapes moved across it, dipping under the fence and stalking through the grass. They fanned out and Molly saw that she was nearly alone in the field. Her herd was thin, spread far and wide and nowhere near her now.
She backed away toward the barn. A pair of yellow eyes followed her. A head followed and soon she could make out the whole shape, clearly illuminated by the moonlight.
A wolf. Across the field, she heard a mournful scream.
“Why are you doing this?” Molly asked as the wolf pulled up before her. “Why are you acting so cruelly?”
The wolf looked at her quizzically. “We are not cruel,” it said, “only hungry. We cannot live on grass alone, as do you, so our food is not as plentiful. We must hunt for it. That is how we are made. We are only doing what wolves do.” The wolf padded closer.
Molly backed away. Her behind bumped up against the side of the barn, firm and impenetrable. The wolf moved closer. “If only we had listened to Rosie!” Molly cried. “We could have driven you off. There were so many of us and so few of you!”
“Hush,” said the wolf. “There’s no need for remorse. Your lives were full and happy. You spent your days grazing on an endless field, never knowing the worry of an empty stomach. A life of safety and comfort. Only now do you taste the fear that lingers on the tongues of most creatures for all their lives.” A flash of brilliant white split the wolf’s face as moonlight caught its teeth. “You were only doing what cows do,” it said, springing forward.
Molly called out, but the field was now empty.