Dead Cows and Trains (don’t look)

I was on a train in Bulgaria going to the Black Sea with someone I’d like to forget. We’d been traveling since around sunrise, and it was late in the afternoon. “Could that cow get any closer?” I asked about, well, a cow in the field we were passing through. Like magic, the train then came to a jolting stop.

We looked out the window and at first saw nothing but field and train. My eyes adjusted to the September glare and I noticed odd clumps in the ground below us. I couldn’t understand what it was. I looked further down the track. Three cows were on their sides. “What is that?” I asked, but then I knew. Blood was shooting from a cow’s neck at least four feet into the air. I realized the clumps were pieces of cow.

Cow bodies were stuck under the train. The men all got off the train, including of course my traveling companion, and they stared at wheels and gears and scratched their heads and got back on the train. Perhaps ten or twelve cows were dead or dying. It took five hours for the cow parts to be cut away and to get a new engine. The cow herder stood by and cried.

A cow fetus lay stretched in the dirt. My companion and I pretended we didn’t see it, which was easy because the two of us had lots of practice pretending together.

When we met up with our friends–so late they all thought we’d finally stopped pretending–we told them about the cows, but not about the blood. Not about the cow head. Not about the strips of muscles and pieces on bone. Certainly not why the two of us were traveling together.

In fiction, characters talk to each other and don’t say what they want, what they mean, or what needs to be said. Sometimes the writer lets us know what is really going on in a character’s head, and sometimes keeps us guessing. But how do we connect with the main character if we don’t know she is thinking one thing while saying something else? You’ve got to get inside her head. “We hit a herd of cows,” she says. I’m a fool, she thinks.

The writer is not supposed to avoid the details. I don’t know if God is there or not, but the story is. The bloody details. The lies he tells and the lies she chooses to believe. The other characters knowing what a train wreck it all really is, but pretending all is well. Everyone pretending but the cow herder and the cows.

Does your character say what she’s thinking or keep secrets? Does he let it all out or hold it in? Do they focus on the cows or how stupid they were for even being on the damn train?

I couldn’t get these pictures the size I wanted, but I put them in anyway. At least many of the cow parts look like part of the dirt. What does it say about someone that she would take pictures of dead animals but not look her traveling companion in the eye?

11 thoughts on “Dead Cows and Trains (don’t look)

  1. What does it say about someone that she would take pictures of dead animals but not look her traveling companion in the eye?

    Whatever else it says, it says to readers, “Now, here is a character you recognize and empathize with…”

    One thing I really like about this post: the setting is fantastic (meaning “like a fantasy” — I read “a train in Bulgaria going to the Black Sea” and sort of went Wha? Huh?.). The outward events have pretty much no counterpart in my own life. But the map of connections between those events and what’s going on in the narrator’s mind and relationship turns what could have been simply a great travelogue into a real honest-to-God story, y’know? “What a train wreck it all really is” — love the way “it all” doesn’t refer back to anything specific.

    Just out of curiosity, how long does it take you, on average, to compose one of these blog entries?

  2. Sherri

    I got the entire picture in my feed reader. I swear, I thought that white blob in the lower left of the second picture was a human skull. It still looks like one to me.

  3. JES, well, it was a fantastic journey in many ways, but perhaps not a fantasy to those involved. I’ve tried to make a story out of it. Tried.

    How long does an entry take? Hmm. Maybe an hour. Hard to say because I tend to think about most of the day before I can write anything.

    Sherri, I hadn’t seen that blob as a human skull, but now that you said that, of course it does. I’m getting the creeps all over again.

    Shelly, I hope so.

    shelli, thanks for staying with me all this time.

  4. Unflinching, this. Just the right details.

    I think I flinch too much. For some reason I continually write and write and write around a story. Details to for mood and setting and character and build up, but when it gets to the heart of the matter, I rush right through.

    Learning to hold on to the things that tell our stories, that open them up so the light shines inside and the reader opens up too… that’s the thing. You’ve got it, sister. Keep going. I’m reading.

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  6. A rubber-necker in the outside world, yet afraid to give her inner world a second glance. That’s the first thought that rang in my mind about this character.

    The setting, imagery, and photos were astonishing and disturbing, and I cannot imagine the post without them

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