The scream pierced the air like a really loud noise when it’s quiet. I let go of Sub’s jammed zip. We both looked down the road, into the darkness. There was something odd about the sound now. It was like thumping. Like a shrieking drum. “What the…” I murmured.
Murmured. Weird word. Mur mur.
Sub blasted up into the night sky leaving me standing next to the van. The cries stopped just as the rain started to splatter down and I jumped into the passenger seat of the Toyota Hiace Powervan. I didn’t need to ask Firelighter if she had just heard that, her face was that of a young woman who had just heard something. I nodded ahead and she started the van and we moved slowly down the narrow lane. I reached over and pulled back the small stick behind the steering wheel which activated our full beam headlights. “You wanna… you wanna not touch stuff when I’m driving?” asked Firelighter. I didn’t look at her. I was leaning forward in my chair, trying to see beyond the reach of the headlights, out into the blackness beyond.
What is it they say? If you stare into the abyss long enough it will eventually stare back at you? You’ll see yourself staring back? Something like that. They should change it to, if you stare into the abyss for long enough, you’ll eventually see this thing that at first looks like an enormous, heaving and writhing, brown snake, without a beginning nor end, but when you drive a bit closer you’ll see that it’s actually a big long line of cows, trampeding across a road.
“Something’s got them spooked,” I said as the van’s brakes squealed slightly and we came gently to a stop. We sat and watched the cows. The way the van’s headlights just lit up the happenings ahead, leaving everything else dark, made the whole scene seem like a diorama, or somehow somewhat theatrical. It was like it was a play and we were the audience. The cows were entering from the blackness of stage left, and exiting stage right. For a grunting second or two they were center stage.
“Something’s got them spooked,” said Tan, suddenly on my shoulder. He was leaning on the back of my seat. His hooded head was too close to my head. I moved my head away because it was almost like he was whispering in my ear.
“I said that about three seconds ago,” I said. “Like literally, three seconds ago.” Tan, oblivious to his encroachment into my personal space, clearly wasn’t going to move so I twisted a bit so I was sort of leaning against the passenger door. The cows kept coming, paying us no attention whatsoever. “Can we drive through them?” I asked.
“Can we drive through cows?” That was Firelighter saying that. Little bit of attitude in her voice, I thought.
“Will they stop if you go forward?” I said, holding my hand out to the windscreen.
“How could I possibly know?” asked Firelighter. “When would I ever have done this-“
“Well… fucking try it!” I sighed.
“Why don’t you say ‘try to drive through them’ instead of ‘can we drive through them’? You’re the manager.”
“I just did. I said it. I said, drive through them.” I sighed as she released the handbrake. “Drive through the cows!” I urged. “Slowly though.”
Firelighter inched the van forward. Ever forward. The cows, their heads sometimes bouncing off the rear haunches of the one in front, hellbent on reaching their destination, paid us no heed.
Haunches, hellbent and heed. Three words that begin with the letter H that I’ve never said out loud in my whole life, and yet here in the darkness they seemed apt. I’d never seen a trampede before, either, not not on telly, anyway. It was a night of firsts. The van was now only a metre or so from the torrent of cows but the cows weren’t stopping. From here, the way the van trembled, it let you truly feel the weight and power of these animals. We stopped, effectively losing the game of chicken against the cows, and one crashed along the front of the van. “There goes the number plate,” I said.
“Shall I keep going?” asked Firelighter, just before a running cow glancingly blowed the left-front headlight. The way the van shook, even without a direct hit, told her the answer to that. She reversed a little.
“That’s, like, a million cows,” I said. “Where are they coming from?”
“Over there,” said Firelighter, pointing to her left.
“Maybe they’re going around in a circle,” said Tan.
“What, like, twenty cows running in a circle, here?” said an unconvinced Firelighter. A cow went skittering to its knees with its eyes wide open in terror and its tongue lolling agog. With what looked like an enormous, desperate effort, its neck thrashing, it managed to get to its cow feet and somehow without bring down any others. “Something’s really spooked them,” she said.
“Great, we’ve all said that now.” I clapped. “Tan, is there another way in?” I asked. He stood and lent right over the front seats, and, balancing himself with one hand on the dashboard, he removed the TomTom with the other. “Is there?” I asked.
“I just need a bit more time,” he said.
“Look!” said Firelighter. And she was right. The cows were thinning. There were gaps between cows now. A moment early those gaps in the cows had been filled with other cows. And then, like a good movie from the 1980s, as suddenly as it started, perhaps – we didn’t see it start – it ended.
These days you have the natural ending point of a film and then there’s at least forty minutes of bullshit. The Karate Kid? Crane kick/bosh/end credits.
“Guys!” said Firelighter. It took me a moment to see it. On the road, sideways to us, was the old woman.
“Oh Jesus,” I said. I could hear Tan shaking his head in his hood. His head was rubbing on the sides of his hood as he tried to deny to himself that which his eyes were bearing witness to. The old woman had been crushed so completely that she looked like a Banksy. “We’ve got to go. Put an end to this.”
“Drive over her?” asked Firelighter, dismayed.
“She’s been pancaked, it won’t make a difference to her. There’s no other way.”
“If we back up here, we could drive down to that church and-“
I interrupted Tan. “There’s no other way,” I said, soothingly this time.
“I don’t think I…” said Firelighter, distressed.
“Slowly,” I said, gently, and Firelighter once again drove the van forwards. There was no bump at all. We drove in silence. Soon we got to the gate. The woman’s homestead. There were lights on in Fallow Farm. Maybe she’d been preparing supper in this space she must have considered safe. She’d so nearly made it back. Killed within sight of her sanctuary by the very animals she’d devoted her whole life to extracting milk from. I swallowed hard and then blinked hard.
We parked by the paddock and Firelighter turned off the van. It was silent for a moment. The calm before the storm. The big storm, anyway. The cows were a little storm compared to the potential this one had. It was time to take out the Cowolf. A barn stood on the other side of the paddock. The farmhouse to our right. “Can you smell piss?” asked Firelighter. I sniffed. I could a bit.
I sniffed my shoulder. “Fuck.”