Andrei Platonov

THE COW (a novel)

THE GREY CHERKASSIAN COW FROM THE STEPPE LIVED ALONE IN A SHED; THE SHED, made of boards and painted on the outside, stood in the small yard by the house of the level crossing keeper. In the shed, beside the firewood, the hay, the millet straw and the household things that had seen better days - a trunk without a lid, a burnt-out samovar flue, some old rags, a chair without legs, - there was space for the cow to lie down in at night, and for her to live in during the long winters.

In the afternoons and evenings, Vasya Rubtsov, her owner's son, would come and visit her, and stroke the soft hair around her head. He came this day too.

"Cow, cow," he said, since the cow did not have a name of her own and he called her what was written in his reading book. "Yes, you're a cow! Don't fret, your son will get better, my father I will be bringing him back right away."

The cow had a little bull calf; he had choked on something the day before, and spittle and bile had begun to dribble out of I his mouth. Vasya's father was afraid the calf would die, and he had taken him along to the station today to see the vet.

The cow looked sideways at the boy and remained silent, chewing a blade of withered grass that had long ago been worn out by death. She always recognized the boy, and he loved her. He liked everything about the cow: her warm kind eyes, framed by dark circles - as if she were continually exhausted or lost in thought -, her horns, her brow, and her large, thin body which was the way it was because, instead of saving her strength for herself in fat and meat, the cow gave it all away in milk and work. The boy also looked at her tender, quiet udder with its small shrivelled teats that fed him with milk, and he touched her short, firm dewlap and the strong bones that jutted out in front.

After looking at the boy for a while, the cow lowered her head and took a few blades of grass from the trough with her ungreedy mouth. She could not rest or look around for long, she had to chew without interruption, since she gave birth to her milk without interruption and her food was thin and monotonous; the cow had to labour at it for a long time in order to get enough nourishment.

Vasya went out of the shed. Autumn was in the air outside. Round the crossing-keeper's house stretched level, empty fields which had borne corn and rustled with life during the summer but were now mown flat, sad and deserted.

Twilight was setting in; the sky, wrapped in cool grey fog, was already being closed off by darkness; and the wind, after spending all day rustling stubble and bare bushes that had gone dead in preparation for winter, now itself lay down in the still, low places of the earth, gently creaking the wind-vane on the chimney from time to time as it began the song of autumn.

The single-track railway line passed not far from their home, near the front garden, where by now everything was withered and drooping - grass and flowers alike. Vasya was wary of going inside the fence: the garden now seemed like a cemetery of the plants that he had planted in the spring and brought out into life.

His mother lit a lamp in the house and put the signal lantern out on the bench.

"The 406 will be coming soon," she said to her son. "You signal it by. There's no sign of your father. I hope he's not getting drunk!"

Vasya's father had set off for the station, seven kilometres away, before noon; he had probably left the calf with the vet and was now either at a mechanics lesson or at a Party meeting in the station, or else drinking beer in the canteen. Or there might have been a long queue at the vet's, and his father might still be waiting. Vasya took the lantern and sat down on the wooden beam by the crossing. There was still no sound of the train and the boy felt upset: he did not have time to sit here and see the train past — he had to get up early next morning and he needed to do his homework and then go to bed.

He went to the collective farm elementary school five kilo¬metres away, and he was in the fourth year.

Vasya liked going to school; when he listened to the teacher and read books, he could see in his mind the whole world - a world he did not yet know and which lay a long way away from Shim. The Nile, Egypt, Spain and the Far East, the great rivers - the Mississippi, the Yenisey, the Quiet Don and the Amazon - the Aral Sea, Moscow, Mount Ararat, Solitude Island in the Arctic Ocean: all this excited Vasya and attracted ihim. He felt that all these countries and people had been -waiting a long time for him to grow up and visit them. But he had not yet had time to go anywhere; he still lived where he had been born, and he had been only to the collective farm where he went to school, and to the station. And so he would gaze with anxious joy at the faces of the people who looked out through the windows of the passenger trains: who were they and what were they thinking? But the trains went by quickly and the people in them were gone before the boy at the crossing could get to know them. And anyway there were not many trains, only two in each direction every twenty-four hours, and three of the trains passed by at night.
Once, thanks to a train going by very slowly, Vasya clearly made out the face of a young, thoughtful man. He was looking through an open window into the steppe, at some place on the horizon he did not know, and smoking a pipe. Seeing a boy standing by a crossing with a raised green flag, he smiled at him, clearly said the words, "Goodbye, mate!" - and then waved farewell. "Goodbye," Vasya answered him to himself. "We'll meet again when I grow up! Stay alive and wait for me, don't die!" And for a long time after that the boy remembered this thoughtful man who had passed by in a carriage on his way to some unknown destination; he was probably a parachutist, an artist, a medal-winner, or something even better, Vasya decided. But soon the memory of the man who had once passed their home was forgotten in the boy's heart, since the boy needed to live on and think and feel other things.

Far away, in the empty night of the autumn fields, the train sang out. Vasya went up close to the line and raised the bright lamp high over his head to signal the "all clear". He listened a little longer to the growing rumble of the approaching train and then looked back towards his home. In the yard the cow began to low mournfully. She was waiting all the time for her son, her calf, but he never came. "Why's father taking so long? Where's he loafing about?" Vasya thought crossly. "Our cow's already crying! It's night, it's dark, and still no father."

The locomotive reached the crossing and, turning its wheels with difficulty, breathing with all the strength of its fire into the darkness, went past the solitary person with a lamp in his hand. The engine driver did not so much as look at the boy - he was leaning way out of the window and watching the engine: steam had burst through the packing in the piston rod gland and was escaping with every stroke of the piston. Vasya had noticed this too. Soon there would be a long climb and it would be difficult for a locomotive with a cylinder defect to pull the train. The boy knew what makes a steam engine work, he had read about it in his physics book and, even if there had not been anything written about it there, he would still have found out. He could not bear to see any object or substance and not understand its workings and how it lived inside itself. And so he was not upset by the engine driver going past without looking at his lantern: the driver was worried about his locomotive - it might stop at night on the long climb, and then he would find it difficult to move the train again. Once the train stopped, the waggons would fall back a little, putting the couplings under tension, and the couplings might break if he started under full steam, while otherwise he would be unable to get going at all.

Some heavy four-axle waggons went past; their springs were compressed, and the boy could tell they were carrying a heavy and precious load. Then came open waggons; on them were motor cars, machines of some kind covered in tarpaulins, mounds of coal, mountains of cabbages, and then some new rails; after that came more closed waggons, carrying livestock. Vasya shone his lantern onto the wheels and axle-boxes, won¬dering if something was wrong there, but everything seemed to be in order. From one of the livestock waggons came the low of an unknown heifer, and his own cow, yearning for her son, answered from the shed with a long, plaintive cry.

The last waggons went past Vasya very slowly. He could hear the engine struggling, labouring away at the head of the train, but its wheels were spinning and the couplings between the waggons had gone slack. Vasya set off with his lantern towards the engine, since it was in difficulties and he wanted to be near it, as if this would help him to share its lot.

The locomotive was being driven so hard that bits of coal were flying out of the chimney, and the boiler's resonant, breathing insides were clearly audible. The wheels were turning slowly and the engine driver was watching them from the window of his cab. The driver's mate was walking along the track in front of the engine. He was shovelling up sand from the layer of ballast and sprinkling it onto the rails so the wheels would bite. The headlamps lit up a black, exhausted figure who was smeared in engine oil. Vasya put his lantern down on the ground and walked out onto the track towards the engine driver's mate.

"Let me do that," said Vasya. "You go and help the engine. It might come to a stop any moment."

"Can you manage?" asked the driver's mate, looking at the boy with large, bright eyes out of a face that was deep and dark. "All right then, have a go! But be careful - watch out for the engine!"

The spade was too large and heavy for Vasya. He gave it back to the driver's mate.

"I'll use my hands, it's easier that way."

Vasya squatted down, and began clawing up sand and sprinkling it onto the rail in a long stripe.

"And the other rail!" ordered the driver's mate, and ran back to the engine.

Vasya began to sprinkle sand first on one rail, and then on the other. The locomotive followed behind the boy, slowly and heavily, grinding the sand with its steel wheels. Cinders fell on Vasya from above, together with drops of moisture that formed as the steam condensed, but Vasya enjoyed working, he felt he was more important than the locomotive, because the locomo¬tive was going along behind him and it was only thanks to him that its wheels did not slip and bring it to a halt.

If Vasya forgot himself in the zeal of work and let the locomotive come right up to him, the driver gave a short blast on the whistle and shouted down: "Hey, watch out there! And make the sand thicker, more even!"

Vasya got out of the engine's way and worked on in silence.
But then he got angry at being shouted at and ordered around; he jumped off the track and shouted back at the engine driver: "And why did you leave without any sand? Didn't you think?"

"We've run out," answered the engine driver. "We've only got a small sandbox."

"Put in an extra one," ordered Vasya, walking beside the engine. "You can shape one out of scrap iron. Ask a roofer."

The engine driver looked at this boy, but was unable to make him out clearly in the darkness. Vasya was neatly dressed and wearing leather shoes, his face was small and he kept his eyes fixed on the engine. The driver had a little boy at home who was just like him.

"And there's steam in all the wrong places, it's coming out of the cylinder, it's escaping to one side of the boiler," said Vasya. "You waste a lot of power with all those holes."

"A right one you are!" said the driver. "You sit here and look after the train then. I'll walk."

"All right!" Vasya agreed joyfully.

Without moving, the locomotive began spinning all of its wheels at full speed, like a prisoner trying to leap to freedom, and even far down the line the rails beneath it began to thunder.

Vasya jumped out again in front of the locomotive and began throwing sand onto the rails underneath the front bogie wheels. "If I didn't have a son of my own, I'd adopt this lad," the engine driver muttered as he brought the spinning wheels under control. "He's still young and he's got everything ahead of him, but he's a real little man already . . . What the hell's going on? Maybe the brakes are sticking somewherein the rear and the crew have all dozed off as if they're on holiday . . . Well, I'll shake them up a bit on the downhill run." The engine driver gave two long whistles so that, if any of the brakes were still on, the crew would release them.

Vasya looked round and stepped off the track.

"What's up?" shouted the engine driver.

"Nothing," said Vasya. "It won't be so steep now, the engine will be all right on its own, it can manage without me, and then it will be downhill. . ."

"Anything's possible," said the driver from above. "Well then - catch!" And he threw the boy two large apples.

Vasya picked up his present from the ground.

"Wait, don't eat them yet!" said the driver. "On your way back, have a good look under the waggons and listen out in case the brakes are stuck anywhere. Then climb up onto the mound and use your lantern to make a signal. You know how?"
"I know all the signals," said Vasya, and caught hold of the ladder so he could have a ride. Then he bent down and looked underneath the locomotive.

"The brakes are stuck!" he shouted.

"Where?" asked the engine driver.

"Right underneath you! The bogie under the tender! The wheels there are hardly turning, but they're all right on the other bogie!"

The engine driver cursed himself, his mate, and the whole of existence. Vasya jumped down from the ladder and set off home. His lantern was on the ground, shining in the distance. Vasya listened to the working parts of the waggons just in case, but nowhere could he hear brake shoes rubbing or grinding.

The train passed by, and the boy turned towards the place where he had left his lantern. But the beam suddenly rose into the air - someone had picked the lantern up. Vasya ran up and saw it was his father.

"Where's our calf?" the boy asked. "Has he died?"
"No, he got better. I sold him to the slaughterhouse, they gave me a good price. What do we want with a bull calf?"
"He's still little," said Vasya.

"They're worth more when they're little, the meat's more tender," his father explained.

Vasya changed the glass in the lantern, replacing the white pane by a green pane, and made a signal by slowly lifting the lantern above his head several times and then lowering it again, shining it in the direction of the train that had just passed: the wheels were turning smoothly, the brakes were not sticking anywhere - let the train go on its way!

Everything went quiet. The cow in the yard lowed meekly and mournfully. She could not sleep, she was waiting for her son. "You go back home on your own," said the father. "I'll go and check our section of line." "What about your tools?" Vasya reminded him. "It's all right, I just want to look where the spikes are coming out - I won't do any work now," the father said quietly. "My heart aches for the calf - we cared for him a long time, we'd grown used to him... If I'd known I'd feel like this, I wouldn't have sold him."

And the father went off down the line with the lantern, turning his head first to the right and then to the left as he checked the track.

The cow gave another long low when Vasya opened the gate into the yard and the cow heard a human being. Vasya went into the shed and looked closely at the cow, letting his eyes get used to the dark. The cow was not eating anything now; she was breathing slowly and silently, and a heavy, difficult grief languished inside her, one that could have no end and could only grow because, unlike a human being, she was unable to allay this grief inside her with words, consciousness, a friend or any other distraction. Vasya stroked and fondled the cow for a long time, but she remained motionless and indifferent; she only needed one thing - her son, the calf- and nothing could replace him: neither a human being, nor grass, nor the sun. The cow did not understand that it is possible to forget one happiness, to find another and then live again, not suffering any longer. Her dim mind did not have the strength to help her deceive herself; if something had once entered her heart or her feelings, then it could not be suppressed there or forgotten.

And the cow lowed gloomily, because she was entirely obedient to life, to nature and to her need for her son, who was not yet big enough for her to be able to leave him, and she felt hot and aching inside, she was looking into the darkness with large, bloodshot eyes, and she was unable to cry with them, to weaken herself and her grief.
In the morning Vasya went off early to school, while his father began to get the small single-bladed plough ready for work. The father wanted to use the cow to plough some of the land beside the railway line, so he could sow millet there in the spring.

When he came back from school, Vasya saw that his father was ploughing with their cow, but had got very little done. The cow was dragging the plough obediently, lowering her head and drooling spittle onto the ground. Vasya and his father had worked with their cow before, she knew how to plough, and she was patient and used to wearing a yoke.
Towards evening the father unharnessed the cow and let her into the old fields to graze on the stubble. Vasya was sitting at home at the table, he was doing his schoolwork and looking from time to time out of the window. He could see his cow. She was standing in the field nearby; she was not grazing, she was not doing anything.

Evening set in just like the day before, gloomy and empty, and the weather-vane creaked on the roof, as if singing the long song of autumn. Staring into the darkening field, the cow was waiting for her son; now she was no longer lowing for him and calling him, she was enduring and not understanding.

After he had done his schoolwork, Vasya took a slice of bread, sprinkled it with salt and took it out to the cow. The cow did not eat the bread and remained indifferent, just as before. Vasya stood beside her for a while and then put his arms round the cow's neck from underneath, so she would know that he understood and loved her. But the cow abruptly jerked her neck, threw off the boy and, with an uncharacteristic guttural scream, ran away into the field. After running some distance, the cow suddenly turned round and, now jumping, now bending her front legs and pressing her head to the ground, began to approach Vasya, who was waiting for her in the same place.
The cow ran past the boy, past their home, and disappeared in the evening field, and from there Vasya once again heard her strange, guttural voice.

When his mother came back from the collective farm co¬operative, she, Vasya and Vasya's father went out into the sur¬rounding fields and walked about until midnight, going in different directions and calling out to their cow, but the cow did not answer them, she was not there. After supper the mother began to cry, because they had lost their worker and their provider, while the father thought about how he'd probably have to write an application to the mutual-aid fund and the rail¬way workers' union, asking for a loan towards the acquisition ofanewcow.

Vasya was the first to wake up in the morning, the light in the windows was still grey. He could hear someone near the house, breathing and moving about in the silence. He looked out through the window and saw the cow; she was standing by the gate and waiting to be let back in.

After that, although the cow went on living, and worked when they needed to plough or to go to the collective farm for flour, her milk dried up completely, and she turned sullen and slow-witted. Vasya watered her himself, and cleaned her and fed her, but the cow did not respond to his care, nothing anyone did made any difference to her.
In the daytime they let the cow out into the field, so she could walk about freely for a while and feel better. But the cow did not walk much; she would stand for a long time in one place, walk a little, and then stop again, forgetting to walk on. Once she went out onto the line and began to walk slowly along the sleepers; then Vasya's father saw her, stopped her and led her away. Previously the cow had been timid and sensitive, and had never gone out onto the line. And so Vasya began to fear the cow would be killed by a train or that she would just die, and he thought about her all the time he was at school and then came back home at a run.

And once, when the days were at their shortest and it was already getting dark as he came home from school, Vasya saw that a goods train had stopped opposite their house. Alarmed, he ran up to the engine.

The engine driver - the one whom Vasya had helped not long ago with his train - and Vasya's father were dragging the cow from underneath the tender. She had been killed. Vasya sat down on the ground, numb with the grief of this first close death.

"I'd been whistling at her for ten minutes," the engine driver was saying to Vasya's father. "Was she deaf or stupid or something? I put the emergency brakes on, but there still wasn't time."

"She wasn't deaf, she was crazy," said the father. "She'd probably gone to sleep on the track."

"No, she was running away from the engine, but she was slow and she didn't have the sense to get off the line," said the driver. "I thought she would."

Along with the driver's mate and the fireman, four men together, they dragged the mutilated carcass of the cow out from underneath the tender, and heaved all the beef into a dry ditch beside the track.

"Well, at least it's fresh," said the engine driver. "Are you going to salt the meat for yourselves, or will you sell it?"

"We'll have to sell it," the father decided. "We need to raise the money for another cow, it's difficult to get by without a cow."

"You can't get by without a cow," the engine driver agreed. "You must get the money together and buy one, I'll help out a bit myself. I haven't got much, but I can find something. I'm getting a bonus soon."

"Why do you want to give me money?" Vasya's father asked in surprise. "I'm not family, what do I matter to you? Anyway, I can get by on my own. You know how it is: the trade union, the mutual-aid fund, work, it all adds up . . ."

"Well, I'll chip in a bit too," the engine driver insisted. "Your son helped me, and I'm going to help you. There he is. Hello!" smiled the engine driver.

"Hello," said Vasya.
"I've never run anyone over in my life," said the engine driver, "except once - a dog. It'll be on my conscience if I don't give you anything for the cow."

"What are you getting a bonus for?" asked Vasya. "You drive badly."

"I'm getting a little better now." The driver laughed. "I've been learning. We're short of resources, my boy, you can't even get a spare pound of tow, you can't help driving badly."

"Have you put in another sand-box?" asked Vasya.

"No, but we've swapped the little one for a big one."

"It took you a while to work that out," said Vasya angrily. . . At this point the chief guard came up and gave the driver a form he had filled in, about why the train had stopped between stations.

Next day the father sold the whole of the cow's carcass to the district co-operative; someone else's cart came and took it away. Vasya and his father went in the cart too. His father wanted to get the money for the meat, and Vasya was hoping to buy some reading-books from the shop. They stayed the night in the town, spent another half day there, buying this and that, and set off home after lunch.
Their way back took them through the collective farm where Vasya went to school. It was already completely dark when they got there, and Vasya stayed the night with the caretaker instead of going home, so he would not have to come back first thing in the morning and wear himself out to no avail. His father went home on his own.

In school that morning they started their first-term tests. The pupils had to write an essay on the subject: "How I will live and work in order to be of service to our Motherland."

Vasya wrote out his answer in his exercise book: "I do not know how I will live, I have not thought yet. We had a cow. While she lived, my mother, my father and I all ate milk from her. Then she had her son — a calf— and he ate milk from her too, there were three of us and he made four, and there was enough milk for us all. The cow also ploughed and carried loads. Then her son was sold for meat, he was killed and eaten. The cow was very unhappy, but she soon died from a train. And she was eaten too, because she was beef. Now there is nothing. The cow gave us everything that is her milk, her son, her meat, her skin, her innards and her bones, she was kind I remember our cow and I will not forget."

It was twilight when Vasya returned home. His father was already there, he had just come in from the line; he was showing Vasya's mother a hundred roubles - two notes that the driver had thrown down from the engine in a tobacco pouch.