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A man sits on a chair wearing a white cowboy hat. He starts to play his trombone, and though to begin with he angles the instrument in such a way as to avoid it touching the ground when fully extended, his arms will soon become a little tired, and his folding chair’s front angled bar will sink some way into the mud, such that his whole body will angle forwards and the end of the trombone, when in full extension, will hit the muddy ground in the same spot repeatedly, digging some way in over the course of the song which he will play many times, and his chair will also be sinking. If he kept playing for long enough he would, unless impeded, tilt all the way forward so that he was lying flat on the ground, his mouth on the trombone, playing into the muddy cast of the instrument and his hands, and the front half of a white cowboy hat. The mud is of a field, mushrooms grow, none today though that he can see. Not of interest to him, but seeable: some dead insects, some small clumps of surface soil and light shards of stone dance in the air, suspended by the light upward gusts of an embedded ventilation shaft at the field’s left lower corner.
Claude in his folding chair plays slowly, relishing the long tail of each note going away. Claude serenades the cows often, whenever he gets the time, and feels happy. He doesn’t know where the cows come from, and when sometimes he plays and plays but no cows come, he doesn’t know why that is. It can take a long time for them to come. On this occasion, his chair sinking forwards and the end of the trombone, when fully extended, pushing through earth, a cow appears in silhouette at the crest of the horizon, and in the emptiness, seems noticeably to block out a little light, like a stain on his eyeballs. He plays his song and when he smiles a little as one cow on the horizon becomes three and then twelve, the note withers and makes a cheeky sound; a little spittle sprays up his face. Some bubbles in the spray don’t pop when some others do, and the light is such that he sort of glitters as eventually they do. The cows do not run, but they keep coming, and the light doesn’t change except to show [[more]]
Once he is surrounded completely by cows, he’s so happy. For their part, the cows make sounds that resemble the trombone’s, and they keep coming. The field fills to such a density that Claude would never be able to walk out, not with his trombone and his folding chair. Because of this, he must eventually stop playing. It breaks his heart, stopping. He can see how much the cows knows themselves to have lost. The sounds they make are mysterious and, surrounding Claude, low, they seem to come from his own throat, out of his own ears, stopping him from swallowing air. Don’t weep, Claude, you’re not the only one. They low and press inwards towards him and the trombone, which Claude would never hide from them, even as his heart breaks that they don’t meet his own eyes, and he knows it is indefensible to have brought them here and not to go on forever, and so eventually - they are so beautiful and so strange - he stops weeping, and steels himself. The wind is cold on his ears, but the heat of the many bodies is enormous; he sweats through his shirt. There’s a thin veil of smoke whistling off the surface of the collective flank as body heat turns to vapour and is picked by the wind. When the eye is coated in an oily film of fatty tears, maybe it can see more. There might be thousands of cows. Sometimes in this moment he gets out of the chair. He holds their gaze. Not one or any cow. His expression softens, as if to say, and yet we keep coming back! But there is nothing he can do to stop these hundreds of cows from crying. He is hungry, and his heart races, saying something you have done is wrong, Claude. The smells of hundreds of cows close together, the thin light. He sits once more in his chair, slightly tipped forwards, his hat tilted low over his eyes. The cows don’t touch him, and Claude wouldn’t dare.
As a wet thumb on a candle flame, a cow pats out the ventilation shaft in the lower left hand corner of the field.
[[go]]When the cows start to go, so does he. He straps the trombone to the bar above the fuel cylinder of his Rider in the road. He takes the folding chair to a spot by a tree and slots it into the ground before mounting the bike. As he rides the sky goes dark. He doesn’t stop. Elsewhere in various places strips of light come on all at once with a soft hiss, but not where he is riding very fast. As he pulls into a left turn, he sees his hands before him and the road ahead disappear. He pulls the brakes and rolls sideways off the Rider onto the ground, his arms folded instinctively over his head, catching his eyes like falling fish eggs. The bike falls on its side a few metres ahead of him, and he hears with anguish the bell of the trombone hit the ground, still ringing some seconds after impact. He shuffles himself using his knees, scissoring them out and inwards, until he reaches some long grass, into which he burrows himself, kneading at the soil to get lower. He uses his feet and knees and his hips and the outwards curve of his chest, and his chin, moving his body in waves. He turns his head on its side. Like automatic doors his lips part and open. Steadily he protrudes his tongue, letting the slick curl of an earthworm find it and ascend it, disappearing inside before, with equal grace, he pulls it in, without once wetting his lips. He closes his mouth and turns his head back to face downwards. One of the shortest nights for a long time.
A spiderweb is suspended between two trees. It is night. One of the trees has smooth, sap-sticky bark and many thin branches, and the other has rough, dry bark, and it has few branches at this height, though here and there are burls which are not branches but growths in which the tree’s grain has grown in a deformed manner. They are filled with small hard knots from dormant buds.. The web is stretchy and very strong. Though the web already has caught a flying insect, the spider is not yet attending to it. The insect is writhing in the silk, batting its wings against the fine threads, which is causing the web to judder slightly, which excites the spider, who just can’t help it, and now creeps over, stirred by the silver vibrations which amplify for both the movements that concern only them.
The spider begins once the insect is dead, by administering small quantities of a venom which liquefies the insect’s body, so that it can be sucked up through a straw-like fang. It has started raining. A drop of rain envelops the entangled pair, and as it drops another succeeds it. As the second drop takes the place of the former, the two are caught between two perfect orbs part-subsuming them, and the refracted light peoples each with a multitude of their weird reflections. Tenderly they move out of time together and are many. The thin neck of the separating drops contorts and extends their bodies, both of which the spider moves around, the insect swaying sweetly, the tiny hairy gaps between them magnified until the water is gone and they’re scurrying to a far edge of the web which is among the branches of the smooth tree which protect them from the rain, which keeps falling.
Something moves and a heavy something drops. Something small on the ground is running so fast out of the way, the leaves on the ground shiver and turn over in its brutal wake. With the speed that its heart is racing, barely bearing even to be, it retreats inwards as into a fastness, ambivalent to refuge, seeking only displacement. One sharp hoof steps down and the fast-moving something small withers. There is a decomposition smell. As it begins raining in total darkness, four hooves slip on the mud with uncertain steps that with each iteration change course and slither. As they slide to a halt at the end of every step forward, gathered in mounds before them is new dirt, each layer revealing itself to be wet with stranger’s saliva.
[[pause]]As a wet thumb on a candle flame, a cow pats out the ventilation shaft in the lower left hand corner of the field.
Both fly and spider pause. A slick leathered snout pushes through the spider’s web, which does not break, but stretches, pulling with it the spider and its dissipating furred bolus, quivering through the work of death. The spider has raised its fangs, and the web is pulled to envelop the snout and face of the blind, spectre-thin deer pushing through it. The spider, as the fang moves downwards, turns and sees on the other side of its web the deer’s terrible blue eye, shot with weird light that in the darkness seems to come from elsewhere. The eye is an orb of translucent blue, of a shade that exists only in the natural world in venomous tendrils or secretions, that eclipses the spider as it passes and as the tension in the threads of silk of the web increases, creaking like glass. When the web snaps, the spider bites down as it falls, casting lengths of silk which catch nothing but air and long blades of grass which droop and lose what has them caught. The silk whistles off surfaces, flails and flails out of useful proximity and becomes ghostly. The deer walks on, thrashing its head to shake loose the web and failing.
Claude on the ground, some distance from his Rider on its side, has in the rain been able to get deeper into the earth, not having ceased moving his body as before. His eyelids are pressed against his left forearm. Sometimes when he presses hard his closed eyelids, formations of something which resembles light appear. This is because photochemical activity in his retina instigated by an earlier stimulus is continuing without the presence of that stimulus. But to Claude it looks like the face, chest, and knock-kneed front legs of every cow he has ever seen. The cows come close and withdraw from him as blood pulses through his eyelids.
His head is now almost entirely embedded in the earth. The white cowboy hat sits on the ground where it was, containing what is left to cover of Claude’s skull. As Claude gets deeper, the hat’s high clefted crown becomes emptier, but it stays put, as there is little wind, and the mud is quite sticky. Because of the heat treatment that Claude regularly gives his hat, it is very resistant to natural wear. Claude treats the hat, made from fur-based felt, with hot steam which makes it soft and malleable. With care and great focus he shapes it into his signature shape: tall, narrow, rounded at the corners but not circular, with a perfectly central frontal cleft, no deeper than two knuckles.
[[not afraid]] For hundreds of years, the cowboy hat has remained basically unchanged from the original ‘Boss of the Plains’ style designed by John B. Stetson in 1865. The durability and water-resistance of the Original Stetson obtained additional publicity in 1912, when the American battleship USS Maine was raised from Havana harbour, where it had sunk in 1898. A Stetson hat was found in the wreck, which had been submerged in seawater for 14 years. The hat had been exposed to ooze, mud, and plant growth. However, the hat was cleaned off and appeared to be undamaged.
The crown of the Stetson is stamped down by a hoof. Claude’s head is pressed deeper and he chokes. His body goes rigid and he feels things creeping over him. There is an animal above him and it has paused. The mud around him feels cold and thick with cruel shards of stone and sharp broken edges, and his now shaking body is flooded with adrenaline begging for a getaway. It makes his knees twitch.
Mud is in his lips and teeth, tasting terrible, filling him with dread. A second hoof tries to step on his back, but slips on the slick leather of his jacket. It kicks his ribs. In his sealed eyes the cows come and come and withdraw, come and withdraw faster and with violence as his heart quickens and the pulses that deliver and take these visions accelerate to a sickening flicker, and he has the sensation of screaming. Suddenly Claude is sure he knows what is happening to him. He knows what he is going to do before it even occurs to him to do it, he just can’t help himself. In his eyes the spectral cows come close to him and withdraw. He screams as he reaches up with his loose arm and seizes the hoof, which immediately tries to kick, but Claude holds on. Whispers, don’t weep. Nearly is he pulled up from his burrow as the animal tries to bolt. Its back legs kick at the ground and the animal cries out. But Claude isn’t going to let go yet, he can’t help himself. He just wants to do this one thing. He is working his grip upwards, past the hoof, to the lower leg. He doesn't hear the high pitched screams of the animal in his grasp which is pummelling his body with violent kicks. He is losing control of the leg as his hand tries to go higher. The man stretches his trembling fingers and strokes, he is being so gentle. He strokes and his trembling fingers part. He only feels the fleeting touch of cowhide slipping through them, breaking his heart, before his hand is empty.
Three more hooves stab the full force of a flight of terror and confusion and hurt into his back and neck, crunching bone, and then the animal is gone. Claude’s broken arm lies somewhere above the mud, in the grass. Slowly the Stetson’s crown is unrumpling itself, re-finding its former shape.
By means of waves and muscular contractions Claude alternately shortens and lengthens his body, tunnelling downwards. He wriggles and writhes, feeling himself without love to be without light.
Claude’s heart rate is now falling and in his closed eyes now his cows come so close to him, with each pulse becoming more real, more close, before they withdraw, and are gone. Near and far, Claude whispers, near and far, Claude weeps.
I could never be, Claude whispers, near enough, Claude weeps, to where you are.