UNTIL THE COWS COME HOME
Original by Clara Dawson
It isn’t all that bad I guess. Being a dog. You never have to worry about where your next meal comes from and there’s always someone to pick up your shit. The people I live with are nice enough. My dog house doesn’t leak when it rains. I guess the one bad thing about being a dog is that I wasn’t always a dog. I came into my canine career relatively late in my human one. 42 times around the Sun in a man’s body does little to prepare the one for a life on four legs.
Of course, I didn’t choose this existence. Human or dog. Both are rather miserable in The City. But as a man, I was among my own. People knew me by a human name before all this. Knew my favorite color and favorite Fable stories. However trivial, knowing these things made City life a little less depressing.
Sometimes I think about everything that has led up to the very second of time I’m currently living- the hundreds of years and thousands of people that have existed in The City before me. Fable has it that there used to be a world unlike anything The City has ever known. Plants used to grow. They weren’t plastic, they were alive. Humans and animals would “breed” and create new beings all on their own. Then of course humans messed it up and polluted the Earth and practically killed everything off. 600 years ago The City was founded right as the old world was going under. People called scientist figured out how to synthesize all the stuff that made up the air and water and food. And promised a self-sufficient world free from pollution problems. Five Revolutions later and The City looks a lot like it does now: synthetic factories run by the Lowers whose products are enjoyed by the Uppers.
Everything comes out of those factories- plants, clothes, food, babies. Before this whole dog business I worked the belt in a factory that produced plastic lawn ornaments. All got shipped over The River of course. The Lowers have no use for plastic lawn ornaments, we’ve never had lawns. No, it’s has been a sea of high rise apartments packed to the brim for as long as anyone can remember. The River is a remainder of the old world. Its waters were polluted beyond repair about 1,000 years ago. Everything defective gets dumped in there (and disintegrates immediately). Personally The River has never bothered me. It’s a comfort really to see its faint green glow at night.
Across The River are the neatly organized neighborhoods of the Uppers. The bridges across the River are tightly guarded by the Policía. They are synthesized to make sure the Lowers don’t cross. They’re constantly trying to quash the Fable from being told but they’re never successful of course. No one knows what language they speak. The Fable says it’s probably something called Span-ish, an old world language. A lot of Lowers think they speak it because it’s easier to kill us. They can’t understand us when we’re begging to be spared.
Anyways- The River. No one, Lower or Upper, goes across that thing. Unless of course, you’re like me. Once man, now dog. Or cat or bird or whatever damn animals the Uppers want to be entertained with. The City doesn’t have any animals. Not in the old world sense. People have been trying to synthesize them for centuries but none of them (or their DNA) survived the ultimate collapse of the old world. People wanted their damn animals though. The earliest Fable story that references transformation uses the date 2212 so some people think it’s about 400 years old. No one knows the process but the Uppers have found a way to turn humans into animals. All the Uppers have to do is put in a request and a Lower is selected for transformation.
Most of the time it’s just a few people a year for house companions. Sometimes they need to “boost Upper morale” and a whole herd of people are rounded up to be in a Circus. Fable stories that are only whispered in the dark tell of periods when Lowers were transformed for Upper consumption. That’s banned now, we think.
I figured things couldn’t get that much worse than my existence as a Lower. Then, a few weeks ago, the Policía yanked me from my cot in the middle of the night. I knew better than to scream. A family had put in a request for a dog, one for their little kid to ride around on. I had been chosen for transformation.
Here’s what I know: someone knocks you out and you wake up with fur. A fat, sweaty man briefly tells you how to act like a “dog”. If you don’t do it, you go into The River. I tried to talk back but a bark came out.
“Good,” he faintly smiled, “you’re catching on already.”
He walked me outside of where I was being held. I was across the River.
We strolled down perfectly gridded streets. Even though I had some idea of how the Uppers lived, the space they had astounded me. The Lower part of The City was crammed. People lived in every nook and cranny they could find. I shared my room with 7 other people. We took turns sleeping on the cot. Here, it was two Uppers to a house. A house! The perfectly square lawns squeaked under the man’s shoes. I forgot I wasn’t wearing shoes, or that I had feet at all. I had paws. I barked in surprise. The man yanked my leash.
“Shut up Lower. Don’t talk unless you’re asked to.”
We walked up to a house with a white door and the man rang the bell. I have no clue how the man knew which house to go to, they all looked the same to me. The houses stretched for miles in every direction as far as I could tell. Another fat sweaty man opened the door.
“Mr. S, nice to see you. Is this the companion we requested?”
“Mr. X, very nice to see you. Yes this is the requested companion. He is already programmed.”
The leash transferred hands and I was pulled inside.
I couldn’t have made that house up if I tried. I’d never seen so much space in my life. So much…shit. The plastic lamps and plastic couch were so clean they shone. Everything looked brand new and fresh out of a factory. The plastic came in colors I didn’t even know existed. It was so unlike the room I slept in I barked again. Mr. X smacked me on the nose
“Rule one, no barking inside. Or outside for that matter.”
A small girl stood at the foot of the bright pink stairs.
“Is that my doggy?” she asked looking at me
Mr. X beamed and handed the leash to her.
“Here you go. It’s yours.”
All I wanted to do was sulk in my dog house and lament the fact that I was a damn dog. But I had this image in my head of a large black shaggy animal tumbling into the green glow of The River. I guess being a dog is better than not being anything at all.
So I did whatever the family wanted me to. It was mostly the girl that requested I do anything at all. Every day we sat down in front of her little plastic doll house- an exact replica of her own home- and she talked to me about the people living in there. I couldn’t respond of course but that didn’t matter.
Mr. X and Mrs. X (who did not acknowledge my existence) left the house every morning and came back mid-afternoon. The girl told me she didn’t know where they went but that it was very important and one day she would do what they do. I was supposed to sit with her every day while she watched her Programming shows. Most of the time I would doze off while she recited lines back to the screen. From what I could glean, the Upper Counsel’s word was like the Fable. Every Upper had to do their part or The City would meet the same fate as the old world blah blah blah. There was never any mention of Lowers or anything across The River.
I figured that living here was going to be better than living as a Lower. I had space and enough to eat. It should’ve been fine. But truthfully the whole existence was fucking boring. Nothing ever happened. No one ever talked to each other. There were no gatherings to tell Fable stories or factory jokes or a closeness that comes with sharing a cot. The family ate together every night then watched Programming and went to bed. Every Sunday Mr. X would use the grill to synthesize food while Mrs. X laid across a plastic lawn chair. The girl would ride me around the yard. Every Sunday we would do this along with every other house in the entire neighborhood.
Then last night I had a dream about my brother. I haven’t seen him in years. He used to steal the little plastic clippings from his factory and bring them back home to build little miniature replicas of The City with. He got transferred to some factory on the very Eastern side of The City and I haven’t seen or heard from him since. But last night, I had this dream about him.
We were back in our room. It was filled knee deep with plastic clippings. The Policía kicked in the door and tore him away from me. His screams turned into a terrible guttural bellow. They had turned him into a cow. I knew he was going across The River. I knew he was going to be slaughtered.
I know I can’t stay here. In this house with these people in The City. I have to escape.
There’s nothing to do but run. It’s night now, after dinner. The X’s have thrown me outside to sleep in the dog house and gone to bed. So has everyone else in the neighborhood. I figure I’ll follow the street I came in on but in the opposite direction, away from The River.
The Policía roam the neighborhood from time to time after dark. Their shiny plastic carrier sometimes squeaks down my street, interrupting fitful dreams. But tonight the streets are silent. Plastic street lights are few and far between- a blessing. There is little cover except the pockets of darkness and occasional hedge. No one goes out after dark. I learned that from watching Programming with the girl.
Ah the girl. I forgot about her. Not that I’d grown particularly fond of her or anything but she’ll miss me no doubt. I felt sorry for her really, cooped up in that shiny house with no one to talk to but a scruffy old dog.
It’s lucky really that I’m a black dog. White fur would have been a little more noticeable. I duck behind a hedge as a carrier creaks by. I can hear them chatter softly from inside. Their language is so strange and unfamiliar. I wonder what they talk about amongst themselves. I wonder what it feels like to kill another person.
The carrier passes and I move on. My paws pad across plastic lawns of identical houses. The story that the crazy old man who lives on the ground floor of my building likes to tell keeps running through my head.
The Wall. Yes, everyone knows The Wall. Encircling The City, keeping out all the pollution from the old world. Outside it is decimation, disease, death. Nothing lives beyond The Wall. But the old man denies this. He says no, we’re wrong. His family founded The City, his family were once scientists! He knows it’s been long enough! The old world! It has been cleaned of all pollution and filth! It is a new world!
Everyone wishes he would just shut up. Some people say he disrespects the Fable with his words, me included. But I’m not me, I’m a dog and the only thing cycling through my head are his words.
“A new world! A new world!”
I have been running all night, dodging the occasional carrier. The houses are becoming larger but there are fewer of them. I am beginning to panic. The sky is becoming lighter and lighter with each block of streets. I know they will find me and I will become a part of The River. I know they will find me and I will become a cow for slaughter and suddenly I have so much hatred for the Uppers
The houses surrounding me have become massive buildings reminiscent of Lower City buildings except shiny and clean and empty. I suspect this is where Mr. and Mrs. X go when they leave the house. I peer through a window and see rows and rows and rows and rows of children. They all look like they’re asleep, suspended upright in tanks of viscous blue fluid. I get the hell out of there.
Suddenly I hit something solid in front of me. It looks as if the buildings keep going on forever but something is definitely blocking my path. I sniff. It smells different here than the air from the last block of buildings. I guess this must be The Wall.
I dig. The plastic lawn shreds easily underneath my paws. I’m surprised at the efficiency of my two front legs. Soon I have a hole big enough to slip under. An alarm sounds. Something in Span-ish is pumped over invisible speakers. The Policía will be here in seconds. I shimmy quickly through the hole and I’m struck by the darkness of the other side. Nighttime again?
I don’t really have time to think because the Policía are right outside the hole, yelling something. The fry of their tasers is almost deafening.
Not the little trot I was doing through the neighborhood. But for the first time a full out, four legged run. It feels so good.
I can still hear the alarm from inside The City. The bastards are shooting at me! Their guns have a distinct popping that every Lower learns is the sound of death by the time they can walk.
I run and run and run and run for so long I forget what it’s like to walk. My head is pounding and my brother’s screams play over and over again in my head.
My legs give out and I go down. I guess it’s a better end than The River.
Everything is green. It’s brilliant. Blinding. I’m so disoriented but know I need water. I lift my head up and look around.
“He’s awake,” someone murmurs.
My eyes refocus and my senses come back to me. There is a semi-circle of people around me. One of them offers me a cup and I claw for it. But it’s a hand. My hand.
I put the cup to my lips and sip. The cup isn’t plastic and the water is the most delicious thing to ever touch my tongue.
I’m human I think, or close to it. Tufts of thick black fur stick out all over my body. I grab a chunk and it falls off easily into my hand. I notice I’ve shed my claws and they’re scattered around me on the ground.
“The transformation mechanism only works inside The Wall,” explains an elderly woman directly in front of me. She asks what my name is.
“Cy,” I tell her.
“Drink up,” she tells me, “then I’ll answer all your questions”.
I took another sip.
“Where am I?”
“You escaped The City. Well done,” she chuckles.
I blink at her. I sort of assumed I was dead.
“And so you are…”
“I escaped too. 13 years ago. We all did.” She gestures to the 4 other people crouched around me and they nod and murmur in agreement.
Their faces didn’t give away if they are Uppers or Lowers.
“But how? Why? The outside…we shouldn’t be alive.” I sounded like an idiot.
“Ah. Yes, the Fable,” she nodded, “it was true at one time I suppose. But the old world has changed. A rebirth.”
I considered my surroundings again. The green really was astounding. The color of Upper plastic. But I realize quickly it isn’t plastic… old world plants? Growing plants?
Before me lay a world unimaginable back behind The Wall. Plants of every height, width and color. Overhead stretches plants as tall as my old apartment building. Small tiny little creatures buzz in the air. To my right I notice a river. This one doesn’t glow green. It seems as clear and light as air.
“Come on,” says the woman, “We’ll show you our home.”
A young man with ruddy cheeks and dark hair helps me to my feet and hands me some sort of garment. “Might want to put this on,” he says and winks at me.
I forgot you don’t need clothes when you’re a dog. I’m completely naked.
I walk with the group through the tall plants and up over a hill. Below, in a clearing next to the river, is a group of small brown structures.
On the way down the hill, the woman, named Sima, and Iev, the younger man, explained to me that everyone living in the settlement had escaped The City. There were a mix of Uppers and Lowers, even a member of the Upper Counsel, but that no body went by those terms anymore. Everyone here was the same, driven by the same desire to be free of The City. Free from any type of division or fear.
Sima and Iev introduced me to the rest of the settlement and I recognized him right away. His face surfaced in my dreams time and time again.
Bo. My own brother.
I had convinced myself I was never going to see him again, swallowed up by the factories, The City. But here he was, standing before me, looking slightly older and nothing like a cow.
We embraced and I can’t remember the last time I felt something as solid and real and alive as his body.
I wanted to know everything. Where he was transferred to, what happened after he left, how did he escape?
He recounted the missing years over dinner with the whole settlement. He was working in the factory one day when the Policía took him. He was transformed into a dog just like me. But when he got to the intended house, the Upper that requested him revealed that he was planning to escape The City. He had requested a dog so it could dig underneath The Wall and they could slip out. He told Bo that he had a choice, he could follow him under The Wall or stay within The City. When the time came, Bo went with him.
“He’s just down there at the end of the table,” Bo pointed at a man with furrowed brows deep in conversation with Sima.
After dinner, everyone went to bed. I slept with Bo outside.
“Just like our old cot,” he said and grinned.
As I was dozing off Sima came and woke me up. She said the others all agreed I could stay if I could do my part in keeping the settlement alive. Help with the planting and cooking. Stuff like that. She reminded me the settlement only works because everyone is here willingly and want to use this land. She asked me if I could live this sort of life.
I listened to Bo as he quietly slept beside me and I listened to the river bubbling over stones and rocks and plants and I took in a deep breath of clean, unpolluted air and smiled.
“Yes,” I said, “I’d like to try.”
Clara Dawson is a recent graduate from the University of California San Diego’s Anthropology department. Currently, she’s enjoying her gap year as an intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Her favorite authors are Ray Bradbury and Patricia Highsmith.