The Golden Cow

How could I know the boat would rock so softly? The motion of it became a peaceful rest, and from that I fell into a deeper sleep. It must have been this that prompted my dream.

In my mental world of fantastic images I spied a castle, far-away and imposing. Its white walls were of granite stone, and its ramparts bronze and gold. It was truly a fairy castle. I walked toward it without haste. Somehow, dreams have a way of eliminating tedium – unless of course it is a dream about tedium. I walked, but the effort of walking was not there. Everything was pleasant, and had a gentle, rocking motion. I could not see that my real boat was now drifting outwards, headed quite away from shore. But there was the castle to reach, and I felt no need to wake up yet.

Beside me, buttercups and daffodils delighted in the sun. It was a fine sun. The day was mild and warm, with only enough breeze to the carry the scent of the flowers. Had I designed it myself, there could be no better day than this. The reader might appreciate the dramatic irony of this thought, but such is the nature of dreams: I was in awe of my own creation, and a beautiful creation it was.

The dirt path was a golden brown, and the hilly fields of emerald green. The trees announced the majesty of the kingdom by the uprightness of their trunks. Everything seemed to participate in leading the viewer’s eye to the castle, which represented the culmination of these noble feelings. Immaculacy was shown in the perfection of the flower beds, nobility in the stateliness of the trees, and refinement in the delicate choice of color everywhere. The attributes seemed to descend from the castle, and to reflect throughout its dominion. Everything was laid out according to a harmony.

Ahead of me I could to hear the noises of people. I passed over a hill, and found a village brimming with activity. There were rows of brown, thatched huts to the left and right of the road, and hurrying back and forth across this road were men and women, young children and animals. At first glance, it appeared that everything was in motion, but looking more closely I noticed an elderly woman enjoying the warmth of the sun, and several tired workers resting by a water hole. The simple justice of their rest commingled with the active labor was another virtue of the land.

No one seemed to mind that I stood by watching them. They worked without concern, following a pattern that appeared to bring happiness through its not requiring thought. There was even someone to sweep the road into town. This gentlemen appeared before me and waited with his head bowed, looking steadily at the ground before him.

I wondered why he didn’t greet me. If everything here was ideal, surely politeness would reign too. But he only stood calmly, with his hands folded together at his waist.

Then it occurred to me: perhaps it was a custom of this people not to impose their kindness until welcomed. This way, people absorbed in their thoughts would not be interrupted by continual cries of “Hello!”. So I decided to speak first.

“Hello,” I said.

He lifted his head to reveal two amazing points of tranquil blue, set in a copperish tan of young skin. A smile appeared on his face.

“Hello,” he said. “Is your journey proceeding well?”

“Delightfully. May I ask what town this is?”

He motioned toward the town in acknowledgement. “We call it Peacedale. I think you’ll find it true to its name.”

It should be said that dreams, when they choose a theme, often go somewhat over-board in developing that theme. All along everything had contained an element of peacefulness, but this was somewhat extreme. I couldn’t help but let out a small chuckle. He pure-hearted winsomeness attracted me, though. It was something so pure as to be beyond cynicism – not just unaccustomed to it as is often the case.

My curiosity was roused. I asked, “What makes it so peaceful here? I can almost sense it in the countryside.”

“Peacedale is what we make it, by our desire to live together in harmony.”

I rejoined, “All it took was a desire, and no one objected? Did this desire develop in everyone simultaneously, or did you start with a small group and then extend the boundaries?”

My unconscious, and prompt, departure from the earlier spirit of our conversation startled him. He was definitely unused to anyone questioning his familiar harmony per se. The harmony was just there. Since there had been nothing else, obviously it was because no one wanted anything else. In his world, people had everything they wanted, and so conversely, if a person had it implied that they wanted it.

I persisted, “What about suffering, and the problem of controlling deviants? Aren’t there people who want to establish a different order, if for no other reason than to avoid monotony?”

The look on his face became one of long-suffering patience. Although my heart knew I was hurting him by speaking this way, something about the question gathered its own momentum. There are times when, through fascination, we begin to tear a flower apart, methodically, as if to divine what in its nature could make it so beautiful. This neglects the fact that beauty is not merely the isolated effect of several components, but the reality which they present when so combined. Knowledge of the parts may yield a certain kind of appreciation, but it is scarcely related to the beauty itself. I am afraid that my upbringing has never allowed me to leave such fragile things to themselves. Perception without knowledge is too unsatisfying, and I felt myself compelled to pick this flower to its core

“Perhaps you could introduce me to someone here who could explain this wonderful town of yours in more detail?”

I entreated him with a gesture of outstretched hands, as if to demonstrate that I bore his town no ill will. He was distrustful of me, however. He was careful not to indicate his disapproval of my doubting, but it was obvious to my dream senses. A sense of observing “believer countenances heathen” swept over me.

He hesitantly responded, “Perhaps you would be interested in meeting the town elders? They could explain to you whatever it is you want to know.”

And what did I want to know? Something about the sound of his “whatever” held such profound lack of understanding my purpose that I wondered exactly what it was that I sought. Even if they were to hand me a list of rules and regulations whereby such a peace might be attained, I was sure that no one in my native land would agree to the proposal. How could knowledge add anything to my experience save frustration? I cannot explain what drives me to pursue such things.

“Please, I would like that very much.” He accepted my response gracefully, and proceeded to lead me into town.

At this point I would like to mention that I began to perceive music in the strange and wonderful images of the town. Whatever meaning this has I do not know. Something in the colors, and the structure of the buildings sang to me. It overlaid the ordinary quietness of the country road with such peaceful melodies that it humbled my soul with transports of joy; my inner being knelt before the austere simplicity of the farmers and laborers, longing to unite itself with their simple living. The music had the quality of orchestral chamber music. Its notes were found in the swinging hands of the hay-pitchers, the constrained bleating of the barnyard sheep, and the happy squeals of pigs that received their slop. In the plain world of life I have never experienced music physically – other than vibrations in the tympanum of my ear – but here I found that the virtue of the town was as real as any physical sense.

Throughout this spiritual resonance, the cold insistence of my reason kept me aloof from being totally swept in by the villagers’ meekness. In waking life, either my spirit has the fore of reason, or reason the control of my life, but here in the happy world of dreams the two seemed to possess equal strength at the same time. It was a very strange sensation, and even stranger that the obvious affect of the town should not have swayed me immediately to believe in its merit. There was something lacking in my unfulfilled desire to know, and this kept me separate, like a lover who gazes at the portrait of his beloved, but is no nearer to her in the seeing.

My well-natured friend led the way, excusing himself whenever the path become blocked, or we were required to pass closeby to another villager. Finally, as we went deeper into town, I beheld an amazing sight. At first my recognition of what I saw was subtle, as if my mind apprehended it immediately but the corroboration of my senses was slow in coming. Then it dawned on me that what I saw was exactly as it appeared to be, there standing in full view, in the very middle of town: a dairy cow made out of solid gold.

Although everything had the quality of a dream, yet the cow appeared normal in some way. I realized that this was because everyone around me was certainly aware of the cow – they looked at it in passing, or made some remark – but gave no appearance of its being strange. Even my guide paused to contemplate the stupendous figure for a moment, but continued without offering any explanation (perhaps I was the cause of this, however, because I’m sure that my questions by now were no longer welcome). We passed the cow, and entered a nearby structure which was made of sturdier wood and thatch than the other buildings.

But let us not skip the cow. It was an impressive thing, obviously made by a craftsman who had striven to render an exact copy of his model. In everything, from anatomical detail to the bovine expression on its placid face, the artist had faithfully captured the quiddities of authentic cowhood in the features of his work. Perhaps it was a trick of light, but it seemed as if the gold were even pliable, that one could walk up to it and extract golden milk from the textured udder. I was prompted to try this out of curiosity, but something unseen in the air stopped me from doing so. Just as in church when we are young something heavy and invisible keeps us from outright displays of aggravation with the priest’s interminable lecture, the same good sense restricted my movement now. Maybe it was the casual attitude of the people, or the absence of any similar fascination. Whatever it was, I felt that expressing myself so openly could not lead to any good, and as I had already lost the openness of my companion, I decided to refrain from getting myself into further trouble.

My friend beckoned me through an open doorway. He led us through the oak frame into a large room protected overhead by a criss-cross of pine beams, and above that the ubiquitous thatch. The whole building was one large room, and clearly most of the town’s collective business took place here. There was a table at the far end and behind that several simple but sturdy chairs. Around the walls were even simpler chairs, and in the very middle a pit about the girth of a roasting pig. The doorway lead into the side of the room, and offered a small foyer so that new-comers would not immediately witness what was in the room.

I asked, “What is this room used for?”

He said, “This is the meeting room. When a problem comes before the community, we resolve it here.”

My instant reaction was to say, ‘Am I to consider myself a problem, then?’ But I thought it better to hold my tongue. At the moment the room was empty, and I had no idea why he’d brought me here.

Then I heard a noise at the other side of the room, behind the table. A doorway appeared in the wall, and from this appeared an elderly gentlemen wearing a soft purple robe without ornamentation. My first impression was that might be a magician, and really all he needed to complete the image was a pointed hat with moons and stars. He avoided any eye contact. He moved slowly along the table and seated himself near the center. Then he waited in a meditative silence, while the atmosphere in the room grew more and more quiet.

When the disturbance of the change was past, my friend indicated that he had brought a stranger who wished to put certain questions before the council. The old man considered this with a thick silence, in which one could almost hear him allowing the questioner to realize the mistake of his question. But his response gracious, and filled with magnanimity towards those of lesser understanding. He said, “He is welcome before the council. Please invite him as our guest to return at sunset. Until them, we encourage him to enjoy the delights of the town.”

With this he rose, and, never once looking to see who I was, left through the same partition in the wall. I was perplexed at being addressed so obviously in the third person, not to mention the queer interpersonal dynamics which my dream sensitivity made me privy to. The villager, having fulfilled his duty, turned to take his leave.

“There is a public resting place across the street. I encourage you to relax there for a little while. For now, I must return to my duty. I will, however, be present at your meeting tonight. Enjoy yourself.”

I nodded my head in thanks, and he left me. The room was truly empty now: empty of the sensation of beliefs, or behavior, or people. By myself there seemed nothing to the place but pine beams and thatch. How strange that it should been so filled with only two people. Empty, but yet filled.

Sunset was still several hours away, and the inside of the town hall was no longer interesting. I went out through the oak door and found myself looking at the cow again. The villagers continued to pass by without any special interest, so it must have been a long-familiar sight to them. I stopped one man, on his way somewhere without hurry, and asked, “Has the cow been here for a long time?”

He looked back and made me feel like a complete stranger. Not just a stranger to his town, but a stranger to the whole world he was born in. “Of course; it has been there always.”

“Always?” I repeated quizzically. “You mean: as long as you can remember?”

“No,” he said. “I mean always. In my father’s day, and his father’s day, and all the way back. Everyone has grown up with knowledge of the cow. It is the heart of the town.”

I said, “What do you mean by ‘knowledge of the cow’?”

He answered, “Well, knowing it is always there, giving life to the community. We pay it our due by serving the community well, and it return it grants us a long and peaceful life here. The cow is the heart, because from it beats the life-giving energy that sustains us all. Can you not feel that energy, penetrating everything around us?”

I admit that I could not. There was no energy but the warm light of the sun shining down on the cow and myself.

“Do you mean to say that without the cow standing here, the town would be unable to function?”

“That is exactly what I’m saying,” he said. “The cow is the center, just as you are now in the physical center of the town. There is stands, reminding us of our duty that we should never be lax in returning that same kindness which is given to us.”

None of this made any sense at all. There was no energy field, no palpable effect that a solid gold statue of a cow could possibly have on a whole town. Perhaps he felt this way simply because it was a permanent object. Since no one had known a time without it, one could obviously imagine that it must have always been there. It was a simple case of false causes. The effect was a harmonious, well-functioning town, but the members of the community had mistaken the cause, choosing something far more glorious and worthy of admiration than the ugly reality of hard work and sweat.

And yet: what was the problem? If they attributed the success of the town to a gold cow, why not? As long as the town continued to remain successful, wasn’t that the goal of any Weltanschauung?

I couldn’t find any basis to argue with the man’s reasoning. Not only was his logic founded on premises that could not be attacked (one, the cow really had been there for a long time, and two, the town really was prosperous), it was useless to debate syllogisms with someone who was uninterested in the result. Let’s assume that he were to agree with my objective observation that statuesque land mammals had nothing to do whatsoever with the prosperity of towns. His response would probably be: “And your point being…?” One has to be interested in the truth for its own sake to want to dispense with a good thing in place of something less good. Or better, more good, but in an absolute sense. The villagers clearly kept up with their side of the bargain because they believed in their moral responsibility to the golden beast. If the beast were removed, and the same people were shown that the success of the town was due to their own effort, the net effect would be to gain nothing – except a more accurate understanding – and to lose that very sense of duty which had kept things running so smoothly thus far.

Now, the long term gain of a more accurate understanding might produce a more effective response if things were to go badly in the future. At the moment, people would blame themselves for not having paid the cow sufficient homage. This would engender a moral response whereby the people would feel compelled to solve the problem through harder work and more ardent dedication. Which would solve the problem. If, on the other hand, the town were to take a downward turn, with a full understanding that it was their own fault, they probably would begin looking for the person who was to blame so he or she could fix the problem. The person to blame, realizing that bad things are rarely the fault of a single person, would try to differ that blame in order to more justly distribute the corrective influence of the town elders. In people less than perfectly virtuous, this almost unconsciously turns into a cat and mouse game which ends up with things being worse than when they started. So maybe it wouldn’t help very much at all. But something in my blood tells me that it’s better to know, even if knowing only leaves you in a miserable hell with no one to comfort you but your own thoughts of self-righteousness. Or at least that was my reflection as the man waved goodbye and I returned to contemplating the cow again. It seemed like an ingenious device, really. Almost a stroke of brilliance on the part of whoever decided to make people responsible for their own contributions to society, instead of mandating that responsibility through barely effective laws and ordinances.

The cow… it had a placid, happy look on its face, as cows often do in the warm summer light of midday. Chewing on a clump of grass, catching a nap here and there when the breeze was fresh and cool – the warmth of the sun delicious beyond comprehension. It was quite a state to long for, really. The people of the town gave up their best efforts to preserve their harmony, which they rarely enjoyed themselves. They lived under a perfect sun, which was only perfect when the strain of hard labor was not provoking rains of sweat; there was the quietness of the air, which one only had to time to listen to when the orders of the day had finally ceased, in the fifteen minute interval during the walk home before the cries of family rose to take their place; and finally there was the vast expanse of rolling countryside, which apparently no one ventured into.

It could be that all this acerbity came from the fact that my little boat (in which I was sleeping) was now being rocked rather roughly by the large waves outside the bay. For during my little sojourn into the town, my raft had drifted quite a ways, and I was now headed straight for open sea. I am a very heavy sleeper, however, and the fact that I did not wake up does not surprise me at all.

Where I live is in a little town south of San Francisco. Actually, it’s a good hour south, and rests at the top of Monterey Bay. In the fall months, when the rains have not yet begun, I like to set out in a boat rented from a friend, to fall asleep with the rocking waves. On every other day, the anchor had kept me secure from wandering into danger, but today the rope decided to break, probably from the eager nibbling of a sea fish who thought the rope looked rather tasty. The rope was quite old, and maybe it wasn’t really a fish, but in any case the rope broke and I was set free to roam. Since I was comfortable sleeping in the boat, there was nothing to suggest to my sleeping brain that I was now in danger of floating to somewhere I shouldn’t.

As I left the bay, the wind picked up and the sizes of the waves grew. My unconscious stomach was full of acid sloshed about, and maybe this would explain my bitter mood. Fortunately, the wind was about to abate, and with calmer winds I would be able to examine the intrigue of the cow in greater detail.

A dream sun has none of the painful brightness of the real sun. Everything “sun” is there, but all of the “not-sun” is gone. For me, the sun is warm, embracing and the symbol of perfect relaxation. So my dream had all of these qualities, but none of the burning harshness that is typical of our own sun. It (my sun) shone down with rays that were nothing but kindness. It wrapped its tender arms around my haggard brain, and smoothed out all of the wrinkles that the real wind had caused. Now I was ready to review the town in more dispassionate detail. This cow was a great mystery. Who made it? Why? And what dawned on me was that until now, I had not seen a since real cow in the whole town. Without a real cow, how could anyone make a model of one? My blood cried for answers. Perhaps the dusty road ahead of me would lead to them.

The road led to a small tavern, a typical refuge for all sorts of answers, or at least of information. The tintamarre of a hundred restrained but carousing men filled with local ale tumbled through the doors. I opened them only to be greeted by a gust of warm air, infused with the odor of that same hundred men unburdening the cares of the day as only drunken men can unburden them. If loose tongues were to be found anywhere, it had to be here.

I found a table near a window, and sat down to observe the people that stumbled by. They rarely stayed in one place. All of them were slapping backs, calling loudly and enjoying themselves thoroughly.