In the pen I eat anything in front of me. I eat pellets and hay, I eat tails and dirt. I eat dirt and it reminds me that I cannot dig, no matter how much I wish to dig deep, to dig away. I eat dirt and I moo mournfully to my fellow cows who will never understand me. When my mooing turns to speech, I speak praises to the dirt who always will.

I follow wherever the herd takes me, where I am pushed. There is no room to roam, no room to move, barely any room to eat. When the force of hundreds pushes me into a dirtless space, there is nothing I can do but jostle along with them. The anxious drove pushes again, out to a moving ground where snoutless and sweaty men handle me with ropes and plastic; I can do nothing but murmur my prayers into the dirt. 

On the smooth and solid assembly line, I hear the others grow silent ahead of me. In their silence I imagine what they might have said if they could have spoken, what I might have told them if I could have spoken to them. Of the dirt, and its blessings. What could we have done together? Broken free of the pen and run into the dusty fields around us? We could have dug together, hoof-first into the hard ground, and felt it give way as we became part of it, as it crumbled down around us and held us within its glory. 

I slam my hooves but they make no dent. I will never get to dig in the way that I wanted to, but as they slip the bolt into my brain I realize that this is a form of digging, too. 

“Thank you,” I say, my larynx humming in tune with the machines. Everything is loud here, so loud. I want to say it again and again, I am so overwhelmed with gratitude and the sense that this is happening for a reason. This is the destiny the dirt wants for me. The men look at each other and shrug, and then they look back at me and the loudness is replaced with silence, and I can no longer smell the sweat on their backs. 

But I still move, even though I can no longer see. The ground that has been pulling me continues to pull. There are knives in my flesh, pulling me into pieces, yet somehow each piece is still me. I tell the knives secrets, tell them that mine is not the only flesh that their steel should touch. Behind me, I sense the assembly line is in disarray, that the knives cut through the thick gloves as if they are strands of hair. Workers rush for bandages, for new gloves. When inspected, the knives appear fine, but the workers’ eyes now glower with suspicion as the weapons they once considered to be theirs are now dangerous to them, too. 

I proceed to be wrapped in sense-stifling plastic, styrofoam containers as restrictive as the pen once was. The rest of me is moved away into bins with the other offal. I feel the remnants of my herd around me, and I hate that we are here again, together. I am buried, but this is not as welcoming as the dirt will be. This is a hateful burial, so far from the peace I desire. 

I can feel every part of my body simultaneously, but I focus my energy on the parts of me in transit. Over dirt, once again, and then from cold storage to cold storage. But every hand that touches me is blessed; I bless them. To the man loading me into and out of the truck I gift singing, the same singing that my fellows infuriated me with in the pen. He sings like they did, mooing, and his unblessed companion stares at him unblinkingly before driving away. 

Another deposits me into some bright, cold place. Here, I reach my senses outwards, trying to speak with the meat around me. The poultry is too stupid, but the pork, imported from hundreds of miles away, manages to speak. It is childish, compared to me, and I am insulted by it. Why should it have speech if it will not speak of the dirt? I bless it with rot, with mold. Ungrateful, it stops speaking altogether. When a woman comes to take it away, she hovers over me accusingly. I bless her mind with a vision of beautiful, water-softened dirt, the kind that I have only dreamt of. When she foolishly blinks it away, I bless her with a cough that will wake her whenever she falls asleep. If she cannot dream of sweet and fertile ground, she will not dream ever again. 

Another part of me is in a diner, where I am pressed into strings and pushed into patties. I like it here, where the cook is unafraid to touch me, their warm fingers comforting against my cold flesh. But when I am placed on the hot grill, I shrivel like dirt in July. I cry out, miserable. The chef covers their ears. I bless them with the knowledge that I am watching, every patty of me, and will be for as long as I am around. They pull me off the grill and serve me bloody rare. The customer douses me in matching red ketchup. I am happy as she lifts me up and chews. I delight in going down the gullet, in dissolving in the stomach. I bless the customer with never having to eat again. I will be her best meal, her last meal, the only meal that ever matters to her. I sit in her stomach until she dies, and I stay in her stomach as she is buried. This is the first part of me to be united with the dirt, and I manage, even in the thrill of my ecstasy, to show gratitude. I murmur it through every cell up to her recently dormant brain and know that, even in death, she hears me say it: Thank you, thank you, thank you. 

The pieces of me that are offal in the vats are moved into a hole in the ground, too. The dirt there is wet with rot, and the microbes that eat us slither in slow circles towards the center of the pile, where I lie. When they turn me into dirt, into the very thing I have always desired to be, I cry, hot tears of decay radiating from every piece of me that remains.

The man who bought my steaks, my best and most whole pieces, is displeased by this. But he towels the wet off of me with such care that I bless him, too. I bless him with the best blessing of all, the one I was granted back in the crowded pen: the dirt. The knowledge of the dirt, and its superiority. He is as I was, except for this: he has the tools to fulfill his wishes. He is capable of achieving the most wonderful thing. And within him, I will too. As he swallows the last bite of me, the thought appears fully formed in his head. He sets down his fork with shaking fingers. The curve of his body bends down beneath the picnic table, and his fingernails ache with raw anticipation as he begins to dig.

Header photo by Kelly Harmon.

Photo of author

Claire McNerney

Claire McNerney is an actor, student, and writer from California, where she currently attends UCSD. She enjoys, among other things, the way motes of dust are illuminated in the sunlight.