Bright Angels & Familiars: “Woman Talking to a Cow” by Pauline Mortensen


This series has been on hiatus for a while, so, for those who do not recall, Signature Books has made this seminal collection of stories available free online. I have been reading the stories and posting about them. Together we share our thoughts and opinions.

Today’s tale was also collected in Mortensen’s Back Before the World Turned Nasty which I read is at is best in describing place. This particular tale is quite short (enough to be included on Everyday Mormon Writer).

Go read it then return.

The story is exactly what it claims in the title—a woman talking to a cow. About the problems in her life, each of which is desperately symbolic. The fork she uses to serve hay is missing a tine. Which makes the hay fall through but also makes it loaded in other ways as well. Then her husband enacts Christ (and she draws our attention to it), her children destroy symbols of comfort and heritage, the sheep are black and steadily decrease in number while jumping up and down in perceived value, and finally we learn they must decide to feed the sheep (possibly at the expense of all else) or treat their little ones not so well. All while the narrator is revealing herself an absolute Martha (however unfair the Martha/Mary dichotomy may be).

It’s a good thing the story’s so short. It packs so much weight in terms of anger and disaster into so small a space that the conceit of talking to a cow couldn’t take any more without become parody.

Which begs the question: is it parody?

I don’t think so. Although it’s somewhat lighter for her to be talking to a cow rather than, say, praying or complaining to her bishop (though let me add I can’t see proof positive she’s Mormon)—and the cow licks her leg!—I don’t see anything that suggests parody. The daughter’s destruction of the family’s negatives or the slow reveal of how to make money off Karakul lambs are so inherently awful that I’m pulled away from the narrator as a character and her life—but not in a way that leads me to a conclusion of parody. Instead I’m constrained to view this not so much as a “story” but as a conduit for symbolic intent. But to what end?

Frankly, I’m not sure.

Is it a comment on the relationship between the sexes as in “Sayso and Sense“?

Could be.

Is it a religious statement? Perhaps, I don’t know, “we work hard to serve the Lord—to feed his sheep—only to experience unexpectedly feeble rewards”?

I can see that.

But I don’t find either of those explanations fully satisfactory.

What do you see in it?

3 thoughts on “Bright Angels & Familiars: “Woman Talking to a Cow” by Pauline Mortensen”

  1. Oh, my. I think it’s an experimental piece meant to give the reader whiplash! First I was “oh, the husband is Christ; the woman is the church. She needs to be humble.” Then I thought “Oh, this is a feminist critique of the pioneer era. It’s meant to develop sympathy for how women on the frontier need more attention for their heroism in the domestic sphere. Forget about John Wayne movies. The drama is in the kitchen and the barn.” Then I thought, “No, it’s an allegory of the material vs the ethereal.” Then, I thought, “Oh, it’s a zen buddhist koan cautioning us that attachment (to china, photos, economic increase) leads to suffering.” Then because I can see all of these as real possibilities, I concluded two ways: intellectually, it’s got multiple themes, some of which contradict; viscerally, the narrator’s life STINKS.

  2. Sacrificing lambs is atonement-heavy symbolism. Her feelings about t hat sacrifice…like us, unwilling to see ourselves as worth redemption? Feeling like her very self, her past & her heritage & identity even (negatives) treated cavalierly & destroyed… the Godhead (3) & her husband as inadequate & tools in her oppression &I suffering? …Just some thoughts…

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