How We Fossilize
Cathy Ulrich

Cows fall into the river and float away, till their carcasses wash up on the banks near our house. Their ribs are like dinosaur teeth.
Our mother calls the police, writes letters to the local paper. It’s always the same thing.
Someone needs to do something about these dead cows.

The sun peels the dead cow flesh away from their bones. The sun is always cruel like that. We see crows dip into the insides of them; their beaks come away dripping and full.
Our mother says: You kids, get away from the window.
She closes the shades, but the sun throws silhouettes of dead cows across them, like a shadow play.
At night, we shine flashlights on our fists. Our fingers make the shape of dead cows on the wall.

They pulled our father from the river after a month.
At the funeral home, our mother had us sit in the visitation room with his casket, a scented candle burning in the corner. We sat on the striped couch. We chewed on Saltines, wiped the crumbs onto the floor.
Our mother had wanted the casket open.
You don’t, they told her. You don’t want to see him like that.

The dead cows are more buoyant than our father. They don’t get stuck on brambles under the water, lost for a day and then a week and then a month, float instead to the shore. Cows in various stages of decomposition littering the riverbank, and we fall in love with that word, decomposition, say it over and over until it means nothing to our ears.
Dumb animals, says our mother, rapping her knuckles against the shade, so that the shadows of dead cows begin to dance.
We wonder if there is anything in a cow that thinks, as it falls into a river: Oh, please, oh no?

When we ride the bus to school, we have to take the bridge over the river. We lift our feet off the bus floor for luck, peer out the window, sing a song that’s called All the Dead Cows in the River.
There’s a pasture full of cows on our way to school, cows bending their heads down to the grass, cows with tails switching, cows with slow-blinking eyes. They never look up when we go past in the bus. We crank open the bus windows, whistle, call hey Bossie, hey Bossie, till we have gone past. The cows never notice us at all.

The carcasses of dead cows become ancient under the sun, become relics. Their bones spread and spread in the air.
In our dreams, we are crows plucking at the flesh of dead cows. We wake in the morning wondering where our wings have gone. Our mouths feel full and dry.
You kids, get up, says our mother. She flicks the light on and off. We come stretching out of our bedroom. There’s a pitcher of milk on the kitchen table. None of us can drink from it.
The shades have come open again, and our mother looks out the window while she butters her toast. Her eyes are looking past the dead cows. Her eyes are looking past the river. We don’t know what she sees there. We take the pitcher from the table, while she’s looking out the window, pour it down the sink, watch the milk swirl round and round, then finally down the drain.

Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, including Cheap Pop, Lost Balloon, and Booth.