A Mother's Tale

by James Agee

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985

This story, a beast fable in the manner of seventeenth century French author Jean de La Fontaine or the nineteenth century German brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, is a tale told by a mother cow to her son and daughter. It opens with her son running breathlessly up the hill to ask her about the immense cattle herd he has seen moving eastward, accompanied by men on horseback and barking dogs. What are they doing? Where are they going?

The persistence of her son and the other spring calves that have joined him cannot be ignored, and mother finally tells them that the herd is going on a long journey, to a railroad, great bars of metal on which run huge wagons pulled by a screaming, smoke-belching black machine. The cattle are put into these wagons and taken away. She assures her young companions that the herd is probably being taken to a nice place. The children, of course, all want to go, but mother assures them that it is a much greater honor to stay home. Only the ordinary, careless, and silly are taken to the trains. The strong, brave, and bright are allowed to stay at home where it is safe. The word “safe,” a slip of the tongue, arouses her son’s curiosity. Where are they going? Why is it not safe there?

The mother begins the story of The One Who Came Back, and the tale takes a decidedly darker turn. According to mother’s great-grandmother, who heard it from her great-grandmother, The One Who Came Back found himself pressed tightly into one of the railway wagons on a dizzying and frightening ride to an unknown place. There was no food or water, and the cows had to stand in their own excrement, pushed and pulled this way and that, with the countryside rolling past them like a slow wheel. After a seemingly endless time, the doors of the wagon rolled open and the herd staggered out into the open air, where they had water and what seemed the most delicious food they had ever eaten. Their new home was beautiful and grand, with white fences and dark buildings in the distance as huge as mountains. The cows were now being treated so well, and their destination was proving to be so lovely, that there obviously was nothing to worry about.

Soon The One Who Came Back found himself being guided into an increasingly narrow gate that led into one of the enormous buildings. Suddenly the cow ahead fell down with a great sigh and was dragged away immediately. Looking up, The One Who Came Back saw for the first time The Man with the Hammer. The mother cries inwardly, seeing the terror in the eyes of the young ones, but it is too late: She must go on. The Man with the Hammer brought his hammer down on the forehead of The One Who Came Back, who sank into darkness and dreadful pain. He awakened upside down, hanging by the tendons of his heels from a great hook, and he could feel his hide being torn away inch by inch, his living flesh being sliced by sharp knives.

With a supreme effort, The One Who Came Back managed to tear himself from the hooks, charge the men with the knives, and escape from the building, leaping one fence after another. Some inner power seemed to guide him along the railroad tracks that took him to his recent horror. Traveling day and night, exhausted and in pain, The One Who Came Back staggered back home from the East. The hide was gone from his head and body, his flesh had been carved away, and in the middle of his forehead was an indentation that looked like a third eye. He could barely speak.

As his fellow cattle listened to him, some thought that he looked human, that he was perhaps even a man trying to disguise himself as a cow. Others doubted that he came from their ranch, for no cow could remember him. Still others concluded he was a lunatic. Eventually some men came along and shot him, whether out of kindness or to silence him was endlessly disputed. Some came to believe, however, that he died of sorrow for his fellow cows before the shots were fired. There was no argument about his final words. Each cow is himself, he told them, and not of the herd. Obey and depend on nobody. Break down the fences and kill Man. If you cannot kill him, avoid him. Kill your yearlings and calves, and bear no more young. You must save yourselves, for all who are put on trains will meet The Man with the Hammer.

Finished with her tale, mother sees the puzzlement on the faces of the young, especially on the face of her oldest son. He asks her if she believes all this, and mother evasively answers that some cows do. There are even rumors of some very old ones, in the distant corners of the range, who have never been taken to the trains, who are obsessed with the terror of the two sublime beings, The One Who Came Back and The Man with the Hammer. They even make up songs about them. Her son asks again if she believes it. Of course not, mother answers. It is merely a tale to frighten children. The son vows to find out the truth for himself. He will go on the train, make the great journey, and if there is The Man with the Hammer, he will charge him and kill him. That will make the son an even greater hero than The One Who Came Back. The littlest one, the daughter, skipping along to keep up with her mother, shyly whispers the question that has been troubling her all this time. Mother, she asks, what is a train?

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