I didn't know they were so clod-damned BIG! The thing that stood in front of me--—if being chained at all four legs with a boom holding your neck in place counts as standing--—was huge. I wondered how many hamburgers, exactly, it took to make a cow. Well, I guess it was more likely the other way around: how many hamburgers could a cow BECOME, but we don't normally think in those terms, do we?

I suppose that I had seen a thousand cows in portraiture, drawn in a children's book against a peaceful agrarian scene with a haystack, tractor, and farmer in overalls. But somehow that distant, artistic rendering did not convey the enormity, the visible WEIGHT of the beast before me. I could actually feel it breathing. Huge dark eyes looked at me, pools of curiosity and perhaps fear. I didn't expect it to appear so intelligent. I had expected an earthy smell associated with cows, but this place reeked of antiseptics. I wondered if it was as foreign to this animal as it seemed to me.

I held the 'stunner' as they called it, in my right hand. During the orientation, the nice young woman in the pants suit had explained that the stunner fired a lethal bolt through the bovine skull into the brain. The site was clearly marked with in day-glo orange. A bored staff member was even now pointing me to the spot, probably assuming that I was dazed or stupid.

We had practiced. It was supposed to be humane. You don't want rank amateur killers doing the job on you after all.

Not that I was an expert. It had taken every ounce of willpower for me to fire the simulator. Step one. Grasp the stunner firmly and PRESS it against the object's head. A cow in this place was an object, no more. An object that would be killed, hung to bleed, sliced, packed, and then shipped to one of ten thousand shopping depots. By that time it would be an object for eating, not for killing. But it started here.

The staffer, with his red T-shirt, gave me an impatient look. More specifically, he looked at his phone in such a way as to make sure I knew he was checking the time. He had places to be, things to see, people to meet. I was obstructing his ambition. I wondered, somewhere outside of myself, if I really cared what he thought.

Step two. Pull the pneumatic trigger. We had been WARNED about the dangers of the thing. If we somehow managed to overcome all the safety mechanisms and shoot ourselves with the electromagnetic bolt, we could do ourselves an injury. We were treated to a probably apocryphal story about a lady who loved filet. She loved those round mignon medallions so much that she came to this place, like myself, to renew her allotment of beef. The thing was, she was so frail and weak from age-disease that she could hardly lift the stunner. But there are no exemptions written into our laws for such old ladies. If they want to eat beef, they have to kill a cow. Just like every red-blooded citizen. No one is excluded. After all, beef is a privilege, not a right. As the red-shirted staffers gleefully related, she placed her HAND on the cow's head before setting the stunner ON TOP OF her hand!

"You want me to do it?" the staffer asked, breaking my recollection. He looked helpfully bored.


"Look. I can see this is hard for you. You like the burgers, steaks, whatever. It's okay--—so do I. So does everybody--even the Greens if they'd admit it. So I'll just put my hand over yours…"

He grasped the stunner and my hand in his grip, looked over his shoulder once, and pressed his finger against mine. Against the red, worn trigger.

"See?" he shrugged and he/we pulled. There was a loud crack, and my hand went numb from the pressure or the recoil. The cow stiffened, like she suddenly remembered she hadn't paid her taxes, and here it was April 30. Then she collapsed, loose-limbed as a string puppet whose master has gone to lunch. Except that halfway through her surrender to gravity, the fetters that had bound her in her last moments now spread her undignified carcass spread-eagle and set her upon a conveyor. She was whisked from my sight within seconds of death.

I turned. The staffer was already motioning to the next citizen. I numbly followed the exit signs around a curved corridor until I found bright sunlight. How should I feel? I sat upon a worn chair. Someone brought a tray with beverages, and I found myself drinking a paper cup of lukewarm water, no knowing why this was important.

"You couldn't have saved her, you know," a young lady almost whispered to me. I looked up. She had a red shirt too. She smiled, nodded at my silence, and continued.

"The next person in line would have done it. Or the next. Think of it as a factory making...I don't know...carburetors."

I wondered later why she had chosen that example. How is a steak like a carburetor? How many people would still know what a carburetoror was? Did she even know? Perhaps it was meant to be distracting, but it had the effect of planting an automotive association in my head that lasted for years, every time I had beef.

I laid on the couch for half a day, celebrating what misery I could extract from the experience. It didn't seem right to simply carry on as if nothing happened, but after three or four hours of feeling somewhat sick, I could wring no more guilt from my conscience. I was just a cog in a very large wheel, after all. I had no more choice than the cows did, given the fact of beef. Cows owed their very existence to their eventual metamorphosis into human fuel.

I could now resume eating beef, legally, until I had used up my ration of 45.3 kilos. That's a lot of meat. I didn't need to think about cows again for a long time. And I was starting to develop an appetite.


At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This certainly does put that cheeseburger in a different perspective. Though, I would venture that some people my age who grew up on farms, my wife for example, understood very clearly that if you had chicken for dinner, one of those pesky critters who had been around your feet a few minutes ago was now in your mother's pot. And, that fat porker whose oinks made you squirm while picking butter beans would soon be bacon with those eggs you took from the next that afternoon. I think this story is interesting because it may reconnect those of us who did not know the "farm life" with how these burgers, steaks, roasts, chops, filets, etc. come to be on our plate. Upton Sinclair would be proud!

At 9:26 PM, Blogger dave said...

It's interesting how machines and biology are crashing together in all kinds of ways. On one end we depend on food for energy, so we build these enormous processes for harvesting living creatures (and I'm no vegetarian), and on the other end, our brains are increasingly being supplanted by computers. Following that line of thought, we're being squeezed in the middle & perhaps the computers and the cows will eventually cut out the middleman!


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