The Prize Cow

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March 29, 2004

A dramatized account of a dream I had last night…

Ellie Mae was the first girl chosen for the annual egg-spinning contest with the rival high school in her rural Kentucky town. And she wasn’t happy about it. The contest was supposedly based on some high-falutin’ math principles, which is why she – the smartest kid in years – was chosen to represent her school. But, she was smart enough to know that it was pretty much purely random – just trying to spin an egg so that it would line up with one edge of a square. Still, the prize was huge — a cow to the winning family, which was a big deal in this poor community.

If anything, that’s what made her seethe with anger, indignation and frustration.

Until her, no girl had ever been picked for a chance to win the cow. Supposedly the contestant was the ‘best qualified’ senior student, which was supposed to mean the cleverest, but somehow that had always been a boy. Until Ellie Mae showed up, who was so obviously over-qualified that they couldn’t help pick her. She could do the math well enough to know that only systemic bias would have prevented any girl from being chosen before.

Still, there was a sort of fierce validation in the backhanded compliment of being picked. She felt herself a homely, gangly thing, all awkward legs and elbows. She never quite fit in, and had small interest, and less art, in attracting boys. Being smart only made it worse. Until now, where she at least had a 50% chance of winning a cow for her family. Her mother could use it help provide for her younger siblings, and maybe Ellie Mae could even go off to college and start a new life; something that had seemed an impossible dream when her dad died a few years ago, and Ellie Mae had to work part time to help her mom make ends meet.

The stands were full on the day of the contest; doesn’t take much to excite a small town. Ellie Mae caught her first sight of Bo Jackson, the rival contestant from the next town over. Of course she’d heard of him, him having as big a reputation of being a brainiac as she did, if not more so. Not an unpleasant looking fellow, tall and lean like herself. He didn’t look all that smart, but then again she supposed she didn’t either. Rather, there was sort of a wild, haunted look in his eyes, and she imagined he flinched when he looked and caught sight of her. In some inward secret place, she felt another brick smash through the window of her self-esteem — even the one person she might have considered an intellectual peer couldn’t stand the sight of her.

They walked up to the gaming table, neither making eye contact while the judge explained the rules. The two eggs were taken out of their box, and placed in the center of the table. She barely glanced at them, but something did seem a bit different about the one Bo had quickly covered with his large hand. She suppressed a quick thought about what it might feel like if he had instead covered her hand with his as she grabbed for her own egg.

When the bell rang and they spun their eggs, she watched Bo’s more closely than her own. Suddenly she noticed a slight irregularity in that egg. Almost in slow motion, she could see the slight crease along the egg, which caught at the grain of the table, increasing the odds it would line up properly. She glanced up, and saw the haunted look as she met Bo’s eyes, and he realized that she knew.

Just then they both glanced down in time to see the eggs stopped, and sure enough Bo’s was better aligned than hers. Bo’s school erupted into cheers, but before Ellie Mae could cry foul Bo — looking straight at her — raised his hand as if cheering, then smashed it down on his doctored egg. While not strictly illegal, it was a huge breach of etiquette. The crowd was stunned into silence, and the only sound heard was Ellie Mae’s cry of ‘No!!!’

The judges huddle in the corner, mixing whispered discussion with occasional raised voices. The crowd started to murmur, and threatening rumbles flowed between the rival teenagers in the stands. Without the official photograph of the final positions, and with Bo’s unorthodox behavior, any decision could easily touch off a riot.

With tensions reaching the boiling point, and the judges still deadlocked, Ellie Mae took matters into her own hands. She grabbed Bo’s hand, ignoring his astonished look, and said, “Ladies and gentleman, this is a good time to let you all know that Bo and I are getting married. Therefore, we declare this contest a draw, and our new family will receive the cow.” The crowd was stunned, then erupted in laughter and cheering. She whispered to a bewildered Bo, “smile and wave,”, then literally dragged him from the gym while he numbly followed her instructions.

Before he could recover, she’d led him to a hidden place out of easy observation from the crowds that would soon be leaving the gym. The placed she used to go to cry during recess, where she’d often dreamed of coming with a boy. Though not like this. Eyes facing the ground, her cheeks flaming, she broke in before he could speak and said, “Forget what I said in there, it was the only way I could think of to save face for both of us and avoid a riot. We’re graduating in a few weeks, and the ribbing we’ll get for this is less than the scandal if word got out what happened to the egg. Take the cow if it means that much to you, though I think it only fair if you’d sell it and give half the money to my family.” She paused, breathless, waiting for angry denunciation or scornful laughter.

Instead, he stood silently, then gently reached out and lifted her chin to look at him. His eyes were still haunted, but his face was questioning, not angry. “You didn’t have to do that,” he said. “It was all my fault, and I alone deserved to take the blame. You didn’t have to expose yourself to this. You could have told the truth, and they would have examined the pieces, or found the picked lock to the science lab, and realized that I had cheated. You would have been an innocent hero, and I branded for life. Why? Why did you do this?” he said, almost shaking her.

Eyes flashing, she retorted, “Well, its not that I was trying to trap you into marrying me, if that’s what you’re implying,” although part of her raised a cynical eyebrow at herself. “It’s just…. well, this whole damn thing is a farce, and it just wasn’t worth ruining someone’s life over a stupid excuse for a lottery. I’m sorry I couldn’t think of a better story, but I’d think the least you could be was grateful.”

Long pause. Then Bo said: “I am grateful, and I feel like a double fool for not saying so before. I was so enraptured by the idea of finally being able to provide for my family, that once I realized there was a way to gimmick the game I couldn’t sleep until I’d figured out how to pull it off. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself. But I was so obsessed with my gain it never occurred to me to consider that you might want — and need it — as bad as I. Yet during the crisis, you thought only of me, not of yourself, though I had wronged you. Thank you. I owe you one.”

Ellie, looking down again, mumbled, “Well, forget it. Maybe I just did it for the attention, anyway. You don’t have to make me out to be some kind of saint. I’m sure there was a better way to handle it. Hell, maybe you deserve to win, for finally figuring out a way to use intelligence to influence the outcome, the way it was supposed to be.” Longer pause.

Then Bo knelt down in front of her, and again raised her chin to look into her eyes. “I deserve nothing but condemnation, from you most of all, who have shown me nothing but kindness. You acted honorably, and from the best of motives, and I — wimp though I am — would soundly thrash anyone but yourself who dared suggest otherwise. I know you acted without any designs on me, though I would hardly consider it a trap to share my life with someone like you.” Brief pause, while Ellie’s fine mind raced through the implications of that last sentence. Hopes rising, then quickly dashed as Bo continued. “Though now, of course, that can never be.”

Tears rising despite herself, Ellie pushed herself away from him, knocking the off-balance Bo to the ground. “Damn you,” she shrieked, uncharacteristically cursing for the second time in her life. “Damn you to hell for doing this to me. To us. I thought you’d hate me for doing this to you. But this is worse. To pretend to care. As if there was a chance. As if somebody really understood.

“But it was all a farce. Just like the game. Oh, they all primp and pretend, and say how bright you are, and what a wonderful future you have ahead. As if skills and intelligence mattered. As if the game was fair, so you at least had an even shot. But the game is rigged, just like life. Nice guys finish last, and nice girls never even get in the game. It doesn’t matter how good you are, or how much you prepare. They just take what they want, pat you on the head, and send you on your way.

“Well, to hell with them, and to hell with you Mr. Bo Jackson. Keep your damned cow, and I hope the two of you will be very happy together. ” Crying, she ran off into the night. Bo sat stunned, then cried out her name, lying there, too shaken to stand. That’s how they found him, a half-hour later, still crying and calling out her name.

Ellie slept in until 10 AM on Saturday, having crawled in through the window to avoid waking her mom and sibs. At least they still had a house big enough that as eldest she could have her own room, Dad’s life insurance money being able to pay off the mortgage. She was woken by the sound of a pickup truck driving away. She glanced up, and somehow the back of the driver’s head reminder her of Bo, though she just cursed her imagination.

Then cursed again, as she banged her knee on the brass bed while scrambling to her feet. There in the yard was the prize cow. Her sibs were already streaming out to look at this wonder, while Ellie just stared in shock. The children laughed and played with the cow, oohing and aahing at its size and sleekness, until one of them noticed the letter attached to the collar. When they saw Ellie’s name on the cover, they shrieked in excitement, fighting amongst themselves for the privilege of opening it. Ellie gasped in horror and was about to race out the door in her nightgown, when her quick-acting mother, Sarah, appeared to intercept the as yet unopened letter. Ma appeared at Ellie’s door with questions in her eyes, but forbear at the pleading look from her daughter, and silently handed over the letter and departed.

Trembling with what might have been hope or fear, Ellie slit open the plain brown envelope. Inside was a simple note which read:

Though I have no right to ask anything

I ask you to meet me again tonight.

Same time. Same place.

Sincerely,

One who has wronged you.

P.S. I will wait.

Overcome with emotion, Ellie flung herself on her bed and cried, though even she didn’t know why.

That night, Bo waited in the wood, calling himself a fool for the hundredth time. A fool for trying to rig the egg spin, and fool for the way he’d handled last night; a fool for sending that obscure letter (which was all that he’d had the courage to write). And most of all for sitting here in a cold wet glen, hoping against hope that the woman he couldn’t get out of his head would show up. Hoping that she’d take pity on the thought of him shivering in the cold, waiting for her, rather than condemning him to it as his just desserts. Fearing that she’d think it a cruel prank. Or, worse yet, that he’d somehow mistaken the place, and that they’d wander endlessly through the night without meeting, and neither ever have the courage to speak of it again.

The one thing he didn’t regret was the return of the cow. Whatever else happened, he was ultimately grateful to not profit from his thoughtless time of wickedness. He felt free and strangely elated, despite the discomfort. He even took a perverse satisfaction in his present pain, as if it was a private penance for past sins. As the minutes dragged on, he promised himself yet again that he would wait all night if he had too, leaving only at the last possible moment to make it back for Sunday morning church. If only he could stay awake…

He was woken by the sound of a twig snapping. He jerked up fearful, that he’d been discovered by delinquents haunting the nearby school. Only to pause in slack-jawed wonder as Ellie stepped in the glade. In the moonlight, her face was radiant, and her hair like spun gold. He wondered that he had ever thought her plain or ordinary when they met yesterday, though it seemed a lifetime ago.

“Sorry, I’m late,” she said, stammering. “I, uh, got here a little while ago, but wasn’t sure whether to wake you.” Asleep, he had seemed at peace, a gentle giant. Those eyes, no longer haunted, seemed wise, and kind, and compassionate. She knew not why he had come, nor even why she herself was there. But just looking at him, she knew she had done the right thing. Even if they never spoke again, she at least knew she wouldn’t hate him, or he her, and they could go one with their lives in peace.

While Bo searched for words and struggled to regain his composure, Ellie hurriedly continued, “It was right generous of you to bring me the cow, but you really needn’t have done that. I almost brought it with me to return it, but the children were, were so happy to see it that I couldn’t bear to take it away. Only my mother knows that I didn’t win it outright, but we, we’d be happy to sell it and give you the money, or, or just your half-share, if you prefer.”

“No!” shouted Bo, then cursed himself again as she jumped back in startlement. “I mean, I’m sorry, please. Hear me out. Allow me to do this, If not for your sake, then please for mine. I’ve been such a fool. I should never have given in to temptation like that. It was wrong of me to cheat, to cheat you. Please, give me this chance to make it right. Accept it on behalf of your family, if, if you’d rather not accept it yourself.” Bo paused, seeking desperately in her eyes for some hint of forgiveness, of acceptance.

But Ellie’s eyes were turned inward, her tone guarded. “If that is what you desire, then it would be unkind of me to protest. The cow is yours to do with as you please, and I shall not stand in the way of your charity.” Then, colder, “I presume this is why you came, to ensure I did not seek to return your magnanimous gift, or ruin your good name.” The last with bitterness.

Bo, his heart breaking at her tone, rushed up to her and — barely restraining himself from grabbing her — fell to his knees and cried, “Dear God, woman, will you please just listen to me? I don’t care about the cow, or my good name. I didn’t do this for pity, but for…” He paused, his throat choking on the word, as he watched desperately for some sign that he was reaching her.

Ellie, startled by his sudden rush, had stepped back, but had resisted the urge to flee. As he paused, she suddenly felt weak at the thought of what he might or might now say, and how she might or might not react. She turned away as if to go, but Bo flung himself up desperately and caught her hand. They paused, in tableau, frozen by that act of human contact, neither willing to break the spell.

Finally, Bo summoned up his courage, and whispered the words that had been running through his head since that fateful encounter 24 hours ago. “Ellie, all my life I’ve been searching, but I didn’t know what for. I poured myself into family, church, school, all sorts of things. People admired and respected me, and I thought I was worth something. But I grew proud, greedy, vain, and selfish. All the things I’d loved and fought for weren’t enough, and I found myself seeking new challenges, greater achievement, to the point where I didn’t care how I got them. When I was nominated for the egg contest, I knew I just had to win. Nothing else mattered. I didn’t care that I was cheating the school. I didn’t realize I was cheating myself. That I would be cheating you.”

Bo paused. Ellie, touched at some deep level, relaxed, no longer a deer caught in headlights. She tightened her grip on Bo’s hand. But she said not a word, and didn’t turn around.

“Then you came into my life,” Bo continued. “At the hour of my greatest wickedness, and the moment of my greatest shame, you showed me compassion instead of judgment, kindness instead of vengeance. The shock of your unthinking courtesy brought me back to myself, and made me realize how shallow and empty my life had become. The scales fell from my eyes. Since that moment, I couldn’t rest until I found some way to make it right, to pay you back for all you’ve done me. That’s why I gave you the cow. Yes, I needed to give it up to clear my conscience. But it was more than that, Ellie. I swear it, as God’s own truth. Dear, sweet Ellie. I wanted to give it to you. Because, Ellie….”

“Stop, stop it right there” cried Ellie, spinning around, apparently in fury — though Bo noticed she didn’t let go of his hand. “I’m not some cardboard saint. I’m not your virgin Madonna, to absolve you of your sins. I didn’t do all that for you. I just did it for myself. You hear me? I couldn’t bear the humiliation of being a total loser, so I hid behind a lie. I used you. For once in my life, I wanted people to think of me as wanted, and desirable, as something other than a freak prodigy. I saw my chance, and I took it, because I knew you were powerless to stop me. It was wrong, and it was stupid, and I hate myself for it, and I know you hate me, and I’ll probably never live it down for the rest of my life.” Then she did release his hand, but only to bury her face in her hands and cry as she sank to the ground.

She heard him get up without a word, and step away. She thought this was it, its over before it ever begun. He’ll leave me forever, and tell all his friends, and I’ll be the laughingstock of the whole valley. She tried to summon the courage to speak, to call him back and ask his forgiveness, but she couldn’t. All the pain, the humiliation, and fear of her whole life just came pouring out in tears. All the dreams and hopes for life and love, for a future and a hope, just seemed to vanish in air. “He’s gone!” she cried through her tears.

And then, just when she thought her heart would break, she felt his presence behind her, wrapping her in his big strong arms, whispering in her ear. “Ellie, my precious, beautiful, Ellie. As God is my witness, I will never leave you, unless you send me away. You are what I’ve been seeking all this years. I love you. All of you. Your pride and your courage, your heartaches and your fears. Your compassion and your neediness. I don’t ask you to be perfect. I just ask you to be real. To be the you you’ve always dreamed of being. And to let me be with you. To love you and know you, as you’ve loved and known me without realizing it”

The next morning, the little Pentecostal congregation up the road received the shock of their lives. Preacher Elijah Jones still wasn’t quite sure how he’d let Sarah Atkins talk him into this, despite all the late night phone calls that had flown back and forth. But there they were, Ellie’s siblings on the right, and Bo’s parents on the left, all beaming like a J.C. Penny photograph. A tall young man stood at the front in a borrowed tuxedo, looking simultaneously stunned and delighted. Ellie entered the doorway with her mother, wearing her mother’s wedding dress, somehow transformed — as all brides seem to be — from a shy awkward youth into a beautiful, confident lady. “Well, Lord,” thought the preacher, “You sure do work in mysterious ways.  I hope you know what you’re doing.”

That night, as she fell into his arms, she murmured, “Thanks for making an honest women out of me.” “You were never a liar, just a prophet.” he replied. What they said next was drowned out by the mooing of a cow, wearing a sign that said, “Just married.”

For the last twenty years, Mr. & Mrs. Bo and Ellie Jackson have officiated at the revamped Egg Spinning contest, now sponsored by the regional Economic Development Agency they both run. Five girls and five boys from each school compete, chosen on the basis of highest grade point average. Students are encouraged to modify their eggs for competition, though within certain bounds — all are inspected by judges before use. Every participant, win or lose, receives a small scholarship towards college. The only reward for winning is that the top boy and girl receive a free dinner at the nearby restaurant — owned by Bo’s parents and still run by Sarah Atkins with the help of two sons — named The Prize Cow.

T H E E N D

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