"Nothing ever happens here, either in this street or in the whole village, and so I wonder: are all human lives as dull and empty as ours?" Jeff empties his pint in one gulp; it has taken him half an hour, that whole pint, best proof how boring life is, and in the meantime his hair and fingernails had grown fractions of a millimeter, which goes to prove that the entire universe still is in motion.
Bert, who is sitting on the other side of the small oak table, has already finished his own pint. It's almost midnight and Sylvia, behind the bar, isn't going to serve us anything anymore. She already said she's going to close up since we're the last three customers and she won't make much money on a few extra pints, and she wants to get herself to bed. Outside hardly any light is left, except for the stars. Further down, in the meadow, the cows float above the landscape.
"See those cows?" Jeff says. "Can hardly believe what my eyes telling me. Floating. There's been talk about it in the village. Floating. Why no one wants to go out this late any more. Explains why we were the only ones in the pub. Farmers don't like floating cows, even when there would be a perfectly logical explanation for it."
"You're just talking nonsense, Fred," says Bert. "There is no perfectly logical explanation for the phenomenon. The cows don't do that on their own, and because they can't talk, we don't know how it works either. So better ignored."
Bert sometimes flaunts his city manners while he talks about flying saucers and the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, but nobody can be bothered. He probably gets the stuff from those books he reads. We don't blame him, but he needs to keep those crazy ideas to himself. People gossip.
We stand there for a while, can't recall how long. Behind us the pub is already dark, Sylvia gone to bed. Jeff would like to sleep with her; she is a widow, but keeps him at arm's distance.
"Those cows are doing pretty well for themselves," says Jeff. "Protected, fed. Have nothing to worry about."
"They just float on," says Bert. "But would you switch places with them? Just grass to eat, and in winter that dreadful stuff?"
"Wouldn't complain," I say. Sometimes a cow dies, not good for the farmer's business, but we have been spared an epidemic for thirty years. That floating means nothing, it does not harm the animals except that they cannot reach the grass for an hour or so while they float, but this is the middle of the night and at that time the animals hardly eat. They're sleeping. Or so they pretend.
"They pretend to be asleep, but meanwhile they float," Jeff says. "Will they do the same in the stables during winter? There is not enough room for them to float. "
"It's an optical illusion," Bert suggests.
We both look at him. His silhouette, barely visible in the twilight. The whole village is silent and that is why we whisper, also out of respect for the cows, who are not to blame for their situation. But what do we know? Nothing, that's what we know. We should go home to our wives, but they will be asleep. Just like the rest of the village.
We move in a coordinated pace. We live in the same street, so we stay together, following the street along the large meadow with the cows. It is strange how calm the animals are, and how calm the rest of nature. The whole world holds its breath. Is something going to happen to the village?
A single light burns where we expect it. It is a room one floor up in one of those square houses built only ten years ago. The couple that lives there is young, they work in the city, they have a daughter. She's fourteen and elegant and brilliantly blond, ignores every young man around, probably as her mother told her to do. We see her standing behind the window, with no more than a dim lamp in that room, and she also ignores us, looking at the meadow with the cows.
She should be sleeping, but not our problem. We stand on the other side and watch her. I feel anger, not towards her but towards the cows, who get her attention. We would be happy with a smile or a waving hand.
Suddenly this thought occurs to me, that maybe my wife is dead in bed and I won't notice until morning. How am I supposed to explain that to the police? I can't explain that except by pointing out my general state of intoxication.
The next day, nothing at all has happened. My wife is doing great, she prepares coffee and breakfast, I leave for the garage where I repair cars and sometimes tractors. I don't pass by the meadow with the cows. I do see the blonde girl — her name is Anna — in the back of her parents' car. There is no school in the village, but there is one further on in the town. She doesn't see me and why should she see me, I'm just decor. And with floating cows around, I can't impress her.
There are few topics of conversation in the garage. Nobody mentions cows, especially not floating ones. We are talking about how badly some people take care of their vehicles, though they represent a considerable capital. People are foolish and often stupid. It's in their nature. Most of them here in the village work with their hands - and don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that, and you do need some knowledge and skills like here in the garage, but you won't get ahead intellectually if you just never open a book.
Unlike Bert, who wants to get ahead of people, and who reads books and such, but who cannot explain why those cows float either. Don't let him start about aliens and their experiments, because then Jeff and I will drop out.
Three days later we're out for another night. Our wives are used to us disappearing occasionally. Nothing special in this village, with three pubs the center of rumor that spreads in rippling concentric circles. That is how Bert puts it; he always goes for an extra story, an extra dimension. Where does this come from? Concentric circles?
That night we don't make it too late. The last light has just disappeared from the horizon when we leave the pub. It is still pleasantly warm. The meadow stretches out in front of us. Ahead, Anna, the tall young lady, is standing by the wire, watching the cows. They don't float, not yet. They only do that nearing midnight, another mystery. Why then, and not at any other time?
Jeff and Bert are getting ready to go home, I still hesitate. "She's not going to talk to an old guy like you," Bert says. "She doesn't even wants to be seen with you, " Jeff says. They both sound poisonous, petty, and typical of the lack of self-respect in this village, where people stay small all their lives and keep others small too.
I ignore them, and they drift off, towards home. They don't even look back.
It soon becomes clear to me that I have nothing to say to Anna, separated as we are by age and social circumstances. At best, as I realized earlier, I am a setting for her personal psychodrama — for her life as it has played out so far and as it will play out hereafter. School and university, and a real life, all is ahead of her. A future, while my life only consists of a past.
Neither of us will gain anything from a conversation, from an exchange of thoughts. She is, as it were, one of those extraterrestrial visitors Bert often talks about.
I wonder what her life is like. She spends part of it in school and therefore outside the village. But nights and weekends she's here. However, she will not stay: university in four years and then an exciting and challenging job in a big city or somewhere abroad.
She turns her head towards me, to my surprise, and notices that I'm several feet away from her. "Are you here for the cows as well?" she inquires.
I don't have an answer to that. No, I'm not here for the cows, and yes, I want her to stay here for the cows, and I have no explanation concerning the phenomenon. But she doesn't seem to expect an answer, because her attention is back on the meadow.
Together we stand by the wire that separates the meadow and the cows from us and from the street. We wait for what will inevitably come, but which has a different meaning in her world than in mine.
Guido Eekhaut has published more than sixty books in Belgium and Holland, including half a dozen concerning the imaginary city of Orsenna. He has also written crime novels, which were nominated for major awards and the first of which, Absint, won the Hercule Poirot Award in 2009 (and was published in the US in 2018). His stories have been anthologised many times, and several of them have appeared in Germany, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Argentina and China. He has worked as a freelance journalist for a number of newspapers and magazines. He also publishes essays on literature, geopolitics, history and philosophy, while working as a futurist. His story "Just Words" appeared in Issue #19 of The Cafe Irreal (as well as in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader); "Time Machine" appeared in Issue #21; "The Unicorn in the Park" in Issue #60; "The Conspiracy" in Issue #62; "The Moose," in Issue #69; "On the Bed" in Issue #72; and "The Year Before the Invasion" in Issue #78.