A long time ago, in a dairy farm far, far away...
...there was a young cow called Ella. There was absolutely nothing special about her. She was large, placid, and did what cows of her sort spend their time doing; which is to say, she swallowed her feed, chewed her cud, and brought forth copious quantities of milk from her udder, every morning and evening.
The farm Ella lived on was set among extensive meadows, and every morning after milking, she and the other cows of her herd were let out of their sheds to spend their day cropping grass and relaxing in the mild sunshine. It was a pleasant, routine existence, bucolic and utterly free of any kind of unpleasantness or stress.
It was also boring as hell.
Beneath her placid dappled hide, Ella hid the soul of a romantic, who aspired to love and glory. The farm had no avenues for either of those things. It didn’t even have a bull.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Ella confided to her stepsisters, while they stood by the fence of the meadow and chewed their cud. “This place is dead.”
“Now don’t be crazy, Ella,” said one of her stepsisters, both of whom were homely bovines of limited intelligence and imagination. “We’re in clover here.”
“Literally,” added the other, her lower jaw working away. “All we have to do is eat and sleep and make milk. What more do you want?”
“You two don’t have the slightest bit of soul,” Ella diagnosed. “All you’re good for is to spend your lives churning out milk and cow-pats. I’m far too advanced for you.” And, swishing her tail contemptuously, she set off across the meadow.
Now, it so happened that news percolated through to the farm that the up-and-coming young champion bull of the breed, who went by the pedigree name of Imperial Highness Crown Prince Royal III, or Prince for short, was looking for a mate. Prince was known throughout the land for being the greatest bull the breed had seen for many generations, for all that he was so young, and just the thought of him sent bovine hearts thrilling all around the herds, in farms and backyard cowsheds throughout the countryside.
“Do you know,” the cows whispered amongst themselves as they chewed the cud, “that they’re holding a cattle show at the Palace Stadium on Friday evening, and all the best cows of our breed will be there. And they’re going to pick out the best of the best, the absolute top cow of the line, who’ll be mated to the Prince!”
“Even if one can’t be the chosen one,” the cows said, “just imagine the party. All the best cows will be there, darling, dressed to kill, you know. And the media will be there, too, and the TV and all. It will be such an Occasion. Don’t you wish you could go?” And they’d moo wistfully.
Now, of course, when Ella heard the news, she wished she could go, too. But she was trapped in her miserable little dairy farm, and the Palace Stadium was in the town down in the valley, where the bright lights were.
Her stepsisters were, of course, far too ugly and stupid to have a chance of becoming consort to Prince, and were well aware of the fact, so they merely sighed deeply and went on with the job of converting fodder to milk. But Ella had other ideas.
“I’ve got to get there,” she thought to herself. “If only I can get there, I’ll show them all. Those snooty heifers with their fancy pedigree certificates and their la-di-da airs won’t have a chance against me. I’ve just got to get there.”
But she was on the farm, and the Palace Stadium might as well have been on the far side of the moon.
In vain Ella schemed and plotted and looked for ways to get off the farm and to the cattle show. In vain she looked for the slightest sign that the farmer had even considered entering her as a contestant in the show. She finally decided she had no option but to escape the farm and make her way to the show somehow, but even that was impossible, because the fences were too high to jump and the gate was never left unlocked, not for a moment.
So Friday evening came around, and poor Ella, alone in her stall, sobbed and sighed and ignored her feeding trough of hay. She was disconsolate at the thought that the golden opportunity of her life, all she’d ever wanted, was passing her by. The placid noise of her stepsisters chewing away in the stalls on either side merely accentuated her misery, because she knew that they were too stupid even to know what she was feeling, or be able to understand.
Then, as she sobbed and moaned with grief, she became aware of a shivering in the air, and before her eyes a tiny cow materialised, all covered with spangles of silver and gold, and with diamonds twinkling at the tip of each horn. The cow looked around the stall appraisingly, and turned to smile at Ella.
“Quite a dump, isn’t it?” she said cheerfully. “I don’t blame you for having higher aspirations, I really don’t.”
“Who are you?” Ella asked, astonished. “Where did you come from?”
“Oh, sorry,” the glittering cow apologised. “Let me introduce myself. I’m your fairy talent agent. I thought it was time that I dropped in.”
“Fairy talent agent? I never knew such things existed.”
“Well,” the glittering cow snorted, “of course we fairy talent agents exist. How do you suppose anything gets done otherwise – by human agency, perhaps?”
The contempt in her voice made Ella wince. “I’m sorry,” she said humbly. “It’s just that I didn’t expect you.”
“That’s quite all right, child. Now, let me see, you want to go to the Palace Stadium and impress Prince, isn’t that so?” The fairy talent agent didn’t even wait for an answer. “And your problem is that you can’t go there, which is why you’re moping and crying a puddle in the floor. You ought to see yourself. A right picture of bovine misery.”
“Could...” Ella began hesitantly. “Could you help me?”
“Why, of course I can help you, child. That’s what we fairy talent agents are for. I’ll have you at the Stadium. It won’t take two flips of a cow’s tail.”
“You can?” Ella stepped forward eagerly. “Well, then, let’s go!”
“Wait!” The fairy talent agent looked her up and down appraisingly. “You don’t plan on going like that, surely? Why, child, the competition will eat you alive. You won’t even get a hoof in at the door.”
“What can we do then?” Ella asked, her heart sinking. “I’ve, well, I’ve never been off this farm, and I haven’t any idea what I’ll need.”
“That’s not a problem,” the fairy talent agent said, and the diamonds at the tips of her horns twinkled brightly. “Let me get a few things together, and I’ll fix you right up. Let’s begin with getting you a makeover.” And as she gestured with a highly polished cloven hoof, wisps of straw and dust rose off the floor of the stall in a perfect whirlwind which twined round and round Ella, until the young cow was hidden entirely from view.
At length the whirlwind subsided. “Voila!” said the fairy talent agent, stepping back and admiring her handiwork. “Now that’s more like it!”
And what a sight Ella was! Her ordinary, dappled skin markings had given way to leopard rosettes in black and yellow. Her tail was free of its usual coating of dung, and the tuft at its tip had acquired hair extensions to make it longer and thicker.
“Now, let’s see.” The fairy talent agent contemplated Ella thoughtfully. “What more do you need? What’s the fashion these days? I know – a nipple ring!” And, before Ella could either wince or say “Ouch,” she had acquired a piercing and a tasselled ring through one of her teats.
“And it really wouldn’t do, would it, to appear barefoot at the ball,” the fairy talent agent mused. “We don’t want you looking like a hippie.” She shook her horns again, and in a trice Ella’s hooves and lower legs were clad in bright pink boots with zippers down the sides. “Sexy shoes – those will get his attention, I’ll warrant. Now, you’re perfect.”
“Uh, fairy talent agent,” Ella began, “I’m very grateful, but how do I get there? I mean, it’s a long way, the gates and even this shed are locked, and the show will have started by now.”
“Don’t you worry about that, girl. Your fairy talent agent has all that taken care of. But, before I send you off, remember a couple of things.” The fairy talent agent looked suitably serious. “First, I can’t guarantee that you’ll win the show and catch Prince's fancy. I can only put you there and give you what you need to succeed, but ultimately it’s up to you.”
“I know,” Ella said confidently. “Just put me there and see!”
“The second thing,” the fairy talent agent said, “is that magic is an energy-intensive project. What I mean to say is, your transformation won’t last forever. At the most I can make it go on till midnight before the magic energy is depleted and the material I weaved returns to its natural state of straw and dust. So, better make sure you exit the show by twelve if you know what’s good for you.”
“How do I know when it’s going to be twelve?”
“There will be clocks enough,” said the fairy talent agent, getting ready to flip her tail. “There always are.” And before she flipped her tail twice, Ella had arrived right in the middle of the show, to the extreme surprise of everyone around.
All around her were the top of the line, elegant cows groomed and brushed, their horns and hooves polished till they gleamed, cows so superb that Ella would have never dared whisk tail among them but for her fairy talent agent’s makeover. But with that makeover, she was the cream of the crop. She was the one who turned all heads. And, among all the bare hooves, her drop-dead sexy pink boots were the best of all.
Everyone was looking at her, she realised with amazed wonder – the humans in the audience, the judges who were wondering who she was and where she’d come from, the TV camera crew, they were all looking at her and murmuring appreciatively. And she could almost see the waves of jealousy coming off the other cows, with their fancy pedigrees and their airs and graces. They had nothing on her, and when she strutted the show ring’s sandy floor, she flounced a little more just to put them in their places.
Even Prince, in his stall to one side, was impressed, and showed it in a full-throated bellow that rang up to the roof of the stadium, and flapped his long, seductive ears as he strained towards her. She tried to work her way through the crowd to him, impatiently pushing aside human and cow alike, and had almost arrived within sniffing distance of his nose when she happened to lay eyes on the digital display on the stadium’s electronic scoreboard.
It was fifty-seven minutes past eleven in the evening.
Now, Ella was in some ways a vain cow, a cow much given to daydreaming and, as her ugly stepsisters said, of thinking above her station. But she was neither stupid nor foolhardy. She did not even think of disregarding the fairy talent agent’s warning.
“Hey, Prince,” she called to him over the crowd noise. “It’s been great being here, and I wish I could stay longer – really, I wish – but I have to go.”
“Wait!” the bull called. “You’re the best of the lot here, and I don’t see...”
“Perhaps,” Ella mooed, “we’ll meet again.” It was already two minutes to midnight; she couldn’t wait a moment longer. Besides, the zipper on one of those sexy boots had begun to give way , and the boot was beginning to slide down over her lower leg. Batting her long, talent-agent enhanced eyelashes over her shoulder at him, she began working her way quickly as she could towards the nearest exit. There was a hubbub as people suddenly became aware that one of the cows on show was apparently attempting an escape.
“Stop her!” voices began shouting. “Stop that cow!”
So Ella hoofed it through the crowd with a mob in pursuit, comprising equal parts human and cow, followed by Prince’s despairing bellows echoing from the back. And, precisely at the stroke of midnight, she galloped down the stairs leading out of the stadium, the magic wore off, and she reappeared in her stall, the boots and leopard spots, the piercing and the tail extensions, crumbling back to straw and dust on the floor around her.
All, that is, except one of those sexy, form-fitting boots, the one with the busted zipper. An instant before the magic faded, it had dropped off her hoof, and lay like a discarded snakeskin on the stadium steps. Not being connected to her at the instant the magic died, by some arcane and doubtless fundamental fairy law, it didn’t fall to its component elements like the rest of her ensemble. And there the organisers and the judges found it.
“We have got to find that cow,” they said. “Now there’s a cow for our Prince to breed with.”
So the next morning they began a tour of all the neighbouring farms, looking for the cow who had dazzled so brightly in the show. Many were the cows – pedigree cows, all, the best that could be found – they tried the boot on, but not one would it fit. And as the sun was setting over the western hills, they finally arrived at the farm where Ella lived with her stepsisters.
Ella was sighing deep and melancholy sighs in her shed when the door slammed open and the farmer entered with the cattle show organisers. “But I tell you,” he was protesting, “none of my cows was out of the shed last night; and though they are of the breed, they’re just honest cows, no show quality by any means.”
“Still,” the organisers said, “let us try it on them. We’ve checked all the other farms in the district, and not one cow has fit the boot. It won’t do any harm to try, will it?”
“All right then,” said the farmer. “Try.”
So the organisers tried it on the first stepsister. Her huge spatulate hoof was so large it almost split the boot in two. The other managed to work her hoof into the pink tube of material, but more than that it would not go. Then it was Ella’s turn.
“This one’s the last, I hope,” said one of the organisers, looking Ella over with disfavour. “I’m sick and tired of trying to shoe cows. All I’ve got for my troubles is whacked on the face by dung-stained tails.” He knelt and began working the boot over Ella’s hoof. It went on a little way, and stuck.
“Told you it’s a waste of time,” said the farmer, hardly looking. But then he noticed the silence from the organisers and stepped forward, staring.
Like a live thing, the pink boot moulded itself on Ella’s hoof and leg, fitting her like a second skin. Except where the broken zipper sagged, it was a fit so exact that it was as if it had been painted on to her skin.
“This is our cow,” one organiser said to another. “There’s not really any room for doubt.”
The other was already turning to the farmer, and reaching for a cheque-book. “How much do you want for her?”
“I’m going,” Ella mooed in triumph to her stepsisters. “I’m going to Prince, just like I told you. So there!”
“You don’t know when you’re well enough off,” came the reply.
So Ella was ennobled as Imperial Princess Cowella the First and taken by cattle wagon to a place far, far away, where she was given a whitewashed, sparkling clean, dust-free stall of her own with the smell of antiseptic on the floor, and a hopper dropping feed pellets into a trough at regular intervals.
“How wonderful,” Cowella said aloud to herself. “I never had a room like this before. This is a real palace! I wonder what the grounds are like?”
“Grounds?” came a voice from the next stall, sounding grimly amused. “There are no grounds. You’re in the middle of a city, just like the rest of us. And like the rest of us, you’re going to spend the rest of your life in your stall.”
“In this stall?” Cowella sputtered. “You mean that’s all there is to it? What about Prince?”
“Oh, you mean the bull? He isn’t in this breeding centre. I don’t believe he’s ever been here. But his semen comes regularly, and they pump it into us with syringes. My, it’s cold!”
Cowella’s mouth had gone dry. “But that means...”
“That means,” said the unseen cow, obviously enjoying herself, “that you’re just part of a breeding programme, darling. Schemed to get here, did you now? Well, I’m sure you’ll get to like the life, pushing out a calf each cycle on schedule. You like the idea of motherhood, I hope? Especially since they’ll take the calf away even before it’s weaned?”
Cowella didn’t reply. She was weeping bitter tears and harshly reprimanding herself. But it was too late for regrets.
“It’s never too late,” said the fairy talent agent, reappearing. “So you decided you’ve had enough of show business?”
Cowella glared at her balefully. “Get away from me,” she lowed. “You’ve done enough damage as it is.”
“Tut, tut,” the fairy talent agent said, shaking her head sorrowfully. “I’d expected better from you, Ella. So, what do you want? Should I take you somewhere else – as consort to a rodeo bull, maybe? I hear that cows in India lead a charmed life, so you might try that too.”
“None of that,” Cowella said. “Since I can’t have my old farm life back again, just leave me alone.”
“Did I say you can’t have your old life back?” the fairy talent agent asked. “Of course you can. All we have to do is reverse the magic and put you back there again.” She lifted her tail. “Should I flip?”
“Flip,” Cowella said, decisively.
“I hear,” one of the ugly stepsisters said, “that they’re looking for a mate for Prince the prize bull. There’s going to be a show in town next Friday.”
The cows were standing in the meadow methodically chewing the cud. The sky was blue overhead and the breeze caressed their flanks. Even the gnats were somnolent and left them alone.
“I expect,” the other stepsister said, “you’d want to get there and catch his attention, Ella?”
Ella looked up from where she had lowered her head to crop a mouthful of grass. For an instant she had a memory, as vague as a fading dream: a memory of a pierced teat and pink boots, and people looking at her and cheering, and a name. Cowella. Then it faded away and was gone.
“No,” she said. “On second thoughts, I think this once I’ll leave bad enough alone.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012