A Hitchhiking Cow's Guide to the Universe

Weekly Read - May 28, 2021
road trip

I cried for three hours, then I packed my U.S. passport and headed to New Mexico.

Maya C. manages to pack a lot into the opening line of her Perseverance Prize-winning story, “Praying Over Her Bones”: an intense emotional state, a sense of adventure and a character who seems driven by a mission yet to be revealed. Our curiosity is immediately piqued as we wonder, “What’s in New Mexico?” We soon find out that our protagonist is embarking on a road trip to reconnect with her roots, ultimately a journey of self-discovery.
When we think of exploring one’s heritage, armchair activities like flipping through dusty black-and-white photo albums or tracing back our family tree on an ancestry website come to mind. In this story, Maya instead bravely ventures off the furniture and travels hundreds of miles to set foot on the very land her family has walked on for centuries, heeding the call of her ancestors to return to the desert.
Imagery that transcends images
Despite its name, imagery isn’t only mental pictures; it can evoke any of our senses, and the best writers evoke them all. Maya C.’s creativity shines through her command of this literary device. For example, rather than tell the reader it was summer, she calls it “the season of fresh green chili and late afternoon thunderstorms,” conveying not just the time of year, but what summer feels like for our protagonist. We can taste the heat of the fresh chili, smell the August rain, hear the clash of thunder.

We returned to the land during the season of fresh green chili and late thunderstorms.

green chiles
Imagery works in tandem with anthropomorphic diction to show us that the human form is embedded in the environment, and people are connected to the land they live on. The protagonist’s grandfather toils in a “wide yawning valley,” while “clouds half-cover the glittering eye of the sun like dark grey curls.” By relating the clouds to someone near and dear to her heart, we understand that Maya looks for her grandmother in the world around her. All this highly personal language creates a story unique to this character. We don’t see the world as everyone else sees it: we see it through her eyes, our perspective colored by her beliefs, desires and experiences.
A story within a story
“Praying Over Her Bones” is like a BOGO deal: we get two stories for the price of one. The frame narrative of our protagonist cruising through the wide-open road of the Southwest is the backdrop against which we hear another story: the haunting and unexpectedly funny tale of her grandfather giving a ride to a mysterious woman who appears to transform into a talking cow. This serves as our introduction to the motif of shape-shifting (more on that later).
cow moo

Dadito, I say, grinning with anticipation, tell me the story of Grampo and the cow.

This nested narrative gives us a glimpse into Maya’s immediate family, a group of storytellers, where everyone puts their own spin on a familiar tale. She could have easily summarized this anecdote, but by telling it to usin her father’s own words, we witness firsthand the value of stories in this family, how they can both amuse and frighten, and how much Maya enjoys hearing this one, time and again.
What is shape shifting, really?
On the surface, the idea of shape-shifting refers to a strange woman who inexplicably seems to transform into a talking cow. Not taken so literally, there’s also meta-writing here on the power of storytelling. Our protagonist wonders “how it is possible for [her] body to know stories [her] ears have never heard.” As she and we come to understand, stories are more than words: they are a part of us, passed down in ways we don’t even realize. We are made up of stories.
In the same way that land can carry stories, we’re vessels for them too, and shape-shifting comes to describe the quasi-ritual of enveloping ourselves in the tales of our ancestors, shifting into their shoes and, in essence, uniting with them. By the end, Maya is beginning “the long journey of remembering how to shift,” and becoming one with the spirits of her family.

I came back for her, to pray over her bones in the place that birthed us, to begin the long journey of remembering how to shift.

girl at sunset
Meta-writing: simply put, is writing about writing. With “Praying Over Her Bones,” Maya creates a story about the power of stories, from how they tie people to each other and where they come from, to how everyone puts their own spin on a familiar tale when it’s their turn to tell it. This kind of writing is self-conscious, with play between the form and the ideas it contains. Consider coming up with one such story yourself. You could make a character an author, or touch on a theme related to the writing process. You could even break the fourth wall. Get meta with it!
Read Praying Over Her Bones
Celeste Davidson
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