The end of despair

Illustration: Eduardo Recife

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Battered by loss, with nowhere to go, Will Boast found his future in a novel, a phone call—and a guide on four hooves.

Seven years ago, I was stranded—grief-stricken, a year out of grad school, living alone in a rented house in Virginia. My dad had passed away, and I'd sold our family home in Wisconsin. The last anchor to my past was gone; the future spread before me like an ocean, blank and formless. I made lists of places I might go, wrote out pros and cons. But there seemed no point in going anywhere at all.

I filled my time with books. One night I sat down to finish Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, the story of a love triangle: Henry, a London civil servant, is married to Sarah, who takes as her lover Bendrix, a young writer. The novel, set in the darkest days of World War II, is also a story of faith. When Bendrix's flat is hit by a bomb, Sarah asks God to let him live. Moments later, Bendrix emerges from the debris; in the end, it's Sarah who dies. Henry and Bendrix, former rivals, are united by loss. Henry invites Bendrix to move in with him, and the bereaved men make a home together. Upon finishing Greene's book, I was unaccountably comforted. That night I slept better than I had in weeks.

The next morning, I was awakened by a call from a childhood friend. He'd just broken up with his girlfriend of six years. He wanted me to come to Madison and move in with him, help him make rent. Maybe he needed me to see him through the breakup. I knew I needed him to help me come back to life.

He flew down to Virginia so we could take shifts driving the moving van to Wisconsin. I packed my things, still slightly bewildered at how it had all come to pass.

On the morning we pulled out of town, I was driving through my residential neighborhood when I saw a figure emerge from the mist: a massive black and white creature on four hooves. It was a Holstein cow, the very emblem of the Dairy State. It passed within feet of us, then disappeared into a backyard. There were no farms for miles.

"I'll never lose my faith in coincidence," Bendrix says in Greene's novel.

There are rare moments when life, often so arbitrary, sends you a note of encouragement. "You can put your faith in friends," it said that day. "You can find your way."

I like to think we followed that cow all the way back home.