History Retold

October 17, 2007
By Helen Yang, Troy, MI

“I have been unjustly accused of causing a terrible catastrophe. I am here today to proclaim my innocence. I merely wish to clear my name so tainted by urban legends world-wide, and I plea for your credulity and sympathy. My name is Daisy, and I have lived on the O’Leary farm for six years. I was a long-time habitant of the Chicago area, and those who knew me can all attest to my veracity and kindness.”

“I can’t attest to that!”

“Please don’t interrupt. I was born in 1865 to a very respectable family on a very respectable farm. I knew my father only distantly, for he was a hard worker on the field and fell asleep every night as soon as we hit the hay. He never really talked much, so he struck me as cold. My mother, on the other hand, was very gentle and caring. I was not the only one who respected her patience, wisdom, and sympathetic ear. In fact, many others regarded her as their mother figure, too. My two brothers, unfortunately, did not turn out so respectable. Their greed got themselves so morbidly obese and subsequently killed. But, that is life. Life, I realized, is like the deep end of the swimming hole. One can never accurately judge the pool’s depth, and it’s always surprisingly deeper than one originally fathomed.”

“Get on with it already!”

“Alright! That fateful autumn Sunday afternoon, Lila and I strolled down to the swimming hole where the majestic willow tree overhangs into the water. The walk was arduous after a long day of work, but the flowers beneath the tree always provided a myriad of pleasures. Lila was unable to walk so far, her legs and floppy feet being so disproportionate to her rotund body. I gave her a piggy-back ride. The additional weight was not much of a burden, but her never-ending blabbing was unbearable. After a long day of work, one seeks silence and solace, not a foolish companion who rambles on and on about the futility of life. I freely admit that the temptation to kick her off was very strong.

“Upon arriving at the august tree, Lila jumped off of me with great force— Mr. O’Leary once told me that F equals MA. He was a very learned man. Anyhow, Lila jumped off and then proceeded to trample callously the lilac I was admiring. The delicate petals tore apart beneath her feet, an entire noble family line of lilacs eliminated with one cruel, sweeping movement! O what a heart-wrenching loss! Here, I finally lost my patience. A bubble of resentment that had been steadily growing suddenly burst. Did she have any right to infringe upon the flower’s right to life? No! Just because Lila was named after the flower did not give her any such right! In Lila’s bigoted subconscious, she probably thought herself superior to all other life forms. Well, she was wrong. Fact: I was superior to both the former and the latter. Sadly, the world has yet to recognize my merits.”

“Ha! What merits?”

“Lila was a vile brute! The lowest of the low, good for nothing, —beep!—worthless rubbish that wastes space and my time! I bluntly told her so, and more. A look of astonishment crossed her stupid face, and she immediately became defensive. No, not just defensive, but also offensive. She turned around and called me a stupid, ugly, and fat animal whose doomsday was soon to arrive. Me! Fat? I couldn’t believe she insulted me so! That —beep!—beep!—beep!—!”

“Watch your f—beep! — dirty language!”

At this point during the speech the editors became very busy censoring the profanities.

“We yelled at each other. That bi—beep!—, trying to make me angrier, purposefully stomped around the water hole, murdering even more flowers. At that point, I charged at her. She dodged and escaped into the pond, where she continued to taunt me. Then I kicked rocks at her. Oh, if only they had found their target! Life would have been so different today. The subsequent events would not have happened, people’s lives would not have been lost, and most importantly, my honorable name would not have been so ruined!”

“You’re a selfish pig! All you care about is your —beep— name!”

“Are you blind? I am not a pig! What do you know?”

“Why do we even bother to listen to this garbage? I could have been sleeping! Let’s leave!”

The listeners all nodded in agreement and stood up to leave. Finally, the host stepped in, and with an angelic smile and plea in her voice, she implored the audience to please remain for the entire speech. She asked Daisy to move onto the crucial part of the story. Finally, everyone settled down again.

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry for my outburst—but only if you guys apologize for your rudeness. Silence? Okay, I’ll take that as an I-am-sorry. I’ll talk faster to save you guys time.

“You may think me insane to have become so angry over such a trifle. Insanity I do not plead to, but I do admit that at that moment I had been swept away by an uncontrollable, murderous rage. I chased Lila back to the farm, intent on trampling her beneath my feet and thus ridding the world of a bigoted, worthless dimwit. However, she always remained one step in front of me, quacking loudly and hurling more insults. If my story is ever made into a movie, Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude would be the most perfectly fitting music to describe my thunderous mood.

“We re-entered the farm grounds, whereupon Lila hopped up onto the outhouse’s roof. I remained below and told her that if she had any guts, she would come down. I guess she didn’t because she remained up there. I left the scene and stalked back into the barn, angrily walking in circles and squashing the hay beneath my feet. I was all alone.

“Mrs. O’Leary walked in with some food, which she set down in front of me. I wasn’t hungry. Anger doesn’t really help the appetite, you know. I ate half-heartedly, but the more I ate, the more I realized how hungry I was. And then I became guilty. What if my anger at Lila was because I had been hungry? Being hungry doesn’t really improve one’s mood or patience either. My angry slowly subsided, like the flies buzzing near the roof. I told myself I would apologize to Lila as soon as I finished eating. Mrs. O’Leary picked up the pail and left.

“Suddenly, I saw Lila’s silhouette appear at the entrance of the barn. It was like one of those movie scenes where the bad guy slowly comes into view, holding a gun, and blocks out the sunlight. Well, Lila was carrying a lantern. The setting sun behind her extended her shadow all across the barn. Despite this ominous setup, I was glad to see her again. I told her I was sorry. And if you know anything about any of us, you’d understand how difficult it was for me to apologize. I expected her to apologize in return, but her next words and actions stunned me. After carefully setting the lantern down, she said: ‘I’ll never forgive you.’ Then, laughing like a maniac, she flung the lantern onto the pile of dry wood near the door, and left.”

Gasps were heard in the audience.

“What happened seemed so familiar, even down to that evil laugh and the sinister glint in Lila’s eyes that I’m sure I saw. Even now I can still remember her turning around and stepping away in dramatic slow-mo. It was just like in a bad Western movie! Lila had surely been influenced by those violent movies we watched with Mr. O’Leary. What’s one way of ridding society of violence and abuse? Take them out of movies!

“The lantern had shattered upon impact and the fire sprung up. The weather had been very dry, which was why we went to the swimming hole in the first place. The dry wood instantly sprung up in a bright flash of flame and then moved onto the wooden wall panels. In less than the blink of an eye, the entire front of the barn was on fire, and it was spreading faster by the moment. Such brilliance comes only once in a lifetime. I was so dazzled by this display that I had forgotten to react.

“It was only after the fire had over-taken nearly a third of the barn did I realize the danger I was in. I pushed on the gate, and with horror realized it was bolted! Mrs. O’Leary must have locked it on her way out! Conflicting thoughts rushed into my head at the same time: There’s no way to escape! I was going to burn to death! I need to escape! No one would ever remember me! I don’t want to die! That—beep! —animal deserved to burn in hell! But no it’s hopeless and I’m going to die! Oh treachery! I shall get my revenge!

“All the while I staggered around my tiny stall like a drunk, crashing into the sides and bellowing in alarm. I rammed the barred gate. Once! Twice! Each time I winced in pain. Thrice! The gate flew open! I rushed out of my stall and into the long hall. I galloped towards the back exit. Suddenly, a chunk of the burning roof fell down and blocked my path. Oh what perfect timing. Just like in the movies.

“At that point, I heard the O’Leary’s yelling outside. It seemed that the fire had spread onto the hay stack outside the barn. Everything was burning down! I stepped gingerly around the burning wood and made for the exit again. Sparks flew and crackled. If only I could stop and watch this magnificent display! Finally, I lunged out the door and was free. Free! I escaped! I was safe! But only from the temporary threat, for I saw that the fire had already overtaken almost every building on our small farm. There had been no rain for two weeks, and the dry grass worked even better than firewood. I still wonder if Lila had known what she was doing. She must have been insane, and no one knew about it. My insults had unknowingly pushed her over the edge.

“I watched the fire, aided by the wind, move onto neighboring houses and farms. I watched the hungry flames surround us. I watched the others conquered by the blaze and collapsing buildings. The air was blurry with heat. That destructive fire eventually burned over four square miles to ashes. There never really was an escape.”

It was dead silent.

“So, here I am. That’s my story,” Daisy said dispassionately. “The true story. I accept my death. But what I do not accept was that the fire had not even begun to die and newspapers started libeling my and the O’Leary’s names. I understand that the rumor originated from Michael Ahern of the Chicago Republican newspaper. I hope he’s ashamed of himself. People attribute to me the death of more than two hundred people and destruction of thousands of homes. They are wrong. The real perpetrator was Lila, the insane goose.”

An except from "The Legend of the Cow," a poem written at the time of the Great Chicago Fire, October 9th, 1871:

Flames! flames! terrible flames!
What a fearful destruction they bring.
What suf'fring and want in their train follow fast,
As forth on the streets homeless thousands are cast,
But courage! courage! From the mid'st of the furnace we sing.

Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O'Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over,
Then winked her eye and said,
"There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight!"

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