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Fiction: The Cow's Horn

Tryouts for the travel soccer team mean everything—or do they?

Where’d you say he’s from again? Singapore or something?” Andrew asks. 

“Senegal,” I say, shrugging off my backpack and letting it crash to the floor. 

“Where’s that, India or something?” 

“Africa,” I say, trying not to laugh. Mamadou has been living with my family for eight months already, and Andrew, my best friend, still can’t remember where he comes from. All that matters to Andrew is that Mamadou is a great soccer player; Mamadou could be from Jupiter and Andrew probably wouldn’t remember. 

“Right,” Andrew says, giving his lock a last turn and stepping back as his locker—crammed with muddy cleats, lost homework, and overdue library books—opens with a metallic pop. “Now I remember. He’s from the capital, Cairo or something, right?” 

Sometimes I worry that if you were to X-ray Andrew’s skull, you’d see a soccer ball where his brain is supposed to be. 

I step over and take him by the shoulders. “We’ve been through this a hundred times!” I growl jokingly. “Mamadou is from Dakar! The capital of Senegal! On the continent of Africa! On a planet called Earth!” 

Andrew slams his locker and raises his eyebrows at me. “Cool,” he says. “So what time should my mom drop me off at the soccer field?” 

There are many things I’d rather do after school than practice soccer for three hours on a muddy field. Most of all I’d like to finish my latest model rocket—a Beta-series sidewinder. It’s all glued together and sanded smooth, tail fins perfectly even, nose cone sealed tight to the body. All that’s left is the paint job, and it will be set to blast off on Saturday, when my rocket club meets at the beach. 

But I keep reminding myself that I have no time for my rockets. Soccer tryouts are Friday afternoon, and nothing is more important. Every sixth-grader in Cape Breeze wants a spot on the travel soccer team. Mamadou has the week off from college. He’s offered to help my friends and me with our drills. Mamadou is a soccer genius. Pete and Andrew would kill me if I turned him down. 

I don’t usually see much of Mamadou during the week. He leaves for the college before I wake up in the morning, and the last bus doesn’t get him home until after I’ve hunkered down in my bed. If I wake up early enough, I can hear him on the phone downstairs, talking to his mother across the Atlantic. He speaks to her in Wolof, a strange and beautiful language that tickles my ears. 

Usually, Mamadou is so busy with school that the only sign of him is the jungle-patterned boubou robe he keeps hanging on the hook by his bed. I’ve never seen him put it on; he wears jeans and T-shirts like I do. But I think he likes to see the bright-green and red robe when he wakes up in the morning and when he goes to bed at night; his mother gave it to him before he came to America for college, before he came to live with us. 

I’m pretty sure Mamadou’s soccer offer was my dad’s idea. My dad has been my soccer coach since kindergarten, and his dream is to see me play on the travel team. Over the past few weekends, he’s been leaving the restaurant early to help me work on my drills. He even bought a new camera so he can film my penalty shots and power punts and play them back for me later on the TV. 

“See here, Alfie,” Dad said last night. It was after dinner, and he was studying replays of some of my moves. “You need to keep your shoulders straight and your head down. 

“You’ve got the shots, Alfie,” he continued, scratching his beard, looking at me with his tired eyes. “But you need to focus. Isn’t that right, Mamadou?” 

Mamadou glanced up from his books and nodded slightly, but then, when my dad was looking back at the screen, he looked over at me. Mamadou has very large, very dark brown eyes, and sometimes I swear I can see words written in them. Last night his eyes were telling me not to worry so much about soccer. 

The travel team practices four days a week after school and has games on Saturdays and Sundays. If I make the team, I won’t be able to go to rocket club. 

“It will be a great experience,” my dad promises. 

I want to say, “For who?” 

"OK! Alfie! You run yourself over there. Peter, you stand on the other side of the field, over there. I want Andrew to dribble the ball, like so.” 

Mamadou runs down the field as fast as a gazelle, dribbling so smoothly you’d swear the ball was in love with his sneakers. He stops suddenly, brakes the ball with a soft tap of his foot, and belts it down the field smack into the center of the goal. 

“Like so,” he says. He speaks softly, but the wind picks up his words and carries them through the air into our ears. 

The afternoon is wet and chilly, but Pete and Andrew peel off their jackets and are shiny with sweat. I keep up with them for the first hour and a half, but then I offer to tend the goal so I can catch my breath. I stay there for the last hour, until the sound of my mother’s car horn calls us from the field. 

We return to the field each day after school, and Mamadou is always waiting for us, a tall, young man with black skin standing in the middle of a pure green field. 

“Are you ready?” he calls, smiling at us. 

“Yes!” Andrew and Pete shout as they run toward him, smiling back, flashing their braces. 

I run along with them, trying to get geared up for practice. But hard as I try, I can’t get my mind on the field. It’s somewhere in the sky, soaring through the clouds, powered by an Estes D12-5 rocket motor. 

It’s Friday morning, tryout day. Mamadou is waiting for me at the kitchen table when I come down for breakfast. My mom and dad have already left for work. Dad is coming home early to drive me to tryouts. 

“You look tired,” he says as he stirs honey in his tea. 

I grab a bowl from the cupboard and glance at him guiltily. 

I meant to get to bed early last night, as dad suggested. I turned out the lights at 8:30, but when I closed my eyes, I could practically hear my rocket calling me from the closet. Before I knew it, I was at my desk, with my lamp turned down low, dipping a tiny paintbrush into tiny bottles of rocket paint. 

“I stayed up late painting the pinstripes.” 

Mamadou doesn’t look surprised. He calmly sips his tea as I shovel cereal into my mouth. 

“Did I ever tell you about the cow’s horn?” 

I think for a moment. Mamadou has told me so many stories about his life in Senegal. He has told me about his friends who played soccer in the streets, dribbling around goats and pigs who roamed free, and about his mother who worked all day and all night but somehow always had a pot of fresh chicken stew waiting for Mamadou when he came home from school. When she found out that Mamadou could come to America and attend college for free, she picked him up like he was a baby and spun him around their tiny house, dancing on the dirt floor like a ballerina. Mamadou is six feet tall. 

“At my school in Dakar, there were many rules. The most important rule was that we could not speak Wolof. Only French. They said we should never speak Wolof, that it was an old and creaky language that would be of no use to us. To help us remember this rule, there was a cow’s horn. Each morning, the teacher gave the cow’s horn to one student. If that student heard anyone speaking Wolof, he handed that person the cow’s horn. All day the cow’s horn was passed from student to student in this manner. At the end of the day, when the bell was rung, the last student holding the cow’s horn was punished.” 

“What was the punishment?” I ask, forgetting my mouthful of Rice Krispies. 

“You stayed after school and swept the classrooms. Two hours of work.” 

“For speaking Wolof?” I say. “That’s not fair.” 

Mamadou shrugs. “The teachers meant well. They thought it would help us.” 

“Did you ever end up with the cow’s horn?” 

“All the time,” Mamadou laughs, his chair creaking beneath him. “No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop myself from speaking Wolof. I tried and tried to stop, but it was like telling my heart to stop beating, or my blood to stop flowing.” 

“So every day you had to stay and sweep?” 

“Almost every day.” 

“Didn’t you get mad?” 

“At first I did. But then something happened. I got so good at sweeping that I finished in just one hour. One of my teachers was happy to spend the next hour working with me on school problems I couldn’t understand. Algebra. French grammar. Chemistry. Slowly, my work improved until I was getting the best grades. All my friends pitied me because I couldn’t stop myself from speaking Wolof. But it was because of Wolof that I got the cow’s horn, and because of the cow’s horn that I became eligible for the scholarship in America. That cow’s horn, you see, brought me here to America, to follow my dreams.” 

I try to read his eyes, but there seem to be too many words. He rises from his chair and touches me lightly on the shoulder before he goes upstairs to study. 

All day at school I think about punting and dribbling and heading and throwing. I remind myself that I scored the winning goal in the last game of the summer. Pete and Andrew lifted me up so I was 10 feet tall. I can still hear the sound of my dad cheering for me, whooping until he loses his voice. 

Sixty-five boys are trying out for 15 spots on the travel soccer team. There are five coaches, tall, serious men with whistles and stopwatches hanging from their necks, and clipboards glued to their arms. I went to a dog show once in Boston, and now I know how the poodles and retrievers felt. I do my tricks while the judges watch me with blank faces and then write my score on their clipboards. 

The last hour of tryouts is a scrimmage. I tie on my blue pinny and play as hard and fast as I can. I don’t score any goals when I play offense, but I make a power punt on defense and boot the ball across the field. 

“Way to go, Alfie! Keep it up!” 

My dad’s booming voice hits me like a punch in the stomach. After that, I can barely keep up a decent trot up and down the field. When the final whistle blows, I want to fall into the muddy grass and go to sleep. 

“What happened to you?” Pete says as we untie our pinnies.

“Don’t know,” I say, glancing over at my dad. He’s staring at the sky. 

I know I didn’t make the team even before Pete calls me on Saturday afternoon. 

“Andrew and I are on!” he says. “How about you?” 

“No,” I tell him. “I didn’t get a call.” Those who made the team were called by 2:00 that day. At 2:05, my dad knocks on my door. 

“Sorry, Alfie,” he says softly. 

“It’s all right, Dad.” 

“You feel like hitting some baseballs?” he says. 

“I lost my mitt,” I say. “I’m pretty worn-out.” 

“All right then,” Dad says. He pauses for a moment and looks at my rocket perched on its stand in the corner of the room, the beautiful sidewinder with its die-cut fins and perfect red, green, and purple pinstripes running down both sides. 

“Nice,” he says, closing the door. 

I wonder how I’m going to face Andrew and Pete. When will I get to see them? They’ll be too busy to have sleepovers or trade cards after school. All they’ll want to talk about is soccer. 

I skip rocket club that day, but the next morning, I pack up my rocket and ride my bike to the beach. It feels great to be outside without wearing cleats, to have sand under my feet instead of grass. 

My rocket blasts off perfectly, straight up into the clouds. I squint into the bright sunny sky and wait. Seconds later, I see it coming down. The parachute pops open and the rocket floats slowly through the air, landing softly in the dunes. 

Mom is on the phone when I come home, and Dad is already at the restaurant. Mamadou must be at the library. 

There’s a package on my bed, a box wrapped up carefully in old Christmas paper. Has Dad bought me a new mitt? 

I pick it up and realize it’s way too heavy to be a mitt. 

And then I know it’s from Mamadou. Somehow I know what it is and what it means. 

I rip open the paper and lift the lid off the old shoebox. 

I smile. 

Mamadou has given me a cow’s horn.

Continue the Learning Journey

In the story, a cow’s horn has a special meaning for Alfie and for Mamadou: It reminds them that it’s important to do what’s right for them, not just what other people want them to do. Think of an item that has a special meaning for you. Maybe the item reminds you of a time when you were brave or it reminds you of a person you care about. Draw a picture of the item, and write three reasons why it's special to you. Hang the picture in your room to remind you of its importance.

Skills in Action: What Is a Summary?

Learn how to write a summary in this fun animated video.

Reading “The Cow’s Horn” aloud would take 10 to 15 minutes. Imagine that you want to tell the story to a friend, but she has only two minutes before dinnertime. How would you sum it up? Write down the most important points of the story, leaving out the small details. Then record yourself summarizing the story. Check out the video above for tips on getting to the point.

Ready for Launch!

Follow these steps to make a paper rocket.

Build your own rocket—just like Alfie! Click on the slideshow above for a NASA-inspired rocket activity. You’ll need a piece of paper, a pencil, a ruler, scissors, tape, and a straw. Then teach your friends or family members how to make a rocket, and have a competition to see whose rocket can fly highest and farthest.

This article was written by Lauren Tarshis for Scholastic Storyworks magazine.

Art by Craig Orback; other images