Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The day I met the calf

September 11, 2008

I am twenty-three years old and I just discovered that I am a mother. My daughter is round eyed, snotty, and, weighing in at nearly fifty pounds, will mostly likely grow up to be quite a cow. Yes, literally.

I knew the day would be a long one when I saw Wayne holding the binoculars to his eyes to peer out to the far field, a half mile from the main barn, “I think I see a splotch out there,” he warned me, indicating that one of the cows in his herd of thirty had calved.

My directions were clear. Walk out to the field and carry back the newborn calf. The mother, with all parental concern, should simply follow me back to the barn.

All eagerness and energy, I practically jogged the dusty laneway toward the field. This is only my second week as a farmhand, and all of my experiences still sparkle with novelty.

The calf is laying quietly in the middle of the clover-filled field; its mother stands some meters away, licking complacently at the gummy sac of afterbirth which she has dropped behind her. I approach the calf, surprised at its disinterest in me. The last time I had to help carry back a calf it sprinted a good fifty meters before we had a chance to tackle it. This calf, however, seemed barely conscious. Its fur is matted in manure and afterbirth, and I slide my hands beneath its legs, despite my displeasure. Collaring my arms around its front chest and rear end, I stagger up and nearly slip in the wet grass as I attempt to walk with this deadweight calf. The early morning sun slanting long light into my eyes, I trudge stolidly toward the barn. After a few hundred meters I begin to worry. The calf has barely made a sound and shows no signs of struggle. Most calves are incredibly energetic and unhappy at being separated from their mothers. Yet this one’s quiet and despairing attitude is unsettling.

Despite the heavy load, I grit my teeth and push on to the barn. Wayne helps me bed down the calf and we look her over. She is smaller than most, and the mother has not followed her down from the field. “This happens sometimes,” explains Wayne, “there is trouble during birth, and the mom just ain’t interested in her calf after.” I nod, still concerned. What will happen to this newborn? Will she grow up without a loving mother? Wayne senses my concern, “How about you try to get some milk into her? She’ll do a lot better soon, I promise you.”

I teach the calf to suckle a short while later. Lying beside her in the wood shavings, I hold her nose to the plastic nipple and hum softly as I rub her back, attempting to imitate a mother cow licking off her dirt. During this process, the connection was made. Suddenly, I was more than a hand on her back, I became her mother. Between carrying her from the field and giving her milk, I had given her the attention and the care she craved. Her wide dark eyes fixed on my face. I could imagine her stomach(s) working for the first time, juices and processes set in motion through the shockingly nutritious creamy thick which poured down her fresh throat. No mother could be prouder.

While I may have certain misgivings regarding my current employment, all of my doubts are quickly swept away when I consider my newfound daughter. Born on a day that comes with enough baggage of its own, her beginning was an understandably difficult one. Nevertheless, despite her limp as a result of her complicated birth, she walks with confidence, swift to punch her head into my hip, forcefully demanding milk and attention. I appreciate her scrappy attitude. Stubborn cow.


Amelia said...

Well, hello there! I just wanted to start by saying that I think this is an awesome piece. I love the feeling of it, the sense of discovery and pride and love.
I think that apart from a few small snags it's very beautifully written as well. A few times I think you switch tenses, which can be a little jarring. Also I have a little trouble with the wording of: "Yet this one’s quiet and despairing attitude is unsettling." The 'yet' sets it up as a contradiction to the previous statement, but the two statements are not really contradictory. I think that you could go with something like "this one's quiet and despairing attitude is unsettling" or "yet this one is quiet and despairing" and it would flow a little better.
And wow, this is a really long comment! Basically, I love it. It's very evocative of James Herriot, and that is never a bad thing!

Barbara Lorraine said...

J, you don't need me to tell you what a fabulous writer you are, but quite frankly I can never criticize your stuff. Ever since Josh Harmon, it's just been, wow. (I didn't read your writing before then, so how should I know if you were wow before then, oops!) It's an absolute pleasure to read about the life you're living out on the farm. I concede to Amelia's points about the occasional oddly worded moment, but even then, damn it Janine. I'll say something of more substance next time. Well done. Say hi to the calf for me.