Friday, April 14, 2006

Learning the Language of Cows

In the light of a cold June morning, the pieces of a puzzle come together as with a shattered glass: even with all the pieces reclaimed, the mystery that held them together is no longer apparent. Yesterday a calf was still not looking right, so the vet came quickly, diagnosed pneumonia, and we went to town for vitamin e, multivitamin, and copper.

The calf and his mother are in the small paddock close to the house as if the proximity can warm it or bring the life back into his lungs. In the night I hear a louder than usual bugling that startles me awake. It has an urgency that unsettles me. "She is only calling to her calf," my husband tries to reassure me. Again and again I hear her but I do not hear the calf reply.

When I come downstairs in the morning, the computer is on but the office is empty and the tea pot is cold. Something is wrong in the steading--the farm buildings just beyond our house. I make tea and look into my husband's face as he crosses the divide between the barns and the house. I can read the set of his shoulders. Whatever the problem, it has been resolved as best as can be. I wait.

"A dead calf, " he says simply as he walks in the door.
"Is the mother all right?" I ask thinking it is one of the pregnant cows.
"Yes. It was that calf from yesterday." he shows me the bright plastic ear tag--"that's his number."
A little bit of yellow plastic with six-digit numbers makes a poor memorial I think as it lies uneasily in his hand.
"Was the mother the one I heard in the night?"

My husband is a good farmer, which means among other things that he understands that loss is part of the nature of the business. After fifty years, he cannot grieve for each lost calf, but he feels the loss as a personal loss. He thinks each time what he might have done better or other. Each calf is given into his care and, in that sense, each loss is a kind of personal failure.

And also he wants to protect me. He has read my eulogy for a black and white calf.

And so after a moment of silence he adds, "It's a shame; she's a good mother. A very good mother."

I cannot bend my mind to the task of calculating meters of dykes for the paperwork of farming or of cleaning the kitchen. I think about the cow calling out in the night to her calf and wonder how she makes sense of the fact that her calf did not call back.


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