Friday, April 14, 2006

X13 and the Cull Cows’ Last Gallop

X13 and I have stared into the face of death once already together. Staggers, like so many things, was new to me. Cows can develop an acute mineral deficiency and then they look and act as if drunk—hence the descriptive colloquialism. X13, the large number on the tag in her ear, looked funny in the morning and so she got an extra dose of minerals and a closer look. By early afternoon she was so weary and wobbly that she could scarcely be moved. A call was made to the vet and we prepared to move her from the field back to the steading, the farm buildings, where the vet could either give her IV minerals or else. I didn’t know what or else was and didn’t want to think about it.

David, our stockman, chased her on the latter day quarter horse, a noisy four-wheeled bike, until she refused to move any further. We abandoned the bike and cajoled and bullied her onto the road from the field back to the farm buildings. With one last burst of energy and rebellion she bolted away from us, found a grassy verge and sat on her side mindless of the grass around her. Cows are always eating, so even I knew something was not right. She was breathing heavily and then I noticed the stare. Not quite glassy eyed but definitely out of this world. What do cows look for when they look into the beyond? Do they have metaphors like beyond the vale or a light at the end of a tunnel?

“ Leave her”, the experienced ones said, “she’s not going anywhere.” And I should have gone too, but something made me stay. I tried to put it up to curiosity and said later that I had not wanted her to wander on to the road, but I did not feel she should be left alone to die on that grassy verge on that day. I busied myself with odds and ends and then just sat on some leftover fencing not far from her. It startled me to see how small such a large animal could become. When the vet drove in, he drove right past her. We laughed about it, but the fact is that X13 had become invisible.

David and the vet tended her and I tagged along trying to justify a place there. I watched, I asked questions, I held the IV as it went into her veins. I noted the bright red color of her blood as it leaked out of the vein around the hole made by the large bole needle. And still she stared. She did not react to the people or the needle. And then the muscles along her massive side began to twitch. The vet and David noted it in such a way that I could not tell if they were glad or not. I asked, no doubt betraying more than I wished to, “Is that good?”

“Yes, that’s good. The chemical balance needed to get the messages from the brain to the muscles is working again,” the vet explains.

And David, softer, simply, “Aye, it’s a good thing.”

Before the vet has finished the regimen, X13 lumbers to her feet. She has become large again though not quite as big as before. As if her rebellion is renewed with the minerals, she bolts away from us before we have a chance to get her to the field or to the steading. She seeks sanctuary in an abandoned building, in a bed of nettles, and, finally, we marshall her into the steading. It began as a merry chase, but I grew tired of it. Now that she was large again, it was a challenge of her will against ours.

For several days now X13 has been in the small grass field in front of the house. One afternoon we came home from town to find her wandering up the path in the steading. She went back easily enough that time. Often in the mornings I have seen her calling out to the other cows. “She’s lonely,” I say. “Why is she by herself?” Morris explains in practical terms. And I let it pass. But today I walked out just just in time to see X13 moving down the path a little bit too far ahead of David. I moved to head her off and took pride in being able to turn her. David shows me where she is going and then slowly I realize that this is X13’s last day. She cheated death once and has had these last few days of grace, but today the truck will come and she and the other cull cows go off.

One of the other cull cows kicks up her heels for one last time. My heart sinks and I put these thoughts as best I can out of my mind. I am a farmer’s wife now and I live off these cows. I cannot afford to be sentimental, but I cannot let X13 go without at least a brief eulogy. I look into her eyes one last time and then I come into the house and busy myself with my chores. I try to make her invisible again.


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