Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Into the Darkness

We have had a bit of bad luck lately with the calving. It is bad luck to talk about bad luck, so suffice it to say that we are watching the mothers to be more closely. My husband and I have been married long enough now to have to an accord with our different sleeping cycles. He is an early riser; I am a night owl. He went to bed early so he could take an even earlier shift in the morning looking in on the expectant cows; I stayed downstairs working on my knitting and watching an Agatha Christie mystery so that I could do the late shift.

By the time the movie has finished, it is late enough that the dark has long settled in around the steading. I bundle up in pieces of the clothes kept by the back door for walking into the steading. The narrow corridor between the back door that leads into the close and the back door that leads into the house is a halfway area between the world of the steading and the world of the people. It is an illusion that they are separate, but it is a cherished notion, so when my kittens spent the night in the house, it was clearly breaking a taboo. They have come to understand it better than I have. Sometimes if they see that I am alone, they will venture into the middleground, the corridor between the two worlds. Solomon, the bravest or most irreveverent of them all, sashays into the kitchen and scampers down the interior corridor all the way to the office. He jumped onto Morris's lap and began purring. But even Solomon knows not to push his luck too far, so he usually ventures no further than the halfway corridor.

Now I am alone in the darkness as I pull on the hat and scarf to protect my face and slip into my husband's boots. They never seem to be quite as cold as mine. I have turned on the outside light even before I open the door because I do not want my first step to be into the darkness. I am not afraid of the dark. I am afraid of what might be in the dark.

Three steps take me out of the light of the back door light. I decide to turn on the garage light even though it will only banish the shadows for three more steps down the short driveway. Before I have left the half light of the garage light I am cranking on the wind up flashlight. The sound is almost as reassuring as the light. The three LEDs illuminate the area in front. I am grateful that the dark is not the full Stygian blackness of a winter night but I began to school my ears to help me find my way.

I hear the wind moving the barn door back and forth on its hinges. Two steps more. I hear the bull breathing deeply in his sleep to my left in the little enclosure. One step, I hear the last of last year's pinwheels whir as a breeze catches it where it hangs on the barn door handle. I move from the vague light of the road between house and barn into the complete darkness of the barn. I wait for a moment and listen. I hear nothing that sounds like rats scuttling along the ground or conspiring in the corners, but the easy path across the near empty barn floor has been changed. There are now several bags of feed and fertilizer, each about the same height as myself and pallets on the ground. It has become an obstacle course. I hesitate trying to decide if I turn on the lights or make my way quietly through the maze.

Before my nervous heart has a chance to leap, I become aware of Solomon beside me. He trots across the threshold as if to lead me on. I laugh softly to myself and pick him up. Now that I have someone else to worry about, I am ready to take on the rats, bats, birds, and any other terrors of the night. Solomon and I wend our way through the fertilizer and feed. I tell him he has to stay on the other side of the door leading into the cattle and he agrees. He was born somewhere in this barn but he now much prefers the comfort of the dairy maid's cottage. He has come to the limit of his courage, so I go on alone.

Before I turn on the one set of lights I'll need to see the expectant cows, I hear the sounds of the cattle breathing. It is like any dormitory would be. I turn on the light and some of the cattle shift and open sleepy eyes. They know the routine. I am not likely to be bringing food this time of night, so they give me very little active attention. I know they are watching carefully but disinterestedly. I approach the pen with the cows. The one who has lost her calf is still wide eyed as if by opening her eyes wider she can find her lost calf. Sympathy and fright are mixed in my look at her, but I tear my eyes away to look at the rest of them. I have to look harder because I am not sure what I need to see.

One cow is up and edgy and itching her face on the gate and the bars of the top rail. She is restless but not showing any other signs of impending birth. Another cow lying down stands as I approach the gate, and with her back to me, starts twitching her tail. She is restless, too, but I am not sure why. I watch a few moments longer. I pull out the cell phone and try to call the house. The three foot stone walls of the barn are not kind to cell phone networks. By the time I can get a signal I am next to the house.

Solomon has roused all the cats, who are waiting just outside the barn doors to escort me across the yard. Little Black and White kitty who has not chosen to join the others in the cottage but comes for food mews his hunger and runs away. He is desperate for food and affection but still too afraid, so I take a detour to feed him along with all the others, who enjoy their midnight supper.

I go upstairs and report what I've seen to Morris. He does not see any reason for concern, so I go back to double check, turn out the lights, and return to the world on the other side of the barn.


At 1:49 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

what a beautiful and moving portrait. My own thoughts stilled as looked through your eyes, searching the darkness.

thank you for that!

At 6:20 AM, Blogger Just Country said...

Funny isn't what makes us brave.

Sorry about the calf.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Hayden, I thought of you yesterday as I ate some roast chicken--not as good as yours. I miss my herbs, so I'll certainly replace thyme and rosemary and maybe coriander as well. You have made me think differently about food.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Oh, yes, Just country, who could imagine a little ball of fluff would be a courage catalyst?


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