Working through

A Boyfriend and a Sick Cow

“Josephine looks ill,” Dad told me when I got to the garden. “Would you go back inside and make her a medicated apple?”

I felt a pang of alarm grip my stomach and Dad said, “It just looks like a cold-flu type thing. Her eyes and nose are runny. One goldenseal capsule and two or three garlic cloves will help.”

I looked past him at the gardens. Straw bales on their sides, arranged in long rows, formed raised beds. Every bed was filled with rich compost dirt made from rotted veggies, horse, cow and chicken manure, and decomposed wood chips. Trays of small plants were set out on top of the straw bales and everyone was busy gently transplanting the young plants from the trays to the garden beds. Even Daniel was carefully putting a tomato plant into a hole he had formed and pushing the dirt back in around it. He looked very intent and happy.

“Is she drinking?” I asked Dad.

“Good question. Be sure to check when you take her the apple.”

I turned back to the house and went to the herb pantry. There was a jar of bright yellow goldenseal powder near the top and a paper bag in which I found the garlic. With a paring knife, I cut the apple in half and then made holes in the halves, deep enough to push in a capsule of the goldenseal powder and three small garlic cloves. Then I hurried back out to Josephine in the small pasture.

She was standing in a corner with her head all the way down to the ground. I looked around her pen. The piles of manure I spotted all looked healthy and firm in texture. Dad was right, it wasn’t her stomach. The calf lay in the sun near her. He looked fine. Josephine raised her head to look at me. Her eyes ran with pus and her nose was full of mucus. I held out the apple and she sniffed it and looked away. I was shocked. I’d never seen a cow turn down an apple.

“Come on Josephine,” I said softly, “eat the apple for me. I love you.” I sent pleading thoughts toward her and ran my thumbnail over the skin of the apple to roughen it up. She smelled it again and this time, took it into her mouth and crunched it up. I sighed with relief. “Thanks, Jo,” I told her and walked over to her water trough. It was full. I felt another pang of alarm. How long had it been since she drank anything?

I hurried back to Dad. Daniel stopped working to watch me and Will came over to listen to our conversation.

“The water trough is full, Dad. And she didn’t even want the apple at first. I coaxed her to take it. What’s wrong with her?”

“Molasses water,” said Will. “Try dissolving some molasses in a couple gallons of water.”

“Good idea,” said Dad, “and add a rock of mineral salt to it.” He set down a tray of plants and came around the garden bed toward me, adding, “I’ll come with you.”

We made the molasses water together and Dad talked about the garden planting almost the whole time. I don’t think I heard a word of what he was saying, I was so worried about Josephine. We’d never had a cow get sick before.

When we carried the bucket of molasses water back through the garden, Dad paused by Daniel and said, “Come on Daniel, you might as well learn with us.” Daniel put down his tomato tray and followed us out to the pasture.

Josephine was in the same place, with her head hanging low. I noticed her back legs trembling and saw her body weave unsteadily. I wondered if she was going to fall over.

“She does look pretty sick,” Dad commented. He put the pail of water down in front of Josephine. She looked at it listlessly and didn’t move. Dad squatted down and splashed the molasses water a little, so that the sweet smell rose into the air. Josephine turned her head and put her nose in the pail. She drank a little and then a little more. We watched in silence. It took fifteen minutes to coax her to drink a gallon of water but it seemed to me that she perked up a little bit once she got it down.

“She’s just run down and weak,” Dad said. “I wonder how long she was in labor before you found her? She must have had a bad time of it. Just make sure she takes some more water in a while. The herbs will start working soon.”

“Can I stay with her a few more minutes?”

“Sure, as long as you want.”

Dad left and Daniel stayed with me, standing awkwardly to one side as I sat down near Josephine’s head and rubbed her face between her eyes, where she always liked to be rubbed. I felt a little embarrassed to be talking to a cow while he stood there and watched but Josephine’s need overcame my embarrassment.

“Get well, Josephine,” I whispered. “Your calf needs you. You’re a good little cow. Get well, okay? I love you.”

Even if she couldn’t understand my words, I knew Josephine could understand the sound of my voice. She turned her head to the side to push against my hand and I recognized the motion as her old demonstration of affection. She was talking back.

“What if she dies?” Daniel whispered and I glanced up into his face. He looked really tense and worried. I wondered what he was thinking.

“Sometimes animals die. Sometimes you can’t do anything to stop it. I hate it when that happens. But I guess it’s part of life.”

“Sometimes people die too,” he said. I remembered that his mother had died a year ago. I didn’t know what to say so I just rubbed Josephine’s face. Daniel squatted beside me and stretched out a hand to touch Josephine. She moved away from him, not familiar with his smell.

“Grandpa will probably die soon,” I said, thinking aloud. “We sure will miss him. But at least we have him right now.”

“At least we have him right now.” Daniel repeated me word for word and it sounded weird to me, like he was trying the phrase out. I looked at him and he stared back at me with a blank expression. Suddenly, he smiled slyly.

“Hey, you wanna smoke?” he asked and pulled a beat-up pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket. His quick change of emotion left me confused and I just stared at the pack in his hand without saying anything.

“What?” Daniel demanded, “You think we’ll get in trouble?”

“No . . . ” Then I looked at the cheap cigarettes in his hand and added, “ . . . maybe.”

Daniel pocketed the cigarettes without taking one and that blank look returned to his face.

“You should try Grandpa’s pipe sometime,” I said, to fill the awkward silence, “I bet you’d like it better than that cheap crap. He makes the tobacco himself.”

“Cheap crap!” Daniel echoed. “Have you ever smoked your Grandpa’s pipe?”

“No. But Will and Dad do. I even saw Mom smoke it once when she was sick. It’s herbs and spices from the forest. It clears up the congestion in Grandpa’s lungs.”

“Are you joking?”

“Why would I joke about that?”

Daniel stared at me suspiciously and I sighed, feeling tired of our extreme differences. I got to my feet and said goodbye to Josephine. We walked silently back to the garden.

Daniel kept taking a breath like he was going to say something but he never did. Once we bumped into each other and I moved over to make room for him on the path. Then we bumped into each other again and I realized that Daniel was brushing against me on purpose. I stepped ahead of him and opened the garden gate and went through first.

“What do you think?” Mom asked me, looking up from the closest straw bale bed.

“I don’t know. She looks really weak and out of it. But she did drink a gallon of molasses water.”

“She’ll be okay. We all get colds and flus. The treatment is the same—stay hydrated, eat well, take herbs and supplements for the symptoms, and give it time to pass.”

I nodded and sat down on the bale across from her.

“Okay. What are you planting in this bed?”

“Pumpkins,” she handed me a tray. “Two feet apart.”

We worked for a couple hours and then Susanna brought out a pitcher of strawberry limeade.5 Everyone stopped to drink, rest in the shade and talk. I drank my limeade at a distance from everyone else. Daniel came over and leaned against the stuccoed garden wall next to me.


“Hey,” I replied, not looking at him.

“How’s your cow?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t seen her since we were both there. I’ll go check on her in a minute.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

His question threw me and it took me a few seconds to process his words. Mentally, I kept trying to figure out what boyfriends had to do with sick cows.

“Uh. No,” I finally answered, still lacking a thought-out response. Slowly, my senses caught up with me and I began to feel nervous.

“Good.” Daniel looked at me pointedly but I refused to look back. Instead, I straightened up from the wall and said, “I guess I’ll go check on Jo now,” and walked away from him. I was aware of him staring after me and had the odd feeling that I also was watching myself and wondering at my own poise. I didn’t feel as calm as I looked.

I went through the gate to check on Josephine. The shade by the water tank was so cool I was tempted to pause there and pick some mint. “A boyfriend?” I repeated to myself. “Uh. No. Good. What the heck?”

My mind ran in so many directions that when I reached the pasture gate, it took me a second to realize Josephine was laying down and her head was in the dirt. I almost ran to her.

“Jo!” I cried. She raised her head to look at me but her eyes were so bleary, I wondered if she could see.

“Oh, man,” Dad spoke from behind me and I jumped. I hadn’t realized that he had followed me.

“She’s sicker than I thought,” he said. “I’ll get the penicillin, but she’s going to need to be hydrated as well. I need you to boil a couple quarts of wheat berries for me.”

“Okay. Does she need wheat?”

“Boiled wheat absorbs a lot of water and contains a lot of protein, among other things that she needs right now.”

It took a half hour to boil the wheat and I didn’t want to go back to the garden, so I elected myself to start making lunch. It was so hot, I decided tuna fish salad would be a good idea. By the time I had the salad made and all the other lunch preparations done, the wheat was plump and full of moisture.

Now I had to cool it down by putting it in a sink of cold water and pouring it back and forth into an alternate pot every few minutes. But once it was cool enough to keep my hand in the boiled wheat, I called Dad and we headed back out to the pasture. Daniel came with us again.

Josephine was still down with her head on the ground. She looked terrible. I sat down at her head with the wheat berries and was amazed when she started eating them. She must have needed that wheat, because it was obvious she was too weak to eat anything else.

When she was done with the wheat, Dad gave her a shot of penicillin in the neck and she flinched when the needle poked her. He’d barely got the serum into her when she heaved forward and then stood up. Daniel leaped backward in alarm and I laughed aloud, mostly in relief over Josephine’s improvement but I saw Daniel turn red and was sorry I had laughed. I moved the water bucket nearer and Jo put her head down into the bucket and sucked up about a gallon of water.

“Well, that wheat must have done it for her,” Dad said, “it’s too soon for the penicillin to have taken effect. She must need protein and minerals. Usually a lactating cow doesn’t have trouble with low protein until her later years. You better boil up another pot of wheat to give her tonight.”

“So she doesn’t have an infection after all? Do you think she’ll make it?” Daniel asked, coming forward to stand closer to Josephine. He put a hand out to touch her.

“Well, I still think she’s got an upper respiratory infection . . . but it’s probably secondary to a long hard night fighting off a dog pack while being in labor. But yeah, I’d bet on her recovering. She’s young and strong—”

Dad broke off as the calf butted him behind his knees. He laughed and turned around. The calf was so tiny his head was level with the back of Dad’s knees but he was full of spunk and ready to play.

“Hey, Squirt!” I said, falling to my knees beside him. He shied away and kicked his heels up, wobbling with the inexperienced use of his long legs. Daniel burst out laughing and I saw that both Dad and I were focused on the look of delight on Daniel’s face, rather than on the calf. He held his hand out to the calf and Squirt walked over to him to sniff his hand.

Daniel chuckled nervously as the calf started licking his hand, then he exclaimed, “It’s all scratchy! It’s like . . . like sandpaper!”

Josephine mooed rather pathetically and Squirt bounded over to stick his head under her belly for a teat. As he began to nurse, she started licking his rear end.

“Why is she licking his butt?” Daniel asked, grimacing.

“They all do that,” Dad said, “it stimulates his digestion, watch . . . in a minute, he’ll start peeing.” Sure enough, before Dad even finished speaking, the calf started to pee.

“It also keeps him clean and disease free,” Dad added. “Animals take care of each other that way.”

“Weird,” Daniel commented.

“I’ll get her another bucket of water with some molasses in it,” Dad told me.

“I’ll get some more wheat boiling and put some probiotics in it for good measure,” I replied, as we turned toward the gate at the same time. Dad reached out and squeezed my shoulder.

“You’re quite a cattleman, Mona,” he said, with a grin. Some of the day’s tension left me and I breathed deeply in relief. I met Daniel’s eyes for the first time since he’d asked me if I had a boyfriend. The look on his face was pure envy and I felt a shock go through me. Dad’s hand on my shoulder meant more to me in that moment than it ever had before. I’ll never forget that.