Helping my cow


I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about what I was going to wear when Daniel arrived. I got up and went through my closet and drawers looking for an outfit that said, “I look great but not because I tried to look great or because I care what you think.”

I ended up with a pair of jeans and my favorite black t-shirt that says Walk in Beauty with a hummingbird in the background. Then I could finally go to sleep again. What the heck is wrong with me?

In spite of being up in the middle of the night, I awoke at dawn, feeling just like I do on Christmas morning. I gave myself a lecture about being an idiot and tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t. So I put on the jeans and t-shirt I’d found earlier and crept through the silent house as quietly as possible. My boots were on the porch and as I pulled them on, I breathed deeply.

Morning in the mountains is amazing. Everything smells new, like it just got there for the first time when the sun came up. A light dew makes everything sparkle in the rising sun. I’ve noticed that the morning colors are crisp and new, like the stainless milk bucket just after I wash and dry it. The evening colors are warm and old like a pair of slippers that you can’t live without. I don’t know which I like better.

I decided to go down to the cow pasture and check on the herd.

I forgot to mention my grandfather earlier. When Grandma died last year, Grandpa came to live with us. Dad built him a tiny little house on the edge of the valley where he can look out over the pasture and the lake. Grandpa is one of a kind. He knows everything about these mountains. He can tell you where the bears sleep during winter, where there are sweat lodges and sacred grounds, how far the tarantulas walk to find a mate (up to twelve miles!) and he knows the names of all the plants. He is part Navajo Indian and I think that must be the very most middle part. Grandpa was sitting on his porch, smoking his pipe when I walked up.

Grandpa nodded and smiled, and although he didn’t say a word, we both somehow commented on the beauty of the morning and our gladness to see each other. He came down the steps a little stiffly and gestured down the valley, the direction I’d been walking. We continued together. I smiled to myself, wondering if Grandpa had known I was coming.

He offered me his pipe but I shook my head, wondering again if I should accept it instead. Grandpa always offers to share his smoke with every visitor. If they are Navajo, they usually take the pipe and smoke it silently for a moment, and then hand it back.

We headed down the valley, toward the outer pasture. I saw young mullein covered with dew all along the edge of the lake. The fat furry leaves look like sheep ears. The blue flag flowers in the wet places were beginning to bud and soon, gorgeous blue flowers would bob their heads in the mire near the lake.

In the distance, I heard a cow bawling. Grandpa and I both paused to listen. The bawl had a different sound—a desperate sound. We picked up our pace and headed toward the troubled cow.

“All the pregnant cows were brought into the small pasture near the house,” I said to Grandpa. He grunted and shook his head as we came around a stand of pines and spied the bawling cow.

It was Josephine, a not-yet two year old miniature Jersey. She was backed up against a barbed wire fence and her head was swinging aggressively from side to side. As we came silently around a stand of pines, I saw a wild dog pack trotting back and forth nearby. I felt my breath quicken in anger.

Why were they here? One of them lifted his head and sniffed the air, then he saw me and Grandpa and took off running. The others followed. I wished I’d brought a gun with me. How dare they come on our land and harass our cows!

As we came closer, I saw something hanging from Josephine’s back end. It was the slime and fluid of birth. The wild dogs had smelled birth and were waiting for the defenseless calf to arrive. Josephine had left the herd to give birth in a quiet place. Finding her isolated had given the dog pack an unusual boldness.

“Not all the pregnant cows,” Grandpa commented. “We got here just in time.”

We crossed the fence and I went to Josephine’s head. I started talking to her and trying to comfort her while Grandpa checked out the situation down south.

“The little one is coming right,” he said, “it’s just her first time and she’s been holding back because of the dogs. She called you to come down here and help her finish it.” Grandpa’s accent came back thick and strong as he focused on helping Josephine.

“How can you tell it’s coming right?” I asked.

“The front hooves are out,” Grandpa answered, taking off his belt. “And the pads are down. I’m going to get ‘hold of them with the belt the next time she tries. You tell her everything is gonna be all right, Mona.”

I went back to talk to Josephine and kept telling her everything would be all right but she was worried about Grandpa back there out of her sight. She kept trying to turn around.

Soon I heard Grandpa say, “I got ‘hold of him but she won’t keep still enough for me to help her out. Can you pull, Mona? You’ll have to give it all you got, ‘cause she’s about somehow.”

I smiled distractedly at his use of somehow which means something like different than usual or not quite right. In this case, it meant that Josephine was just too tired to push anymore.

Grandpa and I changed places. When I got behind her, I could see that one of the dogs had torn some hide off of her tail and had drawn blood from one of her back legs. I got mad all over again but calmed myself down so I could focus on Jo.

I kept talking to Josephine in a low, happy voice and she did seem a lot quieter with me behind her instead of Grandpa. I had raised her and she knew and trusted me. She’d been a sweet little calf.

Grandpa had wrapped his canvas belt in a figure eight type loop above the calf’s fetlocks—the ankle joint. I grabbed each end of the belt a few inches from the little pads and got as good a grip as I could. I waited until I saw her belly and rear-end start to quiver and contract and said, “Here she goes, Grandpa!”

Josephine’s muscles were working with me but she was worn out and weak, so I dug in my heels and pulled with all my might. I felt the calf start sliding toward me. Josephine staggered forward a couple of steps, bawling and freaked out. I kept hauling on the belt and the calf kept coming.

He was unrecognizable as he came, all covered with slime and strung out like a lump of wet jeans being wrung out. The contraction seemed to be petering out and Josephine staggered with exhaustion. I thought she was going to fall over. I took a step back and pulled on that belt with all the strength I had, afraid she’d hurt the half-born calf if she fell.

Suddenly, I was sitting on my backside in the manure with a limp wet calf in my lap. Josephine folded and collapsed right where she was, shaking all over and weak as a baby herself.

I pulled the calf around and looked at his face to see if he was breathing. Grandpa threw me his flannel shirt and I started rubbing the calf dry, talking to him and trying to get him to liven up.

The wet smell of the new calf soaked into me but I loved it. It’s like the smell of the earth after a rain or the inside of a fresh cucumber. It’s the smell of life, wetness and birth. My heart was pounding. I wanted the calf to make it. I wanted Josephine to be okay and see her baby.

Grandpa was walking away and I called after him.

“I’m going to get her some birthing feed to pep her up,” he said. “Get that calf over to her head and try to get her interested in him.” Then Grandpa disappeared around the pines.

The calf stirred and I could see he was breathing. Was it a he? I paused to look. Sure enough. I pulled him into my arms, one arm around his chest, one around his rear with his legs dangling between and lifted him. He was warm, wet and so little—about fifteen pounds, I’d guess—smaller than our dog. Mini-cattle are usually under forty inches tall even when full grown and their babies are tiny, especially the first ones.

“Oh God, let this baby live,” I prayed, walking on trembling legs around to Josephine’s head. I sat him down right in front of her nose. She smelled him all over and started licking. When I saw her licking him, I knew they’d both be okay. That’s when I started shaking.

“It’s your baby, Josephine,” I told her. “You did a good job, mama. That was hard work but you did a good job and now you’ve got a baby boy to take care of. He’s a fine one, he’s so beautiful. He’s a beautiful little boy.”

I suddenly realized that I was crying and wondered how long the tears had been rolling down my face. I wiped my eyes with the back of my arm because my hands were so filthy and then I sat down to breathe and collect myself. What a morning!

We’d never had to help our miniature cattle give birth before but I’d seen Grandpa pull a calf from one of his full-sized cows two years before. It’s the kind of thing you never forget.

Dad says our cattle don’t need help because they are genetically stronger than most cattle. But Josephine had run into some unexpected trouble. Jo was so young, we hadn’t expected her to be pregnant yet and had left her in the big pasture. She must have had a hard night needing to give birth but having to hold back her calf because of the wild dogs. My stomach ached at the thought of trying to push a baby out and I involuntarily clamped my thighs together.

I heard the sound of running footsteps and looked around. It was Will, running toward us with a bucket in one hand and a rifle over his shoulder. He slowed and crossed the fence.

“Hey,” he said, grinning at me as he came closer slowly and quietly.

“It’s a boy,” I told him, “they’re going to be okay.”

Will reached out and put his hand on my shoulder for a moment, and then he leaned over to pour a little birthing feed on the ground in front of Josephine. She sniffed it eagerly and began eating. The birthing feed was something my Mom had come up with. She says it is the ultimate recovery food for a cow that has just given birth.2

Josephine sure seemed to love it. She ate a small pile of it and then went back to licking her baby for a while. Will set the bucket down nearby and then went over and picked up the placenta. It was a gross, wet and bloody looking pile of slime, now speckled with dirt and straw. Will brought it over and dropped it near Josephine, and she turned her head to sniff it. Then she began to eat it as well.

I couldn’t watch—it was just too gross—but I knew it was important and that it was good for her. The placenta would help Josephine’s uterus contract and stop bleeding. It would help her heal up on the inside and recover faster. In the wild, it also helps get rid of the smell of birth which could attract predators. This is part of nature and it is good. But I was glad humans don’t have to eat their own placentas!

After Josephine finished the placenta, she stood up. I was so happy, I felt like cheering. Will brought her a bucket of water and she drank that with as much enthusiasm as she had shown for the birthing feed.

The sun was getting higher in the sky and I realized I had been out in the pasture for hours now. But I didn’t want to leave until I saw the calf nursing and on his feet. Josephine kept working on him and at last, he stood up as well. He got turned around back to front and butted his nose against her udder. Then, she started licking his rear end and his little tail flew up like a flag and started waving furiously. Will and I both laughed. We’d seen it a hundred times but it was always funny. He found a teat and started nursing like it was the best discovery he’d ever made. And well, I guess it probably was.

Susanna and Jake came for a while and then left again. Will left me to go look for the dog pack. When he came back, he said he hadn’t seen them but that they’d probably return to the place of the birth later. When they did, he’d be waiting for them.

Dad came down and told us to try to get Josephine to follow us up to the small pasture when she seemed strong enough.

After she ate the rest of the birthing feed, Will picked up the calf and started toward the gate in the fence. Josephine mooed and followed him. I walked beside her, telling her everything was okay. I carried the empty bucket, the belt and Grandpa’s shirt.

We went slowly and stopped a couple of times to put the calf down to let him nurse and be licked by his mother. Finally, we made it up to the small pasture and the barn near the house. Will put the calf down in the pen and opened the gate for Josephine. Dad had left a pile of hay there for her and there was a tank of fresh water. She seemed happy and relieved, like a different cow than the one we’d found earlier in the morning.

Will and I hung on the gate for a few minutes, watching them together and then, we turned toward the house. He draped his arm over my shoulder and we walked and talked about the morning.

“That was awesome,” I said. “Grandpa totally trusted me to pull the calf myself and then just walked off and left me there with them, like I was the expert and he was the errand boy! I can’t believe it. That was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Will laughed and messed up my hair with his hand. “You did good, kiddo,” he said. “That was pretty cool. He’s a cute little squirt, isn’t he? What are you going to name him?”

“I don’t know. Squirt. Maybe I’ll call him Squirt. He did squirt all over me!” We were both laughing when we rounded the corner of the house and I ran straight into Jake.

“Daniel’s here,” he said and suddenly, I was face to face with Daniel, whom I had completely forgotten.

It felt like a week had passed since yesterday’s announcement that Daniel was coming. I stared at him blankly for a moment, trying to remember what I knew about Daniel. These were the order of my thoughts, all occurring within a split second:

He looks nervous.

He’s good-looking: curly black hair, brown eyes, hint of a mustache, taller than me.

He’s really looking at me. He’s looking me up and down . . .

Oh God, I’m covered with manure and birthing slime!

I felt sick and hot, and my perfect day shattered into a million pieces as I realized I looked and smelled like a pile of fresh manure. With shame, I turned my face away but when I did, I caught Will’s eye. He was smiling at me with a look of pride and affection. He was proud of me. I looked at Jake. He was looking at me the same way as Will but with darting glances at Daniel in between. My thoughts stumbled and staggered away, and I smiled weakly back at my brothers, totally tongue-tied.

“Hey Daniel,” Will said, “Ramona just pulled a newborn calf. She probably saved the cow’s life.” I looked at Will, mostly because there was no way I could look at Daniel again.

“Where did you pull it?” Daniel asked, and in surprise and confusion, I glanced back at him.

“Into my lap,” I said, stupidly. Jake started laughing and then Will politely explained that pulling a calf meant that a cow was trying to give birth to a calf but wasn’t strong enough, so someone had to help her by pulling the calf out.

Daniel didn’t say anything else and I got the impression that he suspected us of trying to be funny or weird. Suddenly, I felt very, very tired.

“Is there hot water yet?” I asked Jake. “I could use a couple of showers in a row.”

“Yeah,” said Jake, “it should be boiling by now. Mom made a sandwich for you—it’s on the table.”

“Nice to meet you, Daniel,” I said wearily and walked past him toward the house.