At dawn it was raining. I was glad we'd gotten the roof over my straw bale walls the day before. I still had to check on the herd though. So I put on a long rain slicker, pulled my hat down low, and headed for the barn. Roy was waiting for me. Rain or shine, he was ready to go.
I knew Molly wouldn't be around for hours yet, and now she knew better than to drive down our road when it was raining. Although I was worried over what might be troubling Molly, I felt a peace about seeing her that I hadn't felt in a long time.
A tree above me reached it's rainfall capacity and a branch suddenly bent downward, pouring it's contents on my hat. I laughed and tilted my head forward and to the left side so the rain would drain off without splashing on Roy.
“I reckon we'll move the cows up under the trees today, Roy.”
As we came down the hill, I searched the valley for the small paddock of cows, and saw them grazing contentedly in the rain. As we came closer I saw a little figure standing underneath one of my cows.
Melee had given birth sometime during the night, and her calf was underneath her, nursing away.
Melee was named for the fighting chaos of color on her hide. At first glance it was hard to tell which end of her was head and which was tail because her spotted coloring was so random. She was part Galloway, as were a number of cows in my herd.
The first thing I did was set up a new fence under the trees on the side of the hill where the cows would be dry and out of the mud while it rained. Then I walked over to a stack of covered hay I'd left under the trees. The cows were all on their feet, watching me. They knew I was about to take down their fence and let them come over to the hay and new grass. Until the grass grew up a little more, the cows still needed some extra hay. They had come to anticipate the move, and all I had to do was get out of their way.
I threw a bale down under the trees and cut it open, then I headed over to their fence, and turned it off so I could take it down. As soon as I pulled up a plastic fence post, and wrapped the wire around my arm, the cows started past me and ran over to the new paddock. Some of them chose to graze instead of eating the dry hay. Melee and her little one followed, and I watched them go. They both seemed strong and healthy.
Melee's calf was a little heifer and this surprised me. Years ago, a rancher friend had come to visit us during the early winter. He looked at the cows and told us, “you're going to have three bull calves and five heifers.”
We had laughed agreeably; his prediction sounded as likely as any other. But he went on to point out which cows would have heifers and which ones would have bulls. Then he told us that you could always tell what gender the calf would be by looking at the hair at the end of the cow's backbone, where it meets the tail.
“If it stands up, you'll have a boy. If it lays down, you'll get a girl.”
Every year after that, his predictions had come to pass without fail—until this year. The hair on Melee's tail had stood up mohawk fashion all winter while she carried her calf, and I was sure I'd have a bull calf come spring.
So much for tail hair.
I was halfway around the paddock, with an arm load of fence posts and wire when I noticed a little wet pile of something out in the middle of the paddock.
What the heck is that?
I kept pulling up the fence, trying to make sense of that pile, which could have been a stump or wet carpet. It never did look like anything at a distance, so when I pulled the last post, I walked over to see what it was.
Then it moved, and I nearly dropped everything in my surprise. It was another calf! The poor little thing was soaked through and through, and could have been there all night. Melee must have had twins. Maybe our gender-determining method hadn't been entirely wrong after all.
“Oh, baby—you poor little critter. Your mama thinks she's got her calf and you're just something extra. You sit tight and I'll be right back to get you.”
The little calf lifted his head and shook it as though to assure me he wasn't too far gone.
I closed up the new paddock as fast as I could. The cows raised their heads from time to time, watching me as they ate their hay.
Melee's chosen twin was tiny, but seemed vigorous enough. It was like a Galloway to give birth to twins with no trouble or need of assistance, and it was also not uncommon for one of the calves to be rejected.
As soon as I had the fence up, I ran back across the open field to the little calf laying in the rain. He tried to get to his feet as I came close, but collapsed again in the mud. I scooped him up in my arms and walked back under the trees. Sure enough, the calf was a bull.
I knew the best thing for the weak calf was to be accepted by his mother. If he could get a belly full of warm milk, he'd be okay. I'd left the fence off, trusting the cows not to test it, so I crossed over into the paddock with them.
I carried the little wet baby over to his mother and set him down in front of her. She stopped eating and stiffened, sniffing the wet calf. He seemed completely unaware of her. She backed away, turned around and started licking the other calf, who was laying in the hay. I moved the extra calf around and laid him in the hay right next to his sister. Melee was upset about that and started swinging her head. Fearing for both the calf and myself, I picked him up again and backed away.
“Well, little feller, we're going to have to take you home and warm you up with some of Josephine's milk. She's got enough for two.”
Jo had given birth two days earlier, Dad's last calf of the year.
I turned the fence back on and carried the calf over to Roy. I let him smell the calf first, so he'd understand what I needed from him. Roy licked the little calf's head, and I smiled. Roy knew the baby needed help.
I put the calf across the saddle, and then shifted him forward as I raised myself up. He lay across the saddle and my thighs, and I partly covered him with my slicker.
The ride home seemed longer than usual. I kept rubbing the calf's head and body, like his mama should have done. His head lay limply against my thigh and he did not struggle or move during the whole ride.
Jake and the girls were in the barn when I carried in the calf.
“Oh my goodness!” Susanna exclaimed, “Where is his mama?”
“She's got another one to look after,” I explained, laying the calf down in some straw. I looked around for a cloth to dry him with.
“Twins!” Jake exclaimed. “We've never had twins before. Which cow is his mama? Won't she feed him?”
“Melee is the mama, and she won't have anything to do with him. He's been laying out in the rain for hours now, and hasn't had anything to eat. Have you milked Josephine yet?”
“Just finished,” Ramona called over her shoulder and I realized that she was already pouring some warm milk in a bucket for the calf. “It's the first time we've milked her, and we almost didn't, but her udder was so full she was waddling. I didn't milk her out—just relieved her a little.”
Ramona came over with the bucket and squatted down to check out the calf. “Can he stand up?” she asked me. I was glad to have her there. Ramona has a knack with calves. I shook my head.
“He hasn't yet.”
“In order to get this colostrum into him, you'll have to hold him up then. If that doesn't work, we'll look for a bottle. I think we've got one in the house.”
I picked up the dark little calf, noting that he had a white patch on one side that resembled lightening, as well as a white face. He could be my next herd bull if he made it.
I put my hands under his chest and held him, but his head sagged down and he made no attempt to stand on his own feet. Mona's brow knit when she saw how weak he was and she glanced up at me with concern.
“This may not work,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Susanna asked worriedly. “Will he die?”
“Maybe,” I answered. “But let's try to get some milk into him.”
Mona knelt in front of him and put her hand down in the milk and thrust her milky fingers into his mouth.
With the first taste of milk, little Lightening began to swallow slowly and repeatedly, but without much spirit. Ramona lifted his chin to get some of the milk on her palm to drain down his throat.
“One drop down, five million to go,” she said without humor as Lightening let her fingers fall out of his mouth.
“What about a bottle?” Susanna asked, stroking the soft head of the calf. I shook my head.
“He's too weak to suckle.”
“What about the turkey baster thing?” Jake suggested, pausing in the doorway with a bucket of milk in each hand. Mona glanced at him and nodded.
“That's a good idea. Will you bring it out, Jake?”
He left the barn and Mona kept trying to drain some milk down Lightening's throat with her fingers. Susanna massaged his neck, trying to keep him alert and swallowing. Jake returned and Mona used the turkey baster like a large dropper, squirting milk into the calf's mouth. Most of it drained right out the sides of his mouth and onto the barn floor.
“Come on,” Ramona coaxed, “Just try. You can make it, baby.”
An hour later I sighed and laid him down in the straw and groaned as I straightened my stiff back.
“Well, he may not live,” I said at last, glancing from Sue to Mona. “He seems to have given up.”
“Isn't there anything else we can do?” Sue persisted with tearful eyes. We were used to seeing animals be born and die on the farm, but somehow it was always hard to let go of an animal that had not yet reached it's full potential.
I hugged Sue against me and didn't answer. Behind us, a low moo came from the nearest stall.
“Josephine,” Ramona said softly. “Jo thinks she's the mother of all calves. She lets any calf nurse her.”
“But he's too weak to nurse,” I said. “It wouldn't matter.”
“I got some milk down his throat,” Ramona replied. “Not much—but a cup or two, maybe. It might strengthen him enough. If there's a mama cow that'll take him, maybe. . . I guess it's a long shot.”
“It's worth a try,” I agreed, and picked up Lightening. “There's nothing else we can do.”
Jo sniffed the calf as I laid him down in the straw next to her. Her two day old calf, July, didn't even seem to notice Lightening. But Josephine swung her horns at us, telling us to get out of the stall, and then proceeded to lick Lightening's head and neck with her rough tongue.
“Breakfast!” Jake called from behind us. “Mom wants to know if you can come and eat yet?”
I nodded, “We've done all we can do here. Let's go eat breakfast.”
We ran to the house through the drizzling rain and sat down to Breakfast ‘Changas30 and hot mint tea.
Jeremy and Dad came in soaking wet, saying that a fallen tree limb had knocked down the fence around the corn patch. They'd been mending it before the cows realized there was a gap.
Sue told everyone about Melee's twins and Mom questioned us about what we had done to take care of Lightening.
“It sounds like you've done everything you can,” she assured us. “So don't worry about it anymore.” She reached out to touch Susanna's face with a comforting hand. “Sometimes sick or hurt animals will choose to die because living is too much work, or too stressful. It sounds like Lightening has made that choice.”
“Maybe Jo will change his mind,” Ramona said.
The conversation turned to other things for a while. Then the storm gave one final burst of rain that drowned out our conversation. When it was over, Jeremy spoke.
“What about the house, Will? Won't the straw bales get wet in this rain?” He had taken a keen interest in the building of my little straw bale house and was hoping he'd be able to see the outside finished before he had to go back to Albuquerque for his fall semester.
“Jake and I pinned tarps to the walls with nails yesterday after you left,” I assured him. “And the roof has enough of an overhang to do the rest. They'll be fine.”
“Even if they were exposed to the rain, only the outside inch or two would be wet,” Dad added, “and the wind would dry them out in a few days.”
Dad sat up suddenly and tilted his head, listening. “I think I hear the phone ringing, Jake. Would you run out and get it for me?”
Jake hurried out the door, carrying his ‘Changa with him in one hand. He came back with the phone, and the pan-fried burrito was gone.
“Thanks Jake. It was Molly,” Dad announced, glancing at me briefly. I think he was checking to see if I wanted to make the return call. I shook my head slightly, and he nodded. He redialed the phone, and stood up to walk over toward the windows.
“Hi Molly, this is Jon. Where are you?. . . Okay, well, I'll meet you at the end of the dirt road. It's muddier than the last time you were here, so I'll come out and pick you up with the truck. . . alright. That's fine. Do you want to speak to anyone else?. . . We'll see you then. Bye.”
“How did she sound?” Mom asked, when Dad returned to the table.
“Not upset anymore, but eager to get here.” Dad answered. She's in Gallup and headed our way.
“Let's go check on Lightening again before she gets here,” Ramona spoke to me from across the table.
“Yeah, lets go,” I agreed.
“This time. . . I will do the dishes,” Jeremy announced. He handed Anna a paper on which he had drawn yet another giraffe for her to color. Before she could speak, he added, “and Anna will rinse for me.”
“Yes! I'm going to rinse!” Anna squealed. “I'm a big girl and I'm going to rinse for Jerembee! I know how! I rinse for Susanna all the time.”
Ramona and I left the house and headed for the barn, and Dad drove down the road with Susanna bouncing on the seat beside him. I think Dad had sensed her distress for the calf and suggested she go with him.
The rain had stopped and the sun was shining through the clouds, evaporating the moisture on the trees and ground. I thought about Molly, wondering what was bothering her. It's so much easier to deal with the hard things in life if you've got a family that can lift you up when you're down. Sometimes I think we Morgans must look like we've got everything—but really what we've got is each other. Molly was coming back for that, and I was glad she'd felt welcome.
“How are you, Will?” Mona asked me. I glanced at her in surprise, hearing the question in her question. I reached out and squeezed her shoulder and smiled.
“I'm fine,” I answered. “You know, Grandpa told me something the other day—no it was just last night. I couldn't repeat it if I tried, but it was something about being happy. I'm looking forward to seeing Molly, but I haven't got my happiness pinned on her.”
I stopped and breathed deeply, inhaling the clean mountain air with pleasure, and smiled at my sister. She nodded and sighed as well, her lips pursed into a funny smile.
“I hope that when I'm ninety, I'll know as much as Grandpa does,” Ramona said, as we walked into the barn.
We walked to Josephine's stall and leaned over the wooden railing. Jo looked up at us, proud as pudding. I could swear she winked. There, side by side stood July and Lightening with their heads under her belly, each with a teat, nursing away.
“Well, look at that,” I whispered, not wanting to startle them. “You were right—she changed his mind.”
July let go of his milk spigot and ran around to Jo's other side, thoroughly familiar with how to get the most out of his mama. Lightening seemed to realize that July could show him the ropes (or the udders) so he also pulled away from the now-empty teat and followed July. Halfway around he staggered and collapsed, still weak from his cold and wet start. Jo turned around with an encouraging moo and started licking him again. He lifted his head and she licked under his chin. Suddenly Lightening lunged forward and got to his feet. He tottered over next to July and put his head under Jo to find a teat. The two calves stood side by side like a mismatched set of twins.
“He's going to be just fine,” Ramona chuckled. “And Josephine has won herself a free five months of just being a mama instead of a milk cow.”
“It's amazing what a little love can do,” I agreed.
“Mama-cow love!” Mona laughed.
“If you're a calf, that's the very best kind,” I chuckled.
Josephine turned her head around as far as she could reach and licked both of her calves. Two little tails waved like flags as she worked on their rear ends and hind quarters, keeping them clean.
“You're a good mama, Jo,” Ramona said softly.
I heard Dad's truck coming through the gate and knew that we must have been standing there watching Jo and the calves for longer than I'd realized. I felt my heart beat quicken and laughed at myself as we left the barn.
There was Molly, sliding out of the truck behind Susanna. Ramona chuckled as Molly came into full view. This time she was wearing boots and jeans and held a hat in her hand.
“She's a cowgirl now!” I exclaimed, trying not to laugh at the shiny new boots and crisp straw hat.
“You gotta start somewhere,” Ramona replied quietly, and then called out, “Hi Molly!”
We joined the rest of the family on the porch. Jeremy came out wearing an apron that was way too small. Molly greeted me along with everyone else, and I nodded and smiled, but kept a distance that would exclude me from hugs and handshakes.
Molly's hair was curled the way Mom and the girls had arranged it when she had come the first time. She wore the leather hairband that Susanna had given her. It felt personal to see something I'd made wrapped around Molly's bright mop of hair. I sat down in the corner of the porch, turning my hat over and over in my hands. Her blue eyes met mine once, and she held my gaze for a split second longer than seemed casual. By the time all the greetings were over and everyone was settled on the porch, my heart was pounding so loud I was sure Jake could hear it from where he leaned against the railing next to me.
“Thanks for making time for me,” Molly said, looking mostly at Dad. He sat across from her, next to Mom, on the porch couch. “I hope I didn't over-react. I just didn't know anybody else I could talk to.”
“Go ahead, Molly,” Dad said. “I don't know if we've got any answers, but you've come all this way, so go ahead and tell us what's troubling you and we'll do our best to help. Do you want everybody here or should I run off part of the crowd?”
Molly laughed and put her arm around Anna, who was seated contentedly right next to her on the bench. Anna swung her brown curls back and forth to remind us all that she had curly hair just like Molly.
“No,” Molly answered, “it's fine. It's not personal, I guess.” She sighed and looked so sad for a moment that I felt myself rising out of my chair and sat back down again.
“Remember Ocular Mike?” she asked, directing her question at Jeremy. He nodded, but was silent, politely waiting for Molly to go on.
“He was going to have eye surgery over break, and he did, I think. Three days ago one of our mutual friends gave me his number and said I needed to call him because he was really sick and wouldn't be coming back to classes. I kinda thought it was one of Mike's schemes, but I called him anyway. He was in a hospital in Nebraska and wanted me to come see him. He said he is going to die. He sent me a ticket, so I couldn't say no. When I got there, he told me he had been diagnosed with kidney failure and liver damage and didn't expect to live more than a few months.”
“Oh, holy God,” Jeremy said softly. He shook his head sadly, a pinched furrow between his eyes.
“He wanted me. . . to test his urine,” Molly said, a half-smile appearing on her sad face.
Jake and Sue both gave a short, surprised laugh and Dad lifted a hand, quieting them.
“Go on,” he said to Molly. “I sense the real story is yet to come.” She nodded and sighed.
“Mike knows what I think about GM corn and pesticides. He never took it seriously before now. His dad is a GM corn farmer in Nebraska. He sprays his crops with glyphosate pesticides several times a year. When Mike checked in for a follow-up appointment for his eyes, he was already dealing with a kidney infection and was on antibiotics. His Dad had just sprayed his corn fields.”
“The Seralini studies31,” Dad said softly. Molly nodded and glanced at Dad with surprise.
“His toxicity levels and symptoms are similar to the rats in Seralini's research. The male rats that ate GM corn treated with glyphosate mostly died of renal failure and liver toxicity, while the females died of mammary cancer, most of them within a time period that would be equivalent to 20 to 40 human years. Mike has been eating GM corn, as well as being around the pesticides, for the last ten years.”
Everyone was silent, waiting for Molly's announcement. I watched Molly fold her arms in front of her, trying to calm her shaking hands. She bit her lip again and shuddered.
“Yesterday I ran the tests. Mike's urine had glyphosate in it, but it had already been a couple weeks since he was exposed to the pesticide. The glyphosate levels must have been much higher when he first came in. He said he's had kidney infections on and off for years.”
Molly stood up and moved away from Anna, walking down the length of the porch and back again. She tugged on a curl that hung over her shoulder and finally blurted out,“Mike's case study is an incredible opportunity, but it's not enough. In order to write a scientific paper linking glyphosate to human renal failure, I'd need several case studies, not just one. But when Dr. Meir heard about Mike, he said that he might be able to get funding for us to test more GM farmers and study the results. But he says if we do, it could get rough. He could lose his job and I might be pressured or rejected for my part in the research. He wants me to make the decision.”
Molly's face was flushed and strained, but she stopped pacing and looked around at all of us. I could not remember ever seeing a more honest expression. Her blue eyes were full of tears and her hands were still shaking. My Mom reached out and captured one of them in her own, and squeezed it.
“I'm afraid,” Molly said quietly. “I have so much to lose. And I'm ashamed for even hesitating. I thought I knew myself. I thought I was willing to risk everything for the truth. But now. . .”
“Haven't you written articles about the effects of pesticides and GMO's before?” I asked, confused about why Molly would hesitate over this new opportunity.
“Never with human beings involved. Even if I prove that water and soil is contaminated far beyond what is considered “safe levels”—nobody really cares. But if evidence that those poisons are sickening and killing people comes out, then suddenly people do care. And the people that have money involved have to do something.”
“What made you think Mike's kidney failure was glyphosate related?” Ramona questioned. Molly turned to look at her.
“It was Mike's idea. The things I'd told him about GE crops influenced him, I'm sure. But when he found out he might die, he started pestering the doctor about it. He asked for tests and insisted that his kidney problems were related to pesticide poisoning. They wouldn't listen to him. That's why he called me.”
“He'll probably have to change hospitals,” Dad said, sighing. “Going behind the doctor's back in testing Mike's urine won't look good, even if it's not illegal.”
“I know,” Molly answered. “He wants to move back to Albuquerque, and Dr. Meir says there is more than one doctor who will work with us here. That would not be the case in farming country.”
“How would you release the information anyway?” I asked.
“Dr. Meir and I have published several papers together through various scientific journals and magazines. Every doctoral candidate has a supervisor that is supposed to work with them that way. Most students are stuck with uninvolved professors that are either too busy or uninterested to read their research papers. Dr. Meir has been more than a supervisor for me. He's really amazing. We have openings in several places where previous research papers have been published. So we'd probably publish in those venues and on our blogs.”
“You need more than that,” Dad said suddenly, standing up to walk to the edge of the porch. “More than the tests and analysis. You need a human story. What if you can help Mike get well?”
“How?” Molly asked, shaking her head doubtfully.
“What about finding out why the glyphosate causes kidney failure, and then treating it? How about making Mike's recovery another witness?” Dad replied, turning around.
Molly laughed incredulously, and I partly agreed with her. What was Dad thinking? His face wrinkled into a smile at our dumbfounded silence.
“What does glyphosate do to the body?” Dad asked looking at Molly. She shook her head, hesitating to follow his train of thought.
“It interrupts the endocrine system by presenting a false estrogen marker32, among other things,” Mom answered. Molly glanced at Mom in surprise, and then back at Dad.
“It raises toxicity levels and destroys natural flora and bacteria,” Ramona added. Molly's jaw was slightly ajar as her eyes turned from Mom to Ramona.
“It prevents nutrient uptake by binding the nutrients we eat, so that the body doesn't have the building blocks it needs to defend itself,” Dad added, nodding.
“And it taxes the kidneys because all the pesticide you get in your digestive tract tries to leave the body through the kidneys or the liver and they get overwhelmed with the poison,” Mom spoke again, adding one last piece of information.
“How do you know this?” Molly asked, amazed. “And what would you do—for Mike?”
“We need to do some research,” Mom said to Dad, and then included Ramona and I in her glance before she turned back to Molly. “Mike and his parents have to take responsibility for his health. We can't do that. We can send them whatever information we find.”
“That's true,” Dad agreed. “And it would be good if he could get away from the area that is so drenched in pesticides.”
“I'll tell him that,” Molly answered. “He can come back to Albuquerque and stay at his uncle's house again. His mom would come with him.”
“And then what?” I asked. “Suppose he gets better instead of dying?”
Molly stood up and walked toward me, and I could see in her eyes that she was thinking through the steps she would need to take.
“First, we have to see if other GM farmers have similar health issues. If so—then we can correlate their stories with Mike's. Dr. Meir would help me.”
“Then?” I prompted.
“Then, we would submit the research to various scientific papers for publication. It would get out.”
“And then it would get buried,” Dad interjected. “It would get noticed, and refuted, and you would be slandered and hated. But—” He smiled at Molly and shook his head.
She smiled back tremulously and finished his sentence,“—But, it would be the truth. The truth that some few will hear and maybe live differently because of it. I know what I have to do.” Molly took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.
“Molly,” Mom said. “We're proud of you.”
“Thanks. That's why I came here, I guess,” Molly said, hugging Anna again. She looked down the porch and her eyes met mine.
“I've always cheered for the truth,” she said, “but you guys live it. I'm beginning to understand what it costs, and why you're here. . . living like this.”
We were alone on the porch, Molly and I. Her eyes and her words told me that she had begun to see the world for what it was. But now I couldn't protect her. She was “in up to her neck” and had to finish what she'd started. All I could do was wait and pray.