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A Unique Way With Animals photo

After getting out of the Buick I lean against its ticking hood like a drunkard for a few minutes. Faraway cowbells and groans mark the barnward procession of hungry cattle. I blink my eyes a hundred times in a row, rapidly, to ward off sleep, until the viscid haloes of brilliant orange light dancing in my eyes finally resolve together into the sodium lamp above the milk house entrance.

I enter in my large comfortable coveralls and walk across the wet concrete in my manure-encrusted boots. My boots are very old and split at the toes. I pass the huge sink and the immense brushed-metal milk tank in the room’s center before stumbling down into the elaborately cobwebbed gloom of the milking parlor. Most mornings I milk I’ll hear the brute music of hooves on concrete as a river of filthy bodies file past me into their stalls. They make prolonged stentorian honking noises that rattle the loose panes of ancient glass in the barn’s fragile window frames. Grimy lightbulbs cast a flat, dingy light that seems to sway and give pulsing diabolical life to the small shadows lurking behind all things.

When milking’s finished, and units all washed up and replaced in their correct spots, I go outside to stand in the new dawn’s spreading sunlight.

My eyes are closed and I’m trying to disappear for a moment or two when I’m brought up out of it by the noise of the tractor’s engine starting up. I open my eyes to see Sylvie in her green bandana and yellow-tinted shooting glasses slowly steering the tractor across the barn’s gravel driveway. She turns up the wide metal bucket on the front of the tractor, as if in preparation to carry some load. She’s driving toward the heavy steel gate that leads onto the pasture. I open the gate to give her access. We have to go find a missing cow, #10, who probably calved out somewhere in the pasture.

I’m standing there holding the gate open. Sylvie’s staring at me as she drives up and applies the brake. 

“Go get some rope,” she yells as me.

Fog burns off the pasture. Sylvie heads out for the creek on the tractor and I walk by it, slowly creeping, easily keeping pace with it in my lazy amble. I lightly strike my back and my legs with the hank of rope to dislodge the dust and dried manure caked there. I take a deep breath of the cool disintegrating mountain mist.

After a few minutes of scouting on the other side of the creek where the pasture meets the steep grade of the mountain, we find what we’re looking for. #10 and her newborn calf are curled up, leaning against a stout moss-mantled shed of limestone blocks where three generations of Chamberlains have stacked sticks of dynamite for blasting stumps or tuberous boulders out of otherwise tillable land. #10 serenely licks placental blood off the matted forehead of her offspring, a little bullock with incipient horns protruding from his skull, horns no bigger than my thumbnails. It has all just happened moments ago. They scarcely seem to belong to the same species as the lumbering monoliths locked up inside the barn staring at the walls. A glorious radiance can be seen here, a Hindu nativity scene. The trembling calf struggles to gain its stance, wobbles around the clearing a few steps before collapsing in a daze, panting at the sheer exhaustion of being born. He squints and burps; he looks as though he’s fed on nothing but dewdrops. 

With innocent eye-blinks, #10 takes note of the approaching tractor. Its noisy engine frightens her to her feet and she turns and begins moping away, vacating the premises as the tractor comes nearer to the nativity scene.

Sensing opportunity Sylvie stops the tractor and jumps off, grabbing the coil of rope from my hands. “Stay right there,” she mutters. I notice as she passes that her already well-wrinkled forehead is creased with a few extra lines of hateful concentration. She proceeds to body-slam the little calf as he too tries to get up on his feet to follow mama. She then ropes him up, avoiding his pummeling, punching little legs. Frozen, #10 looks behind herself in terror at what is happening there. Sylvie is evidently trying to break some world record speed for roping frail newborn calves, not out of necessity but just to show the world she knows how.

Sylvie’s one of those people that describe herself as having “a unique way with animals.” Aunt Sylvie’s favorite movies are about special people who know how to settle horses or subdue enraged bulls or who can hypnotize rattlers by staring intently into their reptilian eyes and singing a little song. That’s exactly what Sylvie thinks she is. She’ll hoot like she’s the Beastmaster and babble on and shriek all kinds of obscure commands at the herd until the veins in her neck look ready to burst.

The whole time I just stand there, of course, “with my teeth in my mouth.” #10 and I watch as Sylvie lifts the incapacitated newborn calf and drops it upside-down into the tractor’s upturned bucket with all the delicacy of a newsboy dropping a heavy bundle of New York Posts several feet onto a Manhattan sidewalk. Not that I’ve ever been. Sylvie turns away from what she drops before she really even drops it, and therefore doesn’t witness what #10 and I witness. As she walks around the tractor to get behind the wheel, I climb into the bucket next to the calf, staring at it. Sylvie guns the engine, frightening #10 and the calf and me.

She puts the tractor in reverse, heading backwards into the shallow creek and back to the barn. As the tractor backs away into the water, #10 loses track of her offspring’s whereabouts and begins to search for her calf behind the dynamite shed and in the thatch of weeds growing around it.

“They’re not the smartest animals, that’s for sure,” Sylvie yells, as if a guide for an African safari. “She ain’t following us. You’re gonna have to make the little one cry out. Maternal instincts!”

“He don’t look too good.”

The calf’s bound legs are pointing up in the air. Its neck is doubled back on itself at an unnatural angle, its head trapped underneath the inert bulk of its body. It’s unable to free itself due to the ropes she tied so tight for some reason. The calf looks like it is trying to sniff its own spine, the hard way. Every jostle and heave of the tractor as we crawl backwards through the rocky creekbed and over the hummocked terrain strangles the calf more and more.

“Well? Get its head back round straight if you’re so worried!”

#10 is losing the signal. She begins to lunge all over the glade, sniffing desperately for her missing young.

“We gotta get her to follow us!” Sylvie is yelling.

The calf and I are staring at each other while I try to free its head. It’s dying, I’m sure of it. I see my entire face reflected in its huge, pained brown eye. Its hide is slick with afterbirth fluid. I see in that reflecting eye that my jaws gape. My eyes look wide and scared. My maroon trucker cap looks false. Rills of blood trickle from the calf’s nostrils.

When I free its head and get its air passages clear again, the calf begins making weak hitching noises. #10 stops her lunging and perks her head up. She hears something, even above the engine, some elementary important sound. Sylvie urges me to do something to make the cries a little louder.

“Louder?” I shout.

“Like choke him a little. We can’t afford to let her get away.”

“Choke him?”

“Jesus Christ, move out of the way.” She stops the tractor, jumps out and comes around to the calf in the bucket. She twists the rope around the calf’s throat like she’s turning a key in a lock. She’s not looking at what she’s doing but watching to see #10’s reaction. The calf’s eyes bulge out. It’s like the sound of an unearthly baby crying. I am holding it. She gets back up and steers. #10 is listening and dying inside. Cows are chewing grain in the barn. Sun is rising. Nature is writing my name down in a ledger as a monster forever. I am recorded. The calf’s terrified eyes lock with my own and it has decided that it can never trust me again. Pure innocent new life condemns me. I’ve been round the barn many times but somehow I always missed this part. 

#10 is hearing the calf’s choked voice, the cries above the engine, and hurtles after us. Now I am doing the strangling to guide her to me. The cow’s hooves bring up sudden vertical spray from the creek that hangs in the air like diamonds as she thunders over and through the water, rushing right in at us. Then she’s looming right over me and the calf cuddled together in the slow tractor’s bucket, pacing back and forth in front of us, honking, summoning up terrifying noise. My throat and lungs shake from the sympathetic resonance with #10’s thunderous blasts, released directly in my face. An unchained Holstein paces back and forth mere inches from my nose, in such a state of maternal grief and agitation over her newborn, which is being strangled, and she’s over 1500 lbs, and the calf-strangler’s best means of escape is the tractor rushing him out of harm’s way at less than 3 mph. I close my eyes, say goodbye to life, and wait to be lifted from where I sit by more than a ton of angry maternal instinct and then trampled into a puddle. A rapid montage of all the worst rodeo accidents and Pamplona-gone-wrong flickers across the insides of my eyelids.

I open my eyes after a few moments of black hell. By some tragic miracle, #10 has spotted a small patch of fleabane nearby, and hunger beat out rage so she wandered toward it, tired from the recent labor and hungry since she’s missing breakfast inside the barn. So Sylvie swats me on the top of the head, shrieking, in order to get me to resume strangling. Which, to my own astonishment, I do. And right on schedule, the calf cries out. And right on schedule, all of #10’s maternal instincts come rushing right back with a vengeance and she begins trailing us again for a few more wretched feet. Until she becomes distracted again. It’s all so cruelly predictable. I imagine a little flowchart of abuse, with all the branching lines and YESes tracing their way back to me. 

It’s as if we’re a hundred miles away from the barn now, and it seems to take all morning to lure the poor thing back. There’s plenty of chances for the signal to be lost. Plenty of further choking I must do, plenty of voice to torture out of the little animal. By the time the tractor bearing us all returns to the barn, the calf is technically alive, of course. But I see something in the calf’s eyes, perhaps it is the strange watery look of comprehension and resignation, seeming to ask with bitterness So I guess I’m an animal then, aren’t I? Why? Why was I born? I was that calf’s intro to the world.

#10 gets an extra scoop of feed as a reward when she finally returns to her stall, which she chews ruefully at first, but then, feeling the ancient boredom of the livestock routine returning, feeling my by now chilly rag and then my greedy hands on her teats again, she chews slower, tuning out the tiny cries from the distant end of the barn until even the sound of the voice of her own flesh and blood becomes nothing to her ears but unrecognizable barn noise.