Thursday, 25 April 2013
A Jagged Circle
I did chores the other night for the first time in ages, and parts of my body I’d forgotten about are groaning at me today. Only it’s not the body aches that are troubling me so much as a slight emotional hangover. I think it’s soul-ache.
When I go to the barn these days, I’m used to things like the smell and stubborn cows and tripping over cats. I thought I’d also become more hardened to unpleasant incidents, like watching my husband stick his entire arm up a cow’s hoo-hoo or discovering an accidentally squished kitten, but sometimes I still grapple with the whole death-as-routine-occurrence thing that seems to be an established part of country life.
My in-laws are kind, generous people. They’re not callous or indifferent to their dairy cows, just practical. On a farm, you do your best to look after your livestock and keep them healthy, but sometimes, even your best efforts fail. That’s life. Nothing to get upset about.
On this particular night, D and I were doing the milking. D always milks the south side line of cows and I always milk the north side. My line of cows was looked after for the moment, so I wandered into the calf barn where my in-laws keep extra milk cows and any cows that are getting ready to pop out a new addition to the farm. I was hoping to find some kittens to coo over, but there weren’t any. Instead, a newish-looking calf gazed at me placidly from the first stall, and there was a cow with a newborn calf lying beside her in the second stall. I went over for a look.
The calf’s head was covered in straw, and I thought, “Huh, that’s weird.” The cow lay behind her calf, her nose barely resting on the calf’s ribs. My first instinct was to squeeze between the bars of the stall and brush the straw off the calf’s head. I had my head through the gate when I realized the calf wasn’t breathing. Oh, man.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the cow, who looked at me with her big, unblinking cow eyes. We stared at each other for a few moments and then I went back out to where D was scraping poo out of a stall.
“Did you know there’s a dead calf in there?” I asked.
“Yep,” he said without looking up.
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure what else to say.
“Must have been born this afternoon when nobody knew about it,” he said, leaning on the scraper handle. “Not good.”
We’d all been at the Pavilion for a dance that afternoon, D’s mom and brother included, so no one would have been around to help Mrs. Cow or her calf. D made his “What are you gonna do?” face at me and went to change a milker. I sighed, and went to change my own milkers, although what I really wanted to do was go back and hug the cow.
A little while later, I saw Carman go into the back barn with a bottle of milk for the calf in the first stall. I followed him. I watched as he tickled the calf’s nose with the bottle. It smelled the milk and started going to town on the nipple.
“You’re gonna have trouble feeding that one,” I said, gesturing to the poor lifeless thing in the next stall.
Carm shrugged. “It’s a bull calf anyway.”
“It’s still sad,” I said.
“It’s only worth seventy-five dollars.”
“Oh Carman!” I protested. “It’s still a life!”
He did that thing where he nods and shrugs at the same time, which is his way of humouring and dismissing me simultaneously. I love Carman like a brother; I think he’s fond of me. But sometimes we’re on a totally different wavelength. I could picture what he was thinking as though there was a thought bubble above his head: “Kimmy, what are you gonna do? Shit happens. It’s a farm, not a petting zoo.”
I looked over at the cow, who was still quietly resting her nose on the body of her little bull. I thought she looked vacant and sad, but then again, all cows usually look that way. I figured I was probably projecting my own experience with infant loss onto the cow. I didn’t even know if cows could experience the sensation of loss or sadness; still, I couldn’t help feeling bad about the whole thing. If we hadn’t gone to the dance, maybe someone would have been able to save the calf. I sighed, blew a kiss at Mrs. Cow and shouldered past Carm to finish my half of the milking.
I was nearing the end of my line when I noticed Orangie, one of the Jade’s favourite barn cats, scuffling with something in the feed room. I hung up the milker and went to investigate. Orangie had cornered a terrified starling and was doing what cats do, which is play with and torture their prey until it dies of fright.
“Naughty!” I yelled and grabbed the cat by the scruff, hauling him off the bird. His orange legs windmilled as he attempted to lunge out of my grasp and claim his prize. I nudged the starling with my toe to see if it was alive; it was, barely. It fluttered crookedly down the aisle with its neck hanging at a weird angle and one wing twisted beneath its breast. Oh, man.
Orangie was not pleased with my disciplinary actions and struggled with every ounce of his lean, muscled barn cat body. I bit my lip and hung on to him, watching the injured bird shiver and limp in a circle. I had a few choices. I could put the bird behind the house and hope it would recover before something else devoured it; I could give it the gift of merciful, quick death by shovel; I could let Orangie do what he was born to do, which is stalk and kill birds. I let Orangie go.
He shot away from me, quick as an arrow, and snatched the bird off the floor by the neck.
“Just do it quickly, if you’re gonna do it,” I admonished him. He narrowed his glinty green eyes at me and trotted off to finish his job in private. I sighed. This was the longest two hours of chores I’d ever done. What gory surprise was waiting for me next? I shuddered. I was not sticking around to find out.
“That’s it, I’m done,” I announced to the boys. They stared at me. “I’m taking the kids home. It’s late,” I lied, and stomped out of the barn. I could practically hear them doing the patented Lowry shrug in unison behind me.
Instead of heading for the house, I wandered toward the mulberry tree. I needed some air, some fresh, cool, April air to clear the nastiness out of my head. The early evening sky was brilliant and blue, the moon a broken disc above my head. Suddenly I was sniffling back unbidden tears, thinking of the calf and Rose, of friends who’d lost babies and children, of my Mom and Baba, of all the things in life that seemed so unfair, but weren’t really. I’d been trying so hard of late not to see life in terms of fair or unfair, but as life being life. I wanted to believe that experiences simply were as they were, there not to punish or weaken us, but to teach and strengthen us. Dead calves and crippled birds and lost children and cancer-stricken mothers included.
I tipped my head up to the sky to toss back the tears. When I looked down, I saw a blanket of electric blue spread out over the grass beyond the mulberry tree. As I walked closer, I realized they were the bluebells that sprouted there spring after spring. They popped out of the partially upended roots of the mulberry tree, nestled against the worn-out farm equipment laid to rest behind the shed, their crazy, unreal colour splashed over the grass like bright paint from a can. I breathed in their faint fragrance, and felt the tears dry on my face.
On my way back to the house, I stopped by the calf hutches, where about eight little calves frisked and kicked. They had long eyelashes and gangly limbs and reminded me of unruly toddlers who might leap joyfully on top of you at any moment. They were very much alive, and I stood for a moment and contemplated their vigour and innocence.
Life and death. Sorrow and joy. Spring and winter. I suppose life’s circle isn’t all that much different in the city than it is in the country, or anywhere else for that matter; it just seems that way to me sometimes, because on the farm, in the fields or on gravel roads, I bear witness in a series of extreme close-ups. The dead calf and the injured bird, the electric blue flowers and the leaping calves were another circle turning right in front of me. It made my soul ache a bit, and that was okay.
I turned and headed back to the house, to my own leaping, laughing children, my memories of lost family members, and my own little circle.