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My Calf

I am a Kansas farm boy who loves reading all kinds of books. I am always looking for good reads. Volunteering for Librivox has been fun.

My Calf

I was thirteen when it happened. There was blood on the snow. The salty smell steaming up from red stains. I saw things. I saw her. Something died. I tried to save her. I told myself I had to do it.

I was taking care of the dairy farm by myself. My two older brothers were volunteering for hurricane cleanup on the gulf coast. My father had shattered his upper arm bone three days before. The day something died, he was getting surgery.

When it happened, I saw the beginning. A cow named Mary started it. I remember holding the flashlight at the beginning. I held the flashlight eight years before I would try to save her. In the light of my flashlight, my father lifted the back leg of the wet bundle that came of Mary.

“It’s a girl,” he said.

My five-year-old self had been happy. Because my father had told me it was time I shared the calf chores with my two brothers. I was to have the next calf to raise all by myself. I had already held bottles and filled feed buckets. But this calf was my responsibility. I would even get to name her. I had hoped for a heifer calf. Heifer calves became milk cows, had calves of their own, and stayed for years. Bull calves were not needed and left when they grew big enough. At the age of five, I hadn’t known for sure where bull calves actually went.

The day my father had surgery. Eight years later when something died and there was blood on the snow. I saw myself rubbing the black and white hair with handfuls of straw. It had been cold. The warm stickiness of the birth juices had steamed off my calf. I had felt the sliminess and freshness of my calf under my five-year-old hands.

After my calf was born, I struggled for two weeks searching for the best name in the world. And I named her Orange Delicious. It was silly. But to my small brain at the time it made a lot of sense. My brothers had been naming cows after our apple trees. We had a Yellow Delicious, a Red Delicious.

My brothers laughed at the name. Because there was no Orange Delicious apple tree. But I didn’t care. It was a beautiful name, and original. I possessed a calf, in a special first-time kind of way. She was mine the way my name was mine, the way that the first time riding a bike alone is special.

While I was trying to save her, I saw myself and her, growing up. I held the first bottle of milk with my own small hands. The first time she was slow. I inserted the rubber nipple many times. Orange Delicious’s eager slobbery mouth would slip off. When we were done, I was covered with calf slobber, and very happy.

In the weeks that followed her birth, I would be like Orange Delicious’s mother. I would train her to drink her milk out of a little bucket. That way I wouldn’t have to hold her bottle. I would give her little handfuls of the special new calf feed. A sweet tasting mix of molasses, crushed oats, and other grains. She had started eating under my watchful eye.

She grew. I grew. I was six when the vet came and said she was pregnant. That had been big news. I was seven when Orange Delicious or OD started showing signs. I learned that when the udder started growing that meant the calf was coming soon. I saw her belly swell up and her udder look so tight I thought it was going to explode.

I started checking her every time I went outside. I checked her three or four times a day two weeks before she calved. When she finally calved, I wasn’t even there. She quietly birthed a little bull calf late one night. But I found them in the morning. OD was warbling little moos and the calf was wobbling around on its new legs.

I watched as OD was milked the first time. How my dad caught her in the headgate. Then he put the milking machine on her. She kicked it off two times that first time. But soon she was as tame and well trained, a mature cow that had been milked hundreds of times.

When she died, I remembered all these facts about here early life. When I was ten, she was having her second calf. I watched closely how good a cow she was. How much milk she was giving? I wished her into the top of the herd. I was so proud when she was the top producer.

When I turned 12, she was an old veteran of the milking parlor. But I had started to become interested in other things. I had started reading bigger books. I was busy with school. I no longer had as many leisure hours to spend on pets. And I was growing up.

For a start, I had finally found a fascination with girls. Girls overwhelmed my brain. Money swelled up the small part that was left. My body grew, I had an urge to try my muscles. To prove I was a man. I was violent sometimes. I had broken a calf’s horn clean off with a plastic bucket in a fit of teenage temper.

I almost forgot about my childhood calf by the time I got the opportunity to prove myself. And it didn’t happen like I thought. OD had aged. But I wasn’t watching. I was watching my ego. I was working. She had become an old cow. She had birthed five calves and given thousands of pounds of milk.

It happened when my brothers were gone. My dad had broken his arm in several places. He and my mom had been busy with the arm all week. Doctor visits, and then the surgery. I ran the dairy farm by myself.

We did have my cousin coming to do the afternoon milking. But he got really sick the first day. So, I was doing all of it.

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I got up at four and do the morning milking. Then I would scrape the manure out of the barn with the skid loader. After that, I fed all day. I fed the calves, giving them each two quarts of milk. Then I got the feed wagon out, mixed up silage, hay, and ground corn, and fed three pens of replacement heifers, the dry cows, and finally two loads to the lactating cows.

By then it was about 1 pm, I would go eat a bite, then come right back out. I scraped manure out of the free stall for a second time. Then I would milk again at four in the afternoon. At last, deep into the night, maybe 9 o’clock, I would finish feeding the calves their second portion of milk for the day. It was a full day. But I had a youth’s stamina.

It would have been ok. I would have made it through the week chipper and healthy. Except the first morning I was chasing the cows a little too fast and one slipped on the icy cement and went down. She fell with her back legs split out on both sides of her, in such a horrible fashion that I was sick to my stomach right away. I knew cows never recovered from splitting out like that.

I was actually just going to leave her lay and see what happened when I decided to find out who it was. I reached down and flipped her ear up. Orange Delicious. It was scrawled in absurd loopy letters that stunk of first words. And it was all jumbled and broken because the ear tag wasn’t big enough for two large words. But I knew who had made that tag. I knew which cow this was. I saw. I saw everything. The birth. Me. Her.

I tried to save her. Every waking moment of the day when I wasn’t doing chores. I carefully chained her neck to the skid loader and drug her out of the barn. I winced every time she went over a rough spot. It was a brutal way to move her. But I knew it was the only way to move an 1800-pound animal.

I wanted her inside. The wind blew bitterly cold and wet. Snow and ice coated everything. I drug her in front of a building I had bedding heavily with clean straw. She couldn’t stand up but could crawl a bit and scoot along. I prodded her until she was at least out of the wind and lying on the straw in the very door of the shed.

I hunted up two small plastic tubs. I filled one with choice morsels of alfalfa and brome hay. The other I poured a little water in. I presented these to OD. I felt rotten when she wasn’t interested in either. I had seen this before. Animals seem to know when they are done. And they find peace with it. But I still tried.

I carried on day after day trying. I tried to get her to stand up. I even used the hotshot. I knew which places, like underneath the foreleg against the ribs, that were the most tender. OD bawled in anguish, but I wouldn’t give up and shocked her some more. I wanted to will her to stand up.

She tried, she would almost make it, but always she fell back onto her stomach with her head a little lower. She wouldn’t eat. She wouldn’t drink. And she wouldn’t die.

Day after day I would try to feed her. I packed straw around her to trying to stop the unceasing shivering in the sub-freezing weather. I moved her with the skid loader out of the muddy slop hole her body had created in the frozen ground under the straw. And she wouldn’t die.

The week would have been fine. But the down cow situation was killing me. I was alone. I had to make the decisions. On the fourth day, OD looked almost dead. But I knew that life could linger on for hours or days more.

Her eyes had sunk in. She shivered all night and most of the frigid mornings. She smelled stale like things were rusting away. Most of the time her head rested on the ground instead of being held up. I could feel each brittle rib under the rough black and white hair. I knew it was time. But I had never done it. My dad or brothers always did it.

I couldn’t face the facts. It was afternoon when I made the decision, it needed to be done. But I waited. I milked the cows first. The world darkened in the rapid white way of dead winter. Like someone flipping a light switch. I fed calves with the skid loader lights and a good flashlight.

The winter wind died to perfect still as the sun went down. The thick cloud cover looked like it was cleared when I finished my chores. I looked at OD again. She was worse. She had started violently trembling again with the going down of the sun. Small watery trickles of acid, mucous and death juices were stinking out of her rectum. It wasn’t anything healthy, because she hadn’t eaten in days.

I looked at her. We had been young once. She had lived her life. I was still young. I saw how life worked, how our farm worked. I realized that her life, her milk was how my parents had made a living. Her milk had bought the car they drove, the mending of my father’s broken arm. OD had helped give me my childhood birthday presents. She had lived for my family. I wondered if she knew. I wondered if I knew.

I walked up to the house. I lifted my great-grandfathers .22 rifle carefully down from the hooks in the closet. I gathered five shells out of the box on the shelf. I carefully loaded them into the magazine. I walked back down to the shed where OD was.

Her sunken eyes were glistening and huge. They looked at me without blinking. They were mirrors. I saw myself. As I had been, as I was at the time, as I would be when it was finished.

I pumped the action of the small rifle. I peeked into the mechanism and saw the shell fit into the firing chamber. I slipped in front of OD’s head. I brought the muzzle of the gun within two inches of her upper head, aiming right between her ears, but pointing the gun slightly down from horizontal to hit the central nervous system. I pulled the trigger.

.22 rifles aren’t big enough to make an impressive noise. A sharp little retort and a tiny pea-sized spot of ruffled hair on her forehead. But nothing more. She collapsed, stunned. Slowly she rolled off her stomach flat on her side. Her legs spasmed violently and pawed the straw, gouging up gobs of bedding.

I pumped the action again. One tiny, empty, brass shell tinkled on the cement; it was smoking in the winter night air. OD spasmed. I waited until her body was mostly quiet and sent another shot into her head. One more ruffled spot beside the first one. The first one had a tiny bit of dark red seeping out from it now.

The second bullet sent one last tremor through the whole giant husk that had been my calf. Then the flesh slowly settled. All the air seeping out in a long audible gasp. The legs fell silent with only an occasional nervous twitch.

I didn’t cry. I saw. I saw an animal dying for my financial future, and my parent’s retirement. I saw an animal birthing calves so people with full stomachs could eat another hamburger. So obese people could swallow another milkshake.

I thought of absurdly out-of-place things. I thought of Abraham on the mountain getting ready to kill his son, and that other old testament dude that killed his favorite daughter. I found myself humming the tune to a song I had heard that went like this.

A Christian's pride and badge of love

It is the cross of Christ.

I thought of strangely connected storybook figures. Like Ned Stark, Virgil, Severus Snape, and Little Nell. I gazed at the corpse in front of me. I couldn’t understand all of the mystery there. Why it was like it was. How I would look when I was dead. I was only thirteen. But I had a distinct thought that I would never understand. That there was something bigger than us.

I walked back up to the house slowly. I recall gazing up at the sky. The clouds were rolled off rapidly. An unmoving brilliant field of stars shone above them. I had seen nothing but clouds, sleet, and cold the whole week. I stared at the stars amazed. Something in me had died with that cow.

I absently remembered the gun’s magazine still contained three bullets. I placed my flashlight in the snow where it would glare onto the woodpile. I stepped back fifty feet. I quickly emptied the three bullets into the center eye of a chunk of firewood. What had once been the youngest growth ring of a tree made an excellent bull’s eye. I went and looked where I hit. The bullets were in a space of less than an inch from each other. I was a good shot.

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