A Way with Cows [essay] by Duff Brenna

For three days snow has gathered in a wide band across northern Wisconsin, piling four feet high in some places. My farm is ten miles south of Lake Superior. This area often gets what is called “lake effect snows.” Which means two to three feet more than what Hayward, Spooner or Rice Lake get. The skies are clearing, the temperature falling. The wind blows harder. The quiet cocooning effect of lazily falling snow has vanished. The last time I looked at the thermometer it was touching thirty below. Wind-chill fifty below. Grease in axles has crystallized. Oil in oil pans thick as tar. I have thirty-eight cows to care for. Six calves. Numerous cats. I am forty-one years old and have only farmed for two years. I am barely getting by on my once a month milk check.

The farm is old. The barn is leaning, its sloping roof struggling under tons of snow. Wind playing with the top layer, swirling it, gives the effect of a dancing shroud. Every time I go to the loft, I can hear tamarack creaking, complaining. For seventy-five years the old barn has stood against all weathers, but I’m wondering how much more it can handle. There are thin snorts of freezing air coming through warped gaps in the walls. Tiny drifts of snow piling up here and there on the hay in the loft. All the tie beams and king posts are frosted. All the rafters curve inward, forming shallow basins threatening to crack and let the snow sift in.

When I finish throwing down hay from the loft, I go to the parlor and feed the cows and calves. Then I check on Minna, who is in labor, and find the tendons soft at the base of her spine. Swollen vulva drooling. Gluey fluids hang like taffy. When the pains hit her, she does a little hoof-to-hoof dance, a two-step sort of. The stanchion rattles. She swishes her tail as if trying to swat the pain.

“Be a big girl,” I tell her. My head aches from tension and worry and lack of sleep. There is a tic in my right eyebrow driving me crazy. I rub my eyes with the heels of my hands and only succeed in making things worse. I might be getting another migraine. There is a vague numbness on the right side of my face again. Right hand feeling oddly weak, a symptom experienced by my grandfather when he had a stroke—the numbness, weakness on one side. Two days later he was dead.

“You’re too young to have a stroke,” I say.

Well, maybe not too young. At forty-one, but I feel sixty and decrepit. I’m lean and wiry, but fifteen pounds underweight—150—and have not been well lately. I feel the undertow of high blood pressure, ulcers, frail nerves, fear of failure tugging at my backbone. I think about San Diego, where I was a part-time lecturer at San Diego State and worked nights in a shipyard, running a gantry, putting tons of steel in place that would one day slip down the ways as an oil tanker or a ship for the navy. I don’t want to go back there to southern California—too many people, too many houses jammed together, too much brutal traffic. Ugly brown hills in summer. Heat. Road rage. I was raised in Minnesota and Colorado. I crave green summers. I love autumn, but not winter. I thought I would love winter because it would give me time to write, but that was a pipedream, that was pie in the sky. I sold everything to buy a farm in Wisconsin (couldn’t afford Minnesota). Now I have 140 acres and cattle to care for. I am in debt up to and beyond my ears. I had the mistaken idea that I would sit upstairs in my study finishing the novel I was writing, a semi-biographical story about a farm girl named Mamie Beaver, she who had extraordinary strength and was an idiot savant as well, and probably autistic. A fifteen-year-old farm boy fell in love with her when she was twenty. I wanted to stare at white fields and be inspired and write their story, but truth is I am usually too tired to write. I work on poetry now and then, bits of it scrawled on scraps of paper I keep in my pockets.

The farm and the dreams are fading, but what am I supposed to do? Give up? Go back to teaching? I don’t want to teach anymore. Go back to running heavy equipment? I’d rather not. For all its hardships, I love dairy farming. I love the cows, the land, the summer haying, the October beauty of the woods. I love the independence. The isolation. The July evenings when twilight doesn’t fail until after ten. And the only sounds are the sounds of nature getting ready for bed. Breezes sighing through the trees alongside the house. The stream twenty yards away burbling the same pacifying verse. Small rewards that add up to big reasons for staying. For risking everything at my foolish age.

Minna shifts hard against my shoulder. The movement saying, Do something!

I rub the base of her spine to calm her down. “I’m here,” I say. “Everything will be all right. Don’t worry.”

And I tell her how great she is. Best cow in the barn. When she freshens she’ll do a hundred pounds a day, and I will make sure she gets everything she needs. I have been to Fleet & Farm and bought Kow Kare, full of Vitamins A, D and E. There is liquid calcium standing by in case she goes down with milk fever. For respiratory problems, or if her calf gets scours, I have antibiotics.

All the contingencies are covered, I tell myself. Nothing can happen that I can’t fix. The pain in my head increases, so I go to the milkhouse, to the medicine cabinet, and grab the bottle of Bufferin and take three with milk from the bulktank. And I think: What if it stays so cold the tractor won’t start again today? What if the electricity goes off once more? It was off ten hours yesterday. What if?

After I feed the cows, I put more straw under Minna in case she wants to lie down. Again she dances the two-step. When the contractions subside she goes back to inhaling hay as fast as she can. It is one of the things I have noticed over the years—the way cows will eat ravenously when they are distressed. Fear is gluttonous. Minna turns her head and looks at me, her nostrils flaring. A sheaf of hay in her jaw, working like a mower’s cut-bar side to side. Her rough tongue shattering leaves. Her eyes are huge and rolling, showing startled whites.

“My coo, my honey,” I sing, rubbing her backbone, rubbing her flanks.

I leave Minna and turn on the air-compressor, bring out the De Laval milk machines. It is six in the morning. I worry that my headaches and exhaustion may be symptoms of something serious. Or am I just too old to be doing this? Who starts dairy farming at forty? What fool would do that? I have no insurance and there is no money for doctors.

I rub a frosted window with my sleeve and see a diffused light over the southeast horizon, the fields stretching to the forty acres of woods that I own. The trees are naked against the morning sky. Branches reaching like frozen beggars. All over Wisconsin cows and farmers are waiting anxiously for this Arctic bubble to pass.

Moving the milkers, I slip the inflations on the teats of the next cow and feel an electric tingle in my hands. My palms are peeling. Dead dots of skin beg to be bitten. I nibble my palms, bite my fingernails. The lungs of the milkers breathe and the exhaust fans whir. The barn smells of hay, warm cow, methane.

Again I look out the window at the fields faintly blue in the swelling light and I wonder what if some limb cracks and brings the lines down? What if the rafters give way and the snow comes in and drowns the hay in the loft? What if I run out of propane? What if the cold lasts another week? Or two? People die this way and no one knows it until the mailman sees their mail piling up. But the snow on the roads can’t last forever. Surely the plows will be out today or tomorrow. The roads will be opened in two or three days at the most. Won’t they? I’ve got cans of soup in the pantry. I’ve got cereal. Lord knows I’ve got milk.

Shifting a milk machine to Curious, I recall when she was off her feed last year and her production fell to hardly more than a quart a day. There was no apparent reason for her condition, and my mind turned over images like Taro cards for cows: mastitis thick with garget, full of white cells and fever, hard quarter feverish. Metal disease? A tiny wire gouging her stomach? Which one? First? Second? All four, maybe? Or maybe hoof rot, woody tongue, Johne’s disease, a torsion? It was one of the few times I have had to call the vet in. He came out and diagnosed a displaced abomasum. Together the vet and I rolled her, trying to release the gas and get things back in place. But it didn’t work, and finally there was nothing to do but cut her open. “Cut her or ship her,” is what he said.

It was going to cost too much, but I gave him permission and watched him operate, watched him give Curious just enough anesthetic to numb her nerves but keep her standing in her stall. His scalpel cut a great gash in her hide, scarlet meat and dull white fat. The wound almost bloodless. “Shall I cut you a steak?” he asked, grinning. The incision was shaped like a giant vagina through which a micro-fog was exhaling. The fog reeking of wet organs hungry for life. The vet released the gas from her floating stomach and tied it down. Stitches hung like spider legs from the bottom of her belly. More stitches climbed up her side. Dopey-eyed and listlessly chewing cud, she was unaware of what the vet had done. And now, a year later, she has had a calf and milks well enough to earn her keep. There is nothing but the faintest scar to remind me of how she cheated death. That’s the thing I know about cows now. Given half a chance they will pull through. They are so tough so resilient, my bovinities.

It was Wes Johnson who told me that I loved my cows too much. He said I shouldn’t give them names, only numbers. “You gotta grow calluses on your heart if you’re going to last,” he said. That was the day the cow named Jewel was down with sciatic nerve damage after giving birth. I had driven the tractor over to the Johnson farm to borrow a bottle of calcium because I thought Jewel had milk fever. Wes came back with me and we dripped the calcium into Jewel’s carotid artery. Then tried to get her up. She couldn’t get up no matter how we pushed and prodded. Her right hind-leg pawed helplessly, like a dog wanting to shake hands, and I told Wes it was her sciatic nerve. He agreed. We put the iron O rings around her hips and hooked the rings to a chain-fall hanging from a beam in the ceiling. I cranked Jewel to her feet. “She stands or she’s dead,” Wes told me. “That’s the rule for dairymen.”

She stood with the help of the cowlift. But she was very unsteady. She stared at me with expectation and wonder, but I could do nothing except rub the base of her spine and tell her everything would be okay. Her rear end listed starboard, her sciatic leg continually jabbing the air. I massaged the thigh and hip, digging for their chemic cores, hoping to make the blood flow warm with healing power. But it did no good. “Naw, I’ve seen this too many times,” Wes said. “She’ll cost money and have to be slaughtered anyway. When you get this sort of thing, it’s best to shoot her. What we need to do is get her to the door, get her outside, where we can shoot her and hook her to the tractor and haul her out of the barnyard. Might as well get it over with. Times like this a farmer’s got to show no mercy, Duff.”

I said we should give her more of a chance. Give her a week. But he said it was hopeless. She wouldn’t be paying her way. He knew that I was barely breaking even. Feeding a cow that couldn’t produce was self-defeating. He had cranked her down by then and released her from the stanchion and together we pushed and pulled and tried to scoot her towards the door, but she was too heavy. Then Wes used an electric prod, shocking her. She flopped forward on her side, like a seal. The prod zapping her hips and spine, blue flames leaping from her hide. Desperately she tried to rise, her legs flapping, bouncing her thousand pounds along the concrete floor. I could see she wasn’t going to make it. I called a halt. I told Wes no more shocks. Let’s shoot her where she lies and we can snake a rope around and pull her out. I went in the house and got my rifle. When I got back I knelt beside her. Resting her anvil head against my thigh, she relaxed as I stroked her. Her eyes closing. And, angry with myself, I covered my face and wept. And Wes said, “What did I tell you? You gotta grow calluses if you’re going to last.” “I’m not shooting her,” I told him. “Let’s get her back in her stall.” “Jesus, Duff, you really don’t belong here.”

I was new to farming then and didn’t know how resilient cows could be. But I was convinced I shouldn’t listen to Wes too quick with the trigger. I can shoot or ship a cow if forced to, but from Jewel on, I have always given the sick ones every chance. And most of the time they’ve come back. Jewel healed. One evening a month after her leg failed her, I went to make my last rounds before going to bed, and there she was standing on her own, the right hip scarred by the cowlift, but strong enough to support her. I started laughing. I shouted her name and pounded her rump. She looked at me as if I was crazy. She got strong again. She stood in line in her stanchion to get milked. Cows do that—they surprise you. For a while anyway. For a while, just like old and ailing humans, the inevitable might be postponed. If cared for properly, most dairy cows will average five to six years or more of production before going to Packerland.

Curious flicks her tail over my arm. “You gals are lucky to have me,” I say. “I’m a sucker, that’s what I am.” Curious shakes her head. – No you’re not, she says. You need us! And, of course, she is absolutely right.

When the milking is over, I turn my attention back to Minna . Her water has broken and the birthing sack, a gray-pink membrane, is tapping at her heels. She has quit trying to get the baby out. Her muzzle is buried in the hay trough.

“This ain’t good,” I tell her. My head starts throbbing again. The nerves along my spine twitter as they always do when I think that something might be too much to handle. Standing behind Minna, I tell myself that this is it. I can’t take anymore. Life is too hard. I’m so goddamn old and tired. Running a dairy farm is a constant war. Well, maybe not. There are good times too, but this is one of the bad times. “This is one of those moments of truth,” I say aloud, “And I need help.”

Pacing the aisle, I keep thinking of Cristobell in the cold woods and working like a man possessed to pull her calf out. That baby was backwards. And after two or three hours I managed to get its hind legs up and into the steaming air. The rest was fairly simple. So I need to put my hand in Minna and find out if history is repeating itself.

Stripping off chore jacket, shirt, undershirt, I go to the sink in the milkhouse, scrub my right arm with soap and hot water. I go back to Minna, leaving my hand slippery with suds.

My hand slips down a tunnel warm and easy and comes quickly to a formless mass of hair, muscle and bone. As I move my fingers around, I make out the boundary of a shoulder. Twisted backwards behind it is the calf’s neck and head. The baby is bent like a horseshoe. It’s about as bad as it can be. I have never had to deal with anything so complicated. I could get the vet to come out when the road is cleared, but that would probably be too late. And where would I get the money to pay him, anyway? For six months I’ve been in the hole and living on bank loans. I need Minna’s milk. I need Friendly and Big Mama and Beth to freshen too. They are all due.

Minna stares at me, her eyes bulging with questions. “I know, I know,” I say.

Get it out of me!

“It’s jammed, Minna. I might have to cut it up and take it out in pieces. I’ve never done that before. I don’t really know how to. I might cut you up inside. This is awful. Maybe I better just call the vet and pray he can make it in time.”

I look around as if someone is there to tell me what to do. I could call Wes. No, not him. He’d end up killing Minna for sure. There’s Tom T or Ed Liska, but I am scared of what any of them might do. Farmers can’t afford to mess around with stricken cows. There is nothing for it but to force the issue. If I don’t, Minna will die and so will her baby. At least if she dies it won’t be because I didn’t try everything I could to save her.

Slipping inside her again, I force my fingers between the wedged neck and the womb wall. I try to push the baby forward, but nothing moves. I want to get my fingers in the nostrils and use them to pull the head around. But I can’t. Then Minna starts another contraction. She tightens her stomach and bears down. It feels like I’m in a vise, someone turning the handle harder, crushing my hand. The blood feels ready to burst through the tips of my fingers.

“You’re making things worse!” I yell. I struggle, cuss, groan until my strength and tolerance for pain wears out. I give up. I pull out. I turn in a circle, whipping my pulsating hand.

There is blood in the sack flowing from Minna. Blood covers my hand and arm. Maybe I’ve ruptured something inside her? I shake that thought from my mind and focus on how to get the calf unwound. And that’s when I see the herding stick. It’s the one I use to herd the cows, to tap them along when they’re out in the pasture. It’s in the corner next to the door. I pick it up and snap it over my knee. At both ends of a six-inch piece I tie baling twine. Then I force the stick, like a horse’s bit, into Minna’s mouth. I pull the twine over her head and use the other part of the stick, like the handle of an auger, twisting the twine behind her ears. Using more twine, I tie the stick to her neck. It’s an old trick that Liska told me about. The pressure pulling on the cow’s mouth will often lessen the force she uses bearing down. Minna doesn’t like it at all. She shakes her head. Her ears sounding like wooden clappers.

Again my hand goes inside and feels the baby. I am able to push it forward slightly. I can almost get my hand around and slide it along the curve of the neck. “It’s working,” I tell her. “I can feel its ear! I got its ear in my hand!”

But the shaking of Minna’s head causes the stick to work loose and the bit to fall out. The next thing I know she is crushing my fingers again. I retreat once more and yell at her, telling her to be still. Doesn’t she know I’m trying to help her? “Stupid cow! Quit shaking!” She hangs her head. She snuffs hay.

Walking to the far end of the barn, I look out the window at the fields of snow. Such a long winter. So much intense cold. “Deal with it. Deal with it.” That’s what my grandfather, a farmer all his life, would tell me if he were alive.

As if sensing the turmoil within the parlor, a coyote howls. I’ve heard that sound for months, the howl coming from somewhere around the southern curve, where the land plunges into the woods. I think of the coyote that followed the haybine last summer catching mice. And I wonder if the howl is hers. Sun spills over the windowsill and brightens the glass. I hear Minna shift again. – Come here! she commands.

I go back to the wooden bit, slip it in her mouth and tie it so tightly to her neck I’m afraid I might choke her.

Grabbing a two-foot piece of baling twine, I cinch one end around my hand and once more enter Minna. With the twine looped between two probing fingers, I place the heel of my hand against the calf’s shoulder and push it as hard as I can. It shifts forward and gives me some wiggle room. Minna is busy fighting the bit in her mouth.

Wedging my fingers between the canal and the calf’s neck I slip down a narrow passage. And then I feel the ear again. Then an eye. The nose, the nostrils. I slip the noose around the nose and tighten it.

“Got it.”

I push the calf forward, while my outside hand pulls the baling twine. Push and pull, push and pull, and slowly the head eases around. And finally faces the way out. Going back in with the twine and slipping the noose around the hooves I push and pull some more and ease the legs upward. I can see the hooves now, two yellow-white wedges. I pull them into the light.

“Let go now,” I say, untying the wooden bit. “I want you to bear down now. Bear down hard, Minna!”

As I pull on the little hooves, Minna does what I tell her and the calf slides through and into my arms, soaking me with warm birthing fluid.

The calf is dead. Opening the legs I see I have a male. Now it’s coyote food.

Laying the dead calf in the aisle, I tell myself that at least Minna is still alive.

“The calving is done,” I tell her. “It’s over, Minna.”

But even as I stand there panting and wishing I could take a bath and go to bed, I see a bubble pushing out of Minna’s vagina. The bubble is purple. It gets bigger and bigger. Inside it I see a pair of hooves. “I got another, I got twins,” I say. “No wonder it was so jammed up in there! Minna, what’re you doing, girl? Supercow or what?” Breaking the sack, I grab the hooves and soon another baby is soaking in my arms.

This one is a heifer. She’s alive. There’s a starburst on her forehead and her belly is white. The rest of her is black. “Get a load of you!” I say, rubbing the heifer with straw. I carry her around to the manger and set her in front of Minna, who gives the baby a good tongue-lashing, stimulating her blood. The other cows strain in their stanchions, nostrils flaring, smelling the calf and wanting to lick her.

“You’ve got thirty-seven aunts,” I say, feeling hopeful, even a little optimistic.

In a while the baby is up, staggering cow-to-cow, getting sniffed, snorted at, and properly licked. She blinks at a brand new world. Where am I?

*

When their winter confinement is over, the herd is let out of the barn. Some of the younger ones go nuts and run like overgrown children back and forth over the pasture. They bawl. They butt each other. They kick up their heels. A few of them, as if by magic turned into bulls, mount their sisters. The older cows keep their dignity, moving away and browsing new tufts of grass.

Along the pasture’s southern peninsula, the trees are thickening with leaves. In the afternoon the herd gathers in the shade of those leaves to sleep, chew cud, stare lazily into space. The dawdling wind is soothing. We’ll live forever like this, won’t we? the cows always ask me.

My little farm still has its crisis every other day or so—one thing or another breaking down, this or that cow getting sick, a calf with pneumonia, bills coming in that I can’t pay. But it isn’t anything that breaks me yet.

At this point in time I am unaware how right Wes Johnson is. I don’t belong in farming. By May of next year, 1984, the farm will go under and everything will be auctioned off—the cows, machinery, furniture—and in the freedom of defeat I will leave Wisconsin for what will happen over the next few years. Things will fall apart. The center will not hold. And eventually, I will travel many roads, a world of wandering—state-to-state, city-to-city, job after job—until one day I will find myself in southern California teaching again, and working on my novel. I’ll be hating the dead, dry hills, the heat, the traffic. I’ll be hating the fact that I’m getting too old to be a novelist or get a full-time position, with tenure track, medical and retirement benefits. My lost farm will give a hard birth to The Book of Mamie, which I will send out dozens of times to dozens of agents and publishers and be dismissed with form letter rejections for over two years.

But then in my 46th year I will get a phone call from Toby Olson and Andrea Barrett telling me that I have won the AWP Best Novel Award. The University of Iowa will publish it. Soon I’ll have an agent, an editor, and a publishing house for my second novel.

Mamie is a book that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been a dairy farmer and wrote about cows and the good and the bad of loving them and the land I once owned. So, maybe it was worth it? Or maybe not. How do you measure these things? Five novels later, I continue to write and it’s as hard as ever to get published, which is why I’m still teaching on a part-time basis. Writers, don’t quit your day job.

Had I been successful and stayed on the farm it would be twenty-two years now. And I’ve often wondered what if—what if my blood pressure, the migraines, the ulcers and the ceaseless work had killed me? And I was nurturing the grass covering a plot in a Wisconsin cemetery? What might then have been said about my time as a dairyman? Impossible question. But it’s not impossible to know what I would want engraved on my headstone. Carved in granite below my name and dates, in simple scroll, I would like my epitaph to say: HERE LIES DUFF BRENNA. HE HAD A WAY WITH COWS.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of Madeline Tiger’s poem “Sheep Herding.”]

Image by normanack via Flickr Creative Commons

DUFF BRENNA is the author of nine books, including The Book of Mamie, which won the AWP Award for Best Novel; The Holy Book of the Beard, named “an underground classic” by The New York Times; Too Cool, a New York Times Noteworthy Book; The Altar of the Body, given the Editors Prize Favorite Book of the Year Award (South Florida Sun-Sentinel) and also received a San Diego Writers Association Award for Best Novel 2002. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award, Milwaukee Magazine’s Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Prize Honorable Mention. His book Minnesota Memoirs was awarded Best Short Story Collection at the 2013 Next Generation Indie Awards in New York City. His memoir, Murdering the Mom, was a Finalist for Best Non-Fiction at the same Independent Publishers Awards. Duff’s work has been translated into six languages. “A Way with Cows” first appeared in The Macguffin, Fall 2007, Vol. 24 Issue 1. Read more at www.duffbrenna.com.