The first time I saw the heifer was the morning Clarke brought me back from Lexington in early June. She was out front, chewing on crabgrass around the porch. I thought, first, that must be unpleasant. Certain she was getting some of that milky gray gravel laid around the house between her teeth, my own jaw aching with every crunch. And oh, I could hear her crunch. Cattle are funny that way. They could be chewing cotton candy and clouds and still, they find a way to make it crunch between their big teeth.
No one told me anything about her for days.
She just stood out in the yard, sometimes front, sometimes back, sometimes out in the old pasture, sometimes right dead in the middle of the gravel driveway, minding her own business. Just a girl who liked chewing grass and feed and making judgmental eyes at anyone who tried whistling at her to come on over. My kinda girl, really.
Lorraine and I were out on the porch drinking sun tea. You’d been put to bed already. The evening sun was lowering behind the trailers down the street, reflecting pink and orange and blue across the water in their above ground pools like some kind of beautiful country version of northern lights. And there was that heifer, ambling across the property line, pulling up clumps of dandelions with her buck teeth.
“Deborah Applebottom said that damn creature was infertile,” Lorraine said. “I bought her for cheap. Was going to have Bruce come up and butcher her for the freezer, let him have a roast for his trouble.” She was sitting in a creaky wooden rocking chair the color of cracked walnuts, the shadows of early evening cutting across her face, turning her usually fair, blue eyes a murky gray. She raised her cup to the cow as it looked over, in a gesture that resembled more giving the bird than cheersing – both gestures you will one day better understand.
“So she’s pregnant,” I said, connecting the fact that the freezer was empty and the yard was full of cow patties of a different nature. “Not just fat.”
“Good deduction, Dr. Doolittle.”
“Oh, stop, no one’s said a word about that heifer to me. I wasn’t sure.”
“You see the size of those udders.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Deborah said they all done two calving seasons with her and she didn’t take once. That she was eating up as much as the pregnant ones and was costing them more than she was ever going to give back.”
I worked down at the Applebottoms’ one summer when I was still in high school. They’ve got a little dairy that mostly makes profit from tours, and that’s what I did. I walked folks from out of town and school kids through the property, showing off all the happy mama cows roaming free in the field behind a thin-wired electric fence.
They keep the babies separated at the dairy. For their safety, I told people. And maybe I believed it was better that way for all of them, too.
But in reality, the boys were long gone, sold up to a beef ranch, and the girls were taken out to barns to be raised into mamas when they get grown enough to conceive, too. Not much of a choice about it. They can’t keep the calves with their mamas. The babies would drink up all the milk the Applebottoms were trying to sell and turn into cheese.
We put a lot of our own feelings on animals, Pearl, so maybe it’s not as complicated as I make it out to be. Cows have to have babies, or else they don’t make milk. Something changes in them when they calve, and that something that takes them from heifer to cow. And just like they can’t have the calves drinking into their wares, the dairy doesn’t have room for a heifer who isn’t fertile. There’s just no profit in it.
Clarke came by for breakfast in July on his day off from the Ford factory and, astute as that lovely man is, said through a mouthful of mushed up pancakes, “You know that cow you got out back is pregnant.”
“She looks like a damn sock stuffed with a bowling ball,” Lorraine said. “Of course she’s pregnant.” You thought this was very funny, laughing with your mouth full of banana, teeth stained from chocolate chips.
Unperturbed by Lorraine’s barbed tongue, Clarke dunked another cut of pancake into a pool of maple syrup. The corn syrup kind you and him like, not the good kind the people down the road sell off the highway me and Lorraine like. It was smeared all over his lips, settling in the deep lines.
“I can’t believe I kiss that mouth,” I said.
“Me, either,” he said, grinning before he licked the syrup away. “Hey, you ever birth a calf, Jess? Up at that fancy veterinarian school?”
“Vet technology. But no. I helped with some kittens, once,” I said, feeling a little knotted in my stomach. There was no meat on the table that morning but I felt all greasy inside, like something slippery was bubbling up in there. “But that was in middle school. That’s what made me want to go get a degree to work with animals,” I said, to you. Trying to instill in you that it’s possible to find a direction to run in early. There are ways up and out.
“Feral cat came into the barn and did all the work herself in a box of riding blankets while you sat and watched is what you mean,” Lorraine said. “Which is about all you’re still going to do unless you become a real veterinarian. You didn’t birth anything.”
It was a big sting. A wasp, not a bee. Of course she was right about the kittens, but she said it in that way that made it seem like I’d done something wrong, that even getting a four-year degree wasn’t enough for her to see I was trying to do something for myself, and that grease in my stomach turned to solid so I left you at the table with her, to go outside and let the air cool my forehead.
We all know Clarke doesn’t like to leave a meal to cool before he’s got it all in his belly, but he came out with me and we walked the pasture for a while. Back when we were in middle school, me and Clarke, there were horses out there. Two of them. Sadie and Mary Beth. They were good horses, sweet as honeycomb and just as pretty. Lorraine and Jacob, my daddy, sold soybean to cattle farmers back then.
But then Jacob got sick with pneumonia and died and even if Lorraine wanted to keep growing and selling, those farmers found it cheaper to source their soy from China and so she sold most of the land to people who built up a mobile home park. But she kept those horses, the pasture, and the barn, and she swears to Jesus, Mary and Joseph that Sadie was thirty-two years old when she laid down the last time.
I was thinking on the life of horses, how thirty-two years old is practically ancient and how I, twenty-three years old, feel like I’m getting to be ancient, too, and yet here I was under my mother’s roof again, a place I said I would not return out of stubborn pride, so I said to Clarke, “I am going to get a job in Lexington, and you are coming with me this time,” as if saying it out loud meant I could not fail again, but then Clarke put his arm on my shoulder and he said “what about Pearl?” and I almost laid down in that field myself to let the grass grow right over and through me.
We only knew the cow had gone into labor when she started avoiding us, when she got herself into the barn and stayed in there for almost a day, refusing to come out and graze, even though it had to be at least ten degrees hotter in there than out in the breeze.
I admit I wanted an out from the responsibility I felt was being tossed around like a hot potato. I could help with dogs and cats and I did a course on small animals for a semester which I didn’t care much for, but I certainly didn’t specialize in creatures ten times my weight bracket. “Maybe someone from the Applebottoms’ can come over,” I said. There were workers at the dairy who could guide a cow through calving with their eyes closed. Professionals.
Lorraine wasn’t having my excuses. “They’re going to charge me more than I paid for her just to get the calf out of her. They’re already pissed I got her so cheap, and two for that.” She can be tough, Lorraine, but you learn to read her in translation. Really she was saying you can do this, girl, so pull it together. I felt that pit of grease bubble up inside me again, slippery and bitter-tasting at the back of my throat.
“What if something goes wrong? What if she needs help?”
Lorraine just fixed me with a look, one that had expectation and defeat and guilt and trust all in one. “What’d you go to school for, vet tech?”
I called Clarke.
Clarke is just that kind of a guy, Pearl. He’ll come when he’s called and he’s there when you need him. There’s no secret to him or his affection. There’s a book shop in Lexington that sells puzzles and magic tricks – we’ll go when you come visit one day, once I get a job. They’ve got this cube that’s made of two pieces that look kind of like geometric worms, and when you push them together they turn into this seamless cube. That’s Clarke and me. He was always a good boy. A goes to church on Sundays with his family and plays football for the high school type boy. And I wasn’t always good when I was a kid, and I didn’t always go to church on Sundays, but we took to each other still and found ways to be what the other needed.
If he doesn’t come with me – and I wonder if he could – you know who to call if you ever need anything.
Clarke followed me into the barn with a big bottle of iodine. He traded a couple beers with one of the dairy workers to get it for me. They already had all their calves out in spring, anyway, so no one was going to go looking for it.
I started rolling up my plaid sleeves. He started rolling up his checkered sleeves.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” I told him.
“Well, neither do you, do you, hot shot?” he asked.
He had a point. But I didn’t want to voice my lack of experience in front of the cow, lest I was under some imagined spell of sudden capability that might go away if I admitted I didn’t know where it came from. Lest she lose confidence in me, too. Lest any number of things go wrong before we even started.
The cow stood in the back, kicking up pieces of hay and dirt as she fought the contractions in her belly. We could see them. The dirt on her sides shook with the pulse of her muscles. She’d been up and down for hours in the dirt and hay, couldn’t make herself comfortable.
The scary part was that we didn’t have time to do just about anything preliminary I wanted to. She was pushing, standing, and there was one little hoof sticking out of her – but it wasn’t moving, not when she pushed or contracted, and I thought where’s that other hoof?
“Rope her up, we need her on her side.”
Clarke did as he was told while I went for the iodine, my arms covered up to my biceps to be safe. It took the both of us to pull her down gently, to get her down and onto her side, which meant I had to do the iodine over again. Wasting time while that cow laid out on the hay pile like it was a feather bed, blowing air fast out from her nose, eyes looking wild and brown as dark roasted coffee beans.
“I know, girl,” I said. “I know.”
Her stomach lurched with a contraction. The hoof stayed put. The cow’s head bounced up and down against the barn floor. I got down behind her and reached for it, for that other leg tangled up inside of her, and when she pushed, I pulled.
She pushed, I pulled. She pushed, I pulled.
And then there was that other hoof out.
And she pushed and I pulled.
And then there was a head.
And she pushed and I didn’t have to pull.
That calf came into the world with a swan dive into the hay.
“Holy shit.” Clarke in the doorway, his hand permanently over his mouth, eyes about as wild as the cows had been. I had my hands on that calf, feeling for the heartbeat even as it was moving already, making little sounds of life already, I had to feel it to believe it, to know it. And I was so happy, I jumped right to my feet after, my arms covered in viscera to the elbow as I raised them to my sides.
“She did it, Clarke, did you see that? Can you believe what she just did?”
The cow was already back to breathing normal, waiting on her side for the afterbirth. A patient recline. Like she knew, already, that she was not done. She had to save herself up first. The calf was out, but she was not done.
Pearl, there was a time when Lorraine was Mom and then she wasn’t.
I’ve called my daddy Jacob since he died because it helps me to not get quite as sad when I think about the fact that he’s gone for good. I started calling Mom Lorraine around the same time, but for different reasons.
I don’t want to trash talk her, I don’t want you to think that you’re living with someone awful, because you’re not. Everybody makes choices, Pearl, and we can only really judge a person on the choice they made most recently. And it was many choices ago that Lorraine had a bad two years.
Jacob died and left behind a collection of half-full bourbon bottles. Lorraine took up the task of finishing them for him. And maybe she’d have been fine if she didn’t keep refilling them. If neighbors didn’t show up to offer condolences with fresh bottles. If the people who came to cry about her loss didn’t breathe vodka and malt beer into her face.
And it was a bad two years. And we didn’t talk then except to fight. And I started staying out overnight, sleeping in my car if Clarke couldn’t sneak me into the back of his parents’ house, and Lorraine and I, we about came to a place we could never start to forgive each other for. We had both abandoned each other.
Somewhere at the end of that two years, she found a reason to stop. I can’t tell you what that reason is because I don’t know. I just know she did. And slowly, the house began to empty of glass. The couch was again a place for sitting and not passing out. The kitchen had more than bran flakes and microwave popcorn. My car didn’t have to be my bedroom. So I came home. And we walked for a while through it like nothing had changed – like we were both just waiting for the moment we looked down and saw the glass was back, sticking out of our feet surrounded in red.
And now I’m thinking about the day we brought the calf inside the house, the first day of the season that dropped below thirty degrees, but it wasn’t because of the cold. It was after her mama nearly kicked the brain out of her head.
“She held back,” Lorraine said. “If that heifer meant it, the calf would be dead.”
The calf was lucky, up and walking in the aftermath, only a wound to her confidence and a sore spot. But she was keeping her distance from her mother. It’s not a pretty memory, but Pearl, I don’t know how to say it other than to make you see it. The cow’s body might’ve changed, she might’ve been producing milk, but having a baby doesn’t make you a mother and that cow was meant to stay a heifer.
Lorraine didn’t want the calf inside the house and I couldn’t blame her. No one really wants one-hundred pounds of pure mess production in a house that can’t take another pound. The floorboards didn’t squeak when we pushed her across them, they full-on screamed.
The calf wasn’t getting fed by her mama and with the new cold, she wasn’t going to survive out there alone and you absolutely would not stand for that. No one else tells Lorraine what to do quite like you, Pearl. Seventeen years ago, when I was six years old myself, I would’ve gotten a whup on the butt for trying to tell Lorraine I wanted something different for dinner, let alone to keep a calf inside the house that no one ever asked for in the first place. She’s got a special soft spot for you, and it shows. And she wouldn’t, no matter how much she might pretend she’s a stoic, let a calf suffer hungry out in the cold.
I remember the day I told her you were coming. It was cold that day, too.
It was harder to get a condom than booze in high school, so yes, you were quite a surprise. I told Lorraine in the kitchen while she was making dinner. I was scared nearly to shaking. I sat on a stool at the counter. My feet were bare and red where my soles dug into the metal bar. Lorraine was ripping around the kitchen, slamming cabinet doors. Sliced open a bag of potatoes instead of untying the top.
There wasn’t much I needed to say.
I’d known for a month and a half, and had been ignoring it for a month and a half before that. My friends insisted that big sweatshirts hid most all things from mothers, but I knew I could not go another week keeping you a secret from her.
“I can’t raise a baby at my age,” she said. Forking a potato for baking so hard I was just waiting for her hand to slip, for there to be another wound to have to treat. “I couldn’t raise a baby when I was the age I had you!” The oven racks bounced and clanked as she threw the potatoes inside.
You have to poke some holes in a potato before you bake them, Pearl, otherwise they can explode from getting steam built up and stuck inside with nowhere to go.
I planted my hands firmly on the table. I told myself I was confident, that I could do this. I said, “You don’t have to raise it. You’re not the one having it.”
And she said, “You haven’t called the baby anything but it since you started talking.”
Just like that, the stubbornness in me faded.
I didn’t know you were a girl then. I didn’t go to the doctor at all until Lorraine took me. She didn’t let Clarke come the first time. He wanted to be part of it all. He always wanted you. It took longer for me. I couldn’t talk to you when you were in my belly the way Clarke did. Lorraine had already started sewing you a quilt when I realized you’d need a crib. When I quit my job at the dairy, Mrs. Applebottom gave me a fifty-dollar bill folded up in the palm of her hand. She called it a bonus for the time I gave them.
I bought a pair of boots I’d been wanting. They were on sale, no returns.
Lorraine didn’t talk to me all night when I brought them home.
And you kicked me for the first time while I was filling out a scholarship application for UK.
I was busy answering questions about my dream careers, and I wanted to get that money and get out of town and go to school so badly, I didn’t even pause. I didn’t tell anyone.
Lorraine was never a perfect mother to me. But when I couldn’t bear to hold you in the hospital, she was the one who rocked you. She knew what to do when you were colicky. She got up in the night to give you bottles when I couldn’t lift my head from the pillow. She held you all day when I went back to high school, so I could graduate, so I could accept that scholarship when it came, so I could go away to Lexington and get a degree and have a chance at my life.
I came back here because I didn’t end up with a job right away after I finished my degree – but I have to go back, because I know I’ll never find one here. I mean to tell you I love you. I know I do. And I know I can love you better this way than I ever could if I stayed. You’ll always be my baby. But I can’t always be your mom. Not, at least, for now.
– JessicaPhoto by Karsten Würth on Unsplash