Luck of the draw she is in the first stages of birth. Body bulk lowering, straining, groaning, exerting. Blow flies encircle her head. Eyes wild, sickled white. Fat raft of tongue. Cloudy ropes of saliva. Contractions ripple down her flanks. Warm beads of colostrum form on swollen udders. She kneels, lies down, throws her head back and bellows. The thick water sac falls from her swollen vulva. Red slow ooze of slime. Her broom-like tail whips up. Ears narrow back.
“Damnit there. Damnit,” my dad says. “Hold on there,” he says, until the calf’s front feet appear. “Just look at that,” he says, as the Jersey bellows, snorts more. Morning air freighted with labor.
“Good girl,” my dad says. “You’re my right hand girl. Now relax your hands just enough. Animals can smell your sweat a long way off. Have to believe you’re doing good. God’s work. Like a soldier meaning no harm. Hear him calling. God’s calling. What Cain knew. Abraham too.”
My dad casts off his heavy hunting jacket, rolls up his sleeves, pulls on his orange rubber boots. I pull on mine too. He tips two cups of antiseptic into a small bucket and fills it with scalding water. He lathers up his arms, rinses them cool, kneels behind the cow. His arm buries almost up to his shoulder in her swollen uterus. His teeth clench with the effort. I turn my head away, but my other voice says, no no be brave, remember what he said, you are my right hand girl.
I rub my palms on my knees and try to concentrate. My dad focuses on wrenching out the stubborn calf. He pulls and pulls through the bovine’s cervix until the bull calf emerges.
My dad says to stick my finger deep in the calf’s muzzle, into its warm pink sweet mouth. The strength of the suck contracts through me, seems to makes me a mother, too.
Great steaming plop plop and my farmer dad laughs heartily. He struts like a dove. His face cracks into a satisfied smile. He cleans up while the bovine stretches, groans dark deep like an oboe. What is afterbirth of the calf plops to the ground too. Thick black gelatin of coagulated blood. Red-pink placenta. The fresh calf tries to rise, fumbles, totters, moves a little more with its slick wet muzzle. He searches for the bloated dugs, the frothy braids of milk, the good godlike nectar.
I’ve seen my dad take a sick calf home, warm her in front of the kitchen fire and massage her legs steadily until the new crack of dawn. I’ve seen him rub the ropy mucus from a newborn mouth, blow his own breath hard down its throat. I’ve seen my dad stick a blade of grass into a calf’s nose to get it to gasp. And I’ve seen my dad dash cold water on a calf’s head to make it awaken. He’s had towels handy for rubbing to stimulate breathing. I’ve watched him withdraw the big rubber suction bulb to clear the animal’s airways. He’s told me not all cows are good mothers. Some first-timers just stroll off as if they don’t know what’s happening. And some return and won’t let the baby nurse as if afraid of this wobbly foreign creature.
My dad often tethers a cow’s neck to a wooden post. My job is to keep that brownish-yellow rope from slipping. He leads the bawling calf to the right end of its mother and expresses the warm colostrum onto its nose, directs its muzzle to the sticky pink teats. Several tries before it’s latched and gulping.
“Best way to get a mama not wantin’ to nurse is to lead her into the chute,” my dad says. “Can’t go anywhere then. The sides can always drop down and the hungry calf can have free reign. What else to do but rasp the youngster and lead it. Cows can be damn protective, just like humans, ” he says. “You might shuffle nervous and calm all down when you talk to her. Good to have a decent willow stick too.”
We have milked this Jersey a bunch of times; our foreheads bowed, cheek and ear bent to her flank, listening to the tank of stomach gurgle like a quarrel of sparrows, busy leverets of hares. White handkerchiefs fixed around our mouths to block out the kicked up dust clouds of dry manure. Our hands pull and squeeze her swabbed nipples. Strong steaming jets of milk tat tat tat as they hit the sides of the open steel pail.
This one never needed to be tied or stalled like some others. She never kicked or button-hooked around to snort a pint of snot. She never dropped her head, hoofed over the top of us. Not this one. She let us milk her in exchange for a full feedbag of summer harvested alfalfa. This one never driven to the cannery to be chopped up into dog food. No, this mother never shot in the brainpan. She’s one of the lucky few.
I’ve seen my dad kick a newborn calf within an inch of its life. I’ve seen him tie an old dairy cow to the corral and beat it with a brassy pipe or burn its backside with an electric prod. I’ve seen him jam a pitchfork into a bovine’s udders: the beast full of adrenaline that won’t produce or if she does produce, won’t let down her milk. I’ve watched my dad straddle a grunting calf to make it be still, then punch it in the head repeatedly, cursing it as if it was some kind of enemy. Right hand girl has seen all and said nothing.
Today he won’t have it. My dad is the manager of what is important and urgent. He wipes his nose with his forearm, throws a leather noose around the bull calf’s neck. Sickening tug as the little one is drawn away. Roughened larynx of Ma Ma aaa. One hind leg jousting, hoof kicking like a piston. String of tail whipping back and forth. Tail not yet severed. A cloud of bats dart the air as my dad digs in his heels, picks up the .22 from the floor, brushes the barrel’s mouth against his hip, raises an eyebrow and cocks the trigger. Maaa Maaa. Maaaaaaa. Click of hammer. Lock of notch.
My dad says, “You don’t want the three-legged guy to suffer, do you? No, you owe it that.”
He pushes the lipstick red shell beneath his tongue to fix his aim. Caps have stamped concentric circles on the bottom where each pin will hit against the center of the baby’s forehead with exacting force. He clicks the neck of the .22 shut, places the steel muzzle into the hollow behind the little calf’s ear. Safety and hammer. Barrel and grip.
“Imagine an X here,” he says. “Level it. Don’t pull the trigger. No, squeeze it. Between heartbeats. Now,” he says, and fires the slug right smack into the bull calf’s brain. Thunk goes the bullet. Sulphur hell smell. A breeze whistles in and out of the bloody hole. The infant is stunned, looks drunk, thrashes, sways, staggers, throws himself against the walls in hard spasms, thuds to the floor. Eyeballs swivel-jerk; tongue lolling out of the side of its blue-reddish mouth. Warm thick slobber, clotted like frogspawn. I hear the gasp once or twice and then silence. Silence.
My dad disassembles the .22 with his forefinger, blows through the barrel, grabs the long hunting knife from his side pocket, removes it from the leather sheaf.
I close my eyes, trying to be elsewhere, but where? High-pitched buzz in my head: every sound, thought and word distilled in a perfect single note of fear. He comes from behind with the knife. Knife with a peckerwood handle, its banding and mottling like running water. My dad wraps his big arm around, holding me against his blood-splashed chest, shows me how to cut outward all the way around, careful to keep the blade from skin and flesh, avoiding hair tufts, cutting away from me as I butcher it.
“No, no. It’s not an eel in a net. Silly girl,” he says. “Grab it right! Don’t be a prissy. Fresh brains for dinner. Fresh veal too.”
First real nick, ripped windpipe, tough skin. Skin pulled up and over like a T-shirt. My dad grins, jerks up the bull calf’s neck, yanks my hand in again, pushes it down directly over his. No, wraps it around my finger like a vice. Leans his forehead down. I am a falcon tethered to a leather-gloved fist. Blade unmooring muscle, another incision back and forth, back and forth, sawing fur and flesh, pulpy tendon and bone, blade on bone clicking and the severing of arteries. Major veins in blue. Major arteries in red spreading new deltas through chest, neck, limbs, deep under slick casing of skin.
Wet incarnadine trickle; then a flourish, a maniacal gush like too-loud applause, bottomless seepage-splash, black butter melting and more like dirty motor oil, unquenchable gushing, smelling like camping dust, furious coal-tide underfoot. My dad laughs big and crazy, leans against the concrete feed trough, the grey steel manure-spattered bars. He claps me hard. More and more sawing. Blood splashes. Blood stutters up from my fingers smelling of copper, of iron. Sweet metallic pungency. My whole body filled with the stench.
“Ignore the leg jerkin’. Only reflexes. No big deal. Even decapitated animals kick out or seem to watch you. Unconscious muscle reflexes come from the spinal cord, not the brain, and don’t mean the animal is alive after being killed. No, it don’t. And the eyes blinkin’ too. Don’t be silly, be strong…No time for that… Be my good ol’ country right hand girl. Now hurry, hurry before the dogs come round.”
My pulse tattoos. Try not to think but do. Rankness crawls into my skin. The cow’s teats are beginning to drip drip faster faster harder harder and no bucket to catch. I want to turn away, want to run, run far. Want the dead calf to follow. I catch my breath. Bile in my throat rises. My dad drops the knife from his hands. He laughs a mad crooning laugh as I run from the barn, until I hear my heart slide right there, right in my mouth. Barn where a foreman in the ’30s hanged himself from the rafters after shooting fifty-one of his dairy cows that he’d been milking since most had mastitis and there was not enough work to feed his family. I stagger first, then run past the hayrack, goldenrod, corn stubble, past the abandoned crates of hard homemade cider. I run past where the cow path skinnies through tall cottonwoods and willows, where gnats and grey flies dandle. I’m all pulse and sweat and breath battering my own singular street, heart unhitched, startling the treading drowsy cattle, their udders sputtering. I peel away from what I’ve seen. What remains is what’s unsaid. Always the question of what’s unsaid, what’s underneath. I reach the long chute, kneel to the hardpan earth, the cold stream by the farm-rusted vehicles. I kneel to the spent grain, spring golden pollen. I kneel to the mud matter of which this boundless planet is composed. Mutter, madre, mater, material, maternal, moeder…suggested by the burbling syllables of a suckling baby ma ma ma.
Leonore Wilson is a professor of English and creative writing from Northern California. She has won fellowships and accolades for her writing. She has published in such magazines as Quarterly West, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, Magma Poetry, English Journal, The Madison Review, etc. “Right Hand Girl” is from her creative non-fiction book CHUTE, in which the the first chapter won her the Writers at Work award from the University of Utah. Recently her house and historical ranch burned down in the LNU (lightning) wildfires of Napa Valley.