Winnie came into our lives like most of our animals: without much prior discussion or careful planning. I stalked an advertisement for her throughout the summer, watched her sales price drop slowly into the category of feasibility to a point that it seemed stupid not to just bring her to the farm. As a gentle reminder, it’s generally not advisable to purchase fire sale livestock, certainly not sight unseen (like me), certainly not without considerable forethought (like me), certainly not just because you have always dreamed of Jersey girls (not those kinds). We lucked out with Winnie since, in a rare occurrence, she lived up to every shining attribute her previous owner touted in the ad. And after nine breathless months of waiting, it turns out she was pregnant, too. She came to us overweight and rotund, looking like a “calf hammock” as Fran says, from the moment she stepped off the trailer. Since September I have said she is maybe, but maybe not, going to have a calf without having a vet confirm the situation. This morning we were finally certain because Winnie’s maybe baby showed up, bewildered by life, at 7:30 this morning.
I know the exact time of this event because it was exactly at 7:30 that I heard Jer’s uneasy voice at the bedroom window. “Something’s wrong with Winnie,” he said gravely. “Jenna, JENNA. Something is wrong. With WINNIE,” words scary enough to puncture my sweet, sweet dream of sleeping late and living in a condominium with no morning responsibility other than making coffee. After processing his words, I nearly fell onto the floor in a tangle of sheets, stumbled to the window where I saw her fuzzy shape sideways across the ground. Jer rushed out of the door and sprinted to the pasture as I pushed glasses onto my face – my hands trembled perceptibly. And there she was. My strong yellow cow, saccharine in her affection for people, stretched painfully in the pasture, legs pointed and rigid, her head arched backwards, and body fallen on an incline. My heart that already pounds too hard and fast for these animals, dropped directly to my ankles.
NO. I shouted out loud, or maybe the words just screeched through my head as the alarm bell pressure of blood and adrenaline pounded against my ears. That putrid, sick feeling of dread we’ve grown accustomed to, oozed like glycerin through my veins, and I was overcome with the sense of suiting up in invisible armor, unsure if I’d need it or not.
Pulling on shoes, I ran out to the pasture where Jer already stood, inspecting her nether regions. “There’s a calf!!” He sounded breathless, his adrenaline flying, “there’s a calf, it’s brand new, but Winnie is completely stuck.” And nearing our sweet cow I could see the impossibility of her position, how she must have flopped on her side in the trauma of birth, her heavy body lying on the leg that she needed in order to right herself. Her eyes were wild, nostrils flaring. Her body fought against the flood of hormones that tell an animal to get to the baby. She flailed and struggled, trapped in a terrible misery. Winnie could not right herself due to exhaustion and unfortunate positioning. I vaguely remember shouting nonsensical directions to Jeremy about the tractor, about using it to push her half-ton body, “Do something!” I pleaded, as he stood thoughtful over the situation. In these moments I crave action, even if it has no direction. Jeremy prefers to formulate a solid plan (the jury’s still out on which of our approaches are usually the most effective). While he stood thinking, I inspected the baby, still wet in a puddle of blood and mucous, wide-eyed and gorgeous – an enormous, red bull calf. He looked up at me pathetically with two perfect doe eyes just as a shiver overtook his thin body. Enough, I thought. I wrapped my arms around him, after-birth soaking my entire upper body, sopping my shirt – tried to stand him on sea legs. Jer helped me steady the calf, and we walked/dragged him towards Winnie’s frantic face. She stuck her tongue out to clean him, wailed mournfully and rocked her body furiously off of her side. In an instant she had successfully rolled, both legs tucked beneath her – precisely the position required for a cow to push itself up to standing.
She stood in one swift movement of strength, and with some prodding, he toddled towards her udder and nursed just enough to gain a surge of energy that sent him into an awkward bounce. He landed on his belly, rubber legs splayed in all directions. We laughed or cried (sometimes, here, it is the same). And I dragged myself inside, peeled off the clothes stuck on with placental paste, scrubbed up to my armpits, and milked the goats.
Last night we went to a wedding where all the guests were squeaky clean and gorgeous in their spring best. We showed up 1.5 hours late because of evening milking chores. Strips of hair plastered across my forehead from dried sweat, and my toenails (visible in sandals) showed signs of ancient dirt. The magnolia oil I haphazardly patted onto my neck only faintly covered Eau de Livestock, my signature and fundamental scent. We threw caution to the wind and stayed out late – way too late – stopped at the 24 hour Taco Cabana on the way home for chips and queso, reminisced about the many nights spent there after parties or bars, when time didn’t matter because the next morning would start whenever I wanted to roll out of bed. Not a minute before.
We were rocked back to our chosen reality this morning, bleary eyed and stumbling. I think about Barbara Kingsolver’s words in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle when she considers (and decides against) a dairy animal because it commits one to an “unbreakable date” with the universe. Every day. Every day. Every day. I weigh that reality against the alternatives on days like this, when fatigue physically grinds my internal gears to a halt; propelling the body forward becomes a negotiation between muscles and brain. Today, I don’t have beautiful words to illustrate a true story. I can’t articulate the passion that urged me to agree to this “unbreakable date.” I only know this: There is food a person eats just to satiate hunger. And then there is food a person tends, and loves, and invites in as a partner for this one, big, wild life. It is, perhaps, not the most logical reason to sacrifice the solitude of a life more ordinary.
But I am aiming for extraordinary.