The sound of thunder is ominous, portending a drive to Barrie Island and Arda to check on the cattle. They huddle together under the trees to escape the driving rain. I’ve heard stories of farmers who lost a hundred head of cattle to a single lightning strike. So we bundle into the truck, filling buckets with barley chafe, to drive to these inhospitable places where the cattle summer. Arda is thousands of acres of scrubby pine trees and twisted crab-apple trees, low lying juniper and the high, harsh switch grass endemic to the area. The world is humid, heavy with anticipation. “Rosa!” my Nana bawls out, calling to the ringleader of the mature cow herd pastured here. I shake the bucket of chafe, banging my hand against the side of the plastic pail. These are the tame cattle, the original couple head the entire herd started with. A red heifer with a bald face and a red ring around her eye emerges from the bush. The rest of the herd follows, lowing, shaking their heads at us impatiently. We dump buckets of chafe and apples scoured from the fruiting trees in the yard into the manger, count the stock, and leave. Still, sometimes, I wake up to the sound of thunder, half dreaming of the causeway, brave in the choppy, storm driven water, the snakes driven out by the wet, waiting in the long grass before the rusted gates, the wild grass flattened by the storm. Barley and wheat and hay flattened and destroyed. All the worries of the farmer.
I save all of my pennies and nickels and quarters, Christmas cheques, birthday money and whatever other money a five, six, or seven year old has means of obtaining. I count it every week and keep it in my grandpa’s sock drawer. When I have enough, I will buy a heifer from him, one of my very own. I want one of the creamy white Charolais with the purple noses and gentle dispositions, built low to the ground and roundly muscled. I think I pay $300 for my first heifer, who I name Selene. Her ear-tag is registered in my name. Every year, I pay my grandpa Mike the pasture fees for her to go out to Barrie Island in the summer. When she has her first calf and the calf is sold, I receive a check, less auction and shipping and pasture costs, for the sale value.
I wake up when I hear Mikey putting on his boots and come down the stairs, slipping into my rubber boots and flannel jacket to follow him out to the barn. I grab the vaccine bottles from their place in the fridge door, beside the mustard and the milk jug, and the clean syringe and packaged, individually sterilized sharps. It is calving season, long nights and early mornings and bitchy cattle who balk and kick and bunt with their big, bony heads. When the calf slips into the world of blood and straw and manure and we clear away the placenta, I draw the shots that will protect it from scour and viruses and am allowed to administer them as I’ve been shown. Helping in the barn is mostly a wordless process. I’ve attached myself to Mikey, starting as an assistant who put down the strands of electric fence to let him through on the John Deere with a bale of hay on the tines, chasing the cattle back from the opening in the fence. When he works plowing snow in the winter or is out haying from dawn to dusk in the summer, I feed the cattle without being asked. I check the water troughs to make sure the pump is bringing in fresh, cool water from the well, put out the red mineral blocks and blue salt licks, spread chafe in the manger, check on the new calves.
My first memory of being aware of sexism is helping with the cattle. I was a serious, quiet, weird kid, invested in the farm. I knew the pond in the treeline had tiny frogs no bigger than a pinkie nail and that if you lay on your belly in the hay you could watch the comings and goings of groundhogs, skunks, raccoons, snakes and spotted fawns left in hiding by their mothers. I knew the cattle, the lineage carefully documented in a black binder kept in the roll-top desk. What bull might be a good fit for the younger heifers next year, whether or not a neighboring bull on loan might be a good genetic addition to the Limousins or not. I knew to be wary of the floor in the hayloft where you might fall through into the pens of cattle below, or between the haybales stacked to the rafters and into the crevices between, maybe crushed by tumbling bales.
A neighbor boy is invited to help with haying while I am denied. I have watched him steal small birds from their nests and grow tired of them and leave them stranded on the ground, crumpled and hot. Once, he and a cousin threw rocks at our fierce little Limousin bull, taunting him from the far side of the electric fence. The bull bawls and shakes his head in frustration, bellowing when he hits the electric fence between him and his tormentors. On the schoolyard, he once shoots a seagull through the wing with a bow and arrow and laughs at its awkward misery. He disregards the rules of safety when we play in the barn. I can’t understand why he is allowed to help with the dangerous chore of stacking the haybales coming off the wagon while I am not, until I overhear a furious conversation between my mother and my grandpa and I understand it is because I am a girl. It never happens again, but I remember this for the rest of my life.
I have a calf I raise by hand. Something strange has happened with the bull we use this year and many of the calves are born mutated freaks, sickly or hemaphroditic. Two are rejected by their mothers- Billy and Jack. I bring a friend from the city to visit the farm and we play with the calves until one falls sick, an infection under the skin from his extra and malfunctioning urinary tract. We call a neighbor to come and shoot him to end his suffering, but before he can arrive, the calf seizes and dies in abject misery.
I spend the summer raising the other one, who roams free on the lawn and spends his nights sleeping in the chicken coop with the hens and my pet rabbit, Jo. Jack wakes me up every morning by climbing onto the porch and insistently moo-ing until I appear to feed him. He is gentle and slow and decidedly brain damaged. The hens, greedy and aggressive, climb into the pail full of his grain and keep him from it, until he calls for me and I stand guard over his feed until he is done.
There are starlings nesting between the plywood wall and the insulation of the chicken coop this year and I spend many hours with the calf leaning against my thigh and the rabbit at my feet, peering into the crack in the wall at the babies. They gain the skill of flight and flit in and out of the open coop door, through the broken window, landing on the calf and on me and joining our curious company.
The calf is gone by Christmas. One day he is there, the next he is not. I don’t dare ask. This is how the farm works, and I have learned by now that even pets are not safe. Fresh brown butcher paper packages are in the freezer, so one can draw their own conclusions, or not. My friendly black and white kitten, another mystery. Sometimes it is an accident, like the deaf white cat with the blue eyes who fell asleep in the combines warm engine. All we ever found was her tail. Or the Jack Russell puppy given to me for Christmas, run over by a car in the driveway, because we weren’t allowed to keep him at our city apartment, so he remains at the farm. Other times, it is more sinister, and as a child and a teen, all I can do is push the sick feeling far, far away, dissociating, and dreaming of a day where all the animals may stay and never disappear.