Help

I had a dead calf in the spring. I never mentioned it, at least in part because I know that I’m too willing to be maudlin. It’s a bad habit. I should amend it, but in a world without many markers, that calf has begun to follow me; a creature that never walked and revealed itself only once as something that fell and kept falling.

And there it lay until the ravens found it. When I came, the face had gone from the skull and the tongue was pulled from its shoe. In her confusion and distress, the cow had trodden all around the empty calf and stepped once upon its back in accident. So the hind legs were splayed at puppet angles; when I rolled the carcass into a barrow, the bone-ends ground like grates of coral in a bag.

This calf had meant to be a bull, but he changed his mind and it died overnight as I lay in bed. Perhaps there might have been something that I could have done; a wishful list of past modals to cover the fact that I didn’t. But the cow gave no sign that she was ready, and I thought she owed me that. She could have let me help, but even these calm, domestic animals retain memories of an ancient animosity.

At some near-forgotten level, they know I’m out to get them. When I touch their bodies, I feel them gag in anticipation because what else can I be but danger? They cannot grasp the contradiction of our relationship, so when I’m done checking tags or pouring wormer, I drive the beasts home to their fields and they experience the resumption of their freedom as predation evaded – another near miss. They think I lack the killer clout; that I’m some clawless malevolence that would if only I could. The irony is that when I finally do, they’ll meet the change with no surprise and only wonder why I took so long. So why should they come to me for help except when all other hope has gone?

When the calf was lifted, she stayed around the flattened grass for a time. Then she walked back to the herd with her teats hung dry and hard like tubes of paint between her knees. I watched her go, seeing only the hide of her hardship and calling it my own.

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