© Jessica Schley
I found this morning one of the cows licking a new calf by the water trough near the end of the driveway to the ranch house. I had been working in the arena when I saw the bright white thing on the ground and the mother standing over it, licking methodically with her rough tongue. A second glance told me the calf was not lying in a normal position for a newborn to be licked clean by her mother. And, it wasn’t moving.
I called my mother through the bedroom window to come out and look. The cow must have birthed standing, and perhaps the calf fell in just such a way that it broke it’s neck on the fall. I saw this because the neck was bent totally back and the body was stretched out over the head. You could see the muzzle; the tongue was sticking out and was reddish purple. The eyes were open, and the long white eyelashes were stuck together as if still wet. The eyes were what made me unsure whether or not the calf was actually dead; I thought for an instant that it had turned its eye to me. My stomach lurched when I realized this wasn’t true. The calf wasn’t breathing. I leant down to touch it, and its soft coast and pink skin where cold. It was definitely dead.
As the cow stood watching me watch her calf, she stepped forward again and kept licking. My own mother walked up beside me. She was to the point of tears seeing the bright white thing laying there, legs stretched out, with its soft hooves that had never even touched the ground. Bovines are born with protective periople surrounding the sharp hooves of their feet, to keep from puncturing the placenta en utero. It wears of pretty quickly once the calf is up and walking, leaving behind a dark, hard hoof on the end of each spoindly long leg. It’s one way you tell if a calf is brand-newborn, or more than a few hours or days old; when you are checking your herd. The dead calf we were standing silently looking at had definitely never stood. The soft gummy periople was impeccable; clean, unscratched, unworn.
We bent over the calf for some time, inspecting it, trying to decide how it had died. Was it stillborn? What the mother sick? She looked healthy enough; but was nervous about us being there, so close to her new calf. She wanted to finish licking it clean. Her udder was swollen and ready to be suckled. She wanted the calf to find it’s legs underneath itself, get up, and wander away from the placenta to safety. She wanted her bag to be relieved by the first suckling. She wanted to take her baby away from these two nosy two-leggers. But the calf lay there, not resting as it should after the great struggle of birth; it lay there, eyes open, nose soft and pink, not looking, not breathing, not being.
My father came with the truck to take the carcass away. I walked off at my mother started to cry. Somehow I wasn’t moved by the event. I was in my practical mood. I had things to get done. It was a dead calf. Things die. It’s too bad. But it’s not sad. I did remark to myself that it’s a bad omen for the first calf of the season to be found dead at the water trough with a broken neck.
Later in the afternoon I was still busy about my list of chores when I saw the bereaved cow walking slowly back over the hill to the place where her calf had been that morning, before Dad disposed of it. She had returned several times throughout the day in search of her lost one. Somehow this is how they mourn. I’ve seen this many times.
I wondered if they forget that the calf is dead and come back because they think they’ve lost it? Or if they go into denial that it is gone and, like an OCD tick, just have to come back to they last place they saw their get to make sure it’s really truly gone, just to see. It’s not there, my dad took it away.
In nature, the carcass would remain until the coyotes scattered it. She would be able to smell the death, and maybe then she would comprehend. But the calf is just gone, and the cow stands near the water trough where she knows she gave birth that morning, looking, lowing, pacing. She doesn’t smell death, she smells life: the water, the blood, and some of the placenta stain on the earth, with her scent. She looks and looks. Softly, she calls out with he low, drawling tone. Once, twice, three times. Tehn she stands, quite still, as if reflecting, head low. I wonder if she even remembers just what she’s missing.
I stand too. Still and reflective. I watch the mother watching the ground where life and death happened this morning. I see her turn slowly around and walk back along the cattle path she came in on, retracing her steps for at least the tenth, eleventh, twelfth time today. And that was when the sadness struck me.
To see a mother cow return hour after hour to a place in the pasture which was empty of a body, to grieve a lost child which was most likely born empty of life. Does she cry? Do cows cry? She grieves, so why wouldn’t she cry? I stood for a long time, watching her fade away over the hill. How long did I stand there, silent? I came to my senses. It was only a calf. My eyes weren’t really watering, it ws just allergies. I turned around, wiped my face with my demin sleeve, and finished mucking out the horse trailer.