What a terrific story. I am not familiar with this life at all, but I felt like I was right there. Your writing is believable, very readable and fine. Thanks. Write some more.
The school bus doors slid open and she stepped off into the cold winter air. She immediately felt the cold on her nylon clad legs. Why won’t Momma let me wear pants to school like the other girls? she thought bitterly. She didn’t dwell on the thought long. Not today anyway, today she had other things to worry about. Her worries were not the same as other 13 year old girls in the small New England town where she lived. She wasn’t consumed with what she was going to wear to her eighth grade formal, what skin cleanser worked best on pimples or whether any of the boys in class thought she was cute. Her thoughts and concerns centered on her family’s dairy farm and today was a big day.
The calf she had received for Christmas two years ago was having a calf of her own. She had sensed that something was different with Misty this morning when she had been in the barn doing her chores before school. Daddy had put her in the calving pen the night before because she had started to bag up. When she looked in on her after feeding calves this morning Misty had been circling the pen nervously. The look in her eyes was very different then the playful heifer she was used to.
“She’ll calve today,” Daddy said matter-of-factly. “Don’t worry Jessie, she’ll be fine.”
She thought the school day would never end, but now she hurried upstairs to change her clothes. She got her barn clothes on and was halfway back downstairs before she heard Momma’s voice. “Jessica, after you finish with your homework I need you to give me a hand in the kitchen.”
Damn, she thought, I almost made it. She got to the bottom of the stairs and burst into the kitchen. “I finished my home work in study hall, Momma,” she said hopefully. “Misty is calving today so I was just going to run out to the barn and see how she’s doing. I’ll only be a few minutes, then I’ll come back and help you, I promise.”
Momma looked put out, “You know as well as I do that you can’t ever spend just a few minutes out in that barn,” she said. “Your brother and your father can handle things just fine out there and Lord knows I’ve got plenty of work in here for you to do. You know,” Momma said, shifting gears seemingly in mid thought, “Beekman’s is running a sale this week. I was thinking that maybe tomorrow, after school, you and I could go down and look at dresses for the eighth grade formal.”
Jessie rolled her eyes, making sure she was out of her mother’s sight when she did. That’s just what I want to do, she thought sarcastically. She was trying to come up with a not so sarcastic reply to actually give her mother when she happened to look out the kitchen window and see the Vet’s truck parked near the barn. Her heart jumped into her throat and she bolted for the door.
“Doc Sands is here, something’s wrong,” she said as she charged out the door. “I’ve got to get out there.”
Her mother’s protests went unheard as she ran toward the barn. She paused for a second at the door, scared of what she might find on the other side. Steeling herself, she entered the stable and let her eyes adjust to the yellow artificial light. The smell of hay and manure mixed with the respiration of the cows, creating that unique aroma that triggered so many memories for her. She closed the door behind her and looked around for Daddy. Her older brother came out of the milk room carrying the pull chains.
“You going to pull Misty’s calf?” she asked. “She couldn’t pass it by herself?” The alarm was creeping into her voice.
“Ain’t you supposed to be helpin’ Momma with dinner?” her brother asked sarcastically.
She turned on her heel and headed for the calving pen at the other end of the barn, choosing not to take the verbal bait her brother offered. She had no time to argue with him now, and besides, she could do most anything he could do around here. She hated it when he suggested that she stick to more “feminine” pursuits. He sure don’t mind that I’m not cooking dinner when there’s hay to unload or fence to fix, she thought. She kept her thoughts to herself as she reached the pen and gazed in.
Misty was lying in the corner and Daddy and Doc Sands were standing over her. The cow was panting and she could see two feet sticking out of her birth canal. The hooves on the feet were bright white, new and not yet stained from walking around the barnyard. They looked tiny and out of place sticking out of Misty.
“You gonna’ pull the calf, Daddy?” she asked announcing her presence.
Her father and the doctor both looked up at her and then at one another. Neither said anything for a moment.
“Daddy?” she asked again unable to hide the fear in her voice.
Her father was silent for another second before responding.
“Jessie, the calf is breach, Misty’s been trying all afternoon but she just can’t pass it,” he said. “We’re going to have to pull it but…”
“What’s breach mean?” she interrupted.
“The calf is backwards in the birth canal,” the vet said. “Those feet you see are back feet.”
“Is the calf going to be alright?” she asked, struggling to force the words past the growing lump in her throat.
Her father came over and put his hands on her shoulders. He looked her in the eyes.
“I don’t know, honey,” he said. “I’ve seen a couple of breach births come out alright, but most times the calf doesn’t make it.”
His words cut her and normally they would have made her cry, but today was different. Maybe it was the way that Daddy looked her straight in the eye or the way he didn’t try to sugarcoat the situation, but suddenly she felt her back straighten just a little and the lump in her throat was forced back down where it came from. Her brother came in and handed the pull chains to the vet.
Her father said, “She’s your cow Jess, but you don’t have to stay if you don’t…”
“I’m staying,” she said. “I want to help.”
His eyes met hers again for just an instant but it was long enough for her to see the pride there.
“OK then, you can help me pull the calf,” he said.
She watched as Doc Sands looped the chain around the feet of the calf. When he had the chains tightly fastened he took the other end and passed it through a hook that was attached to the middle of a short piece of pipe. He gave the pipe to her father who motioned her over.
“You take one side of this pipe and help me pull,” he said. “We only pull when she has a contraction, then we just hold tension so the calf don’t slide back,” he instructed her. She nodded her understanding as she took hold of one side of the pipe. She and Daddy squatted down behind the cow and held the chain taught. They didn’t have to wait long before the next contraction came. She saw Misty’s shoulders hunch forward and the skin around her vagina bulge.
“Pull,” her father said, shifting his weight back. She threw her weight back, pulling on the handle in unison with her father. The calf didn’t seem to move much at all and then the contraction was over. They kept the chain tight and waited again. It took five more contractions before they made any noticeable progress. The elbows of both hind legs were visible now but there was still a whole lot more calf that they couldn’t see. Her arms ached from the strain but she held on, determined not to give up.
“It should get a little easier when she passes the calf’s rump,” Daddy said
The next contraction started and they pulled again. The calf began to move in earnest and then stopped dead as the rump came up hard on the seemingly tiny opening of the birth canal. The calf’s too big, she thought. It’ll be dead before we get it out of there. She could feel the lump start creeping back into her throat and her eyes starting to well up.
“Pull Jessie,” her father said, breaking her reverie. She pulled as hard as she could and felt the calf start to move ever so slightly. Misty came up on the knees of her front legs and let out a deep, mournful bellow, putting voice to the pain she was feeling. Jessie blocked the sound from her mind and concentrated instead on finding a little more strength with which to pull on the chains. Inch by agonizing inch, the body of the calf escaped from the birth canal until all at once the rump and hips were free. Jessie fell backwards, losing her grip on the pipe as the calf seemed to jump out once the rump came free. She struggled back to her feet frantically trying to grab hold again but Daddy had pulled the calf completely out before she could reach the pipe. She stood staring at the wet body of the animal, unsure of what she should do next.
It lay motionless on the straw of the pen, covered with the slick film of placenta. Daddy and Doc Sands descended on the newborn. She watched as the vet pulled the film away from the calf’s nose and mouth. He swept his finger in each nostril and removed more of the gelatinous placenta and then forced the mouth open and cleared it out of there as well. Jessie heard a gurgling sound and then a series of coughs as the calf cleared its own airway. She saw the tiny tail begin to switch back and forth and her heart leapt. She pushed past the vet and kneeling down, took the calf’s wet head in her hands. The eyes were open and bright, staring back at her.
“Looks like you got a healthy heifer calf,” Daddy said as he spread the hind legs and confirmed that the newborn was female. “What are you going to name her?”
“Backwards,” Jessie replied, uttering the first word that came to her mind.
Her father chuckled, “Well, that’s definitely unique but I guess it fits. Backwards it is,” he said.
“Daddy, we got a problem,” her brother broke in. “She’s cast her withers.”
“But you said she was healthy,” Jessie protested.
“The calf is fine. He was talking about Misty,” Doc Sands said.
She forgot about the calf as she jumped to her feet. “What’s the matter with Misty?” she asked.
Her father walked over to where the cow lay and looked down at her gravely, shaking his head. “Damn,” he cursed.
“What’s the matter?” Jessie asked again.
“She cast her withers Jess,” her father said. “After she passed the calf, she kept pushing and she pushed her whole birth canal out.”
“Can’t Doc just put everything back in?” she asked.
“He can try honey, but it’s not that easy. She’s probably damaged her uterus and even if we get everything back in place she’ll most likely just push it back out,” her father said. “Why don’t you and your brother take this calf and get her under a heat lamp and the Doc and I will see what we can do?”
She started to protest but he cut her off. “Go on now, do as I say and take care of that calf”
“Yes, sir,” she replied dejectedly, turning back to the calf. She and her brother loaded the newborn into a wheelbarrow and took it out of the calving pen. They wheeled it down to the other end of the barn and placed it in a calf hutch. Jessie turned on the heat lamp inside the hutch, bathing the calf in a warm orange light.
“Here,” her brother said. “Dry her off with these old feed sacks while I go mix her up a bottle of milk replacer.” Jessie took the old burlap sacks, climbed into the hutch and began to rub the calf down vigorously. Her arms still ached from all the pulling, but the warmth of the heat lamp felt good. She was just about done drying the calf when her brother returned with the nipple bottle and gave it to her. The warm concoction smelled vaguely of vanilla. She took the bottle and pushed the nipple into the calf’s mouth. The animal tried to pull away briefly but then began to suck greedily on the nipple, devouring her first meal with gusto.
“I guess coming into the world backwards makes you hungry,” her brother said, clearly trying to cheer her up. Jessie acknowledged him with a nod but said nothing. By the time she was done feeding the calf her father was standing with her brother outside the hutch. Jessie handed Daddy the bottle as she climbed out of the hutch.
“Is Misty going to be OK, Daddy?” she asked, her voice starting to crack noticeably.
“The doctor has done all he can,” he said. “We got everything back in, now we just have to wait and see if it stays in.” Jessie nodded her head, not wanting to speak for fear of starting to cry in front of him. “Why don’t you go on back in the house and get cleaned up for dinner, your brother and I will finish up here and be right along. I’ll check in on Misty again before I go to bed.”
Again she nodded, turned and headed out of the barn and back to the house. She barely heard her mother’s warning about making sure she left her barn clothes in the wash room. Her head was spinning, trying to sort out everything that had just happened. She wanted to be happy about having a new calf but every time she tried, the image of Misty lying in the calving pen bellowing in pain filled her head. It wasn’t until after dinner that she was finally able to talk to her father again without crying.
“Do you think she’ll be alright, Daddy?” she asked quietly.
“I don’t want you to get your hopes up, Jessie,” he replied. “Most of the time when this happens, even if we’re able to get everything back in, the cow just pushes it all back out again.”
“What happens then?” The question came out, but she already knew the answer.
“If that happens, we’ll have to put her down Jess,” Daddy said calmly. “If we don’t, the infection would kill her in a couple of days. It wouldn’t be right to let her suffer that way.”
“I understand,” she said
Just then Momma called from upstairs, “Jessica, you better get yourself to bed; you’ve got school in the morning.”
Daddy smiled and then pulled her close, hugging her tightly. “Go on now, and do as your Momma says.”
She hugged him back briefly, then pulled away and headed for the stairs. “I’m coming Momma,” she called as she went up to her bedroom. She climbed into bed and shut out the light. She closed her eyes and tried to push the memories of the day out of her mind. That lasted for about thirty seconds before she rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. The flat white surface became a movie screen where she watched the day’s events unfold again before her eyes.
It seemed like she had lain there for days before she heard the back door open, signaling that her father was heading out to the barn to check on things before he went to bed. She fought back the urge to get out of bed and join her father in the barn. She lay glued to her bed, waiting, praying that Daddy would return and stick his head in the door of her room and tell her everything was going to be fine.
The gunshot was muffled but it sounded like thunder to her as it echoed around in her head. The lump that she had so bravely fought off all day returned to her throat and a hot tear escaped her eye and rolled down her cheek. She allowed herself the one tear and then tried to force her mind to go blank. She lay there for a long time, wishing that she could put a big box around her bed, something to block out the images playing across her ceiling. She rolled onto her stomach pushing her face deep into her pillow and pulling her blanket up over her head. For a moment the linen succeeded in isolating her, but soon the flimsy barrier gave way and her thoughts assaulted her.
The first thought to break through was that maybe tomorrow, after school, she and Momma could go shopping for a dress for the eighth grade formal.
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