–Cows have such large, glossy, gentle eyes.–
Ben was attempting to herd his cows from one field to another as I walked in his direction on Church Road. The process first involved opening the gate at the receiving field, then opening the gate at the sending field. In theory, Ben would then shoo the cows out of the sending field down the road and into the receiving field. At the open sending field gate, Ben’s wife and children lined themselves up across the street, arms outstretched, forming a barrier the cows were supposed to respect. The kine, however, had ideas of their own, and strolled indolently between Ben’s kin. The human line instantly disintegrated into a chaotic chasing mob, which I enthusiastically joined. Determined to be a helpful neighbor, I chased a particularly errant cow. But when I cut left, she ran right, and when I cut right, she ran left. She simply refused to be caught. (It had not occurred to my brain what I would do if I “caught” the one-ton cow, or what “catching” her might do to me.) On one run I headed the cow so effectively that she veered ninety degrees and careened full speed into four strands of barbed wire. The wire held, and the cow backed out, seemingly unfazed and unharmed. As I continued to wave my arms and holler, however, the cow turned to face me, lowering her head while fixing me with furious eyes. This time it was I who ran to the right and to the left, terrified as the enormous cow trotted after me, albeit with not much interest. At that moment, I decided that if I were to be a cowboy, I would need a horse, or an ATV, or a truck. Actually, I decided that I was not meant to be a cowboy. I also decided that I was of no use to Ben, and left him to his own devices. Somehow he managed to corral the cattle later that night, probably with the help of a real Erda cowboy.
I stood near the kitchen sink one morning, in my suit and tie, preparing my breakfast and sack lunch. Glancing through the west window, past its white grids, I started at the sight of an enormous black bull standing in my back yard contentedly cropping the thick Kentucky blue-rye blend grass. I stepped onto the back porch and down the few wooden steps to the grass, feeling foolishly safe so close to my house and the open porch door. The bull munched on, paying no mind to my waving arms and shooing voice. I ventured ten feet closer to the bull (and ten feet farther from the house) and raised my voice to catch his attention. More quickly that you would think 2,500 pounds of animal could move, the bull squared off, facing me directly, and lowered his head, ready to charge. I did not wait to find out if it were a bluff, but ran instead through the open doorway and slammed and bolted the door, moving more quickly myself than one might expect for a 200 pound lawyer. I felt relieved that none of my family had witnessed the showdown in which their father had run for his life. The bull’s intimidation objective accomplished, he returned to eating my grass. I called the sheriff’s office to request an animal control officer, but no one came, and the bull eventually wandered off. Had I known the bull was Charley’s, I would have called him and informed him calmly and politely that his bull was in my back yard. Charley later told me that I had had no reason to worry: “That bull is as gentle as a lamb.” I said nothing, but silently begged to differ.
On another morning, thankfully a morning without bulls in the backyard, Hyrum (2) announced that he was going to run circles around the house. I followed from inside, watching through the several windows of the various rooms. He rounded one corner, crossed the front lawn, disappeared behind the garage, then crossed the back yard. He sang joyfully as he ran, with a full-arm swing and a bouncy, quick step.
Even more frightening than my encounter with the bull was the morning I left the house early, in the dark, walking across the front lawn toward Rabbit Lane. The stray black cows and I did not see each other until we were only five feet apart. When I finally detected the hulking black shapes, I jumped with such a start that it seemed as if I might land on a cow’s back like a spaghetti western cowboy jumping over his horse’s rump to land in the saddle. I ran one way; the cows ran a few feet the other; then we both realized that neither was a threat to the other.
Charley, Cloyd, Craig, Doyle (“Doc”), and Ron all raise black Angus beef. The cattle roam the pastures lazily, constantly chewing their hay and grass cud in rounded, grinding motions. In Spring their calves run and dance playfully, chasing each other and jumping clumsily in the air.
Cloyd chimed one morning as I passed him doing his chores, “I just can’t wait to get up in the morning and see all the trouble them cows has got into during the night. They got nothing to do all night long but to poke around for holes in the fences.”
On Rabbit Lane I see cows from just a few feet away, only a few strands of barbed wire between us. They look at me curiously but cautiously out of large, soft, brown eyes set in gentle, jowly faces. A sudden movement from me in their direction spooks their bulk into a surprisingly quick retreat. Though monstrous in size, the cows appear such gentle creatures. They nuzzle and lick their calves between bites of grass. The calves suckle and run off to frolic. In a few months millions of people, including myself, will be eating these animals, in delicious ignorance of the peaceful lives they have lead in the country pastures.
Confined to small barred pens, several cows on Church Road stand in puddles and piles of their own urine and manure, gazing at the grass that grows thick and abundant outside their enclosures. For these cows, the grass is truly greener on the other side. In fact, the only green thing inside the pens is manure. The welded pipe manger lies on its side in the muck. Any hay it held has long since been eaten or trampled into the mud-manure mixture, as if by slaves mixing mud for bricks. Dark muck oozes through the cows’ cloven hoofs and covers their legs up to their knee joints. As I walk by, the acrid odor tries to knock me over, but succeeds only in pushing me to the other side of the street, where I hold my breath.
On Rabbit Lane, a young wiener calf reaches to scratch some teasing itch with its incredibly long tongue. I wonder why it doesn’t simply raise a hind hoof to scratch its haunch. Seeing that it is standing in wet, green, steaming shit, I think that I might avoid using my hoof if I were in its place. I feel grateful for two hands that can do my scratching even though I might be standing with my feet in fresh dung. I would do well in life to keep my knuckles from dragging in the shit of life, instead raising my hands at least to my empty pockets, or preferably raising them high in finger-stretching ebullience. My tongue, after all, is entirely too short.