Sunday, August 24, 2008
To Be Born a Cow
Two blackbirds are walking down the road. I’ve watched them go from Katie’s house, all the way down to Pearl and Eldon’s. They are walking right down the middle of the road like they own the place. Not one car has come. I don’t get a lot of traffic on this road. Two birds couldn’t have walked far down the road in New Jersey without a car coming, not even on my little country lane.
Behind them, cows are crying. They are penned up in the back of Eldon’s barn, having just been weaned from their mothers. They didn’t cry all night long but this morning they started up. It just hit them. Their mothers are not coming back. Maybe they can hear their mothers calling them from the pasture down the road. It sounds like my metal garage door scraping on the asphalt driveway when you open it. I bet they are getting hungry. Eldon is not going to rush out there and give them some grain like a human would soothe a human baby with a bottle or a pacifier. He’ll feed them when it’s time. He takes good care of them. But still. They’re cows. When they go to the livestock sale, they might not eat all day. There will be long periods when no one will feed them. When they get loaded onto metal tractor trailers and taken across country to the slaughter house, crowded with other calves they don’t know, stepping on each other, peeing on each other, they won’t eat. The killer buyer is not going to pull over into some truck stop to feed and water all the crying cows. What’s the point? He is taking them to be slaughtered. I imagine we have laws about it, about how long a cow can go before he has to be fed and watered but I don’t know.
This is the part where if I was telling this story out loud to someone, they would make a joke about steak. They put on a good front. But the truth is, they are uncomfortable hearing my tale of peed-on sobbing baby cows but they won’t admit it for fear they’d have to stop eating meat if they showed any feelings.
The boy cows are the saddest. They get killed sooner. You can’t keep a bunch of bulls around. The girls, called heifers, are sometimes kept to have more babies. They will live for a few years. But not very long. I asked Pearl how long she keeps the girls and was surprised and disappointed that it was not very long. About as long as the life of a plastic lawn chair or a pair of Sunday shoes. But before that, they will cry for their own babies when they are taken away. I think, how unlucky, to be born a cow. How unfair. Just because you are a cow, you have to go through all this sadness.
In the old days, when I heard mooing, I would think, oh, how nice. Now I know what they are crying about. I hear screeching metal doors and terrible heartbreak when Eldon moves the cows around.
I feel like a traitor with these cows. I can’t complain. I am the reason they suffer like this. I eat them. I can hardly look them in the face anymore, I feel so guilty. I send Kelly over with bread, heels leftover in the plastic bags, stale hamburger buns. She feeds the mother cow who just had twins and is penned up right next to our garage. The mother cow has a tongue that is long and purple. It is the color of a Chow’s tongue. Real pretty. It hooks the bread and she pulls it into her mouth and licks her lips. The purple tongue touched Kelly’s hand. She said, “It’s soft Mama.”
I can’t think too much about the cows. I didn’t realize how sad it was.
The blackbirds fly up onto the top of Eldon’s split-rail fence and then they jump down into the field for something interesting in the grass. They don’t know how lucky they are, born a blackbird.