I pull up to the water troughs where my son Ken awaits my arrival, and there stands Lacey on the flatbed trailer, watching safely from above as cows come to water. I haven’t seen her for days that have spilled into weeks and my heart rushes at the sight of her up there smiling in her purple hoodie and pink leggings, a pink ball cap pulled down over her ears.
Lacey is seven. She is my granddaughter.
The jewel that is Lacey sparkles in my life like the stars above my bed, placed there when it was her bedroom, she was corralled in a crib, and watching stars helped her to sleep. Ken stood on a ladder and stuck the glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling and there they stay, and each night I’m at the ranch, as I fade into sleep with the stars I think of Lacey.
When I’m at the ranch, she and her five-year-old brother, Lucas, sleep about 200 yards away, in the room that was my bedroom before we switched houses because the cement floors of one were too hard and cold for winter and toddlers, which is why I sleep in Lacey’s star-studded bedroom when I’m at the ranch, and she is in my old room. But usually I’m with the cows in a remote valley miles away; normally I come in about twice a week to mail things, buy groceries, or do laundry, and to see my grandkids.
Usual and normal are losing their place in our language. Nothing is normal anymore.
I want to sweep Lacey off the flatbed trailer and squish her lithe, pink-and-purple, seven-year-old joy to me, and I cannot. She stands near the edge, waiting for it. “Remember,” I say, “we’re not supposed to be close right now.”
“Because of the virus,” she says. She knows, but she doesn’t know. In her body and in mine there is instinct humming that we are denying and that is just wrong.
Hugging is instinct. To deny this hug is wrong.
Cows distract us. “Lightning had her baby,” Lacey says. The black cow, Lightning, is so gentle the kids can sit on her. Her little roan-butted, day-old bull calf has followed her across this large pasture to water, but there is a problem, Lacey tells me, and Ken drives off to get the stock trailer into which we will load Lightning and her calf so Ken can take them to the ranch. “Make sure she doesn’t leave,” Ken says, meaning Lightning not Lacey, who wants down off the flatbed.
Is there six feet between my extended hands and my torso and face, or hers? Not hardly. I lift her down anyway but don’t hug her. Instead I have a hand on her shoulder and tell her to stay behind me as we weave through other gentle cows to stand between Lightning and escape.
The cows, our small-framed, personality-laden, horned Criollos, are used to my presence, and Ken’s, but they are shy around children and watch us carefully. Plus those with calves on the ground are protective. I keep Lacey close. The cows start to mill. Ken seems to be taking a long time with the trailer. Lightning wants to leave.
I step in front of Lightning, breaking the umbilical connection between Lacey and me. I turn and see her and swivel back to Lightning, who wants with growing intensity to follow the other cows. “Stay close,” I tell Lacey, reaching as I move to stop Lightning. My hand misses Lacey’s shoulder. She has to stay behind me! Even a gentle cow could hurt her. I paw air. Then something soft and warm and tentative slips into my palm. I forget cow and calf and dust and the trailer moving up the dirt road through this desert land that is our home within a world sick with illness and fear, and feel only the small, soft punctuation of my granddaughter’s hand in mine. I don’t let go.