1. On his big bay gelding Ken rides up to me, his eyes shades of green like the shirt he pulled from the depths of his overnight bag and the vest he wears in the cool morning. The dark contrast of three-day beard growth highlights his eyes even more, and I see in them something behind the exhaustion. When he says, “I’m sorry, Mom,” I know he is before I know what for.
A cow bawls loudly. Ken and I ride out together to the calf. The mother has cleaned it thoroughly, her large tongue, rough like a cat’s, leaving marvelous, fruitless swirls in the black fur. A month ago she licked life into the calf this way. She doesn’t understand why it doesn’t work now.
When another cow comes near, the mother cow bows her body away from her calf toward the intruder, her neck curved and bulging in a clear message: I will protect him even in death. This is when I want to cry.
Cows and calves are coming in on cattle trucks from a ranch in Utah where the sellers have gathered and sorted them—cows separated from calves—and then loaded and shipped them to our ranch in Colorado, where we unload them and watch as they mother up again.
There was a mix-up on the shipping end. This calf and his mother were sent on different trucks, but I didn’t see that he wasn’t paired up when I turned his bunch out. His mother came with the next bunch, her bag full. We kept her up in the corral with four other big-bagged cows to see if their bawls would draw any wayward calves. If not, we would take them back to Utah, where their calves might still be loose on the range.
Ken off hauling something somewhere, I watched a calf wander into the holding pen. At the fence that separated him from the cows, his tail twitched like a dog’s tail wagging, his nose jutting between rails. No cow rose but I believed the calf and let him through a gate and he went right to her, butting her to standing, then nursing mightily—he had wandered the big pasture for a day without his mother and he was hungry.
This is likely what killed him. Enterotoxemia. Toxins from overeating.
I didn’t know. I was just so happy that he was reunited with his mother.
Ken says, “I’m sorry, Mom,” because he found the calf first. But we are both sorry. We are all sorry. The cow bawling. Wailing.
I am a mother who has lost her own children, through ectopic pregnancy, through the California court system. Ken and I are working so hard together to right things for these cows, and maybe for each other after a twenty-year estrangement, but we can’t fix this.
2. I don’t think to bring the one bottle of Gatorade I have in my refrigerator to my son who has slept in his truck and not seen his kids for three nights because that’s a three-hour round trip and we have to check the cattle at first light, 5:30 a.m., looking for signs of enterotoxemia, the symptoms of which don’t often show until it’s too late but Ken is determined. In this dry year, the cows aren’t pairing up well, and shit happens. It’s no one’s fault, just a dry May after a dry April and dry months stacked all the way back to December when we started this deal and didn’t know anything about COVID-19; we were simply focused on getting green grass for our cows in summer.
And it’s much more complicated than that. Ken is ahorseback at first light, hoping to simplify. To save.
I live thirty-five minutes upvalley and so can get home at midnight or two and sleep in a bed and still be back when the sun rims the eastern escarpments of Dakota Sandstone. But the prevailing exhaustion has me doing things like slipping into the edge of the borrow ditch as my eyes close as I drive home or even in the dark of dawn as I drive back to the cattle but no one else is on the road out here at those hours so it’s okay. Not thinking of the one bottle of Gatorade for my son is not okay. When I realize I had it and could have brought it—this is when I want to cry.
3. Tyler, my second son, is going to bring me my mail and food because I cannot get to town; I cannot wash clothes until something changes and the calves are okay. He texts that’s he’s about to leave but I’m ahorseback with the phone in my truck because I don’t want to lose it and so I don’t know when he’s coming. And it’s late and dark again when I’m driving home and I’m wandering on the road to avoid the washboardy places plus my eyes are closing so I don’t see the approaching vehicle until its lights startle my hands on the wheel but not my brain and I swerve to miss him and keep driving and a couple of miles later I think shit was that Tyler? I missed hitting him but also missed seeing him and this is when I want to cry. The mail and food he left for me go unopened.
4. The cattle get paired up, with some back-and-forths to Utah with extra cows or calves until things are righted, except one calf that I know of does not find his mother because she is not here, or there. He robs milk when he can, timing his exploits with other nursing calves: When they go in for a teat, so does he, getting whatever nourishment he can, usually from behind so if the suspecting cow kicks she will miss him. A dogie calf, that’s what they call them, these orphans. He will not die of enterotoxemia. He will graze dusty cool season grasses and go up to the mountain with the pairs to get those summer grasses and he will survive. He’s a black white-face with black circles all the way around his eyes. I call him Bandito and think of his strength, fortitude, resilience. I want some of it. I don’t want to cry.
5. A day after Tyler left it for me, I open my mail and nibble at the salad made with sweet potatoes, brown rice, black beans, lettuce and tomatoes and extra avocado, just how he knows I like it. It’s after ten p.m. and the first meal I’ve attempted to eat in the passing days. Except that’s not true. At the camp trailer Ken has a little barbeque set up and he’s grilled hotdogs and I’ve eaten them right off the grill, hot in my fingers because I can’t eat the buns. Fortunately Ken can but he’s still losing weight, I see it with my mother-eyes, while I am finding it. The weight. This makes me sad.
6. Ken loses weight while I lose earrings. One of a pair of porcupine claw earrings Tyler got me the last time he was in Alaska, with Bettymaya in the fall before quarantine. Rich red and rust mountains and sandhill cranes and bears and crowned mooses and the aurora, both of those young lovers-of-night-sky with their cameras and each other and the Mother and the colors and the stars and . . . we were all supposed to go back this fall.
Losing that earring from Tyler. And the one from my grandkids. The Gatorade for Ken. The dogie calf and the dead calf and the drought and the dust and the wind and my little finger. Did I mention my finger? Broken two years ago when it got caught in a rope, it did not hurt until now when it’s so swollen I think it might pop. Swollen like a calf’s belly when it’s been off its mother too long and overeats upon reunion. I didn’t know. I was just so happy that he was reunited with his mother. This is when I want to cry.
7. In the mail is a package. Return address says NMW. I don’t know what that means. I’m munching limp lettuce and slicing the package open with a dirty knife and not even wondering about it, as if I’m driving with my eyes closed, which I am getting better at, and inside the package is a box and inside the box another box, which I open between bites I’m not even tasting, and it is full of bright colors of confetti—confetti!—we’re not a confetti family but finally I am revived enough to wonder what this is, this mystery package of confetti, and I realize NMW is New Millennium Writings and this is a gift for winning a contest and I put the salad aside and look into the colors. A strange object lies within—I pluck it out and hold its small, smooth handle and realize it’s a rubber stamp with KW backwards on the rubber side. And there’s another one, with my name, also backwards. And a copy of the journal and three beautiful envelopes with exquisite stationary inside: musepaper! For winning the Monthly Musepaper contest. It is the loveliest surprise-care-package ever. This is when I want to cry.
8. The next week something happens in our world that’s bigger than the loss of a calf and even COVID-19. It’s bigger in real life than all the stories I’ve heard over years of hearing stories. It’s bigger than anything because it sends fire through the people the way issues did back in the sixties and early seventies and I watch it on my laptop, watch a man die on the computer screen on my lap, watch the cold eyes cold face of a white man stare into the camera no remorse no feeling just unflinching stare at the photographer who may be the brave seventeen-year-old Black girl who films with her phone while the cop kneels and kneels and kneels on George Floyd’s neck as George with his face in the asphalt says I can’t breathe again and again I can’t breathe right up until he calls out Mama! and this is when I don’t want to cry or not cry because I’m already doing it, I can’t stop.