Gut Instinct

I hang up from haggling with a software rep and realize my second cup of coffee is cold. Typical. I get lost in what I’m doing and rarely finish a cup of anything.

In the kitchen, my husband is half done preparing a poor-boy lunch: taco shell rejects—the ones in each box a little too warped to stuff—cracked exactly in half and topped with grated cheese and cream sauce from last night’s pasta. He’s feeling triumphant in his frugality, I can tell. But I’m a little ticked he didn’t even ask if I wanted any. Just a couple nights ago—when we’d eaten the shells that did stand up to stuffing—we’d both remarked how much we loved the greasy indulgence of melted cheese and marinated sirloin we’d raised ourselves.

This casual maneuver is typical, too. As I’m asking, “Making some for me?” I can hear his How-many-times-have-I-come-in-from-working-and-you-haven’t-made-anything? reply. And when he actually says it, I’m ready with How-many-times-have-I-made-something-and-you-haven’t-eaten-it/didn’t-like-it/thought-it-dried-out-too-much-warming-in-the-oven?

“That’s a defense from Out West,” he says for both of us, referring to the season of our marriage in which his best friend’s wife—a traditional ranch wife—kept a plate warm in the oven. I resented the expectation so much that I started treating missed meals as do-it-yourself affairs.

“That’s true,” I say and leave it at that. No real use dredging up arguments that ended in “selfish fucking pig.” His whole-body screams when he gets to words like that. Blunted, I hear myself fling them back.

I put three whole shells for myself on the cookie sheet and chop onions and garlic, knowing he’ll want some, too, as soon as he smells them cooking.

He returns to the corner that contains his desk and the spreadsheet he’s cross-referencing for year-end profit and loss calculations.

We’ve weathered several of both, I think. Trouble is, the profits weigh little in my memory. And it bothers me. Loss seems worth more—and that bothers me, too.

 

Our first terrible investment might well have been Martha, a tank of a Brown Swiss, and her Holstein-cross heifer calf, Lightning. They were his first livestock purchase Out West and a bargain for good reason. Broad, suspicious, unyielding, Martha dominated any herd she mixed with. Call the cows one way, and she’d throw up her head at the sound of your voice and bolt the other direction, trailing the less ambitious behind her. Her calves had to earn her protection. If they couldn’t keep up, she’d leave them behind or at least love them less.

Stretched and strung, she would froth, breathing hard, as the calves sucked. Twice a day this was necessary. And not with sure success. You’d think the udder relief would be worth it.

Against obvious odds, my husband intended to make Martha a nurse cow. She produced enough milk to raise more than one calf each season—a double-your-money bet. The trick was to “draft on” an orphan calf or dairy steer, fooling her into surrogacy. When the calf’s shit started to smell like her milk, conventional wisdom went, she’d take him.

But Martha would not submit. Twisting like a bronc in a box stall, winching her halter tight as a noose on her head, she would fight until one leg could be caught in a lariat and tied in a corner opposite her head. Stretched and strung, she would froth, breathing hard, as the calves sucked. Twice a day this was necessary. And not with sure success. You’d think the udder relief would be worth it.

Lightning turned out as big and indomitable but black with a jag of white on her forehead. Same deal with drafting. She had a way of tensing her hind leg just enough to cow the orphan calf into backing away, for fear of catching a hoof in the jaw. At that rate, the calf probably wouldn’t thrive, but he’d still fare a little better than on sugar-laced milk replacer. Break even, I guess.

 

“Jesus—low broil, LOW broil,” I mutter, mostly to myself, as I take the shells out about a minute past perfect. He believes in high broil, despite the consequences. I think it has something to do with the reliable intensity of the heat, the way virtually anything will quickly crisp under it. My shells are burned on one side. His aren’t as bad.

“Hmm… very artistic,” he says of my near-loss with a smirk, as he dots his with hot sauce.

“Shut up,” I say, smirking too.

 

I was responsible for getting calves on Lightning one weekend while he was gone. I hadn’t practiced enough to do it well—always relying, I realized, on him—but the calves had to eat. The net result was that we never drained a single quarter. She’d have to be stripped out by hand for several days to save her udder from mastitis or some other infection. My hands cramped, then went numb. She knew where the bucket sat between her legs and periodically kicked its contents onto the barn floor, warm earthy milk seeping away, yogurty clots stuck in the straw.

I remember the sticky, sick feeling in my stomach and between most of my thoughts in those days. Fights erupting even before they hit the surface. Tit-for-tat and caring less with each pass. Little time for best-case scenarios and less for hitches like Lightning.

Pregnant and very indifferent, I had let our pony run past me down a road, away from the neighbor’s yard where he was pastured for the sake of her small kids, and into a forty-acre field of oats owned by another neighbor quietly suspected of catching and selling off livestock not his own. “Fuck it,” I repeated in my head with each awkward step out of the field access. “Let him fucking deal.” My pony-less neighbor walked with me, carrots in her hand, as though they would reel the tension back into proportion.

Desperately over-committed, my husband had spent the afternoon single-handedly corralling cows that had pushed through fences on our rented property. By the time he got to the pony with a bucket of grain, it was well after dark. Enraged at my unwillingness to solve such a simple problem, in comparison, he threatened not to come home that night—not coincidentally, just as my family was due to pick me up for the drive to Denver for an uncle’s birthday. I told my parents and grandmother this even as I finished making the soup that I’d leave for leftovers. “Let him fend for himself,” my mom said flatly. I said nothing.

 

I’m just topping my last taco with homemade salsa when the cupboards banging behind me reveal he’s rummaging for something for his sweet tooth, metal mixing bowls and spoons clattering.

He doesn’t realize he does this—slamming through life. When he leaves the house, the door shuts so hard behind him that the floor reverberates and pictures leap a little on the walls. In our first year together, we each bought a pair of rubber clogs. He wore through both the liners and the heels of the soles themselves within a couple years. A sales rep marveled at the destruction when I asked about repair. We’ve since replaced them altogether.

“How many bananas for banana bread?” he asks. I know he’s already mashed a couple but just wants to check. He’s the ask-forgiveness-not-permission type.

“Two cups, if you’re following the Moosewood,” I reply. As reckless as he is with oils, vinegars, and cayenne when whisking a salad dressing, he will follow a recipe to the teaspoon—his mother’s perfectionism, I think—so I point him toward the more indulgent version that I like. It calls for three sticks of butter, citrus and nuts, but I know I’ll have to put the latter two in myself if they’re going to get in at all.

…on average, he asks how to spell five words a day, from the moderately tricky to those he doesn’t bother to remember because he knows I do. He’s also reliably a few keystrokes short of good grammar because I usually proof his important drafts.

“How many teaspoons in a tablespoon?” he asks.

“Three.”

“Two?” he counters, because he wasn’t listening or—more likely—because he wants to test how sure I am.

“Three.”

This happens outside the kitchen, too. We work independently a wall away from each other, and on average, he asks how to spell five words a day, from the moderately tricky to those he doesn’t bother to remember because he knows I do. He’s also reliably a few keystrokes short of good grammar because I usually proof his important drafts.

“Do we have any allspice?” he asks. He really wants me to rummage for him through the Tupperware container that contains handfuls of bulk-bagged spices, most of them unlabeled but easily recognizable by smell, at least I think.

Instead, I offer to grate some of the fresh nutmeg my eighty-four-year-old Norwegian grandmother unwittingly smuggled back from Jamaica. She gave me five nuts and half a coconut shell to display them in three years ago, and at the rate we’re grating them, the rippling, glossy meats will be around years longer than she will be.

There’s one taco still standing on my plate, cold now and soggy because I’d already spooned salsa across it, but I run downstairs for a couple satsumas to grate for zest. Citrus fits into only two categories for him: juice and fresh-peeled. Not bread or salad.

“Here,” I say, sweeping a little pile of zest into his batter without asking how much the recipe needed or whether he wanted any. I already know the answers to both. I skip the nuts.

“Only one teaspoon!” he sputters, feigning that he will flick some out with his spatula.

“Are you really going to notice?” I reason, submerging the zest myself. I know he’d considered this. In at least six cups of batter, one teaspoon doesn’t stand a chance, but I think it’s better to have just that hint than to go without.

 

Cooped up at a resort outside Denver, through three days of talking around my marriage with my family, I register that the baby moves little. I don’t allow this to surprise or alarm me, but I sense that I’m distracting myself from the sudden, localized pain I’d felt jogging after the pony. A slow but searing pulling, like peeling fascia from a raw steak with your fingers. It had gone away after a few minutes, but I could have traced on my abdomen where it had been.

 

A slow but searing pulling, like peeling fascia from a raw steak with your fingers. It had gone away after a few minutes, but I could have traced on my abdomen where it had been.

At some point, my grandma, sharing a full-size bed with me, asks to feel the baby kick. She rests her hand there a while, then concludes for me, “He must be sleeping.”

Driving the many hours home, I feel a denseness returning to my thoughts, knowing stuff that matters awaits me. That my world cannot run on small-talk. I also remember thinking, my head pressed uncomfortably against the window of the sedan, “Maybe, kid, it would be better if you weren’t here.” The words, the phrasing, hung there like I had spoken them out loud.

A weight, the size and shape of a fist, dropped from the area of my throat to the pit of my stomach.

 

He’s smoothing the batter into two loaf pans now. I’m massaging one with a wooden spoon because he’s got the spatula. Satisfied with his pan, he takes mine. “Hmm… I did a better job than you,” he says absentmindedly, stroking the second pool into swirls, a pursed-lipped cake decorator.

“I didn’t have the right tool,” I complain, feeling the lameness of my defense. Truth is, I didn’t care. “But if you want to keep score, I’d say you could have scraped a good quarter-cup more out of this bowl.” I swab it out and lick it off the spoon.

He’s already back at his computer. I notice he’s set the oven on convection bake—a feature he likes because it purportedly cooks multiple items more evenly. I avoid it because I think it skews baking times.

 

I return to work—off the farm at that point—and pretend we’re fine. One conversation gives me away, though, when, “What the fuck were you thinking?” comes too loudly through the receiver at my ear and there’s a little too much silence in the shared office after that.

A coworker notes that my right ankle is swollen and jokes that she bought slip-on shoes in her second pregnancy so she wouldn’t have to look too closely at her feet near the end. I don’t register this comment until much later.

Two days pass and there’s a clenching in my stomach, almost like cramps, I realize, but I finish the accounts payable and crawl into bed late as usual.

By midnight, though the ceiling fan is shoving humid July our direction, I’m shuddering with chills. I wake him, but he tells me not to worry. We both know that everything is dramatic and distorted in the dark.

Around four a.m., I’m wheeling down a hospital corridor, its sick greenish lights revealing too much, it seems. The nurse asks how far along, and when I say, “Twenty-seven weeks,” she says worriedly, “That’s too early.” As though I honestly didn’t know.

They search for a heartbeat for twelve minutes, then there’s a heated conversation in the hallway. The doctor is livid that they can’t get my medical record together. I relax a little, my contractions eased by the distraction.

But our son is dead.

We both know it. And pity the doctor who has to actually say it. I don’t look at the ultrasound screen.

The nurse asks how far along, and when I say, ‘Twenty-seven weeks,’ she says worriedly, ‘That’s too early.’ As though I honestly didn’t know.

By morning, the baby floating still inside me, we’ve called our parents. “Oh, no,” my dad finally manages, and I can hear my mom gasping, gagging. My next closest sibling—a sister—was stillborn at full term, a casualty of misdiagnosed negative rH factor.

Canceling appointments until his cell phone dies, my husband is getting used to saying, “We lost the baby.” But I’m realizing that it’s not lost. He has yet, literally, to be born. The body can’t reabsorb twenty-seven weeks of organ and bone. It all has to come out. And there’s going to be a lot more to remember than I’m ready to.

I’m transferred by ambulance, because my hemorrhaging could be fatal. I chat with the paramedic, and he can tell I’m not facing the fire.

We get admitted to a birthing suite and set adrift for twelve hours or more in our own quiet. Narcotics and Pitocin, hushed voices, a white paper rose taped to our door.

My husband sleeps cramped in the armchair in my room, holds my hand for a few seconds only when I ask, wanders out to eat. When he wakes and finds me curled like a fetus, my un-brushed breath condensing heavily on the plastic handrail of my bed, and I’m telling the nurse not to fucking touch me, he finally panics. He’s raging in the hallway, crying and screaming for more painkillers. He doesn’t know that’s not really what I want. More nurses rush in. The doctor on-call has been asleep—it’s 6:18 a.m.—and it takes minutes to release more meds.

I know it’s over before his fury has even passed.

“It’s out,” I say, lifting my head back onto the bed. Someone pulls the mess of baby away, and I sleep, aware suddenly that this is a beginning, not an end.

 

I shuttle the banana-sticky dishes to the sink, sweep up a handful of wayward sugar on the floor. He has flour down one leg of his dark jeans and under his nose.

“I’m sweating,” he announces, a little surprised himself.

I don’t mention that he gives off energy of almost comical intensity when he sets about a project like baking, something beyond his orbit but clearly, though he never stops to think it, within his abilities. Then again, maybe he does think this and runs on confidence. Typical.

 

They ask if we want pictures, want to bathe our son or hold him. I say no to bathing but yes to pictures and holding, and then there’s a bundle in my arms. He’s much heavier than I imagined, an actual weight, a substance, though just over two pounds at birth. His skin is still pink, not yet gray, and the line of his brow, the set of his nose are unmistakably his father’s. Wedged in that wretched, partially inclined bed together, we curl and uncurl his translucent still-pliable fingers, little red veins running down each one. We’re swollen but cry little, dead ourselves to what this means.

And then it’s time. It skins me to watch the nurse walk away with our child, the peach tassel of his knitted hat in the crook of her arm. We will never see him again.

Just hours later we get released, practically outpatients. When I balk in front of the nurses’ station, caught in the fluorescent awareness that they’ve witnessed our disaster and our unpreparedness and the resentment between us, my husband takes my hand and leads me quietly to the elevator, then into the real light of day.

For some reason, I’m surprised to see the same dirt and small gravel beneath my feet on the floormat of the car. Then, I see I’m wearing exactly what I wore in—a pair of maternity jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt, not new or clean, no bra—as though this all might not have happened, like we could have turned right instead of left.

We drive to the mortuary down the street to sign over our son’s little body for cremation, writing out his full name, letter by letter, in standardized boxes, for the first and last time. We’re told he will arrive a few days later by certified mail. His enameled urn, it turns out, is the size of a film canister.

As the searing engorgement of breasts dies down and the cleanings flush out—the last of the physical—there’s nothing more to do but see it all in hindsight.

 

“Your bread is beeping,” I say, hearing the oven timer go off. It sounds loudly at first, then chirps every thirty seconds that it goes unattended.

His skill is measuring how far things are from good. Mine is sensing just how close.

“How do I get the middle cooked?” he asks, several beeps later. I can see him probing the loaves methodically with a toothpick.

“Move them to the top rack and check again in five minutes,” I suggest, irritated by his asking but glad he’s made dessert. His feet slide back to his desk.

 

After seasons of second, third, and fourth chances, we send Martha and Lightning to the sale barn within months of each other. He tells me he has to sit on his hands to keep from bidding on Martha when she is pushed, bewildered, into the ring and circles wildly, nostrils skimming the gates, her eyes rolling. “When it’s your first one, you’re surprised how you feel,” he jokes to a friend, but I think he means it. She goes for $.40/lb live weight and is burger by eight a.m. the next day.

Lightning has twins in an ice storm the next March and abandons them. Barely forty pounds each, they’re half dead, gray, too cold to shiver when he hauls them in. As they thaw under towels and our fingers, we notice one is male and that one of its hind legs is broken—probably stepped on—and the other is female. Insult to injury. A female fraternal twin is almost always runty and infertile, a “free martin.” We give her away to a neighbor who will raise her as a project with his daughter. The male limps hideously until we stop splinting the leg. Then it heals quickly, and we turn him out to lush summer pasture with Lightning and a Jersey calf half drafted on.

“Fuck it,” he says. “I’m done fighting her.”

Miraculously, both calves come back showing little heartbreak. But Lightning hasn’t changed and cinches her fate the next time we’re sorting misfits for sale. In our way at every turn, she wheels and squirts the wrong direction, sending her own calves stumbling and unhinging the others we’re steering toward the loading pen. Without a word, he pushes her into the trailer first. He swings the compartment door shut, slams the bolt through. I never hear what price she brings.

 

He made it forty minutes of the hour that the recipe suggests we wait before cutting the cooling bread.

“It’s dry,” he mumbles through his first bite. “The damn convection bake dried it out.”

I say nothing and know, as I push back from my desk, that I will not think it’s as dry as he does. His skill is measuring how far things are from good. Mine is sensing just how close.

“I’m writing little scenes like this down,” I say, spreading butter on my first slice. “I think there’s something I can do with them.”

“So, I should watch what I say?” he asks, but we both know he’s kidding.

“Yeah,” I answer anyway. Funny how things come out.

 

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Special Guest Judge, Christine Hale:

Kristine Jepsen’s “Gut Instinct” makes powerful use of juxtaposition—between time periods and narrative lines—to create subtle but viscerally disturbing parallels between the fates of cows and of women: their service as breeders and nurses; their small, often doomed rebellions; and their ultimate expendability within a meat- and male-dominated food chain. I admire both the tonal restraint and the fierce emotional risk-taking in this memorable piece.

—Christine Hale is the author of A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations, and the novel, Basil’s Dream.

 

Kristine Jepsen is a writer and farm-business owner in northeast Iowa who writes most often for the Driftless Region’s Inspire(d) Magazine. This piece comes from her experience founding a Midwestern grass-fed beef company and a memoir project that earned her a spot in the AWP Writer-to-Writer mentorship program. She is also a 2017 finalist in the personal essay competition at Proximity Magazine.

Photo by Eliza Jepsen