Mr. Edwards calls me out tonight. He found another first-calf heifer in distress. The third one in as many years, bleeding and panting, eyes rolled back to whites under his flashlight. I sit on the porch steps putting on my mudders, cursing my stubborn joints, already knowing the likely outcome. Even so, I don’t dally. I don’t even bother locking the place up. Ain’t no one coming all the way out here to do me harm. Especially when I keep the place lit up like I do. Folks have accused me of doing it on account of being an old lady living out here alone. But I’ve never been afraid of country living. Now my girl, she was always foolish afraid of the dark, so leaving these lights on is my way of showing her I’m still right here.
I haven’t been practicing in years, but Mr. Edwards don’t like to call the new vet if he can help it. The new vet lives closer to town and has a new wife, both obstacles to swiftness even in daylight. But at 2 a.m., when cold darkness turns seconds into eternities, that’s too long to wait when he can see the calf halfway born and my light is on anyhow.
On my way out to my truck, I can hear coyotes yip-howling. My girl used to feed them ever so often if my hand wasn’t around to stop her. I’d try to reason with her how feeding wild animals just gets them killed. Either they stop fearing people like they should, or they stop knowing how to take care of their own. No matter the way, it destines them for unnecessary suffering. She was gone not long after we had words about it last, so I can’t argue no more with her now. It’s been near eight months since the last time she took meat out to the tree line. By the sound of it, the pack has pups now.
I did things the right way, and in the end, I didn’t make excuses. The weak ones never survive in the wild. Nature sees to that, one way or another.
Inside my truck, it smells of stale cigarettes. I never smoked, but my girl liked to show me she could be different than I thought her. The metal ashtray is full of her butts, pink lipstick stained. Never could tell if she took it up on account of pressure from others, or to look harder than she was, but I was never fooled. Mothers never are; we know the nature of our children. I check to make sure I have my bag, though Mr. Edwards should be prepared. I tap the rifle mounted behind my head like I do every time I get behind the wheel. I turn the keys in the ignition. The engine grumbles at the late hour, but she runs.
* * *
At the farm, I can see the figure of Mr. Edwards hunched over in the distance. The muck sucks at my boots and I have to be deliberate to keep my balance. I don’t look around, but I can feel animal eyes follow my path. At my heels is a yellow barn cat. I click my tongue to draw it closer and offer a quick scratch. It considers me, but scatters away from my hand when I bend for it. Cats have some of the best instincts if you ask me. My girl never did care for cats after her own ate three of her kittens. I tried to warn her. She’d been inviting her friends after school to peek and poke at the litter. Momma cats will eat them babies before she’ll let nasty strangers get at ‘em. It’s their God-given instinct. But my girl never would listen to me, even when I was trying to keep her from hurt.
When I was young, I didn’t mind the night work. Now, trudging in the dark field, I wish these farmers would stop calling me, but I know they won’t. Not until they’re dead or moved out. After that, I’ll watch the farms get sold off to men with bank accounts big enough to parcel the land into tiny squares of empty promise and open floor plans. I’ll sit on my porch in a rocking chair with a rifle, and keep them at bay until I’m dead, too. Ain’t no one desecrating my property, uncovering things best left, not while I’m alive.
I see when I’m close enough, it isn’t Mr. Edwards but his girl Jamie, her hair tucked under a hat. She stands when I’m close enough, but this kind of call doesn’t demand neighborly handshakes or ask-abouts.
She says, “Hey, Ms. Meeks.” She makes room for me to kneel down and inspect the situation.
“How long she like this?”
“Found her this way half an hour ago, maybe a little more. Somehow got out of her birthing pen.”
The calf’s snout is beginning to poke through, but not enough, its eyes still in the black well of its mother’s body, pink nostrils pushing and sucking for air.
“I tried to clear the mucus, but we couldn’t get her head out no further without some help. Dad went to call you and then see about getting some better lights out here.”
“Look here,” I say, so that she points the flashlight in the direction I mean, “the forelegs are out, but they’re crossed. Means the shoulders are wedged in her pelvis.”
Contemplating the work and likely outcome makes me sigh.
I ask, “Has she been having regular straining still, or has she gave up?”
“She’s been trying real hard. Just no progress. She started resting more. That’s what worried Dad.”
It’s good the heifer is flat on her side. Standing means a heavy calf can rest too low. I stand and look for a sign that Mr. Edwards is coming with extra light, but the night is dark except for the halo beam of Jamie’s flashlight. I worry for a second that she’s not fit for being witness if the heifer or the calf die. Lord knows I haven’t the patience for her being sentimental. Unlike what I tried to do right with my girl, the Edwards ain’t never raised Jamie to appreciate the world’s natural balance. But I never took the Edwards for having the right instincts for doing what was necessary.
“Think we should try and get her up? Move her back to the barn?” Jamie asks.
“Don’t you think if she was able your dad woulda already done that?”
Jamie shines the light back in the mother’s eyes but turns it away quickly. Her own eyes look tearful, but it’s hard to tell in the dark. Mr. Edwards never did see her weakness, like to say instead she was a sensitive girl. He confessed they stopped keeping chickens years back because Jamie would cry for days any time a fox stole a meal. No way to prepare the girl for the real world, if you ask me.
I say to Jamie, “If she got herself out here then it was her intention. Things are set now. You clean her and get her ready?”
“Best we could. Dad had the kit you gave him last season with the sanitizer. He applied some of the lubricant, too.”
My girl never wanted to help me at the clinic or on my calls, though I didn’t give her any choice in the matter. That’s where I’m different from the Edwards. I did things the right way, and in the end, I didn’t make excuses. The weak ones never survive in the wild. Nature sees to that, one way or another.
“You back home now with your folks?”
“Nah. Still got another year, this is only my spring break. I’d planned on going to Cancun like most girls my age, but…” She shrugged by way of explanation. When she speaks, she sounds like my girl used to when we talked, resentful but pleased with herself about it, too.
“Well, Mexico’s no place for a nice girl anyhow. Your kind tend to go missing down there.”
I say this knowing already she won’t listen to reason. It ain’t nothing but wasted breath on my part.
“I don’t know that Stone county is any better,” Jamie says, but then adds real quick, “I didn’t mean anything by that.”
Jamie says this, but no more. Folks are good when it comes to not asking about my girl directly. I never reported her missing, but folks noticed her gone. I know people assumed she was old enough and ran off on her own and I see no need to correct them. My girl ain’t the first in these parts to disappear, for one reason or another. She won’t be the last. I tell folks, if they press, that she’s out west. That’s true enough.
People, animals, they’re all about the same really. Some fight it, some welcome it,” I say. “You learn in the natural world dying isn’t always a cruelty, many times it’s merciful.”
We both look toward her house, waiting.
Still no sign of Mr. Edwards. The heifer gives a long, low moan. I see Venus low in the sky. My skin prickles. There’s not much time left before it’s too late for the calf.
“You still studying to be a nurse, like you thought?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Thinking I might take a year for the Peace Corps before I figure it out.” Jamie shifts her weight, and the flashlight shines on the flaring nostrils of the calf before she switches it to her other hand. “My dad says the Peace Corps is for hippies and I’ll just go off and get malaria or, heaven forbid, AIDS!” She says the last word drawn out so I know she finds it ridiculous.
“He’s thinking of your future. Not many places around here see the Peace Corps as job training.”
“Who says I plan on staying around here?”
“You’d be best not to stray too far,” I say. “The world won’t show no concern for a girl like you.”
Jamie half laughs; I figure she thinks I’m too old to know the truth of things. I pretend to check the supplies Mr. Edwards has placed on the tarp near the heifer so I have a moment to swallow the rest of my opinions. I’m certain he’s left her unattended for too long, that she’s grown far too weak to survive the pain that is surely coming her way. Only one thing left I can do if I want to be of service. Sometimes it’s better to take a life when you know the kind of suffering that’s around the corner. Most people know this deep down, but that’s why they come to me. They just don’t have the stomach for it.
“You ever seen an animal die?” I ask Jamie.
“I think you’re forgetting I’m a farm girl,” Jamie says, only I know hearing about it at the dinner table from her dad is different than watching living eyes go empty.
Jamie shines the flashlight into the blinking black eyes of the heifer like she heard my thoughts but, even if she did, she don’t know my memories.
I ask her, “How about a person?”
I hear a tractor start up, its lights pointing west, then watch it turn slowly toward us. Jamie doesn’t answer my question.
“People, animals, they’re all about the same really. Some fight it, some welcome it,” I say. “You learn in the natural world dying isn’t always a cruelty, many times it’s merciful.”
She stays quiet, both of us waiting for the tractor.
“Many times it’s an act of love,” I add.
Then she says, when Mr. Edwards is likely close enough to make out our shapes, “Do you ever get used to it? Putting animals down?”
“It don’t ever get easy, if that’s what you’re asking.” The tractor is nearing, but we’re standing just outside the reach of its light. That place at the edge where it always seems darkest.
“But I remind myself the hard thing can be the right thing. When you know you’re saving ‘em from a worse hurt.”
If she answers, I don’t hear it. It’s an old tractor and it’s loud. It drowns out our voices and the moaning of the heifer. It occurs to me it would drown out the sound of most anything, if need be.
I reach over and pull her away from the heifer, away further from the spotlight of the tractor lights, but only a step or two from where I imagine Mr. Edwards will need to turn the tractor to position it right.
“May I?” I ask and hold out my hand for the flashlight.
I reach my fingers in and around to the crest of the calf’s head and stretch the tissue of the hymen slowly. The heifer bellows in protest. Jamie is looking only at the calf, its nostrils still spitting out air, fighting for breath.”
She holds it out and I take it. I squat and use the light for a quick scan of the contents of my bag, even though I know what I brought. The tractor is nearly to us now. This might not be the reason Mr. Edwards called me out, but it might be a kind of calling just the same. I figure what needs to be done will be easier in the dark, so I switch off the flashlight.
The ground is uneven, and it can be easy to stumble. To accidentally fall. So, when I stand, I grab hold of Jamie. The tractor turns. It’s so close that the burning gasoline stings my eyes and they blur up. The pull of my weight on her arm catches her off guard. She begins to lose her balance. I need only a second more, another surprising shift of my weight. It was this way with my girl. Nature presenting an opportunity ripe for mercy. That’s what I’d be doing for the Edwards.
The lights of the tractor give a spotlight on the heifer. I’m drawn to her black bovine eyes. They are wild with panic. Her hooves kick in the air, useless to do anything but announce her fear. Her calf is trapped inside her body, dying, but she also sees the monstrous machine barreling toward them. I recognize that terror; all mothers do eventually. The world only grants us two choices.
But Jamie is stronger than I realize. And the heifer, in her flailing moment of fight, steals the extra second I needed. Jamie’s grip pulls me back. The tractor rumbles to a stop at our feet.
* * *
Working under the hot lights of the tractor, I push my gloved hand into the heifer. The calf is a tight fit. I’m surprised to find the shoulders aren’t stuck as I’d figured. It’s only that the heifer’s hymen is thick and resisting. The pain of the calf caught in the thickly woven tissue was so great that the heifer stopped pushing. Like she would rather kill her calf with her own body than feel the hurt of it ripping free of her.
“She don’t want to let it out,” I say to Mr. Edwards. “It’s too late.”
“No,” Jamie says. “We just need to pull.”
Mr. Edwards looks to me, “Do I need the chains?”
I can see he’s decided.
“Nah,” I say. “Chains won’t make a difference at this point. We’ll pull and let nature decide.”
Mr. Edwards crouches down on the tarp he’s laid for the delivery and hands me the lubricant. Jamie crowds in, bumping the bucket of hot soapy water her dad brought from the house.
“If you want in here, your hands better be clean,” I say to Jamie.
She looks me in the eye. “I washed ‘em before I came out. When Dad said he needed help.”
“You give ‘em another quick scrub in the bucket anyhow.”
The heifer grunts, her tongue foamy at the edges, her body hot to my touch. She ain’t fighting no more, but she ain’t gave up either.
“I just grab its legs?” Jamie asks. I can see sweat beads on her upper lip from the heat of the tractor lights.
I nod. Mr. Edwards doesn’t say a word. He stands up and moves back to make room for Jamie to position herself at my side.
I reach my fingers in and around to the crest of the calf’s head and stretch the tissue of the hymen slowly. The heifer bellows in protest. Jamie is looking only at the calf, its nostrils still spitting out air, fighting for breath.
“Now, on my word, you’ll pull one leg at a time, back and forth.”
I can feel Mr. Edwards hovering, likely calculating what hangs in the balance. I say to Jamie and to the heifer, “It’s gonna take all your strength. You best be ready.”
She nodded. Her eyes full of fight. “I’m ready.”
* * *
Back home, I park my truck in the same deep dirt ruts. Out west on my property, sitting silent in my distant dark yard, is a crumbling stacked stone well. For the first time in eight months, I can’t bear to look to it. I find Venus again. Years ago, someone on the television said that with the right telescope, the planet Venus would appear reddish brown. “Just like my hair,” my girl said to me. Proud the way children are over trivial connections. “I don’t care what the other girls say about my hair now.”
My truck door creaks in protest as I open it. It’s late, or very early, and there is no sound except the occasional trill of a tree frog. I walk toward my house, unable to blink away the memory of my girl’s eyes gone wild with panic, her useless kicking. That day we were pulling up buckets of water from the well. The garden near burned up from the sun. There was a man, she said. He said he loved her over the computer. She said she was leaving for California, no matter my say so. She said she already bought her bus ticket.
I had no choice.
Only, what about the heifer? Under those tractor lights, I witnessed how her instinct would have surely squeezed the life of her child if not for Jamie. I knew this truth the second that calf sprung free. I watched Jamie working her finger into the calf’s nostril, teasing a sneeze out of the calf to clear the mucus. Her pouring iodine and alcohol on the calf’s navel. Her sitting the calf up and counting its breaths. Walking back across the field with Jamie at my side, I felt turned about inside. I fumbled for Jamie’s hand again, hoping she could help me find my way back.
At home, walking across the yard to my door, the damp spring air chills me. I cup my hands over my mouth and blow warm breath into my fingers. I can still smell the blood on them. The screen door slaps behind me, but I make certain I hook it shut. I turn out the porch lights and I lock up the house door—both bolts.
Inside, the rooms are full of night, save the kitchen where a light’s glowing warm above the stove. I walk past it out of habit, only to turn back and switch it off. The Lord may have created the light, but sooner or later, we all face our own dark.