Hours before the first light cracks the night and peels back the sky from the earth, from within the darkness of the house I hear the muffled, stirring sounds of a winter morning ritual. There's the familiar clump of the coffee urn against the kitchen counter, the rising swoosh of the kettle being filled, and the rumble of the water heating. The clatter travels up to my room from another time, as though I've put on an old set of ears and with them, my youthful dreads—my father's barely hidden rage at my morning apathy, exchanging my warm nest for the cold world, schlepping to school—but in a moment, they're gone. All those old things, gone. Jet-lagged, time tangled, I have no trouble removing myself from the unfamiliarity of my redecorated childhood bedroom.
The hallway is as it's always been, but I let my hand graze the wall as I follow the soft glow of light to the kitchen. I pour myself a coffee and hold the mug tight between my hands, warming them. The frost on the window has grown overnight, curling away from the pane in a crystal foxtail.
In the living room, a charred log smoulders in the fireplace. My father is sitting quietly in the corner with his back to me, his silhouette haloed by the glow of a small television. Like me, he's sleep-deprived and disheveled, although for different reasons. Real reasons, he would say. He's leaning into the monitor, concentrating and ignoring the steaming coffee beside him. On the grainy screen is a panoply of cows in black and white, their breaths wafting upwards in puffs of wispy haze. Unaware they are being watched, they lie comfortably on the large straw pack, staring blankly and chewing their cuds as they wait for the farmer and the bales of fresh hay he'll deliver clutched in the great jaw of his loader tractor.
Just now, he's looking for any peculiar behavior that could indicate an imminent birth. Manipulating a joystick, he pans the security camera over the herd. He leans into the screen. Like all delicate things, the signs conveyed by a laboring cow are invisible until you know what to look for. The way she holds her tail, a subtle shift in her composure, an irregular crimp in her leg—they are all clues, but there's no substitute for knowing the individual animals. Watching my father watch them, I try to remember all the signs, the distinct personalities in the herd, but remembering is like knocking loose stones from the footpath of an old house hoping to find a key underneath. The pity I know is that I had the key once, had kept it proudly in my chest pocket. But in leaving the farm, I'd unconsciously lost it. Working with animals is not like riding a bicycle; stop for even a small amount of time, and the ability to wrangle, the strength gained from the constant lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling and schlepping, is lost. More than anything, the confidence needed to work around such powerful creatures vanishes. It doesn't take long. After a year, I feel keyless, transformed into a voyeur in my old home, no better than a tourist passing through into a world where my father, after generations, is the last lifelong resident.
My father's expertise is not just a matter of farmer's pride. Failing to notice the signs of a coming birth could be fatal. Outside, the mid-February temperature is a bracing 31⁰C below zero; a calf born into that cold would lose its ears and tail in a matter of minutes, its life in not much more. Newborns need the warmth of the insulated barn immediately, and a soon-to-be mother is much easier to wrangle into the warm shed than a new one. For months, between watching, feeding and bedding the animals, Dad has had little time for sleeping, eating or anything else.
When he straightens in his chair and turns around, he's surprised to see me. I've been quiet, and he's half deaf from years of rumbling tractor engines.
"Number forty-four,' he says, his voice raspy from being lost in concentration and forgetting to swallow. "I've got a feeling she's doing something."
In the garage, we pull on insulated overalls, thick gloves, toques, and stiff, winterized rubber boots. These old clothes are familiar; they were mine before I left for greener pastures. Here and there, I recognize tears, faded smears of placenta, and congealed bloodstains, both mine and others. Like a tartan, these crosses and knots of discoloured stains are a reminder of history, of everything I did on the farm, and everything my father continues to do.
The walk to the cattle yard continues my renewal of spirit, but not of my body. The boots are more unwieldy than I remember and I'm unused to the cold. It burns my face and makes me feel fragile, as though I would shatter if hit. Dad lurches on ahead, his scarred and bark-like skin inured to the weather, his steps driven by a sense of duty I could never rouse in myself.
When forty-four sees us coming across the paddock, she holds her head high and trots to the far end of the pen, stirring and unsettling the herd, who haul up their solid masses, leaving a sculpted hollow of steaming straw where they'd lain. Their hairy muzzles are covered with a touch of frost and the air is full of steam from their mealy cud-chewing. Forty-four stares at us. Suddenly, I remember her—a tough, haughty cow—and feel glad I'm here to help. The memory of when she nearly bested the two of us is vivid. Only a few years before, she had calved on a corner of the straw pack. Trying to recover her calf, we were both charged and knocked down in turn by her tawny battering ram of a head. We deked around her, feigning left and right like clunky, snowsuit-clad matadors to distract her and reach her shivering scion. Finally, with Dad thrusting and waving his walking stick like a crazed fencer, I scooped up the calf and dashed with it to the humid warmth of the barn.
I have a recurring nightmare that he will die this way: alone, cold. It's happened, even to people we know: the fellow in Plumas who was wrapped around a PTO shaft and torn to shreds, the farmer near Woodside who lost both his hands inside the round baler, the neighbor whose leg was broken by a cow's headbutt, to name a few. Then there are the countless stories of chainsaws kicking back, of legs mangled in augers, severe beatings dispensed by cattle, heart attacks. They are almost always alone, these maimed and mauled farmers, and often well within their ability. Even with the injuries, it's their solitude that killed most of these farmers. Working alone, pushing themselves along that knife-edge between attentive and reckless, when the accidents happen, there's no one to help. I think of the time, trying to free a mud-bogged tractor, Dad overstretched a chain. When it snapped, the broken link zinged through the air, cut through his tractor's cab, exploding the windows like a shotgun blast. It missed his head by only a few inches.
When I left the farm, I did it for excitement, a life for myself, a desire not to be those farmers. A few weeks later, I was 5500 miles away, sleeping late in the hot, muggy Brazilian winter. No cows, no freezing my hands off in nightly roundups. When my phone buzzed late one night, I clicked it on to reveal images of Dad's cut and bloodied face, his bruised chest and arms. "Don't worry," the text read. "Just a day in the life." After pulling a calf from a cow in the dead of winter, the beast had kicked a heavy gate that had swung and caught him on the face. Refusing to leave the calves by going to the hospital, he downed a tumbler of rum before lying on the couch and letting my mother sew his swollen face back together.
The nightmares started after that. Whenever they ruin my sleep, I lie awake waiting for the phone to ring, for the white noise of silence before the sharp intake of breath, the quavering sound of my name, all followed by the final, "…it's Dad".
No one believes me when I tell them the extreme temperatures the cows live in, which over a year range from 30°C to minus 40°C. But the wild bison herds that preceded them would have lived through much the same conditions, without the benefit of being fed twice daily and having a reliable water source. In winter, the cattle grow a thicker coat of hair and, because of an attentive owner, almost all the calves are born inside the heated barn. This will be forty-four's case this year. I keep my guard high as we corral her into the barn, noticing as we do so the small prong of a hoof sticking from her.
Immediately, Dad decides to pull the calf. He knows forty-four, her moods and personality, and that she is prone to having large, unwieldy calves—she has needed help before. The next few moments are a flurry of deliberate, coordinated moves. I know the steps, but I'm unpracticed and forgetful. Frustrated and clumsy from misremembering, I stand uselessly as Dad moves around me, preparing soap, warm water and filling the maternity pen with fresh straw and hay. With forty-four secured in the headgate, he reaches inside her and pulls out one small, yellow, oily hoof, then another. Using one hand with the skilful composure of a midwife, he loops the obstetrical chains below and above the fetlock to prevent accidental breakage. He's calm and methodical, seemingly oblivious to the piss and shit on his hands, or the metallic tang of iodine and blood in the air. Together we heave on the chains and the newborn calf emerges inches at a time. Finally, with a decisive push from its mother, the calf flops out, sodden and befuddled, a doe-eyed mess of gangly, slimy limbs, its tongue poking out dumbly between soft lips.
"It's a bull," Dad says as he carries the calf to the pen. He's happy—he likes bulls. He furiously rubs its head with straw and shoves stalks into its nose to clear its airways. This is no time for gentleness. Later, his mother will gently cudgel sense into him, but now, he needs air and stimulation.
When he releases forty-four from the stanchion, Dad keeps the swinging gate tightly gripped with both hands. The cow is tired and slightly loopy from her effort, and streaking her hindmost is a touch of blood. Suddenly, she isn't the raging, impenetrable wall from my memory, but a vulnerable parent. Once you see something bleed, it loses its invincibility.
We leave mother and child to their introduction and make for home. After the warm, corporeal odor of the barn, the smell of wood smoke near the house is striking. I take in a lungful of the brisk, roasted air and push it out slowly, making a long white arc that disappears above me. Despite myself, I'm energized from the action and feel like breaking into a run. I don't, though. Instead, I stay beside my father and together we trudge slowly back home. Realizing we've slipped back into our habitual silence, I want to say something—to comment on the herd, to ask how he's coping, to reveal why I'm back. But there's a new and careful taciturn agreement between us: if I don't say the words retirement, slowdown, or stubborn, he won't counter with legacy, workshy, or soft. And neither of us will make any allusion to wasted time or going away. The only sound is our steps crunching on the snow
In the house, while my father stokes the fireplace and drops a fresh log of oak onto the coals, I watch through the camera as a grainy, discolored forty-four roughly licks the head of her calf. In only a few short hours, the little bull will be up and running. Preparing a new pot of coffee, my father bothers the thick, ropy scar on his upper lip with his tongue. Outside, the black drape of night is being pared back, revealing the raw blood-red sunrise underneath.