“My girls… I dunno their names anymore. They’se like soft machines now. Livin’ in a free-stall barn, never seein’ my old overgrown pastures, eatin’ stuff delivered to my silos every coupla months. Feed ’em with a Skid-steer; used to ’em feed by hand with a three-pronged fork. They’se producin’ milk I woon’t drink – hauled away by giant trucks what tear up my road and break ma’ culverts. Don’t even shovel shit anymore, sluiced away automatic.
“Jesús and Félo run the barn. Can’t even speak their language, but they try to speak mine. Good guys. I feel for ’em, their families at home ’n’ all so far away. Muss miss their kids, like I miss my old girls. How can ya call a girl by the number on her ear tag, I ask ya?
“Milk check came last week, covers the tractor payment, the feed and electric bills with no leftovers for livin’. M’ son Declan tells me ta sell out while I still can. Barn ain’t worth nothin’. Wind and snow blows right through it in the winter. The girls is bred by some guy I don’t know who comes once a month with his little straws of frozen semen in a beer cooler ’at he puts up in him with his arm and a rubber glove goes up to his shoulder. No need for a bull. They got bulls somewhere else they fill the straws from.
“The girls freshen every year for five years and then they’se ground inta hamburger patties. Bob-calves gets trucked out soon as their on their feet and’s made into dogfood. The heifers grow up on bottled milk replacer until they begin lactatin’ and then go through the same cycle. I’m ’shamed to be a part of it. The guy who breeds ’em, shoots ’em up every 18 months wi’ hormones to bring on their estrus and people drink that stuff. No wonder kids is growed up by twelve years!
“Not like it was when I knew my girls personal. Gonna sell out. Maybe raise a few beefers for that market. Rich folks is payin’ good for real beef fed on grass instead a’ feedlot corn. Girls can’t even digest it. They’se all got scours running down their hind legs.
“I still take care a’ Gladys’s ol’biddies. Flock’s down from the days when she ’as carin’ for ’em. Only ’bout ten left – ’nough eggs for me and the cowboys. The spent hens get picked off in the yard by various critters…nature’s way I s’pose.
“Last month the milk check came with a letter in the same envelope. I guess someone’s ’fraid I’se gonna kill m’self. I don’t know who they think I am, but I ain’t the type ta kill myself. Might wound some bastard who hurt my fambly or ma girls, but not myself. Some kind a suicide telephone and a lotta horse-twaddle about bein’ depressed an’ all. I been unhappy all my life, ’bout this and that, but I got over it and kep’ on through the hard times. Times is hard again and I’ll get through. Raise me some gentle beefers.
“Declan works in town but he keeps an eye on his old pa now ’n’ again. Helped me sell the girls. ’Bout half was sold as heifers and the rest was sold for slaughter. Made me sad but, like I said, I di’n’t know ’em anymore like I use ta. They di’n’t bring much at the auction or the slaughterhouse. There’s so many worn-out milkers nowadays, and who drinks milk anymore? Used ta be on every table when I was young – big glass pitcher with butterfat lines on the side.
“Declan and I paid down most of the loans and added a bit to the mortgage so’s I could buy some young beefers. Now I got eleven out in my pasture. Had to repair a lotta old fence afore they showed up – sweet little fellas, ’though three of ’em’s heifers.
“Even though they’se ear-tagged, I named ’em all. I like having fewer animals. They comes when I call ’em like my old milkers used-ta when I had only 28. Declan helped me sell off development rights to ma farm along with 72-acres to pay down the farm bills, and I still got 82 tillable.
“Afore they went home, Jesús and Félo fenced-in the near pastures with portable fencing so’s I can move ’em beefers on ta fresh grass ever’ day. They love it, always standing knee-deep in fresh, mixed grasses what’ve come up from pastures lying fallow for so long.
“Declan and me and the ’stension agent had a party for the boys ’afore they headed back home to Salvador. Declan arranged for them to each have five hunnerd dollars hid in their suitcases. They’as wi’ me for four years.”
* * *
“I was over at the 4-H shed talking to some kids about cropping when Willy Loomis come runnin’ over ta tell me I needed to get home quick cause one a’ my girls was havin’ her first calf and he’d been hearing coyotes howlin’ in ma north meadow all evenin’. I knew she was gonna calve but not so soon. I said goodbye to the kids and drove the truck home as fast as I dared go on ’em old roads.
“Dark when I got to the farm and I headed out ta the pasture to see how she was farin’. Should a brought a flashlight but there was ’nough moonlight so’s I knew I’d see her, though I knew she and ’er newborn’d be lyin’ down.
“I musta’ walked a mile in that pasture lookin’ for ’em when I finally heard her lowin nearby. She was lying down and I walked over to her but din’t see her calf. She was puttin’ up a terrible call and then I knew ’em coyotes musta’ got her newborn. Not sure I ever been so sad.
“I suddenly felt more tired than I think I ever been. Dunno whether it was the sadness all heaped on me or the dizziness I’se feelin’ from walkin’ so frantic looking for ’em. Was like all ’em years a’ hard work came home to roost in me. Sat down next to mama who kep’ on callin’ fer ’er calf.
I knew what had happened ’cause other farmer’s told ’bout losin’ newborns to a pack a hungry coyotes on the prowl. They smells the birthin’ blood and surround the little critter ’afore it can even stand up on its own and the mama’s too tired and wore out to protect her from ’em. Only hope she din’t see it.
My dizziness got ta me and I lay down against her warm front flank and began cryin with her. Not sure I ever been so sad, all ’cause I wan’t there to help her and watch over her birthin ’n’ all.
I ’pologized to her for lettin’ ’er down and told ’er I ha’n’t been a good farmer to ’er. She jess kep’ up callin’ to her young’un and didn’t let up. I stroked her head and rubbed ’er neck but coun’t relieve ’er sadness. I thought on how I should a’ been there with ’er. So tired…”
* * *
“The next morning, I called Dad to let him know the bank approved his mortgage and offered a line of credit if he wanted to buy more young beef stock. Getting no answer, I figured Dad must already be up and out, grabbed a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, and headed out to the farm to give Dad the good news.
“Seeing the truck, I went into the farmhouse and gave Dad a shout. Hearing no answer I checked the empty barn and the chicken coop which was still closed up from the night before. I called Charlie, the neighbor, to see if Dad was over there, even though Dad’s not much into calling on folks these days. He told me Willie Loomis warned Dad last night that one his heifers had just calved and suggested he get home quick because of all the coyote howling.
“I pull on a pair of his dad’s barn boots and head off into the pasture. After an hour walking back and forth methodically in the waist-high grass, I finally see some brown ahead on my left, and run over to find the new mother. Nestled in her rear flank nursing is her newborn calf. Lying in her front flank with his arm over her neck is Dad but I can’t wake him up.”