We watch the calf nursing. Just hours old, his brown fur damp, legs unsteady. A shriveled, black thread of umbilical cord hangs, still attached to his underbelly. His mother seems unbothered. She slowly chews her cud, and lets me stroke her cheek. I offer her my hand to sniff and she licks the salt on my skin with her tongue— thick and rough like sandpaper. When she has had enough of the greedy newborn, she moos, her voice a deep timbre. The baby doesn’t listen and she has to nudge the calf off of her udders, butting her head against the baby’s rump. The white milk, still leaking from her teats, drips all over the calf’s skinny, wet face. You giggle, watching as the baby runs and leaps in small circles, tripping on his own knobby, uncertain legs. He sticks his tongue out and licks the milk running down his cheeks.
A farmer opens the barn door and enters their pen. He gives a pat to the baby and then puts himself between the cow and her calf. He tries to coax the mother out of the pen, but she remains unmoved. With an unexpected tenderness the farmer leans into her body and with a soft voice he coos, That’s a good girl, let’s go now. But her animal body knows better and tells her to stand her ground. The farmer has to push and push against her hundreds of pounds of meat and muscle, with his shoulder, and then with his whole body, forcing her out of the pen and back into the barn. His gentle voice, a lie, Good girl, that’s a good girl. The calf bawls in his tiny voice, while you and I stand watching silently— our breath hot smoke floating in the cold air.
The door shuts and my heart is a lump in my throat. I tug at your hand holding tightly to my own, Let’s go, honey. But you also remain unmoved— the only witness now to this lonely, helpless creature. You stay, squatting next to the fence, quietly reassuring the calf. Your black mitten has been tossed on the ground and your bare hand reaches out for the calf to sniff— if he is brave enough to approach a small human. We stand there until my fingers and toes go numb and the sun has begun its slow decent in the sky.
We really have to go now, I say again, gently. It’s getting dark and cold.
But he’s all alone, Papa. Your voice is as shaky as those skinny calf legs.
I kneel down in the frozen mud and cow shit, face to face with you, promising that the farmer will not leave the calf alone, at night, in the cold. You still don’t want to relent, but you let me pick up your six year old body, which immediately goes limp and heavy against my own, as you dissolve into sobs. You are too big now for me to hold you like this all the way back to our car. But, when faced with my own baby’s cries— so much like the calf’s bawling, I can’t say no. My muscle memory holds on to you tightly, even after I can’t feel my arms anymore.
Before we leave we stop to look up at the moon. Bright, white, a perfect half circle in the sky. You ask, Can we drive by the pen and make sure the farmer came back for the baby? Can we just make sure he isn’t alone, Papa? I click the buckles of the carseat, double checking to make sure they are snug and you are safe, Of course we can, sweet pea.
And when we do drive past, the moon and the spotlight above the barn shine on an empty pen. Nothing is left but soiled hay. See, he’s safe and warm inside somewhere, I tell you. You are satisfied, I think, though you don’t speak almost the whole ride home.
In the middle of the night I am startled awake from a nightmare, my breath a gasp in my chest. Children. Children no older than you, alone, in cages, without their parents. When I open my eyes you are standing silently in the doorway of our bedroom. You shuffle towards me in your footie pajamas, your small bear dangling from your clenched fist. I need snuggles, Papa. I can’t see you clearly in the dark but I can hear the tremble in your chin as your eyes fill with water and you say, I just can’t stop picturing that baby cow all alone in the pen without his mama. I pull you into my bed and I wrap my body around the warmth of yours. I hold on tight, whispering you back to sleep— I’m right here, you aren’t alone.