Wednesday, July 1, 1987

Red Heifer on Trenton Road, Ralf in the Swimming Pool


The elderly red heifer on Trenton Road in Forestville, lived in an upscale horse paddock; she was daily fed grain and good hay, windfall Gravensteins and an occasional carrot. Somebody’s pet, probably an abandoned 4H project, the child long since left home.

The old couple faithfully feed their ward, sometimes grooming her red flanks, as she cuds the alfalfa. A Hereford heifer, never bred for milk, not for beef, she leads a solitary existence, the people who feed her have become her herd. She bats long white eyelashes, rolls her eyes nervously until the whites gleam like marbled fat.

Her coarse tongue flicks rhythmically from nostril to nostril in nervous anticipation. That sandpaper rasping noise of her tongue, threads of saliva spool and stretch in the wind like spider webs. If you come too close, she’ll back off blowing, but soon curiosity will get the best of her.

But today, the fat, barren lady is gone from her whitewashed paddock and I fear the worst. Did they finally give her to a rancher where she’ll have to learn the ways of a cow? Did she die old and in the mud of the back pasture or was she slaughtered for beef?

How I miss her corpulent exactness, somebody’s pet. Or am I homesick for another life? Did they buy her as a token pet to keep them in touch with themselves? The past she kept alive in me?

*        *        *


We called her Ralf because we liked the rough transition from the tongue into the air—like the feel of her tongue on our bare skin as she bathed us so tenderly, her changelings. No amount of parental explaining would convince us to change her name into something more suitable for a Jersey cow with the hugest eyes you ever saw.

When my best friend Steph’s dad dug the hole for the swimming pool, it filled with rain water and Ralf went in to quench her thirst but couldn’t get out. It took several men to rescue her from the shallow end.

Ralf was a consummate escape artist. She also get stuck climbing over the electric fences—she’d always forget that her udder hung well below her hocks, and she’d mournfully low for help until someone came along to rescue her from the electric fence. Zap. Zap. Zap.

Ralf was wayward, she'd disappear each winter to find a bull, then sneak off each spring to give birth to a fawnlike calf. We’d track her down following the calf’s bright yellow milk spoor and marvel anew at the life quivering in its luminous eyes.

Ralf gave Stephanie's family many calves siblings: there was Thumbelina, Thelma (a bull calf), Mr. Schmitz, also a bull calf, who having been raised by ponies, thought he was one—forsaking the company of split-hooved ungulates for horses.

Mr. Schmitz was also confused about his sexual orientation. He’d mount the ponies and then with a look of utter despair he’d slide off them, and resume chewing his hay as if nothing had happened. In the company of ponies he remained a miniature Hereford bull that we’d sometimes ride, with our legs dangling to the ground. Or he’d ride the back end of the ponies, as we rode them—a strange piggyback beast. We were in constant danger of getting horned in the back.

Captain Beefhart, AKA Thelma, was Ralf’s first bull calf who grew into stupendous Hereford proportions and eventually we ate him—a just revenge for the time he treed me up the telephone pole covered with poison oak. I didn’t know I could climb such a pole so fast. He turned mean when he bulked up.

Not like Ole Grandad, the Hereford bull up on Mount Barnabe, who was a bit long in tooth but was still able to put out, or should I say, get it up, so Ralf  managed to pull off a yearly tryst.

When the freezer filled with white wrapped parcels we didn’t think too much about where they all came from, until the house filled with a strange dark aroma of beef heart for dinner, more powerful than new blood. It was the odor of the soul, of life itself, dressed in laurel leaves and thyme. It escaped from this world and the small lessons of death filled our stomachs that night.

Death in the barnyard was not something new to us. We’d seen the chicks, kittens and puppies that didn’t make it. At the time we had no name for it, but the idea of soul was something new.

Ralf’s idea of being milked was to stand in the milk bucket or to kick the pail across the goatshed but Steph's mom, Johanna must have managed it somehow because I remember how sore my arms were from churning the butter lifting and plunging as we took turns while watched TV: Rin Tin Tin, or Sky King. We learned that butter won’t churn during a thunderstorm.

I spent most of my waking hours with Steph. We were blood sisters. Kinship—these stories are not about my family they’re of kinship, of bonding. Like a stray cat, I adopted, and was adopted by people. Maybe I was following the traditional kinship patterns of Irish foster parenting: maybe it's because of my own divorced parents who left me with my grandmother, so I gravitated toward that strange unit, the nuclear family. From each family, I learned a little of how to survive. The same is true of recent friends and lovers—they are my teachers. I only hope I gave them something in return for all the meals I ate as they gave me much more than food.

*        *        *

How much to trust memory with adult concepts of childhood feelings? Memory is faulty, a kind of fiction, what we remember and want to believe in, searching for patterns in this chaos we’re born into.

School in a random universe would have no logic; it is like memory—or false cognates in a foreign language— meanings suggested because our experiences with our natal language but the word means something entirely different—like exito in Spanish does not mean exit. When I was young, I remember saying to myself: Remember your childhood, remember your dreams, remember, remember everything because you will write about this one day when you are seeking something that was lost.

7/1/ 1987
Slightly revised 2/26/2014

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