leapt at the gate and the old wood split in two, making a path through
to the outer pasture. The bawling in the early-morning field
she'd just left quieted. The other cows were lined up along
the fence to watchunwilling, it seemed, to venture far from the
barn. Already they smelled winter. Zelda, though,
wanted out. It wasn't that she was hungry. She
was off her feed for a time, she'd eaten everything: hay, ground corn,
prickly ashes and nettles. But now these foods didn't tempt
her. She needed solitude, a quiet spot to drop the load inside
her. She charged ahead on the hard October dirt, where a
thin, cold rain was starting to fall. She shuffled about,
peered back at their flanks as though she'd swat a flythen rammed
a second fence.
But this fence gave a jolt. Something
sharp zinged through her, penetrated the bones. She wouldn't
give up. She rammed again, and again, until the pole was
knocked sideways, then, when a sharp pain scissored through her insides,
gave up. She turned sideways into a declivity of dried underbrush,
near a cold stream, into a hole partly dug; she smelled dog, but only
on the bone that was half-unearthed there. She trampled it
back in, almost; with her back feet shoved in damp red leaves, the wind
did the rest. She beat her head against the fence, mewling. Somewhere
a crow called, a cricket spoke. A soft grayish pink crowned
the mountains to the east.
She thumped down on the frosty grass, cramped
into a swollen sigh; the birth sack heaved with each bellow. Her
noise was echoed by the wind, and by the other cows, watching at a distance,
like women at a home birth. Her insides screamed; her breath
squealed as she pulled in, pushed out, bellowed again. And
then an ivory hoof kicked out, a black head, followed by white shoulders,
and ribs like furrows of hard earth. Finally, it lay there
on the ground, a bloody steaming package of spindly limbs. Zelda
licked the soaked calf dry, then lifted her head and trumpeted her prize.
Back in the inner pasture, she heard answering
Ruth Willmarth arrived on the scene a half hour
later with Joey, the hired man's foster boya bit backward but
a sweet lad and useful for all that. He'd burst in that morning
before she could even grind her morning coffee beans. The
calf was already up on its stick legs and sucking. Zelda
had tried to hide it, of course, but a bit of rummaging located the
calf behind a pile of brush, by the stream that meandered over from
the Flint farm to the south. There was no use scolding Zelda
for breaking out. It was her first calf; she'd been ornery
from the start, a dominant cow, though not always a leader.
They'd gotten her to replace poor Charlotte, burned to death in last
spring's barn fire.
And here the miserable cow had broken through
a gatemore work for them all when there was still late corn and
alfalfa to be gotten in. It was already mid-October and
the beast had practically battered down the pasture fence in its birth
"Ow," said Joey, his bony fingers
leaping back from the hot wires. Ruth clucked in sympathy
and pulled him away.
Her husband, Pete, had electrified those wires. She'd
been meaning to switch them off, actually. Pete was in New
York. "We'll get Tim to fix the fence; you can help,"
she told Joey. "But we have to get this calf back in
the barn. Now Zelda's had it, she won't want to feed it any
longerwhat do you bet? Not much of a mother, I'm afraid."
It was true. Already Zelda was rolling
away from the calf, her white switch whirling like a helicopter as she
moved off through the open gate, toward the other cows. They
parted to let her through, then followed her lead, over to the pond
that already had a rim of ice on it. The calf just stood
there on unsteady legs and gazed at Ruth with plaintive brown eyes,
wanting to suck.
"I haven't got anything for you,"
Ruth said. "My milking days are over. But
Jane Eyre does. She's a good mom. She'll share." Ruth
had named her cows after favorite characters from books, like Jane or
Esmeralda, and from movies, like Dolly Parton. Zelda, for
example, had been named for the wife of a novelist, who'd claimed his
wife had stolen all his subject matter. Of course, Ruth's
husband thought her crazy; to him, cows were merely objects that gave
milk. But Pete had taken off with that actress womanthough
things weren't going so well with her at the moment, according to Ruth's
daughter Emily, who spoke on the phone each weekend with her father.
It gave Ruth a certain satisfaction to hear that.
She put an arm around the calf's neck, propelled
it gently toward the barn. Already, the red and gold leaves
were crackling down off the trees, the tourists heading home. In
Vermont, winter came early. A hard wintershe could
feel it in her bones. An aching in her joints.
Behind her, Joey yelled, "Hey, Ruth, Ruth,
look what I got. Ruthhey, look!"
She turned, and the calf sank down on its black
knees, stumbled into a hole. She hardly saw what Joey held
out; she was trying to tug the calf upright again. She needed
the animal; the herd was down to twenty-nine, an all-time low. She
couldn't afford to buy a grown cow, since times were bad: everything
was going upfarm machinery, chemicals, fertilizerand her
buying power was dropping. Some weekends, when Pete called,
she wanted to give in, say, All right, all right, I'll sell; we can
liquidate. You can have your half in cash, if that's what
you want. And of course that was what he wanted.
"I thought, jussa bone," Joey said. "But
look, look, Ruth, it's got a ring. A bone with a ring." His
hair was almost white with frost, and his mouth with its two missing
front teeth, was set in a grin. His words came out with a
slight whistle. "Ruth, you gotta come see."
She smiled. When Joey got an idea
in his head, he wouldn't let go. She let the calf loose and
it staggered on ahead, toward the barn, as if it knew already where
the feed was. Sighing, she looked at the bone Joey held out,
and was surprised to see it was a finger, a long brownish fingernot
a hoof, not a skeletal paw, but a human finger. A finger
with a narrow gold ring above the bony hump of knuckled joint.