My mother came of age on a dairy farm in the frozen lands of our upper Midwest. Two parents and eight kids stuffed in a tiny box. Dozens of cows in a fenced-off pasture. Some heifers gave birth. Others harbored an aborted fetus. Placental sacks in a vaginal canal. The family was poor and couldn’t afford losses but still death and disease struck the herd. When one croaked a man came to haul it away. Its fate unknown. Perhaps burnt to cinders. When an infant passed I imagine the same.
Those kids still living took turns each morning to herd and milk the cows. Feed the calves and hay the barn. In there the four stomachs of a fat creature made silage into milk. Further down the intestinal chain a lesser alchemy occurred. Slop to shit. They used it to heat their feet while working in winter. Each kid coated in cow shit.
I spent time on that farm too. Now it did better. Still poor but less so. Toilet turned from outhouse to bathroom. Its children grown and gone. Just the dad and one son left to tend the work. The two kept cows ’til my grandpa passed in winter. They found him frozen, dead from shoveling snow.
In the years before that I helped out. Little tasks that tired but weren’t technical. I hauled buckets of milk to fill the feed nipple of each calve’s enclosure. They suckled rubber teats, a sad simulacrum of their mother. An off-kilter cousin lowered his pants and made one lick his dick. Long laps on salty skin. An errant search for food.
I watched each step at milking time. It was fast and loud. Wet and chaotic. We wore rubber boots. Stood on rubber mats. The retrieval room was narrow. Formed from cement. Cows passed from holding to a tight platform. Teats were sprayed with disinfectant. Hoses hooked to udders. Glass containers splashed then filled with foaming milk. The creamy money crop procured.
I felt scared of the cows, so heavy and huge, each pissed and painted like newspaper. Still, into their barn we went. Us kids in the rank enclosure. It was lit low. Smelled pungent. A rancid mix of shit and piss, of cows in stalls both silent and steaming. They never seemed happy to see us. Stood from hay to stare and moo in anger.
The barn floor was smeared with shit but each stepped barefoot. Enveloped feet in endless muck. Its warmth brought comfort. Mud bath at a luxury spa. I slid and played. Skin sticky with shit and straw. I paid no mind to filth. To sickness. Just stomped through splats. Looked for those just birthed. Footprints making memories. Hot shit between my toes.
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