life and death

Friday, April 26:

   At eleven p.m. thin luminescent clouds embrace the full moon, which is veiled but not hidden behind smears of silver.  Otherwise the sky is deeply clear, and so dark the stars seem to throb.  Three minutes in the green farm car with the pushed-in fender delivers us up to the monastery hill, where lights have been out since bedtime, at a monastic eight-thirty.  When our engine rumbles into silence and the headlights are switched off, moonlight takes over, illuminating without revealing, washing like rainfall across the hillside.

   We who in childhood were afraid of darkness – however and wherever there might be darkness — stand at the top of the hill looking down the shrouded slope to where the woods fold concealing arms around the pasture. Once the night was peopled for us with all manner of fearful things — beasts and monsters and devil’s urchins behind every door, under every rock or bush — now we note the chorus of a pack of coyotes, four soloists backed by a full choir, and raise absentminded thanks that they are here, on the west side of this chain of hills which restrains the Beautiful river like the hand of a strong man on an impatient woman’s sleeve, and not a mile away in our valley making plans to raid the hen house.

  We are here to make our late-night check on Poppy, the first-calf heifer who is due to drop her baby in the next week or so.  We have seen signs that she is gearing up to business, but so far nothing immediate, nothing urgent.  Nevertheless, somewhere down there the cows are bedded for the night, and we feel we must shine a flashlight at the rear elevation of our pregnant cow before we can go comfortably to bed.  We have brought it — the flashlight the light of which is to give us our good night’s rest — but we don’t need it to find our way down the back of the hill to where, close under the eaves of the wood, the cows have bedded down in an informal group, like girls at a slumber party.  Poppy is there, and she is as she has been every time we have checked on her this week; swollen vulva, swelling udder, but no sign of immediate onset of labor.

   The farm car roars to life like an International Harvester at a tractor pull, inviting passengers to consider whether they are more likely to be deafened by the thunderous rumble of its engines, or die a quiet death suffocated by carbon monoxide fumes.  One or two sisters will hear us from their plank beds in the convent and wonder if Poppy is calving yet; it is good to know they are interested.  The drive back home is punctuated by the sight of a fox’s sooty backside and bushy tail sliding under the guard rail alongside Barnes’s hayfield.  The sight is sobering:  coyotes are no match for a fox when it comes to raiding a chicken house.   Come to think of it, while foxes don’t bother livestock, a pack of coyotes can bring down a young calf.

   Perhaps we won’t sleep well after all.

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