A newborn calf is hard-wired for just a few things, but he does them very well: he can stand, walk, search for his dinner and get it put away, keep close to Mama and take long naps, all within the first few hours of birth. He’s almost always generously gifted at all those activities, and with every twelve hours he gets better at them. So when the college kids who came up from Florida to spend a few days at the monastery reported that they’d gone down to the pasture to look at the day-old bull calf and he wasn’t there, we just smiled. He was there, we were certain; calves are always near their mothers. After a good meal they’ll couch down somewhere within a short distance — a few dozen yards at most — from Mama and take a good snooze. A lump of brown calf and a lump of dirt, or pile of leaves, look almost identical, and a newborn can hide behind a pebble or a blade of grass, so there’s little use looking for them until they get hungry, but they’re there. But as the afternoon wore on, no calf appeared; and the cows in the small paddock were restless, calling with the regularity of a bell tolling, sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes on end, for that little calf, and he didn’t appear. ‘Those kids got the cows stirred up’, said Shawn, so we dismissed the event and went and milked the cows.
But afterward, as Delphinium, who is the calf’s mother, and her paddock companions, who only think they are, continued to call, I went out and looked around myself. The paddock they were occupying is at the edge of the woods, and the woods are at the edge of a steep gully (a ‘holler’, in the Appalachians), and all the grass for miles around is dead and short, with nothing more substantial than the skeleton of a stem of Queen Anne’s lace behind which a calf could hide. In the woods there are many fallen trees, often piled on one another, black in that mizzle rain and rotting, bound together with greenbriar and grapevine, creating lots of places where a calf could hide — or get stuck. Shawn took the milk home and I made a circuit of the paddock, then of the perimeter within twenty yards, then further. In the next hour and a half I quartered the edge of the woods three or four times, followed the holler back several hundred yards, then went up toward the road. I discovered an old spring tank full of algae and frogs (it was the frogs told me it was there), and came back across the front pasture, tearing through briars, searching, calling occasionally, praying often, sometimes hearing moos not shrill enough for a baby calf, and getting thoroughly soaked in the drizzle. In the end I went home to eat cold spaghetti.
‘Calves don’t wander off,’ the guys reminded me. ‘He’s there.’
Calves don’t wander off. He was there; and in the morning he greeted the milkers by racing around them in an erratic orbit as they drove them milk cows up to the barn.