There is a new calf up the road. The girls and Chris have met her; they have seen her sleeping on a bed of hay in the tiny barn. Grace named her, as she has named all the cows who live in the field behind our house.
I have not seen the calf yet. These have been dark and busy weeks. I have been preparing Christmas for two children, and I have found the process to be something like a pregnancy: tiring and joyful, full of tasks I don’t want to do but don’t want to let anyone else do, either. And so I am shopping and baking and writing list after list. I let a friend talk me into a homemade gift project for teachers and neighbors, so every night while Chris watches old episodes of Northern Exposure I work at the dining room table, cutting stencils from freezer paper with a craft knife. I curse and laugh; I drink wine and eat chocolate bars and call out to Chris, telling her that I am never, ever doing this again. I figure out how to make my mistakes look intentional.
On the Sunday before Christmas we are meant to be four different places at once. Instead we are all home, sharing a cold. I am annoyed by this, although I don’t know yet that the worst of the holiday illness is yet to come. I am frustrated and feverish and tired of being in the house. “Take a walk,” Chris says. “Go see the calf.”
I don’t’ want to go for a walk but I do. I put on my boots and hat and coat and make my way up the road. Our neighbor Jackson has been farming in this field for almost a year, and we have seen the entire transformation. We have watched as he plowed the field and planted the grasses for grazing, and then planted them again when the first crop didn’t take. We were there when the mother and her calf arrived. We endured their attempts at escape. Once the pair (Lisa and Bella) discovered there was a grazing herd across the road they became hell-bent on joining them. They wailed and bellowed all night long, wanting to be with their kind. And when no one freed them, they broke through the fence, again and again. They wandered across our yard, pushed their noses against our dining room windows, waded through our garden, scampered nervously away from the inflatable beach balls rolling across the grass. There was something lovely about falling asleep to the sound of cows lowing in the field, but there was nothing lovely about waking before dawn to the sound of a toddler crying because the cows were lowing right outside her window.
We called Jackson morning after morning and he came down, barefoot, with a bucket of grain and a rope. We watched from the window as he and his brother and the farmer from up the hill tried to corral Lisa and Bella and get them back behind the fence. Eventually they cooperated, but they never stayed for long. Finally Jackson acquiesced and brought them to live with the herd. During the late summer and fall he saved his money and by Halloween he had enough to buy another cow, a pregnant Hereford that Gracie christened Lola. He turned up the charge on the fence, brought Lisa and Bella home, and started a herd of his own.
The girls love these cows, these gentle giants. Grace is old enough now to walk up the road herself, and sometimes she and a friend will push doll strollers along the gravel road to the small coral where Jackson feeds and waters the cows. They sit on an old porch swing hanging near the fence and talk to animals, offer them long pieces of grass through the fence.
We have been waiting a long time for Lola’s calf: no one knew how far along she was when Jackson bought her, and so he has been racing to finish a barn for her, not knowing exactly when she might need it. All through November we watched it go up — first the tall and thin tree trucks he used for posts, then the walls built from rough-hewn and mismatched lumber. The finished barn has three walls, a slanted roof, a dirt floor.
I walk up the road toward the barn and I am cold. Everything is white and gray now; the sky is the color of waiting. I walk across the first field, past the swing, and I look into the barn. Jackson is there, standing next to calf. I am startled by how tall he is: I have known him since he was 14 years old. He is holding a gray kitten.
“I hear there is a baby,” I say.
“Right here,” he says, gesturing to the tiny stall next to him. The cat bolts out of his arms and across the field toward the house.
I can barely make out the calf’s form in waning light. She is as black as a crow’s wing. There is much rustling as Lisa and Bella jockey for spots in the barn; Lola, like the tired nursing mother that she is, does not raise her head from the feeding trough when I approach.
I ask how things are going, and Jackson tells me that the calf is fine, but he is tired. He has been sick, but there are animals that depend on him now so he is having a hard time resting, a hard time getting better.
“I hear her name is Sparkle,” I say. “Is that okay with you? She’s so black.”
I can see Jackson smile. “It’s fine,” he says. I know the names don’t mean so much to him; I know that both his affections and his distance from these animals run in deeper and more tangled reservoirs than ours ever could: he devotes his days to keeping them alive so that one day he can kill them. But I am so grateful to him for letting Grace name these cows. I am grateful to him for persevering, for growing this small and gentle herd. And on this last Sunday before Christmas, I am grateful to him for building a small three-sided barn with a slanted roof, and for tending to the beasts and the baby in the hay.