A Sorrow of Mothers

Somewhere in the fields, a cow gave a mournful cry for its calf, calling for it to come drink its breakfast. Mae’s eyes opened slowly, taking in the sun’s light as it slid through the window blinds and reflected off the bedroom’s blue walls. She closed her eyes again as if she could slip back into sleep. Her hands gripped the blankets and pulled them tighter. She was still not used to the emptiness of the bedroom since John had left. The absence of his heavy breathing beside her was an eerie new sound she did not know how to escape.

Mae stumbled to the kitchen and started the coffee pot. She poured a bowl of corn flakes, but she could only get down about half before giving up. Her appetite wasn’t as big as it used to be.

The cow’s cries continued, quicker and more agitated. From the kitchen window, Mae stretched her neck until she saw the cow pacing from one side of the field to the other. The cow then climbed the hill, following the cow path in the direction of where the rest of the herd could not be seen but where they should be grazing.

All of Mae’s cows had names, and this one’s was Misty. She was a Polled Hereford and colored as such, a stark white face and neck set against a deep maroon color, like maple leaves after they’ve turned and fallen from the tree. Called White-Faces for obvious reasons, they were big, gentle animals. This frantic pacing was not normal. When Misty could be seen coming back down the hill, still crying, Mae knew for sure something was wrong.

Misty was one of Mae’s favorite cows. She was well-tempered and would allow Mae to rub her on the nose. Mae had named her after a neighbor child born the same week. The human Misty was a beautiful child with dandelion fluff hair and a manner that took in all the wonder of the world. It occurred to Mae as a strange thing now that the two Mistys were the same age, and yet one was still only a little girl while the other was a full-fledged adult who now had her third baby calf.

Mae found John’s work boots in the bedroom closet behind an unmarked box she knew was packed with baby clothes she no longer had use for but couldn’t yet give away. She remembered hiding the boots there, thinking if she could keep them out of sight, perhaps she could keep John out of her mind. But his voice echoed in her head, this time warning her to not get too far from the house without a gun. She grabbed his 12-gauge shotgun and some shells in case dogs or some wild thing had killed the calf and were still lingering. John used the 12-gauge mostly for deer hunting. Every year since they were married, John had killed a deer somewhere on the farm with this gun. It was good for close range, and she still wasn’t sure why he had not taken it with him.

Outside, the morning air caught Mae by surprise. It was too cold to breathe deep. So her air trailed behind her in short gusts. A thin layer of frost covered the world around her—the grass, the fence rails, the barn roof across the pasture. It was the first frost of the year, full of beauty but also a promise of a hard, killing winter to come.

Misty’s eyes latched onto Mae. She ran to her like a big pet dog. The cow still cried, trying to impart something to her.

Mae knew enough, had seen enough about animals of all kinds, to know the power of the human voice. She hoped Misty might be calmed by her familiar speech, and she spoke in low tones to the animal. “What’s wrong girl? Where’s your calf?”

Misty had no time for talking. There was as much desperation in her wide eyes as there was in her strained calls. She looked at Mae with intent and took off without waiting for Mae to keep up.

Before Mae reached the head of the hollow that led to the upper pasture, she saw Misty standing where the fence line met the woods. The calf lay on the ground, beneath the strands of wire. Relief surged up through Mae’s body but only for a moment. She drew closer and found the calf’s body motionless and no longer breathing. Then she saw where a limb had fallen from a tree at the edge of the woods. The limb had landed on the calf and pinned her down.

Misty had placed her baby there, believing it a safe hiding spot. Now that the most terrible thing had happened, the cow could not comprehend. The mother cow reached her neck down and sniffed the calf’s body. She breathed in her baby’s scent, the individual smell of her calf that was like no other smell on this earth, and she rid herself of any doubt this baby was her own. Her pink tongue licked behind the calf’s ear, trying to rouse it. When this didn’t work, Misty gave another woeful cry. She was a beautiful cow with blue eyes, and this morning, they were sad and big like a harvest moon winter.

She looked to Mae, putting all her hope in the one human she knew best and trusted most, as if Mae were a god who had the power to change the world. Mae remembered that feeling, that last vestige of hope, and how she had held onto it herself until it too died away.

“I know old girl. I lost a baby too. Not that long ago.”

She reached out her hand, palm facing the cow, finger tips slightly extended, but the cow would not come any closer. Misty was unwilling to be touched now. Even the kindest of human touches would not help at this moment.

With some effort, Mae crossed through the barbwire fence. She leaned her gun against a wooden post in order to use both hands to lift the limb and pull the calf’s body free. She dragged the little calf further into the woods. Misty watched, making nervous dancing motions, unsure whether or not to come nearer. The cow was so nervous, her whole body trembled. Past the line of young pine trees, Mae found a giant white oak with knobby roots twisted out of the ground. She left the calf’s body there against a canvas of fallen leaves. She gathered some limbs and stones and covered the calf like the old people did when a proper grave could not be dug.

Mae reclaimed the gun and drove Misty further into the pasture where they found the rest of the herd. She hunkered down on her knees and watched the cattle until Misty began picking, and she left the cow there because there was nothing else to do. When Mae turned back, she found the big White-Face’s eyes following her as she walked back home.

On the way down the hill, she spotted a buck along the cow path. She wished John were there to see him. He would be excited to come across the animal in this accidental way, to claim later how lucky he was to have his 12-gauge with him. Mae was so lost in her thoughts she jumped when she realized how close the buck was. He was a beautiful animal with a young rack. She counted four points. The gun rose to her eyes, and she looked through the sights.

He took a step forward. The muscles in his shoulders tensed, ready to charge towards her. His movement seemed exaggerated with her one eye closed. She waited to see if he was brave enough to come closer, maybe even attack her.

If he moved another step, she would shoot. She wasn’t sure the 12-gauge would kill him instantly, but she was confident enough of her aim to know she could hurt him and have enough time to reload. She had gone hunting with John and been there when he took down bigger deer than this one. She had never killed a deer herself, but there was no doubt in her mind she had the ability for it.

The rest of her day magically unwound before her. If she killed the deer, she would go home and call John to come and help her clean it. They would hang the little buck from the walnut tree in the back yard. Once the blood had drained, they would cut and wrap the meat for the freezer. They could eat venison steak for supper, and maybe she would ask him to spend the night, maybe tell him to come back home. She could make deer roast with carrots and potatoes for lunch on Sunday, and they would laugh at what a turn of events it was for her to have killed this year’s deer.

The buck still looked at her, frozen in the little mist the sun pulled up from the frosty ground. The soft rays of light shone on his brown coat. She realized how fast her heart was beating, still sad for Misty, for their common grief. It made her think she had probably had enough death for the morning. For her whole life really.

Winner of the 2008
Alabama Writer’s Conclave
Fiction Prize

Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together. He is a graduate of Lincoln Memorial University, where he works as a fundraiser and co-directs the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival. He is also an editorial staff member of the online journal Smokelong Quarterly. His story Authentically Weathered Lumber received the 2007 Gurney Norman Prize for Short Fiction through the journal Kudzu. Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in Birmingham Arts Journal, Appalachian Journal and in the anthologies Outscape: Writings on Fences and Frontiers, Freckles to Wrinkles and MOTIF: Writing by Ear.

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