By Kate McDonough –
I’m awake, no doubt about it, and it’s cold, snapping cold in here. At least minus forty, I guess. This is the Chilcotin, after all, far away from the nearest town, Williams Lake, British Columbia. I can see my breath above the wool-stuffed comforter, a fog halo lingering above our heads. Jumbled thoughts revolve like prayer wheels, slowly, but soon crystallizing like the frost I see sparkling in the poplar trees outside our window. Then the images melt, turning into the face of a Jersey cow, fog rising from her nostrils and from her frosty back, and all too soon I see a steaming udder, tight and throbbing, hot despite the bitter cold. Not hot enough, I tell myself, her teats are probably freezing, right this very minute. Time to get up and milk.
A familiar resentment niggles my determination, but I move faster now as my skin recognizes the cold air. My bare feet sting as they hit the floor. Socks, more socks, wool long-johns, wool pants, wool sweaters over wool sweaters. No thoughts now, just action. Crumple the paper into the cookstove woodbox, arrange the kindling, light the match. On to the next fire, which is nearly out, but has enough glowing coals to require only small wood to get it going again, once I blow it up a bit.
I worry that the milk from yesterday has frozen, stored on the pantry floor in glass gallon jars. It has. The water bucket is solid ice. Put it on the stove to melt, no harm done. Feed the pigs the frozen milk. It’s not as if we don’t have enough of it. I make butter, yogurt, and cheeses all week, in addition to supplying some of our neighbours with fresh milk.
Fires stoked and crackling, I’m practically sitting on the cookstove edge, my favorite place to warm my backside, waiting for the water to boil for coffee and for scalding the milk pail. More wood, more wood. Tidy uparound the house just to keep warm, moving. I hear Buttercup now, protesting, see her at the barnyard gate, staring intently at our cabin, where smoke is surely beginning to rise from the stovepipe chimney. Or is it that she can really hear me stomping around, muttering? I believe so. She may even be telepathic.
Satisfied at last that the fires will go, that our log cabin will soon be warm enough for the rest of the family to get up and start the day, I put on the tattered brown canvas jacket I use for milking, and my old red wool toque. These are both essential attire, at least from the cow’s point of view.
She won’t allow me to milk her without them. Grabbing the now-boiling kettle, I scald the milk pail and a clean rag, stuff my hands into moose-hide mittens, open the door and step out into a frozen, silent, crystal palace. Hoar frost covers all the trees and bushes, as though they had been dipped in sugar. The contrast between the rimed branches and the intensely blue sky stuns me for a moment and I almost stagger at the beauty of this timeless world.
I make my way carefully, crunching along the icy path towards the barn and the cow. Sliding sideways through the gate, I receive another indignant “mooooo,” a toss of her terrible horns, and I flip the latch on the barn door (the only one on the place she can’t open) and let her into the barn.
Dairy ration measured into the feed bucket, I lock the stanchion around her neck with a clang. Crunch, munch. She is one happy cow. Soon, when finished eating, she will flip the bucket upside down with one horn, press her nose against the bucket bottom, and breathe deeply, sighing, while I milk her.
I love this cow, despite her cantankerous ways. I love her rich milk, her glorious Jersey cream, her grassy smell, and her heat. Simple pleasures amidst a trying life. Also, I am a Taurus. I think I should probably love cows, and therefore I do. I find them quite entertaining, actually. Slow to come to decisions, most are remarkably easy to read, once you understand general cow behaviour.
Mind you, never underestimate the speed with which a slow, dumb-looking bovine can take action, including hooking you with those horns, kicking you, or batting you with a tail.
They can sometimes fool you if you fail to notice what kind of a mood they are in. Generally speaking, though, cows are humorous, direct, and I believe they use their tails to signal their frame of mind. A cow in a good mood will lazily flick her tail, but regular, methodical slams to alternate sides indicate irritation. Tail straight out means she is panic stricken, scared shitless, literally, so watch out. Right now, Buttercup is snuffling the bottom of her grain bucket and moaning with pleasure.
I think I have been forgiven. I notice her tail half-heartedly twitching.
I gently wash her teats with the clean rag I’ve brought with me, and just as gently, grasp two of them. Her milk flows easily. Pull and squeeze, pull and squeeze. The stream of milk makes a drilling sound as it hits the stainless steel bucket. A fragrant sweet steam rises from the foamy milk, from our breath, from her back, on which the frost is starting to thaw.
I relax with the rhythm, leaning forward, my head against her warm flank. There’s a hollowed out place there, just made for this leaning. Breathing in unison, we are one, thoughtlessly dreaming.
I must be careful now. If my attention wavers, she knows immediately, and the spell will be broken. I am absolutely certain of this. I have been hit in the face by a smelly, frozen, shit-covered tail often enough to know. She could lift her back foot quickly, step right into the pail and ruin the milk, or just kick it over so I have to start again.
I concentrate harder. I relax even more. Her teats are sensuous, softer now that her bag is no longer filled to bursting. I’m really into the rhythm now, pulling and squeezing, switching teats, in the “flow,” as they say, forgetting to keep track of time or of the amount of milk in the pail, just focusing on this moment and the pure joy of it.
The bucket is soon nearly full. I strip the teats, one by one, thumb and forefinger pressing hard to get the last drops. Carefully, cautiously, remove the pail out of reach of those sometimes mischievous, sometimes spiteful hooves. We’ve made it through without a hitch. I come back to reality and forty below.
Milk splatters are frozen on my coat and pants, my hands are starting to burn with the cold. I fumble back into my mittens. Releasing the stanchion latch, I jump out of the way as Buttercup ceremoniously backs out of the stall and strides out the door. My daily morning routine with this cow is once more blessed. I am not frozen. I have a full bucket of warm frothy milk, pick it up and tromp back to the cabin through the crunchy snow to make breakfast.
Now a resident of Williams Lake, Kate and her husband moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1968. Starting in Anahim Lake working on a ranch, they gradually moved into the Kleena Kleene Valley, where they lived with their two children for eighteen years. Kate has been writing since childhood, and her work has been published in several magazines in years gone by: Interior Woman, North of Fifty, Mother Earth News, in the recent anthology Voices from the Valleys, as well as in local newspapers.