Freshening by Gwenna Johnson



Early one hot July morning my cousin took me with him in his dirty truck, the floor littered with V8 cans and vaccination records.  He was a Veterinarian and worked in Chester County on mostly Amish dairy farms.  I wore a pair of my brother’s old hiking boots and cut-off jeans, and couldn’t sit still the whole way there.  I loved cows.


We pulled down an unpaved road and passed the farmer’s wife in a field of tobacco.  She was stooped over, helping her two daughters spear tobacco leaves.  I talked with the farmer next to the milk house while my cousin pulled on a pair of Tingley boots and waterproof trousers.  We walked back through the free stalls to a holding pen where a cow waited.  I had never seen such a large animal before, nor such fearful eyes.


The cow turned as we approached, and I saw a horrifically swollen head sticking out from under her tail.


“She started freshening last night, I thought she’d pull through on her own but it seems like she wasn’t quite ready for it to come yet.”


My cousin worked fast.  He slipped on a pair of yellow gloves with sleeves up to the shoulder, cleaned wet manure and blood from the disfigured calf head, and sunk his arms into the cow’s vaginal opening. 


The calf was dead.  It came out in pieces.  My cousin and the farmer cut the calf to bits using a sharp wire contraption and lots of friction.  The first piece was its head and one front leg.  The face was disfigured, and the tongue stuck out between its jaws, blue and engorged.  Next came the other front leg, rib cage, and intestines.  They extracted the hips and hind legs last.  The spine stuck out, white bone between brown, chopped muscle.


While they worked I removed the calf pieces from the holding pen.  I carried the small head and laid it on the cement.  Returned later with a leg and shoulder.  I could hear the cow gasping and grinding her large, flat teeth.  The men sawed, the cow stomped and kicked, and I made a puzzle out of bloody calf pieces on the dusty barn floor.






© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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Gwenna Johnson