Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On Putting the Steer Down

I need to write about this now, both because the kids are playing at the neighbors and I have my first moment since Coyote's summer vacation began (okay, but first I took a shower.  I have my priorities. The boy is harder to watch now than when he was an infant.  He's got this dangerous obsession with the cans of spray paint in the garage.)

And also, the whole ordeal is beginning to fade, like it was some irrelevant frijoles-and-jalepenos induced nightmare. It seems possible now that I might forget it altogether. My brain has this wonderful way of doing that, pretending it was all just a dream and tucking it away in a poorly lit, neglected corner. But I don't want to forget.  It meant something to me.

It began with a phone call, as most tragedies have since Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone.  A couple hours after we bought the Prius, we were settling in for a Friday night movie.  I needed relaxation.  It'd been an intense couple of weeks and I could barely keep my eyes open even for Flicka. But I made the mistake of picking up the phone when it rang.  It was our neighbor, Beignet's new owners by less than a week, not long enough for him to NOT be mine.  He'd slipped two halters and jumped the fence.  They wondered if he might come if I came and called him, if I might help herd him back in.

I wanted to say no, to say "he's your problem now."  But I remembered how they helped us castrate him last year.  And other neighbors have helped several times with my own escaped cows.  Nope, this wasn't optional. But the next time I sell a cow, it goes to a stranger.

The kids were left screen-side.  Huck grabbed a bucket of grain.  And down the lane, all of 1/4 of a mile, we trotted.

Just as I wondered on to their property, Beignet dashed past Maria, Sergei and another neighbor.  And here he was, running, panting, refusing.  The open gate was wide and he wouldn't go in.  He never had.

He had this sense, that if you wanted him to go somewhere, he wouldn't (see previous post from two weeks ago!)  Many winter nights, I left him out in the cold because I could not get him in to the barn, the warm barn full of hay and grain and light.  He'd never been like Hendrika, a cow who would do anything, ANYTHING, for grain!  Wet tee-shirt contest, bull-riding, wear a frozen maxi-pad on her head and run around the house three times screaming "I am Married to a Martian!" (that's a middle-school slumber-party dare, FYI), anything for grain.  But Beignet, sure he wanted grain, but not bad enough to do ANYTHING for it. He'd gotten used to not having it.  Hendrika would ram him any time he came near the grain buckets.  I was worried about how scrawny he was and started feeding him separately from her, so that he could get something in the few minutes he had while she charged from pile to pile, goal-keeping at both goals.  He was bull-ied.  The butt of her every joke.  And yet, when he wasn't around her, you'd have never known him to be a victim.  He seemed to recover just fine.

I hadn't eaten dinner yet.  I was tired.  And I took the "fullback" position in this soccer-like game. Anytime he broke through the first line of defense, I rounded him up, running around the perimeter of five acres for over 30 minutes. At first, we were trying to herd him back in, lasso's tossing, holding branches to extend the reach and intimidation of our arms. And then we went from offense to defense, to simply trying to keep him out of the 200 acre wheat field that bordered their property, or to keep him off the road. 

It wasn't even as easy as running. They had started building a green house, ditch, and partial foundation and all, but then changed their minds, and the grass and weeds grew up around it and so you'd be running and running and suddenly have to leap a barely visible knee-breaker.  And they had lots of other "stuff" all over, beams, windows, wood stoves, planks, et al, hidden by long grasses and tumbleweeds.  Plus there was a huge berm, five feet tall or so, that Beignet could take in one leap, but we humans could not.  It was like a high-stakes, high-speed soccer obstacle course.

It was suggested that he'd go easily to our house.  But I nixed the idea that he was going to go easily anywhere.  He wouldn't trot back to our place, to his herd, especially if he felt the slightest hint that that's where we wanted him.  And there would be four other properties to access between the two places.  No, I said, I don't even want to try it, the risk is too great.

I wasn't surprised to see the guns. I knew that's what had to be done. I suggested it myself.  We were all tired and it seemed clear that although he was huffing and puffing and tired himself, he'd outlast our legs all night if he needed to.  He was stubborn, and his chest heaved proudly.

And they shot him.  I couldn't look away.  His head and body jolted back, in surprise at the ferocious BANG! and at the impact.  The bullet went right between the eyes, which turns out is NOT where cows need to get shot, my dad informs me now.  But Beignet started running.  Blood poured from his nose and mouth. And he ran.  And we blocked him, quietly as we could. He stood and breathed and poured blood.

The earth spun.  The ground came up to greet me.

He wouldn't die.  Ten minutes.  Fifteen.  There was no getting out of this alive.  It was already over for him, but he wouldn't let it go.

They pulled out another gun, a sawed-off something, but it jammed. It would have blown his whole head off.

They shot his legs out from under him with the regular old rifle, and he finally went down.  We were both on the ground now.

Sergei slit his throat open.

And he still wouldn't die.

Blood pouring from a huge open diamond in his neck.  And he lived five, ten minutes more, I don't know.  I couldn't see. I had to leave before it was final.

Maria had gone into the goat shed for this part.  But I wanted to see what I had been protected from my whole life, with our steers and freezers full of beef.. Some Saturday mornings, my mother would come in to my room, but instead of waking me she would pull down all my shades and forbid me to leave the room.  I would have put up quite a fuss too, if I'd seen.  I don't fault her for doing it, but I felt that now it was time to see what this was all about, but this was not best-case scenario.

They did their best, respectfully, and it had to be done. It was inevitable since the day he was born.

Maria said I should have gone home sooner.  I was crying, hard, when she found me in the grass.  She hugged me for a while and then I went home.  They had a long night of hard work before them.  She said, "Don't cry."  And I know, I know these are farm animals, that their purpose is for us, that they would not even exist, would not have ever existed if not for human need.  But it's important to me to feel what this all is, what this all means, what we really are: beasts of the earth with tools.  I let it all come, out and through me.  I felt like the universe herself was passing through my chest, crying for all the sorrow living brings. The irony of life, her marvelous creation, is the death that comes with it.

At home, the kids were amazing.  Blue, so inspired by Flicka, had turned the movie off, donned boots and jeans and was out working on Huck's rental work truck.

Coyote speared the ground with a wooden cross he'd picked up somewhere and laid some Butter and eggs toadflax (a flowery weed) by it.  Then we watched the rest of the sunset with his arm around my shoulders.

Huck made cheese and crackers.  And I know all about that cheese.  Maybe you think it's made with just milk, but it's made with blood too.  Even cheese has blood on it's hands.  And the honey we traded with the neighbors, I now call it blood-honey.

The poem that follows was meant to end with bitter irony, a chastisement for our needs, our killings, but instead, I found an odd peace and acceptance for our place.  This isn't a poetry blog, I know.  And I claim no expertise on poetry, except that I write one almost everyday, but I only share them with Huck, the long-suffering, award-winning husband.


The sun peered at us
through thunder heads
a sidelong glance from the closest
thing to eternity

Running in tumbleweeds
wild lettuce feral alfalfa
full of sun and juice

There are six long shadows,
beasts in a meadow
panting running chasing
five against one with four legs
all of us dust, dancing in eternity

You should have seen my boy,
hide like dusk and moonrise,
the strongest of us all,
we could never recapture
the beauty.

When the man cradled the rifle
finally at his shoulder,
I could not see anything

his head snapped,
and a red light poured out his nose.
The strongest beast
stubborn for life, ran.
We shot his legs from under him.

We laid down in salsify,
the energy of the
sun transformed
into grass
into my steer
into me
and let go
for the darkness
to wrap warm hands around my head
and to again bring breath to us
where the sun
flows from the wounds in our throats.

His body, jerking heaving
steam pouring up
into the long shade
and gold air
I breath him in.


coyote's long war cry into the night
quail screams
gofer and owl
mouse and my house cat is fat with the wild

And I am another beast of this turning earth too,
devouring sunlight
rise     breath     flow     set
spin into light
into night
into light
into night


  1. Sarajoy, I read "Putting Down The Steer" this early Saturday morning and I am again impressed and deeply touched by the way that you craft words into a narrative. You are certainly a gifted storyteller. Thank you for sharing your gift.

  2. that's all I need to hear.... no cattle for us. Hope you are recovering! xo



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