My parents would buy a few cows every season to supply our family with meat for the coming year. I had a terrible habit of naming the cows despite my knowledge of their ultimate demise and I would care for them during the summer months when I would visit my grandparents’ farm. I loved stroking the soft spot on the ridge of their nose and listening to the methodical sound of their teeth chewing the grains. I liked the swish of their tails and the raspy lick of their tongues whenever I came with salt blocks for them. And as I was the only child on the farm, I spent a lot of time talking to the cows and making up their responses back to me.
When the time came to fill our freezer with packages of white waxy paper wrapped around slabs of meat, men would arrive at the farm with all the necessary equipment. Curiosity and boredom would find me down at the pasture, perched on the white fence to watch the end come for my beloved bovine pets. I somehow accepted what came next, no matter my attachment to the cows, because it was the natural course of things. My grandmother would be there with me too, to supervise the men while my grandfather was away working. And probably also to make sure that I did not get in the way of the men.
The men, their faces inscrutable and detached, always moved briskly to herd the cow into a small area where one of them would then quickly shoot her squarely between the eyes. Once she had buckled to the ground, the men would move in and expertly cut her throat and pump her legs so that thick blood would gush out onto the ground. Then they would chop and saw up the cow – the sawing being quite a horrendous thing to smell and see – and bring parts of her into my grandmother’s kitchen for final cleaning and preparation. There was very little chatter among the men as they went about their task – only those words necessary to complete the job.
One time, one of the men seemed new and a little nervous. When he lifted the shotgun, he hesitated and in doing so, missed the magical spot between the cow’s eyes that assured quick death. The cow staggered and groaned in misery. The new man stood awkwardly, embarrassed by his failure, but the other men did not wait to measure and judge this man for his mistake. They instead jumped forward to bring the cow to the ground so that she could be brought to her death. The cow struggled against the men and kicked and moaned pathetically. She was slippery with blood from her wound and the men, in a full sweat, were cursing and grunting as they finally pinned the bloodied cow firmly to the ground. They looked to the new man to finish the job, maybe as a way to redeem himself, which he did with a sledgehammer – a sound that has never left my memory.
From my perch on the fencepost, I watched, every part of my body tense with anguish. My grandmother held me to the fence with her hands and watched in silence, letting the men do their job without her interference. I could see the wild confusion in the cow’s face, those big unblinking eyes staring at the men with tremendous fear, the frothy cud dangling from her meaty lip and her heavy jaw and throat quivering with high-pitched guttural mawing until the sounds finally faded away and her big eyes finally fluttered closed.
That time, it was like I had never seen a cow butchered ever, and I suddenly had lots of questions. There were so many things I did not understand about what happened, but when I tried to ask my grandmother all my questions, she gave me her usual very practiced vague non-responsive statements, which was a bit like talking to an oracle in riddles. And so I had walked around making up my own answers. But honestly, my own answers didn’t sit well. After that summer, every cut of meat from the farm seemed tainted to me, filled with the taste of fear. I stayed away from the cows. I would beg my grandmother to make her famous corn and potato soup for dinner whenever she suggested we eat beef of any kind. I took to collecting eggs from the hens and taking care of my grandmother’s large garden. I climbed trees and picked fruit and looked after the stray cats on the property.
Years later, I would see my grandmother in the hospital, a few days from death. When I looked in her face, I could see that cow, just like it happened yesterday. I still had no good answers and my grandmother was herself beyond all answers.