At 4:30 PM I turn off the afternoon cartoons, put on my coat and head out to work. When I get out the door the cool air feels refreshing. A gust of wind comes and brings the smell of our neighbour’s wood stove, knocking down orange, yellow, and red leaves from the maple trees between our homes.
I crawl under the electric fence into the cow pasture. Fifty holstein cows are grazing in my friend Steve’s dad’s farm. In my day to day life before this, I’d only ever spent time with dogs. Now the animals I work with are twice as tall as I am. Most have long sharp horns and muscular legs. Steve tells me they’re gentle and won’t hurt me but still I’m afraid of them.
The field is wet with recent rain and smells of grass and manure. As I walk to the far end of the field to encourage the cows to get downhill to the barn I keep an eye on where I step. A cow pie could make a mess of my shoe, but there are holes in the ground where hooves have dug deep that could twist an ankle.
I work back and forth calling “Come on, time to go!” and the cows know what to do. At the bottom of the hill, Fred, Steve’s dad has already opened the fence and the cows are crossing into the barn. A car is stopped on the dirt road waiting for the cows to cross. The driver, the janitor at our school, waves to me as I cross.
The barn is lit by bare bulbs and is warm and humid. The smell of manure is in the air, strong, but not unpleasant. The cows go to their usual spots and start hooking chains to each of their collars to hold them in place for milking. Most are docile but after the first ten, one is having none of it and flails her head around, horns ready to poke an eye out. Steve told me what to do in this case the last time we were here. I shout “STOP IT!” but the cow isn’t listening this time. After yelling two more times, Steve comes over and grabs the cow’s collar and, dodging its flailing head he clips the chain in. I move to the other side of the barn, securing all of the remaining cows easily in place.
As I get to the last cow I hear shouting. This time it’s Fred yelling. I don’t know what it’s about but leave them to it. It’s their private family business. I go into the room with the milk tanks to wait for Steve with plans to play as we always do until dinnertime. Everything in the room is spotless and shiny. There’s a strong smell of milk and disinfectant and somewhere a motor is running.
Steve stomps in, and starts to mop the floor angrily. “You can’t yell at the cows.” he tells me.
“But that’s what you said to do when they won’t settle!”
“I’m just saying, my dad says not to yell at the cows. Don’t do it.” he says, his voice shaking
I’ve never heard him this angry and I go to him. “Hey, I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
Steve turns to me, eyes glistening, a red handprint on his left cheek.
“That’s OK. Just don’t do it again.”