The Fable of the Gentle, Old Cow

Maybell was a kindly cow, well into her years, older than the oldest cow in the herd by four calves. Maybell had born and raised thirteen calves, and was heavy with the fourteenth, though she had many, many granddaughters and great granddaughters and great-great granddaughters and even a small troupe of great-great-great granddaughters. Her hip bone poked through her coarse, thin hide, and several ribs showed themselves through the fur that was barely thick enough to ward off the chill of the springtime frost. She basked on new grass on the top of a hill in the morning sun that had cut through muggy fog, relaxing and feeling her calf thrash most uncomfortably in her belly. It would be very soon, and she would have yet another–perhaps her final–calf racing and bouncing and joining the other calves.

There was a bit of a stir up with the humans near the gate. The most curious and energetic cows crept to the gate. Maybell stayed where she was, knowing that they would announce the news.

“New arrival!”

Maybell gurgled and swayed to rest on her belly, casting a look back at the rest. Other older cows switched from their sides to the bellies as well.

“Odd time of the year,” huffed one. Herd members came and went after the hot days were gone and when the nights grew long and crisp and cool.

“I don’t want to fight for dominancy with this young one fighting my bladder,” grunted another.

Maybell sighed. She couldn’t see very well anymore–her eyesight was going the down the same path as her hide and fur and joints, but she was still the alpha female. It was as much tradition as it was her own stubbornness. “Let us  enjoy the sun a while longer, then, when she has fought her fill with the others, we shall take our turn.”

The other two agreed, indicated by a lazy swat of their tails even though no flies bothered them this early in the year, and went back to relaxing. Maybell couldn’t go back to sleep, though. Instead she watched the way the newcomer introduced herself to the others: hard butts, heavy shoving, lots of chasing those who gave up, and even angry kicking. Maybell thought this newcomer very rude indeed, and hoped a greeting would not cause her calf to come early.

When the new cow chased the most timid around the herd, Maybell decided it was high time to get it over with. Her old bones creaked, her joints snapped, even her eyelids made popping noises when she blinked away free-floating cataracts.

“New cow!” she called, “I am the great-great-great granddam of this herd, and I welcome you.”

The new cow, Maybell saw even past her clouded vision, was a stunning beauty–a deep-bellied, finely muscled cow with a slender neck, clean brisket, and luxurious black coat that gleamed in the light. However, her eyes squinted and wrinkled in the most unbecoming expression of royalty and snottiness.

“I do not want your welcome, ancient crone. This is my herd now, see how they flee!”

Maybell batted her still-long eyelashes and gave a low call, at which time the herd hastened to flock behind her, down the the last new momma nervously shooing her stumbling newborn to join the ranks.

“And see how they obey me,” said Maybell quietly, giving the newborn a nose to lean against when his leg failed him.

The new cow snorted and charged. Old as Maybell was, she knew how to dodge the young beauty’s kicks and butts, she knew how to place one grizzled, overgrown hoof squarely on the new cow’s tender nose, to step aside so the new cow would tumble into the pit the bulls dug in every summer to rid their backs of biting flies, to butt the new cow in her tender, budding udder. The fight could not be over soon enough, and Maybell chased off the new cow with one snort and two quick steps. Once more, she had won. But, Maybell’s time as leader was limited. Never before had she heard of a cow growing as old as she, and she could not keep up her station much longer. Once her station slipped, she would not have access to the choicest feed, and she would not survive the next winter.

Thankfully, the other two cows also defeated the new cow, and the new cow took her place as fifth in the herd. Though she did not raise her head to challenge Maybell again, she whispered insults at every opportunity.

“The humans won’t have much use left for you after this, old crone. You’re weak, you’re fatigued, you’ve spread your legacy too well through this herd. You’ll be gone with the calves.”

Maybell did not argue to this, for it was true. “You shall be gone as well, though you are very pretty, you are most foul-tempered and the humans will not tolerate it.”

The new cow snorted, “They shall not get rid of me until I have several daughters in with yours. And I happen to know I do not carry a daughter this year, crone. This herd will be mine.”

But Maybell was old and wise. The humans returned only the best of the female calves back to their numbers, and they were every bit as pretty as the newcomer. She knew her humans. “If you are so important, I challenge you to chase and butt the humans when they come to put an earring in your babe.”

The new cow positively fumed, “WHAT?”

“Certainly you’ve noticed each calf has a yellow tag,” Maybell said. Though Maybell could identify each calf and his mother by scent, humans could not.

“They shall not injure my calf!” swore the new cow.

And when the time came, the new cow indeed would not allow the humans to tag her new baby bull. The new cow urged her calf to run on the first day, though the poor thing was exhausted. When he was caught as he tumbled, she turned around and chased each person away. Fearing a little for the youngest human who was not as fast as the angry cow, Maybell stepped between them and let the humans hide behind her tired old frame.

“Be gone!” said Maybell. “Take your calf and hide him.”

With one last rush, the new cow did just that. Maybell stood still and batted her long eyelashes at the humans until they stopped shaking and regained their breath.

Her calf came that night. Or it should have come. Never had she failed to deliver a calf, but this one plainly would not come, no matter how she heaved and pushed. Should she fail to raise a calf, she would be sent away–and much sooner than when the others left. She wandered to the fence closest to the humans and bellered long and hard, knowing that humans had taken cows such as herself and let them go later. Sometimes with a new baby, sometimes without. But she still felt him move, and it was not too late. After some time, lights came out to her and her situation was soon realized. They gently chased her into the dreaded corrals, where they helped her. Soon, a weak baby sprawled in the mud. They forced foreign milk down her baby’s throat, just enough to give her some energy.

It was several days before Maybell and calf were strong again. Maybell had become ill, and the calf scarcely walked the first few days. The new cow taunted Maybell though the fence, displaying her strong young bull, promising to harass Maybell and eat all the tender grasses before her old joints could find them. For once, Maybell did not wish to rejoin the herd.

The humans came again, but this time they did not put her back with the herd. They opened a different gate and chased her up towards the human dwelling, to a small but lush pasture out front where the female human could look out the window and watch as Maybell’s calf grew strong and fat, playing with butterflies and the occasional calf that slipped the fence into their private pasture. The grass and alfalfa was sweet and strong, and she had a small roof to hide from the wind and rain when a storm came up. The smallest humans even came to them with juicy apples and sweet corn, and Maybell soon let them stroke her coarse old hair.

When the days grew short, the nights grew longer, and her calf was put in the corrals away from her, Maybell did not call for her calf. She had raised it, and like all the other calves before, her daughter would learn to be on her own and grow large and strong.  The day came for most calves and some cows to leave the herd permanently, and Maybell expected to go with them as she had no new calf in her belly. She waited patiently by the gate as her herdmates were sorted out. To her surprise, the small number of female calves were released in the pasture with her–including her own daughter. Other cows were let back into the big pasture. The new cow remained in the corrals.

“What? What is happening?” she demanded angrily. Her bull calf was in a small pen with a manger filled with sweet corn and dried alfalfa hay, but she was clearly in the pen with all those who were to leave.

Maybell wandered over to her, the tiny herd of young heifers following nervously. They would rely on Maybell for guidance, she knew now. What she did not know is she would guard each new group of young calves for the rest of her life.

“Well,” Maybell said, “It would seem they did not need several daughters from you after all. Only one bull.”

And that is the end of today’s Wednesday Fable. Come on back here next Wednesday for another.

—I take an hour a day to write “free” to help get myself into the work mode. Each day has/will have a theme, and the length will vary. Please excuse any obvious grammatical or story errors, as I don’t take the time to edit these. They are “raw”. Thank you in advance for your understanding!—

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