The Branding

Sophie Palmer
Queen's University
Class of 2017

My aunt and uncle owned a big ranch west of the city and once a year in spring they held a branding. The branding was an act of ritual and masculinity, with the men taking turns holding calves down in the mud and pressing a red hot poker into the animal’s matted fur, a single bar and then a cross, while the more qualified veterinarians inoculated and castrated. My brothers and I would sit on top of the fence lining the corral, legs dangling down, trying to guess which lucky male would skip the final step, destined for a life of procreation.

The branding was the main event, but it was not the only event, for which we made the trip west of the city to my aunt and uncle’s. For the one day of carnival, there was the dailiness of all the rest of their life on the ranch: the stable scent of leather and manure; the sunhat my aunt wore in her garden and the long braid that tumbled out of it down her back; the preparations for winter that seemed to begin soon after the branding had ended.

I turned thirteen the winter before the surgery happened. My first period came, and I grew moodier. My youngest brother was admitted to hospital twice with croup, and my mother shuttled us back and forth from school to hospital to after-school activity.

Spring returned, but it was a cold one, and my brothers and I returned to the ranch one weekend, tactfully invited to let our mother have a break from the kids, hospital, and shuttling. Because it was calving season, my aunt and uncle were mostly out of the house, tending to the labouring cows and newborn calves. But the fields were still covered in patches of snow, and for my brothers and I, there was little to do but solve puzzles and watch movies.

On our second night there, a knock came on the door to our room, late in the night. A calf was stuck and the vet had been called. Groggy-eyed, my brothers and I followed behind my aunt, led by the sound of the cow’s lows and heaves over to the barn. The hay on the floor of her stall had been slicked down with blood and fluid, and her snout glistened in the light of my aunt’s lantern. My aunt turned to me, explaining that the calf could not be turned, and would have to be cut out. My brothers stood to the side, their rain boots making heavy imprints into the surface of the blood-soaked stall. I reached out and stroked behind the cow’s ears. I thought about how she might die when they tried to cut the calf out. I thought about the thick layer of blood on the floor.

What I remember the most about the veterinarian is her betadine. How after she shaved the cow, she poured across her side a rusty fluid, and rubbed it in widening circles. How the betadine ran down the side of the cow’s coat and dripped down onto the floor, the betadine and blood a kind of oil and water, a tide rising against our feet. As the veterinarian took out her scalpel and began to make the cut, I stared at the cow’s ear tag. We were told they should never be named, so I repeated back the numbers on her tag back as the incision grew larger. At some point my brothers padded back with my uncle to the house.

This cow gave birth standing up. There were no lights or drapes, no explanations or reassurances, only desperate lowing. There was a large needle to give a local anesthetic, and the knowledge that there was no other choice but to let her die. I counted the number of her tag in my head. Deftly, the veterinarian cut through hide, fascia, muscle, and uterine wall, layer by layer, by layer. But despite the care taken to deepen the wound, the film of blood on the floor grew thicker, and I counted her number, her number again I counted, and she lowed and she groaned.

The veterinarian donned plastic gloves that extended to cover the entirety of her arms as she leaned in deeply to the cow’s open abdomen. When the first hoof emerged from the pink, now gaping uterus, I realized the burden of giving birth, which is a burden of the animal world. The calf’s bony hoof was the size of my palm, and its four twisted legs must have pressed on her insides in every direction. My aunt leaned in as well, and with her grasping the legs and the veterinarian’s arms extended into the cow’s side, they pulled out the slippery calf, moving her onto some fresher hay and rubbing her vigorously to help her breathe. I stood aside, my own breath suspended, feeling a mixture of relief and trepidation. Standing next to the cow with the open abdomen, and watching the calf, finally beginning to breath, I felt—somewhat erroneously—that the emergency had been adverted. It was over. It was out. The calf was out. Eventually, she must have been cleaned off and her mother stitched up, both off to recover, but I cannot remember because she was out; she was already out.

Despite our lights and our drapes, explanations and reassurances, we share these burdens of the animal world. We grow tumours, our insides brittle with age, and mostly, we do not think of these things. Women bleed monthly, a subtle reminder that the miracle of new life includes the possibility of death. We divide ourselves in two based on the biology of our bodies, and the tasks they perform as they come together, and then move apart. We low, both in each others’ arms and apart. And because we are human, which is our biggest burden, we count and we name. We count ear tags. We cross our fingers and hope, and we try to forget that we are animal too.

 

 

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