When I was a child, I sometimes stayed over on the family farm, where I played pinochle into the evening with my grandparents and uncle, leaning close to Grandma when I didn’t know which card to play. At nine-o’clock, we climbed the dark steps and then Grandpa turned out the lights. That foreign bedroom with its tall windows looking out on the moon-blanched barnyard, the cows all sleeping shadows in the meadow, and nearby, the snores of my grandparents and uncle—all faded into the soft mattress.
One night, Uncle Harry nudged me awake. “Get dressed,” he whispered. “Quick.” He shined the flashlight in my face to make sure I didn’t go back to sleep. I tried to ask why, but his silhouette disappeared down the stairs, so I dressed and tiptoed after him; my grandparents kept snoring in the next room. I guessed it was two or three in the morning, some hour I had never seen before.
Uncle Harry waited in the kitchen—he stood in the middle of the room, his arms thick as posts, hands dangling, shoulders stooped. He told me then, handed me gloves, and together we headed to the dairy.
We parted the sweet bloom of lilac that hung by the door. In the yard, I stopped to take in the stars—stars on top of stars, stars I could spend my whole life counting, stars I’d never know. Uncle Harry kept walking, so I hurried to catch up to the light that moved in circles.
. . . The smell of crushed hay, tang of manure, and something else I couldn’t name.
The barn was empty except for the cow. She lay on her side, blue-brown eyes wide. She watched us, but didn’t raise her head. Her black-and-white chest rose and fell, quick breaths sounding like a far off saw. Straw stuck to her nose. Her belly so round. The smell of crushed hay, tang of manure, and something else I couldn’t name.
One pink hoof protruded. Uncle Harry had managed to squeeze his hand and a rope into the womb, but he couldn’t work the other hoof loose, so the rope tied onto that one leg, nothing else.
I understood then: Grandma had arthritis in both knees; Grandpa had emphysema and sometimes couldn’t climb the stairs; it was just me and Uncle Harry. He nodded for me to grab ahold. We braced our feet and on the count of three, we heaved. The cow heaved, too. We slipped in her manure and started over. We leaned and grunted. The cow bellowed. Each pull—slowly ankle—each heave—slowly knee—each jerk—a shoulder—burned palms—a nose—burned thighs—that face—and again—appeared. One more heave and the slick body slipped out. Uncle Harry tickled its nose, scratched its face, tapped its muzzle. Nothing. Nothing but the cow trying to get up, look back, lick clean her newborn. Nothing but those long, still eyelashes.
On the walk back, the stars were like little firecrackers we never heard.
Blue. That was the color of the star-burned sky. The color of the cow’s placenta I stepped over. The color of the stillborn’s nose.
Jim Minick is the author of four books, the most recent, The Blueberry Years (Thomas Dunne, 2010), a memoir that won the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year from Southern Independent Booksellers Association. His novel, Fire Is Your Water (Ohio UP), is due out in 2017, and he recently won the Jean Ritchie Fellowship. His work has appeared in many publications including Oxford American, Shenandoah, Orion, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Sun. Currently, he is Assistant Professor at Augusta University and Core Faculty in Converse College’s low-residency MFA program.