Her name is “Rohini.” I'm not too sure about the spelling. I never asked.
I think she's in the neighborhood of four years old, a shorthorn cow that was given to me two years ago toward the end of June when the valley's air was thick with smoke from the legendary lightning fires. Rohini had been living on a commune of sorts where the white people had taken on Hindu names and decided to start worshipping cows in the flesh, so to speak. The problem with their cow worship scheme was they had no pasture and in the drought of 2008 the price of hay went through the roof right along with the ballooning mortgage payments on the property, so they sent the cow to our farm.
Two women showed up with a brand new Dodge diesel rig and a chrome stock trailer. I remember the driver with her tanned, sinuous arms and blonde hair, maybe 40, in tight jeans and cowgirl boots.
Rohini was the classic shorthorn maroon with white belly and a star on her forehead, tethered, wearing a halter on her muzzle.
“Do you want me to leave the rope on her?” asked the blonde.
I hesitated for a second, in a hurry to get out of the acrid smoke and on to the hay field we were in the process of bailing out on Navarro Ridge where the air was fresh off the ocean.
“The other cows might gang up on her if she's on the rope,” said the other lady, a white chick with a bindi dot on her forehead.
“Shit, just take the rope off. It'll be okay,” I said.
As soon as she was unclipped, Rohini bolted like a bucking bull in the rodeo, sending clouds of drought dust into the air as she galloped to join the other cows off in pasture.
“She's a spirited one,” said the blonde. “We just separated her from the calf for the first time this morning.”
“The first time?”
Running the baler on Navarro Ridge that afternoon, I forgot all about the cow. I had a lot on my mind. My ex was leaving me after eight good years together and I was composing a country song to keep from losing it. Anyway the salt spray was thick on the ridge and I should have worn a wet suit, shivering in damp flannel as the windrows of freshly-raked fescue were tossed about like tumbleweeds.
Returning home that evening, I carried a bottle of beer out to the pastures, my blue heeler pup accompanying me to fetch in the cows just like we did every night. I didn't remember the new cow until I saw her bolting in front of the herd, exciting the pup who nipped and barked at her heels all the way back to the barn.
Not as worried as I should have been, I made the second mistake of bringing the pup along to help coax the cow into the pen beside the milking stall, where I learned the origin of the old rhyme, “the cow jumped over the moon.” Not only did she jump several wood or steel rails, but she splintered others and bent them to hell. I spent about an hour with the dog tied up, trying to use a bucket of grain to seduce Rohini back to the stall, but to no avail. I couldn't get close enough to clip the rope on her halter. All the next day I tried in vain, almost as if the cow was a metaphor for my relationship gone to hell and if only I could tether her somehow magically my ex would return and we could all be happy again. “Maybe you should just let her dry up,” suggested my ex after the second day, when, with the help of a soothing woman's presence, we'd managed to clip the rope on the cow, only to have her freak out and snap the brass clip like a dry apple twig. “She'll be okay.”
“Thanks,” I said, really meaning it. What a relief it was to turn the crazy cow out to pasture and forget about her.
Over the course of the summer and fall Rohini gradually warmed to me, and by December I was able to toss a flake of hay in front of her without having her jump with the wild glaze in her eyes — an expression that I could have sworn was identical to the passive aggressive variety in humans who have been abused. The other cows certainly knocked this girl around at feeding time. She was low on the totem pole. When her udder swelled in May and she was clearly due to calf, I actually took the cow by the halter and led her into the milking stall to gorge on busted up squash, making the mistake of leaving her alone to enjoy herself for a minute. It was a mistake because the alpha cow got pissed about Rohini being in there munching audibly, and the big bad girl butted the steel door, banging it against Rohini's ass. Rohini freaked out and tried to do a 180 in the stall, smashing the plywood wall to her right and contorting, shitting, bellowing.
On the morning she calved, I was the one who was catapulted into the air by her forehead just at the moment I determined she'd dropped a heifer. Clipping the rope on her tether proved easy enough at milking time since all I had to do was approach her from the other side of a rail fence and wait for her to charge in my direction with premeditated murder on her bovine brain. But then I usually needed my son or somebody to walk behind and slap her ass so I could lead her into the milking stall where she kicked me in the mouth and side of the head when I tried to attach the rubber milkers. I never did much boxing, but trying to get this cow milked must have been along the same lines as being in the ring with a heavyweight wearing brass knuckles until one afternoon when I was reading an interview of a couple British farmers from the 1880s, and one happened to casually mention the technique of cinching a rope around the cow's middle, right in front of the hip bones along the spine and the udder underneath so it was physically impossible for the cow to kick. “It works much better than chaining the back legs together, and doesn't anger the cow.”
Those old-timers probably saved me and the cow.
“How's Rohini?” asked her former owners when they called this spring.
“She's due to calf in May, I guess,” I said.
“You mean you had her bred?”
“Well, yeah. I have a bull.”
“Oh, I didn't want you to breed her with the bull. I thought you knew that.”
If she'd told me, I'd forgotten.
“Don't let her get bred again.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“I'll pay for the A.I. [artificial insemination]. I want to use sexed semen.”
“Yeah, so you're guaranteed a heifer calf.” Being Hindus, the people at the commune didn't want any offspring from Rohini to be butchered.
Rohini didn't freshen until the middle of June, this year. This time it was a bull calf. She doesn't kick in the milking stall anymore, but I still have to clip a rope on her halter before playing tug of war to drag her in, unless I feel like waking up my teenaged son in the morning to walk behind her.
But a new trick is working out most of the time.
The big alpha cow is apparently smart as well as aggressive, and when I'm ready to milk Rohini, I fasten the rope on the halter, then tap the alpha cow on the rump. She takes the cue and starts headbutting Rohini in the rear end, chasing her in.
I don't know what to do with the bull calf. I don't want him for breeding stock, and unless I feel like turning him into an ox the only other option is eating him which I've promised not to do. I'm torn between giving him back to the Hindus for them to deal with on the one hand, or just purchasing a short-horn heifer from my friends up in Orland and claiming her to be Rohini's new calf.