DISCLAIMER: This essay includes graphic descriptions of animal blood and death.
Pigs scream. Sheep close their eyes and give up. Inquisitive cattle step in to the slaughterhouse bobbing their heads; nervous ones refuse to enter. There is only one death but there are many ways to do it. Any livestock farmer knows that. But it is not a profound knowledge to be contemplated with gently misting eyes, overlooking the acreage from the tip of some stark yet beautiful hill. It’s bon appétit.
In January, I went to the Lawson livestock farm to help with lambing/calving season. The idea was to witness the “miracle of birth” without committing to med school or progeny. For any reader here on a similar mission, I admit now: I did not witness birth. The closest I got was when I walked in on Biggy Cheese, one of the dozen livestock guardian dogs (LGDs), chewing up Sophie’s placenta like it was three sheets of bloody bubble gum. I was always 2-5 hours late. With such disappointing precision I missed the live births of three lambs, two calves, and five bunnies. But I witnessed other things which, if I write this essay correctly, you will witness too.
The Lawson farm is located in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. The property is bounded by a forest and open hills in the north; at the south, a nursery barn and 1950s farmhouse. The farmhouse is where helpers live. Half is a gutted rot of wood planks, cobwebs, and sawdust. The other half is new floors and secondhand furniture. The heating system is a set of electric coils in the ceiling. With nights that drop to 10 degrees and days in the 20s or 30s, one finds oneself boiling water to generate hot steam for the hands, sleeping exclusively in a fetal position to keep blood in the legs, and packing four shirts into a single pair of overalls. On mornings of rare sunny days, resident humans and flies alike gather at the east-facing window.
80+ sheep, 25+ cattle, 15 rabbits, 6 pigs, 30+ ducks, 25+ chickens, 5 horses, 8+ barn cats, and 12 working dogs to keep everyone out of coywolf jaws. The sun rises over a distant pond and turns it neon pink. The air is a frozen silver spray which varnishes the moldy fences, mud heaps, broken toilet on the deck; shit piles, twisted corroded equipment. Clouds blow from muzzles and beaks. Take an afternoon walk across the property, and hilltops rise all around, so the world’s reduced to white horizon and waves of stiff grass, scattered with thornbushes. Tread with care—the mud can suck up rainboots. Doing chores, make sheep noises back at the sheep, goat noises back at the goats; alone, one must amuse oneself. When dark comes, the forest sometimes resounds with the wails of middle-age women getting murdered. This indicates either middle-age women getting murdered or coywolves, and the listener better pick a religion and pray for the latter, because the only mode of under-the-pillow self defense that gets through TSA is a screwdriver.
At my arrival, Tim Lawson gave me a tour of the farmhouse. “Some basics to start,” he said, opening the fridge. Six eggs, carton of milk; celery, carrots, tomatoes. He shut the fridge and opened the freezer. Empty—except a gallon Ziploc bulging with blood and meat. “Don’t eat that,” he said.
He shut the freezer very quickly, I thought.
After he left, I went back to make sure it wasn’t human flesh. With relief I observed that the bag seemed to include patches of gray fur. Coywolf? I took it out and gave it a 360. Closed eyes with eyelashes. Cross section of squishy white teeth. Pink gut; crimson blood. All frozen solid as a rock. One week later, new helpers arrived at the farmhouse and asked if the meat was edible. I had forgotten. I texted Lawson: “What is the furred meat in the freezer?”
“It’s not meat,” he texted back. “It’s a couple of stillborn lambs from last season that I’ve been intending to compost.”
Stillborn is a lucky way for a baby livestock to die. Two years ago, the Lawsons had a bad season. The bull they purchased to run with the cows made calves with big heads and big bodies. During labor, cows ran to the edge of the forest out of desperation. Two calves were born into the creek and drowned. Two got stuck and had to be pulled out with a Honda and winch rope. One was killed by black vultures. “They come to a newborn calf,” says Lawson, “and peck out its eyes. As the calf dies slowly, the vultures begin to eat from the anus. They disembowel the calf alive.” Nine months of creation; into the world; straight back out.
Now, the Lawsons have a new bull, Harvey, a smaller Black Angus. Labor goes smoother. The livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) came of working age last year, and the vultures stay away. No calf issues so far.
A lamb, however, was born, close to Christmas, with an abscess on its shoulder. Abscesses can signify Caseous lymphadenitis (CL), a disease which causes hide loss, wool loss, and/or death. A sheep with CL continues to consume hay at $10/bale, but produces shoddy wool, and won’t sell at auction—all expense, no revenue. This lamb was healthy. Her abscess appeared benign. But if the abscess did, against odds, turn out to be CL, it could spread through the flock, to the goats or cattle, and maybe to humans. An on-the-job decision at a livestock farm is often an equation with variables Morality, Probability, and Economic Profit on the left, “Kill” or “Don’t Kill” on the right. Lawson shot the lamb in the back of the head. The mother is still in quarantine.
Otherwise, this season has been a success. When I joined, the farm was bountiful with happy babies. Lambs, to play, glance at each other and, all of a sudden, sprint in a pack up and down the hallway. They challenge ducks to staring contests. They butt heads, climb onto their moms’ backs, and nap along the wall in a line. Sharing the nursery barn, on the other side of a wire gate, are the baby goats, or kids. Once in a while a lamb totters past the gate at the same moment a kid does, and with a jolt, the two notice each other. Hesitatingly, they sniff each other’s noses through the wires, tilting their heads. Then one leaps in the air and sprints away.
Lambs are skittish around humans. Kids, though, scamper up and bounce against one’s legs, as when a puppy wants picking up. Cuddled in the arms, a kid is snug, light, and warm. I liked to hold a kid and walk around the pen, showing her objects she couldn’t reach from the ground, so she could dip her head close and conduct investigation. By seven days, babies are wily with curiosity. One kid had a habit of digging a hole under the wall to squirm outside. He timed his escapes to coincide with my lunch breaks. Washing dishes in the farmhouse, if I stood on tiptoes, I saw a tiny black-and-white form poddling about the yard. Once, I jogged out and hollered, “Excuse me, sir?” and he trotted straight back to his hole, wriggled under the gate, and stood behind the wire staring slightly past me with a mournful air, as though he had been there the entire time, thinking about art or mortality or religion.
Sunday through Friday my first week, farm life proceeded as usual. On Saturday, as with every other morning, I put on rubber boots and went to the barn. I climbed the ladder to the loft, crossed the rickety wood plank to the side stocked with hay, and threw two 50lb square bales over the edge. They hit the ground with a “whoomf whoomf,” giving the impression of lightness. Before the dust settled, they were mobbed by sheep. I went down the ladder. I got the muck fork and tub out of their stall. I was forking the inaugural shit when I noticed a sheep standing apart from the mob. Short legs, vertical ears, black wool: Sophie. Beside her were two lambs, both white, skinnier and feebler than I was used to seeing. Dappled with blood.
My heart beat faster. I walked close. A bloody, ribboning sheet of flesh hung from Sophie’s vulva. If she moved, it flapped. Her udder was bloated with milk. The back shone red where blood must have slid when the first nose and front feet met the air.
“Hey!” I said. “Nice job.”
Sophie glared at me.
One newborn, girl, delicate as a paper doll, teetered to a teat and began to suck. The other, boy, stood hunched in place, shivering. I phoned Lawson. He drove over to assess. Sister alternated between drinking milk and stumbling about, while Brother could only manage to stand in place, shivering. As we looked on, his front knees buckled. He shivered there, bent over, blinking slowly at the ground.
“Will he be okay?” I said.
“Let’s get them into a stall,” said Lawson. “He’ll be fine as long as he drinks some hot milk.”
I scooped him and walked us backward into an open stall. Take this motion with a baby, and the mother is guaranteed to follow, bleating and stamping—herding new mothers is akin to moving metal filings with a magnetic wand. Lawson brought in Sister and shut the door. He pushed Brother by the rump toward Sophie’s udder. Sophie sidestepped. Lawson picked up Brother and followed, gripping the head and pushing it at the teat. For several minutes they sidestepped each other; at last, Brother secured a few sips of milk. Lawson and I went out.
I checked on Brother again after chores. He was sitting against the wall, shivering. He could hardly keep his head up. I texted Lawson, but he was unconcerned. This was one of thirty or forty lambs he expected out of the season. “They pop babies like crazy,” he said. “Vegans think, How can you take a life so easy? Well, let me tell you. These animals regenerate like crazy. Like pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.”
The following morning, Sister was exploring the stall. The day after that, even Brother was strong enough to play. The way they’re built, slight bodies but sturdy legs, they looked to be jumping about in fluffy cowboy boots. Brother, still weaker, soon tried to rest in the corner, while Sister tore about and returned periodically to bop him with her nose. Eventually she buckled her front knees and dropped her rump. She sat in front of him. They fell asleep nose to nose.
Under observation, no two babies are equal in appearance; equally strong, equally brave, or equally smart. Each newborn is its own inimitable roll of a zillion-sided dice. One sperm of millions happened to meet one egg. And that one highly unlikely possibility became reality. The chances of Brother being exactly Brother, rather than the combination of the neighboring sperm and the next cycle’s egg, or Sister being exactly Sister—or you exactly you, me exactly me—fairly zero. Yet here each of us are, the way we are. Bingo!
The next discovery of new life occurred after reinforcement helpers arrived. Remi, Carla, and I were tasked one gray Tuesday to clean out the barn washroom. The ceiling was packed with cobwebs, drooping thick as grocery bags, filled with dirt and flies. Below stood tables piled with rusty tools and half-used bottles of livestock medication. Further down we came upon two mousetraps with one mouse caught between them, head smashed flat. It was tossed without ceremony to the loft, where an enterprising barn cat snatched it before it hit the floor. The time had come, then, to confront the rabbit pen along the wall. So far it was a subject of studious avoidance by all humans associated with the farm.
The rabbits lived atop three feet of accumulated decay—for five months, they were given hay twice daily, without any removal of poop or leftover old hay. In the winter, decomposition is nature’s heating system: the chemical reactions generate warmth. But there is a line between nature’s heating system and straight-up rotted shit. The rabbit pens had crossed this line. We extradited the rabbits by the scruffs of their necks, a method which neutralizes the rabbit and prevents the human from getting clawed or kicked. We climbed into the pen with rakes. The top six inches were hay. Below that: matted hay and poop. Remi’s rake hit a solid object with a clunk; with two fingers, Carla pulled up the curved edge of something hard, white…blue…a flash of red… a horrific grin… A Thomas the Tank Engine water bowl, lost inside the muck for only Thomas knows how long. Another foot down, Carla’s rake made a splunch. She bent and wiped dirt off the top of what appeared to be a buried wooden box. At this time it was my turn to empty the muck cart, so I exited the pen, dragged the cart into the yard, and dumped it over the farm’s universal Pile Of Shit, a 10-foot-tall heap on the northwest periphery of the yard. I pulled the cart back into the barn. I reentered the washroom to find Carla standing fixed in the middle of the pen. Her palms were sandwiched top and bottom. She held them out to me. From the middle peered a tiny, sleepy-eyed face.
“Good God,” I said.
“It was running around,” said Carla, breathless. “I think it was in the box.”
“Can we tell which is the mother?” said Remi.
“I doubt it,” I said. “But we should probably isolate it. There are two males in there, and whichever one isn’t the dad might kill it.”
I was speaking out of my ass. I knew nothing about bunnies. I had overheard this information last week, when Lawson’s 12-year-old son went to feed the rabbits and discovered the pink corpse of a bunny, too young to have fur, lying on the hay. We were on our own here: Lawson was out getting a massage, phone off. The decision was between our sudden bunny risking death via (a) being separated from its mother, or (b) getting ripped to shreds by a mean-spirited male. We ran the numbers. We isolated the bunny.
Another six inches down, Carla glimpsed movement again. She shot her hand into the muck and extracted a second bunny. Despite its environment, it was generally clean; brown fur, velvety inch-long ears. It was even tinier than the first—Carla could fit the whole body, head included, into one gloved hand. Briefly it struggled. Then it seemed to fall asleep. Even Remi, already “over it,” was smiling to himself as he went back to his rake. Carla and I brought the bunny to the cage.
In the final, oldest inches of decay, the muck devolved into pure sludge. We rolled it away in layers as compact as Persian rugs. The stench intensified from organic, manure, to chemical, ammonia. It burned the nasal cavities like wasabi. It burned the eye sockets. As it began to burn our brains we agreed upon a break. Woozily we left the barn and stood outside, inhaling cold, sweet, perfect oxygen. We faced the Pile Of Shit, where Rose, the shyest LGD, had climbed on top to chew intently on some unknown snack. Three other LGDs came loping from various naps across the yard to root through the Pile Of Shit with an energy bordering on belligerence. James Bond, the biggest, jumped back to earth with something in his mouth. It seemed pink and membraney.
“Whoops,” said Remi.
James Bond got on his belly, trapped the acquisition between his paws, and gnawed.
“It was dead already,” I said, optimistically.
“So a litter of four,” said Carla. “Five, including the one from last week.”
“Forty percent survival rate,” said Remi.
“Not bad,” I said, out of my ass.
Later, Lawson came to evaluate. He concluded the bunnies were old enough to live with the adults. Remi carried their cage to the washroom; with care, Carla shuttled them into the pen. Meanwhile, Lawson filled a water bowl at the sink. The bunnies were so small, they could have used it as a swimming pool. “They won’t drown?” I said.
“What, in the bowl?” said Lawson. He laughed. “Nah, they’re tough little buggers. Look at them. They’ve survived until now.”
Remi, Carla, and I stayed a while, watching. We’d spent hours deep-cleaning the washroom, but it was still stained, cramped, and musty. Overhead was a single lightbulb, which we switched on every morning to mimic the sun. The thermometer showed 32°F. It was here, buried under two feet of poop and rancid hay, that these bunnies, Tiny and Tinier, had outlived their three siblings long enough to grow fur. Now, they moved blearily from rabbit to rabbit, seeking warmth under anybody’s belly. They were so light, they skated over the hay like leaves getting blown over the surface of a pond. Once, they found each other and cuddled. Shortly they were blown their separate ways.
The “miracle of birth” is not so distinct from the “miracle of life.” The year before Tinier was born, the world existed, and Tinier did not. The day after, the world existed, and Tinier existed too. There’s birth: the flip from 0 to 1. Now, Tinier continues to exist. The world could exist without Tinier, but it doesn’t. There’s life: the continuation of 1.
As we all know, yet have difficulty grasping, the many years before you and I existed, this world existed. All went on fully without us. And then we were born, and from that instant on, we were here, as we are now. I sit typing—you sit reading—our heart muscles twitching on, such a slight, plain motion that, by repeating, allows us to lift our hands and touch this table, drive to the gym, hear music, see a friend arrive at the restaurant and feel joy. Table, car, gym, music, and friend could easily exist without us. But, in fact, we exist too. That’s the value of life: to be 1, when the only alternative is to be 0. Birth is just a flick of the binary switch; it’s the switch itself that holds infinite significance, in its catch-22 of necessity (“I, for this world I’m experiencing to exist, must exist”) versus unnecessity (“this world does not, in fact, require my existence in order to exist”). The switch, untouched between flick-on and flick-off, is typically forgotten. Or avoided. Or, how many times have we mulled over the “miracle of life,” only for a notification to chime so that our thought jumps seamlessly to that day’s dinner plans; for a car to honk so that our reverie collapses instantly to frustration; and so on. The ornaments on the switch, both good and ugly, while part of the switch, also serve to distract from the switch.
The most involved birth I encountered was Leia’s. The mother, Molly, brown with a white face, spent the morning pacing the length of the field, vulva swollen and dripping mucus. Just before sunset, we received a text from Lawson: bringing hay to the cattle, he’d discovered a new calf. She was in danger. Molly had delivered in the mud—the calf was soaked to the shoulders. The temperature was expected to drop to 15°F that night. “Mud is almost as bad as vultures,” says Lawson. “Calves will freeze into it or, if they’re soaked like Molly’s calf, just freeze.”
I found him a quarter mile into the field, holding a towel, his arms crossed. Through misting rain Molly stared back at us. She mooed. The moo was lower and rougher than usual, the texture of ripe watermelon or two leaves rubbing. I have beheld that, at least for ewes and cows, the texture of a mother’s voice changes, in a snap, when the baby comes out. It’s a voice specifically for her baby.
The baby in question stood stiffly behind Molly’s hind legs. She was soft and black and, like all calves, had long eyelashes and big, teardrop eyes. A half foot of umbilical cord hung from her belly. Molly moved a few steps sideways. The calf took one step and collapsed in the mud. She stayed there for several seconds. She struggled to her feet. Her flanks heaved on every outbreath, as if she’d just run a race. She stumbled under Molly’s udders and instinctively bumped her head up against one, a tactic which gets the milk flowing, and opened her mouth. She continued to open and shut her mouth, but they were phantom movements—she was inches away from the teat. Molly came around to stand behind her. She rested her head and neck on the calf’s hunched back.
Eventually, with assistance, the calf was able to drink. The first drink is critical. Immediately after delivery, a cow’s milk (and the milk of humans and all mammals) is called colostrum. It leaves the teat at 102°F and contains an especially high density of antibodies to protect the newborn from disease, as well as white blood cells and bioactives that jumpstart immune and gut function. To a human, it tastes, as I know from one fortunate but unpleasant Sunday morning milking, like thick liquid soap.
Lawson rubbed the towel over the calf’s flanks and legs. “We have a heat lamp in the pig barn,” he said, “but it’s too dark to move them. Molly needs to be able to see the calf to follow us.” He tossed the towel in the back of his truck. “The calf could die tonight. Maybe you’ll want to check on her every few hours. Up to you.”
At 9:00pm, Remi, Carla, and I went outside with a flashlight. It was so dark that, when Remi, holding the flashlight, outpaced us by a few feet, Carla and I were completely blind. Minutes into the field, two LGD escorts merged noiselessly onto our path. Another minute, and the flashlight beam passed over a small knot of staring cattle.
Four cows had gathered around Molly and her calf. Molly stood guard while another cow lay in the hay, the calf tucked into her side. The calf was breathing and asleep. In high spirits, we walked back to the farmhouse. Remi decided he would check again at 12:00am and 3:00am. I took the 6:00am shift. I could not sleep until midnight. At 3:00am, I woke up to the bang of the front door. I laid awake for hours and hours before discovering, via my 6:00am alarm, that I had fallen asleep after all. I stopped the alarm. I could not tell the difference between sideways and up. I selected a direction at random and hit my head on the wall. I went the other way and pulled on my stockings. They were backwards. The crotch was stuck at my thighs. I got into my overalls anyway and waddled out of the house. The cold smacked me like a sheet of ice; it did not, however, wake me up.
The darkness was absolute. Dreamily I switched on the flashlight and saw, slanting across the dim sphere of visibility, flickering lines of snow. I and my sphere moved forth in the dark. After a while I spun in a circle with the flashlight—same sphere of visibility, same flickering lines, same wall of black, 360 out of 360 degrees. I was standing in the middle of anywhere. I could only see the section of path in front of me. I stepped onto it, and the next section of path came into view. I stepped again.
In this way I floated through the night and, some time later, found Molly and her calf. They were alone now. Molly stood over the calf, who lay inert. Both their coats were damp with snow. I went a few steps closer. The mud, like quicksand the night before, had hardened into concrete. The air was frigid. The calf, facing away from me, did not move.
Molly watched me approach. She did not moo. It was so silent, I could hear the tapping of the snowflakes as they landed on my parka. I was two feet from the calf; still, she did not move. Her head was down. Her chin was on the frozen mud. I found that I was holding my breath.
Then, one small ear twitched. All my breath came out at once.
Back in the farmhouse, I shed my layers and fell back in bed. The next time I opened my eyes, there was daylight behind the blinds. I staggered directly from my bed to the nursery barn, where the sheep and goats, as soon as they noticed me, commenced to take turns bellowing their grievance: “BAA.” “BEH.” “BAA.” “BEH.” “BAA.” “BEH.” On a farm, there are no sick days, mental health days, or vacations. Regardless of what happened the night before, hundreds of animals are starving and parched at dawn, maybe injured, maybe diseased, maybe going into labor, and all falls squarely on the farmer’s two shoulders.
The morning after calf duty, Remi, Carla, and I all slept through our alarms. We trudged through chores and made coffee before breakfast. Lawson joined us in the afternoon. He was pleased by the calf’s survival. “We have to give her a name with warrior energy,” he said. He decided on Leia, a la Princess Leia. “She’s a fighter,” he said. “She can get through anything now.”
The cattle were characteristically unimpressed by Leia. They continued to graze over the slopes, tails flicking. The youngest calves played tag and ventured up to sniff at LGDs, who were never far—the fresh poop of a newborn is a canine delicacy. Two older calves stood out: six-month-old Grant, brown fur with rhombus forehead tuft, and four-month-old Nell, silky black with slight mohawk. They spent most of their time together, grazing or walking. To rest, they sat beside each other, sides touching, and Nell would gaze ahead as Grant tucked his chin into the nook behind her head.
Molly passed her hours walking the fields with Leia. They walked in slow motion, Leia still hunched and stiff, trailing just behind her mother. One young calf kept running up beside her, nosing her, and jumping on her back—apparently for play or dominance, as he was already neutered. When Molly’s patience ran out, she’d swing her head around and knock him away. Leia, for her part, managed to remain on her feet during each affront.
Harvey, the father of all the calves, was experiencing the call of natural and occupational responsibility. On my hike back to the farmhouse, I passed him walking behind Bella. Without fanfare he raised his 2,000-pound bulk onto his hind legs and mounted Bella’s 1,800-pound bulk. It was over before I could focus the lens of my camera; I was thus saved, I realized moments later, from becoming, just like that, a live-action pornographer. I put away my camera. Harvey mounted Bella once more.
This is a bull being “run with the herd.” The destiny of a newborn livestock is straightforward. A male with desirable traits is kept alive to impregnate females year after year; otherwise, eaten. A female is raised to be impregnated annually; otherwise, eaten. If a female does not calve in her first year, she is eaten. If male or female produces subpar calves, he or she is eaten. (Of course, a farmer’s family cannot consume so many cattle in one year—often there is the intermediary step of sale via Facebook or auction.) It is one thing to keep economically useless cattle in the summer, when they graze at will; it is another to keep them in the winter, when hay comes at $40-$100 per round bale.
That night, I was invited to the Lawson residence for dinner. Tim Lawson was cooking flank steak. The eldest of the three sons set the table. All the steak knives were in the dishwasher, so he used butter knives.
“Mm,” said the nine-year-old, chewing.
“Mm-hm,” said the fourteen-year-old, chewing.
“Shilla is delicious,” said the twelve-year-old. “Shilla almost killed me once,” he said, turning to me.
“Really,” I said. I was not surprised. A cow, given her weight, can kill a grown man by accidentally sitting on him.
“Really,” said Tim Lawson. “Shilla was a special girl. Cows protect their calves, but I’ve never seen a cow go at it like Shilla did. When we took her baby away to castrate him, she was ramming the gate, raging, rubbing her horns all along the fence. The second we finished, she busted through, and I could see, in her eyes, she was deciding whether to get her calf or kill us first. I threw the calf at her and we sprinted for cover behind the gate. So we had to”—he bopped his thumb twice—“take care of her. We can’t have animals like that on the farm, not with the children around. Anyway, we were walking Shilla into the truck to go to the butcher, and she went nutso, trying to get to her calf. That was when she almost killed Max.”
“Even medium-rare works with her,” said Max, chewing. “She’s very tender.”
“What do you think?” said Tim, chewing.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “So tender,” I said.
“Good old Shilla,” said Max.
“Good old Shilla,” I said, sawing and sawing with my butter knife.
As stated, the destiny of a newborn livestock is straightforward. When we eat meat, what sits on our plate is a cow, a lamb, or any other singular life, born exclusively to die, after a short interval, and become our meal. The Lawson livestock farm makes for an interesting moral question, compared to the average commercial farm, where livestock suffer abject living conditions and the answer is obvious. The Lawsons practice humane farming. They operate on the One Bad Day principle: give the animals happy lives—expansive mud-filled pens for pigs, the run of the yard for chickens, warmth and expensive hay for sheep—and, in the end, only “one bad day.”
A meat-eater notes that this is a better deal than many humans get. A human has that same bad day; granted, after a longer interval of time. And a human who dies having suffered only one bad day has, arguably, transcended their humanity. All around the world humans starve, are abused, are oppressed. The beginning of a long list, etcetera. Compare this list to the guaranteed sequence of good days on the Lawson farm: food, water, climate-controlled shelter, no day job, no taxes. Sure, the number of good days is less than it could be. But livestock cannot count years or conceptualize fate. Day to day, they have what they have—and what they have is good. If they were born free, they’d spend their lives in existential panic, before likely getting slaughtered by predators anyway.
A vegetarian replies that, good life or not, the animal is brought into existence solely to be eaten. The meat-eater rebuts: why not say it is born just to die, which, in fact, is a quality that all living beings share? The vegetarian continues: what distinguishes livestock is that their lives are determined by us, from Day 1, 100% chance, to end sooner than they are biologically meant to. No animal is built to only live out only a portion of its potential life; each is created to live as long as possible, and wants to, whether consciously or not. And we confine the life they do have to one possibility: a repetition of mindless days which end in slaughter. Despite having names, they are raised as stupid non-individuals, which conditions them to become stupid non-individuals—compare the behavior of a sheep on a livestock farm to a sheep who’s a domestic pet. And a humane livestock farm is still a livestock farm, as we recognize from Shilla’s story.
Both meat-eater and vegetarian own real estate in my personal moral geography. For now, I continue to eat meat. In the aisles of the supermarket, it’s easy to forget the argument. Back on the farm, though, I woke up one night at 1:08am, abruptly, for no reason, convinced by some unknown dream that I was about to get eaten. As in, my left hand was resting on my left thigh, and I moved my thumb over my skin, and I had the thought, “This is in danger.” I thought, “Soon it will not be mine.” Then I woke up for real.
Better to be born as livestock, as prey, or not at all? I dismount this train of thought and leave its next stop to the reader.
Since the title of this section promises life, and I have instead delivered moral discomfort, we will now engage in some admiration of life.
We begin with rabbits, the smallest and most secretive of livestock. Under observation, their only presence is the shifting of hay, or the clicking of water bottle spouts. They stand up to explore new spaces and, contrary to popular understanding, are capable of plenty of noises, whether the clucking of the pregnant Vernicula or the bloodcurdling scream of Tiny when flipped on his back to be sexed.
Ducks, more flamboyant, jackhammer their bills in mud and water, seeking microscopic snacks. They wander and hiss and thrust their necks. Chickens, at similar size, have double the drama. They poke and hurry around the yard all day, always with the appearance of purpose. Every ten minutes or so, a rooster chases a hen. More often than not, he captures his prize: darts out his beak and seizes her neck feathers. She endures it, writhing, face in the mud, and afterward sprints away, ruffling her feathers. Sometimes, she is saved by her own athleticism; other times, by the rooster of her harem. When Rooster B tries to jump Rooster A’s hen, and A notices, A will rush in and attack B, who will then, in humiliation, instantly turn his attention to the next nearest hen, who has already begun to shuffle away, having observed the initial incident out of the corners of her eyes. Once in a while, without visible provocation, two roosters face each other, neck feathers rising. To duel, they jump up, flapping their wings, and kick their spurs at each other until one flees. The Lawson chickens also like to sneak up the stairs of the farmhouse porch. First they check that no one’s watching. Then they stroll to a feeder. The heist begins: kibble-by-kibble work. Knock on the glass, and they’ll slow their pilfering to seek out the source of the sound—but surreptitiously, without moving their heads. They are listening while pretending not to listen.
Pigs step with diligence through their pen, pushing their snouts into the mud. Their snouts are highly sensitive to both taste and smell, and the observer imagines them in sensory paradise. When other animals pass the pen, the pigs stop rooting to watch. They traipse to the fence. They’ll bump noses with the LGDs.
In the goat pen, adults take shifts supervising kids. They are not opposed to discipline: Annie will head-butt a kid who jumps on top of her feeder. Females and males are separated by a fence. There is only one buck, Herschel, who must never be approached without the accompaniment of a big stick. Herschel’s hobbies could easily be curated for the next The VVitch film: “sharpening his horns” against a barn door (probably itchy), “practicing his killing thrust” (backtracking several feet and dashing forth to ram a gate; likely horny), and “communing with the Devil” (in the dark, eyes glowing white in a flashlight beam, tilting his head to loll his tongue, spitting, through the fence at Annie, who promptly turns around to lift her tail and show him her butthole, perhaps as requested).
Grown sheep are herd animals. They run in a wooly mob; they swarm feeders so thoroughly that one must utilize the feeder railing as a pull-up bar to get in between two sheep and cut the strings on a bale. Words that come to mind: “stampede,” “frenzy,” “World War Z,” “Judgment Day.” It is true that, in their mob, they appear to lack both intelligence and individuality. One Thursday, I saw ten sheep vying for space around one feeder, a hop away from a completely unoccupied feeder filled with the exact same hay. I manhandled two sheep to the unoccupied feeder. They resumed eating like they had never left the first one. Shortly after, a sheep was shoved off the first feeder, and via momentum, fell before the second feeder. She too resumed eating like she’d never stopped.
After the madness of herding and feeding, sheep sit and stand throughout the yard, gazing straight ahead, chewing cud. A few might amble to the tractor and utilize the forklift to scratch their backs. Only after days of observation does one recognize that they can, in fact, retain some of the individualism of youth. One round-headed, tufty-eared sheep liked to walk several feet away from the herd to eat her hay. She’d climb a pile of wooden planks and stand at the edge of the yard, facing away from everyone else. Alone, she looked out over the field as she chewed.
Feeding hay is a winter chore—there’s no grass in the fields for grazing. Daily, I set out five square bales in five feeders, ran in the sheep, and sat on the tractor to watch. The sheep stand on two legs before the feeders, front hooves propped on the railings. As they eat, they shift their weight. They shoulder one another. They cough. Standing in a line like that, eating and coughing, they look awfully like a bunch of potbellied people wearing sheep suits. One gets to thinking, what the hell, what’s the difference, I might as well be watching humans jostle for money, prestige, et al. We have more time, but we’re not escaping the butcher either. And in the scheme of all time, our desired money, prestige, et al hold up as well as a desired bale of hay. Imagine an alien that lives for one million years. To that alien, it’s the same business to watch a sheep get her hay as it is to watch a human get her executive title at Goldman Sachs, her gold medal at the Olympics, her Man Booker Prize. Even achievements as enduring as Shakespeare’s will not outlast human civilization. And you and I are no Shakespeare. Our achievements will not outlast our grandchildren’s lifetimes—if they somehow outlast our own. One day even our greatest heartbreaks will be as our grandparents’ greatest heartbreaks: forgotten, like they never happened.
What purpose does any action have—what meaning does any moment have—if, one day, no one will remember it? Why be born, just to die? People have asked since people could think, and I’d be a fool to claim anything I say is original, or to believe I’ll feel the same when I’m older. But for the sake of having two rather than one on the tractor, where one becomes lonely, I confess to the reader that I think about dominos. Each moment is a domino. It tips onto the domino which is the next moment. If I push this cup, it will fall off the table. If it falls off the table, the Starbucks barista will come running. Extend: If I start an argument with my boyfriend, we will have a bad morning. If we have a bad morning, he may honk at somebody, and then that somebody, who happens to be a critic, will, in frustration, write a slightly meaner review for a book, and then the author reads the review and writes a more insecure next book, which ten years later strikes his son as sad, which… What I bring to our table is nothing new. We have all seen some variation of that TV spot where “one good deed leads to another!!!”. The point is that this moment does have a purpose. Its purpose is to exist; by existing, it allows the next moment to exist. And any action that happens in this moment is the origin story of the next moment—it is the diving board from which the action of the next moment leaps.* Therefore, every single thing we do, no matter how unimportant, or how forgotten, is captured eternally in the fingerprint of all time. Even if our names don’t make history, we do.
Two days after all-night calf duty, around 1:00pm, we received an urgent text from Lawson: “Leia’s down with hypothermia. Need to stomach-tube her. Getting colostrum from the house.”
Cruising through the property, he had noticed that Molly and Leia hadn’t moved from one place for more than twelve hours. He parked the truck and walked over. Leia lay flat. Her ears and the inside of her mouth were cool. Immediately he lifted her into the truck and drove her to the pig barn, where a wooden crate is outfitted with a heat lamp. There was no time to bring Molly, who sat by herself now in the field.
I met Lawson outside. He drove; I sat shotgun, carrying the bag of warm colostrum inside a bucket of hot water. Connected to the bag was a long, flexible plastic tube.
The pig barn was quiet. The primary residents were out of sight, though Tawny, the barn cat, slunk out of the hay to follow us into the toolroom. In one corner was a wood-plank crate. Leia lay curled in the hay under the heat lamp, bathed in pink light. She looked like wet towels draped on a rack. With every breath, the wet towels shivered.
Lawson crawled into the crate. I held the warm bag of colostrum and he worked the tube into Leia’s mouth, then esophagus. Blinking, she opened and closed her mouth around the tube. We waited five minutes, but the colostrum level in the bag did not decrease. I went on my knees in the crate and angled the bag and Lawson removed the tube and maneuvered it back in, Leia opening and closing her mouth around it, and he snatched the bag from me and squeezed, hard, and after several more minutes, Leia chewing on the tube and chewing, the bag was mostly empty. Lawson pulled the tube out. Leia lay breathing. I touched her; her coat was soft. After some time she made a movement. “You trying to sit up, baby girl?” said Lawson. “Let me help you out.” He tugged her legs but they fell back, as if paralyzed.
It took thirty minutes to herd Molly into the pig barn. Lawson’s son backpedaled in front of her with a bucket of grain, while Lawson, Remi, Carla, Hinako (the newest helper), and I walked forth behind her, holding our arms out in Ts. When she stopped, we stopped. It was a fragile dance: we had to stay close enough to push her forward, but far enough that she didn’t spook and barrel away. Painstakingly we herded her through the field, shutting gates as we passed. Several times she spooked and we dodged and lost a dozen feet of progress. Without the gates we would have been Sisyphus.
At last we boxed her into the barn. She’d had enough—no amount of work from the front or back would persuade her to enter the toolroom, where she could find her calf under the heat lamp. We left her there to make the discovery on her own. Later, Lawson and Remi went back. Lawson had the vet on the phone and, under guidance, gave Leia the necessary injections. He was instructed to stop feeding colostrum in case Leia’s bowels had slowed or stopped from the hypothermia. When the call ended, Lawson was confident, though he wasn’t sure.
Leia was only one of many calves to come. In her life she would only eat, make babies, and soon enough, ride the trailer to the butcher. This was neither mentioned nor considered while we worked to keep her alive. The equation had spoken. We were simply faced with something alive, to be kept alive.
The sun was setting. To celebrate Leia’s recovery, Lawson chased all the roosters into the coop and bolted the door. Remi, Carla, Hinako, and I heard a commotion of feathers.
In the end, we gripped three roosters by their lumpy, scaled legs. Two hung limp. The third beat his wings violently, his triangle tongue flicking snake-like out of his beak. We walked them to the farmhouse. The water was already boiling; they were to be slaughtered in time for dinner.
We hung the roosters by their feet as we sterilized the sink. Upside down, they grew dazed. They shut their eyes. As soon as we untied them, they opened their eyes. We brought them into the kitchen; hanging by their feet, they curled up again and again, suddenly wide awake, to look around the room.
Each farmer has a preferred kill tactic. Lawson held the neck of the thrashing rooster and, with the force of his whole arm and shoulder, twisted. A crack. He handed me the body—it continued to thrash—and I held it on the divider in the sink. Lawson placed the head in the drain. With a knife he sawed through the neck. Blood spattered the ceramic; thick, slow, maroon. He tossed the head in the trash. We stood there one or two minutes, keeping the neck in the drain, letting the still-beating heart pump the blood out of the body in intermittent thin streams. I had to fight to keep the body on the divider; even headless, it convulsed, kicked its legs, flapped its wings. None of this was suffered by the rooster. The brain was gone. Later I saw the head in the trash can. The eyes were shut. I did not know whether they shut during or after the death; I’d observed that, immediately before, they’d been open.
The butchering process is as follows. First, skin the legs and clip the nails. The legs peel like an orange once dipped in rippling, but not boiling, water. Scissors will suffice for the nails. Second, pluck the feathers. Dunk the body in hot water for twenty seconds, and the pores will open, so that the feathers are pulled with scarce effort. Cut off the feet. The sink looks like miso soup. Third, butcher. At this stage, the chicken is no different in appearance from a chicken at the supermarket. Make a vertical slit down the back of the neck. Open. Pull out the ridged tube, trachea, and rubbery tube, esophagus. Tie a knot at the end of the esophagus to prevent spillage. Pull on the esophagus to get loose the crop, where undigested food is stored. No spillage! Flip the bird. Squeeze the butt to discharge unreleased feces—a long pale squirt. Just above, make a horizontal slit, shallow so that the organs are not disrupted. Reach inside the cavity, going all the way up to the neck, and hook two fingers around the organs there. Pull. Force is required to rip out the organs; however, care must be taken to avoid rupturing the gall bladder, stomach, or intestines, which will render the chicken inedible. The sensation is that of grabbing multiple wet stress balls filled with differing consistencies of liquid. All emerges in a slippery mass: testicles (small marble eggs), intestines (a broad worm), liver (velvety, brown), gall bladder (teal), lungs (like fish meat), heart (dark), stomach (sliced in half to reveal grainy mash specked with pebbles; chickens eat pebbles to help digest their food, since they lack teeth; stomach lining is peeled off like duct tape), and, finally, with a pop, the crop (kernels of corn and grain still clean, hard, bright, fully intact). Some organs, like liver, are edible, and are set aside in bowls. Others, like the intestines, are saved in a Tupperware for the pigs. Fourth, remove the oil gland. It is a tiny rod which produces oil for making feathers. Find it at the base of the tail. Slice. After that, the meat you hold in your hands must go swiftly to the Crock Pot, or else rigor mortis will set in. In case of rigor mortis, let the carcass rest in the freezer for one week, and then cook.
All three roosters were thus butchered. I felt completely fine. I was surprised by this because when I see an insect indoors I can’t kill it; I have to take it out in a jar. Mosquitoes are the only creatures I can kill, and even then, I can’t do it with my bare hands, and have endured many needless bites as a result. At the butchering I did not feel any nausea or horror. I felt like I was managing a chicken, as any of us manages any chicken at the kitchen counter on any evening. I turn to a sentence from Hemingway’s writings about the killing of horses as part of Spanish bullfights: “The tragic climax of the horse’s career has occurred off stage at an earlier time; when he was bought by the horse contractor for use in the bull ring.” The sight of the gutted roosters affected me rather differently, for instance, from the sight of Carla’s hands opening, a few days later, to reveal the corpse of Tinier, soaked, floppy, eyeballs patched with white, having drowned face-down in the water bowl.
Remi’s reaction to the butchering was similar to mine. Carla, however, felt lightheaded at the first letting of blood, and left the room. Hinako was jetlagged and slept soundly through the expirations of all three roosters. I leave the reader to seek out their own encounter and learn whether they react according to their expectation. It is a valuable encounter for those who eat meat; if one is put off meat, so be it. I have been told by Lawson that most people think they’ll be put off, but aren’t. “People say that if a child sees livestock get slaughtered, he’ll go vegetarian,” says Lawson. “Nuh-uh. My children like their meat more than ever.”
I believe it depends on environment. If one butchers a livestock surrounded by farmers, who consider it as necessary and boring as a drive to the supermarket, one feels fine. If one butchers surrounded by silently weeping Buddhists, one will likely feel less fine. We can call that instantaneous conditioning. While living in a mountain village, I ate meals while roaches flew overhead and occasionally ran across the table; everyone around me regarded the situation as normal, and I felt fine. Two months later, staying in a suburban Airbnb, spending time with suburban people, I found a dead roach in the kitchen. I felt queasy during my next meal.
We can also look to continuous conditioning. The role models and day-to-day experiences of a child raised by farmers provide sincere evidence to the “truth” that livestock slaughter is as necessary and boring as a trip to Safeway. Meanwhile, consider a child raised by Buddhists, whose first years of exposure to animals is that their lives are as precious as ours; this upbringing, in contrast, constructs a “truth” that livestock slaughter is barbarous. Of course, there are plenty of cases where a person diverges from their conditioning. Kurt Vonnegut’s sister was raised by a father who hunted deer, yet developed such an aversion to the sport that she eventually persuaded him to quit.
The chicken tasted like chicken. What can I say? The soup was soup. There would be more to our story if I had accepted Lawson’s offer of the rooster’s testicles (“they’re delicious if you fry them in butter”). Alas. Generously I turned it down.
I slept without nightmares and woke the next day at 6:30am. Remi, Carla, and Hinako were asleep, and I ate my breakfast alone at the table with a view of the yard. All was black on the other side of the glass. Normally, the sun began to rise around 7:15am. At 7:30am it was still mostly dark. Gradually the darkness faded to a bright, frosty gray, like the surface of a lighted florescent bulb. The sky was packed with fog.
Visibility was twenty feet at best. I finished my coffee and went outside. Entering the yard, I could not see the other side of it. I walked across and, slowly, out of the gloom, emerged the ten-foot Pile Of Shit. Beyond it was only solid gray. It was the Pile Of Shit at the edge of the world.
I brought out my camera and took a photo, which came out nicely enough that I decided to take the camera for a walk across the property. I had yet to photograph the horses, pigs, and Molly and Leia.
Walking in such dense fog is a variation on walking in the dark with a flashlight. If I spun in a circle, I was enclosed by fog in all directions. I could only see what was immediately before me; I had to take a step forward in order to know my next step. “You can make the whole trip that way,” wrote E.L. Doctorow. The fog was silent, beautiful, enchanted, all of those things. It was fearsome. Somewhere inside it I crossed paths with the sheep, migrating from one hill to another, and the horses, just rising from their seats in the grass; the LGDs, bursting into visibility just to race once more into the white void. The pigs were rooting outside the barn. I squeezed inside, said good morning to Molly, and went to the crate in the toolroom. Leia was dead.
The first thing a common person does upon finding a body is believe it’s alive. I knelt by the crate. I saw a flutter of breath out of my peripheral vision and my gaze snapped to that spot. I stared for several seconds. Then I saw another movement. I repeated the exercise twice more before acknowledging that I was imagining. I crawled into the crate. Leia lay on her side. Her eye was open, glazed as though with a glass spiderweb. Her mouth was slightly open to expose two teeth and the tip of a gray tongue.
I knelt there for some time. Nothing moved except me. I got up and walked out of the toolroom.
The big barn was dark. Light came in through the slats of old wood, and in some places, made rays filled with drifting motes of dust. All was quiet and very cold. Molly stood facing away from the toolroom, face almost touching the wall of the pig pen. She stood there. In the dim cold barn it was the still point of the turning world. A tear dropped from her eye. A moment later, another. They were the size of human tears. They looked tiny against her bovine head.
After several minutes, she ducked her head to a bale of hay. She chewed slowly, like a metronome; normally, cattle chew vigorously. She stood there, chewing, staring at the wall. A tear dropped.
I went out of the barn and texted Lawson.
“Oh!!!!!!” he texted back. “She died? You’re sure?”
I communicated the details.
“I’m driving the kids to school,” he said. “I’ll stop by afterward.”
Remi, Carla, Hinako and I completed morning chores. For lunch, we finished the rooster soup. Lawson pulled up to the farmhouse in the early afternoon with a knife and a box of nitrile gloves. The blade was six or eight inches.
“Grab that Tupperware with the chicken offal,” he said.
We hitched a ride on the ATV to the pig barn. Lawson slid open the doors. In the dim interior, Molly stood in the same place, facing the wall. She swung her head to see us. A teardrop flew from her eye. I stood there as Lawson went to see the calf. It was then that I understood that, when I walked in on Molly that morning, she had only just begun to cry. Now, hours later, two dark tracks were etched beneath her eyes.
Lawson ran her out of the barn. He shut the doors and turned to me. “Can you bring the calf out here?”
“By the leg?” I said, mind elsewhere.
“If you want,” he said, amused. “I mean, it’s not like she can feel anything.”
I went into the toolroom and crouched and gripped each of the calf’s hind legs. I pulled her out of the crate. The rigor mortis was not obvious; what was noticeable was her fur, still the soft fluffy fur of a newborn calf. She was heavy. Her front legs dragged straight in front of her. I pulled her out of the toolroom, and Lawson, impatient, gripped her by an ear and towed her to the center of the hall. He put on gloves and stabbed the knife into her stomach.
With sawing motions, he cut a line down to her tail, and then up to her throat. The sound was the sound of brushing one’s teeth. He tossed the knife onto the hay and used both hands to pull apart the flaps. Inside were the colorful pieces of a medical anatomy model, except instead of being plastic and distinct, they were gushy, connected to each other in a loose mass, and swimming in liquid. Lawson picked up one part of the mass, got the knife back, and began to carve. The sound was the sound of brushing one’s teeth when one moves the toothbrush to the back of the mouth, and then to one side, meanwhile changing the shape of the mouth, and the pitch of the brushing changes. Briefly I smelled powerful morning breath, blended with rot.
Things in the mass kept slipping through the cracks of his fingers. The only one I recognized was the intestine. Besides that, it was a matter of watching Lawson cut a thing out of the mass, throw it into the Tupperware, and declare, for the sake of the audience, “Heart,” or “Lungs,” or “Stomach.” Once he held up a pouch. “Uterus,” he said. “With the fallopian tubes.” In the next cut he accidentally ruptured it, and transparent liquid exploded into the hay. “Oops,” he said. “That was the bladder. Yuck.”
The liver was so big, he had to cut it into three saggy maroon pieces. “Want one?” he said.
“No thank you,” I said.
“It has a lot of minerals,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
He flung it into the Tupperware. When he finished the organs, he walked the Tupperware to the pig pen and dumped it. Within seconds came the rapid smacking of wet mouths on raw meat.
Lawson bent back the spine and ribs and snapped them. The hide was slack now, and he demonstrated how, by angling the tip of the knife and applying slight pressure, he could effortlessly skin the meat. He sawed off the front leg. On one side, it was hooved and furred, as if simply Photoshopped off of the live calf; flipped over, it was meat from the supermarket. All four limbs were tossed underhand into the pig pen. Rapid smacking commenced.
He grabbed the tongue and pulled it, like a rubbery rope, to split the jaw. To conclude, he sawed off the head. We stood up and walked to the pig pen, and he slung the last bits inside. One pig sniffed at the head but returned to her original limb. All the pigs ate expediently. It was a Thanksgiving feast in there. Absently, I rubbed my fingers together. They were sticky. I held them up and saw blood drying from when I held stable various parts of the calf while Lawson sawed.
Lawson slid open the barn doors. Steam billowed from his head; he was sweating from the exertion. He kicked the bloody hay out of the barn, where it was immediately investigated by two waiting LGDs. Molly was nowhere in sight. “Call me if there’s unusual noise later,” he said. “We don’t want the dogs fighting with the pigs for food.”
The LGDs licked at the blood in the hay. Before long, the last traces of the calf had vanished.
When I discovered Leia dead, I felt a pang. Watching Molly in the barn, I felt my heart was breaking. I had to surpass an initial unease to grip the legs of the carcass, but after three or four seconds of pulling, I felt fine. I felt fine watching Lawson work. I felt fine watching the pigs eat. I was not witnessing the gutting of a calf; I was witnessing the gutting of the dead body of a calf. The dead body was an object, just like a statue is an object. I understood that fully when I pulled it across the barn. It did not carry any residue of its past—no ethereal shimmer of memory, no sign that life had ever existed there at all. Once life is gone, it’s gone. Only the object remains. I may as well have been watching Lawson cut through fabric and balloons. There is a strange phenomenon where, as I sit here now, writing and witnessing the memory of the event, I feel moderately unwell. Whether that is the effect of elapsed time, the lens of hindsight, or the sentimentality of reflection, I do not know. Witnessing the event itself, as it happened, I felt fine.
Afterward, we fed and watered all the animals. We finished earlier than usual and tromped back to the farmhouse. We showered. The smell of poop and hay remained. Remi and Carla began to prepare dinner; Hinako made tea. In the remaining light of day, I walked out onto the porch. A half mile away, the pig barn was the size of a dollhouse. The double doors were shut. A cow stood in front of them, the size of a figurine.
She was brown with a white face. Because of the splash of white I could tell, even over the distance, what direction she was facing. She stood flush against the barn. She faced forward. Every once in a while, she turned her head to look, briefly, into the crack between the doors.
She stayed there until the sun set. The next morning, I departed the farm in a hurry to catch my flight. I did not think to check if she was still there.
Before I left, Brother and Sister, the twin lambs, turned old enough to leave their stall and join the other lambs in the hallway. Sister, who is growing the beginnings of a lush coat, will likely age into a sheep. She will be sheared once annually for wool, run once annually with a ram to produce her own lambs. Brother will be slaughtered in August.
They stumbled out of the stall, staying close to their mother’s legs. As expected, Sister was the first to stray, first sniffing noses with another lamb, and then initiating a tentative caper. Brother held back, watching. By the end of the day, both were accepted into the group. Now, their old nursery is occupied by a sheep named Eighty Eight and her brand-new triplets.
None of the lambs have left the barn yet. Some may never leave it. When we slide the barn doors open, they meander to their gate and look outside. They can see the sky change colors, but not the sun rise and set. They can see the puddle under the Pile Of Shit overflow, but not the pond it overflows to.
At the Lawson Livestock Farm, the loveliest days were the ones that snowed. The sky would become full, take on the texture of white cotton candy; it would descend as fog into the upper branches of trees. Then the snow: specks, round pellets, or feathered flakes: always obedient to gravity, yet light enough to contest it. Snow is buoyant. The heart lifts, watching. Snow tracks the air, revealing to us the flow, patterns, swirls, currents, movements of an entity that we cannot see otherwise.
Brother will die to feed Lawson, his wife, and their three young children. Brother himself will not know why he dies. His mother will not know. It is a reason in the hands of some more intelligent being. And what about us? We cannot know for certain whether we were made alive as part of some grander design, or what may happen to us afterward. Maybe birth and death are merely like snow, tracking some underlying, hidden thing we don’t have the capacity to understand. Or maybe not.
If we will never know for certain, so what? Let the snow fall. The heart lifts, watching.
The contents of this essay, excluding names, are entirely truthful, under threat of public humiliation by Remi and Carla, who have promised to read this and expose any deceits in the comments.
* From dominoes arise the question of free will, a topic reserved for another day, another tractor.
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