Number 559

The sirens started blaring at about six on Sunday morning.  This wouldn’t normally get us out of bed except that as soon as the sound drew near, it stopped.  Albert looked out the window and said,

“Oh CRAP!!”

Before I could ask what scatology had to do with the view he said,

“The neighbor’s’ barn is burning.”

I stumbled over to the window.  He said,

“I don’t think it’s the cow barn though.”

I stepped out onto our front porch and looked east.  Albert was right; it wasn’t the dairy barn; it was the machinery barn.  Flames fueled by hay bales stored inside leapt from the entire three hundred-odd foot length of it.  The fire crackled and that was the only sound because there was not a breath of wind that early morning.  It was oddly beautiful, that quiet fire, but I turned to go back inside.  I didn’t want the sight nor sound of it indelibly stamped on my brain were I to find out later that someone or some living thing was in the barn.

Albert walked the half-kilometer to the neighbors.  I waited ten minutes, then called his cell phone.

“Is anybody inside?”

He didn’t think so.

I put on my rubber boots and set off after him.  A fire that doesn’t hurt anyone isn’t a tragedy.  It is a misfortune, surely, but an interesting spectacle too.  “A shame about your barn, neighbor.  I hope everything was insured?  Let us know what we can do to help.”

I crept through the apple trees in the front yard, well away from the fire trucks and police cars.  When I reached the back yard, the farmer’s wife came toward me from the barn.  Her eyes were rimmed with red and her voice could hardly manage more than a whisper.  More than forty Holstein heifers were trapped in the barn.  Her husband had tried to get to them but the fire was too hot.  She turned and walked to the house.

I know why Hagar put Ishmael under the bushes and left him there when the water skin ran dry.  The same cowardly vein runs through me – when a living thing suffers and I’m powerless to alleviate that suffering, I turn away and try to block it out.  I went back the way I’d come, hating the inescapable stench of smoke that would surely mock us for days yet and weeping all the way home.  Albert came home soon after to collect his gun and go back.  About ten of the cows were still alive and must be put down immediately.


We were in our own barn three evenings later when the blaring of a horn summoned us outside.  A minivan stood parked on the road at the end of our drive, honking at nothing that we could see.  Some of my egg customers make the same belligerent noise when they’re too afraid of the dogs to step out of the vehicle or just too lazy, but as a rule, they pull into the driveway to do it.  I began to wonder if the driver was crazy when a Holstein cow ran out from behind the hedge line and past our front yard.  The van stopped honking and drove off.

With the help of our neighbor to the west, we herded the cow into our pasture.  She had no burn marks and she could have wandered away from one of many farms in the neighborhood.  But she was a heifer (a cow that hasn’t had a calf yet) and Albert and I could barely contain our excitement at the thought of where she could have come from, whom she just might belong to…

It was late and Albert decided to wait until the next day to tell the east neighbor about the heifer.  In the meantime, desperate for cow company, the heifer ambled off to hobnob with our calves, exhausted and anxious to acquaint herself with rites of passage for joining a Black Angus herd.

August 2013 029

August 2013 028

The neighbor was overjoyed to learn that one of his heifers might have survived.  In his heavy Dutch accent, he hailed her “a miracle calf” should she prove to be his.  If she was, the number on her ear tag would read somewhere between 530 and 580.  She was hanging out in the shady barn and I hurried over to look.  The number was much clearer than this picture shows.

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She was number 559, and somehow, she had escaped from the burning barn completely unharmed.

The farmer, his wife and their six children rejoiced over the restored heifer and I made a pie.  I’m not sure what the occasion called for.  My default response to the big stuff in people’s’ lives, whether offered in congratulations, gratitude or condolence is habitually pie and so far, no one’s ever turned it down.  Nor would I, if I were offered pie after losing all my heifers less one.



One response to this post.

  1. What a miracle that the heifer survived and wandered so close to home! Blessings in the darkness.


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