7.08 Jersey Cream
Paula woke at 4:45 am, about a half-hour before her usual time. She’d fallen asleep on the couch to avoid the drafts in her bedroom.
The wood stove and its amber glow turned the den into a womb. Paula found it hard to rise and thought randomly about her mother. Outside, the sky was that strange steely blue often seen in Waterloo, Iowa, and the Midwest on early winter mornings. She got up and shuffled over to the bay windows, which faced the barn to the East of her homestead.
She wondered if the animals were still sleeping, but mostly, she wondered if Bertha was in pain. Perhaps she’d passed on in the night and spared Paula the task of having to put her down. Paula was raised on farms, and the death of animals was no big thing. Still, her cow Bertha was different.
Bertha was a small Jersey cow that delivered rich milk and even richer cream. She was generous, which Paula thought was because she wasn't separated from her calves. Bertha had doe eyes like a silent film star and was quiet. She was beautiful and peaceful, and loved to hear Paula play the guitar.
Paula remembered their first encounter. She’d just finished her ranch-style log home after three long years and was looking for livestock. The chickens were easy to come by, but Paula wanted an animal that would keep her highly regimented.
She realized in retrospect that she really just wanted a friend who couldn’t speak. What with words being so limiting and destructive at times. As a woman who was childless and single, having the majesty of a cow seemed extremely important.
Holstein cows are popular with dairy operations, but she never cared for their size. Angus cows didn’t have the temperament she wanted, so a rancher showed her a group of Jersey calves on his farm.
“If you’ve never had Jersey cream," said the rancher, “…you’ve been missin’ out!"
Out in his pasture was a young and playful Bertha, tromping along like a cartoon. Paula bought her and arranged for a sire to come by next spring. Riding home, she lay like a statuesque dog in the backseat.
Bertha was smaller than most cows. Paula loved her for that. Loved the way she leaned into her too and licked her hand. Loved the neatness of her. After paying top dollar for a good bull to sire a calf, she was grateful that Bertha became pregnant on the first attempt.
Watching her grow softer and fuller was an existential bliss for Paula. The local vet that most farmers used helped her with some tips, and Bertha was tolerant. He advised when the calving started, it was best to be close by but not interrupt.
Paula stood at her bay window with her eyes starting to mist, remembering when Bertha birthed a bull, which she named Arnold. She would have others in years to come but the first experience was special. As with everything else, Bertha labored silently and peacefully.
This year, things were different following a birth. Bertha became disinterested in music and slow to come around into the barn. She wandered further and further in the pasture to her favorite patch of alfalfa grass. She sat there until Bertha had to come out and guide her back to be milked.
The vet came by and examined her, then took some blood samples. The lab work came back in a few days and revealed that she had grass tetany. Grass Tetany is caused by low levels of magnesium. Paula did all she could to treat her, but nothing seemed to be working.
The lasting blow to her heart was hearing Bertha cry out. It was a shattering noise, made more resounding by the fact that Bertha was such a quiet animal. Paula decided to put her down this morning.
She walked to her gun cabinet in the kitchen and picked out a rifle. She’d never killed a large animal and wondered about the mess. Walking to the barn felt like gliding, and the sun seemed to rise slowly to bear witness. She entered the barn and let out Christine, Bertha’s latest. She took her draft horses out and tied them to a nearby post outside.
Then she went to Bertha. Paula resolved to make it quick and not say anything lest she lose her will. So she brought her by lead to the alfalfa patch and let her lay down, gaunt and gangly. Paula turned to her, lifted the rifle towards her sweet face, and held her breath as she pulled the trigger.
A few birds squawked their discontent, and then it was silent. She walked back to the house and went inside, stopping in the middle of the kitchen trembling. She realized that the only thing left from Bertha’s cream was inside the freezer.
About a pint’s worth of homemade ice cream was left, and Paula went to the fridge to retrieve it. It was a simple yellowish blend mixed with vanilla and lavender that smelled divine. The batch was from two weeks prior.
A whole mess of feelings inside a pint of ice cream. She ate it all silently and then went on with her morning chores.