It is six in the morning and it is dark. It is dark in Siberia, and it is silent and the stars surrounding a bank of high silvered clouds send just enough light to see the white tips of the frosted grass by and, at the upper end of the field, the split-log fence, dark lines against the dark sky. I hear the quiet, stifled crunch of the frozen dirt beneath my feet. I walk to the fence and throw one leg over, straddling it, and ease myself down on the other side. I can see in the dim the small bucket of oil hanging from a peg on the fence but I touch it all the same, to feel it is there. I set down my milk pail and turn left and walk to the small barn at one end of the fence, twenty yards away.
I enter, it is completely black inside and slightly warm from the heat given off by the slowly decaying stacks of dung lining the walls as insulation. I can’t see my way forward, I reach out with my ungloved hand and follow a slight feeling of warmth until I reach Masha’s black back flank. I cannot see her, but she feels me and lows contentedly at me. I feel my way along her side and find the rope around her neck tied to the peg on the wall, and untie it. I lead her back out and we head down the fence, her black silhouette now visible against the starlight. It is cold, and her breath is freezing on her nostrils and whiskers, mine on my collar and hood. I tie her to a post.
For a week, I have been getting up early to milk her, because Lygzhema and Natasha are busy: Lygzhema is visiting relatives west of here, near Lake Baikal, and Natasha is working nights at the Aginsk clinic. As I am their paying guest, they usually do not let me do chores, apart from kneading the dough for the bread and setting it to rise every day when I get home from school. But they train me in milking first: wearing her dirty black puffy coat that she uses for household chores outdoors, Natasha takes me out in the morning, gives me the stool, shows me how to oil up my hands, how to put my head against Masha’s side, grip her udder and gently pull, shooting the warm milk into the ringing pail. I enjoy the milking, the silence, the dark, Masha’s warmth and heavy, robust smell as I press my face up against her side. This is nearly my last morning doing this work, as Natasha’s schedule returns to normal tomorrow.
Leaving Masha tied to a post, I turn toward the opposite end of the fence and feel my way along it to the other barn where her calf is lowing to her, while she is lowing back to him, promising each other that they will soon be together. He is big now, I think, he must weigh as much as I do, at least as much. I untie him and lead him, or he leads me, by the rope around his neck, to his mother. I must allow him to come close, very close to her udder, so she allows her milk to flow, and then take him away, tie him up, and step between them and take the milk myself, only allowing him the last third. Every morning it is the same, I allow his lips to touch but I do not allow him to drink, because he will drink her dry; I pull him away at the last minute. And every morning I rub the vegetable oil, solid at forty below, onto my bare hands and sit down to milk her into the pail. Enough milk splashes on me that my pinkies and ring fingers become coated with it; it stings and bites as it freezes onto them.
This morning is no different from other mornings; it is slightly colder, and the sky is slightly cloudier, and the stars appear to pulse slightly, in the fluctuations of the higher layers of air. I bring the calf forward, walking behind him, admiring the strength in his shoulders and the sureness of his hooves as he pulls me, navigating by Masha’s bellowing cries to him as he cries to her. I bring him to her, or he brings me, and at the crucial moment I go to yank him away and I stagger back, holding the useless rope in my hands: it has broken or come untied. I cast it aside, leap forward and grab the calf around the neck and wrench him away from Masha, who is now lowing in pain of her full udders, and I manage to force him back away from her; surprised at his sudden freedom, he has not had time to collect himself and begin drinking.
I have him in a lock, one arm below his neck meeting the other on the other side of his head, and the two of us stand there, each straining against the other. This is good, I think. I have him, I have prevented the worst, I have preserved the milk. We press against each other, like a pair of matched wrestlers, and I am enjoying the sensation of power I am getting from keeping him from what he wants. But I begin to realize that this stalemate cannot continue forever, one of us will give first, and it will probably be me. He wants the milk more than me, and I want to be indoors, to be warm, more than I want the milk. In the meantime I hold him back, my toes curling within my shoes as I push or pull against him and he stretches himself forward, crying out. This is not a sustainable position. We neither of us are getting what we want. Something needs to change; I need to change it. A memory comes to me. I have seen a rodeo on television as a child. I remember seeing how calves were wrestled. The cowboy would grasp the calf by the horns and, turning its head to the side, force it to kneel, himself also going down on one knee. Once the calf is subdued, it can easily be tied. This would be a simple way, I think, of neutralizing the calf, asserting my dominance over him and my control of the situation.
I release my headlock and grasp the calf by his stubby left horn. I quickly come around in front of him, and take the other horn and turn his head to one side, slowly lowering my body onto one knee as he too goes down to his front knees. I have him, he is down, I have control over him. I have won.
Only now what to do with him? I cannot reach the rope, I cannot see the rope to find it, I have no spare hands to find it with. I have no way of neutralizing him so that I can attend to the milk. And he can wait longer than I can. My knee is getting cold on the ground, the cold is seeping up through my pants. I raise my knee slightly and hover it there, an inch or two off the ground. I am beginning to shiver with the cold and tremble with the effort of holding him. We hold still, the three of us, alone in the dark.
And this is also an untenable situation. He cannot get his milk, I cannot get my milk, so long as we stay as we are. When I was behind and on top of him I at least had some leverage to move him; so long as we are in this position, we will stay at this position. So I let go his horns and quickly move behind him and, turning, dive onto his back, one arm again stretching under his neck and the other meeting it on the far side of his body from me. I push or pull him backwards a few steps and then I can see him realize, I can feel it in the tenseness of his body, that he is larger than me now, that he is stronger, and what is more, he has four feet on the ground to my two, and he also feels his own strength and stops moving backward. I tug and tug but he will not move. What if he acts on his new realization? I need to return to the previous position, to subdue him again, and then see what I can do.
I release him again and again I am in front of him, again forcing his head down to the ground, but as I push and am going down to my knees I hear or feel a sudden motion behind me and something strikes me on the side and I fall, and suddenly, in my dazed position, I am hearing Masha’s contended lowing and the calf’s greedy slurping at her teat. In her impatience, Masha has struck me with her horn and I am lying on the ground and there is something hard with sharp ridges I am lying on that is pushing into my back. I roll away from the happy pair and see that I have been lying on a frozen cow pat.
I take the pail back into the house. I do not try to milk her again. Even after the house again takes up its usual schedule, Masha does not give us milk again, her udders do not descend again for a human being.
Patrick Findler is an academic editor living in Portland, Oregon. He lived for seven years in post-Soviet countries. His work has been published in Catapult.