A Death in the Family

Logan Jorgenson, Concordia College


Connor opened the front door and stumbled into the winter wind that blew down from the north. He wore a warm coat over a sweatshirt and T-shirt and a fur-lined hat with flaps to protect his ears. In his hands was an old ice cream pail filled with water and Lysol toilet bowl cleaner. The stench, a fetid smell, rose from the pail.

He stepped off the porch of the little two-story farm house into the night. Near the red barn, a light on the telephone pole lit the landscape as it always had. Snow covered everything, the tall pine trees to the west and the hills far to the north and even the pond between the house and the barn was hidden under snow, covered as one might try to cover a hole in a leaky bucket.

Above, the stars shone bright, the Milky Way like a river flowing from horizon to horizon. Twinkling in the night, Polaris rested above the barn. It was March, the middle of calving season and two days after the largest snowstorm of winter.

Connor hunched his shoulders against the wind. He missed his bed. He had been awoken only minutes before by his mother because his father needed help birthing a calf. This had been his brother’s job. His father would wake his brother at any time of night. His brother had loved the cows.

Shivering, Connor walked around the covered pond. He and his brother used to walk across the frozen pond all the time, but now he never did. He could remember when he and his brother would play games out on the ice with sticks and a rubber ball, pretending to be hockey players.

He shuffled through the knee-deep snow, clutching the pail so tight that the whites of his knuckles were visible. He kept it steady with his left hand, preventing it from spilling or sloshing as he made his way around the pond and to the barn.

It was not a picturesque barn that often appeared on postcards or in calendars with a high sloped roof and a hay loft above. It was a wide, three-roomed building with red steel on the outside that was still dented from the hail storm two years ago.

He remembered the storm well. They had been harvesting when the storm came through. Connor had driven the tractor and grain cart back to the farm through the thick of it. The hail cracked the roof of the cab, causing water to pour down into the tractor. Yet, his brother always claimed to have had it worse when he drove the semi home and a baseball sized hailstone burst through the passenger side windshield and landed in the seat beside him.

Connor opened the gate to the pen right outside the barn and then turned to latch it. Something nuzzled him in the back of the knee. He turned to find a small calf with red fur and old socks over its ears to keep them from freezing off. It was the bottle calf, born only four days ago. Its mother had died soon after its birth. Now it looked for the bottle of formula milk it received three times a day.

He pushed it out of the way and stepped across the frozen manure. The calf followed, mooing for milk. Sliding the heavy barn door open, Connor stepped into the barn. The floor was layered in frozen manure matted with golden straw. The ceiling was engulfed in dust-covered spider webs. “Dust traps,” his father called them.

In the far wall were two openings that led to the next room, one guarded by a gate and the other by a door. Connor walked across the cold floor and through the door, using his leg to stop the mooing calf from following him in.

The next room was insulated and the walls were covered and painted. The ceiling was bare and whitewashed while the floor was covered in beautiful, clean straw. Across the room was a cabinet and a long metal shelf. In the center was a square pen made up of a metal frame and red metal gates. Along one side was a rusting green head gate.

A ruddy cow stood in the pen, her head wedged between the panels of the head gate. The cow was raising her tail, moving it out of the way for the calf that was about to be born.

“There you are,” Connor’s father said.

He was a short, burly man with salt and pepper hair and the beginnings of a beard. He took the bucket out of Connor’s hand, then set it on the shelf. Connor took off his coat and hat and joined his father.

The bucket was sitting on the shelf, the top still warm and bubbly from the Lysol. Connor’s father stood at the cabinet, rummaging through it. Inside was an assortment of medicines and epidermal needles as long as Connor’s hand. His father grabbed two ropes and handed Connor a long thin chain with two metal handles, one on each end.

“She’s a kicker,” his father said.

Connor gave no response but looked back at the cow’s yellow ear tag. It read “66F.” He dunked the chains in the Lysol and turned to help his father tie the cow’s back legs to the gates with the rope.

After they had finished, they dipped their hands in the Lysol water, and his father took the chains and stuck his hand up the cow’s birthing canal about four inches at which the cow gave a throaty moo. He worked his hand deeper, wrapping the chains around the unborn calf’s front hooves.

Connor waited. Off to his left, through the gate to the other room, movement caught his eye. There, at the gateway, stood the orphaned bottle calf, watching them.

“Ok,” his father said and handed him one end of the chain. “One, two, three, pull.” Connor leaned back and used his body weight to pull on the chain, planting his boots in the soft, straw-matted ground.

The chain grew taut but refused to move. Connor leaned back further. His boot slipped on the loose straw and he fell onto his back as the cow mooed in displeasure.

“Dammit, Connor. I said pull,” his father said.

Connor rose and pulled on the chain once more and looked over to his father. His arms were a deep tan from years spent in the field; the muscles toned from decades of hard manual labor. His shirt was faded and grease-stained, a large brown spot covered the left shoulder, a stain from changing oil on the tractors.

Connor thought of his own clean, unstained shirt and his own white skin, and he pulled harder.

The chain moved, link by link, emerging from the cow’s birthing canal. Soon, front hooves appeared, greasy black. Then a nose, a pink fleshy soft-spot surrounded by hair.

Connor and his father pulled with renewed encouragement, sweat soaking their shirts and pants, beading on their foreheads and dripping down into their boots, until Connor regretted his choice of woolen socks.

The cow squealed and knelt down on her front knees.

“Pull!” Connor’s father said.

Connor pulled and leaned back as much as he could without the fear of slipping. Suddenly, Connor could see the ears of the calf as its whole head became visible. Then torso and rump slid out of the cow with ease and the calf fell into a crumpled heap on the barn floor. The sudden slack caused both Connor and his father to fall onto the floor.

The cow mooed for its calf and struggled against its restraints. But the calf lay still, covered with the fine film of the placenta, the umbilical cord wrapped like a noose around its neck. Its eyes were frozen in their sockets, and its tongue hung out of its mouth, the top a gray-blue and the underside a mild pink. It had been dead before they even pulled it out of the womb.

Connor’s father swore at the dead animal and then walked over to the cabinet on the other wall. He took out a bottle of whiskey from behind two ropes. He kept it hidden there, Connor knew, so his mother wouldn’t find it. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know. It had been there for a year now.

Connor looked at the dead calf. Its red hide was drenched and matted. Soon it would bloat, or freeze, or both. Lord knew it only took minutes to freeze in the winter.

It had taken even less time for his brother to freeze.

He had been asleep the night his brother went out to help birth a calf. His brother walked across the pond as they always had, unaware that the ice had thinned under the layer of snow. They found him lying on his face, three feet from the hole, face porcelain white with cheeks still red from the frostbite. “Hypothermia,” the sheriff had said.

His brother had been the one who loved the cows, loved the work, loved it all. His brother had been the one who was going to take over the farm. His brother was the one who actually enjoyed it.

His father took a long sip of the whiskey, straight from the bottle, and then handed it to Connor. Connor took it and held it in his hands for a moment before bringing the bottle to his lips and tilting his head back. The liquid just touched his throat when he choked. He coughed and covered his mouth with his hand, trying not to spit out the whiskey. He took a deep breath through his nose and swallowed, coughing again. His father took the bottle back and took one more swig before putting it back in the cabinet.

“What could we have done different?” Connor asked.

“Nothing, and you know it,” his father said. “Stop being foolish. Make yourself useful and go get the chains.”

Connor walked over to the dead calf, its mother mooed at him as he went by, still stuck in the head gate. He touched the calf’s front legs. They felt warm but Connor knew it was not the calf’s own warmth, but the mother’s. He pulled the hooves apart and slipped the chain off its feet. The slime stuck to his hand as he let the leg fall back to the ground.

He brought the chains back to the shelf, set them in the Lysol water and washed the slime off his hand. He stared down at his hand and could still feel the slime of the dead calf on it. He dipped it in the water again and again but still couldn’t wash off the feel of the slime.

“Buck up! It’s one dead animal,” his father said. “You’d think the world was ended the way you’re acting.”

“I’m not staying here,” Connor said, not looking at his father.


“I said I’m not staying here.”

“Then head back into the house. I’ll just clean up here.” His father moved to pick up the dead calf.

“I’ve enlisted,” Connor said.


“I got a letter two weeks ago, junk mail. I—I decided to join.” Connor straightened his back, still not looking at his father.

“Will you be back?”

Connor paused for a moment. “I don’t know. I can’t do this every year. I wasn’t cut out for it like—you know.”

“Yeah,” his father said. “I know.”

They both stood still. Connor looked down at the shelf. The surface was scored with millions of tiny scratches, and a large brown stain covered the upper left corner. The right edge was dented in from a bull that had gotten loose in the barn. The cow cried behind him, two loud moos followed by a clang as the cow struggled against the head gate.

A soft, slow moo caught Connor’s attention. He looked to his left and saw the orphaned calf standing at the gate with its head held low, staring at the unmoving red lump on the floor. Connor’s father saw the calf too.

“Go get her,” he said, taking a buck knife out of the cabinet.

Connor opened the door to the other room. The calf stood at the gate and looked at Connor as he approached. He walked up to it, expecting it to jump or run away from him. It did neither. Connor reached down and picked it up, one arm around its hips and the other around the base of its neck. The calf mooed in discomfort.

When Connor walked into the center room with the orphan in his arms his father was just finishing skinning the dead calf.  He pulled the skin up and away, using the knife to separate the tissue in between. The skin looked misshapen in his father’s hands, the fur a glistening auburn with stray pieces of straw stuck to it. The dead calf lay in a heap of soft, pink flesh.

“Bring her here and hold her steady,” his father said.

Connor set the calf down and held it still as his father draped the skin over it. The orphaned calf stood and stared at the dead calf. In the pen, the cow mooed again and again, struggling against its restrains.

Connor’s father tied the skin to the calf with six pieces of rough twine, one around the neck, another around the hips, and then one at each ankle. Finished, he pushed the orphan into the pen in the center. It squirmed, uncomfortable in its new coat.

“Go bring the carcass out,” his father said.

Connor picked up the dead calf as his father walked over to the head gate and released the cow. It mooed and sniffed the ground behind it, searching for its calf. But the calf stood rigid, eyes locked on the dead calf in Connor’s arms. Then the cow mooed at the orphaned calf and sniffed the hide on its back. The calf stepped to the side as the cow began to lick it. As Connor walked out, he saw the cow licking the calf clean and the calf sniffing at the nose of its new mother.

Logan Jorgenson is in his second year at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota where he is currently pursuing a B.A. in English Writing.