A Calf for Christmas

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2007

William Gwaltney

It was Christmas Eve, and everything was ready. Presents had been purchased with great care months before. Yesterday they had been wrapped in dozens of pretty papers and decorated with beautiful bows. Now they sat like sparkling jewels in a pirate’s treasure chest, under the fragrant boughs of a giant spruce. The farmhouse was filled with tinsel and holly and light.

The dining room table was covered with a white tablecloth, and red and green candles stood in silver candle holders waiting to be lit. Golden streams of light poured down from the dining room chandelier onto plates heaped high with frosted cookies in the shapes of snowmen and reindeer and elves. Soon these plates would need to be moved to make way for the huge Christmas Eve feast that was almost ready.

From the kitchen came the smells of cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla, and of a golden brown turkey almost too big for the oven. On the stove, every burner was in use. Steam was pouring out from underneath the lids on various pots, fogging up the windows in the farmhouse kitchen. The sink was filled with pots and pans and utensils, and the counters were happily cluttered. As the mother worked, chopping, stirring, and checking the pots, she sang along with the Christmas carols coming from the nearby radio.

Suddenly the door to the outside burst open and happy voices filled the air. Having finished their evening chores, the children rushed into the house, each trying to be the first to reach the Christmas cookies in the dining room. Max, thinking himself too old for such childish behavior at twelve, slowly removed his shoes and walked seriously into the kitchen. He called out to his younger sisters, “You leave those cookies alone! You’ll all spoil your appetites for supper!” His mother grinned.

A Calf for Christmas cooking in the kitchen

‘ white Christmas,” she said happily. “It’s been a longtime since we’ve had one of those”

“Now you sound like me,” she said. “Before I know it, you’ll be taking over my kitchen and doing the cooking as well.”

“Not a chance,” replied Max. “You are the only person in the world who can make dinner smell this good.” He inhaled deeply. “Did you know that it’s starting to snow out there?” he asked. “There’s already almost two inches on the ground.” A broad smile lit his mother’s face and her brown eyes twinkled.

“A white Christmas,” she said happily. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had one of those. Have you and your sisters finished your chores?” Max nodded. “Great,” his mom replied, “Now where’s your father?”

“He’s still out in the back pasture,” Max answered. “I think he’s…” But before he could finish, the door to the outside once again blew open.

Into the kitchen came Max’s dad, his hair wet, his clothes rumpled, and a grim look on his face. “Molly!” he called to Max’s mother. “Call the vet! That cow with the white face is having trouble calving. She’s been trying since early this morning, and I went out just now thinking she’d have a nice calf on the ground. But she’s made no progress since I last saw her. I’m not even sure that the calf’s still alive but we’ve got to do something.”

“OK, Frank,” said his wife, “I’ll call the vet and be right out to help.”

“Dress warmly” said her husband, “it’s only twenty degrees out there and the temperature’s dropping fast.”

As he left the kitchen, his wife called to the children. “Max,” she said, “I’m going out to help your father. I’ll need you to finish dinner and feed the girls. Turning to her younger children she said, “Now, no Christmas cookies until you’re done with dinner. Max is in charge and you’d better listen to him. I want you all in bed early so Santa can come. Understand?”

Three little heads nodded agreement. “Yes, Mom,” they said. But as she turned around, Max was already pulling on his boots.

“Let me go out instead,” he said. “You’re still getting over your cold, and I’m not really great in the kitchen. Besides, the little kids are way too excited to want to listen to me tonight.”

His mother smiled. “You’re right, of course, but dress warmly. You don’t want to get sick either.”

As Max struggled into layers of warm clothing, his mother called the vet. Max headed out the door, still shrugging into his coat. Outside, it was bitterly cold. The falling snow swirled around his head. Steam rose from his nose and mouth as he breathed out warmed air into the frigid night. This was not good calving weather. The baby, if it was still alive, was liable to freeze to death before morning. The cow giving birth to him was the worst mother on the farm. She usually abandoned her calves, refusing to take care of them or even let them nurse. Now here she was having her calf in the middle of a blizzard. It was crazy.

A Calf for Christmas cow is tied to a tree

The site that greeted them was not a pretty one

As Max crossed the front yard, he heard the roar of an engine and looked up to see headlights coming up the driveway, illuminating the falling snow. The vet had made it in record time. Max walked over to meet him, and together they drove out into the back pasture to find his father. The site that greeted them was not a pretty one.

Max’s father held one end of a rope, and the cow was on the other. The center of the rope was wrapped around a tree trunk, and his dad was trying to pull the cow up close so that she couldn’t move around as much. Although she looked exhausted, the cow had the fiery glint of rage in her eyes. Her sides heaved and sweat steamed off of her. She thrashed and kicked and struggled, trying to break free of the rope.

“Hey Frank,” said the veterinarian, climbing out of his truck, “she sure looks angry How long did you say she’s been trying to calve?”

“She’s been at it for most of the day,” Max’s dad replied, “but all we’ve seen is one little foot.”

“Not good,” said the vet. “It’s unlikely that the calf is even still alive. But we need to get it out one way or another. What are the chances of getting the cow into the barn?”

“Not good,” said Max’s father. “She’s a wild one. If we loosen the ropes, she’s bound to either get away or hurt us. I don’t think we should chance it.”

“OK,” said the vet, “let’s see what we can do.” Speaking calmly, he approached the cow and tried to grab the small foot of her unborn baby. As the men had talked, the cow had settled down, seemingly too weak and tired to fight anymore. But now she bellowed furiously and threw all her weight to one side, ramming the vet soundly and sending him flying through the air. He landed in the cold fresh snow and rolled several feet. Struggling to his feet, he approached the cow again, limping slightly on a newly bruised leg. Her eyes rolled wildly toward him as she tucked a hind leg up near her belly, preparing to kick.

The vet grabbed some more rope and tied the cow’s right rear foot up underneath her. Now she was more concerned with maintaining her balance than in fighting. “She won’t try to kick me now,” said the vet. “She knows she’ll fall if she tries.”

He approached the cow again and reached underneath her tail. Grabbing the calf’s leg, he pushed it back inside the birth canal. He fumbled around for a minute, then suddenly Max saw two little legs. “I think we’re OK,” said the vet. “One leg was twisted backwards. I’ve found it now, so the baby’s in a normal position to be born. The only problem is, Mom is too exhausted to push, so we’re going to have to help her. I’m sorry to bother you,” he said, “but I’ll need a piece of rope.”

Max ran for the shed, returning with the rope in hand. The vet took it and wrapped it around the calf’s two front legs, which were still protruding from the cow. “OK,” he said, “we’re ready. We’ll all need to pull on this rope if we hope to get this calf out. They grabbed hold and pulled as hard as they could, but nothing happened. Within a few minutes they were covered in sweat and gasping for breath. Disappointed, they all let go of the rope.

“Hang on,” said the vet, “something’s wrong.” Reaching inside the cow again he said, “I’m afraid I have some more bad news. This calf is huge. His shoulders are too big to fit through the birth canal. We can either save the cow or save the calf, but you’re going to have to make a decision.”

“Can’t we save both?” asked Max.

“There’s a slight chance we might be able to,” the vet answered, “but the only way to get to that calf is to do surgery on the cow And this is not the time or the place to do that with any chance of success. It’s below freezing out, it’s snowing, and a pasture is far from a sterile environment. I think we need to be prepared to lose one or the other.”

“I think that we should save the calf,” said Max. “This cow has been a lot of trouble over the years, and the calf might turn out to be a good one.”

“The problem,” said his father, “is that it’s unlikely that this calf is even still alive.”

“Well, actually, I might have to disagree,” said the vet, his hand still inside the cow. Something in there just started sucking on my fingers, and I believe I know what it is.” He laughed. “Not only is this calf still alive, but it’s hungry too!”

The vet retrieved his surgical kit from the back of his truck. Anesthetizing the cow, he made an incision along her belly. Reaching inside, he pulled out a gigantic calf. Max couldn’t believe his eyes. It was the same size as a normal six-month-old calf! It was a beautiful heifer, a baby girl, with big bones and long legs. Except for some white markings on her face, she was a pretty reddish-brown, the color of henna. Her eyes were big and soft with long lashes. But she wasn’t breathing.

“Hurry” said the vet. “If you want to save her, we’ve got to act quickly.” Grabbing the calf’s hind legs, the vet lifted her up as high as he could reach. The calf was now hanging upside down, but she was so long that her head and forelegs were lying on the ground. “Max,” said the vet, “grab that towel. You’ve got to clean the mucus out of her mouth and nose!”

“Why are you holding her upside down?” asked Max as he worked.

“Because gravity is our friend,” said the vet. “This will help the mucus drain out of her lungs more efficiently, making your job easier.” But the calf still did not take a breath. The vet laid her down on the ground and felt for a pulse. He couldn’t find one.

“I think she’s gone,” said Max’s father, sadly. But the vet’s enthusiasm knew no bounds.

“She was sucking on my fingers just minutes ago,” he said. “We’re not giving up! This calf has been fighting to live all day, and we’re going to help her. If I could only lift her a little higher…”

Suddenly, Max had an idea. “Your pickup!” he shouted. “If you stand in the back of your pickup you can get her all the way off the ground!” The vet looked at his truck. “It just might work,” he said. “Frank, can you get into the back of my truck and hold her up?” Max’s dad climbed into the truck. Max and the vet passed the calf up to him. Grabbing its back legs, he reached above his head, holding the calf as high as he could. Now she dangled above the ground. Max went back to work on her nose and mouth, trying to get her to breathe. The vet began to massage her chest briskly. Every once in a while, he stopped to slap her hard.

“What are you doing?” shouted Max. “Don’t hurt her!”

“I’m trying to get her heart beating,” said the vet. Suddenly, the little cow coughed. She heaved a huge sigh and then blinked her big brown eyes and looked up.

“We did it!” yelled Max. “She’s OK! She’s going to be all right!”

A Calf for Christmas feeding the calf

“Look!” they shrieked “Look! Santa brought us a new calf”

“We can hope so,” said the vet, “But she’s not out of the woods yet. We really need to get her inside where it’s warmer. Is there an empty stall in the barn?”

“Yes,” said Max’s dad, “but it’s really not that much warmer in the barn than it is out here.” The little cow struggled to stand, but the slippery snow made it impossible.

“What about the basement?” asked Max. “We’ve got the woodstove down there so it’s nice and toasty”

“That’s a great idea,” said his father. “We’ll put down a thick bed of hay and sawdust.” Working together, the three of them carried the huge calf into the basement and bedded her down for the night. Max was exhausted, but he took the time to dry her thoroughly and give her a bottle of warm milk before he struggled back up the long basement steps.

In the kitchen, his mother bustled about, making hot chocolate and sandwiches for his father and the vet, who had just come in from tending to the mother cow. They had sewn her up and had somehow managed to get her into the barn. “It looks like she’ll make it,” said the vet, “but I don’t think she’ll be able to have any more calves.” Max thought that might not be such a bad thing. She didn’t seem to like being a mom much anyway.

Max’s mother offered Max a mug of hot chocolate, but all he wanted was his nice soft bed. “Merry Christmas,” she told him. “It’s after midnight, so it’s now officially Christmas Day” Max smiled and then staggered off to bed. He fell asleep immediately. In his dreams cows, beautiful cows, pulled Santa’s sleigh through a snow-filled sky.

“I thought we made a deal,” Max said to his sisters as they struggled to wake him up the next morning. “I’d give you one of my presents and you’d let me sleep until at least seven o’clock.”

“But it’s ten o’clock already,” said his oldest sister. “Mom wouldn’t let us wake you up any earlier. But you’ve got to get up. You’ve got to come and see what Santa brought us. It’s the best present ever!” Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Max dragged himself out of bed.

The girls tumbled down the stairs ahead of him. Then they opened the basement door. Suddenly, Max remembered the calf. He charged down the basement stairs right behind his sisters. “Look!” they shrieked. “Look! Santa brought us a new calf. And Mama said we can feed it with a bottle. And Daddy says she can stay in the basement until spring. Isn’t she beautiful?” And she was.

“We decided to let you name her,” they all shouted. “Dad said that it should be your job. What are you going to call her?” they asked.

“How about Eve?” said Max, as the calf sucked hungrily on his fingers. “She was born on Christmas Eve.”

“Eve! Eve! Eve!” chanted his sisters. The calf bawled loudly.

Giggling, Max’s littlest sister said, “I think that means she likes her new name!”

“Actually” said Max, “I think it means she’s hungry Who wants to feed her?”

“Me! Me! Me!” clamored his sisters, and they all raced upstairs to fix Eve her bottle.

A Calf for Christmas William Gwaltney

William Gwaltney, 12
Englewood, Colorado

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