Zelda leapt at the gate and the old wood split in two, making a path through to the outer pasture. The bawling in the early-morning field she'd just left quieted. The other cows were lined up along the fence to watch--unwilling, it seemed, to venture far from the barn. Already they smelled winter. Zelda, though, wanted out. It wasn't that she was hungry. She was off her feed; for a time, she'd eaten everything: hay, ground corn, prickly ash, and nettles. But now these foods didn't tempt her. She needed solitude, a quiet spot to drop the load inside her. She charged ahead on the hard October dirt, where a thin, cold rain was starting to fall. She shuffled about, peered back at her flanks as though she'd swat a fly--then rammed a second fence.
But this fence gave a jolt. Something sharp zinged through her, penetrated the bones. She wouldn't give up. She rammed again, and again, until the pole was knocked sideways; then, when a sharp pain scissored through her insides, gave up. She turned sideways into a declivity of dried underbrush, near a cold stream, into a hole partly dug; she smelled dog, but only on the bone that was half-unearthed there. She trampled it back in, almost; with her back feet shoved in damp red leaves, the wind did the rest. She beat her head against the fence, mewling. Somewhere a crow called, a cricket spoke. A soft grayish pink crowned the mountains to the east.
She thumped down on the frosty grass, cramped into a swollen sigh; the birth sack heaved with each bellow. Her noise was echoed by the wind, and by the other cows, watching at a distance, like women at a home birth. Her insides screamed; her breath squealed as she pulled in, pushed out, bellowed again. And then an ivory hoof kicked out, a black head, followed by white shoulders, and ribs like furrows of hard earth. Finally, it lay there on the ground, a bloody steaming package of spindly limbs. Zelda licked the soaked calf dry, then lifted her head and trumpeted her prize.
Back in the inner pasture, she heard answering cries.
Ruth Willmarth arrived on the scene a half hour later with Joey, the hired man's foster boy--a bit backward but a sweet lad and useful for all that. He'd burst in that morning before she could even grind her morning coffee beans. The calf was already up on its stick legs and sucking. Zelda had tried to hide it, of course, but a bit of rummaging located the calf behind a pile of brush, by the stream that meandered over from the Flint farm to the south. There was no use scolding Zelda for breaking out. It was her first calf; she'd been ornery from the start, a dominant cow, though not always a leader. They'd gotten her to replace poor Charlotte, burned to death in last spring's barn fire.
And here the miserable heifer had broken through a gate--more work for them all when there was still late corn and alfalfa to be gotten in. It was already mid-October and the beast had practically battered down the pasture fence in its birth agony.
"Ow," said Joey, his bony fingers leaping back from the hot wires. Ruth clucked in sympathy and pulled him away.
Her husband, Pete, had electrified those wires. She'd been meaning to switch them off, actually. Pete was in New York. "We'll get Tim to fix the fence; you can help," she told Joey. "But we have to get this calf back in the barn. Now Zelda's had it, she won't want to feed it any longer--what do you bet? Not much of a mother, I'm afraid."
It was true. Already, Zelda was rolling away from the calf, her white switch whirling like a helicopter as she moved off through the open gate, toward the other cows. They parted to let her through, then followed her lead, over to the pond that already had a rim of ice on it. The calf just stood there on unsteady legs and gazed at Ruth with plaintive brown eyes, wanting to suck.
"I haven't got anything for you," Ruth said. "My milking days are over. But Jane Eyre does. She's a good mom. She'll share." Ruth had named her cows after favorite characters from books, like Jane or Esmeralda, and from movies, like Dolly Parton. Zelda, for example, had been named for the wife of a novelist, who'd claimed his wife had stolen all his subject matter. Of course, Ruth's husband thought her crazy; to him, cows were merely objects that gave milk. But Pete had taken off with that actress woman--though things weren't going so well with her at the moment, according to Ruth's daughter Emily, who spoke on the phone each weekend with her father. It gave Ruth a certain satisfaction to hear that.
She put an arm around the calf's neck, propelled it gently toward the barn. Already, the red and gold leaves were crackling down off the trees, the tourists heading home. In Vermont, winter came early. A hard winter--she could feel it in her bones. An aching in her joints.
Behind her, Joey yelled, "Hey, Ruth, Ruth, look what I got. Ruth--hey, look!"
She turned, and the calf sank down on its black knees, stumbled into a hole. She hardly saw what Joey held out; she was trying to tug the calf upright again. She needed the animal; the herd was down to twenty-nine, an all-time low. She couldn't afford to buy a grown cow, since times were bad: Everything was going up--farm machinery, chemicals, fertilizer--and her buying power was dropping. Some weekends, when Pete called, she wanted to give in, say, All right, all right, I'll sell; we can liquidate. You can have your half in cash, if that's what you want. And of course that was what he wanted....
"I thought, jussa bone," Joey said. "But look, look, Ruth, it's got a ring. A bone with a ring." His hair was almost white with frost, and his mouth, with its two missing front teeth, was set in a grin. His words came out with a slight whistle. "Ruth! You gotta come see."
She smiled. When Joey got an idea in his head, he wouldn't let go. She let the calf loose and it staggered on ahead, toward the barn, as if it knew already where the feed was. Sighing, she looked at the bone Joey held out, and was surprised to see it was a finger, a long brownish finger--not a hoof, not a skeletal paw, but a human finger. A finger with a narrow gold ring above the bony hump of knuckle joint. A ring with an etching--moss-filled. But on closer observation, it looked like an arrow crossed with a bone.
"You wanna ring? Pretty ring," sang Joey. "Pretty, pretty, pretty. What finger you want on?"
"No, leave it as you found it," she shouted, the shock of the calf and then the finger running through her like an electric pulse. "Give it here, Joey. We should keep it intact."
"Who's it?" he said, dancing around, excited by the calf, the ring, the rain that was turning to sleet. He thrust the finger at her, then stood on his gloved hands in the frosty grass, wiggled his skinny legs.
"Oh, probably came from that cemetery over there." She pointed at the Larocque farm to the north. There was a small cemetery on it, dating from Revolutionary times. Belle Larocque, for one, was buried there, killed by an assailant. Her septuagenarian husband, Lucien, still worked the farm, alone now. Lucien had once unearthed an Indian there, sitting up the way the Abenaki buried them. Though an ancient Indian wouldn't be wearing an etched gold ring, would he? She? And the stream it was found near flowed from the Flint farm, not Larocque's. She made a mental note to call her friend Colm Hanna, let him look into it. Colm was a Realtor, familiar with the town properties; he worked on the side for the town police.
Oh well. She had other things on her mind. Like barn work. Milking time already, and she hadn't even had her coffee yet. She couldn't function without her coffee! She dropped the finger into a pocket, then raced after the calf--a priority now--and steered it toward the barn, where two pregnant heifers and three calves were still inside. Birthing was year-round for her; she needed the cash flow. And with milk prices higher in the fall, it made sense to inseminate in late winter. Though it was getting more and more costly to buy the right semen. And then, just when she'd invested in Select Sires to get a better set to the leg, more curve, greater milk flow, a bull had broken out from a nearby farm and impregnated two of her cows.
That farm had been sold after a series of fires and had been bought by a couple from down country who thought anyone could farm--they didn't know about keeping up fences. As if farming were a hobby, not a hard, tough, back-breaking business! Well, they'd given up already, planned to develop the place. And now Ruth had heard, a woman named Fay was renting the Flint farm next door, meaning to open a bed-and-breakfast. The neighborhood was going commercial. It made her sick to think of it.
The calf took to Jane Eyre at once. Jane had plenty of milk; she was a good gentle girl, always baby-sitting for the other calves. Her three-day-old didn't particularly want to share, though; it kicked at the newborn with a hard muscled leg. Ruth shoved the newborn at the teat. It was a female calf; she was thankful for that. Annie, she named it; it was already an orphan apparently, its mother a renegade. The others kowtowed to Zelda; she was spoiled rotten.
Kowtow--funny how that sounded, she thought. In this case, "cowtow," female to female. Interesting to contemplate. Would there have been a pecking order among the Amazons?
Something jabbed her side as she moved about, hoeing out the manure to make space for two calves--something in her right pocket. It was the finger: She took it out, laid it on the edge of the stanchion, and bent to examine it. But she looked up when someone behind her squealed: Emily, coming up to say good-bye before school.
"Mo-ther. What's that? Oh, dis-gus-ting."
Ruth laughed. She was already quite fond of it, that finger, that ring. She was making up a story around it. It had belonged to some nineteenth-century female, young, wearing her lover's ring; took her life out of unrequited love.... "A soldier's wife," she told Emily, smiling. "Her husband dead in a war, and she died from heartbreak and was buried with his ring."
"Mom, you're going soft in the head. But how old do you really think it is?" Emily's interest was piqued now--she'd been assigned a school project on local history. She picked up the finger, examined it in the blur of light from a plastic-lined window. "I've seen rings like this. Some guy in town makes them--not exactly like this, but with arrows, moons, stars, things like that. 'Hex rings,' he calls them."
"An arrow's a pretty universal symbol--for good or bad."
"I suppose." The girl glanced at her watch, put the finger back on the wheelbarrow. "Bus is coming in a couple minutes. Got to get my stuff together. Wilder and I are having a showdown before school starts. I'm really pissed the way he's been acting lately--that Joanie Hayden. She's been after him, you know."
"She can't compete with you." Ruth stood up; together, mother and daughter watched the calves suckle on a placid Jane Eyre. It was always a thrill to see how a newborn took to the teat, even standing, and only two or three hours old. Jane was practically purring with motherhood.
"She'd never be able to clean out a feeding trough, that Joanie Hayden," said Emily, her voice thin and hard. "She's got a tiny diamond in her nostril. Her nostril, Mom. What've I got but snot? Just snot running down my chin. I think I'm allergic to hay." She wiped at the chin with a calloused hand. "This barn is freezing. Can't you heat it better than this? It's not even winter yet." She wheeled about at the door. "If Dad were here, he'd see to it." She stomped out, holding a hand to her mouth. A cold wind blew in through the open door and caught in Ruth's throat.
A diamond in her nostril, Ruth said to herself, thrusting the bony finger back in her jacket pocket. A diamond in her nostril. Who could compete with a girl with a diamond in her nostril?