I liked to wander up and down the long barns where we kept the milking cows. On either side of me were long cow faces leaning down and snuffling through sweet, fermented feed. In the winter their breath steamed and I pretended they were my dragons, resting and eating between flights. The heat of bovine bodies filled the barn. Thick insulated curtains were drawn against the cold wind and snow outside. The sounds of masticating, cow breathing, and the clink of metal stanchions were comforting. I could climb up a gate and look over a field of black and white rumps, flickering ears and tails. My brother and I would ride bikes in lazy circles on the smooth concrete of the feed aisle.
Sometimes I would follow my Dad through the herd, avoiding the largest cow patties and sticking close to his big black boots. He would give injections, and check cows for those in heat, something that I didn’t really understand until I was older. He was taking their temperature, monitoring their cycle so they could be bred at the right time. I remember sitting in an old tractor seat affixed to a gate and looking for the signs. One cow would mount another, and I would try to see her ear tag number so Dad could write it down.
I remember once or twice waking early with my Dad and going in to work. I would wear my barn clothes—old tee-shirt, jeans, sweatshirt—and rubber boots. After a bowl of cereal and orange juice we walked across the road, the sun rising at our backs and me trotting to keep up with my dad’s long strides. I helped ‘push’, moving the cows from one barn through a breezeway into the parlor holding area where they would wait to be milked. I learned to stand my ground, hold out my arms, clap, and shout “Come on girls!”. Sometimes I needed to poke the stragglers, or slap their rump to get them to move. I think I was only allowed to push the oldest cows, the ones long used to the thrice-daily routine of milking. They were solid and placid, probably would have gone into the parlor at the right time whether I shouted or not. I liked watching the cows move, even if their size sometimes scared me. They were usually slow and predictable, with calm liquid gazes and long eyelashes that gave some elegance to their faces. I would choose which ones had the prettiest markings, preferring the girls with more black than white on their face. A few had names beyond their ear-tag number. I can’t remember my Mom’s favorite lineage, all of the daughters given the name of their mother. I’ll have to ask.
To most people it might seem strange, but I miss the smell of the barn. The slightly sour, slightly sweet feed, the warm cow breath, and yes, the manure. I’m here in a city with a host of other smells–sewer, exhaust from the bus, garbage, night-blooming flowers, enticing food aromas, warm concrete, rubber, and last weeks stale vomit. Who can say which is better?