The calf looked at me. I looked at it. We were both desperate. She wanted food. I wanted to feed her. It seems a simple equation for me as I held a bucket full of frothy, nourishing milk. But the poddy calf’s scared eyes that warily watched me from the other side of the paddock told me this would be far from simple.
My boss had floated the idea of me feeding the calf while he was away for a few days. I was keener than an over-exuberant child let loose on the high-jump mats. My resume would read journalist/farmer. I would live on a farm one fine day.
In hindsight, my vision was clouded by self-induced thoughts of unearned glory. The sun was already veering towards the horizon when I arrived at the property. It took me a while to find the angle paddock east of the dog’s chain. There was no sign of the pale blue bucket I’d been told the little orphan would recognise. Apparently it was under the brush tree to the east. I didn’t even know what a bloody brush tree was. Surely the black bucket would be ok? The milky slush almost enticed me by the time I prepared it and found the calf in the angle paddock again. And so the games began.
The calf backed away immediately as I stumbled through the scrub with the wholesome milk. Already I’d started thinking of myself as a Mother Teresa figure, feeding the hungry in my spare time. It wasn’t long before I felt like the Hulk, horribly imposing over a scared farm animal. I’d move a few steps forward, offering my useless black bucket and then step away hoping he’d step forward. “C’mon little calfie,” I’d purr at her. “Come and get some yummy milky.”
She saw through it. Raw away. “You filthy m***** f*****,” I shouted, running after her. Perhaps mooing at her will help, I thought desperately, taking in her hungry flanks. For the record, mooing and holding out fingers for sucking does not help. She cantered off again and I followed. Then I spotted the magical pale blue bucket under what I guessed was a brush tree, transferred my nectar and set off again. She looked at me, spotted the familiar blue, took a step forwards and another. And another. I stood a respectful metre away, as you would when meeting the queen, and delighted in the slurping sounds. Her nose came out whiter than the Bolivian salt fields. I took a step forwards before she knocked the bucket over. She ran. I ran after her straight into the prickly scrub.
Rubbing the blood from my ankle, I picked up my bucket and tried to loop around the scrub and catch her on the other side. How could this calf outwit me? Patience, patience, was all I needed, I thought as the sun dipped below the horizon and purple clouds whispered overhead. My belly rumbled but I managed to keep my head out of the bucket. Perhaps leading by example would have helped.
The cunning beast eyed me from the bushes and tottered backward, stumbling over a hollowed log. Sympathy pricked my conscience. I stepped away from the bucket again and waited. It was more frustrating than those aerobics classes that make you feel like you were born without foot-brain coordination.
She wasn’t moving at all now and the scrub was thicker than anything I wanted to scramble in. The bucket handle made an interesting clanging noise that I thought could be used to lure the girl in. That didn’t work either. But walking away worked. She followed like a wee lamb that’d lost her flock. But as soon as I tried to get the head into the pale blue milkiness she trotted off. I walked home in the dark, wondering how a starving poddy calf had got the better of me.
I set off again in the morning with instructions. I was supposed to chase him, get him between my legs and force his head into the bucket, my farm-handy boyfriend explained. What if I caught him a long way from the bucket? Well, that’s easy. Just twist his tail and he’ll move forward. My confidence wasn’t soaring as I set off with my milk, imagining myself trying to wrangle a calf that looked ragged but ultimately was stronger than me. It started as usual. She eyed me as one would regard a doctor with an syringe full of vaccine. I trotted forward and she startled into the scrub. But hurrah, the stupid little animal jagged herself on a tangle and couldn’t get out. The noose of vines held her neck and the pale blue bucket wedged easily under her mouth. Aha. It was a satisfying victory, the depths of my glory stretching far beyond her inflated flanks. There’s nothing quite like a victory over a small defenceless calf to make you feel validated. Needed. Perhaps that’s how farmers feel.