In this week’s blog I’m passing along a story and photograph from Michael Collier. To go with Michael’s photograph, which goes with his story, I’ve posted a story of my own.
"Annie" by Michael Collier
I’m curled around my sleeping cat, Annie. Her sleep is troubled.
Three or four Decembers ago, Rosey and I camped at Montaña del Oro on the coast near San Luis Obispo. It was birthing time for the elephant seals that brood near Año Nuevo lighthouse. The bulls can weigh 5500 pounds--one ton more than a typical car. The females, weighing only 2000 pounds, are more dainty. But the greatest threat to their small bodies is hypothermia from the cold Pacific water. Their mothers corral them up the waves to dry warm sand.
I walked a few hundred yards down the beach and away from the shutterbug crowds the day we were there. A storm had recently roiled the water. I watched as the pounding surf rolled a pup back down from the beach. Its mother barked and flapped to no avail as the pup tried to gain dry ground only to roll waveward again and again. The mother was frantic, unable to help. From fifty feet away, it was hard to be a cold scientist observing evolution and survival of the fittest.
The bulls see other males, even younger ones, as a threat to their harem. If disturbed, the bulls have been known to crush hapless pups as they scramble back to the sea. But on the contrary, what I saw was a bull swim up and haul himself comma-like around that flailing pup, preventing it from washing out to sea. The waves were held at bay. I wanted to cry with relief.
Annie doesn't eat more than a bite of cat food at a time now. She drinks a lot of water. She sways without much strength when I pet her. Her eyes drift in and out of a submissive alertness. Once in a while I hear a faint purr--which of course brings a smile and breaks my heart. The vet was probably right when he said that she's in kidney failure. But I don't think about that much when I'm curled around her, trying to keep her from washing out to sea.
"Shirley" by Margaret Erhart
She was a Nubian, with long ears and a long pensive face. I used to say she looked like Lauren Bacall. She was black and tan and gave good creamy milk. Once, when my family came to visit the Iowa farm where I lived, she ran from the other side of the pasture, lowered her head and butted my mother hard in the belly. I never saw her do that before or after. She wanted to let everyone know she was my champion.
She grew up in Tucson, in a Maytag washing machine box. She was a wobbly-legged little thing when we first met her on a ranchette outside of Prescott. My girlfriend, Mary, had woken up that morning saying, “Let’s get a camel.” That seemed an unlikely prospect so instead we answered an ad for a goat.
At home in Tucson, Shirley lived for a time in the box, then when she outgrew it I cobbled together some pallets to make a little yard for her. Everything went well until weaning time came around. When goats are hungry they do just what human babies do: they bawl at the top of their lungs and don’t stop until food arrives. We reduced her thrice-a-day bottle to one small feeding. We offered plenty of delicious timothy grass and alfalfa and even demonstrated how to eat it, but she would have none of it.
Weaning does happen eventually, and at the end of that painful ten days, Mary and I decided our neighbors had earned a Golden Nipple Award. We dipped Shirley’s obsolete bottle nipples in gold paint and attached them to a small square of wood also painted gold, and these we handed out to our three closest neighbors in thanks for their patience during the prolonged ordeal.
Shirley grew and grew, and at the end of the summer Mary loaded her into the back seat of her sedan and the two of them drove up to Iowa City. Mary, at least, was bound for the Writers’ Workshop. Her passenger was bound for a real pasture in bona fide farm country. But before they left, there was an incident worth relating here. On the night before their departure, Shirley went missing. We looked everywhere, in every alley, in every back yard around the block. Finally, in desperation, I knocked on the door of our nearest neighbor, an Hispanic man with a withered arm whose name I no longer remember. He called out for me to enter his home, and I did. He was watching television and next to him on the couch was my goat. Later, he told me she had been bleating and he felt sorry for her, especially after her memorable ten days of bawling, so he let her out of her enclosure and opened his door and in she came. He wasn’t expecting her to hop on the couch, but it was companionable and he didn’t mind.
A few months later I moved back to Iowa City and joined Shirley and Mary. We bought a little farm and got a few more goats and one sheep who’d been abandoned at birth. He was the only boy around and we called him John. Shirley was definitely the herd mistress, and she did figure out how to open the door of the farmhouse so she could come in any time and pee on the bed. I won’t spend long on this part because it makes me too sad, but she died on a clear, warm Labor Day after opening the door to the feed room and lifting off the lid of the bin where we kept the grain, and eating until her stomach started to burst. She cried in pain for two days, then finally died in my arms. Her big heavy head lay on my lap. We buried her up on the hill above the farmhouse. A few good friends came out and helped us dig her grave.
I moved from the farm, and Iowa, shortly after that.