LONG ROAD TO ARCADIA
Stan’s first calf delivery came late one afternoon, just before closing time. With Everett out sewing up a wire-cut horse, he decided to go alone.
The Petru farm was four miles northwest of town. Stan drove around the courthouse square, along shady streets lined by tired old bungalows, and then down a lonely county road. It was early September. The roadsides were baked to a crispy brown, and the leaves of the post oaks drooped listlessly, craving a breeze. Stan remembered what Everett told him on his first day. “Most calvings are easy,” he’d said. “It’s the bad ones that keep life interesting.”
Stan had waited for him to continue, but Everett just stared at the wall. The specter of things unsaid, of grisly stories untold hung in the air between them. Stan knew the complications well enough—malpresentations, fetal deformities, cervical and uterine prolapses, vaginal tears, ruptured uterine arteries—but to him they were little more than words on paper. To Everett, they were battles won and lost, rope burns and aching joints, long nights and red-eyed mornings.
Stan drove through a densely wooded creek bottom and rattled across a low wooden bridge. A hundred yards later, he pulled up to a farmhouse near the road and parked under a tall sycamore. As he stepped out of the truck, a spotted one-eared dog was urinating on his front tire. A stooped woman with a cane got up from a lawn chair and hobbled over with a lurching crab-like gait. Wilhemina Petru had sagging jowls, bulging eyes, and hair of an unnatural red. She wore a faded and dirty baseball cap slightly askew.
“I’m Willie,” she said, her voice like burlap rubbed on a cedar post. She extended her hand, steadying herself with the cane.
“Stan Holub,” he said, taking her hand. “I’m the new vet.”
Willie squinted at him, chewing on the inside of her cheek, and tightened her grip. “I was expecting Dr. Templeton…but I guess you’ll have to do.” She released his hand and reached up to scratch a hairy ear with a knobby forefinger, her eyes never leaving his. “We got a good one for ya.”
Stan flexed his fingers to get the circulation back. He looked toward the barn, his throat dry. “You got her in the pen?”
Willie gave a little snort. “Nope, but she ain’t going nowhere. She’s down at the creek. You can’t get your truck down there, but I’ll drive us in my Mule.” She motioned toward a four-wheeler parked near the house. “You can put your stuff in the back.”
Stan’s heart was pounding. He wished Russell was along, but he was helping Everett with the horse. Stan knew the protocol in these situations was to make at least a token effort to get the cow penned or to rope her on foot. If that failed, and if the cow was out in the open, Everett would drive alongside her and Russell would rope her off the back of the truck. Once the cow was dragging the rope, they’d drive on top of it. The third option was to dart the cow with a tranquilizer gun. Everett said that some vets—the “smart ones”—wouldn’t come out to the farm unless the cow was penned. “But I’m the accommodating type. Or maybe I just watched too many episodes of Wild Kingdom.”
Stan walked back to the truck, trying to think of everything he’d need—ropes, calf puller and chains, obstetrical sleeves, bucket, betadine, cooler with medications, needles, syringes. In several trips, he carried it all over to the four-wheeler and piled it in the back. Then he climbed into the seat beside Willie, who was revving the engine, both hands on the wheel, eyes fixed straight ahead. “Hold on,” she said.
The vehicle jerked into motion and shot off across the yard with the dog leading the way. Willie hit a cattle guard at full speed, causing Stan to bounce up and hit his head on the roll cage, and then she followed a rutted overgrown trail down into the woods. Stan tried to reposition himself, looking frantically for something to hold on to, but each bump sent him scrambling. He ducked to miss a tree limb, but the next one slapped him across the face. He slid down in the seat and put his knees up on the dash to brace himself. He wanted to yell at her to slow down, but then she suddenly pulled to a jarring stop in the middle of a yaupon thicket.
“This is as close as we can get,” she said, picking up her cane and pointing to the left. “The creek’s right over yonder.”
Stan spit out a leaf and stumbled out of the vehicle. When he looked in back, he was surprised to see everything still there. He picked up his ropes and started threading his way through the woods, following the sound of a man’s voice. Maybe he’d have some help after all.
He soon spotted an expanse of brown stagnant water through the leaves. Then he saw the cow—a black Brangus cross standing in the water up to her belly, all four feet stuck deep in the mud. The tip of the calf’s tail extended from her vulva, indicating it was in breech position. The air was hot, still, and soupy, filled with a sweet sickly smell, the sound of buzzing flies.
A lean bearded man wearing a straw cowboy hat and a sweat-drenched gray t-shirt waved from the other side of the creek. “I’m Kenny Petru. And this here is Justin,” he said, nodding at a spindly teenage boy who was shyly emerging from the shade of the creek bank.
Stan introduced himself and went back to the four-wheeler to get his supplies, relieved that at least the cow was immobilized—no rodeo heroics needed. After piling everything on the bank, he slipped on obstetrical sleeves and drew up a syringe of lidocaine. He stared at the cow for a moment, and then he took a deep breath and waded out to her. The water came up to his knees, and it took effort to pull his feet from the mud with each step. When he grasped the cow’s tail to give her an epidural, she swung her head around and almost hooked him with one of her long horns.
“She’s a little salty, ain’t it?” Willie said. She chuckled as she took a seat on a tree stump. The dog sat down beside her.
Stan went back to the bank to get a rope, gritting his teeth. He tossed a loop around the cow’s horns, pulled it tight, and threw the end of the rope to Kenny and had him tie it around a willow tree. Now free to work, he gave the epidural, scrubbed the cow’s vulva with betadine, and rinsed her off. When he reached in with his gloved arm, the calf felt swollen and gassy, tight against the dry wall of the uterus. It had been dead for some time—probably three or four days, maybe longer. The stench was overwhelming, and he breathed through his mouth to avoid the worst of it. He wondered if he should call Everett.
“The calf’s pretty rotten,” he said, waving a fly off his nose with his free hand. “How long she been calving?”
“Rotten? What’re you talking about? She just went missing this morning.” Willie looked at Kenny. “Ain’t that right?”
“That’s right, Mama,” he said. “She never showed nothing.”
Stan’s mind was racing. The usual remedy for this presentation was turning the rear limbs around and pulling the feet up into the birth canal, but that wasn’t an option—there just wasn’t enough room. And a C-section was clearly out of the question. A fetotomy was the only way to go. If he could cut off both back legs just below the hocks, he could put chains on the stumps and maybe pull the calf out. Everett had reviewed fetotomy basics with him—it was doable. Stan sloshed back to the bank and explained what he planned to do.
Willie narrowed one eye at him as she leaned on her cane. “You sure it’s dead?”
“No doubt about it.”
Willie scowled, sighed, and looked away.
Stan walked back to his truck to get more supplies, not wanting to risk another ride on the four-wheeler. By the time he returned, he was out of breath and drenched in sweat. He poured a gallon of lubricant into his bucket. Holding the bucket in place between his knees, he passed a plastic stomach tube into the uterus and attached the other end to a stomach pump. He then operated the pump, stopping several times to redirect the tube, and covered the calf with the thick slimy lubricant.
“What the hell ya doing that for?” Willie said, standing and craning her neck. She stepped forward a few steps to get a better view.
“It’s too dry in there. This lubricant makes it easier to work and will help the calf come out.”
“I guess that’ll cost.” Willie shook her head as she turned around and sidled slowly back to her seat. “I never seen Dr. Templeton do such a thing.”
Stan tied a long length of obstetrical wire to the end of a chain. Reaching into the cow, he tried to get the chain around one of the calf’s rear limbs. There was little room to work, and the chain eluded his grasp again and again. As he stood there struggling, his arm in the cow up to his shoulder, sweat pouring down his forehead and burning his eyes, he wondered what had possessed him to take this job. Large animal practice? Who was he kidding?
Stan wiped the sweat from his brow. His arm was starting to feel numb. The foul dank air made it hard to breathe. He shifted his feet, struggling to wrench his boots free. The mud was a dark, vile, formless thing—cruel and unrelenting—slowly pulling him and the cow into the abyss.
Just as he was about to admit defeat, to walk out of the creek in disgust and call Everett, he felt his finger slip through the end link of the chain. He pulled the chain out, and when he reached back in excitedly, he could feel the wire looped around the leg, just below the hock. This might just work.
He ran the free ends of the wire through a Frick speculum—a metal tube two feet in length—and then passed the speculum into the birth canal until it was firmly against the calf’s leg. He recruited Kenny to help, having him glove up and hold the end of the speculum in place. Stan then put on work gloves, wrapped the free ends of the wire around his hands several times, and, using a back-and-forth sawing motion with both hands, he quickly severed the calf’s leg. He pulled it out and tossed it onto the bank, just close enough to Willie for her to catch a good whiff of it.
The dog began sniffing on the leg, and Willie swung at him with her cane. “Ringo, git!”
The other leg went a lot faster. Stan reached in and looped chains around the stumps and then walked to the bank and retrieved the calf puller. He returned and set the puller in position, attached the chains, and started cranking. The calf slowly emerged, inch by inch, and when the hips came through, he knew he had it made. He gave a few more cranks and pushed down on the puller, using leverage, and the calf slid out and hit the water.
Stan felt a warmth inside that surged out to his fingertips and down to his waterlogged toes. He was smiling as he unhitched the chains from the puller and began tugging the calf toward the bank. When he was almost ashore, his left foot slid on the slimy creek bottom and he went backward with a splash. He got up quickly, his face burning, and wiped his muddy elbow on his wet jeans. He got the calf onto the bank and knelt to remove the chains. When he glanced at Willie, she was leaning forward, her jaw set, her eyes steely.
“Now what?” she said.
Stan dropped the chains into the bucket and slowly stood up. He paused, waiting for his head to clear, and then faced her.
Willie motioned to the cow with her cane.
Stan looked at the cow and then at Willie, not sure what she was getting at.
“Whatcha gonna do now?”
Stan turned back to the cow. Her tail hung limply in the water from the epidural, flies still buzzing. She’d sunk even deeper into the mud. He couldn’t just leave her there, but what was he expected to do? He stood silently, staring down at his muddy boots.
“I can maybe get the tractor down here,” Kenny said.
Stan inverted his obstetrical sleeves and rolled them into a ball. Of course. Why hadn’t he thought of that? “Okay…sure.”
The creek bank closest to the house was too thickly wooded to get the tractor close enough, but Kenny thought he could get down to the opposite bank. Using ropes to pull her out would be risky, but Stan remembered he had two broad nylon straps in his truck. Last week he’d helped Everett use straps to lift a downer cow with a tractor’s front-end loader. They might work for this too.
After Kenny left for the tractor, Stan walked back to the truck to retrieve the straps, wondering what his old boss Gil Mabry would say if he could see him now. Three months earlier, when Stan sat in front of Gil’s desk in Houston and explained that he was leaving, Gil had listened intently, nodding, giving the impression that he understood his motivation perfectly, that he could feel his angst, that he could even relate to it on some level. Maybe he admired Stan for doing something he’d always wanted to do himself.
During the long pause that followed, Gil’s expression changed—first to confusion, then to amusement. “You’re shitting me right?”
Stan returned to the creek with the straps and waded back out to the cow. With a lot of effort, he managed to get one strap behind her forelimbs and the other in front of her hindlimbs. When Kenny arrived, he linked the straps together and attached them to the tractor with a long chain. Kenny then idled the tractor forward, slowly pulling the cow from the mud like a cork from a bottle. Stan breathed easier when she was finally on dry ground.
After the cow was unhitched, she tried to rise but went back down. Stan flushed out her uterus and gave her injections of cortisone and an antibiotic. Then he administered a slow intravenous infusion of a glucose and mineral mixture. As he was discussing follow-up care with Kenny, Justin pointed down to the water. “Look.” Stan turned in time to see a cottonmouth as thick as his forearm swimming toward the opposite bank, its head raised and its tail whipping through the murky water.
It was early evening and the creek bottom all shadows by the time Stan got into his truck and headed back to the clinic. He was wet, smelly, and bone-tired, but he was singing along with the radio, tapping his hands on the steering wheel. When he got to the clinic, he cleaned up his equipment, changed clothes, and went into the office. Everett was still at his desk and asked how the call went. As Stan told him about it, Everett nodded approvingly. “Nothing like jumping in with both feet.”
Stan slept better that night than he had in weeks.
Following surgery the next afternoon, Stan called Willie to check on his patient.
She answered after eight rings.
“Hi, Mrs. Petru. This is Stan Holub. I’m just checking on your cow. How’s she doing today?”
There was a long silence, and then Willie cleared her throat. “Not so good. I knew I should’ve waited for Dr. Templeton.”
Stan felt suddenly weightless, like he was plunging helplessly, the bridge he’d built for himself having splintered underfoot. “What do you mean? She’s still not up?”
“Up?!” Willie laughed bitterly. She paused, and when she spoke again, all trace of humor had left her voice. “My boy found her this morning in the creek…drowned like a goddamned rat.”
Brian Porter lives in College Station, Texas. This is an adapted excerpt from his novel in progress.