Some experiences are hard to grasp to their full extent at a young age, nevertheless leave an impression that clarifies with time. Such is the story of a cow I once knew.
Fall 1989 marked the beginning of my Bar-Mizva year. Working in the kibbutz's cowshed was a part of a weekly working day program that our school led. Those days taught me how to sweep dung with a tractor, locate cows in heat, paint fences, and milk.
They also showed me that cow's life is not that exciting. Mainly, being milked three times a day and eating – there's always plenty of food to fill all 4 stomachs. There's a place to shit and a place to crouch. Apparently, it's the same place, but it doesn't seem to bother too much, once getting used to it. If a certain cow doesn't feel like collaborating, it will probably get smacked with a stick, and if necessary, more creative measures will be used to clarify who's the boss.
At first, my job seemed quite simple . It was easier than sitting in class in front of a teacher, much easier than trying to fit into a new school, with so many kids around. For me, Working day was a day without worries in the middle of the week.
Winter came soon after, and just when it seemed that things are taking their course and life started feeling comfortable, something happened. A young and unrestrained cow joined the homogeneous herd of milking cows. Soon after it gave birth, its firstborn calf was taken from it, and was led away to the calves section. The two workers that helped it deliver were now struggling to push it through the gate into its new home. Furious, it started demonstrating its disagreement.
Three weeks later, the cow was still rampaging, without any sign of fatigue or tendency to surrender. Its fury did not subside and its ability to cause damage just kept growing. Every day it found new ways to express frustration and misery, and keep the workers edgy and fearful.
One night it jumped over a fence, broke the calves section's wooden gate and joined her son. After that scene, shackles were tied to its back legs, forcing it not to run or jump.
Workers ran scared each time it started going wild, and didn't dare milking it. The most annoying thing in that situation was its crying – a sequence of long, deep, painful 'Mooooooooooooooooooooooo's, that caused people from half a kibbutz lose their calmness.
Two devoted workers tried their luck with handling the cow. The first was Nimrod- the manager, who, it seemed like, was stretching the borders of self- patience while trying to calm the beast. The second was a diligent, strong and tough young worker called Yoram. He acted as a devoted couch not willing to give up on his trainee, struggling by all means to get it moving around or milked.
Sometimes the cow managed to escape, and in other cases it found itself surrendering to a few moments of strong tail bending, to the non-kicking device which was fastened to its side from groin to back, to an electric shock, to isolation in a small chamber or even to Yoram's acing strokes to her hips.. Yoram, a grown up man, simply wanted to explain to that strong headed cow, how a good cow should behave.
But, to his fury, it kept on going back to its same trouble causing behavior the moment he let go.
At the age of 12 I was afraid of cow number 4343. Its braveness excited me and I felt sorry for it, without deciding what to hope for.
One night, Yoram and I shared a milking shift. That time, around 4 am, Yoram tried to maneuver the cow towards the milking station's gate, and push it through the entrance. He climbed on an iron guardrail that was supposed to help channeling the cows , and stiffly grabbed the cow's tail With one hand while hitting it with a short piece of a watering pipe with the other. It didn't move even a bit. "Bring the electric shoker" he yelled
I stood behind him and saw how he's trying to bring the shocker to its back while keeping balance on the guardrail. He left its tail and managed to quickly send his other arm forward and electrify it. When the shock hit, it's whole body was shaking for a moment. Then it got its balance back again, tossed its two shackled legs and sent them back with all the power that it had.
Within an inch of a second two hoofs collided into Yoram's legs with a horrible breaking sound, and made him fly over the fence, smashing his face on its pelvic bone, and keep collapsing all the way down for a close encounter with the dirty, wet concrete floor.
For one moment, everithing froze . When I finally managed to overcome the first shock and hurried towards Yoram, I grabbed his legs and tried to drag him. With great effort I managed to pull him, step by step, beyond the guardrail. Then I turned his body, saw that his eyes are closed, and finally realized that he is not moving.
My panic crying woke him up. His eyes started wondering, unfocused, while he tried to understand where he's at. While he started restoring his consciousness, the cow quietly sneaked in our direction. It extended its neck beyond the guardrails' bar, took a deep breath, and started mooing. A single, quiet, long moooooooooo covered Yoram's face with hot steam.
I rushed to the office and gave a phone call to Nimrod, who came within minutes to evacuate Yoram to the hospital. I remember Yoram sitting in the vehicle waiting for some ice. Lucent streams trickled from his eyes down along his tough face, paving a path amid wet dung and fresh red blood.
I returned to the milking station. The unruly cow went far away from the entrance, and I avoided trying to deal with it. I kept working alone, without calling anyone. Made myself coffee with fresh milk and listened to good music that came from the local radio station.
I wore milking machines to a line of pink, heavy briskets , put iodine on the parallel line of briskets and called the cows to get out of the milking station. Then I called other cows to enter, put milking machines on another line of pink, heavy briskets, and sat for a moment to rest on a stainless steel shelf.
Later, the cows marched calmly in the dark night, back to their places, and I followed them, calling " Go! Go Cows!", and knocked on the fences with a short plastic pipeline.
When Nimrod came back, he saw me leaning on the guardrail, looking at the cow. He came and stood beside me to look at it too. Then he put his palm on my shoulder and said "Let's go to the office".
I sat in front of him while he picked up the phone, dialed a number and put the speaker on. Someone was answering. " Hamid", Nimrod called. "Who is it, Namrud? Ahalen, good morning!", a throaty voice was answering. " How are you, Hamid? Do you want a cow?". "What do you mean, 'want a cow?' ", Hamid was asking. " A cow! For Free! Do you want to have it?". "Sure I want to have it", he said, "what's its problem?". "what is its problem? It's totally crazy. I believe It would rather search for dry grass in the mountains and defend its calves –to-come from wolves and snakes, than staying in my factory. Its bones may protrude from hunger and it still won't miss us. That's why I am not willing to fight for it any longer. Come quickly and take it".
After putting the phone down he looked at me and asked: "well, did you learn anything tonight?". I staired back at him and didn't know what to say. "Go home. Get some sleep", he said.
Tal Zvi Ram 24.9.2011
Translated from Hebrew with the help of my dear Libby along 2014-2015.
The English version of "Cow No. 4343" is dedicated to Tamsin Ewing, who encouraged me to write stories, and received more than one promise to get translations.
(Not a real story. Based on my experience as a very young cowshed worker)