It's just before dawn, and very dark. I slip across the cool tile to the sink and I fill the teapot. Outside the kitchen window the yard is still deep blue, like a world underwater, the only other color a dusting of silver frost. I put on my thick socks, another sweater, and just as the water is starting to steam, I wiggle into my coveralls. I mix the hot water with a little cold from the tap, and add a cup of powdered milk from the bin in the entryway. At the door, I jam my feet into old mucky boots, and head out into the cold.
This will be my sixth spring taking in bottle babies. The little calf I am going to feed was born yesterday, and was orphaned before he even got his first sip of milk.
A faint crack of light, the slimmest possible sliver, is visible above the fields, just behind the barn where the tiny calf is curled in a corner, his head tucked over his shiny black hooves; he doesn't lift his head as I approach. He is waiting for his mama to come for him; I am not even cold comfort. The first few times I went into the barn after he arrived yesterday afternoon, he stayed as still as he could, hoping I wouldn't notice him. I struggled to get any milk in him at all--he didn't know I was trying to help, he just knew it didn't feel right.
Maybe it is the gorgeous pink ribbons of light weaving their way across the horizon, but I am optimistic it will go better this morning. The calf has had the night to think things over, and to get hungry. I walk to where he has nestled himself, and reach out to touch the white, tufty curls of hair on his forehead. He shudders, when I poke the bottle between his lips, letting just a few drops trickle out into his mouth. His head comes up, and he meets my gaze, his long white lashes blinking rapidly.
"Come on, buddy," I say, as I wiggle the bottle in front of his nose. He shifts his weight onto the knees of his front legs, then staggers to a wobbly stand. His body is telling him to get more milk he needs to butt his mama's udder, so he half-heartedly lifts his head in my general direction, nearly losing his balance. I stick my finger between his rubbery gums and then slide the nipple into his mouth again. "Milk?" his puzzled expression says, even as he struggles to escape.
A few more rounds of this, and we both start to relax. I am not the mama he wants, but he decides to let me be a distant second. Milk is milk, after all. He finishes the bottle and kneels back in the corner. I step outside to find the eastern horizon alive with light, the whole prairie bright as gold. I pass the cold frames on my way back to the house, they are damp with the frost melted to dew. Inside them are tiny seedlings, barely bigger than pinheads, just beginning to dream their way out of the soil.
In a few months at most, and the prairie will be green again. This winter has been long, but that’s ok because tonight, I will dream of dams filling, of roots drinking deep, of buds and babies, green and soft, a heritage of new beginnings. I will dream of a little calf in a barn, sleeping with a belly full of milk. Soon he will get to run through the pasture, the grass tickling his ankles, the whole world his mother, ready to feed him, ready to be his home.