When Peggy Townsend offered me this post, she said she guessed I would have no other entries about steer. So far she is on the money with that. Peggy is an award-winning journalist who added “novelist” to her resume when her marvelous first book, Safe Landings, came out in 2012.
A NEEDLE FULL OF LOVE
I stood beside Irving with the needle in my hand. My fingers trembled. I didn’t want Irving to die.
Irving was my then-500-pound Hereford steer and he was as close to a best friend as I had. I’d met him when he was six months old and I was 13. We both had spindly legs and an awkward gait but it wasn’t long before Irving blossomed into a handsome, muscular steer. I, on the other hand, stayed skinny and ungainly. Some of the girls at school called me “grasshopper.” It wasn’t too far off the mark.
But now, Irving’s handsome head was drooping and he had a hot, horrible cough. Old Mr. Beard, who owned the dairy down the road, had come over as a favor to my family and listened to Irving’s chest.
“Ah-yep,” he said, “he’ll need something for that. He’ll die if you aren’t careful.” He’d seen too much to sugarcoat the truth. My stomach gave a Richter-scale lurch.
From a toolbox, Mr. Beard selected a thick needle, a plastic syringe, a brown bottle. He drew a syringe full of medicine from the bottle, gave Irving’s neck area a couple of sharp slaps, then slammed in the needle on the third blow. Irving jumped and skittered sideways. Old Mr. Beard stepped aside and waited. When Irving had calmed, Mr. Beard fitted the syringe to the needle and pushed the plunger.
“There you go,” he said and handed me the accouterments. Mr. Beard had 200 head of Holsteins to look after. I was supposed to give Irving another shot on each of the next two days.
I felt sick at the thought of Irving dying. Over the past months, I’d poured my heart out to him about the mean girls at my school, about the fact I barely had breasts, about my parents ordering me to chop off my long hair. I’d press my face into his warm bulk and sob at my miserable life. He’d turn and blown soft alfalfa breaths against my arm.
The next day, I stood beside Irving, the needle in my hand and the medicine-filled syringe resting on top of a post in his pen. My father was nearby but being a 4-Her meant I supposed to learn to be a rancher. I thought I might throw up.
I took the needle and gave Irving two slaps but when it came time to slam in the sharp sliver of metal, I couldn’t do it. What if I accidentally stabbed the needle into an artery and Irving bled to death? What if it broke inside him? What if Irving hated me? I was always an imaginative kid and now my mind was at full gallop.
I thought of Irving lying dead in the pasture and tried the needle again. This time, it bounced off Irving’s thick hide and fell into the straw. Tears blurred my eyes but I found the needle and tried again, then again. Each time, the needle ricocheted off Irving like he was made of granite.
I called for my father. He told me to do what needed to be done.
By now I was desperate and sobbing.
Only later, when I became a mom, would I realize why I was crying. That the side effect of loving something is bearing a gut-wrenching responsibility for it. That it is a burden that is beautiful and passionate and frightening. Back then, I could only feel the scary part.
I looked at my father through my gulps and hiccups, and turned to Irving. I gave him two great slaps and, with a sob so huge it nearly ripped my scrawny chest open, I plunged the needle home
I wiped my eyes and fixed the syringe to the needle. Then I pushed the plunger and filled Irving full of love.