Sow’s Ear: The longest day
by Gwen Petersen
Big Timber, Mont.
The official start of winter is the same as the longest day of the year. According to Iris, her longest day was yesterday. I know because she let me share it.
“I have to feed early tomorrow,” said Iris. “Can you help?”
“What do you mean, early?” I hedged.
“Six-thirty,” replied Iris.
“In the morning? You know I’m not a morning person,” I wailed. “It’s pitch dark at that hour. My blood doesn’t start circulating before 10. The cows won’t even be up. It’ll be freezing cold and the wind’s blowing a hurricane …”
“Have a cup of coffee, dress warm and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Next morning, I managed to peel myself out of bed, find my arms and legs, locate clothes, stagger to my pickup and start the engine. The headlights pierced the darkness. I rounded a bend and startled a huge owl feasting on roadkill. The creature barely missed my pickup as it lifted off, its big body like a miniature blimp, its wings beating the air.
“Wow,” I muttered. Vaguely I remembered something about owls being omens of some kind. See one and it meant something good was going to occur … or was it something bad? I didn’t know. I motored on, avoiding a couple of deer, a skunk and a raccoon.
Iris met me in the barnyard. “You take Old Greenie,” she said, pointing to a beat up, lime-green pickup. “I’ll drive the feed truck.”
I nodded, a useless gesture as who could see in the blackness of predawn?
Iris hopped in the big feed truck loaded with fat round bales. I crawled into Old Greenie. My job was to open gates and to spotlight the back of Iris’ truck so she could see to cut bale strings preparatory to unrolling the bales. I was also backup in case of vehicle failure. Since the occasion when a truck had decided not to start and Iris had to hike three miles back to the ranch, she’s always used the buddy system when feeding.
We reached the feed ground. Iris climbed out of her outfit and signaled me. As I grasped the green pickup’s door handle, it fell off. I had to roll down the window and reach for the outside grip. I remembered that owl. Was I suffering the effect of a bad omen? I had no time to ponder further. Iris was waving a stick at me.
“While I’m cutting strings you keep the cows from running over me with this,” she said and handed me an axe handle.
Standing in the light of a pickup’s high beam on a cold, dark morning while a couple of hundred bovines swarm, jostle and crowd around is an experience I’d like to share with some of those P.E.T.A. complainers.
Climbing back into Old Greenie, I tried to roll the window up. The knob broke off. In the dark, I couldn’t see to stick it back on (the interior cab light didn’t work) and I couldn’t grasp the weensy screw tip from which the knob had disengaged, but I tried. I punctured my thumb.
We had three more stops to make which meant I got to enjoy the freezing night air through the open window, not to mention having to use the outside handle to open and close the door. At long, long last, we finished and drove back to the ranch. I was so cold my teeth rattled. I could have provided castanet rhythm for a Spanish dancer.
Black night had begun to give way to day when I piled into my own pickup, turned on the headlights and headed home. Dawn painted the mountain tops pink. The sky transformed from dull gray to watercolor blue.
The prairie shook itself awake. The world changed from black and white to technicolor. That could explain why I forgot to switch off my headlights causing the battery to lose all juice.
Or it could be the fault of that darned owl.
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