I glance out the door in time to see the last glimmer of daylight begin fade behind the barn. Inside was a 500 pound sow about to farrow.
“Don’t worry,” my uncle said, “she shouldn’t give birth until sometime next week.”
I needed to mind the farm so my hard-working aunt and uncle could heed the call of Michigan’s deer hunting season siren. “Opening day or die” is the motto of all hard-core hunters in the Great Lakes state.
My aunt didn’t meet my gaze, but even if she had, I wouldn’t have been able to read it. Carrot-red hair, green eyes and freckles frame her taciturn face. No help there. They knew I’d do it. How could I say no? My family had moved over 1500 miles away, stranding me my senior year. These craggy, sun-weathered people were now my family. Feeding the horses, picking berries, corn, and tomatoes in the early dawn hours of summer was a small price to pay for family.
“Sure,” I say. “Have fun.” Matching my aunt’s manner, I pretend nonchalance I don’t particularly feel, but I knew they’d be back at the end of the weekend. Responsible was my middle name. Of course they could count on me.
Within minutes of their glowing taillights disappearing around the drive, the black ink of night covers us all in silence and my deep sigh brings the gaze of the Australian shepherd to me. His tail wags.
Dinnertime for everyone. Animals first. Then mine.
I scoop his food into the metal bowl outside the door, then light the lantern. Entering the barn, the warm smell of horse greets me. They softly nuzzle and nicker as I feed them and check their water.
Now for the hog.
Her grunting sounds different than her typical snuffling for food. She’s flat on her right side, panting.
Not an hour of being alone and I have to deliver piglets.
My uncle’s words return to me. “Make sure you wipe the mucous from their noses, otherwise they’ll suffocate.”
Raising the lantern, I see a sight that makes my stomach lurch. Two tiny piglets, several feet from their mother. Are they? Yes, they are moving, but not in a life-like way. The barn cats make short work of death.
The shovel is in my hand before I have another thought. I remove the dead piglets, ignoring the chirps and feline howls of protest. A metal milking pail inverted over them makes a perfect catacomb. No time for any other niceties. Another piglet arrives in the pen.
“Be careful getting into the pen. If that sow sees you, she’ll get up and charge you, trampling her piglets in the process.” More advice from my uncle. He did say more than I had initially remembered. Furtive movements, freezing every time I think her eyes might be moving in my direction. No time to think. Pick up the newborn, swipe the sticky mucous from the nose and then place it close to the teat where nature takes over.
I hadn’t asked how long it would take, and time stops for me.
Place by the warm sow.
Over and over until finally thirteen naked pink bodies battle over their milk stations. The sow is exhausted, as am I. She doesn’t share my exuberance.
The barest glow of dawn greets me as I leave the barn.
I’m dirty and exhausted, but grinning.
I’d done it.