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Farm Animals' Desertion: In Which Puss in Boots Learns That the Kota Is Full




It’s a way of life that is vanishing, people say—in a mournful tone of voice that makes me want to kick something.



It’s a way of life that is vanishing, people say—in a mournful tone of voice that makes me want to kick something. Samuel Johnson kicked a stone to refute Bishop Berkeley’s idealism. If there were one handy, I would kick a cow pie. Here in Torontothere are no cow pies but sometimes there are horse buns on the street, left by passing police officers who don’t pick up after their horses. A rare and special event—the horses, I mean, not the buns. What is it with these culinary excremental packages? I would like to take them by the hand, these Englische who make up schmaltz about life on a farm, and show them the pile of cow manure that was just outside the window of our barn. You could see it from the kitchen window of the house. It got bigger and bigger during winter, that pile, and then in spring my father would spread it over the fields. We could see it and smell it when we shouted joking insults. Zee schtell. Fraht mel. Go hingam mesthuepe en brell. “Be quiet! Eat dirt! Go behind the manure pile and bawl!”

I do love the very earth on which our farm was built and I do love the great English pastoral poems. I can still remember the first time I dissolved into Marvell’s “green thought in a green shade.” So then why do I squirm when people go on about how they love nature and how much they would love to live on a farm? It’s not the animals I hate. It’s that sentimental way of looking—as if through layers of mucus.

I grew up on a small farm. I’m not talking here about those hobby farms that people go to on weekends so their children can have their own private petting zoo. I’m talking about the kind of farm where the animals are necessary for your survival. Our farm was in southern Manitoba, near the town of Altona. We had three cows and, for part of the year, three growing calves. There were half a dozen pigs and a shed full of chickens. That’s about what you need to feed a family of twelve. For the extras there were family allowance cheques and cream cheques. My mother decided how that money was spent. The money from the grain – wheat, oats, and sometimes flax – was my father’s business. He was an unpaid preacher so a lot of that money went to the church.

I can still remember the day when we got hydro and our mother allowed us to take turns switching the lights on and off. There were never enough cream cheques for us to get running water. The outhouse was in the pasture, which meant dodging cow pies on the way to and from it. Of course we did not call them cow pies. The water for bathing and indoor cleaning was soft rain water from our cistern, but rain water tasted like nothing. It was well water we drank and it had to be brought to the house from a pump in the barn. It was always cold, even on the hottest summer day, and it was very good. The animals liked it, too.

That’s how it was. There were bad things and there were good things, as is true everywhere on earth. There was the pile of manure and then there was the well water. For me the worst thing was boredom. Long after I had left the farm, Bob Dylan struck a chord with me when he sang about boredom in “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.” Boredom built up inside me to a point where it made a kind of springboard from which I was catapulted as far away from the farm as I could get.

But as the old saying goes, you can take the girl out of the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the girl. It’s been a life time challenge to figure out what to do with all those animals. What’s the use, I have sometimes thought, of being an English professor who grew up on a farm, if I can’t make any of the animals fit with the literature I teach? Once I even wrote a biography of a man who wrote animal stories. Now I think to myself that Ernest Thompson Seton would never have become famous if he had written a book called “Farm Animals I Have Known” or “Animals I Have Eaten.”

There are the exceptions that prove the rule, such as Paul Hiebert’s Sarah Binks. Hiebert is not known in the USA but he is world famous all over Canada for inventing Sarah Binks, the Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan. Sarah’s poems have gotten mixed in with my memories of farm life so that sometimes I have trouble telling them apart. Hiebert was no farmer. He was a philologist and a chemist and then a professor of German. As he says about Sarah, one wonders how he did it? How to define the magic of a book that lets you love your animals and eat them too? After decades of teaching pastoral elegies such as Wordsworth’s Lucy poems and Milton’s “Lycidas,” Sarah’s “Calf” still gets me every time. “Oh calf, that gambolled by my door … Oh calf, calf! Art dead?” Probably you do not find those lines at all funny. Maybe you had to be there. But I can feel hysterical laughter welling up inside me when I read: “I weep again with doleful sniff, / Oh calf, calf, so dead, so stiff.”

Why do any of us laugh or cry at anything? Mostly it’s very hard to say. In my case I’m guessing it has something to do with relief at getting around a farm commandment that Orwell could have added to the seven commandments in Animal Farm: Thou shalt not get attached to the animals. A subsidiary to this was: Thou shalt not name the animals on a farm, the better to eat them. Just think about it for a minute. If Wordsworth had not named Lucy, would you care that she ends up dead: “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,/With rocks, and stones, and trees”? If Milton had not named Lycidas, would we care that he is “sunk low, but mounted high/Through the dear might of him that walk’d the waves”?

The animals on our farm were just animals. If it was good enough for Adam, then it was good enough for us. A calf was a calf. A pig was a pig. There were exceptions to this rule. Oddly enough, since we spoke only Mennonite Low German on the farm, when we did give names they were English. I can vaguely remember two horses called King and Queen, and for a while we had a lovable pony called Brownie. My sister Martha would harness him to our red pony cart and Brownie would pull us down the highway to the nearby one-room school. He spent his day in the barn on the schoolyard and for some reason knowing he was there made me feel safe.

One day we found Brownie stuck in the mud of our vota loch, the water hole. He died of a mysterious sleeping sickness. At least that’s what I remember being told. That was the trouble with the animals on our farm—not just that they kept dying but that we often could not agree on how they had died or what to do about the deaths. When people died, then there were prayers and songs, like there were when my brother Menno was stillborn. When animals died they just one day were not there.

A farm, large or small, has to be run like a business if you are going to survive. It’s about money. After my father bought a ‘53 Ford with horsepower—a momentous event for our family—real horses were rendered useless. My brother John had broken the commandment and gotten attached to the last horse we had. I think it was called Prince. There were stories about how John galloped that horse up and down the wooden sidewalks of the nearby town ofAltona. Like Bob Dylan, my brother was probably bored. I don’t know if Prince was sold or if he died. Even now I would rather not know.

We did not have a lot of books on the farm or in the one-room school, but at some point I read Black Beauty and fell in love with the image of myself riding a horse. Why do young girls love horses? It’s a question often asked and the answers mostly have to do with sex. Cliché or not, in my fantasies I imagined myself as a cowgirl riding bareback on a beautiful horse. I was already middle-aged when I got on the back of a real, live horse for the very first time. It was an old horse at a friend’s hobby farm in Ontario. Not a splendid stallion but a placid mare, what we would call in Low German a schrug. When I was sitting in that saddle I was amazed at how far up off the ground I was and I could not wait to get back down.

You might think that farm animals, unlike the mythical ones, are not subject to metamorphosis, but when they have lived on inside your head for many years, they are transformed in your imagination. For me the horse turned into a giraffe. There was no danger that I would be asked to sit on a giraffe. At the Toronto zoo the giraffes tend to be far away among the greenery, sort of like the sheep in British pastoral landscapes. Giraffes are vegetarians with long necks so they can get at the trees. Hey! What’s not to love?

At a time when I felt most blessed in my life, when my children were little and my cup was running over, I dreamt in full colour about a giraffe. The sky was bright and cloudless blue. The giraffe was orange, like the one on the antique carousel onTorontoIsland, but in my dream I relocated it to the part ofHighParkwhere my son was playing Little League baseball at that time. From my seat on the giraffe’s broad back I could see the hot dog and ice cream stand. The giraffe had an absurdly elongated neck that extended above all the trees so it could see where to go. I was free of any worry about navigating and could surrender to the thrill of riding up and down in a sea of green. After such a dream, who would not collect giraffes? I bought one carved African giraffe, and after that the gifts just kept coming.

My siblings and I all relate in different ways to animals. When he retired, my brother John took up breeding miniature horses on a ranch in Alberta. He also has a lot of scary dogs. Only my brother Peter became a farmer. He had to start from scratch since the money from selling our family farm was barely enough to support retirement for our parents. Peter skipped the animal part of it altogether and just did grain farming. Not for him those gigantic barns full of pigs. I was always grateful for that whenever I visited him.

Grain fields are an uncomplicated pleasure for me, and it is easier when animals are out of the picture. Then I can hear the part of the farm soundtrack that I love—the sounds of the meadow larks and the mourning doves mingling with the sound of the wind in the big poplar tree. Peter’s children spoke at his funeral about how he began every seed time and ended every harvest by kneeling in the dirt and praying. He was a dirt farmer and proud of it. At the graveyard on the prairie his children took up shovels and filled his grave with the earth he loved. It comforted me more than the songs that were sung and the prayers that were said.

Even on a large grain farm there are animals hidden away somewhere. There is a story about my brother Peter that was not told at his funeral. In the years that he lived as a bachelor while saving up enough money to get married, Peter lived alone in a little house in the middle of his grain fields. The story goes that there was a mouse in his kitchen one day and that Peter took his rifle and shot at it. I was shocked to hear that he had a rifle in his house but kind of liked the idea of that explosion. It would have relieved the boredom anyway. But I also wanted the mouse to get away.

When I told the story to my children many years later, I must have taken the mouse’s side. This would explain my son’s response when he discovered mice in the kitchen of his first apartment after he left home. He told me that he at first bought one of those sticky traps that catch mice but do not kill them. His idea was to release the mice outside. We all know how that turned out. He and I laughed about it and then he caved in and bought some killer traps.

Not that I had any love lost for the mice on our farm. They ran rampant in the basement because our mother refused to have cats in the house. But when they become part of a story they change. In the twinkling of an eye they can multiply and run away from the farmer’s wife like the three blind mice. I did not actually know that nursery rhyme when I was a child. It was the Bible that was our main literary text. Are there even any mice in the Bible? I don’t remember any. What I mostly remember is all those sheep.

I think now that it was useful that we did not have sheep on our farm. The absence of real live sheep made things easier in Sunday School. It was easier to get into that imaginary world where sheep grazed safely on green hills while shepherds watched. And later, when we sang Handel’s Messiah, it was easier to go along with the sheep as they went astray and turned every one to his own way. It was easier to imagine yourself as one of those sheep whom the Lord maketh to lie down in green pastures. Because we did not have real, live sheep it was easier at Christmas to think of Jesus as a little baby and at the same time a little lamb. Jesus was the name of the shepherd and Jesus was the name of the sheep.

I was not wild about thinking of myself as the one lamb that was lost and needed saving, but I swallowed even that. Such was the intoxicating poetic power of the King James Bible when I first started reading it that I was quite happy to dissolve all the theological conundrums into one big white sheep.

When I look back now, I wonder if maybe the conspicuous absence of sheep on our farm could be the reason I abandoned my big white whale—a doctoral dissertation on Melville—and chose instead to write on James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. Whales intrigued me for many years when I was teaching Moby Dick back in the 70s.I found a record where some composer, whose name I have forgotten, cleverly mixed his own compositions with recorded sounds of whales singing. Just recently I met a former student who told me that the one thing he still remembers about my classes is listening to that record. He now works with small children, he said, and plays whale music for them. I suspect him of making that up. People do that a lot—make things up.

In fact I think people make up having seen real whales. All my efforts to see or hear real live whales have failed, resulting in nothing more than sea sickness and loss of money. The last time I tried was in Mexico. When I caught a glimpse of a fin, I strained to hear, but the two men operating the small boat were talking and playing staticky pop music on a little radio. I got up my courage and asked them to turn it down so that maybe, just maybe we might hear the whales. My husband heard one of them mutter “La Loca” while the other one turned the radio off and I listened some more. Nuscht. I cannot claim, like Prufrock, to have heard the whales singing each to each and for sure they do not sing for me.

It turns out whales have something in common with moose. My family traveled across Canada, first to the east coast and then to the west coast, on the lookout for moose. I had to console the children for this failed quest by inventing an imaginary creature called the Mythical Moothe. Melville would have understood.

Turning my attention to James Hogg after Melville was like coming home. Well, sort of. Hogg is a Scottish word for sheep and this Hogg was an actual shepherd. He did not learn to read and write until he was an adult, after which he wrote a treatise on the diseases of sheep. He penned some wicked parodies of pastoral poetry by fellow Romantics like Scott and Wordsworth. He also wrote a self-parody about a “gude greye katt”: “And mony haif hearit of that gude katt, / That neuir shall heare agayn.” I think the Ettrick Shepherd would have gotten along very well with the Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan. “O katt, katt, art dead, art dead?”

You can perhaps imagine the jokes about pigs and sheep that I had to put up with while I was writing that thesis. My favourite, because it made such good use of my usually useless farm animals, came from my friend Ramsay Cook. On the day of my thesis defence, he wished me well and said, in carefully rehearsed Low German: Schoenet vahra tom schveenschlachte! “Nice weather for pig slaughtering!”

Given the difference between sheep and goats in the Bible, can you blame me for not taking kindly to goats? There was a very short time when my father experimented with them on our farm. The other animals—cows, pigs and chickens—were safely in their stalls or pens or behind barbed wire. Not so the goats. They were allowed to roam all over the yard, dropping turds wherever they pleased. I resented these little piles and was terrified of the goats. Perhaps they smelled my fear or perhaps they just wanted to play. I was the youngest and an easy target.

One day one of the goats chased me as I screamed in terror and ran to take refuge in the house. It was exactly like those nightmares where you are running but feel as if you are paralyzed and making no progress. The goat followed me up the front steps of the house, and when I slammed the door, the goat’s head was caught in the door. Even now, when I read “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” to my grandson, I look at the illustration of the ugly troll and think to myself: “That’s nothing! No troll can be half as frightening as that goat was.”

In Alice Munro’s “Runaway” there is a small white goat called Flora that gets lost and then appears suddenly in the fog, caught in the headlights of a passing car. “Scared the shit out of us,” says Clark, one of the characters. He manages to recover by finding fancy words, likening the goat to an apparition. I was comforted when I read that story. Being able to say shit with impunity, to be sure, is always a release for a farm girl. But it wasn’t just that. As an adult woman I still find it comforting that a man would admit to being afraid of a little goat.

It was my shameful secret that I was afraid of all the animals on the farm. Even the cows while I milked them. In the morning I would hear them bellowing and wake up feeling nausea. My father had bought three cows to match up with his three youngest daughters who were available for milking. Each cow had her own distinct personality. I often tried to think of a name for my cow but simply could not come up with one that would fit. I disliked her too much anyway to grant her the dignity of a name.

There is no question in my mind now that my cow’s name should have been Bossy. She was a reddish colour and stubborn as a mule. Many times she would refuse to let down her milk. I went so far as to make up a silly song in a futile effort to try to charm her into release. It was in High German, a gesture of respect that I imagined she understood to be mocking. O meine liebe Kuh, lass deine Titten zu… “Oh my beloved cow, let your teats down now …” The word should have been milk, of course. What can I say? I was a teenager.

You might think that milking just one cow is not a big job but you would be wrong. To a lazy adolescent it loomed large morning and night. I am not talking here about operating one of those milking machines. Is there a Milking Cows for Dummies book out? No, I thought not.

How to milk a cow:

1. Change into your stinky milking clothes in the basement of the house.

2. Go to the back gate of the barn and open it so the cows can come in from the pasture. Run quickly down the aisle to get out of their way as their thundering hooves follow you into the barn, eager to get to the fresh hay in the manger.

3. Squirt your cow with insect repellent to minimize flies and then hold your breath so that you don’t get a headache.

4. Secure the cow’s hind legs in an iron contraption something like police handcuffs. Tie a rope to her tail and then tie the tail to her legs.

5. Turn an old pail upside down and sit down, positioning the milk pail between your legs.

6. Stroke the two front teats gently so as not to startle the beast, and then start milking. No. No. Don’t just yank at them. Nice and easy. Squeeze first with the forefinger at the top and then in sequence with the other fingers. First one teat and then the other.

Milking is an art. It’s hard to describe, kind of like trying to write instructions for how to use chopsticks. Now there are YouTube videos that show people milking. In Indiacows are sacred, so I was surprised to see this milking scene, in which an Indian woman just pulls at the teats. I would have expected her to milk with more respect. Do you suppose it is a hoax? I know there’s no use crying over spilt milk, but could a poor woman in India afford to turn the pail upside down like that?

If it is not a hoax, then I wonder if maybe the Mennonite way of milking is not really necessary. Maybe it is just a style that we hung on to out of inertia, the way some of our people hang on to dei oule Viese—the old way of singing the old melodies. I was told in Japan that there is a uniquely Japanese way of swinging a baseball bat. When an American player joined a Japanese team, he had to learn to swing his bat that way, even though it lowered his batting average. Since my milking average was always low I have a vested interest in this topic, but who cares, now that this way of life is vanishing. In “Little Gidding” T. S. Eliot lumps milking in with bygone things like “last year’s words” and “last season’s fruit.” Eliot seems to welcome the time when “the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail” but I don’t know if he ever had the pleasure of milking a cow.

My mother boasted that she was good at milking, but I never had a chance to see for myself. She had been my father’s maid when he was a widower with six children. The day he proposed to her was the day she stopped milking. I gather this was his way of saying that she was no longer the children’s servant but their mother. I always think of her when I read the poem by Sarah Binks about the farmer’s wife who “awakes with shouts of joy, / And milks a cow with either hand.”

The above procedures were meant to be safeguards to keep the cow from kicking while you were milking. But there was always that moment, just when the milk was finally flowing and you were relaxing into the rhythm, when Bossy would get one leg free and give you a sharp kick in the knee or else tip the pail. Even worse was what happened when she managed to wiggle her tail free from the rope. That hurt! Do I need to add that the tail was not clean?

You will not be surprised to learn that I have ruined the opening pastoral scene in Tess of the d’Urbervilles for many a student. I first read that novel when I was still on the farm, having discovered that I could order books by mail from the University of Manitoba Extension Library. I was mesmerized by Hardy’s poetic prose, but for me Tess was a horror story. Her passivity filled me with what Northrop Frye called “the energy of repudiation.” Many years later I watched the film version of Tess and it stirred up old feelings—especially that scene where Tess rests her head sideways on the cow’s flank and gazes serenely into the distance while she milks. Somehow I could never resist telling my students what a cow does with her tail.

It is always possible, of course, that there were not as many flies in Wessexas in Manitoba. It is also possible that I am making a lot of this up. I did a double take a few weeks ago when I heard a woman talk about her love of milking. It happened while she was giving me a pedicure. We were talking about happiness and she told me how she grew up inSiberiaand how the happiest time of her life was when her family went to a farm on the weekends. She loved the work—especially milking the cows. So carried away was she with the memory that she briefly stopped massaging my feet and looked up with a big smile on her face. What she loved especially, she said, was the smell of the cow’s breath and those beautiful big eyes. It is a way of life, said she sadly, that is no more. Luckily she turned her attention back to her task and did not see that my mouth had literally fallen open.

I was not even tempted to poison her happy memories with my own milking stories, but as I walked home with my newly painted toenails, I was conscious of needing reassurance of some kind. Could it be that after all these years in TorontoI was the one who was making up the olden days? Was it possible that I was just a grumpy old woman who could not appreciate the beauty of cows? When I got home I went directly to my copy of Sarah Binks and looked up the poem “Hiwawatha’s Milking.” And there she was, my very own Bossy.

“Give me of your milk, oh moo-cow,
Of your pure white juice, oh do, cow
Reasonably white, and not too blue, cow
Give me rich white milk, oh Flossie,
She whom men sometimes call Bossy,
She whom men sometimes call Co-boss,
Sometimes So-boss, sometimes Whoa-boss,
Kick not me, nor pail, I pray, cow,
Or I’ll bust you one from here to Cracow.”

I felt ridiculously vindicated when “the cow, whom men call Co-boss”

“Turned upon him eyes of doleful,
Eyes of sadness, eyes of soulful,
Breathing deeply to inhale full,
Kicked him neatly in the pail-full,
Slapped him ‘cross the face with tail-full.”

Oddly enough, the milker is a man in this poem. There was this about cows and those who milked them on our farm: they were all female. Our version of Blindman’s Buff began: Blinje cou eck leid dee. “Blind cow I lead you.” There was also a joking proverb we often recited: Eck vou sou oult aus ne kou en leah noch emma meya dotou. “I get as old as a cow and still always keep learning more.” The most insulting terms were reserved for the female animals and worst of all was to be an old sow. A regular morning exchange of greetings began Goud morje, oula Sorje. “Good morning, old sorrow!” A question about how things are going had the answer: Haulveje, oule saeje. “Halfway, old sow.”

In reality the old sow was one of the most important animals on the farm. In the Bible there are pearls cast before swine and devils taking up residence inside pigs and the prodigal son reduced to eating with the pigs. By contrast, the sow on the farm was central to our very existence. She it was who produced all the little pigs who squealed their lives away until the next pig killing bee brought us another year’s supply of ham and pork chops and pork roast.

On the day of Schveenschlachte we stayed home from school. Children were not allowed in the barn, where the men did the killing and the butchering, but I remember hearing the pigs and afterwards seeing bright red splashes of blood in the snow. In the basement of the house women chattered non-stop while they cleaned out intestines and ground the meat for sausage. Nobody ate pork on that day. My mother made a roast chicken meal which people ate in shifts. It was a festive day—as close as we came to carnival.

People who write about the repression of carnival are given to lamenting the fact that pigs have borne the brunt of our disgust with lower bodily functions. I can see that they have a point. Definitely it is unfair. At the same time, most of us would agree with Sarah Binks: “Of all the farmer’s bird and beast, / I think I like the pig the least.” Otherwise why did the audience in Roy Thomson Hall laugh so hard when Mary Lou Fallis (accompanied by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) performed John Greer’s composition of Sarah’s song about pigs? Even the fiddlers could not keep a straight face when Fallis sang about the dear voice calling “To the piglets and their mother: ‘Hi, Sooky, Ho, Sooky, / Come and get your swill’” (50).

Sooky. What a perfect name for a sow! I can’t think why it took me so long to realize how important it is to have a name for an animal if you want to have any feelings about that animal. I should have learned that lesson in kindergarten. That was when I began to think about the difference between the animals that we ate and the animals that were pets. I remember that first yellow reader. Jane shouting: “Look, Dick, look! See Spot run!”

There were no easy Biblical guidelines for how to think about cats and dogs on the farm. It was very troubled territory. The line between wild animals and the animals that were necessary for our survival was as clear as one of those electric fences that would give you a shock if you touched it. Pets were in a grey area in between. The groundhogs that threatened to destroy the sunflower crop needed to be destroyed. That was obvious. But what about the pet that costs money to keep alive and is of no use? And what if that pet starts to kill chickens?

All the cats on our farm were wild. My mother would not tolerate cats in the house, and who can blame her? With twelve children to feed, who would want a cat underfoot begging for food? It was about boundaries. She was proud of the fact that we did not live in one of those structures that were both house and barn, invented by Russian Mennonites for cold climates, and she was disgusted at the idea of any animal being anywhere near the food she was cooking.

I had not realized the extent to which I had picked up my mother’s disgust until I married a cat lover. Our home was cat free for many years until one fall during a time when Clarence was working at home and I was working on campus. When a stray cat came around, he could not resist taking her into the house during the day while I was gone and then putting her out again just before I got home. One cold day I asked him why this poor thing seemed to be always at our front door when I came home. And then the cat was out of the bag and our house became her territory.

We had just spent a year in Japan and I was still dealing with reverse culture shock, part of which was recovery from having been bombarded with Hello Kitty cartoons. The Japanese word kawai, meaning cute, still has the power to make my skin crawl. Kawai was the blanket word that covered all small animals, but in Japan there were also street cats, definitely not kawai, who were just called cat—that is if anybody took the trouble to notice them. So we called our cat Niko, the Japanese word for cat. Once I had to deal with it when I found Niko torturing a mouse on our kitchen floor, but mostly she was no trouble at all. In fact, I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed giving in to her take charge ways.

Maggie old pics
Magdalene and Niko, c. 1983. Photo by Clarence Redekop.

I did insist on having Niko fixed, remembering how the cats on the farm would end up having kittens and how this always spelled trouble. There was one mother cat who could not decide on a safe place for her kittens. She dragged them from place to place. One morning my sisters and I found the kittens, still as tiny as mice, in the gutter behind the cow stalls. With the best of intentions and with our mother’s permission we transferred them to a corner under the front porch of the house, but it was no use. That perfectionist mother cat picked them up by their necks and dragged them restlessly all over the yard until they all died.

So did Niko. But not until she had suffered a long and agonizing old age that was prolonged by the fact that Clarence could not bear, even when the vet said it was time, to have Niko put down. I loved him all the more for it and left the decision up to him, but we were both aware of our foolishness. Clarence was allergic to cats and his doctor had explained to him that it was dander from the cat that was causing his chronic bronchitis. Half blind and crazed, Niko retreated to the basement, which became like one big kitty litter. The basement was where our guest bedroom was and the end finally came for Niko when we had house guests. The day after they left I came home from work to discover that Niko was gone.

Having loved a cat helps me to understand how come Christopher Smart set out to write about sheep in Jubilato Agno and ended up instead writing about his cat. “I will consider my cat Jeoffrey” is a glorious hymn that goes a long way towards making up for the dearth of cats in the Bible.

The problem with dogs on the farm was worse than the cat problem. Dogs tried harder to please and they failed in more spectacular ways. Besides which my father, who was indifferent to cats, loved dogs. That much was clear. What was not so clear was why he seemed to feel so guilty about loving them. He could not bear to shoot the pigs on the day of the slaughtering bee—always assigned a neighbour to the task—and yet I lost count of how many dogs disappeared on our farm because they misbehaved. What happened to them? Who shot the dogs? There was no ritual and no neighbourly support when dogs died. We did not talk about it. To admit that my father was grieving would have been close to sinful. Those dogs haunted me. Asking who killed them was like asking who killed Cock Robin. When you did that “all the birds in the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing.”

There was one shocking incident when a visiting missionary stayed over night. The dog in question was a favourite of my father’s and had been forgiven for previous mischief. Like Niko, he lost out to a visitor—in this case, a visitor with a beautiful Bible. You know the kind I mean. One of those that an evangelist can hold out in one hand while preaching and it flops on either side of his hand like the wings of some bird of prey. Our visitor left this Bible on the front seat of his car and he left the windows of his car open overnight. The next morning, when my sisters and I came out of the house to go milk the cows, we found the barnyard strewn all over with pages from the Bible. That dog was a goner.

I was afraid of the dogs but I was also afraid for them. There was a poem in the red Grade 4 reader that we had to memorize. It was called “Lone Dog.” I loved the bounce of it, the way it just did not stop. “I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog, and lone … I’m a rough dog, a tough dog . . . Not for me the fireside, the well-filled plate / But shut door, and sharp stone, and cuff and kick, and hate.” I felt for that dog. I really did. I was more attached to that dog than to any dog we ever had on the farm. For sure, a poem by a dog is the ultimate doggerel but there is a part in my heart that is sorry yet for that dog.

I think my sister Martha must have memorized the same poem when she was in Grade Four. Somehow, over the years, dogs changed into wolves for her. She was always urging me to read that book about women who run with the wolves and I never could get past the first few pages of it. She also had a cat for a while—a large fluffy grey cat called Schatz. She doted on that cat but when it turned out that one of her grandchildren was allergic to cats, she had Schatz put down. On the wall of her living room Martha had an enormous photograph of wolves that comforted her. Now she is lost to dementia and in a nursing home—sans wolves, sans cats. It looks as if she is dying of boredom, but what do I know. She has forgotten the reasons she needed comfort and some say that is a blessing. I am not sure she recognizes me when I visit, but even so I always wish I could bring her the gift of a cat.

The way the farm animals change and the way people can be changed into animals—all of that is the stuff of children’s stories that spin off into adult terrors like the cats and the mice and the pigs in Spiegleman’s Maus. Children’s literature has always been an important bridge for me from the animals on the farm to the literature that I teach. The Cat in the Hat makes no more sense than “Three Blind Mice” but it’s not sense I’m looking for. In the books that I read to my children and now to my grandchildren I find words and images that resonate with my own childhood experience. Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are takes me back to my first experience of English children’s stories.

One year my mother used family allowance money to buy an encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge, and there I found, at the end of each wine-coloured volume, a treasure trove of stories and poems. There were ogres and monsters and trolls, and there were ridiculous animals that wore clothes. I read these over and over again, puzzling over the things that did not fit with anything I knew: the strangely sensitive princess who could feel a pea through layers of mattresses, the big bad wolf and the three little pigs, the wolf that disguises himself as a grandmother, the ogre at the top of a long beanstalk, Rapunzel with her impossibly long hair. I was bored by the Aesop’s fables and their predictable morals. What absorbed me more were the questions that had no answers, such as why did animals in these stories so often come in threes?

I was especially puzzled by the story of Puss in Boots. The cats on our farm all seemed to be old and female, but this Puss was young and male. As far as I could tell, the moral of that story was that it was good for the cat’s owner if a cat got dressed up. How I longed for those boots! They were like nothing I had ever seen in the Eaton’s catalogue. But it would be a long time before I had traveled enough cultural distance to get a kick out of RuPaul’s observation: “We are born naked, the rest is drag.”

The Low German word for male or tom cats was Kota. There must have been Kotas in the vicinity of our farm, since our female cats kept having kittens. I did not think about that until I was an adolescent, which was when the animals on the farm got dangerous in disturbing new ways. I remember one summer when a strange car came down the long driveway onto our farm yard at twilight, just after we had milked the cows. My sisters and I watched from the front window of our house as our father went up to talk to the driver, who leaned out of his car window to speak. Afterwards my father mimicked the young man’s sly tone of voice: Zent de mjales tues? “Are the girls at home?” Clearly these young men did not know it was the house of Bishop Falk. When my father told us about it at the supper table, he added one word in a tone of disgust: Kotas. It was like a Punkt to the story. The End. He never told us what he had said to them, but whatever it was, they never came back.

The word Kotawas a puzzle to me in another context. Sometimes in fall during harvest season my father would come back from Rosenfeld and tell my mother: Dei Kota es voll and she would make reassuring noises. I puzzled over that sentence and over the anxiety that it caused my parents but did not dare ask questions. It was not until I was an adult and had left the farm that I learned that the word was quota and that it referred to the limit for grain elevators. “The quota is full.”

Everybody has a funny story like that to tell about their childhood. Believe it or not, this is the first time in my life that I have ever been asked to write something funny, and when the invitation came, it was my Kota/quota memory that popped into my head. It occurs to me now, however, that I have quite often written something funny when it was not asked for. It’s a heck of a lot easier to get people to laugh when the joke is unexpected. The first time I tried that, however, I got into trouble.

It was a story I wrote for an assignment in Grade 11 at the Altona Collegiate. My title was “In Fond Memory of My Cow,” but the feelings that inspired the writing were actually about a calf. I had made the mistake that year of deciding to make a pet of my cow’s calf and then had to deal with my feelings when the time came for it to be slaughtered. I had nobody to blame but myself. I remember doing it quite deliberately, as a kind of experiment motivated by boredom. I felt foolish doing it, but I talked to the calf while I fed her. It was like touching an electric fence to test if there really is a charge there. I named her, of course, but I must have worked effectively to forget that name because it is still gone. Like the prodigal son, I got to eat the “fatted calf” but it did not sit well in my stomach. Or maybe that’s wrong. Maybe the problem was guilt because I did not get attached enough to the calf and did not mind eating it. Memory is unreliable but I do remember that I was angry.

As we all know, it does not take a lot to make an adolescent sullen and disagreeable. I was angry with my father for giving me a sermon on the golden calf in the Bible and scolding me for idolizing an animal. (“He should talk! I thought to myself,” but dared not say. I had seen him moping around after those dogs died.) I was also angry because when I started Grade 11 I did not get the English teacher I had expected to have, the now legendary Albert G. Braun. The word Beatnik had come up when people talked about Al Braun. It was rumoured that he had walked barefoot down the Main Streetof Altona. It was also rumoured that Al Braun had a stack of New Yorkers in his home and that he read them more often than he read the Bible.

I had studied grammar with Al Braun in Grade 10 and not been bored for a minute. You heard right, yes. He really was that good. At the end of the school year, Al Braun wrote cryptic messages in the grammar workbook of each student. No doubt he intended to give individualized encouragement, but afterwards these were passed around and compared the way we do now with the scraps of paper in fortune cookies. In other students’ books he had written things praising their sense of humour and assorted other fine qualities. In mine I found, written in his large round hand: “The Lions in this jungle are sometimes lionesses.” I could not figure out why this made everybody laugh. I knew lots of Low German proverbs, but jungles and lions were beyond me. I concluded that this was a joke on me, on my lack of femininity. As anxious adolescents will do, I then spent the summer fretting about how I would not only prove my writing skills to Al Braun but also somehow demonstrate my femininity.

On the first day of school in fall we were informed that Mr. Braun had been rushed to the hospital because of a detached retina. It sounded awful, but I did not know what a retina was and I’m ashamed even now to admit that I did not feel very sorry for him. I felt sorry for myself. As my brother David used to say: It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it.

Our English teacher was a supply teacher fromWinnipegcalled Mr. Lyon. I kid you not! He was known for his enormous sneezes and his large polka dot red handkerchief. It was harvest time and he may have been allergic to grain and irritable for that reason, but I read his body language as contempt for the country hicks he was stuck with. So I scribbled the first assignment late at night on yellow foolscap paper, not even bothering to make a final clean copy of it.

I still have a vivid memory of Mr. Lyon’s reaction. We were having a phys ed class out on the football field when he emerged from the back door of the school and strode towards us while waving something in his hand. As we all watched his approach, I recognized my essay by the yellow colour and my heart sank. There followed a lecture about how disappointed he was, about how Mr. Braun had led him to expect more from me, about the quality of the paper and about the penmanship, or rather the lack of it. Most of all I was to understand that the topic was beneath me. He ordered me to write another essay on a different topic.

Like the man said, it scared the shit out of me. Any mention at home of insubordination on my part would have resulted in further punishment. My father had made me write a letter of apology to a teacher once before when I talked back. So I tore the essay up and stuffed it into the wastebasket in the girls’ washroom.

The following year my parents retired and moved to a perversely pastoral place called Plum Coulee. I never saw any plum trees, but there really was a coulee, which ran between the road where our bungalow was and the village itself. We were not in town but also not really in the country—sort of like Alice Munro’s Flats Road, only flatter. I was selfishly convinced that my father had chosen this location because the coulee prevented me from walking out of the house and into the village. It was nothing more than aMain Streetwith a few stores, a post office and a grain elevator, but listening to him talk you would have thought that Kotas roamed wild in Plum Coulee.

In hindsight it has come to look like a different place. My father claimed he chose that house because of the fir trees all around it and my mother fell hook line and sinker in love with a robin that nested every spring in a fir tree just outside her bedroom window. Apparently they had tried and failed to grow fir trees on the farm. It was years before I began to glimpse what it must have been like for my father that year. How he must have missed the farm while the women went on about the wonders of running water and the magic of the flush toilet. I even wonder now if missing the animals was part of what pulled him into a profound depression.

I cannot remember what I wrote as a replacement for “In Fond Memory of My Cow,” but it may not be farfetched to see that incident as a model for my future career as a literary critic. If I thought I had shelved the farm animals, however, then the joke has been on me. They did not desert me. I was wrong about that. They have remained closer to me than all those literary animals. Yeats got it right in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” As my own animal body ages, it annoys me to think that those silly giraffes will outlast me. I feel closer to the farm animals and to the pets I have had.

After Niko, I always said that I did not want a dog because dogs die. And then I caved in to family pressure and we got a wheaten terrier called Mocha. We carefully chose a non-allergenic dog, and Clarence and I agreed that we would prepare ourselves for losing Mocha by getting another puppy when Mocha was getting old. This, we reasoned, would cushion the blow. “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” do go awry, as Robbie Burns said to the “wee, cow’ring tim’rous” mouse. Mocha was still living when Clarence died suddenly in August 2000.

Maggie and Mocha
Magdalene and Mocha, 2003. Photo by Susanna Redekop

Three years later Mocha’s health slowly deteriorated to the point where, in the vet’s words, he was no longer himself. I made up my mind that our dog would not just one day be gone when the children came home. So we sat with Mocha, all of us, on the floor of the kindly vet’s office and we took turns giving him slices of cheese until he lay down and died. Then we had him cremated, and sprinkled his ashes into a creek that runs through the ravine near Clarence’s grave in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.

After Mocha died I dreamt that I served him up for dinner. It was a horrible dream. Like my father before me I felt sheepish about how much I loved my dog and guilty about his death. I still do. It is absurd how we do adore our pets. But there it is. We domesticate wild animals and we try to keep the wilderness alive in our domestic animals. And we remake them in our own image.

According to Seton, the wolf Lobo died of a broken heart when his mate Blanca was killed. Seton would have it that wolves are monogamous but I think the broken heart story was his cover for his guilt about having killed Blanca. Wolves are like us in mostly being serial monogamists. The heart does break and something in you dies when your mate dies. The broken pieces are beyond fixing and time does not heal them. People are wrong about that. But as Robert Frost put it, we who are not the ones dead, we go about our affairs. And then, unexpectedly, new life springs up where you least expect it.

I am happily married again, once again enjoying the warmth and comfort of having a mate. Since moving into our apartment here on Deer Park Crescent, Dennis and I sometimes feel a bit like two old cats prowling around in search of the best place to curl up. Often in the evenings that is in front of the screen in our den, where we watch a lot of movies.

Recently we watched a German movie with a French title, Revanche. It’s a kind of sideways whodunit buddy film with two young men competing for who feels the guiltiest about the death of a woman. One of the men takes refuge on his grandfather’s small farm. This old man stubbornly insists on staying put even though he is obviously on his last legs. Distracted by the plot, I barely noticed the farm until Dennis pointed out the cows. Clarence would have known better than to try to talk to me during a movie, but when you get a new husband late in life you have to put up with the fact that he does not come fully trained. When Dennis commented that the cows were never being milked, I could not help laughing.

There they were in each farm scene—three beautiful cows—all reddish brown like Bossy and very clean, obviously recently brushed by the make up people. I had been warmed by their presence while enjoying the soundtrack, which was mostly birds singing. The question about milking ruined my concentration because I started to listen for the cows and imagine their bursting udders. In the movie the young man, an urban snot, chops wood obsessively while the old man gives the cows hay. He is obviously far too sick and tottery to do the milking. There appear to be no women on the farm—unless you count the cows, and they’re not talking. Not a moo out of them.

There was a second DVD and we could have prolonged the pleasure of Revanche by listening to people talk about how wonderful it is. I opted against in this case. Too much chance that somebody would talk about how sad it is that this way of life has vanished.

So you see how it is. Always I have the farm animals left over. What this is about is nothing less than that old problem of the relation between art and life, and on that topic I preferred late to early Yeats even when I was a young student at the University of Manitoba, a year after leaving Plum Coulee. Those beautiful murmuring bean rows on the Lake Isle of Innisfree are very pretty, to be sure, but I have always felt more comfortable locating myself down here “where all the ladders start, / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

You may be surprised to hear that it is often when I am singing in church that I now feel I am in a place where the animals are not left out. It has something to do with the fact that Church of the Redeemer (unlike most Anglican churches) fills up with warm human bodies. It’s also about the rhythm of call and response. I like how the rituals are always connected to the seasons—like farm work. The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, and then it is time for Christmas again.

The priest at Redeemer is a storyteller called Andrew Asbil. Once when I confessed my unbelief to him, he told me not to worry, that he has no answers or solutions, and that he just aims to be with us “down here in the mess” where we all live. And I’m thinking, yes. That’s where they are, those farm animals. And the pets too. Down here in the mess.

We can still eat animals together at family gatherings, as long as they are covered in chocolate. On Easter day Dennis and I serve up to our blended family the usual circus menagerie of bunny rabbits and little lambs and baby chicks and Granny tries not to talk about farm animals while the children are eating. I am not vegetarian. I figure if schveenschlachte did not turn me into one, then nothing ever will. I was briefly tempted though when both my kids became vegetarians without losing their sense of humour.

Not long ago my vegetarian step-grandson recommended an episode of Portlandia in which the waitress answers questions about where the chicken comes from and the diners become so engrossed that they forget to eat. I did watch it and was worried because I did not find it funny. That episode has gone viral, which means a lot of people find it very funny.

It’s an old problem for me, not knowing why everybody is laughing. The first movie I ever saw was Goldfinger, and I still remember how left out I felt when a car crusher picked up a car that had a dead body in the trunk and everybody around me broke up. My kids have tried several times to explain why that is funny but I still don’t get it. In the case of the Portlandia scene I worried even more when I afterwards forgot the name of the chicken. Obviously that old Commandment has not lost its hold on me.

And the moral of the story is? Far be it from me to get preachy like my father, but it feels as if there is an elephant in the room here somewhere. I don’t know her name and I can’t make out what she’s saying, but animals do have a knack for stirring up tricky moral questions. Should we not at least ask whether our sentimentality about pets may be harming the environment? I’ve heard that 33 species of birds are now extinct because of the number of cats on this continent. Can this be true? Should we care? And dog poop is no joke either, as Helen Slinger discovered when she made the film Dog Dazed. 84,000,000 dogs on this continent produce 30,000 tons of poop daily. Go figure. After a while the water may not be as clean and good as was our well water on the farm in those olden days that are vanishing.

In our death we are not divided, we animals on this earth. When myKotais full, then I too will die like any other animal. Dust to dust. But as long as I am alive, the words help. They have power, especially the names. Along with Lucy and King and Queen and Brownie and Menno and Niko and Mocha and Clarence and, yes, even Bossy, I imagine how I will be “rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees.” The words help but I still have trouble when they pile up and when people try to cram them all into the one Word—the one Name. Sometimes on Sunday mornings the repetition makes my mind wander and then I feel those animals inside me stirring and threatening to revolt. So I take out my little crossword puzzle book to remind myself that words mean nothing in themselves. And soon it is time for the eucharist and I am once again surrounded by those comforting imaginary sheep, surrendering to the power of the ritual.

It takes courage to kneel at the altar and hold out your hands like some beggar, especially when the name of the lamb that is slain has been chanted again and again. On some Sundays I can’t stomach it. But most times my body moves up the aisle alongside the bodies of the others who are also hungering for something, who knows what. Come to think, it is not so unlike the cows coming down the aisle in the barn. Back in the choir stall, when we start singing again, I forget the cows and the sheep and (as much as possible) myself. When the last notes of Ave Verum Corpus have died out, I sit and feel my bones vibrate while the organist plays, and I think to myself how good it is to be in a place where you can love your animal and eat it too.

About the Author

Magdalene Redekop

Magdalene Redekop retired in 2008 after teaching English at the University of Toronto for 35 years. She was born and raised in a rural Mennonite community in southern Manitoba, part of the 1870s immigration from Ukraine. Redekop's publications include Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro (1992) and a biography of Ernest Thompson Seton (1979). She has published articles on Mennonite culture and is at work on a book entitled Making Believe: Mennonites and the Crisis of Representation. Redekop sometimes performs comic monologues in the persona of "Sush Funk," a Plautdietsch-inflected Mennonite woman. See this video.