The Last One
A Fence, a Family, and a Black Steer
The steer was born blind. He was the last cow on my grandmother's ranch outside Sunnyside, Washington. She raised Angus cattle—a small operation, 100 head at the most—out there by herself for years after my grandpa died from drinking too much. In the photographs, my grandpa is old-timey handsome and sad-eyed.
The cattle lived the good life—out on 80 acres of achingly beautiful sageland in the summer, in the pasture and corrals and barn in winter. We drove over from Seattle every third or fourth weekend and helped. Summer work was mainly mending fence, which involved slowly circumnavigating the 80 acres in the 1948 International Harvester truck, making interminable stops while my dad and grandma reseated posts or messed with barbed wire or the electric fence. The land was not achingly beautiful to me then; it was just a factual expanse. My brother and I had contests to see who could hold on to the electrified wire the longest, which wasn't ever long. We both learned to drive before we were 10, grinding the old truck's gears. In winter, my grandma got up early—she always got up early—to feed, breaking apart bales of alfalfa hay and pitchforking them over the fence. The cattle ate and then stood around making clouds of breath.
Cows—even large, jet-black Angus ones, like my grandma's—are not scary, nor are they smart. (Even bulls generally fail to go on china-shop rampages, unless you put a number of them together. A steer is a bull that's been castrated; you do that because extra bulls cause problems, whereas a steer is docile.) Give a bookish little girl with glasses a whip and have her wave her arms and huh-YUP, and she is a fully functional part of your cattle-moving operation. I read little-girl novels about heroic horses and dogs held back only by their lack of opposable thumbs, and I worshipped anything with fur—but a cow was, clearly, obstinately, just a cow. The cattle resisted the most persistent efforts at anthropomorphization: They were just future meat on legs. We branded them with a branding iron red-hot from the coals of a fire, and they cared loudly for approximately 30 seconds, then forgot entirely and resumed eating. All they did was eat.
In terms of fun, you can't actually tip a cow. They usually sleep lying down; if upright, given any but the most sudden and muscular sideways attack, they'd just wake up and walk away.
The closest thing to interesting a cow can do, in my experience, is lick you. When I was quite small, my dad told me that if I went and sat out in the pasture and was very still and very patient, I would be licked. Probably I was complaining about being bored or was otherwise being a pain. But he was correct. It takes approximately an eternity for a cow to notice something, and then another eternity for it to make its way to the object of its notice. It takes long enough that the world becomes only grass prickings and manure smell and insect sounds and sun heating the top of your head. When a gust of alfalfa breath hits your ear and a giant, alien sandpaper tongue goes up the side of your face, it's as startling as anything in this life ever will be.
My grandmother let the herd dwindle over time, but she was loath to let go. When she was 78 years old, it got to be too much for her. The final cattle went away; my dad always said they only had one bad day. Most were sold, but one or two came back in pieces wrapped in white butcher paper—meat for months—bound for the enormous white coffin of a freezer in grandma's basement, near the terminally out-of-tune upright piano. It also filled our freezer in Seattle, and for a while we had a meat locker out on Roosevelt. We ate so much beef, I got so I hated steak. After I left home, I didn't eat it for years.
So, in the end, only one cow was left behind: the blind steer. I don't know why. Things like this—one steer's left there, and it can't see—just happen on a ranch. You don't think to ask the reason. His lack of sight didn't concern anyone much, even him. He didn't bump into things or ever seem lost. His eyes were mesmerizing—not milky, but all mirrored, like a cat's eyes caught in a beam of light at night. A cow's pupils are big, and the expanse of mirror of the blind steer's eyes was considerable. You could stare into the blind steer's eyes all you wanted, for he liked to stand at the fence closest to the house. He was alone, and possibly bored, or waiting for the scraps that got thrown over the fence. I was pretty much grown, and I'd never named a cow in my life. I called him Ray Charles.
Ray Charles did not grow old and gray, the pet of our redemption; a blind cow with a name is still just a cow. One weekend we got there and he was gone—nobody standing by the fence under the catalpa tree. I asked. The answer was very briefly surprising to me before I saw its inevitability: He was in pieces, wrapped in white paper. I was not sad; that was not part of the person I'd come to be. Those spaces for sorrow were to be saved. We ate him, meat for months, with thankfulness, without ceremony. We all knew that the end of him was the end of one thing—for my grandma, for all of us—without any beginning to another. We didn't talk about it. We didn't need to. He tasted extra good.