There are three ways to do it. For my family back on the seventies, it was significantly less-precise than it is today. The first was electric stunning, which was effective, but too expensive and too modern for my father, who preferred to pretend he was living in a time when farmers were actually integral members of society. The second was to take it into the field and use a long blade to cut the Achilles’ tendon, immobilizing the animal (a sitting cow, I suppose). This would render it easy to finish off with a couple semi-accurate blasts from a shotgun. But the easiest and most popular technique in the Midwest was to use an old school cattle gun. Carry a gas tank into the stall, connect a long hose to the tank, place the end of the hose between the eyes, turn on the gas, release the valve, watch the blood drip. Cake. When visiting home over Thanksgiving, Dad asked me at breakfast if I wanted to give it a go, “just for old-time’s sake.” I decided to oblige. I had done it so many times before, what’s one more?
I walked across the yard, watching the birds play in the snow that sat on the tree branches. It had been years since I’d last killed a cow. You may wonder whether such a thing is a common occurrence, or you may wonder whether such a thing should be. In my household, it was and is—mostly so business men in $500 suits have something to chew on as they discussed their affairs. When I was in junior high, I tried to convince myself that prodding was a tolerable, perhaps even enjoyable thing. I was a teenager after all—I was supposed to like spurting blood. All such pretensions were gone by high school. Slasher movies are actually quite different than slaughtering cattle in real life. At least you can take a girl to a horror film and she might hold your hand for a few minutes during the intense parts. If you bring the same girl to a cattle stall and show her how the drill works, she’ll probably realize that rich lawyer’s sons always were her best match.
Anyway, the cow-killing thing got old pretty quickly. If I were to ever lose everything an move back to Iowa and claw out my living by raising (and slaying) cows, I would definitely not require my children to do the dirty deed until they were at least sixteen. Even then, I would make sure they used one of those cool new carbon dioxide emitters. The less blood, the better for everybody, right?
When I reached the barn, the bovine looked at me emptily. I was as if the poor thing knew what was coming. I wondered whether she had been chatting with her buddies before I got there. Perhaps they just sense the change in fate, or perhaps fate’s fulfillment, like a gentle gust of wind. I placed the tank on the ground and twisted it open, listening to the hiss of pressure which ended in a clunck noise, like the sound of a stake being driven into the ground by some high-powered machine. The blank eyes crossed, the legs folded up, and the cow just fell limply to the ground. Like a tree that’s been cut down.
When the family sat around the table that afternoon, Julian saw blood on the cuff of my flannel shirt and asked me what it was from. Dad turned on the Cowboy’s game. Jimmy got a frown from Mom when he started eating the turkey with his fingers. I told Julian about the cow. “Just don’t tell the kids,” I whispered.
*Just in case you’re wondering, this is fiction. I’m not the narrator.