As I have said before, when I return to Vinegar Hollow, there is always a new story. The story has usually begun a long while before my arrival, maybe even generations, but my presence allows me to enter that story. In the cluster of farm buildings that surrounds the house, I especially love seeing the straw barn glow in the late afternoon sun, but I also love it on a misty morning.
This particular misty morning I heard Mike hollering from the barn, ‘Slick, come on. Come on, Slick.’ There would be a pause, then a further entreaty. ‘Dat gum, Slick, you come every afternoon, what’s wrong now? Come on, Slick! I am not wading through this mud.’ Mike has a few large, pregnant, cows in the barn meadow and they have churned up the rainy-soft earth. Mike’s one-sided dialogue with Slick went on quite a while. I didn’t approach because I figured Mike was having trouble with one of his herd and my presence might cause the recalcitrant beast to baulk entirely. When Mike left the barn meadow I asked him for the story.
Slick is a twin. His mother is down at Mike’s house with the sibling. Mike says that Slick wouldn’t follow his mother, and his mother wouldn’t go after him to make him feed. She was satisfied with the one. After three days of this stand off he was skinny, a case of “failure to thrive,” so Mike brought him up to our barn, bottle feeds him twice a day, and puts him in a stall to feast on grain at night. I guess you could say that Mike is his mother now, but it’s not easy with the little contrarian. Slick butts him, hard, as hard as if Mike were a two-thousand pound cow. Mike says that he doesn’t worry so much about a calf outside at night curled up next to a warm mama–a warm drink in the belly will get you through– but Slick has no mama now, except for Mike.
The next morning I decided to pay Slick an early morning visit, climbing numerous gates to find him. It never ceases to amaze me how many gates are needed on a farm. I could have opened some of them, but not easily. Gates take a lot of abuse. They were stuck in half-frozen mud, sagging on old hinges, or bent from run-ins with mad cows. I went in through the back of the barn because approaching from the front meant wading through a sea of mud. Really deep. I assessed the possibility but decided it was a complete no-go. Even I who like mud was daunted, but I eventually found Slick, the lonely king of an empty barn. It’s a big, sturdy barn, with huge chestnut beams, built in the Depression, by an itinerant barn builder, who earned his keep building five barns like ours in the county.
Slick alternated between coming up for a head pat and backing up shyly. When asked about the name, Mike answered that he doesn’t know how he decided to name him Slick. “It just happened,” he said. “Perhaps it’s because he is so silky looking,” I suggested, and Mike agreed that he was that way from birth. I watched as Slick gulped his two quarts of milk in less than 30 seconds.
In my last view of Slick, he was heading slowly toward the small group of pregnant mamas, lifting each hoof slowly and deliberately. It doesn’t do to go down in the mud. Usually March is mud season, but it rained so much in September and October that it’s mud a long way down right now.
I am back in Ithaca now, away from the mud, and the gates, and rounded curves of these old Allegheny mountains, but still thinking about Slick for some reason.