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Love on the hoof

Let me tell you how I met Suzy, the wonder cow.

On my way east one summer I stopped at a dusty gathering of boots and voices on the stockyard side of a little town in Idaho. Many farmers, their thumbs tucked under the straps of their bib overalls, were going inside a huge, barnlike building, accompanied by children, boys in mini-overalls and girls in muslin and calico dresses. Intrigued, I followed.

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Inside they sat down on bleachers around a big, sawdust-covered arena. I took a seat high up in the bleachers and slapped the dust out of my jeans the way I saw the farmers slap it out of their overalls.

Then, shaking the thistles out of my beard, I inhaled the honest aromas of the country and smiled at everybody. Some nodded greetings to me. But most were too full of the impending event to wonder if I was just an idle curious fellow or a Noah come to recruit a new Ark.

A man appeared in the arena and announced the great event. It was an auction, not just an ordinary auction but a very special one. All the creatures offered for sale would become the private pets of the children, to be cared for in their old age or, if young, to be raised to win glorious ribbons.

Into the arena was led the first of the most whimsical parade of creatures that child hearts could dream, an old, peaceable-looking bull with a pirate's ring in his nose, a swishy tail, and a cowboy hat cut to go down over his horns. Bidding on him, as on all, was fierce and lasted only a few minutes. Next came a cow with ears like floppy sunflower leaves, and black and white spots that seemed to fit together like the pieces of a portentous puzzle. A Shetland pony pawing the dust with shiny new shoes. A spank-pink pig so fat she had to be pulled and pushed like a mule. A goat that wore a beribboned bonnet he would have loved to eat. Even, clinging together as one, an orphan family of ducklings , each with a tiny bell around the neck. And more.

Every creature had a name, which the child might or might not want to keep, and the auctioneer always announced it very clearly. But then he would launch into the bidding and he'd lose me completely. He sounded as if he were reciting the entire Farmer's Almanac backward, and at higher and higher speeds. I thought myself of the Tower of Babel and wondered if here was not a tumble of sounds that dwarfed even that.

The signals by which the farmers bid for the dream-pets of the children looked more complicated than the gestures in ancient Japanese plays. It meant something if you crossed your right leg over your left and at the same time pulled on your right earlobe. Likewise if you did the opposite. Or if you scratched your nose while making guttural sounds with your head bowed, or if you grinned twice in rapid succession and then subsided into a look of sly triumph.

Heaven help you if you got your signals mixed, I thought, and pulled the wrong earlobe or made guttural sounds when you should have been grinning.

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It was at the very end of the auction that I beheld Suzy, the pick of the parade. She was a shimmering, sunset-red Ayrshire with big, sad eyes and a full-looking udder. All of a sudden she mooed up at me, a long, soulful moo. To my astonishment and everybody's disbelief, I forgot propriety and mooed down at her, the same. It was simply love at first moo, for both of us. I could have hopped on her back right then and jumped with her over the moon, as on the cow in the nursery rhyme. Or at least I could have ridden her, private milk supply and all, clear to New York.

But a wonder cow is not for the journeyer but for children. Suzy knew this, too. As the farmer who bought her was leading her away she gave me a look over her shoulder. A cow is like the world, it said, a surprise to be loved in innocence and a hope to be helped in experience. Love a cow and she'll love you back, with both her stomachs and all her heart. Forever.

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