As dusk approaches, they gather at the fence and stare inside the cabin.
I want to tell the cows, as they stand planted stolidly at the gate, pointedly staring our way, that a watched pot never boils. But it wouldn't deter them. They'd go right on following our every movement through the glass of the cabin window, alert to any quickening that could signal one of us rising to pull on a coat, scarf, and boots to trudge out and spread their evening hay.
They rise from their rest on the frozen ground as early as 3:30 in the afternoon to slowly make their way to the fence separating our small cluster of buildings at the back of the farm – cabin, timber-frame library, and barn – from the big pasture, and jockey for position around the gate. And they wait. For the next hour or so, Charlie and I hunker down over books, crosswords, or letters, deliberately minimizing our movements. Even a casual walk across the room to put a log in the stove or click on the radio can get their ears to swiveling and trigger the big black heifers' lowing duets.
Not yet, not yet, the nights are so long. We make them wait until dusk for their feeding.
This winter is a contrast to last, which was mild and snowless in central Indiana. We'd fed our small herd and two draft horses an occasional bale of hay on raw, rainy days, but they grazed straight through the new year and into spring on a pasture that never fell fully dormant. The unseasonably mild weather was unsettling, but it made for easy maintenance of the herd. We could even spend much of January and February in our second home on the banks of the Wabash – a young friend who rents the farmhouse and runs the dairy regularly checked on the retired animals.