Every winter evening I lean out the back door of the barn, swing open the gate, and yell, “C’mon, cows!” *
The cattle huddling under the run-in shed immediately race toward me.
Clean dry stalls in the warmth of the barn! Dinner is served!
All the stall doors are open and I simply stand out of the way. After the occupants gallop in and peel off to their proper places, I walk down the aisle and slide the bolts closed.
It all happens like clockwork unless I’ve neglected the joker in the deck: my gander, Andy.
If I’ve forgotten to lock up Andy for the night he has been known to attack an incoming cow, pinching and honking and flapping his wings. Chaos ensues as the cattle panic and jump out of his way, bang into walls, and head to the wrong stalls. Meanwhile I must leap to catch the furious gander — whap! whap! his wings beat my face — and rush him to safety. (Andy is inevitably trampled and hurt in these ruckuses that he himself causes — which in turn increases his cattle-hatred. Don’t look to a goose for logic.)
Once the gander is safely disposed, I must sort out the anxious cattle and shoo them away from their neighbor’s dinner and into their proper stalls. The cattle know their own places and are jumpy and nervous in the wrong stalls, but greed wins out and between worried glances at me they will gulp sweet feed as fast as they can.
“Out! Out! Out!” I yell. Cattle hate yelling and I rarely do it.
The offenders startle, spin on their haunches, and run into their own stalls. Then I shut the gates and slide the bolts.
The commotion is sorted out in less than three minutes, but with two tons of muscle and adrenalin crashing and wheeling in the narrow aisle, it’s always a heart-thumper.
I try hard to remember to lock up the gander.
* * *
* Cattle are one of the few animals I can think of that have no generic singular noun.
We say: one rabbit, two rabbits, the male is a buck, the female is a doe. We even say one deer, two deer.
However, there is no such thing as one cattle. Adult cattle are inevitably plural. If we speak of them singularly, we must sex them, and usually specify their reproductive status. A female is a heifer until she has given birth, when she becomes a cow. (Often farmers don’t consider her a cow until after her second calving.) The male is a bullock and then a bull. A castrated male is a steer, until he’s three years old, when he becomes an ox. Only calves can be singular without sexing: one calf, five calves.
Therefore, when I lean out the back door of the barn, I should yell, “C’mon, cattle!” because my herd is of mixed sexes, ages, and reproductive status.
But I think about it.
I love language.