I am wrapped and warm.
Contractions shock my world. An arm intrudes. A hand grabs my leg, pulls me out. I fall onto dusty dirt swaddled in my birthing skin. Fetid air smothers my first breath. Clamors explode in my ears.
A soft tongue laps.
I’m seized again, dropped into a cold wheelbarrow. They’re taking me away. Mama follows next to me. She tries to block the wheelbarrow, but they shove her aside. Our mutual calls to each other rise together to clash against harsh voices into a cacophony of suffering. Still she follows until she can follow no more. They dump me into a truck, birthing skin, muddy placenta, and all. Mama cries and crashes herself against the rail. The truck engine roars. I howl, mama. My needs thrust full-throated until her anguish fades into the distance, until my gullet is raw. Still I cry until exhaustion takes over, and I dream:
I am standing on two feet, not four, a man bound by a discomfiting suit and tie, not fur. Everything is familiar. I’ve been here before, stood on these two legs. I oversee a stockade network crowded with cows extending into the plains beyond the horizon where a setting sun blisters the sky. I wish for the umpteenth time to be home with my wife and newborn baby girl.
Rows of faces protruding through fence headgates into a long trough of slop remind me of the endless rows of cubicles I just left at the office. Lifeless eyes staring over bellowing maws mirror my own feelings. Many lay on their side. Several weakened bodies stumble on their knees as a cursing man cattle-prods them towards a livestock truck. He sees me, approaches. I hand off a baseball cap embroidered with “I heart Sanmonto” and clap his back, an unnatural smile plastered to my face. The smell of foul waste and filthy animals burns my nose, but I try not to think of it or the tortures before me, rather what’s critical for my employer, the profit motive, and the earned money required to pay off my chic new house and fancy car.
A hose wakes me, sprays away my birthing skin. They toss me into a tiny crate whose fence rails hug close without comfort. My soaked body dries slowly in the soggy air thick with pungent odors and discordant noise. Other calves sit next to me in identical situations. I howl for help. Where’s mama? There’s no mama they say.
I crave to suckle. My tongue searches through space, pulls at the air. I nurse on my empty mouth until a discarded dirty rag replaces. Despite the greasy taste, it feels good to suck something. I doze and dream:
I am that man again, this time marching on my two feet, with balled fists instead of front hooves, into a big white domed building. A hangover from last night’s spousal argument over finances beats at my brain. The falsity of this high-minded place snags at my sanity. I don’t want to be here, yet I proceed. An old scraggly man sits at a large desk gazing with bleary eyes at anxious beads of sweat on my forehead and upper lip. Everyone bustles about calling him Congressman. One of my hands unclenches to clutch some papers with a heading. Sanmonto. Global Expansion. Feed The World. My pushed voice rattles, rushes louder than I wish. The Congressman knuckles under, promises quick product approval. This pyrrhic victory pricks at my chest, gnaws at my soul.
Everything blurs; my dream shifts. The Congressman morphs into a scientist dressed in a white lab coat. He lifts a beaker shaking his head. I want to leave, to run away–maybe I don’t need this job–but my stomach tangles and my instincts go unheeded. Instead I compel my stiff jaw to speak while jabbing at his chest in the same way the executive above me had jabbed mine. He acquiesces. A hapless experiment with an extravagant udder stands in a corner mewling. I turn from the sight trying to blink away its memory, cursing my want of courage to change my circumstance.
A kicking boot rouses me to the reek of gas and dung. I am made to stand and they attach something to my testicles. It pinches and burns. A needle stings my shoulder muscle as fluid rushes in. A heavy collar dragging down my neck is tethered to my crate rail. I can no longer stand. My rag is taken away so I suck my restraint. The weight chafing my neck and small space holds me in place until my legs are too weak to lift me. My yearning to move, to live, turns to stupor, and dreams:
I am that same man standing onstage in a large meeting hall before a cheering crowd. Again, as always, I am away from my family, missing my daughter’s first violin recital just like my father had missed mine. A picture of a bull overlays a sharp line with a jagged red arrow going up and up reaching past the ceiling, beyond the moon, grasping for the stars. The top of the chart has words. Sanmonto. Stocks. Biotech industries. This success stands in cruel contrast to the state of my marriage and the offspring I seldom see. The red arrow is my prison.
Throbbing music pounds at my aching temples. My armpits sweat rivers as people jump in rhythm. My eyes squint as ambition over-illuminates the room, reflects sun-bright on every shiny face. Profits, more profits, they sing with the same excitable tones of my wife. Their joy at numbers pins my diaphragm to my throat. In the midst of community, I am lost in isolation. The CEO lifts his arms. I must perform my role, not wallow in wretchedness, so I match his upraised arms, as if to catch their adulation, which pelts me like a hard rain, chilling me to my marrow.
A slammed bucket wakes me, sloshing a vaguely chemical-smelling white goop into my now open eyes. Nausea prevents me from touching it so they pour it down my esophagus. Eventually I drink it without being forced. The burning pinching thing hanging between my legs soon falls off, taking my balls with it. I rub my dry itchy skin against the rough wooden slat floor. There are so many others. Our moans encircle groans to echo beside screaming machines.
A nearby snuffling causes me to nose at a weakness in my fence. Another sniffs and nuzzles me. Our mouths reach to suckle each other. Mutual sorrows inspire my new friend. He reaches into his imagination to whisper tales of gentle green fields and a kind blue sky with benevolent breezes caressing us both. Even under the metal ceiling, confining the hoary light of a permanent winter, my tender heart soars, trembling at the thought that such a place exists. My friend keeps on soothing until I drowse, and dream:
I am the man driving my open-roofed, fast car. Speed is my escape from job stress and family decline, the driver’s seat, my hiding place. I round every curve as fast as I can go to unknot my strained stomach. My modified motor manufactures the loudest possible vroom to cover up conflicting voices in my aching head. The twisting road turns and turns, the wind lifting my denial, my inability to face myself, to ever increasing levels. A livestock truck comes at me head on.
My soul lifts becomes a calf is conceived.
I am wrapped and warm.
Contractions shock my world. A hand grabs my leg, pulls me out. I fall onto dusty dirt swaddled in my birthing skin. Fetid air smothers my first breath. Clamors explode in my ears.
A soft tongue laps.