The Story Behind The Novel
On rare days, if I’m lucky, I catch a glimpse of the divine.
I caught such a glimpse one November morning in 2008 on my daddy’s farm in Anderson, South Carolina. Caught it in light so early, it still could be considered dark. Caught it in a gathering of mama cows, a dozen of them, all huddled and straining against the corner of an old fence, each with her chin shoved high into the air and sending forth sounds. They were guttural. They made me shiver.
I had been asleep in my daddy’s house of red brick. But these sounds found me and woke me and drew me to the pasture out back.
I was standing some ten feet away from these cows in my pajamas and boots. The air was chilled, but I wasn’t cold. Mostly, I could see their eyes, their lids pulled back as if with ropes and showing a vast sea of white that surrounded circles of deep brown. One stood nestled in the corner. She cut her eyes my way. She bellowed. Above her mouth, a mist hovered.
I would not see it yet, but she and the others had pushed the end post forward with such force that it angled out as if it was an arm waving at something familiar.
And it was. Their babies. They were some thirty yards away, at the other end of a grassy lane. Like their mamas, they, too, stood huddled. They, too, sent forth sounds. Deep ones. Long ones.
I would come to know they were steers, neutered males, aged six to eight months. My daddy the afternoon before had separated them from their mamas. It’s called weaning. Otherwise, he likes to tell me, the mamas would continue to let their babies nurse, and that is not good, since likely these mamas were carrying again. That means another baby lay inside them.
This is what farmers do. Just like later that morning…what would happen. A trailer hitched to a truck would pull into the driveway, come around the side of the house, come past the corral where the steers stood, to the chute on the back of the barn, where the steers would be herded and loaded and then taken to the other side of town to sell to other farmers, who would feed them and fatten them for the only thing they believed the steers were good for. Slaughter.Food.
The sounds that morning were deafening.
A flock of geese flew from the pond. They flew past the mamas towards the babies, but then stopped short and made a sharp turn and flew away. They didn’t want to flaunt their freedom.
One of the mamas, the one nestled in the corner, cut her eyes my way again, her circles of brown lassoing me with a plea. I knew what she wanted. In my bones, I knew. She wanted me to get her baby back. She wanted me to knock down fences, hers and his.
But I couldn’t.
My eyes misted over.
There’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell for more than a decade. The seed of it was handed to me one night in Atlanta, Georgia, when a neighbor told me a secret he’d been carrying around for 54 years, since he was a six-year-old boy outside Birmingham, Alabama. “I’m telling you, knowing you’re a writer,” he said.
I wrote the story as a novel, the theme of motherhood shining through. But, ultimately, the story didn’t hold water, and I didn’t know what to do to fix it. I set it aside.
But that morning with the cows, something came to my mind –This is the missing piece to my motherhood story, these mama cow’s. I could tell about the way they love their babies, about their bond, this maternal one. This piece of the divine.
“I will tell your story,” I said out loud to them. “I promise.”
The mother cow in the corner released another sound, her breath forming a mist, surely holy. I imagined it floating my way, to my face, so that I could breathe it in. So that it could save me.
I not only had been asleep that morning — truth is, I had been asleep my whole life. I grew up on that farm, had spent eighteen years there, time for eighteen weanings. But I heard none of them. I heard none of their cries until that November morning.
Their story became my novel, One Good Mama Bone. The cow in the corner became my Mama Red, named after Mama Red, the milk cow I had loved as a child. My glimpse of the divine.
Thank you, girl.