By Brenda Clem Black
Susan sat at her stainless steel breakfast table, watching morning spread across the wide expanse of the farm. Her view was framed by the six-foot triple window squarely in front of her. Two cups of coffee were getting cold. Olive Kitteridge, the book she was reading, lay upside-down. Good Morning America played on the small flat-screen muted, unseen and unheard. Susan's eyes watched the window, waiting for the old Ford tractor to roll across the landscape in her picture. Outside, the crisp fall morning of yellows masked a private drama taking place between her husband, Russell, and Toad, his magnificent red-and-white herd bull, and she stayed out of it.
Russell and Toad had a long history. Toad was born on the farm several years earlier, a fullblood Fleckvieh Simmental, out of the famous Signal bull and Russell's Big Rosie cow. He had a fancy registered name, but Russell called him Toad because of his enormous head and sturdiness, and the ability to plant himself wherever he chose.
Toad was a rambunctious young bull. “Full of piss and vinegar,” Russell said, “as new things are.”
Quite often, as Susan watched through her window, she caught glimpses of her husband chasing Toad through the pastures, trying to get him to the corral, both of them running like wild beasts at top speed. Russell always lost the race. When he stopped to breathe, hands on his knees, chest and sides heaving, Toad stopped too, sidled close to him, and heaved his own rhythm until the challenge started again.
“That dang Toad. I need to sell him, but I can't get him in the pen. What an animal!” Russell beamed. He had shown and judged cattle when he was young, slept with them in the show barn at the state fair. There was a whole herd of little plastic Guernseys, which he and his brother Richard won in their youth, lined up on a shelf in the barn.
As a two-year-old, Toad turned in the loading chute one day and charged Russell, who jumped sideways and flattened himself against the gate, barely avoiding full impact. The maneuver twisted his knee, tore the ACL and required surgery.
“That dang Toad is going to be the death of me,” he complained. “He's the finest bull I've ever raised, and the most bull-headed. I can't get him to do anything I want him to do.”
Susan thought that sounded like someone she knew.
“Well, if I can't load him, guess I'll have to keep him. It means I'll have to manage the cows better. It will be a lot more trouble, but that is one fine bull!”
Her husband's decision to keep Toad was not a surprise to Susan.
As Toad grew to his prime, Russell constantly mended fences. Toad was good at his job of herd bull, very prolific, throwing sturdy calves. He often visited the neighbors' cows as well, to see if he could improve their offspring. He was especially attracted to the Holstein dairy herd that grazed on alfalfa and red clover planted by the northern neighbor, Farmer-of-the-Year John Robert Hart.
“That dang Toad, a barbed wire fence doesn't mean much to a two-thousand-pound bull. He just plows right through it.” Russell apologized once more to John Robert, and took off immediately to bring back his bull and repair the fence again. But Toad knew where home was. When he saw Russell he quickly ambled back to his own pasture, leading his herd and a few stray Holstein cows he had enamored.
The neighbor to the south proved a bit more difficult. He rented the pasture from the Prairie Grove Battlefield Park and moved in a red Angus herd.
“Your bull is trying to kill my bull,” he yelled at Russell one stormy day. “Put him upside down in the creek, and I almost never got him righted again.”
Russ dutifully apologized and reinforced the south fence line.
Susan noticed he took satisfaction in his work. He came in the back door, beating his chest.
“Toad won! Woo, Woo! Toad's not mean. Toad's just being Toad, protecting his harem. He is king of his kingdom.” After three more fence fixings, and a lot more chest-beating, Toad and the red Angus bull stood for hours, heads butted across the finally-impenetrable fence, giant muscles flexed in a silent, forceful struggle.
The neighbor soon moved his bull to a different pasture.
Susan smiled, remembering, as she watched her window and waited. A blue heron slowly waved its graceful wings and landed near the creek. It waded in, looking for minnows. She clicked off the TV, walked into the living room, picked up the didgeridoo and brought it back to the kitchen where she resumed her vigil. Her hand traced the grain of the smooth polished wood. She propped the didge against her leg and put the beeswax mouthpiece to her lips. Just a sound, a note, one note, anything. The strange instrument would not cooperate. Itwas not hers, it belonged to Russell – and to Toad.
Russell brought the aboriginal horn back from Australia after their anniversary trip a few years ago. He chose one with no designs, just the warm honey glow of the six-foot-long piece of ironwood. It looked like a small tapering limb, with the center naturally hollowed by termites. He had taken lessons at the touristy Didgeridoo University in outback Alice Springs, and practiced his circular breathing and low drones on the back patio, after Susan ran him out of the house.
Surprisingly, the long soulful sounds of Russell's didgeridoo were music to Toad's ears. He answered back with his own low bellows from wherever he happened to be on the farm, and would come lumbering from the field to stand at the fence nearest the patio to perform with his friend.
Russell played and Toad sang his song. The harmony wasn't much to talk about, but it was obvious that both members of the duo enjoyed their frequent sets.
“Concerto #5 tonight. Get ready,” he teased Susan. “You're our only audience.”
After Toad learned to sing, he would stand at the fence and bellow at Russell as he came and went, sometimes just saying “Hi”, and sometimes scolding with long, drawn-out dirges when Russell was tardy putting out the salt and meal. Even when Russell arrived home in the dark and couldn't see anything in the fields, he could count on a “Good Evening” low tune from Toad.
Toad didn't sing for Susan.
In winter, when Russell cut the baling strings off the big round bales of hay, he was wary of Toad who heard the tractor and came running to munch the tender heart of the bale.
“Don't ever be on the same side of the bale with Toad,” Russell instructed Susan, when it was her job to feed the hay in his absence. “He's gentle and he won't hurt you on purpose, but you have to respect his strength. Never get between him and his food. Always respect him.”
Susan thought the respect was mutual between Russell and Toad. Toad watched as Russell cared for the herd, mowed the pastures, baled the hay, and broke ice on the creek in winter so the herd could drink. He watched Russell pull calves to help young heifers with birthing problems, and bring the vet when more help was needed. He watched as Russell loaded young bulls for market, but cut Toad back into the field, never again trying to load him and send him away.
“That dang Toad watches everything,” he told Susan once. “He's an observer, like you.”
“I guess it's true then, what Temple Grandin says,” she replied. “Cows are curious.”
“Well, I can tell you that one old bull I know is quite curious.”
Last winter, Susan watched through her window as Russell went back and forth on his tractor feeding hay. When he came in, he calmly said, “Thought I was about to meet my maker. Old Toad pinned me. I was trying to cut the bale strings with an old rusty knife from the tractor box, and all of a sudden I felt hot air on my back. He put his head against my spine and pushed me into the bale.”
“Oh my goodness! What did you do?”
“Nothing I could do.” He grinned. “Old Toad snorted, smelled me, pushed on me real gentle. We just stood there, with the pressure of his head against me. Then I sang him a small song. He bellowed back real low, then turned and pulled a bite out of the bale right beside me and walked away.”
Susan smiled. She noticed that Russell called him old Toad instead of dang Toad. She wondered if they had actually touched before.
“You don't pet a bull, not this bull,” he had told the grandchildren. “Toad's untouchable.”
The tractor rolled into Susan's view at the right of her window, coming from the bottom field. Russell drove it through the creek with the empty scoop in the air, and across the middle field until it disappeared from her scene on the left. She got up to see more, but he drove the tractor out of view under the ha-ha they had built. She could only see the top of the persimmon tree. She sat again and waited.
As summer moved into fall a few weeks ago, Russell had confided, “I'm worried about Toad. He didn't gain much weight over the summer, can't go into winter like that. And he's not staying with the herd, goes off by himself.”
He started feeding grain with medicated crumbles to Toad, loading buckets of feed and water into the John Deere Gator and hauling them twice a day to wherever Toad had chosen to plant himself. After all these years, there was still no way to get Toad into the barn.
Toad got better and rejoined the herd, but not for long.
“Toad's down again.” Russell announced yesterday after his late day cattle-check.
“Where is he?” Susan asked.
“He's lying by the creek, near the persimmon tree. I'm going to give him another round of amoxicillin.”
Russell had stayed out until dark. When he returned to the house, he reported to Susan that Toad didn't fight when he stuck the needle into his thick muscle, and that Toad allowed him to stroke his massive head and rub his broad back.
“He pressed his head against my shoulder and quietly sang a few low notes,” he said.
“Did you sing back?”
“What do you think?”
Susan heard the tractor before she saw it, coming from the ha-ha. The scoop was carrying Toad high in the air, in a manner of respect, like an offering. His lifeless limbs dangled over the sides. When Russell got to the creek, he carefully lowered Toad to the bank on the far side, then drove the tractor across, turned it, and slowly lifted Toad into the air again. He headed for the bottom where he had been digging, disappearing from Susan's view once again. Russell was taking Toad to his favorite spot near the river, the place where Toad led the herd after their morning munch on the hill, where they spent quiet days tending themselves.
No one knew the practicalities of a two-thousand-pound dead animal more than Russell. The reality versus romance of a farm was not new to him. But there would be no burning brush pile or dog-food dead-wagon for Toad, just a simple plot by the river where he would remain forever with the herd.
Susan stood as the tractor rolled out of sight, thinking she would walk down the hill to be near them. She picked up the didge, then stopped. She sat down again.
A mockingbird landed on the pyracantha limb outside her window and plucked some bright orange berries for his breakfast.
After what seemed like a long while, she heard the tractor nearing the barn, then silence as Russell turned it off. She rose and put the coffee in the microwave to warm, then opened the refrigerator for eggs.