Number 47 was the only calf I ever knew to commit suicide.
The day she did it I'd been meaning to do some carving on my rocking horse, but out of mourning for her I didn't after all. She was the third calf to die that week. We had a pneumonia epidemic going around, but 47 didn't have pneumonia. She died by sheer will power.
The funny thing about 47 was how bouncy and vocal she was. She would make as much rumpus as any healthy calf ever did, but her little closed-mouth attitude at feeding time was always the same: being healthy wasn't enough to keep her alive. So twice a day I tube-fed her. She'd bounce all around, mooing and baaing. Her coat was blue-black and wavy, and I'd rumple it before I'd get a good hold of her head and slide the tube down her throat. Then I'd hold the bottle up and watch her roll her eyes as bubbles floated up the plastic tube and the bottle slowly collapsed.
Since I'd been carving, I thought a lot about eyes and faces and shapes, so I'd study her. One second I'd be imagining the shape of her face in wood, and the next, she'd blink. It would make my heart stop. I felt like I just created her. Then, of course, I'd wish she'd eat. Imagine creating this calf who didn't want to live. Or imagine your own carved rocking horse blinking his eyes at you, then dying. I mean, it's unthinkable. If you bring something to life, you want it to stay that way. You don't even care if it knows you exist, the calf or the horse or whatever; you just watch his skin twitching and your heart goes wild with love.
I hadn't cried over the other two calves, but when I found 47, I cried the rest of the way through chores, and cried into the house, and cried through my shower, and then cried looking at my rocking horse, who just wouldn't blink no matter what I did.
Finally I dug under my bed for a certain shoe box, and started re-reading copies of love-letters to Carl from six months ago. I found where I told him, "I'm either carving the most beautiful rocking horse in the world, or creating a bunch of firewood. I don't know which." That's the first written record I have of my rocking horse. Usually I don't tell people what I'm dreaming of making, especially at first. It's bad luck to give someone else power over what you're about to do—even if their only power is having an opinion. Other people’s opinions can weigh you down.
By then I already had the legs carved, though, I remember. I had roughed them in before I pegged them to the body with glue and dowels. The legs are basswood, with round knees and fine canon bones like a real horse. My hands were probably already carved up too when I wrote the letter. I would nick them with the chisel, accidently guiding the blade into one hand with the other. Sometimes when I used the gouge and mallet, the wood would suddenly give way and my hand would fly against the splintery wood I had just cut. My wrists were constantly sore too, being rubbed and scraped and scratched all the time.
Carl didn't last long. After he asked me to marry him three times, and I said, "I don't know," "Maybe," and "I think so," his ex-girlfriend came back to him. Since he was a taxidermist, one good thing that came out of the relationship was a taxidermy catalog he gave me. I ordered some parts from it for my horse.
So I had a good start before I officially told anyone about it. Of course my dad knew, because I borrowed his tools. He'd hang around to make sure I was using them right and not misplacing any drill bits. I always had company while I carved. If it wasn't him, it was Mother. She'd swing on the porch swing, reading. I worked on the benches from the picnic table, my horse on one bench and the tools laid out on the others. The floor would be periodically covered with wood chips which eventually got finer and finer, going from chips to shavings to filings and finally to dust.
People from the farm would come through and see him too. Jerry had recently had a nervous breakdown and started milking for us afterwards. My parents have an arrangement with the County Health Department—this therapeutic recovery work program. We usually have people with breakdowns or who are recovering from addictions.
I guess you could say it was ironic that I ended up back here too after the breakup with Carl and my own small episodes. The farm was like a nest I fell back into. If there was anything that bothered me, though, it was that people wouldn’t leave me alone. Literally, I was never alone. When I walked around crying that day, Jerry walked around behind me.
"Don't take it so hard," he said.
I couldn't stop crying.
"I lost Jeanne," he said. Jeanne had been his fishing boat. "I took it so hard, I ended up three months in the hospital. Now I don't let anything get to me."
Number 47 was still in her hutch with the door open the way I had left it, too many flies buzzing around. We dragged her out so Jerry could pick her up with the front-end loader. She had gone stiff, like she really was carved out of wood after all.
Before he went to get the tractor, Jerry took a calf bottle and helped me with one of the pneumonia cases.
Part of what spooked me about 47's suicide is that I had decided it was hard to die. It takes an impossible amount of energy to stop breathing. I had told her this, kneeling in the straw feeding her. I had explained that will itself is a life-act. If you have enough will to try giving up your own will, then you'll fail, so it's a power good for just about anything but dying.
I worked harder on my rocking horse after 47 died. All the time I was making him, I kept picturing him at the Missaukee County fair, in the center of things somehow, with a long "Best of Fair" ribbon in his mane.
To keep the horse still while I carved, I laid him on a piece of foam on a bench, and sat on one end while I worked on the other. Or I'd lie across him, then get both hands on the chisel and pull it into the wood towards myself. I got into some strange positions trying to get just the right angle for the chisel. The trick was to always cut the wood in one certain direction. Start chiseling the wrong way and the splinters run too deep. So you change directions and suddenly the shavings just curl off. On the inside of one leg, for instance, you might have to cut down toward his hoof, and on the inside of the next, cut up toward his knee. I knew what the wood wanted on every inch of that horse's body.
From the day I drew up the plans I had him named. I remembered a fairy tale I read when I was little about a rocking horse named Rolande. Every night Rolande would wake up his prince, and the prince would throw open the nursery window and let Rolande go sailing out of it. The reason the prince could trust Rolande to come back again was that he had a strand of hair from Rolande's mane—the only white strand—and he kept it wrapped around his finger like a ring. Every morning the prince would lean out his window and call Rolande home.
My Rolande is Swiss. His hind legs are not on the rockers, like the familiar galloping English rocking horse, but on a platform that crosses between the rockers. His front legs are in the air in front of him. He's rearing a controlled little rear—the levade, it's called—because his back has to be level enough to ride, of course. He looks like the horses in Baroque paintings that you suspect are praying.
Rolande has a round apple-shaped rump and small black muzzle. His feet are pale yellow with gold carved shoes on them. Since his front legs are curled in the air in front of him, you can see every detail of the sole of his front hooves, including the heel bulbs and the delicate triangular-shaped cushion called the frog. If his hooves weren’t already meticulously clean, you would want to take a hoof pick to them, they are that lifelike.
I liked to rub my hands along the curves of his sleek painted sides, and get the light against the raised pine grain which you can almost see through five coats of white gesso primer. He is painted dapple grey with black points and white stockings—whimsical and childish.
His body is hollow. It started out as six 2x12 pine boards glued together to make a block big enough to carve, but before I glued them, I cut the middle two out on the inside to keep the weight down. Then I had the idea of putting a message inside him. At first I was just going to write something simple, like, "I made this horse," with my signature on it, but I kept changing my mind.
Both the real horse mane and the expensive deer eyes came from Carl’s taxidermy catalog. Carl had explained how to set the eyes in just right so that the white rims showed only along the front edge like he's rolling his eyes. They took a long time to arrive, and meanwhile I had hollowed out his nostrils and carved cheek bones and rounded his chin and carved the teeth.
I spent nights and nights thinking about what to write on the note. My second idea was to say, "This horse is made out of pine and basswood and the left ventricle of my heart," with my signature. Then I'd imagine Rolande a hundred years later in someone's basement with the paint worn thin across his back and his mane and tail wispy. I didn't know how they'd find the note. It would take something like a tiger saw to get to it. I suppose a leg could get broken off somehow and the note would fall out. I imagined a child finding it. It would be like the horse himself talking.
He's more likely to be burned in a fire than for anyone to find that note. The object is for it never to be found.
I took some pictures while I was working on him. In my favorite picture, Rolande is lying on his back on the picnic table bench. It's the most life-like picture I have of him, maybe because you think he looks concerned, lying on his back that way. You understand exactly why his eyes are rolling.
Carl wrote told me he'd been bumping around Traverse City and found a rocking horse in a craft store. The horse was smaller than mine, he said, and boxier looking, and they wanted fifteen hundred dollars for it. "You always undervalued yourself," he told me.
I didn’t know what to think about that. I hadn’t told Carl any price. Rolande wasn’t for sale.
The thing about 47 is she one-upped me in a way. I realized what she felt about life—against life—was even more intense than what I felt. She had more personal power than I did.
Still, I was glad Rolande was bigger than the horse in the Traverse City craft store. I had made him big enough for even me to ride, the rockers long and steep. Sometimes I'll get on side-saddle, with one knee over the handle that goes through his neck. Or I'll stand with both my feet on one rocker and go back and forth that way, a hand on his neck and rump. Of course, watching my sister’s little three-year old get up on him for the first time was amazing—worth thirty or sixty pictures. I could sense my own yet-unconceived child, my dream child, riding in the future and felt a glimmer of hope.
My third idea for the note was to write, "My name is Rolande. Look for the white hair, wrap it around your finger, and I will always come home."
Since the head is turned, I glued it on separately from the neck, then put a dowel through his forehead. Before I drilled, I had a sickening feeling I would be going through flesh and bone. But that wasn't true; the wood stayed firm all the way.
I finally had to write a list of all my ideas for the hollow in Rolande’s belly. I could quote the Bible: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” the note could say. Or I could quote Flannery O’Connor: “I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.” I could quote a song: “Hallelujah?” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters?” “Hej Jude?” I could put in an object: A feather? A packet of love letters? A locket? My favorite ring! No, no, I told myself. It shouldn’t have real value—only emotional value. Only something that mattered to me and gave me hope or made me laugh. It should bless but not curse, if objects can bless or curse.
Jerry and I borrowed the farm pickup with the topper on it to get Rolande to the fair. To fit him in, we had to rock him forward, then put a block under the rocker and a pillow over his head to keep his ears from scraping against the ceiling. When we got there, we carried him into the civic center together, each at either end of the rockers like we were the slaves and he was the prince. People stopped and watched us, so I could feel my heart bumping with pride. We registered him and re-arranged the smaller carved things on the table to give him the best spot. Then we walked around looking at the quilts and the popsicle-stick bird cages in the 4-H section.
I imagined a "Best of Fair" ribbon like those medals they give to Olympic winners that hang around the neck. That would look perfect on Rolande.
The next day, after the judging, Jerry and I went back and I didn't pause to look at any quilts, or slow down going past the braided rugs. I first expected to see the ribbon from a distance, and when I didn't, I expected it to be hanging on his opposite side. I circled the table twice, then checked under his mane, then checked under the table.
I looked around at people's faces to see what they knew, as if someone was going to come running up to me.
Then Jerry handed me the walking stick with a blue ribbon on it. Leaves wrapped around the handle, or a grape vine, or something. Second place was a duck with the feathers carved in, and third was an old man sitting on a stump. They were beautiful, of course, but diminutive compared to Rolande.
"I don't think he even placed," Jerry said.
I was flooded with shame. People were going to think Rolande wasn't as beautiful as they'd thought at first, with no ribbon on him. They were going to think the judges knew something they didn't. I couldn't look at Jerry.
"They must have thought you bought him," he said. "They thought he was too good to be true."
I rocked Rolande, gently, by his muzzle, and a man came by. He gave Rolande a sharp knock on his rib cage.
"Fiberglass," he told us.
Jerry was indignant. "It's wood," he snapped. "That's why it's in the woodcarving section."
"Shame they painted it, then," the guy said.
I wanted to take Rolande home at once. I wondered if he would fit in the back of my car if I left the hatchback open. Then I thought of his mane getting ruined in the wind. I wished he could sail home, feet galloping along his own rockers like the horse in the fairy tale. I wished he were a real horse.
I remembered earlier when, standing in the open gate, a cow had reached out her neck and licked my face. For an instant I thought the cow licked me because she loved me. Because I'm lovable. Then I remembered she was a cow. For one instant love from a cow was better than nothing, then the next, it was worse than nothing.
Until it became something again.
You know what’s weird? Even when cows have numbers instead of names, it doesn’t really work to keep a distance. We have had cows I still think of by number, as if that number was as solidly personable as any name. Sometimes I see their number flash up on a digital clock. Imagine it is 2:29, for instance. I can stare at the clock and think only of the markings on the face of my 229 cow and turn away again, never knowing what time it is.
The irony of 47's suicide is that it was successful. She did it with no theatrics, no suicide notes, no calls to 911.
My own wrists began to itch, so I cooled the burning scars on Rolande’s steel grey sides. His eyes were rolling, and I thought of the note in his belly—the story of God watching me blink and his heart going wild with love. Me watching 47 blink and ditto. My rocking horse with this creation story inside him, like something he has written on his own and brought life to.