The cows were curious. They stood close together, unblinking, swatting away the flies with their tales. First it was just a small group of seven. But as we approached, the herd had swelled — reinforcements trotting over from across the paddock to stand with their brethren as if answering an invisible call to arms. Their coats shone a uniform black and their unruly short manes cascaded over large brown eyes framed by long lashes. Some sported short cow licks and fringe above their eyebrows, like they had gotten a visit from a stylist with a penchant for ’80s punk bands. The motley crew towered over the hill, eyeing us with what could only be interpreted as mischief. Upon closer examination, these were not cows at all. There were no udders or testicles in sight. We were facing off with a group of steers. These guys were not dairy farm material. They were destined for dinner tables. Oblivious to their fate, the proud bovines stood still and alert, watching four strangers who have materialized among the tussock grass.
Mel sat down, gesturing for us to follow her lead. As soon as we were crouched in the grass, the herd inched closer. Although three times our size, they seemed unaware of their superiority. Mel gathered a bunch of fresh grass and held it out to the steers in an outstretched arm. Her action caused a stir. The bullocks in the back row wanted to see what was happening in the frontlines, alas from a safe distance. They rose up on their hind legs aiming for a better look, trampling over each other in the process like third graders at the zoo.
Edward lay down in the grass, playing dead. This seemed to reassure the steers. The one closest timidly stepped forward. He towered over us, huge, wet eyes unblinking. A yellow tag hung over his right ear with the number “30”. Thirty bent down and sniffed Mel’s shoulder. She held out the grass. Shy at first, he carefully stretched his thick neck toward the snack and began to chew.
Upon witnessing first contact, the confidence of the group shot up and everyone trotted closer. We were now encircled by the herd. Thirty bent his head toward Mel and she scratched him behind the ear. I stretched my hand and touched his muscled back. His coat was soft and smooth and warm.
He had lived out here his whole life, basking in the summer sun and showering in the rain. Day after day he’d wake up at first light and graze. The grass was plentiful and the little stream at one end of the paddock was always filled with fresh mountain water. To the east he had the view of the black hills and to the west, a valley sparsely dotted with log cabins. Beech forest on the horizon marked the edge of his terrain. At night, he slept under the blanket of stars framed by the mystical glow of the Milky Way. He had no knowledge of what was coming next.
He had no concept of butchers or tanneries or steak houses. No preconceived notions about organic, grass-fed market stalls or Michelin-starred restaurants. No encounters with top chefs who strived daily to perfect their beef bourguignon. No familiarity with fashion houses that ordered luxury handbags crafted from premium leathers dyed millennial pink. No images of city streets where strangers in leather jackets at rush hour hit the pavement in well-heeled boots. No notions of cowhide rugs that sat under Eames chairs and velvet couches, prettifying sparse Scandinavian living rooms.
He didn’t know, and he wasn’t interested. Right now, there was just the setting sun, a fresh bunch of grass and four strangers that have arrived unannounced, breaking up the monotony of a long, languid summer day.