A Christmas carol

To set the scene: it is just barely December 25th, around 1:30 in the morning. I’m out with Mrs. Bella Bang for that last walk before bed. We walk out past the sheltering yellow streetlights, into a narrow lane leading out into farmland. It’s dark and quiet. We don’t bother with the flashlight because we know the way, and the moonlight is just enough for us to avoid the ditch. There’s a field on our left which is generally empty during the day, though sometimes we see cows in it at a distance — brown ones, with horns (but still of the lady variety, yes). Tonight, though, they are here by the road.

We don’t even realize it at first, because they are almost silent. Mrs. Bang and I both freeze and stare into the darkness when the sighing night wind becomes a deep, breathy sigh from an animal obviously much larger than we are, very close by.

The lane dips down here between two fields, so we look up about 8 feet to the few weathered posts and two lines of wire that pass for a fence, and see against a dark sky the darker outline of a huge horned head.

Then there’s a small popping, tearing sound as another one tears out a clump of grass 10 feet off to the right. I can’t see this one, but I can hear it there, and now that we’re keeping silent ourselves, I can hear hints of 4 or 5 cows standing around that part of the fence. Maybe more, further back.

Mrs. Bang and I stand there for awhile, listening to them breathing. It’s a strange experience, especially in the dark; where I grew up, the biggest animals around were generally human. The biggest non-people were pretty much just house pets. Larger animals were mostly confined to the zoo and out of reach. I met a few horses, but not with the regularity that could breed familiarity.

So my first thought is half-fearful. If just one of them chooses to jump this way, we won’t even have time to jump out of the way, and the rusted wire sure won’t stop them. Cows are not always docile animals, either — they can be extremely protective of their calves, and here in Limousin the calves are allowed to stay with the mothers for months.

But they obviously aren’t disturbed by our presence, so I relax. After a moment, the breathing in the darkness becomes oddly comforting — echoes of being one of the littler creatures myself, with larger adults around to watch over things. So I project a motherly kindness onto them, in the close darkness. We trade small talk in hushed tones.

Why are they over here by the fence at 1:30 in the morning? Don’t they have a barn to go home to at night? No real reply. Do they have Christmas stockings hung by the chimney with care? They perk up their ears, perhaps (I can’t tell for sure, in the dark).

I’m heading into eccentricity, I know, but not a mouse is stirring except for them and us, we’re wrapped up in the darkness, and it’s Christmas day. I ask if they’ve been singing Christmas carols, and get a quizzical reply. You know, music? They are unsure.

So I put on my best Nat King Cole croon, and start: “Chestnuts, roasting on an open fire….” Mrs. Bang notes to herself that this behavior smacks of lunacy, but is too polite to interrupt.

Partway through, I chide myself for not thinking quickly enough to alter the references on their behalf — somehow work in sweet timothy grass instead of a turkey and some mistletoe? Calves instead of tiny tots? But it’s too late, I can’t juggle the words quickly enough to get them to scan, and they get the standard version.

No applause, though that’s to be expected (you know, hooves). We thank them for their kind attention (and they have been attentive), wish them a pleasant night and Merry Christmas, and move along.

It’s time we got some sleep.

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