I awaken just as dawn casts its quavering blue light over the valley, chasing away the shadows of the night. Pink tendrils of radiance spread hesitatingly from behind the craggy, snow capped peaks in the east. The thermometer is stuck at zero degrees as I step out into the icy cold morning and my breath fogs in front of my mouth. The crisp snow crunches loudly beneath my boots in the pre-dawn stillness. I see mist hanging mysteriously above the softly gurgling creek as I approach the corral. The gate creaks noisily in the quiet of the morning, and I balance the milk pail on my hip as I latch it shut again.
I stifle a giggle as I see the brown and white spotted Julie standing there, gazing through the fence at me with accusatory brown eyes, whiskers of ice coating her nose and mouth and sticking out crazily in every direction. I grin as I swing the barn door open and set the bucket on the grain bin. I pitch some hay in the manger, amused by the serene pile of snow that as accumulated on the straw from the cracks in the roof. The hens scuttle around in the rafters, sending dust to fly everywhere and choking my breath.
Stepping outside again the frigid air burns my lungs as I inhale. I make friendly conversation with Julie as I open the makeshift gate, thankful for my warm leather gloves. She lumbers out, and I rush to open the barn door, bowing deeply as she walks past, as graceful as a ten ton elephant. She puts her head in the stanchion and tears at the hay as I latch her in and take the stool from the wall. I move the bucket down next to me and pull off my gloves, sucking in my breath as my hands are exposed the frozen air.
I soak a rag in the bucket of hot water and wash and dry her udder. Squirting a few times onto the ground, I pull the bucket under her and hold it in place with my feet. As I squeeze the warm streams of creamy liquid into the bucket, I lean my head against her hairy flank and inhale the fresh smell of milk. The foam in the bucket rises higher and higher.
Julie crunches her hay, and I feel the steady rise and fall of her breathing. My hands continue the rhythmic motion, right squeeze, left squeeze, right squeeze, left squeeze. I raise my head and look out through the chicken wire covering the window, just in time to see an eagle as he glides through the ever lightening sky. I stare down into the bucket again.
My head snaps up suddenly as the sun bursts over the mountainous range to the east. Golden sunlight pierces through the gaps in the walls, bathing us in the glow. Light filters through the window, shedding flecks of gold that dance brilliantly on the log wall.
I smile as the golden warmth of the sun seems to reach into every corner of my soul. My hands coax the few remaining squirts of rich milk into the bucket. Julie strains forward to lick up the last bit of grain. I set aside the full bucket and reach for the balm. I scoop some out and rub the frozen crystals between my fingers to warm it up, making haste as the cold seems to burn me. Then I rub it on Julie’s teats, onto the skin that is chapped and sore from the bitter cold. I wipe off my hands and screw the lid back on. I take the water bucket to the window and toss the soiled water through the chicken wire.
I pause a moment to gaze at the misty creek, crystals of sparkling ice lace the bank. Turning back inside, I heave the bucket onto the grain bin, noting its weight. Much more that yesterday, I think with satisfaction. I release Julie, commending her on her production; she nudges the door with her head and tromps out. I check to make sure everything is in order, and follow, latching the door behind me.
I am dazzled by the light. The sun glistens on the fresh snow, making it sparkle like a thousand diamonds. The geese dip and frolic in the creek, mesmerizing in their gracefulness, I could watch them for hours. The willows, bent over the water, frozen in state, waiting only for the kiss of spring to burst into color. I walk slowly to the house, basking in the beauty. When I open the door to the house I face a wave of welcoming wood heat, and I eagerly warm my frozen fingers before the blazing wood fireplace.