What I Knew

Author: Tabea Steiner
Translator: Jozef van der Voort


It must have been September; I was six, maybe seven, when my father asked, Do you want to come with me?

A cow was very ill and had to be sent for emergency slaughter. I stroked her fever-cool nose, rubbed the white patch on her forehead, gazed into those big eyes with their long lashes. Then my father led the animal into the trailer, where she lay down on the floor. He bolted the door and lifted me onto the child seat mounted on the fender above the huge tractor wheel. I had to hold on tight, and all through the journey my little boots clattered against the vibrating metal.

The butcher was waiting for us outside the abattoir. Everything was ready. I looked round the clean, tiled room as my father brought in the cow. By now, every step was a struggle for her, but I don’t remember her being in mortal terror. Perhaps she was just too tired.

Out, the butcher said to me, his bolt gun in hand, so I crept off and went round to the window, where I stood on tiptoe to watch the butcher cock the bolt and pull the trigger; saw the cow crumple, big and heavy. She jerked a few times, and then she was dead.
The door flew open; the butcher came rushing out and boxed my ears. I can remember his hand and his thick, endless, beige-grey plastic apron, but where his face should be is a blank in my memory.

Come on, said my father. He took my hand, put me back in the child seat, said goodbye to the butcher and drove off. After a while he turned on to a narrow country lane, stopped the tractor and switched off the engine.

The butcher didn’t want you to see the cow die, my father said. Then he turned to look at me. Do you understand?

I didn’t understand. I knew the cow had to die, and I knew why as well, but I didn’t understand why I shouldn’t see what I already knew. Besides, I was used to a lot of things from life on the farm where I grew up.

I knew what it meant when the cows in the field jumped on each other’s backs. They did that when they were in heat. A vet would be summoned with his case of pipettes. Together with my father he would select one of the tubes before pulling on a thin plastic glove that went up past his elbow. Then he guided the pipette full of semen into the cow and tossed the soiled plastic into the bin. Nine and a half months later, the cow gave birth to a calf.

As soon as the tips of the calf’s little yellow hooves began to protrude from the cow’s vulva, my brother had to fetch the two-handled iron calving chain. This was wrapped around the hooves, and my father would haul on it in time with the labouring cow. A nose would appear, followed by a head, and then an ear would flop out. At this point it wouldn’t be long before the whole calf appeared.

I knew that no one would send me to bed until the new arrival had been seen to, and calves often came into the world late at night. But I was still too little to make myself useful, and so nobody noticed me standing by the wall of the cowshed in my wellingtons and pyjamas. Sometimes I wore one of my father’s old coats draped over my shoulders.

From a safe distance, but still close enough, I watched my grandmother rub down the bloody, tousled calf with a bundle of straw to stimulate its circulation. When it had stopped trembling, she left it to its mother and went to the kitchen, where she boiled several litres of red wine, cracked a few eggs and stirred everything together with plenty of sugar and spices – cloves for sure, maybe nutmeg too. She poured this mixture into the exhausted animal, which drained it in one go and then drank several buckets of water. After that, the cow started to lick the calf clean, revealing the pattern on its soft hair.

In the meantime, my father sexed the calf. Really good dairy cows were only ever impregnated with high-quality semen. When my father opted for expensive semen from a good stud bull, it put him in a bad mood if the resulting calf was male. If a cow only needed to be inseminated in order to go back into dairy production, it didn’t matter what sex the calf was, and a cheaper sire would generally be chosen.

When cows have just given birth, their milk tastes unpleasant for a time and has to be kept out of the tank. One day, Grandma decided I was old enough to learn how to make this beestings into chocolate mousse. First I had to gather some eggs from the chicken coop. I was the best person for this particular job as I could crawl under the laying pen, where the hens sometimes hid their eggs when they didn’t want to give them up. Then I strapped on the one-legged milking stool and milked the cow by hand. I loved doing that because cows have a hollow place between their belly and their udders where you can rest your forehead and keep it warm. But when I was nearly finished and the pail was almost full, the cow lashed out and kicked it over. The thick, dark-yellow milk trickled into the finely chopped straw.

I was allowed to draw some fresh white milk from the tank, which I poured into a pan. Then I melted the chocolate and cracked the eggs. One of the yolks had a patch of dark-red slime in it, which meant it had been fertilised. Whisk it quickly, Grandma said as she turned on the oven. Then you won’t have to look at it.

We had a cock in the chicken coop; Grandma said it made the hens easier to keep. But we never hatched any chicks. We bought our young hens from a battery farm where they were separated from the young cockerels, which were surplus to requirements. That was how I knew that the chicken on my dinner plate and the schnitzel we ate on Sundays usually came from a male animal.
And I also knew that the rabbits I reared and fed with grass and pellets until they reached a certain weight, and which I then loaded into a wicker basket and took to the butcher in the neighbouring village on my bike, would eventually land on someone’s plate somewhere. That was how I earned my pocket money.

I grew up with my grandmother, and I was well aware that she was my father’s mother, and that he in turn was the father of my brother and me. My grandmother took care of me, and most nights she made sure I went to bed on time.

She insisted that my brother and I never slept in the same room, but we eventually started to rebel against this stricture because we always had so much to discuss and to tell each other. We talked about how we’d seen the next-door neighbour’s breasts while she nursed her baby in the garden during the fine weather. And we wondered why I wasn’t allowed to run around in my vest in summer while my brother was allowed to take his off altogether. Grandma only ever told us that it was because of the old man who also lived next door.

We racked our brains over how the neighbour, who was a talking point for the entire village, could have had a baby when she didn’t even have a husband. And when I finally learned how to read, I asked my brother what the word ‘sex’ meant, which I’d seen in the newspaper. Grandma hadn’t wanted to explain it to me; she’d said it was only for grown-ups.

One day, another farmer came over after lunch with a copy of the newspaper. She sat with my grandmother in front of the house and they chatted about the news, but when they noticed me, they fell silent. I’d been listening in, however, and I’d already heard them speaking indignantly about this new era in which a woman could report her husband to the police just because his natural urges had got the better of him.

I crept away again, wandered past the calves and snaffled a handful of their milk powder, which I liked because it tasted like white chocolate. Then I sat on the ground behind the blackberry bush, as I always did when it was warm and dry enough and I had something to ponder. I knew that my grandmother had good intentions and that she wanted to protect me. But I didn’t understand why she and the farmer had gone quiet, and I still didn’t know why I wasn’t allowed to run around in my vest. I didn’t understand why not only Grandma, but my father and the butcher and everyone else in the village always made such a secret of everything. But above all, I didn’t understand why there were things I wasn’t supposed to know when I could already see them anyway.

Only much later, when I had grown up and my grandmother was very old, did she tell me how her own brother had come on to her years ago when she was starting to become a woman.

But when I was still a child, I already knew that the old man next door had wanted to marry my grandmother after my grandfather died very young. He had ended up marrying another woman instead. Yet only when my grandmother and the old man were both dead did it emerge that he had spent years abusing his daughter. I don’t know if my grandmother knew about it, or what exactly she knew if she did.

And I can’t ask my father anymore either.


From Frauen erfahren Frauen, ed. Jil Erdmann.  Zurich: Verlag sechsundzwanzig, 2021.  Published by permission of Agentur Poppenhusen, Berlin.