At five thirty in the morning, I can´t see the dirt on my pants as I pull them on, slowly. I can´t tell how dark my eyes are, or how rustled my hair is after a night under thick wool blankets. I hear a pig squeal, dogs bark, and the sky tentatively gives way to the rising sun. I step gingerly into my rubber boots as the house dogs launch themselves up to my knees, then make my way to the stable, careful to duck under clothes lines and cedar limbs. Hilario, one of the two foremen who live on the farm with their families (eleven children running wild every afternoon), meets me at the barn with his nine-year-old son, Manolo. On Thursday, he wears a neon pink scarf above his gray sweater to stave off the early chill. Very stylish. Manolo and I trod up to the upper field where the cows are still laying in the dawn. We circle round each of them, hissing and clapping to rouse their massive bodies until every one but Abuela has risen. One by one, clunky and stubborn, they make their way down to the low paddock as we whack their bony hips and jump around to keep them from backtracking. There are about twelve cows in all, but we only let four pass through the barbed wire gate to the milking shed. It collapses as I pull the first pole out of the ground, hand-cut branches falling amid the curly wire. Abuela and Fortuna trot ahead of the other two milkers. They each know where to go and calmly prod their necks through the grates in the feeding line, eager to munch on a loose stack of fresh alfalfa and apathetic toward their captivity once they begin chewing.
Manolo throws damp, filthy nylon cord around the first cow´s hind feet and tail, pulling it tight so that she can´t kick us as we crouch at her utter. We splash her teats with water, wipe them with an equally filthy rag, and settle into our haunches on either side of her bulging, pregnant waist. The first splashes of milk piddle out from my side as Manolo sends loud jets into the balde. The first few times I milked were like that the whole time, with Manolo finding cups more milk on my side after I had tired. This morning, though, after a few weak splashes, I begin to find a rhythm. I knew to hold the teat with my fingers at its center rather than wrapped fully round, and I could feel the steady downward flow of milk under my grasp. Hilario and Manolo have been doing this twice every day for two years, and their hands move fluidly, fingers waving the milk down the teat and into a strong, thick jet that bounces and froths in the bucket below. My technique is still amateur, but this dawn I finally feel what they do: the insistent, regenerative pulse of milk under my fingers.
I quickly pull the bucket aside as the cow stomps her back feet and wails, inevitably freeing herself from the tether. She´s looking back at me with wide black eyes. Does this hurt her? Is it anything like the sucking of her calf? Manolo ties her legs again and kneels to let out the last of the milk. His hands tug almost violently over the last spurting milk, and I inhale the scent of cream and shit wafting through the shed. Hilario flips the light off for the expanding daylight. Eight liters from the first. We´ll get twenty-six altogether this morning, giving a liter or two to each family and the volunteers and selling the rest at thirty-five cents a liter.
I stand, clenching and unclenching my sore fists, looking forward to the moment when I stir instant coffee granules into this milk, boiling and frothy, and watch a spoonful of sugar dissolve into its creamy, shit-laced sabor.