Alistair MacLeod Short Story: Second Spring (1980)

This story is about 30 pages long and–plotwise–almost nothing happens. But the beauty of the story is in the seasonal rhythms and the ordinary routines of every day; the cyclical nature of a farm and the abundance of hope that year-after-year, the farm will sustain the lives of everyone involved, human and animal.

SPOILER: There’s humour in the plotline of this story, contrasting with the sweat, gore, and exhaustion of life on the farm. The basic premise is that a farm boy wants to belong to the “calf club” at school and in order to do so, must be able to prove that his calf is the offspring of a “pure-bred sire.” When he sees the signs that his cow is in heat, he takes her for the long walk to visit with the chosen male. On the way there, however, they are intercepted by another group of cows with a bull among them. This bull quickly notices that the boy’s cow is in heat and the boy can’t do anything to stop what happens next. “He carried his head low as he moved and moaned towards us with strands of bead-like saliva falling from his lower jaw.” Luckily, a man happens by and helps the boy interrupt the unwanted mating, and the boy hurries off to finish the job with the proper bull. Now, he can only wait and hope that the pure-bred’s seed triumphs over the other. “All winter I watched her anxiously and nervously, almost as if I were the young expectant father.” END OF SPOILER

MacLeod makes winter on the farm sound most inviting: cozy and restful.

If you ventured into the silent barn at night the wave of their communal warmth rolled out to meet you at the creaking, opened door and the sound of the different rhythms of their breathing rose and fell in the softened darkness. If the flashlight was flicked on, or the carried lantern raised, the luminous eyes of those who were awakened glowed from their stalls and across their mangers, and then various sounds seemed to respond to the presence of the light; the creak of the wooden stanchion posts rubbed by the necks of restless cattle, the murmured grunt of half-asleep pigs, the nickering snort of horses, the zing of suddenly tightened rope or leather, the jangling of moving halter chains.

Inside the winter house the dogs and cats lay like scattered rugs beneath the kitchen couches and under dining tables or stretched at length behind the wood-filled stoves. At night my dog Laddie lay across my feet; a warm and living comforter whose heartbeat could be felt through the fabric of the bedclothes.

In contrast, summer sounds agonizing: “During the summer months, while the animals grew sleek and fat and haughty, we, their human owners, would grow thin and burned and irritable.”

In addition to the seasons, there is the cycle of life on the farm, from birth to death, whose descriptions evoke a visceral response. MacLeod doesn’t shy away from the gruesome details.

Sometimes we would draw lines on its trusting head with a crayon.

As the blood gushed from the slashed throats, we would gather it in pans so that it might later be used for blood puddings.

The contents of the body would generally spill into a huge washtub and we would sort them out in their steaming warmth with bloodied slippery hands.

I read this story along with Marcie and her Alistair MacLeod reading project. You can find her thoughts on the story here.

15 thoughts on “Alistair MacLeod Short Story: Second Spring (1980)

  1. Marcie McCauley says:

    That line about the crayon is so powerful. The idea that this child is narrating the story, so the crayon feels like a mark of innocence, but it’s also drawing a line used to execute this other innocent creature. I got stuck on that page for awhile.
    In contrast, I loved to imagine all the dogs and cats indoors like that. A beautiful image. And warm and heavy.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! Even more than all the blood and guts, that crayon line really got to me. But I also wanted to show how beautifully he wrote about the blood and guts. I could just feel them slipping through my fingers.
      There were a lot of contrasting images in this story: winter/summer, sun/rain, life/death, young/old, serious/funny, light/heavy, work/play, cozy and safe/about to be killed….

  2. wadholloway says:

    I spent a summer working on a dairy farm and once stood between a jersey bull and a cow on heat. Not a safe place to be! I leapt a fence as the bull thundered past. I went to some pretty rural schools – one even had its own farm – but I can’t imagine a “calf club”.

    • Naomi says:

      I love that story! My cow story isn’t quite as dramatic… My sister and I were playing in the field with the cows (we were both under the age of 10) and one of the cows (a cow, not a bull) decided she’d had enough of us and chased us up a tree. We sat up there for a long time before the cow finally walked away. Happily, it was a russet tree that was in season, so we munched away on russets while we waited!

  3. annelogan17 says:

    Every once in a while I love a good story where nothing happens – the observations are enough to make a beautiful story! Although i love that he’s also included humour here…

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