Yield by Jolene McIlwain
In her short nonfiction flash, “Yield,” Jolene McIlwain braids traumatic memories of childbirth and lactation with childhood memories of farm life and milking cows. “I could not milk,” she opens, describing the blood loss she suffered during emergency childbirth in concrete imagery (“blood spilt onto the operating room floor, bespattered to the sides of the portable X-ray machine”) and shifting to the farm when she concludes, “I would have been culled within hours, had I been a cow.”
McIlwain’s language is always visceral and sensory, firmly grounded in place. At the dairy farm, she hears “machines sucking in chorus” in the barn, and the “rhythm of milk hitting the bucket” when a sick cow on antibiotics is milked by hand. “We placed three quarters wrapped up in a dollar in the can by the sink,” she writes. “Dad tightened the cap, wiped the jug with a rag, whistling. He clicked off the light. Crickets said, ‘Teat, teat, teat, teat,’ as we walked to the milking parlor to say goodbye to the father-and-son farmers in coveralls, to the cats by the entry slurping up the white liquid pay they received for keeping the barn free of mice.” Even the smallest details (“teat,” “white liquid pay”) underscore her theme.
In a meditation on narrative voice and structure, McIlwain writes of studying the “voices, tones, gestures” of her family’s stories, which were “circular” and “elliptical” rather than “linear.” “Yield” circles back to her “morphine haze” and fears about antibiotics after childbirth. “That ailing cow, stunned, out of place, and sore,” she comments in her author’s note, “was not so unlike me and how I felt in the ICU, separated from my newborn son, expected to nurse.” Reaching out to other women with similar experiences, she describes how the story of her trauma and shame, locked up for so long, “spilled out” after a writing prompt, another sort of “yield.” —CRAFT
Content Warnings—cesarean section, traumatic birth
I could not milk. Was it due to upset levels of oxytocin, prolactin, beta-endorphin? May have been the morphine pump I kept firing like a trigger from my hospital bed in the postlabor/delivery room. Maybe it was too much blood spilt onto the operating room floor, bespattered to the sides of the portable X-ray machine that snapped radiographic proof that no foreign objects—hemostats, sponges, needles—had been left inside where the placenta once abrupted, where my son had once swum? Too much blood loss can lessen yield in those early postpartum days. I would have been culled within hours, had I been a cow.
Cows out the road milk for four or five years with high LDYs (lifetime daily yields), barring disease, lameness, infertility. Their calves are taken away after twenty-four hours and from then on, they milk to the pump, not to their young. I learned about the calves being taken away when I was ten, when I leaned over the vat at the Cooper farm while my dad skimmed the cream off the top with a ladling pan and poured it through a funnel into the glass jug. So much swirling in that bath of milk, but he dared not spill a drop. It would have been sinful.
We placed three quarters wrapped up in a dollar in the can by the sink. Dad tightened the cap, wiped the jug with a rag, whistling. He clicked off the light. Crickets said, “Teat, teat, teat, teat,” as we walked to the milking parlor to say goodbye to the father-and-son farmers in coveralls, to the cats by the entry slurping up the white liquid pay they received for keeping the barn free of mice.
One night we watched Mr. Cooper milk a cow on antibiotics by hand. Mastitis, he said. My dad nodded. I’d never heard that word or that sound, the rhythm of milk hitting the bucket. How full her udders. How still she stood, except for her tail waving, except for her mouth chewing pelleted feed. A row of other cows stood in a separate section of the parlor, the machines sucking in chorus. So much of their milk never reaching their young.
Better to milk to something other than your young or never to have milked at all?
While I was still in the ICU, my son coded the first time they fed him, so they attached his foot vessel to a pump, streaming glucose to him as needed. A day later, still no milk let down. Five days later, packing for discharge, they taught me how to wrap my breasts with ACE bandages, like they were sprained. By this time, I was the cow whose milk could not be mixed with the rest. Two antibiotics coursing through my blood—one as a precaution for all that the trauma may have spilled inside me, and one for a staph infection from my IV.
My milk never came in. My son was a calf stripped away and fed milk replacer, then moved slowly to starter feed.
My lifetime daily yield: none.
JOLENE MCILWAIN’s recent work appears in The Florida Review, West Branch, The Cincinnati Review, New Orleans Review, Fractured Lit, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Janus Literary, LITRO, Prime Number Magazine, and Prairie Schooner’s Sports Shorts, among other journals. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize and appears in The Best Small Fictions: 2019 Anthology. Jolene’s forthcoming short story collection, set in the Appalachian Plateau of Western Pennsylvania where she was born, raised, and currently lives, will be published by Melville House. Find her on Twitter @jolene_mcilwain.
Featured image by Ronnie Overgoor courtesy of Unsplash