Long, long ago, a rabbi told a story about a selfish young man who demanded his share of his father’s wealth and spent it in riotous living. When the money was spent and hard times came, the young man went home to beg his father for a place as a hired hand. The father was overjoyed that his son had returned and had a feast prepared in the youth’s honor.
But the rabbi did not tell the whole story, for reasons that will become clear…
Gevira had known this day would come. She had seen the men give her young son, Shai, more food than any of the other calves, and she knew nothing good could come of it.
But knowing a thing will happen does not prepare one for living through it, and Gevira watched in mute horror as two of the men, smiling and laughing, laid their hands on Shai and walked away with him. Just before she lost sight of her calf, Gevira bellowed as loudly as she could.
“I love you, Shai!”
Shai turned his head back toward his mother. “I love you, too, Mommy!” he called back cheerfully, unaware.
After that, the men had ceased to laugh and there was silence for a time.
Gevira hung her head in her stall and remembered her son as her heart broke.
That evening, she was absently thankful that the breeze had changed direction so that she did not have the scent of her roasted child in her nostrils. She also absently noted Alon, the master’s oldest son, was wandering around nearby in the barnyard. He looked as angry as she was sad. He leaned up against her stall and stared into the growing darkness, taking no notice of her untouched food.
“My son?” the master called. “Alon?”
Alon sighed. “I am here, Father.”
The old man hove into sight. “Alon, why are you not rejoicing with us? Why are you here?”
“What is there to rejoice about, Father?” Alon snapped. “I come back from working in your fields all day, in the hot sun, and what do I find? Music and dancing and feasting. Because that idiot brother of mine is back. The idiot brother who threw away the inheritance he demanded from you.
“Noam tells me he came to you as a beggar, his money spent. And do you rebuke him? Do you send him away? Do you even so much as tell him to go live with the servants? No! You treat him as a visiting prince.”
“My son…” Elad began, but Alon was not finished.
“I’ve done everything you have ever asked of me without a word of protest. Yet you have never given me so much as a goat’s kid to make merry with my friends, and yet when Matan returns from his debaucheries you kill the fatted calf and call in the neighbors to celebrate.”
Alon did not notice Gevira turn her head away at the mention of her sacrificed son.
“Alon, my son, my firstborn,” Elad said gently, “I love you, and all that I have is yours.” He took Alon’s hands in his own. “But I thought your brother was dead, and now he is home, alive and well. How can I not be glad? How can I not rejoice that I have both my sons here again? Please. Come. Come celebrate Matan’s return. Let me delight in having both my sons under my roof once more.”
Alon had never denied his father anything, nor could he remain angry with him. “Yes, Father,” he said quietly. “I shall be in soon.”
Elad hugged Alon and kissed his cheek, then returned to the house.
Alon stood a moment longer, trying to rein in his anger at Matan. He looked at Gevira. “You can’t be any happier about this than I am.”
And Gevira turned her head and stared hard at Alon, and he was surprised at the depth of emotion in the cow’s eyes. He felt an understanding pass between them, though he could not possibly have expressed it in words.
“I will not feast on your son,” he promised her.
Gevira held Alon’s gaze another moment, and then turned away from him again. Alon went toward the house, thinking hard.
It was only the next day that Gevira saw Matan. He looked a little older than he did when he left home, and a little worse for the wear. But a good meal, she thought bitterly, and a good night’s sleep had done something to restore him.
Matan wandered around his father’s estates that day and the next, and pitched in to help his brother and the other workers at every opportunity.
On the third day, Matan came to Gevira’s stall to milk her.
“Keshet has to help elsewhere,” he announced to the cow, “so I offered to milk you this morning to help her. I haven’t done this since I was young and thought it looked like fun, but I think I remember how.”
And the cause of her son’s death laid his hands on Gevira and began to pull the milk from her. She suffered this affront silently, offering no word of protest, no indication of her hatred. She stood and waited.
He finished at long last, after pulling on her entirely too hard. He set the milk pail to one side and shook out his hands. “That’s not a job to do occasionally,” he said, sitting back from Gevira’s side.
Gevira’s back right leg lashed forward and caught Matan’s head. He flew away from her and landed hard in the dirt of her stall. He made no sound.
At length, a couple of the servants happened along. When they saw Matan on the ground, they rushed to him and assessed his injuries. They lifted him as gently as they could and rushed toward the house, yelling.
Before long, wailing filled the air, and a wailing man ran toward the fields.
That evening, just before the setting of the sun, Alon appeared at Gevira’s stall.
“My brother is dead,” he told the cow. “Your revenge is complete.”
Within two days, Alon took Gevira to the farm of a friend where she would be safe from Elad’s wrath. Alon lied to his father for the only time, telling the old man that the cow that killed Matan was dead.
And Gevira lived to an old age for a cow, always missing her son, her Shai, but taking comfort that she had avenged him.