"Excuse me?" I asked. Ollie looked up from his book in at least mild surprise.
"Lambs and kids," Rick explained. "A group of them were born a few weeks ago? Three lambs and two kids didn't make it."
"Oh, that's sad," said Ollie, mildly. "The same thing happened last year."
"So now we're eating them?" I asked. I moved my own bishop, and suddenly realized I was going to lose the game. I didn't know how, yet, but I just had that feeling.
"Waste not, want not," said Rick, shrugging, taking my bishop.
"Wait, I thought they gave birth in April? They did last year, right? Dern it, that was my bishop!"
"It sure wasn't mine," Rick told me, smiling.
"'Dern it'? You said 'dern it'?" Ollie asked me, smiling. "You're getting to sound like me."
"Not cursing is contagious. Anyway, what about April?"
"You drank milk last February, didn't you? Where did you think it came from?" Rick said.
"From goats and sheep? What, I don't know these things work."
Rick laughed at me, a sort of a grunt of a laugh. He was in a bad mood, for whatever reason, and I didn't appreciate his jeering. Or his winning the game. I moved a pawn. He took it. Of course, I knew we hadn't had any fresh milk for over three months, I just hadn't stopped to think about the logistics of dairy production. I felt like an idiot. I still didn't understand about April, though. Ollie took pity on me and explained.
"Goats can wean at eight weeks, sheep in five, so they breed some of the ewes and does in August so they'll give birth at the beginning of January so we can start getting milk when the new students get here. But the mortality rate is always high, and anyway, after a few months production drops off a lot. So they have a second kidding and lambing in April to freshen more milkers and produce most of our slaughter animals for the fall."
"You know what I don't understand?" said Rick, while I tried a daring raid on his king with my castle. "Why don't they just routinely slaughter the January lambs and kids in January? Then we wouldn't have to heat the barns, we wouldn't need as much hay, and we'd get more milk for ourselves?" He looked back over the board for a moment and took my castle with his bishop. He didn't say so, but he'd put me in check. I looked at the board for a while and then resigned.
"You don't think the lambs and kids should have some time to live?" asked Ollie. He'd put his book down and was looking at the board. He'd asked to play the winner. He is a lot better at chess than I am.
"Why?" Rick replied, a bit exasperated. "Plenty of newborn animals die. If they were wild, a coyote might take them, or a bobcat. Or me, if I were hungry enough. What's the difference? The farmers thin out newborn plants, no problem."
"I forgot," said Ollie, starting to catch Rick's bad mood, "Charlie teaches you to be natural and heartless, doesn't he?" Rick and I locked eyes with each other a moment. We didn't have to say anything. We both wear the deer knife, after all. He opened his mouth to reply, and I cut him off before he could say something he might regret later.
"Well, what is the difference, Ollie?" I asked. "Why is human predation different than animal predation? Why is culling a newborn animal different than thinning out a newly sprouted plant?"
Ollie sat back in his chair, the intellectual problem calming him and engaging his attention.
"I don't know," he began. "I suppose the plant/animal thing is pure bias on our part." He was quiet for a few minutes. "Unless it has something to do with the organism's own survival strategy? Plants have more offspring than animals do, so maybe the individual plant offspring are less important?" He frowned. "But applying human values to animals and plants is screwy. I'm not sure there's any way to do it that makes sense. I suppose, we have to look at as--maybe that's at least why human predation is different? Either way a lamb dies, but when a human does it the act comes under the jurisdiction of our morality?"
I thought I knew what he meant, and I thought maybe it was a good answer, but I don't think Rick did.
"But you're forgetting that half the babies die anyway," he said.
"But we don't kill them," replied Ollie.
"Yes, we do!" insisted Rick. "We kill them when we decide to make them be born in January!"
"No, we don't. We put them at risk, but we try to save them."
"But it isn't a surprise that we eat babies, is it? If the farm were a separate business, the loss of the January lambs and kids would be built into the business plan. We're culpable."
"Excuse me?" I interjected, "but, why are you two arguing about this? Do either of you actually disagree with the way we manage the farm animals?"
They both blinked.
"No, I don't disagree," said Rick. "I just think it would be simpler if we slaughtered them ourselves."
"That's true, that is where you started," said Ollie. "So why were you arguing that it's a bad thing now?"
"I'm not arguing that it's bad. I'm culpable for everything I do. I just want to acknowledge it."
"Well, I acknowledge that, to the extent that I'm involved in the decision at all, I am culpable for the deaths of these animals, but I do not think that putting an animal at risk of dying is the same thing, morally, as killing it." Ollie may have been offering an olive branch. Or, he might not. Arguing isn't hostility for him, it's a way to connect, a way to have a true meeting of the minds.
Ordinarily, I agree with him. Ordinarily, Rick agrees with him. Rational argument isn't the same thing as fighting. I've learned that here. But however rational Rick was being, he was also in a foul mood. And, however rational his words, I kind of thought the combative subtext needed to take a break. But--how to say so?
The others were heading into the Bird Room for dinner, a buffet tonight. I could indeed smell meat cooking, an unusual thing here, even in winter.
"Well, shall, we eat, gentlemen?" I supplied