It has been a rule of mine never to touch the dead, afraid I might catch death. Yet I’ve a double standard for I’ve often buried calves myself.
The outhouse contained a sickly heat which hit me as I opened the sheeted white door. The straw within was beginning to smell, the golden stalks, a few days before crisp and fresh, were now a browning mulch that squelched underfoot. I hadn’t been inside since it had happened. The winter, like a gypsy, brings with it bad luck. It hangs in the air, you can see it when you breathe out on early mornings.
She hadn’t moved, our little black. She lay impassive, impassive to what had happened, shock had taken her and made her scared, so scared she had forgotten how to stand. I wanted her to get better. “Come on girl,” I muttered softly, half in despair, the other in hope. Mother came with holy water and I followed suit under cover of darkness.
All animals live the laws of their species, they know no pity yet they know bereavement. I think now, looking back, it was bereavement that killed our little black, not the penetrative bolt and knife of the abattoir worker.
Animals are not like us, yet they have memory. They know where to go for water, where the best grass can be found. To my mind that memory denotes thought. Is that thought reason, or is it all under the mysterious banner of instinct?
The little black was born on our farm over eight years ago. Her mother was a Polly, her father a powerful French Charolais bull called the Master. She was delivered on a winter’s night under a buzzing yellow florescent bulb. It was my job to hold her mother’s tail upright while my father searched for a pair of tiny hoofs. The end of the cow’s tail had cakes of hardened shit on it.
The cow and my father breathed heavily. She was searching the walls for an exit as he searched her for the little black. Sweat gathered on his forehead, this task was not a new one to him but every birth brought with it its own issues; each cow had their own temperament and character. If it had been one of the big Simmental cattle we need only have looked in on her from time to time to see how it was going, but as it was, the Polly was a small, quiet heifer and the little black her first calf.
“Ah,” my father smiled happily as a little yellow hoof emerged with the jack rope around it, “That’s one.”
“Other rope,” he called out, not looking at me.
I was picking the cakes of shit out of the cow’s tail lost in the importance of my own little job. Shit. Cats cover their own by scraping earth over it, men swear by theirs.
“HELLO, other fucking rope!” my father spat out looking at me now, under duress as the cow struggled with the pains of labour. Coming to my senses I let the tail go, grabbed the rope and quickly fumbled to catch the tail again. My father’s face grew impatient, his forehead wrinkled.
“Pray that you’re good at them books, you’re no fucking farmer!”
He didn’t mean that, I said to myself, he is just under pressure, we’ll get the new calf and then have late-night sugary tea, with rashers and mushroom sandwiches.
The other foot emerged. I lifted the calving jack awkwardly into place. It was bigger than me at the time, though between my legs I was becoming a man.
“Good man, John.” No other words were now spoken save those uttered out of pressure and strength.
I was to get the calf and pull it out from behind the cow’s feet in case she would “go down”, and then pour water in the calf’s ears to wake her up. With a plop the calf fell from its mother’s vaginal embrace. I quickly grabbed its feet and pulled it into fresh bedding. The calf’s tongue hung limply from the side of its mouth; pink and raw. I poured water into her ears and the tongue curled in shock. Taking a stalk of straw from the ground my father stuck it into the calf’s nostrils and it spluttered, coughed, and came to moving life.
Lifting the calf’s back leg gently, he announced with a smile, “A heifer, a little black”.
Her mother struggled impatiently to get to her. My father consented with a nod and I let her out of the calving pen. She turned to see her babe gently, tender. A little stable scene of our own. Though it had been played out countless times in countless badly lit sheds, one always had a cleansed feeling about the process.
The little black had not yet learned to stand, and she would start and end her life the same way, rooted to the earth. Odd that I thought of her birth now. Here in all places. But it comes in threes I suppose.
She had spent her life with us, had trudged the hills of Clonfin and the pastures of Cillnacarrow. I had known her from calf to cow, but had she known me? Did her eyes register me, as I did her? Did they differentiate me from the whitewash of the outhouse wall or the oak posts of the bull wire fencing?
The winter is a time of change. The cows are brought inside, nature slows down and the sun seems to shine only grudgingly, when it can spare us a thought. There is still beauty to be found, though, in the wind-ruffled puddles and the death-dishevelled earth.
The little black went into labour on a Sunday evening in December. There was nothing to be overly concerned about, she had matured into a fine animal and had calved many times before. We housed her in a quiet shed bedded for the occasion and closed the sheeted door to keep her in. She never came out.
Every action on a farm is carried out in the present but the results are found in the future; the planting of seeds, the harvesting of crops. They are done so often they become ritual. That’s why the farmer is cast as ignorant and backward – his actions in the future, his ideas in the shadows of the past.
The birthing of a calf, too, has its own procedure. A bucket of water put in place to rinse the calf and clean the man, the calving jack assembled and made ready, and a small amount of Jeyes Fluid to disinfect the navel.
The patron saint of animals is St Francis of Assisi. On his deathbed it was said he thanked his donkey for carrying him through life and the donkey wept. My mother had two fixations in her life, a devotion to St Francis and an obsession with the weather. The saint himself was embodied in our house in a chipped and worn statue. His nose, long broken off, gave his plaster face a skull-like quality. Kept on the top shelf in the kitchen, he was taken down only when animals were in labour. A mini vigil of birth on the kitchen counter, a candle placed before his loving, deathly face.
I knew there was something wrong when, after an hour, my father hadn’t come inside. He was suffering with a cold at the time so you’d hear his barking cough before you saw him. The little black had been “sick of calving”, as my father put it, for over three hours. A small slime hung from her passage but no feet had appeared. In birth, the calf’s hoofs are soft and yellow, only turning a pale, hard white after a few days. It is part of the reason why calves find it hard to stand at first, their legs never having touched the earth are perched upon four jelly stumps.
When we both returned to the shed my father’s spluttering startled the already anxious little black. We assumed our positions. I can’t remember the next few moments clearly but it seemed a silent eternity passed by. There was only the steady heavy breathing of the little black breaking the silence like a giant metronome, her barrel chest rising and falling in time. My father sighed, pulled out his hands and wrung them dry.
“Fucking coming back ways. Peg us a rope there,” he motioned with his head.
Eventually two soft yellow hooves breached the night air. A small white rope tied like dainty ribbons around each.
“Fuck, I don’t know will we get him . . . take this rope.”
We both pulled. The little black cried out, her calls answered moments later by the cattle in a distant shed. She edged backwards pushing at some invisible force as if trying to push the calf back inside, to keep this pain from coming out. Her back legs grew weak and she began to go down.
“STOP, stop,” my father half-heartedly called out.
The ropes had burned our hands, the cow was in pain and my father was coughing.
‘Go in . . . and tell your mother . . . to call the vet,” he managed through his wheeze.
“Da, I think we might get him, her passage isn’t big enough yet, maybe a bit more time.” With that the little black moaned once again. My father tilted his head and raised his eyebrows in mock fashion, as if to say, there’s your answer.
The vet was an elderly man and had a stale, spent smell about him, like a pub the morning after. He was miserly and blunt with his words until he knew you well. He and my father talked freely about “characters” I didn’t know, and who had died since they last met.
The vet became quiet during his examination of the little black. Probing and checking, listening and checking. Pulling off his used, transparent glove he threw it on the ground like a spent condom.
“Calf is dead,” he announced in a matter of a fact tone that told you he wasn’t expecting a reply to the statement, the same way you might hear a waiter call an order into the kitchen, “Calf is dead for table four, no onions.”
“Will the cow be all right?” my father asked, after a moment of silence.
“Shouldn’t see why not, no need to do a Caesarean now.’
Another silence ensued.
We took up the ropes again and settled the calving jack on the little black’s hips. We began to winch the small feet out under the guidance of the vet. The sound of metal gears grated through the air and the calf fell from the little black’s embrace. Instinctively I pulled it into fresh bedding. My father lifted its hind leg; a bull. It limply fell back into place.
“Shame,” he said, and went into a bad coughing fit.
There it lay the unwanted Christmas present. The little black tentatively mooed at her calf and seeing no life slowly turned her head towards the wall.
The vet and my father left the shed and settled the call-out fee.
“Sorry about that, Tom,” I heard him say as his car door screeched shut.
I quietly stood over the bull calf for a few moments just as the little black might have done had the calf been alive. The head was arched back unnaturally from the way I had dragged him across the bedding. I arranged him back into the foetal position; I don’t know why, it just felt like the right thing to do. His little yellow hoofs would never now turn white, only the pale colour of death. I covered him over with black silage plastic, its edges frilly and worn. The unwanted present and its torn wrapping.
The little black moaned as we went inside defeated. My father, though the same, somehow looked smaller after all the day’s events. There was no late night tea.
Three days passed before I next saw the little black. She had never once attempted to get up. We had coaxed, teased, and eventually beat her, in an effort to get her to move. She was constant in her refusal. The vet came again, examined, injected, and concluded that there was no medical reason why she should not be fit to stand.
He shared his condolences with me.
The best meat in cattle is found around the rump and the loins. Meat is made up of connecting tissue, the more connecting tissue the longer it takes to cook, that’s why liver cooks quickly and steak slowly. Through sitting so long, the little black’s muscle had wasted away so that, even if she had wanted to get up now, she couldn’t. The abattoir would need to be called.
There had been bad frost since the little black’s still birth and I had put off burying the little bull. He had been moved into the yard and was still wrapped under the plastic, and both calf and wrap were stiff – he with death, it with frost. I picked up the lifeless form and placed it gently in a concrete-caked wheelbarrow. The rusty wheel needing greasing cried dryly every few metres.
The ground was thick and hard. The frost had delayed the event. The hole was deep enough and the body was lowered in. I threw in a bluebell, the only flower of this time of year. The calf weighed eight stone, my father twelve. Grass is a great leveller. It is indifferent to class or species; it grows over all – the unwanted Christmas present, and now my father.
John Connell is author of The Cow Book: A Story of Life on an Irish Family Farm (Granta)