Luke Thompson is from Cornwall and currently writing his PhD at Exeter on the clay country poet Jack Clemo. He also works as a fishmonger in Fowey and has a particular interest in short fiction. In this piece Luke revisits the idea of a ‘Country Diary’ in a vivid true story of a neighbouring field.
Mid-evening I left the computer and looked out over the field, where the Hereford herd had been calving. They had moved down by the river, where they can’t be seen from the house. One remained, lying on her side, dead still near the hedge. I had noticed her before, one horn pointing forwards and one back, heavily pregnant. I moved closer and she did not stir. I could see she was breathing, but it looked shallow, and there was no movement about the calf. Two front hooves were showing, the cow urging painfully, and the calf would not budge. I called the farmer, who came in a pick-up and tied rope around the calf.
He pulled hard at the rope, and asked me to pull too.
‘Christ, he’s huge.’
‘The size of a two month old already.’
A jaundiced head oozed out, then the whole sack of meat fell free. It made some slight embryonic motions, but the farmer put him aside and tried to raise the cow. She strained, curling up like a dying fish, but couldn’t rise.
We tried to help, pushing her.
She raised a little, but she had lain on her legs and they had gone numb.
The farmer grabbed the calf and pulled it round to the mother for her to lick him clean. She licked at him then tried to raise herself. She planted one front hoof on the ground, but the other would not move and instead of rising she fell forward onto her calf.
‘Oh shit. Stupid cow.’
The farmer tugged on the calf’s exposed hind legs and I shouldered her heft. The cow had fallen with only her belly on the calf and with four or five tugs again the new bull was made free of its mother.
The cow looked over at her calf ten feet away. She grunted and her body curled. The farmer groaned. ‘She’ll need the vet. Stop! Stop, cow! She’s prolapsed.’ The cow grunted and curled, pushing her womb out in bubbly red lumps. The calf shivered and lolled its head.
‘Can I do anything?’
‘I’ll call dad to bring a sheet and a bucket and a wine bottle.’
‘I’ve got those.’
‘An empty wine bottle,’ he joked.
‘I’ve got a few of those.’
The farmer’s father and brother came with the vet while I was filling the bucket up at the house. The outside tap is connected to an old well and pours slowly. I should have set the bucket going while I got the bottle and sheet.
Walking down the field the farmer had made a halter from rope and tied it around her head to gain some control. They were turning her over and cursing because she wouldn’t hold her legs right.
‘This would be much easier if she would stand up,’ the vet said. She was on her knees with the entrails pouring over her lap.
The farmer tied cord around the cow’s hind legs. ‘Hold on that,’ he told me, ‘so she can’t get them back under her. Ready? The older man held the cow’s head, while the other two pushed her over. She huffed and strained and kicked with such sharp movements that she snatched her leg from me.
We tried again, rocking her back the other way. The younger man took hold of her legs too.
‘No. No. She’s done it again.’
The vet would sedate her a little. She went to her box and I stood back. The calf’s head was yellow, his flank shaking, cold and wet. Another cow from the herd wandered over with some determination. The younger man shooed her away. ‘They’d be cleaning him if we weren’t here.’
Her womb was a brilliant crimson with a taut silver iridescent membrane. Blood continued to pour from her gape.
‘Right, you have hold of the rope. Here, Mark, keep your foot against her legs.’ We pulled her legs out to keep her still. ‘Just in case.’ The farmer held her head. The vet injected the cow and wetted her expelled innards. She made a cradle with the bed sheet, twisting the ends, and slopped the organs in. Mark held one side and they pressed and pummelled the oozing gem-meat back in the cow’s vagina, while the stupid cow continued to urge and heave it back out. ‘Cow! No! Stop that! No, cow!’ The vet tore off more of the unnecessary parts and wet it again.
‘This would be much easier if she was standing,’ she repeated.
‘Mind the horns,’ the old man said.
We stood still, taut in our positions as the vet folded and pressed the pieces together. The mass was this shocking red, but there were other parts. Pods the size of ducks’ eggs in a bulky pale heap, and wagging tendrils like long, boneless fingers.
‘A boy was visiting the farm one day,’ the father began to gain our attention while the vet worked. ‘He was with his father and it was lambing time. They got to the barn and the little boy watched as the farmer pulled out the new lamb, slapped it around and shook it out, you know, to make it go. The little boy looked up at his father and said, “Well that will teach him not to go in there again.”’
As the cow heaved she moved herself a few inches towards the hedge into the brambles, ferns and scrub. A stream of discarded entrails left behind. Bits of membranous flesh hung from the rim of the bucket. Strips of grass were slairged flat with thick, pale blood, like brush strokes.
The calf tried to stand, but he was soft and only fell forwards, twisting his head under him in the brambles, his flaccid tongue protruding.
When the pieces were all fisted back inside, the vet asked for the wine bottle – ‘an extension’ – and probed arm-deep with it, poking the meat back in some sort of order.
‘She’m bleeding a lot.’
‘It’s only thin.’
‘She was fair spurting earlier.’
‘Mark, there should be a needle and some thread behind you. I thought I cut some earlier. Never mind.’ The cow showed no sign of feeling as the vet stabbed a rude stitch.
‘You done a good job there,’ the older farmer told her.
‘Hope she’s still together in the morning.’
‘Look at that bloody calf.’
‘Like he’s two months already.’
‘’Ere, you’ve got everything else up there,’ the older man said to me; ‘you in’t got a feeding tube too, have ‘ee?’ He said it like a joke, but waited for an answer, probably hoping for a humorous one. I told him I didn’t have anything.
‘She won’t be able to feed a while yet. We’ll need to get something in him.’
One of the men drove off to the farm, while the vet rinsed the wine bottle. ‘Use that for the buzzies until he comes back,’ she said, holding it out to the older farmer. ‘Where I’m from up North we call it beestings.’
The farmer nodded at me. ‘You want to do it?’ I thought he was playing so didn’t answer.
‘Well, since you won’t,’ he said, taking the rinsed wine bottle and pretending to consider the label. ‘Don’t think I know this one,’ he joked, then lay the neck at the teat and slowly filled it with thick yellow buzzy milk.
The cow turned her head a little. I was still tugging on her legs. She had cuts and grazes down her neck from the ropes.
‘Hold this?’ The bottle was warm, frothing at the top. The farmer came back with the tube feeder. He milked her straight into it and we topped up with the wine bottle. The tube screwed on to the jug then was fed easily down the calf’s throat as it wretched.
‘He’ll probably take three litres.’
Moving back to the van, where the vet was cleaning her arms, the farmer’s father spoke. ‘Shall we move her out into the field a bit?’
‘She’ll be better on the flatter ground,’ the vet said.
‘Mark, back the truck up here, will you. Right up.’
The cow’s makeshift rope halter was tied to the tow hook and Mark dragged her fifty yards out into the field. She made no protest, but hung like a carcass off the back.
The older man untied her and she lifted her head to look for the calf, no longer heaving. The farmer and Mark walked back for him, taking a hind leg each and pulling him along the grass. The cow tried to stand.
The vet and the three farmers stepped back a few paces as the cow tried to rise. Her legs were dead and she was drowsy. She looked at us, but tried to walk towards her calf.
‘She’ll crush him.’
She lurched to one side, her legs gave and she fell.
She rose again.
‘It’s good if she can stand. Everything might fall back into place.’
‘She’ll probably stand on him now, after all that.’
But the cow arrived, her legs splayed, unsteady and trembling, and began licking the calf clean. The vet packed up her box. The farmers thanked me for calling them. They said it probably saved both the cow’s and the calf’s lives.
‘You can keep the sheets,’ I said.
As I walk back to the house the two vehicles pull away, the farmer’s Toyota, then the truck. They disappear down the field where I cannot see from the house. The sun is almost gone now and inside the house is empty, in shade, silent. The computer has shut itself down. I sit in my father’s old leather chair while the room lurches, seeming to grow in the dark. An alien pulse starts from the hearth slate; a meadow grasshopper, voice of the fields, laughing from the black, cooling slab.