(To begin at the beginning, see Silent Men, Minimal Heat and Spooky Cows)
Storage heaters turned out to be a minimally effective heat source for a large, stone farmhouse on the side of a hill at the western edge of Ireland in winter. That meant I needed a fire in my sitting room, every day. Passing through the mysteriously slug-less kitchen and clicking on the kettle first thing in the morning, I'd open the back door and breathe in West Kerry. It smells like the sea, and mud, and mist, a clean, complex smell flavored by sileage or slurry or cut hay, depending on the time of year.
I'd open the wooden coal bin and transfer the morning's supply into the coal bucket with a small shovel. Much as it does not want to burn, coal also does not want to be shoveled. It really is a recalcitrant fuel. I'd wrestle the shovel around in the bin and maybe come up with two lumps per try. If there is a trick to this, I still have not mastered it. But, eventually, the bucket would be full enough, and I'd bring it inside and light the morning fire.
I was on the frontier. I was so totally rural.
I arrived in Lateve during calving season (an entirely new concept to me. Who knew there was a season?). There was a lot of activity in the barns on the other side of the laneway. Pat and his 19-year-old son T.J. (who did not want to be a farmer) were out there at all hours, seeing the newest arrivals safely in.
Pat had shared a few stories with me of previous (American) tenants on the farm. One of my predecessors in the house had decided, on a cold spring night, that it would be a good idea to bring the stray lambs inside where it was warm. Once she'd taken them on, she had to keep them there, feeding them and cleaning up after them. "Sheep make messy pets," Pat summed up laconically. Another, related, story concluded with "Heifers are dangerous friends." I made a mental note not to domesticate a sheep or befriend a heifer. But I thought I needed to establish my farm cred and disassociate myself from prior, mush-brained American tenants.
"I'd like to see a birth," I told Pat. There. That should do it. No petting and romping with the farm animals for me. Right to the messy heart of it. "Really?" he said, not so much in surprise, as in confirmation. "Yes," I responded, not at all sure, but yes was the answer. A few nights later, T.J. knocked at my door. "There's a calf being born right now," he said. I grabbed a coat and followed T.J.'s flashlight beam to the open area in front of the barn.
Lit by an outdoor bulb fitted at the top of the barn door, Pat was leaning back behind the cow, trying to keep her steady. Two hoofed, stick legs were already protruding. As soon as we arrived, Pat directed T.J. to the front quarters to calm the cow, and he got a better grip on the calf's legs. There was a lowing, and a shifting, but no further movement from the calf. T.J. came back around and held onto the calf's front legs while Pat picked up what looked like some ancient instrument designed for a task now performed by microchip–large, iron, hinged and forked. With this, he got a better grip on the emerging calf and T.J. went back to the cow's front quarters.
The calf's head emerged, squashed atop the legs, expression of innocence and surprise clearly visible despite the low light. Then a swoosh and slop and out she came, a girl, fully there on the cement farmyard floor on a February night. Behind her came the afterbirth. The mother got to work, turning and licking, licking her clean, licking her into movement. In a few minutes, the calf stood, an ungainly, doe-eyed, brand new addition to the barn.
None of us spoke much throughout the birth, or after. I watched. I stayed out of the way. We laughed when the calf moved and stood. I walked back across the lane to my house, feeling as though I'd seen something and missed something. I'd seen this birth, the first I'd ever witnessed, animal or human. But not the every day tending of the herd. Not the vigil and care attending every birth that year. Not the ones that didn't go so well, that year and every year. Not the history of the cow herself, who she sprang from and when. And I'd never seen the bull. I'd tapped into only the tiniest corner of life on a dairy farm. Though maybe the best.
About a week later I heard the cows calling, plaintively, insistently, mournfully, throughout the day and into the night. It was such a sad and odd sound; one I'd never heard before. I asked T.J. about it one night when he stopped by the house to drop off more firelighters (I did eventually figure out where to buy them–not an eternal mooch). "Oh, yeah," he said, "it's really weird isn't it? Something has spooked them. Something is out there that's spooked them. Gabriel said he's never heard anything like it before either." Gabriel was the young farmer at the far end of Lateve Menagh. " Huh," I thought, "even the farmers don't know why they're calling like that."
The next day, I saw Pat in the farmyard, where the cows were still calling, and asked him about it. "It's
because we took the calves away," he said,"this isn't a suckling herd." Calling for their calves! Now it made sense; the sadness and the persistence. But why didn't T.J. tell me that? In a second I got it. He was trying to spook me! That "something is out there" story. "Ok, T.J.," I decided, "I'll forgive, my young friend, but not forget. I'm tucking this away for future use."
And now it's 12 years later. T.J. is in his early thirties. He no longer works on the farm. For many years he worked in the Dingle Aquarium and maybe still does. Perhaps I'll let this go.