The final calf came at last and he is a thing of beauty. Unlike his siblings, he is almost a riggit; black and white markings swirl around him like a pint of guinness. His eyelashes are ludicrously long, and whiskers trail from his chin like threads of black silk. Of course we loved him from the outset.
Now a week has passed and things are falling apart. He is withering away and will not suck. His lusty little bellow became a retching croak and he finally fell silent altogether. He lies in quiet corners with his head down like a newborn, and he discovers new ailments every day.
We have to milk his mother and feed him with a bottle. I had never reckoned to handle these cows at close quarters, but now I find it possible to stroke and whisper them into submission. The calf’s mother kicked us at first, but now we can quietly slip down into her udders and pull milk from her thick teats. Dribbles of warm cream run down my wrist and into my cuff. She sighs with relief.
Clegs cluster round us and raise the temperature to boiling point. Waiting for the vet, I set myself a competition to count the bastards. I was bitten seventeen times in a minute; if I were to stand in one place too long, their crushed bodies would build in a heap like cinders around my feet. As well as clegs, the hot breeze hums with the blare of giant horseflies which are as thick and heavy as shotgun cartridges. These often land on the cow’s back and are lashed away by the flick of a tail, but mainly they cluster on her ankles and drill through the hairy leather.
The calf will often take from a bottle, but never from the teat itself. We have fought to make him take properly, but he pushes stubbornly back against us. We have used stomach tubes and enema pipes, and he has endured them both with quiet resignation. I lift him up and feel heavy bones beneath thin skin. He rolls his blue, cloudy eyes and gazes past me as if I am not there. I begin to wonder if this passive disinterest is merely a symptom of something more serious. He began to suck his own navel, and the habit consumed him.
Perhaps there is something damaged in his brain. We don’t know the circumstances of his birth; he arrived in the rushes overnight. Even the smallest deviation from perfection could have far-reaching consequences, and I am left wondering what other problems may come if we fix this one. He may well die, but we are advised to keep trying.
Chaos and outrage have lapped across this project over the last week. I have been kicked and crushed by cattle a dozen times, and my knee has swollen to be almost unbendable. Vandals set the forest on fire behind the house, and the bull escaped through palls of smoke and pulled down fences on his way. The herd refused to be gathered for blood testing. The vet breathed down my neck and checked her watch for the next appointment until I finally gave up and sent her away in defeat. Behind these exhausting failures, I have watched this fine little calf decline and fail.
I try not to forget where I am and what I have chosen. The old, consoling hills stand against the sunset; they’ve seen worse than this.