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The vet came and could not help. She had never seen a calf like this one, and she proposed trying for another week.

Another week came, feeding five times a day. Dawn blurred into dusk and the days rolled together in constant fretful labour. I was flattened by the weight of it, and my head was dizzied with exhaustion until I lost my temper over the tiniest details and found myself yelling at flies.

I shuttled back and forth with bottles of warm milk. Familiar fields became dull and fearsome, and my thoughts rambled through them in chaos. I was obsessed with the need to keep that calf alive long enough to come through. Something would surely click into place; something would change and the little boy would come good. I rested my forehead on his mother’s hip and sent jets of her milk down into a tin pail. Her guts gurgled in the morning dew and she smelled of soft grass and all the things I wanted from this life. The calf lay in a bundle and gazed through me without any expression on his face.

In this condition he would neither live nor die. He made no attempt to rise or change, and my work simply kept him alive. I imagined his world was numb and dazed, with only a few vague shapes and urges to drive him. It was surely something in his brain; a bubble or a clot which could not come right. Perhaps he had struggled at birth and lacked oxygen at a crucial moment. It was no kind of life, but he breathed on until his fifteenth day.

I sat for a time with the bony body and listened to the cow eating hay. She had not realised, but the truth would soon come to her and she would low in misery beneath the stuffy clouds. Moths flickered in the evening, and I wept with exhaustion, despair and shameful relief.

Cattle are important here. The old animals have been in Galloway for centuries, and I began this project because I have to touch that past. I am only starting to know these beasts, but I find their lives are stoic and tender, giddy and desperate. This project is fast outgrowing me and the urgent sense of belonging I feel in this place. But for now I think of my tears in the dust and the memory of dark, impish calves playing in the twilight.

2 thoughts on “Loss

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