I’m twenty-nine and I’ve never delivered a calf myself. But that’s all about to change because I’ve got my arms in her passage and I’m trying to find the new calf’s feet.
As a farmer’s son, I’ve birthed calves aplenty, but always as the helper, holding a cow’s tail up or pulling the calf out at the last moment. My father has been in charge of the calving for twenty-five years and when he wasn’t my brother took over, but now it’s me.
I’m home again in rural Ireland, back from being an immigrant, here to write a novel, to try and make it as a writer and, in exchange for a roof over my head, it’s been agreed that I will help out on the farm. There’s a lot tied up in this birth for me, much more than the cow knows.
The red cow moves suddenly and lets me know her strength and power. I must be quick. I must get the ropes around the calf’s feet, slide them above the hock and pull them tight. The amniotic fluids wet my hands, my arms, and I remember now the talk I have heard other men say, that your hand gets weak after a time, that the clasp of her vaginal embrace takes the power from it. I must be quick lest the calf die.
I grasp the first foot and slip the rope over his hock.
I have the other foot. I take the second rope from the side of the gate and slide it onto the calf’s leg, it slips and falls and I curse and now I think perhaps I do need help, but it is too late. To wait might mean death and then I would be called a fool for trying on my own and there would be a huge row. No, I must focus. The cow has nearly finished the nuts I gave her to keep her calm. When they are gone she will remember her distress and begin to thrash and kick again and then the job will be all the harder.
I stoop low, take the rope and turn to my work again. The rope is now on the second foot. I pull gently, but the calf is big: he will not come like this, I will need the jack. I take the mechanical wench, placing it on the cow’s hips, and hook the ropes into the slots and begin to winch.
I must do this right I tell myself, but I have seen it done so many times I know my actions. I must jack, then lever down to bring the calf out. The biggest pull will be his head, and once I have that out the rest should follow, except the hips which can sometimes be trouble. I winch the jack five times and hear the sprocket chime out in the quiet shed. I pull down and as I do the cow bellows low in a noise I don’t recognise, a noise of pain and strangeness.
‘There, there,’ I say, clucking to her. I let off the pressure and jack once more and feel the sprockets turn and the ratchet move up the teeth. The legs emerge more fully now, but still no head and so I lever down again and I can see his nose and it looks so flat, perhaps his head is squashed. The cow bellows low again and I feel her feet tremble.
‘Don’t go down on me,’ I say to her and let the pressure off once more and she stands to again and we repeat our chores. Her contractions push the calf as much as she can, but he is beyond contractions now, for he is too big and our job is at a point where it cannot be undone.
I jack once more and the cow roars.
I pray or at least I think I do.
The head emerges and I have no time to thank God, for I must jack with all my might and keep going for the cow could give way and if she goes down, the calf might die. I see his tongue wag and I know he is alive and I pull still stronger now though my arm is growing tired. I jack and jack and he is emerging now, fluid and strong, and he is red like his mother with a white sketch on his face. He is the son of our stock bull of that I am sure, for I can see the old bull’s face in his.