How Now Brown Cow?

– Trish Bennett

The stench of dung caught in my throat as I shone the torch to where the heifer lay.  Steam rose from her damp hide, making patterns in the torch light. “Easy there girl, it’s ok” I said.  I didn’t know what else to say.  I was scared but she never moved, just stared up at me.  I covered her in an old blanket and used a bucket we kept under the outside tap to give her water.  I picked my way back through the frozen ground to the dividing fence, taking more care this time when I crossed over.  I couldn’t forget the pain in her glassy brown eyes.

 

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“Saoirse, are ya havin’ breakfast?”  I shouted up an empty stairs.

The door on the landing opened “No time, I’ll be late.”  Saoirse did the stairs in three bounds as she raced for the door.  

“You can’t go out in that get up? Do ya think it’s California?”

She wrestled herself into a leather jacket.  “Mam, it’s not that bad, I’ve thick tights on.”

“Well, you’re brave.  Brass monkey’s would need welders out there.”  

“I’ll be indoors all day, it’ll be grand.”

Pick your battles my mother always said.  

“Bye Saoirse.”

“Bye Mam.”

The sweet waft of ‘Nicky Minaj” lingered in her wake.  I watched her out the window hurrying down the slippy road to the approaching bus.  I was glad she’d be away when he came.  

 

The cow was still lying on the farmer’s side of the fence.  Every day I watched him throw a half bucket of nuts in her direction and every day she tried in vain to drag herself to the rations, before the crows got to them.  Today, the farmer appeared mid morning, driving the tractor across the field with the skill of an ice road trucker.  I threw my coat and cap on before stepping out to confront him. He avoided my gaze like I was Medusa while he manoeuvred the tractor into place.  On my side, I held on to a frostbitten fence post to steady myself.  There was a sliver of denim waving on the top row of barbed wire, a flag of evidence from my escapade last night.  I picked it off.  

 

I watched him tighten the cap down on his mutinous brown hair.  The engine was left running as he swung himself out of the cab, landing within spitting distance.  He rocked a bit but his boots acted as ballasts to anchor him in the muck.  He stared down at them expecting to find me festering underneath.  

 

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The wan was watching him, holding on to d’other side of the fence.  Fecking do-good-er bitch.  He’d let her know.   “Are you the wan complaining about the cow lying?”  

It was on account of yon doll that Séan had given him the tonguein’ on the phone last night. “The neighbour’s been on. She says you’re neglecting an injured heifer on my land.”

“ Ah no, Séan, that wan’s exaggerating.  She knows nothing about farming. The Vet told me ‘wait and see’ will she mend”.

“You know damn well that’s not what he meant.”

“Ah, Séan, I’m only doing…”

“Now you listen to me. I shouldn’t have to tell ya to look after your animals.”

“I am Séan, I am, I’ve a lot of cattle to get ‘round every day, it’s hard.”

“It’s not easy scraping a living with only a lock of cattle.”

“I’m not telling ya again. There’s another boy wants the land. I’m half thinking of letting him have it.  Look after that heifer or you’re out ta fuck.”

 

The mother of all headaches had set in after Séan hung up.  He took a few Headex he found in the back of a drawer but he might as well have ate smarties for all the good they did.  Fuck him, Lord Muck of muck manor.  He was busy enough without having to cart across the fields every day to check on wan oul cow.  He’d have ta keep sweet with Séan though, keep d’other sneaky fuck from taking the land.   

 

He could feel the bloody headache kicking off again, starting behind the right eye and hammering it’s way across to the left.  He’d better get a move on before the dizziness set in.  Where’s that bloody rope?  It’ll do for a head collar.  

 

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Wisps of snow began to fill the air between us.  The sight of the cows oozing knees reminded me of Saoirse when she was young.  Those summer shorts, her tail of auburn hair flicking from side to side, the speed of her racing full tilt to be first to the door.  The day the lace threw her.  Those torn knees.

 

I watched as the farmer threw a makeshift head collar over the heifer and hauled her like a bag of logs to the link-box.  The cow was too weak to defend herself as he shoved her into place.  She coughed and long strings of white snot shot out from her nostrils.  He rubbed the muck off his hands with a rag of a tissue.  

 

I shouted over the din of the John Deere.  “Where are you takin’ her? Are ya putting her down?”  The farmer opened his mouth to reply, a mouth full of scattered tombstones.  “SHE’LL BE FINE.”  He leapt into the cab, tilted the link-box to ensure the cow was secure and drove off across the field without a backwards glance.

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Foley was lying in hospital.  Someone had left the window open and the icy March breeze had kept him awake all night.  The thin hospital sheet had slid down to his feet and he wasn’t able to pull it up.  The whiff of urine stung him but it was mid morning before they came to change his soiled pad.  “Stroke” the doctors said.  They dosed him full of drugs including the same type of poison he used to kill the rats in the byre.   A doctor said they were going to “wait and see”.

 

Foley hoped the woman would make eye contact but she hadn’t time for any of that nonsense.  He was another nappy to change and mouth to feed before her break.  She washed him with a filthy cloth and  Foley tried to say something but all that came out was a white string of drool.  The woman wiped it away with the cloth she had just used on his nether regions, shoving him from side to side as she wiped.  She dressed him in dead man’s pyjamas, donated by a grieving family.

 

Food came in trays placed out of reach and no matter how hard he tried he could not will the nearest hand to work.  Foley was parched but unable to reach the water with the good hand.  Crawford in the next bed raided his rations and left a collection of empty dishes in his wake.  Foley was too weak to defend himself.

 

Things changed when the student nurse started.  She looked fresh out of her teens with red hair swept back into a pony tail.  “There you are Mr. Foley” she said guiding the straw to his lips.  Foley slurped the water faster than a Saharan camel.  “You were thirsty.” She refilled his glass and moved the table closer.  The Sister put her head in around the door “Nurse, get on with it, we have twenty more to change before lunch.”  “Yes, Sister” the young Nurse replied.  She went on to change Mr. Byrne in the next bed.  “I’ll be back to help you with lunch Mr. Foley” she said.

 

The Sister kept the new nurse busy with bedpans and bandages but she always found time to refill his empty glass, close a window or put on the TV.  Over the coming days she to helped him practise the exercises the therapists had shown him.  With the young nurses help, he started to regain some of his strength.  Dr. Jordan was impressed when he came to review his progress.  The left hand was starting to work again and his speech was returning, if a little slurred.  

“It says in the notes that the stroke occurred while you were burying a dead cow.”  

“Yssss” said Foley.  

“You’re coming on Mr Foley but I’m afraid you’ll have to quit the farming.”

After Dr. Jordan left, the young nurse pulled the blankets back up on Foley.  She put the bed on a tilt so he could see the TV.  

Her mobile started to buzz in her pocket and she whipped it out “Hi Mam — yes — medical wing, third floor — great! See ya soon.”

“YoorrMammm?” said Foley.  

“Yes.  We’re getting a new dog from the sanctuary. I can’t wait!”  

“Do you have a dog Mr. Foley?”

“N-n-n-o, juzzzt cowzz”.

“There’s cattle in the field beside us.  Mam was wild upset with the farmer, said he starved an injured cow”.

“When she calmed down do ya know what she said?”

“N-n-n-o”.

“She said ‘Karma’s a wonderful thing Saoirse, it has a way of catching up with you in the end’”.

“K-a-r-r-m-m-a-a?”

“Aye, what goes around comes around. She reckoned he’ll get his comeuppance one day.”

Foley got agitated.  The drool started again.

“Easy there, it’s OK. Let me get that Mr. Foley”.

Saoirse was wiping his face when the ward door opened.   

“Hi Mam”.  

“Hi Saoirse.”

Foley stared up at me.   There was pain in his glassy brown eyes.

 

Trish Bennett

Trish is the winner of ‘The Leitrim Guardian 2017 Literary Award for Poetry’.  She has read many stories and poems on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Time of Our Lives’ (2016).  In 2016, she received a bursary to attend “The John Hewitt Summer School” in Armagh.  She was long listed for the Over the Edge ‘New Writer of the Year award’ in 2013.  Her stories and poems have been published in ‘The Galway Review’, ‘Spark’, ’Ireland’s Own’, ‘The Leitrim Guardian’, Poetry In Motion’s ‘New Belfast Poetry Map’ & ‘Making Memories’ anthologies and the Fermanagh Writer’s ‘Tails of the Unexpected’ Anthology.  

Twitter: https://twitter.com/baabennett

Blog: Bennett’s Babblings.