Flickering candle-warmth illumines the hot faecal closeness of manure-trodden straw, stretching furrowed shadow-forms across corrugated walls, long black figures bending... framing...

        The voice.

        Thin, wheezing, hesitant, the voice rings black with emptiness; a cartilage clack, wet and brittle with the melt.

        And they lean in, shadows lengthening, shadows swallowing, to hear what the voice has to say.

        "There was nothing... There was nothing... I saw nothing; there was nothing to see... There was nothing... There was nothing... I saw nothing... saw nothing... Nothing... nothing... nothing...

That is what this calf says. That is what all the newborn calves have said.

.        .        .

Momentarily the pain ebbs. She struggles to speak.

.        .        .

        In a ragged line across grey-green celadon grass the herd moves, like ships under sail, sedate, slow, patient; white prowheads verdure-churning, a fleet of hard-muscled meatslabs, glowing red ochre in August light.

        Lying slumped in hawthorn shade, a heifer braced for birthing. Blinking lashes lazy-eyed, slow cud jaw-rolled.


        Swollen, soft-noised, the belly set quaking. Too early - should still be two months until the calf is crowning.

        Mouth slacked open, eyes rolled white - Doleful lowing slides into shrillness, no longer a rumbling, trundling bellow but something edged with real red-purpled rawness...

        The sharp animal distress of a dying thing.

.        .        .

Her eyes are wide: pain or terror?

.        .        .

        Across the field in wringing waves the pain-wrench rolls, breaks in knife-sharp pieces on the congregation's ears. Echoes among the gravestones.

        Bovine bellows of mortal agony punctuating the earnest sermonising of Fr. Keogh. Obscuring the benedictions, souring solemnity, sending the widow Keene weakly swaying.

        Slowly, gravely Keogh intones, "I am the resurrection and the-" but the phrase is clipped by a ringing bleat.

        Distracted mourners turn towards the source of distress. Uneasy... discomfited...

        Doggedly Keogh continues: "May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of-"

        Overridden by that stark shriek of mortality.

.        .        .

She holds your hand. Stares up at you.

.        .        .

        Under the hawthorn the heifer heaves.

        The bulb of belly bulges, draining strength from raw-boned shoulders and stick-like limbs. The wattles of her neck wet with sweat; a foam of blood discolouring lips and muzzle.

        Something is slowly forcing its way out, disjointing her spine and spreading her pelvis. Dull wet cracks sound deep inside, sudden lurches strain the neck, hooves weakly work the dry grey grass.

        She cannot move; can only bawl the keening call.

        But it is moving; down, out.... And now it is time...

        Softly, soundlessly, a flower of flesh in the August sun, the cow splits.

.        .        .

Her ragged breath stinks of wasting.

.        .        .

        The terminal breath, forced from the butchered thing, is agony pure and unalloyed. Shrill and lingering, it reverberates for miles.

        In the town, mid-sentence paused; people bend under the anguish sweeping up from the fields, clamping their hands against sensitive ears.

        Across the bogs birds take frantic flight, scattering in all directions.

        Amongst the blunt-shouldered hills the mournful sound is trapped to echo, lasting for an age.

        The death rattle even sends sluggish ripples across the face of the reservoir.

        And in the graveyard a stumbling Fr. Keogh crosses himself, wishing that the gesture had some effect upon his nerves.

.        .        .

Swallows painfully, but with eyes unblinking, says:

.        .        .

        A dead sigh leaks from the muzzle of the cow as it softly sags; emptying, emptying, as, mewling on a blue-grey offal slush, a calf-shape slides in spasms from the husk of ruptured mother.

        The calf-thing has torn her insides out, spilled them to steam and cool upon the brittle grass.

        The calf lies there, wet amidst the ruin of meat, unable to move, barely willing to breathe. A hideous, half-melted thing.

        But before it passes, before the crows descend, greedy for eyes and tongue, it opens its mouth and whispers: "There was nothing... There was nothing... There was nothing..."

.        .        .

Son... promise me... promise me one thing...

.        .        .

        Peader Boyce unfurls a skeletal arm, steadies Fr. Keogh.

        "That noise," mumbles the priest, ashen-faced, soul-shaken, fingers tangled in a set of black rosary beads, "D'you hear it?"

        The gravedigger pays the question no heed. His gaunt and ill-shaven face cracks into an indulgent, admonishing grin. "I told you, Father, didn't !?" Boyce's eyes are shining; feeding on bad news the way that other people breathe. He points with one long, dirt-crusted finger.

        Distracted, ill-tempered now, Keogh stares in the direction indicated. "What? What am I supposed to be looking at?"

        "The graves, Father," whispers Boyce, "The graves are sinking."

.        .        .

Please, don't put me in the ground.

.        .        .
by Graham Tugwell