Sunday, August 29, 2010

Celebrating Spring

It's springtime in this part of the world. Blossom on the trees, daffodils in the orchard, calves and lambs in the paddocks (although not in ours; our sheep live a celibate lifestyle).

Calving was (and is) an important time of year on a dairy farm. Here's a snippet from my work-in-progress:

The shed was full of looming shadows that twisted and shifted with the swinging of the lantern. Her father placed it on a post at one end of the pen, and the shadows shrank away into the corners, leaving them in a pool of light. Petal moved about restlessly in her pen, white showing around the edges of her huge brown eyes. She tossed her head and let out a low moan.

Daisy stood by the corner of the pen, doing her best to keep out of the way, and watched her parents checking Petal over. Her mother put a hand on the cow’s flank; Petal flinched for a moment, then stood still, shuddering slightly. Daisy’s father picked up the lantern, setting the shadows in motion again, and shifted Petal’s tail to one side so that they could see what was happening under it.

‘Looks like she’s going to need a hand getting it out,’ her father said. ‘Nothing much happening there.’

Daisy saw her mother leaning closer to explore the area with her fingers. ‘It’s not sitting right,’ she said, frowning. ‘I think one of the legs is bent back under. We’ll have to move that before there’s any hope of pulling the calf out.’

Daisy had seen calves born before, when they had been considerate enough to arrive in the daytime and when she was not at school. They slid into the world all wet and shiny, head resting neatly on the two front legs. But there was no sign of tiny hooves emerging from the red, distended area under Petal’s tail.

‘Keep her still,’ said her mother. Daisy’s father placed the lantern on the ground and put one long arm across Petal’s chest, holding the tail out of the way with his other hand. The cow’s hooves moved in an awkward little dance, but Daisy’s father’s arm held her in place.

Her mother washed her hands and inserted one, still wet and soapy. She tilted her head from side to side, trying to get a clear view. ‘It’s no good, I keep getting in my own light. Daisy, can you hold the lantern?

Daisy picked it up by the metal handle and held it at the height her mother indicated, putting her other hand under it to hold it steady. She watched her mother slide her hand in further, then the other hand. One little hoof was teased out; the other seemed to be stubbornly wedged. A hand was pushed in further; Daisy saw the strain on her mother’s face as she worked away at the unseen leg. ‘I’ve got it,’ she muttered. ‘The elbow’s caught—if I push it back it should—that’s it.’ She went from pushing to gently pulling, and the tip of another hoof appeared.

‘You ready for me to start pulling yet?’ Daisy’s father asked; her mother shook her head.

‘Not just yet. I’ll try and get her opened up a bit more.’

She positioned a hand either side of what Daisy guessed must be the calf’s head and worked them in and out for several minutes. ‘That’ll have to do,’ she said, carefully withdrawing her hands and straightening from an awkward crouch.

Daisy’s father moved to take her place, leaving her to hold the tail. She leaned her face against Petal’s flank, and Daisy heard her murmuring soothing noises. Her father took hold of the little hooves and pulled, slowly and carefully. The head appeared, then the shoulders. He turned the calf a little, still pulling, and the last part seemed to happen in a rush. The calf was a soft, damp bundle on the straw of the pen, her father was gathering it up in his hands, and her mother was telling Petal what a good girl she was, how brave, how clever.

‘It’s a heifer,’ Daisy’s father said, smiling broadly. He carried the calf around closer to Petal’s head; she stared at the tiny creature in what looked like astonishment, then nosed cautiously and began licking it. Her eyes closed contentedly.

Daisy’s father took the lantern from her, and she realised that her arms were aching from having held it rigidly still for so long. The three of them stood watching mother and child, and Daisy felt warm right through.

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