Meant Well

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George Hendrik Breitner, Four Cows, c. 1880–c. 1923, oil on board. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Her father would not let anyone take care of her, not even her mother — especially her mother — so he brought her everywhere, even as a baby, her car seat parked nearby while he milked. Too big for the seat now, Ger stood with him in the yard, leaning against the wind in that one-piece coat like a stumpy starfish. They were dehorning calves, or Barry was — Ger chipped in with the quieter ones, snipping hair back from their budding horns, the scissors like shears in her tiny hands. When they reached the last, contrariest calf, 766, Ger tried to calm the little heifer with strokes on the nose, but 766 snorted and thrashed about in the calf crush.

Before the calf did itself an injury, Barry went to get another pin to tighten things up, and he wasn’t gone five seconds — had even looked back to make sure the dehorner’s scalding wand was where he’d left it, high on the wall — when he heard a thin scream. Out he ran and saw the dehorner, hissing in the mud where Ger had dropped it.

By the time they got home from the hospital, 766 had Houdinied — not just from the calf crush but from the yard itself — and was out in the garden nibbling flowers.

As for Ger, she kept her sight, and the wilted-petal scar.

* * *

Growing up, she knew all about horsepower, miles per gallon, tonnage. Friendships were flimsy things. Playdates seemed to be organized for days when the animals needed moving or dividing, and one too many of Ger’s classmates was returned home tired, dirty, and faintly traumatized from the free labor. Not a bother on Ger, though. She followed in Barry’s duckfooted steps, stole some of his speech. Even her tilt of the bottle for newborns was like his. Baby feeding the babies. Then a baby bedding, counting, and injecting them, before being old enough to help milk. She was as good as Barry in the parlors, and she needed to be — 766 was part of the herd.

Often, Ger thought of ways to kill the heifer, whose bold white head stuck out from a polo neck of black, who had maybe branded her — she couldn’t fully remember — and caused some of the rottenest rows with Barry. The number of times she’d been giving out milk and 766 decided, in her exhausting but inexhaustible fussiness, that the teats weren’t adequate, that more milk was to be had by repeatedly headbutting the feeder till it came off the railing. (A whole pen of calves could then dunk their snouts into what had not splashed out.) Spilt milk was burned money, and it was Ger, not 766, who got the bollocking.

During milkings, she was worse. Cows could break your heart; heifers, your fingers. 766 did both. She had knacky hooves that could brush off a suction cup, or dislocate your thumb, depending on her mood, and she was moody. Barry didn’t mind, but he wasn’t the one who had to hold 766’s tail while the heifer alternated between lashing kicks and hosings of shite. He was never knocked so hard that he fell from the railings and banged his chin on the way down. In the calving pen, 766 was a terror. She once claimed another cow’s calf as her own: Barry’s and Ger’s ears were pierced by a manic yelping, and when they arrived at the calving pen, they found a newborn being trampled in the parental dispute. After that, 766 was given her own pen and watched like a hawk. When her own firstborn came, he nearly died because she cleaned him so thoroughly that she sucked half his blood out through the navel. A vet came for a transfusion, and Ger watched the calf’s long lashes flutter, the gruff woman squeezing a blood bag while 766 bawled over the top of the gate dividing them.

Every spring was a raw hell for Ger, who had to stand and watch her father edge toward 766 as she bawled and tongue-wagged demonically. Protecting himself with a sprong, he’d roar and charge, and Ger would swing the gate. Once 766 was out, the shell-shocked newborn could be cared for, its mother stalking and snaffling the yard below.

She’s just protective, Barry said.

And: She’s a smashin’ milker.

* * *

Farm work was unpaid, but at sixteen, with a provisional under her belt, Ger was allowed to share Barry’s new Mercedes. During the winter, when work was light, she whizzed into town for a midnight run at the twenty-four-hour. She preferred to go alone, because Barry would gripe on and on about her speed in the bends and her slowness in the store, especially at the checkout — How long does it take to pack a bag, Christ Almighty?! He seemed umbilically attached to the farm and could not stray too far for too long without getting cranky. He eyed the other customers in flip-flops and nightgowns and hissed, If you ever wear pajamas in public, I’ll disown you.

Winters sprang and shriveled, and too soon — for both of them — Ger was in her final year. She managed best Leaving Cert, but it was other classmates who spoke of Galway, Dublin; one girl secured a dentistry course in Turkey. It was not stated that she couldn’t go away, but questions were thrown at any college that wasn’t — at least to Ger — so local she might as well be homeschooled. For the time being, she wasn’t too fussed. No place or career called out to her, so she decided to give it another year before applying. She loved her late-night spins in the car, lights and houses beckoning as she sailed through the ocean-dark of country roads. In preparation, though she wouldn’t reveal for what, or who, she scrubbed her skin and hair till they squeaked and picked outfits that were both flowy and fitted. Fingernails were the toughest to keep clean, so she started to wear the coral-green dishwasher gloves when working outside. That winter, her trips away from home were stopped when one night Barry came and caught her being tailed round the superstore by two men. The embarrassment of a father’s involvement, of her height above his shoulders as he stood in front and told them to eff off.

On the way home, his speech and steering were jerky with anger. There’s no need for it, he said. No need — the makeup, he meant, the outfits. Waste of petrol. And we’ve a perfectly good shop in Boggends. Inside her was a spitting mix of shame and satisfaction. She had led as much as she had been followed, but Barry was making it out as if she’d been in some sort of danger. She banged her bedroom door and almost cried — not over the two men or the way her father trembled, but for the young cashier whose wide mouth always hooked in a corner to see her, even the times she didn’t cover her scar.  

It was the following spring when she saw how much Barry was growing down: stingingly obvious the day 766 pucked him against the ring feeder when he stepped in to divide her from her latest calf. It was a warning shot, but cows are passengers to their strength. Barry was bruised and breathless for weeks.

The only available help was Marty, a local who had been foreman on a neighboring farm. He was tall and wiry and entered the yard in a car as scarred as his face. Barry said he took it nice and handy on the tractor. He also said never to trust someone who smiled all the time, but he didn’t seem to register Marty’s smirk. It was stapled there, even when forcing a newborn he’d pinned against the wall to drink. I’ll try him later, Ger offered, as milk bubbled round the calf’s chin, but Marty said ’twas for the calf’s own good and squeezed its jaws till it swallowed defeatedly.

Once Barry was well enough, he let Marty go, but Ger developed a fierce and sudden interest in the tractor. Apart from the milking system, Barry had always associated the lethal mechanics of farm machinery with the dehorner incident. (He also just wanted company in the parlor, and tractors weren’t built for two.) Ger presented her reasons, and when he refused, she heaved herself into the tractor anyway, into a seat that felt high and silly. Barry climbed halfway up the steps and humored her, but his instructions were so roundabout that she became confused and forgot the clutch, and the whole thing bucked like a horse trying to throw them. When she wouldn’t let up, he pulled her down by the collar, took back the seat, and slammed the door. Go make dinner, he mouthed through the muck-frosted glass.

He watched her go, his heart lunging at the gates of his chest. He imagined her in the seat, catching power lines with the loader, tipping over on a river’s bend. Would he be able to reach in through the broken glass and lift her to safety, as he had when the woman who was supposed to love her, love him, left her in the car, choking on heat, to go lie in a cornfield with a student of hers? Doubtful. He put on his headphones and listened to the same heartbreak ballads he’d played in the years after that incident, when he’d bring Ger to the parlor and place her car seat beside the radio. He’d checked on her between lots, sometimes in the middle of one, panicked that the machine’s low boom or the herd’s bawls were outperforming the radio and terrifying his daughter. Yet each time, he’d found his Ger, his soundless Geraffe, safe and strapped down, her big brown eyes perpetually in awe of it all.

Coming out to announce dinner, Ger found him slumped in the tractor, headphones thumping. When she opened the door, she knew. She sat on the lower step for the longest while. Then she saw, far off in the top corner of a field, a familiar speck: 766 had broken out again. She ran — across the yard, over the gate, through the field — to fling curses and stones till the cow cocooned herself in a nearby ditch.

* * *

By force of habit, she cooked meals for two. Before, Barry would have played a song from his phone and made her guess the name and artist, which reminded her of the times she hadn’t been in the mood (often) and stomped out of the room. Sometimes she felt he would be there, awaiting her return, like every other time, and the fact that he wasn’t, and that he’d spent too many moments eating alone, as she now did, brought on bolts of grief and guilt. She tried to count blessings: finishing school, owning a car, walking and talking and thinking. But what good was a driver’s license when she could barely budge a tractor and trailer? What was the point of an education when she was outwitted, in small yet crushing ways, by a thicko cow? It was hard to beat intelligence but impossible to beat stupidity, and 766 was brutally, inventively, stupid. When Ger locked cows into the yard for dividing, 766 cleared the gate and flew down the boreen. If she gave a little less grass, 766 would, like a righteous prophet, lead the entire herd through the dike and toward the promised land of a neighbor’s farm. Last time it was Colum O’Hehir’s silage fields, and now even his wife, Leah, refused to salute Ger on the road.

There was something about 766 — the ear-flicking to a fault, maybe, or the hoarseness of her nonstop bawling — that worked Ger into such a holy rage she would tear after the cow with murderous conviction. She hoped to get close enough to break sticks and bones. This only pushed 766 to new heights of destruction. If Barry were alive, he would have roared at them both to calm it, but he was not alive, and every day Ger discovered another thing she needed him for, another thing she had to do without him: throw out silage, spread fertilizer, hook up the mower, and and and. She fumbled and foostered as best she could till that blessed snick came — a latch on the machinery, a lever in her mind. Only there were too many latches and not enough levers. The most stubborn was the grab’s connection, and her greased fingers were again sliding off it the morning someone called her name.

It had been a month since the funeral. A month of strange vans pulling into the yard and asking for the boss man — Her? Really? — a month of working, eating, and sleeping on her own. So when Marty strode over and offered to connect the trickiest, slickest wires, she let him, and she let him stay for the whole day and the next. She was delighted for his help, even if it came with his opinions.

Not tellin’ ya yer business, he would say, then tell her her business. Some suggestions were helpful, like cameras for the calving area, installed for the following spring, but others, like constructing gargantuan sheds, had all the thought someone puts into spending someone else’s money for them. Things were tight: the bank was being awful fussy over Barry’s accounts. They asked for forms she’d already sent, forms she, too, had lost. She explained the situation before handing Marty what were her birthday and Christmas savings (still not enough), and his grin slackened. She would never have guessed that he couldn’t read and so counted money by color of notes. A few farmers had copped this and tried to slip him more of one color than another or, worse, a check, but thankfully he’d always been seeing a girl who made sure for him, till drink got its claws into him. It cost Marty his father’s farm; he was a different man on it.

This he told people, though mostly, and most unconvincingly, himself. Only he knew what he couldn’t manage sober (a farm), and for him, drink was a bad master and a great servant: always there when things got tough, a ready and willing whipping boy. Now, for the first time in a long while, Marty was living alone. He had always found someone, because no one had ever found him, and maybe no one would. It always seemed his effort to make. He was the one who had to try, and the fear that nothing good in his life seemed to happen of its own accord sometimes drove him back to drink, but this time he held off. He’d made it to his first payment, and this girl, this scar-faced young woman, was now adding his name to the family tab in Boggends. He could scarcely believe her kindness. Never before had he entered a shop without having to double-, triple-, quadruple-check the colors of his money, and still there would be the possibility of a complication at the till. Now he could get what he wanted when he wanted, like those people who said they were popping to the shop. He didn’t need to plan; he could just pop! On the first visit, he couldn’t make up his mind which of the cakes to try first, so he got them all, as a treat to himself — six weeks now he’d been dry as a rock.

Things were on the up. He was working for — no, with — this woman whose scar rippled when he made her laugh, which was seldom, wonderful. He’d always wanted someone as marked as himself, someone who’d feel lucky to have him, who’d also spend every day as he did, trying, striving, feeling the need to earn and deserve, not like those old relationships in which he was reminded, with the subtle ferocity of a static shock, that he was lucky, that he was punching.

He’d advanced, by his own daring — hers too, he thought — from waiting outside the house for water to waiting on the porch, and then one afternoon he was cutting the cake he’d brought. They celebrated a hard week’s work, made harder by 766.

Two of ye must be related, he said. Tough out so ye are.

That got the mythical smile.

* * *

The following week, he again brought coffee cake and coffee. Told Ger nothing went together better than those two. He cut her a huge chunk, asked what she thought.

She nodded, swallowed, tried and failed to ignore the pair of green fisherman’s socks on his feet. They were just like her father’s and far too clean to have been the ones Marty’d arrived in that morning. When she asked, he grinned and said, I got them off the range. Why? What’s the problem? She tried to explain there wasn’t one, really, but the conversation became more about her reaction than the action. He asked if she was angry. She said she was not, but her neck was a snitching red (more from awkwardness), and she ended up apologizing to him, telling him, asking him, to please put them back on. He shuffled out like a reprimanded schoolboy.

It took a day for him to perk up, and once they were inside, dipping his (her) custard creams into tea, she offered one of her father’s better coats. It wasn’t because she still hadn’t paid properly; rather, she felt she was incurring some other kind of debt, one that neither money nor open tabs had any means to change. This debt had something to do with Marty’s apparent kindness, and everything to do with her knee-jerk rejection of it. Why was gratitude such an effort? Was she an oddball in the way of 766, not happy till every last thing was her way? She reminded herself of the day’s length without Barry, how no one else in Boggends had bothered to come, and the tingling that came when she caught Marty’s smirks over walls and gates. As soon as the bankers stopped acting the maggot, she paid him three months in advance. There were things he knew that she didn’t: he’d saved her a fine from the milk collector after a loose pipe fitting contaminated the milk; he culled the lame, the high cell counts, the two-, three-teaters from the herd and replaced them with heifers; he got kick bars to train them in — even put some manners on 766, who groaned but gushed milk. He made one or two decisions without her, though. The biggest she discovered at Christmas, while trudging through accounts. There was an AI receipt for ten Belgian Blues in the new heifers, but also for one in 766, who was now graying at thirteen years old. Barry had said heifers needed an easy first calf, which any eejit knew was not a Belgian Blue — their bulk could tear insides out. And 766, on top of being old, was still the best milker, so her offspring would ideally be a heifer and Friesian — miles better than a Belgian Blue. When Ger asked, she made sure to do so in as casual a manner as possible, but again the discussion veered more toward her reaction. She felt ridiculous and red. Marty told her to relax, that heifers were well able because age was on their side and that 766 was well loose, so there was no need to get upset. Why was she so flustered and he so cool? There seemed to be a connection, which, like the plugs on the tractor, she couldn’t do alone.

* * *

The following spring, Ger was almost disappointed when there was no need to call a vet, though the cameras were a waste because 766, no matter the hour or the weather, bawled, and her bawls conducted the entire herd into an orchestra of outrage that another cow dared have a calf. The herd had grown to an exhausting degree, and so had the cows themselves — their bulk swollen from pregnancy and feed Marty had said they should buy with each new animal. She found it more and more difficult to slip past their hips when dividing, though with some of the pets, she found she could lean into their bellies and rest her eyes while they chewed the cud. One or two even scarfed their necks back around her, and she felt held like never before, as though she’d been embraced with one arm her whole life.

Are you sleepin’ on the job?

Marty saw and plagued her till she went inside to lie down. She floundered to the couch, and when she woke, he was still there. The sun was gone. Easy, he said. I’ve the work done. She watched as he got a board for some cake, the smaller plates, the best knife; he knew where it all was, and his easiness made her uneasy. That was her food, and this was her house; sharing wasn’t sharing if you didn’t choose it. After they’d eaten their fill, Marty yawned and said, I’m bet. Don’t think I should drive home.

She offered a lift but was told she looked wrecked and that he’d only worry about her getting back home. She said the rooms were a mess (they weren’t), and he said he didn’t mind, but she minded. The spare bed was her old bed, and the only other was Barry’s, and she was sleeping in his because she couldn’t stomach seeing it empty. Again she said she’d drive and this time was met with a silence so gaping that she stuffed it with prattle of how the couch could be comfy, that there may be duvets and pillows in the hot press.

More cake was offered, and she had difficulty swallowing. Later, before she closed her door, Marty called up, Gugnigh, his pronunciation mangled by a toothbrush. Only after she’d climbed into bed did Ger wonder whether he’d found or brought it. He didn’t stay the following night, but the night after, while heating muffins with ice cream, he again declared exhaustion. She wanted him in some ways, wanted him to come and go when she pleased, but he edged past her reason with reasons of his own, and the intrusion was so slight and fair that pushback would feel like a shove. Calving season was coming to a close. Then she would say no.

* * *

May. The sun got surer and shined more confidently through the day. It was there when Ger woke at five, from a bawling, low and hard, like the throttle of a motor. She wrenched herself from bed, where she’d been dreaming of the superstore checkout boy, whom she hadn’t seen in a year. She was tucking pants into socks when the box against the bedroom door began whispering along the carpet. Marty’s face — swollen with sleep, drink — peered round.

What’s with the box?

It’s for the wind.

Hours earlier, she’d left him in the kitchen with his second bottle, before his chair had inched closer.

I’ll be outside, he said.

Had he knocked? Maybe too lightly for her to hear. 

He waited beyond the porch, the light of his cap blinding as she slipped into wellies.

Do you want to go get the beestings? she asked, but he was talking over her, his voice high in her ears, his cider-stink loud in her nose. She swore he’d mentioned a drinking problem, but she was hardly going to act the nag when he uncorked the bottles, especially after he’d saved her a contractor’s fee and spread the slurry himself.

During the long walk up the yard, she blathered on about iodine and ropes to distract him, and herself, from each bump on the shoulder and their distance from the outhouse wall.        

Oh, the beestings! she said, and headed for the parlor.

The light bulbs grumbled on as she bent under the sink for a quart, and when she stood back up, Marty was nudging her, or her him.

S’alright, he said, picking up the bottle she’d dropped. S’only me.

766 started bellering then, and there was an excuse to go somewhere else: down through the pit, up the steps, across the yard. The time between her steps was short and hard, the time between his long and easy; the distance didn’t change.

Yer all business tonight, he said, laughing, then told her to take it handy because she’d climbed through the top gate so quickly that her appearance on the other side sent half the herd scuttling.

766 was stretched out inside the main pen, two hooves crisscrossed under her tail. Barry usually waited till he was required inside, and left the chain undone for quick getaways; Ger went in and closed it behind her. When Marty started to unclip the lock, she said it wasn’t a good idea for the two of them to be inside, and her proposal was seconded by 766, who twisted her neck with a shriek that drummed Ger’s chest. Marty waited, gate in one hand, chain in the other, his grin half grimace.

The calf was monstrous. A Belgian Blue whose waterslide tongue seemed to mock Ger’s efforts. She got Marty to hand in gloves, lubricant, and ropes from the barrel outside, but each time, he came further in for the handover, and any progress Ger had made was undone by 766 getting upset, getting up.

I’m only trying to help.

I know, but she doesn’t like it.

How’d you know?

Rain hissed on the metal roof. 766 was pushing again, and with each push Ger pulled, and then the calf was inching out, and she was groaning from the effort, above the clinking of chains — Marty stepping in — and they were almost there, she could feel it, feel it by the tear of muscles, and then — a slick release, a big wet clop. The second half of the calf arrived with such unexpected force that it floored her. 766 sprung up and around to lick and prod them both. And snort — Marty was too close. She did not want him any closer, but he already was, dragging her by the collar, away from calf and mother, who followed, nostrils throttling.


G’way! — he took swipes at the mother’s head — G’way!

A duck, a dive.

There was a sudden muteness as the underside of the cow hurtled over her — hooves, belly, udder, and hooves (the last of which sparked her skull) — then a bang followed by more bangs, which grew softer and softer till, eventually, she could lie her whole head on them.

* * *

She came round to grunting and nudging and the tongue of 766 scraping her face. Marty’s body was a worn coat, hung through the gate. The calf, blue and white and swirled in steam, towered over her, suckling its mother, who divided her attention between the two of them. As her scar was licked, Ger shivered. Drizzle on the shed’s roof had started to clear, like the static of a radio finding its station.