A herd of cattle graze around bluebells, foxgloves, cotton grass, oak, hawthorn, and horse chestnut. A glass dome enshrines them. They’re oblivious to the financial burden of their existence, but I feel they know some of them will be taken tomorrow, that it will be the children.
‘You just going to stare at them? Louise, they’re more scared of you. . . ’
‘I know,’ I reply to Mom, who stands beside me with her robot, Met. ‘Repeating it doesn’t help.’
‘Well, you’ll have to get reacquainted with them.’ Her black hair has grey ribs, and her skin is dark, wrinkles marking it like thin gullies. I feel pale and young next to her, but I am not young.
‘Maybe you dying is what’s making them nervous.’ I mumble, low enough that she can’t hear, or at least low enough that she pretends she can’t.
Mom grasps Met’s outstretched arm and the two stroll through the herd.
Red, black, white, and tinges of blue, a mix of cows, yearlings, and calves. Their mouths rotate, thick teeth grinding down regurgitated grass. Necks outstretched like telescopic lenses. Bulbous eyes draped in voluminous lashes.
Square yellow tags dangle off their long ears. Each bears a specific four-digit number. When I was a child, I said they looked like earrings.
I’ve been back in Gortmore for weeks, but the cows still puck when I approach, vehemently if I’m near their calves. I watch from the perimeter as the robot’s white panels weave between unflinching animals. Met’s head has a black screen attached to its front, showing one white rectangle below two white squares: a mouth and eyes.
‘They can smell the fear off you,’ Mom says, walking up to a black Angus. ‘Just look at their deep nostrils, how couldn’t they?’
Once she’s finished lecturing me, we step out of the dome and into a muggy July afternoon. A dirt path leads to the family home between tufts of burnt grass, cracked soil, and the skeletons of trees.
A heat warning blares in my left ear and my grey cells get to work, the metal ovoids swimming through my blood, regulating my temperature. In the city, I barely felt their presence.
‘That’s rain coming,’ I say, looking up at a tower of cumulus approaching the second glass dome and dulling its solar panels.
‘Mmm,’ Mom says. ‘Met, go get the clothes in before I’m left with holes in that new dress.’
‘Yes, Mrs Joyce,’ Met says in a soft, feminine voice. She looks at me. ‘Louise?’
The robot looks down at Mom’s arm, which she holds, and it takes me a moment to realise she wants me to take it. The arm is thin, bones prominent beneath soft flesh. Met nods and then she’s gone, striding across the crumbling land.
The air inside is cool. My grey cells relax. The kitchen’s stone tiles and marble countertops are faded but clean. Mom and I sit at the dinner table, near a space where the range used to be. Met comes in the back door with a basket of clothes that she hangs on the clothes horse as rain begins hitting the window.
Neither of us comments on Dad’s absence. In the afternoons he tends to burrow away in one of the rooms down the hall. I’ve tried to go to him, but he doesn’t react well. He panics. Once, he screamed. I never heard him scream before. There was so much fear in that sound.
‘She’s handy,’ Mom says, watching Met fill the kettle.
‘Doesn’t she make you feel lazy?’ I joke. At eighty-five, Mom should be resting, but she’s only speeding up.
‘A bit, but sure she’s happiest when she’s useful.’
‘Tea, Louise?’ Met asks.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘thank you.’ It’s funny to be dealing with a robot. In restaurants or friends’ homes, I’m used to androids, or ‘creepy looking humans’ as my parents call them.
Met brings over the tea, each cup lightened with a dash of soy. We drink silently, cattle lowing just audible.
‘They’re loud this evening,’ I say.
‘We’ll be taking the calves tomorrow,’ Mom replies.
‘It happens every year.’
‘And it always bothers you.’
‘How couldn’t it?’ I try not to raise my voice.
It’s minutes before she replies, her voice kinder.
As a child, I was kept awake at night by the sound of cows grieving over the calves taken from them. Their calls grew long and broad, voices breaking beneath the weight. By day, I sat cross-legged in the field watching them. Some walked around methodically. Some sniffed the spot where they last saw their child. Some searched for weeks. Others for months.
‘You’re sure you want to take over?’ Mom asked me outside the back door the day I arrived home. ‘When I’m gone there won’t be anyone to drag you away from staring at upset cows, and I don’t want you turning to drink and red like Michael.’
‘You know I don’t take anything.’ I blew out strawberry and cream from my vape pen and watched the small cloud dissipate. ‘Just vape and a smidgin’ of coke.’
‘Don’t joke about that.’
I never met Michael, Grandad, but he reverberates throughout my life. He tried to rewild the land, but drought and flooding fucked that idea over, so he started drinking. Mom would show me photos of him in his brimmed hat and glasses. He had the look of someone who couldn’t live on drink.
I touched my head, still unused to the sharp dots of my buzz cut. My old hair never cooperated with farm work.
‘Your hair was so nice,’ Mom said. ‘You know just looking tough won’t get you by out here.’
‘Stop. I enjoy working the land, being around cows.’
‘There’s great peace in them.’ She paused. We stared at the withered potted daisies on the patio. ‘I’m just making sure you’re ready for when we leave.’
I wanted to ask her why she had to go. Why was she going when it was only Dad who was dying?
‘Morning, Louise,’ Dad says when I walk into the kitchen. I smile, happy he’s remembered my name. ‘Sleep well?’
‘I did.’ The lie comes easy. ‘How about you?’
‘Grand, but the heat is killing me. Breakfast?’ He makes to get up, but I wave him back down.
‘I can cook if Met isn’t around?’
‘She’s up with your mother, watching the cows before ye go separating them.’
‘She’s good after cows?’ I ask. I cook up some rashers, sausages, and white pudding, all synthetic. Owning animals doesn’t mean you can afford to eat animals.
He nods. ‘I swear, she’s the finest sheepdog I’ve ever seen.’
We chat away while eating. I try not to stare at him. I try to be friendly.
Met’s model looked clumsy in its ad, but the beaming reviews and cheap price swayed me. After breakfast, I join her and Mom and watch as she sprints behind the cows in sweeping semi-circles, funnelling them towards the enclosure we use for separating. I thought I’d be useful since Dad isn’t anymore, but I don’t even know where to stand.
Some of the cows and calves turn when they see me near the enclosure’s gate and Met emits a high-pitched noise that turns them back. They eye their respective calves who gallop beside them, spindly legs tripping.
‘Stand out of the way,’ Mom yells, surprisingly nimble behind the herd. She uses a sharp stick to both support herself and wave the cattle onward.
My wellies almost trip me as I sidle far enough to the left that I should register as a bystander. But still, the cows hesitate. They treat the gap like a wall, churning in front of it. I try to mimic Mom’s behaviour, threading around their backs, swinging my stick rhythmically, striking them, pushing the cattle until a calf and cow stumble through the open gate. The others soon follow.
The cattle crush stands in the enclosure, a contraption made of thick bars designed to keep cows still. It’s where they’re given medicine, impregnated, and tagged.
‘They always sense something’s wrong when they’re in here,’ Mom says. ‘Now, you stand over by the gate and only let the calves and yearlings through.’
A barbed wire fence splits the area evenly. I open its gate slightly.
The cows’ hooves crack on the cement floor. They mill about, shoving one another, heads propped up on backs, some climbing others.
A red Limousin calls out.
An Angus replies in bursts, tongue poking out between stubby teeth.
‘Will you calm down?’ Mom taps the back of the Angus’s calf with a stick, sending her bolting. Met keeps the mother back.
The calves run through the gate, thin tails waving.
The Limousin’s calf shouts and her mother bursts forward. I slam the gate in her face.
Several times I’m forced to slap my stick against the cows’ foreheads until they yield. Mom yells repeatedly to give them a lash, but I can’t make myself do it.
Eventually, we get all seven calves and five yearlings away from the herd. ‘Let them out,’ Mom shouts, as the cows’ lowing intensifies.
I rush to the dome’s metal door and slide it open. Dry air and silence rush in to meet moisture and noise. Met vaults over the fence and joins me in shooing the young cattle outside.
‘Should I close the door?’ I shout back.
‘No, just keep going.’
Met keeps the cattle walking between the barbed wire fences, down the path running between the domes. They’re nervous, excited, as if they’re going on an adventure.
Remnants of green decorate the stunted woodland in the distance, and crows scatter from the trees, leaving cawing echoes that send the calves skittering.
I’m lost in the moment, thinking the work is done for today. Then I hear screaming. Mom. At first, I think she’s just angry at the cows’ persistent lowing. That thought is followed by the image of her being trampled. I sprint back and find her striking her stick against a cow’s head, which blocks the dome’s door.
‘Will you help get this door. . . ’ she says, but the black and white-head pushes through. ‘You shit. Louise, turn her around.’ Mom slams the door shut and before I can react, the cow barges past me, neck outstretched, lowing. The calves stall and the black and white-headed one turns and rushes back. Met’s beeps don’t impede cow or calf and then they’re back together and she’s sniffing him carefully.
‘What do I do now?’ I say.
‘Go around and separate them,’ Mom replies. ‘We only need the calf in the other dome.’
I nod and duck under one of the fences. Having spent his life in a dome, the calf can’t be familiar with barbed wire fences, but still, he learns fast and copies me, slipping through where the wire is lax. I’m sure that one or two of the spikes stick into him, but he doesn’t seem to notice and hops out into the brown grass.
Met’s managed to get the other calves into the second dome and has turned to see what’s happened. She immediately jumps the fence and dashes after the calf. She should catch up easily, but the crumbling ground impedes her.
I don’t know if I’d make things worse by chasing the calf, if I should just trust Met. Before I can decide, the cow crashes through the barbed wire fence.
‘You bitch,’ Mom says.
Met, caught halfway between cow and calf, hesitates.
‘Met, you feckin turn them round,’ Mom calls, but we both know that’s near impossible. In the dome, there was the gate, a target, but out here the only way back is over those spikes again.
Met beeps as she’s thrust to the side. I sprint, spurred on by Mom, but if Met wasn’t able to match the calf’s pace, there’s no way I can. By the time I reach Met, who’s struggling to stand, the cow and calf have vanished into the woods.
Part of me wants to be happy for them, escaping from the slaughterhouse, but I know they’ll die out there, and I don’t think they know how painful that death will be. I look up at Mom’s hand on my shoulder. ‘We can go after them later. The truck will be here soon.’
‘It was my fault.’
‘You’re still clumsy around them.’
Mom starts back to the dome. ‘But sure, these things happen.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say.
‘Stop. She was bound to break out eventually. She’s wanted to for years.’
Back at the dome, Met and I funnel the calves and yearlings onto the truck. A young man in a mustard shirt and jeans stands to the side, vaping while scrolling through his phone. Mom explains why the numbers are off.
‘You’ll still be charged,’ he says, not looking up.
‘I know,’ Mom replies.
‘I can’t stick around.’ He frowns.
‘I never asked you to.’
‘Yeah. Sure, you didn’t.’ He looks at me and half smiles. ‘The truck is set to start up soon, so you’re on your own.’
‘Fine,’ I say.
‘But I’ll see you again.’ He stares.
‘Asshole,’ I mutter, as he walks away.
He half turns but doesn’t say anything.
Once the truck is gone, we make our way towards the woods. Last night’s rainwater sits in grey puddles that spread across the sickly land. Lough Corrib lies in the distance, diminished in the heat.
We climb over a fallen wall that once separated our land from our neighbours. It all belongs to us now and is covered in the ragged woodland of Grandad’s afforestation attempt. We struggle around boulders, walls of briars, and gullies choked with blackened leaves.
‘You think we’ll manage to get them back?’ I ask.
‘Maybe if the cow was used to the land, but this one’s never been properly outside.’ Mom takes a deep breath and calls, Prup, prup, prup.
Birds used to live in the woods. I doubt there were many insects or worms left for them, but Dad used to put out feeders and scraps. Sometimes, I spotted a fox skulking nearby. Once, it held a crow in its mouth.
Today, the woods are silent except for our footsteps.
The sun reaches between bare branches. My grey cells buzz as sweat seeps down my chest, back, and underarms. ‘Is there any point in us looking?’ I ask.
‘Honestly,’ Mom replies, ‘we might be better off without them, fewer mouths to feed and all that.’
‘Decided what?’ I asked over the phone as I paced wearily around my sitting room. I’d spent the evening tutoring St Mary’s kids on Macbeth, and I was wrecked.
‘Decided that we want to pass on.’
‘Seriously.’ I rubbed my eyes, not wanting to deal with this right now. ‘You’ve said this before.’
‘Don’t talk to me like that, I’d like to see you deciding when you’re going to die.’
‘Mom, you’re still working.’
‘Your father isn’t, though.’
‘Why’s that? His fingers cramping up again?’ I got up and walked into the kitchen, where I surveyed the freezer.
‘No. It’s the other. . . ’ Her voice stuttered. I stood still, enduring the icy air for a moment before closing the freezer. ‘I found him outside looking for Spot.’
Rain lashed against the window. Someone stumbled down Shop Street’s cobbles, streetlamps revealing them in a bright yellow jacket billowing in the wind.
I should check the sandbags.
‘You’re sure it won’t go away again?’
The other end of the line was silent, and I was about to ask Mom if she was still there when I heard weeping.
Having short hair saves me time showering, and it’s only minutes before I plop myself down in the sitting room with a pint glass of water. Dad sits in a high back armchair in the corner, watching scenes of people camping in front of barricades in the Channel Tunnel.
‘You’d think they’d just go home and not chance heading over there. Europe’s never been good for us.’
I don’t argue. I nod, commit to a few Mmms and Yeahs. But I can’t keep going. The conversation is too familiar.
I wander into the kitchen where Met is cooking dinner. Mom watches her chop rosemary and sprinkle it on the potatoes. The aroma makes me glad non-synthetic veg is still cheap.
‘Not as hard this time,’ Mom says as she hands Met the potato masher.
Met’s pixelated mouth curves slightly upward.
‘I didn’t know she could smile,’ I say, watching the robot mash the potatoes methodically while stirring the gravy.
‘Oh, she can,’ Mom said, still watching Met. ‘When I first got her she did it all the time. Now she saves it for certain occasions.’
After dinner, Mom puts Met out to sleep and sits with Dad, watching his Blu-Rays again. I go into my room and spend the evening scrolling through Twitter, listening to the chorus of lowing, the intermingling intonations swelling into cacophonous sorrow.
When I was a teenager, I tried to stop caring. But the picketers outside our farm wanted me to hurt. They tried to drag the pain out. They wielded posters: calves with tears trailing down their faces, dried-up lakes, decimated forests, people homeless, people suffering.
They’ve stopped now that most farms are gone, but I still get lectures from colleagues, friends, and students. I’ve had relationships where I’ve been guilted. I’ve had one-night stands where I’ll fuck a man and then he’ll lecture me. I’ll get angry or I’ll avoid the topic, but I’ll be judged no matter what.
At my parents’ funeral, friends will ask what’s going to happen to the farm. When I’ll say I’m not sure, they’ll try to convince me to give up on it. They’ll expect me to repent, to kneel down in church and say Hail Marys and Our Fathers.
I won’t do that.
The next morning, I rise before the sun. In the utility room, between the washing machine and clothes horse, I find Met plugged in, screen blank. I turn her on. Her eyes and mouth appear. I ask her to follow. She stays silent as we make our way to the woods.
‘Met,’ I say, eventually.
‘Do you think that I’m being stupid?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Looking for the cow and calf. Do you agree with my mother? Should I just let them go?’ We step over the same felled wall from yesterday.
‘I’m afraid I don’t know.’
‘Or you don’t want to say.’ I smile. ‘Do you have any advice for catching the cow?’
‘I apologise. I have never been good at this task.’
‘You mean cows have gotten out before?’
‘A few times.’
‘And you’ve been able to get them back.’
‘A few times. Though it was mostly down to Mrs Joyce.’
She’s failed before, and she never told me. ‘Well, we’ll see if we can manage.’
The sun peeks over Lough Corrib, lighting the oily morning dew on the leaves. It’s been a while since Dad came down here with a chainsaw, and the undergrowth slows me down. I bend around strings of briars which Met simply walks through.
We move around dark tunnels, and I remember the advice Dad gave me as a child, ‘Watch out for badgers. If one catches you, break a stick so it’ll think you’ve broken a bone.’
I used to wonder how they could be so aggressive. Cows had legs that could shatter ribs, but even as a child, they were terrified of me. So I was fearless of badgers. I’d almost climb right into their homes.
‘They’re all dead,’ a classmate told me. ‘You farmers used to kill them.’
‘Good,’ I replied. ‘Mom says they were vicious.’
‘Because they’re afraid of you.’ He pushed me.
I pushed back.
Deeper into the woods, I become disoriented. Twice I find myself passing the same fungus-encrusted tree, and the third time I see it I almost laugh.
‘Any idea which way to go?’ I ask Met.
‘I’m sorry, Louise. I don’t know.’
I sit down against a lichen-covered boulder and rest.
The heat of the climbing sun makes me drowsy, and the measly fruit breakfast I had means my stomach starts to ache. I take a few puffs on my vape pen. I don’t know if I can get up. Those hours on my exercise bike are starting to feel useless. They didn’t help my dating record and they’re not helping me chase down a cow.
A noise—a crack of a branch—comes somewhere in the distance.
‘Met,’ I whisper, ‘which way?’
Met leads me a direction I’m sure we’ve gone already, but then I notice hoofprints creating a path through a thicket of briars. I stoop low under the thorns, but I’m snagged. I wrench my hoodie away and the action sends me tumbling down a narrow slope.
I curse, brush the dirt off my arms and pull a thorn out of my finger. Shuffling nearby startles me. I rise when the noise subsides and move carefully forward.
The cow drinks from a fetid, murky pool. The calf sidles up and begins suckling on a teat, thrusting his head into it. I shuffle behind a boulder.
Met and I follow the cow as she moves on. She keeps looking behind her and sniffing the air, and I’m convinced she can smell me skulking. I wish she understood that I want to save her. I wish Mom knew that as well.
But all they want to do is die.
The calf skips ahead out of sight before returning with a dirt-covered face. The cow lows quietly. Her tongue reaches and plucks ivy from a rock. Her eyes are interlaced with red lines. They look at me.
‘Met, get down.’
The robot crouches silently while I thud against the ground, whacking my elbow.
The cow lows and starts to trot away, carrying her right hind leg off the ground.
‘She’s injured,’ Met whispers.
The calf hops alongside his mother. The cow turns, as though to scold, but then seems to decide differently. ‘We’ll have to get in front of them, to turn them back,’ I whisper.
Mom and I spoke nearby the cows. They were an inattentive audience, standing close together, heads dipped, sipping water from a refilling trough. Calves play-fought, the older ones pushing the younger around.
‘You know I could mind you and Dad,’ I said, sounding like a child who didn’t want to be left alone.
‘I’m sure you could,’ she said, ‘but I told you about our promise.’
‘But I can be there for you when he’s gone.’
‘Louise.’ She smiled. ‘I don’t mean this in a bad way. . . but I’ve always needed him. I needed someone who would stand up to me.’
‘But we’ve always been close,’ I said, sucking on my pen.
‘Not that close.’
‘You’re so cutting.’ I snorted, shaking my head.
‘Would you rather I lied?’
I rush and narrowly avoid decrepit trees. Before long I find myself outside the woods. The ground clear of obstructions, I break into a sprint and follow the curve of the perimeter. I can hear the cow and calf stamping on the undergrowth and try to predict where they’re going to exit.
‘Met, to the right,’ I say, and we diverge to flank the cow.
She exits the woods right in front of us, moving purposefully, but that back leg still hops off the ground.
Shuh, I say, arms out, making myself big.
She stops, exhaling loudly, nostrils dripping.
‘We have you now.’
Met emits a screeching buzz.
The cow lows. We approach and she turns and starts away from us.
We work in tandem, on either side of the cow and calf, stopping them from turning around. I wish I remembered to bring a stick, but a stomp on the ground is enough to steer them.
We try to keep our distance, knowing rushing risks damaging the cow’s leg further. We let her walk when she’s heading the right direction and let her stop for a drink in the same spot from earlier.
I exhale when the cow and calf plod through the wall of briars Met guided me through.
‘She knows where she’s going.’ I reach for my pen.
‘I think so,’ Met replies.
‘I really want to lie down.’ I inhale cherry and release it with a sigh.
The cow steps over the knocked wall. The trees thin out, exposing us to the sun which reflects off the second dome.
I’m dying of thirst. The cow and calf must feel the same. The water out here can’t compare to what’s inside the domes.
As the animals move around the dome, I realise we need a plan to get them past the barbed wire fence.
‘Met, can you take down part of the—’
I am drowned out by the lowing of the dome-enclosed cows who come into view.
The black and-white head responds with one deep, pained low. This could make everything easier. She and the calf might run into the dome themselves.
But they don’t. The cow turns and starts towards the Corrib, limping. The calf stares at the dome, and I wonder for a moment if he’s going to abandon his mother. But he doesn’t. He follows.
‘No.’ I break into an exhausted run. ‘Why are you going that way?’
The land towards the lake becomes marshy, and I zigzag to avoid the patches of corrosive water. The cow shows no such hesitation, moving even when the mud reaches the curve of her back legs.
I run across the few dry spots where rushes poke up. I’m reckless. Prup, prup, prup, I call, but she starts sprinting.
I’ll never catch up. If we keep going like this, the cow will only wind up with a broken leg. Even if I wanted to, I can’t keep going. My legs are tired, heavy.
I walk after the cow. I try to plan how to get around her and her calf, but they’re wary of me, and even trudging along, they outpace me.
‘I guess we lost them, Met.’
She doesn’t reply. She’s not beside me.
She’s moved in a wide arc and gotten around the cow and calf. They stop as she approaches. The black and white-head stares her down.
‘Turn them around,’ I say, breathless. The cow’s narrowed attention gives me the chance to get in front of her.
Met doesn’t move. She stands silent.
No response. Her face is neutral.
The calf’s greyish tongue hangs out of his mouth. I’m not sure he can survive more exertion. We’re so close to saving them, but we must be careful.
I move cautiously toward them, swinging my arms back and forth. The cow lows. She shoved Met to the side yesterday, and I know she could do the same to me. My grey cells can heal cuts and scrapes but not broken bones.
The cow huffs and shakes her head. I know that look.
‘Leave them off,’ comes Mom’s voice in the distance. ‘I’m telling you to leave them off.’
‘No.’ Her presence drives the fear out of me.
I stare the cow down, the same way I’ve stared down disobedient students. But the cow doesn’t flinch. She scrapes the ground with a hoof. She lowers her forehead.
When she charges, I kick her head. I keep kicking, slowing but not stopping as the cow forces me back. She pushes me with such determination that I wonder what her goal is.
It feels exhilarating. Kicking her. Later I’ll chide myself. I’ll be furious at what I did. But in that moment in the field, I feel excited at fighting something larger than myself.
‘This isn’t easy for you,’ Dad said, lying in bed.
‘No, it isn’t,’ I replied, leaning against the wall, flexing my fingers.
‘You know, sometimes, I hold back the thoughts I have because I don’t know if they’re true or not, and I don’t want your mother to know how far I’m gone.’
‘I understand.’ I looked at his head. Freckles dotted the pale skin.
I didn’t look at his eyes.
I knew how I’d feel if I looked at his eyes.
The feeling lasts only seconds. I realise I’m going to lose. The cow isn’t backing down. I’m suddenly terrified that I’m about to die. This large, limping beast who is just supposed to be food is about to kill me, and not out of malice, but because she wants to be with her child, even if it means dying.
The cow steps back, her face covered in dirt and blood, and charges. I scamper backwards, arms outspread, part of me still believing I can stop this. Mom’s yelling closes in, so close that I’m sure she can see my fear.
I want to show her that I won’t give up. Instead, I turn. I run. I should hop to the side, but I don’t. I feel the cow’s forehead touch my back. I remember the human spine poster from the first classroom I taught in.
I feel a push. Mud and water splash up onto me and my shoulder hits the ground hard. The pain distracts me for a moment before I’m pulled back by a shrill, inhuman noise, joined by a human scream.
The cow is trampling Met. The blood that covers the hair on her head drips onto Met’s white panels and black face. Met’s thick fingers curve, reaching for something to pull her away but finding nothing. The cow shakes her head, her lowing demented and tired as she stumbles away.
‘I told you to let them go!’ Mom’s bent over Met. The robot’s white carapace has been torn open. A mess of colourful wires hangs out, sparking. The screen on Met’s face is blinking, displaying a garble of symbols. Broken words escape her exposed speakers.
I sit still, watching Mom and Met.
By the time I convince myself to look towards Lough Corrib, the cow and calf are gone.
This is the first of five stories we are publishing online this week to coincide with the publication of our Galway 2020 edition. The five stories have been selected by the issue’s guest editor, Lisa McInerney. Publication of the stories and the issue is in association with Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture.