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Glaistig

“D

anielle can you help with the coo?”

“I dunno.”

“Sure you can. It’s just a big beastie. ‘Sides, she’s had her calf.”

“A calf?” There’s that frown, but it’s massaged with a twitch of intrigue.

“Aye, teeny, and wee, and brown. An’ it can already lick oot its ane ear and stick a tongue up its ane nose.”

She laughs. “Really?” Then, “Suppose.”

The calf smells of new days, and her mother – Mrs Browne (with an ‘E’) – stumps through the moist, byre straw, with big plumes of nostril steam, and still wants to lick the head of the brown, living, glowing calf, whose eyes are as big as baubles, and as brown as peat water, and whose eyelashes are as thick and long as any girl could wish for. It stands at the top of a tottering A-frame of wonky legs, and bleats like a goat.

It’s true – it does have a long tongue.

It butts her leg.

It also has a cowlick like Elvis.

Cowvis? Moovis? Nah, shut up.   

This is the city-farm unplugged. Danielle could have been picking the tomatoes – loves that smell of garden centre and hot salad under glass – loves the fruity, acidic pop of them in a cheek, as the warm seeds flood into her mouth. Maybe, too, spending that last hour before school at the little farm shop, selling home-churned butter, or little duck mugs. But the calf’s okay.

Pushing and heaving the coo – the mam – out the byre is going to be tricky, though. That’s one pooey backside with a swaying windscreen wiper – that tail – flicking around.

OMG.

No clear haunch you’d want to put a shoulder to.

But Danielle gives a hefty pull on the bridle, the corded rope prickling her fingers. Tug, tug. “Cummon. Uch. Stupid muppet!”

Draaaaaag.

Cow’s got all four paws – no, that’s not right now is it? But whatever they are – braced. They’re all spread out. Silly, auld coo. Ha. Ha. It rolls the whites of it eyes and twists its head to the side, lowing once, so low and long it rattles Danielle’s boots, but out it comes – at last – bell clanking, and the little calf follows.

The stump, stump of hooves.

Mam’s got full udders, dripping milk, and that calf sticks his head under and bats around, until a long teat – like a finger of a rubber glove – is clamped in its wet mouth, and it’s tugging away. Slurping.

Yuck. Sounds like a drain bein’ suctioned oot.

Milk and saliva hangs in cords from the calf’s chin.

Danielle – wary of ‘flickage’ –  retreats back into the low-doored byre to confront the reason cows make really bad pets: poo, and lots of it. In the almost-words of that guy in that stupid shark film, which is still worthy of nightmares: “Houston, we’re gonna need a bigger wheelbarrow…”

Oh, ho, it’s the boss-man.

Calvin strides in, all proud in his bright, red wellies. They’ve even got flowers on.

Danielle’s eyes roll to the ceiling in despair. “You’ve still got them girly wellies?”

“Aye, well, at least I hav’ny got a wee…. whatever that is.”  (She’s got a Moshi Monster on her T). “An’ this barn’s no getting any cleaner. So…” He points at the long, pole-handled thing leaning on the wall.

“Wha’dya think that’s fur?”

“Err, raking?”

“It’s a fork.”

“Forking?”

“Good lass. I’ll be down the shop wi a cup of tea.”

Well, that sucks.

Danielle stares at the coo poo through slitted eyes, breathing through her mouth. Man, what a (cough) stinky – uch (retch) …

Calvin laughs his deep, booming laugh and stumps back outside, straw caked to his boot-sides. “Gid luck tae ya, missus”.

 

Let’s just say that clearin’ out some o’ that poo is like panhandling soup wi a fork.

 

When she’s done, face flushed, dusty cough, the fresh straw is spread out like a prickly ocean of gold. Little scratchy bits are still stuck in her sleeves. Calvin whuttocks on over. He’s been checking the bees (which are presumably still ‘bee-like’, ‘bee-shaped’, whatever). “Good lass. Ya can dump the barra oot back.”

“Cool.”

But they’re both kind of caught. It’s sunny, and Springy, and there’s new life wandering.

Calvin leans on the warm fork-handle. “Y’know, we may be a city farm, but we’ve still got a little bit of the auld-country here.”

They watch the calf suckling for a while.

“Is the milk in wee sections?” asks Danielle, “A bottle to every one o’ them teaty things?”

“Naw. Think it’s all joined up.”

“Ah.”

“Maybe.”

A fly buzzes past.

The calf’s nose punch-bagging again, until another teat presents itself.

“That things gan ta pop.”

“Aye,” says Danielle. “If it does it in the next twa minutes, let me know. Otherwise, I’m aff tae school.”

“Sure thing.”

Danielle sniffs. “It is totally cute. Innit?”

Calvin nods thoughtfully and abruptly straightens up. “But look, misses, come back tonight. See if yer mum’ll let you stay over in the vet’s barny.”

“How?”

“‘Cause we got more of the auld-country than” – he nods at the slathery thing – “Wee Eck.”

“Wee Eck?”

“Aye, name just came tae me.”

There is a pause.

“Dinnie look like that. ‘Eck’ is a perfectly gud name for a coo.”

 

***

 

It’s nine o’clock at night. Danielle’s watching Toy Story (thirty-second viewing and accelerating) on the battered, old telly the hands have stashed in the rail wagon. There’s a couple of bunks, and a Formica table, a couple of plastic chairs, and a microwave. This is where the hands (sometimes the vet) wait for cows, sheep, horses, maybe even the rabbits – who knows what – to go give birth and drop a slippery bag of new-born shluck, that kicks and struggles and looks generally beset. But later – after a good lick-blow-dry – it’s fluffy, and so cute it’s probably illegal.

Danielle’s seen the whole birth thing – the miracle – many times, right in the centre of town. Not bad for a lass from the schemes. It was horrible – ya widny believe it – and amazing, and definitely ick. Is that blood? Or just some purply-slimey-alieny thing? Like liver n’ bacon? Is it skin stuff? Yuch.

But mostly amazing.

Like seeing Lady Gaga at the castle: Was that meat? Plastic? Leather? Is she hermaphrodite? Well, whatever. You can just shut yer face – she’s awesome!

Twelve o’clock and it’s kind of spooky out there in the yard. Pitch black. Street-light sodium only reaches the edges of the farm. Downhill, somewhere, the buses rumble – past the duck pond and the little stretch of wild wood, and the nature garden, where the schools collect frog spawn and pick some of the wild plants. Between the farm-world and the real-world there is a ten foot, wire fence.

Calvin’s in the hut, and he smells faintly of chicken poo – a strange, sweaty-sock kind of smell. Danielle probably smells the same way, as they’ve been muckin’ out the chookery for hours. Feels like, anyway. “Well, if we’re hangin’ around,” Calvin had suggested, “may as well get useful.”

Anyway, now they’re eating Chinese noodles straight out of the foil cartons – mam hates that – and they’ve got ‘the forks of failure’, despite an enthusiastic (and literal) stab-in-the-dark with chopsticks, earlier.

One am-ish, Danielle awakes from a strange dream about zombies and a cow on a bike.

The cow was awesome at bunny-hops (cow hops?).

Don’t ask about the zombies.

Calvin’s shaking her shoulder. “Come on, sleepyhead. Out back. You’ll like this. Hat on.  Stop yawnin, you’ll catch a moth. Keep low and keep quiet.”

“It’s dark. Gawd.”

“Middle o’ the night, missus.”

“What are we lookin’ fur? Foxes?”

“Naw. Dinnie trip over everything will ya?”

Clunk! Clank! Kadunk!

“Blimey, it’s like the Tin Man oot o’ the Wizard of Oz, in a tin factory, collectin’ tin cans on – uh – tin can Tuesday. Shush! Watch oot fur that trough.”

And so on; in the dark. Until her eyes adjust a bit and she can see the broad outlines of the byres and sties, the paths about the place, and the wire fences with the animal names, facts, and faces, on laminated cards.

Calvin gives her waterproof a tug. “Naw, dinnie stand oot there, misses. Here. ‘Ahind that bin. Quiet.”

They’re near the cow byre, standing at the shed with the aquariums. A rabbit flops along in the run beside them: a stencil eating silhouette carrots and veg.

“Now, look over there. Tell me what you see.”

She looks. “Uh, shadows?”

“Anythin’ else?”

A bit more staring. Her eyes are playing funny buggers. “Still shadows?”

“Ach, it’s right in front of ya.” He points. “Just there. That.” Whispers, “See it?” And – just like one of those puzzles where you see a candlestick for ages and ages, and then, suddenly, two faces – she does see it: a tall figure, a woman, who walks strangely in a long green dress, with odd, jerking movements – all hip and sway – that none-the less, are elegant in a tumbling, pigeon sort of way. Her hair is long and so are those fingers, intent, as she is, on slipping the cord on the barn door where the cow and calf are secured for the night. That hair is probably a grey, coppery crayon, if you look at the other colours in the moonlight.

The dull ‘dump’ of the door closing can be heard across the paddock.

“Cummon, says Calvin.” His warm hand grips hers, rough as old sacking, and they make it – more or less intact – up to a barn window.

“I’ll give ya a boost. Now wha’dya see?”

Apart from spider webs outside – old, with husks of flies and daddy long legs dangling in them – and the wire lattice of the ‘school glass’ with its corroded wooden frame… nothing.

“Nothin’” is what she reports back, whispering all hoarse.

“Ach, look where the light comes in through the other window. Maybe o’er near the calf. An’ what’s this on yer wellies? You find all the shite o’ the day, or what?”

She giggles.

“And it looks up into that diamond of sodium, street-light yellow. A face of stone. A statue. Its skin blooms with that flowery stuff that grows on trees and boulders. Y’know, lickin. Lichen. Whatever. And eyes, as green as duck-pond water. This woman, has a wildcat look on her, lids narrowed, suspicious as hell, and that dress falls like a flood from that pale, grey, weathered stone of her, that none-the-less is achingly beautiful. Like that boy in sixth year, with the lips, or Danielle’s mother’s long, chestnut hair, when it’s really brushed, or the snow that time up at the big park, falling soft and silent, with the whole world wrapped away. It was wilderness, she thinks – something you could give yourself over to, though it’d like as eat you. This woman is wilderness. Her lips are slightly open, hinting at sharp canines, though nothing is seen; a wolfish prickle at the edges. Danielle has never caught sight of something wilder, more enchanting and more strange. Of course she kin see me, but she’s nae that bothered, is she? Or at least, there’s a pause as all things are considered.

She widney eat me…

Whid she?

“What can you see?” Says Calvin. “I’ve got cramp in ma fingers and shite runnin’ down ma sleeve. Can you –“

And there’s a thud of pinewood as the byre door clumps shut.

Lost it. 

The green dress flickers past the compost bins, and down the back of the greenhouses, then past the back wall, with the billowing ivy and the old door, until Danielle loses sight of the figure amongst the raspberry canes and apple trees.

“She’s quick.”

“Aye.”

Scraping down the wood boarding, Danielle splots back into the mud.

“Have we scared it off? Away, I mean?”

Calvin pushes out his bottom lip and shakes his head. “Naw. She’ll be back.”

“Where’s she live?”

“The auld oak, maybe? I planted a couple of new uns to make a wee grove. Could be the auld wall. So, whatdya’ think o’ that, eh missus?”

“Amazin’. I thought she was wearin’ a costume.”

“Aye, it’s what ah thought. A mask. Looks like a statue, dunn’it? Wearin’ a dress.” He shakes his head with a reminiscent look. “Lovely. Wild. Had to go ask ma ma, though, what it was; thought it was some ‘high-society’ lass breakin’ in the first night. But naw, she’s here for the coo.”

“What doin?”

“What they’ve always done. It’s a Glaistig.”

“A what?”

“Glaistig. Means, ah… one of them.” And he waves a hand in the direction of the trees. “Gaelic, probably. She should be oot in the wilds, but she’s come here tae keep the calf frae drinkin’.”

“That’s a bit…”

“Naughty? Naw. It gets plenty. But in the auld days, wi a herd an’ all, she’d make sure you got milk fur the big house. Stopped the calves gettin’ it all. And in return, you gie her some milk.”

“Really?”

“Aye.  So here.” And he hands Danielle a jam jar.

Even in the moonlight she can tell it’s full of milk.

“Pour it on that stane over there and we’ll call it a night.

“‘Kay.”

The lid comes off with a pop and tinny clatter, and she floods the top of the boulder. The sandstone’s slightly hollow so the offering forms a shallow, snow-white pool.

“Where’d you think she comes from?”

“Naw idea. Maybe like them city foxes in the bins: comin’ in closer to the city where they can, these days. An’ of course, we’ve got a coo (important) and Wee Eck.”

Calvin snorts at the returned look on her.

“It is so a brilliant name for a coo! Now back in that hut, or your maw will have strips off me, an’ you’ll be a grumpy wee shite in yer classes tomorrow.”

They stump back towards the beached wagon.

“Mornin’, though, I guarantee twa things: one, that milk’ll be done and gone wi, an’ it’ll naw be hedgehogs or cats. An’ twa, there’ll be goat prints everywhere.”

“Goat prints?”

Calvin laughed and batted the brim of her cap. “Christ, aye, wha’dya think a Glaistig walks on? Feet?”

9 comments

1 Icy Sedgwick { 07.18.11 at 2:42 pm }

Lovely slice of folklore!

2 Stephen Hewitt { 07.26.11 at 10:47 pm }

@Icy — thanks Icy. I hope you got the slice with the icing on it.

@Harry — the brogue was fun. Hopefully you could make everything out. Despite folk in books, and what-not, generally advising against brogue-ish-ness, I kind of like it, if it’s fairly dialled down as it is here. Some folk up in this neck of the woods write in broad Scots (which this isn’t). I love the idea of broad Scots, but even I’d have problems reading it.

@Joan — thanks Joan. Yup, goats have cloven hooves and no self-respecting Glaistig would travel without them. 😉

@John — all senses catered for. Now working on Umami 🙂

@Steve — thanks Steve. ‘Coo Poo’ is one of the basic elements of the countryside, without which we’d have no need to clean our boots on fences. In fact, would we even need fences?

@Aidan — glad things felt real and had a sense of place. I’d quite like to hang out on this farm.

3 Harry B. Sanderford { 07.19.11 at 6:07 pm }

You spin a great yarn Stephen. Enjoyed the brogue and love the rapport between Danielle and Calvin.

4 Joan { 07.22.11 at 1:25 pm }

Great story, Stephen. Loved the characters – Danielle and Calvin.
Loved the surprise at the the end that the beautiful Glaistig walks on hooves (cloven, I think – I think goats have cloven hooves).

5 John Xero { 07.23.11 at 7:33 am }

Excellent sensory descriptions in here Stephen, colours, smells, sounds, touch and that rare one, taste. Coupled with the dialect, it really brings this to life. Great writing. =)

6 Steve Green { 07.23.11 at 4:26 pm }

Folklore, humour, and brilliant wordmanship, skillfully woven together. A very enjoyable tale.

Love the expression “Coo poo” 🙂

7 Aidan Fritz { 07.24.11 at 5:29 pm }

Lovely! You grounded this is a great sense of place, just outside the city in Scotland, and that makes the paragraph that starts with And it looks up into that diamond of sodium, street-light yellow an immense pleasure. The farm feels real and I love all the detail you include.

8 Gita { 08.06.11 at 1:17 am }

“Danielle – wary of ‘flickage’ – retreats back into the low-doored byre ..” and so many other bits make this enjoyable to read. I like your wry sense of humor. And you may be the King of Casual Dialogue.

9 Stephen Hewitt { 08.10.11 at 12:08 am }

Hi there Gita — I think a lot of my stuff comes from my sense of humour, even if just a certain wry amusement. Probably the thing that makes me want to write more than anything else, though not often as pure ‘funny’ humour. I had fun with the dialogue in there. Thanks for popping on a comment 🙂

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