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Short story: Growing up, by Dan Davin

"Mick looked away. But his ears heard the thud": rural New Zealand gothic by Dan Davin, first published in 1947, and collected in a newly published book of stories by the great Southland writer.

It was late afternoon but the heat had not gone out of the day. Gorse pods still burst occasionally and their abrupt snap seemed to split the moments in two like the halves which went on twisting, the inner sides black and shiny and the outer silky and furred as a bee, even after their seeds had whirled out in an invisible arc to the future. Hidden in the sky the larks exulted, far above the paddocks which concealed their private future, the nest of four pale eggs. And on the edge of Murray’s swamp the frogs croaked harsh praise of a world of sun and grass and water.

At Walsh’s little house on the corner Mick and his father turned into Grass Road. They could see by the blue smoke curling above the macrocarpa hedge that old Mr Walsh was watching the passing of men and time from his usual ambush. When they came level with the pink-painted picket gate he took the pipe from his mouth and looked at them with faded blue eyes.

“She’s had the calf all right,” he said. “A fine stamp of beast she is, that cow.”

Without looking up Mick shared his father’s relief that Rosy was all right, his annoyance that once again old Mr Walsh was there to rob them of surprise.

“Thanks then, Tim,” said his father. “Yes, she’s a fine beast.” He didn’t ask whether it was a bull or a heifer and Mick knew why. The old man would have told them already if he’d been up to see. So Mick’s father didn’t stop but walked on, hands in the trouser pockets he always had made well to the front, old waistcoat unbuttoned but held in place by the weight of nails and staples he always carried in case a fence needed mending. Old Mr Walsh replaced his pipe and continued to look out over the paddocks, rehearsing in his memory unspoken the calvings of the last sixty years.

“You couldn’t have a boil on your bottom without that old fellow knowing it,” said Mr Connolly. He spoke aloud but to himself. Yet Mick felt bigger and older as he did the day his father first let him take Rosy to the bull.

They moved on up O’Donnell’s hill. Now and then Rob, the new collie, dashed from the golden flare of gorse which crowned the right of the road, looked about till he saw them, waved his tail reassuringly and vanished once more after rabbits.

Away on the left, where the country dropped to the creek and the railway, an engine shrilled triumphantly, its brood of trucks behind it. It would soon be home.

“The four-thirty-five goods,” said Mick.

“That’s right,” said his father. He took out his watch, looked at it, snapped back the cover and put it in his pocket again. “She’s up to time,” he added.

They left the road and jumping the dry ditch came to the gate, three strands of barbed wire nailed to three manuka poles. Mr Connolly lifted the wire loop from the head of the pole nearest the straining post. The gate folded back open.

O’Donnell’s trees running along the crest of the hill cut the paddock in half and the dropping sun had thrown the nearest side in shade. Rosy would be on the other side of the crest where the grass still basked in warmth.

The macrocarpa trunks were bare as high as Mick’s head. The cows had broken off the small branches and twigs, rubbing themselves there on days when the sun was too hot or rain made them take shelter. Wisps of hair clung to the rough bark. And the ground was dry there with little grass since the trees stole the rain. As they passed under Mick couldn’t help looking up to where framed in the branches the sparrows’ nests were, so untidy outside, so neat and downy within. Last year he would have been up there in the branches, counting the eggs.

Rosy lay on her side, back towards them. She was between them and the calf. She had lost all her winter hair and the sun nestled warmly in the licked whorls of her roan summer coat. She heard them coming and turning her head recognised them. She got slowly to her feet and lowed anxiously. They could see under her belly to the calf, also up now and teetering a little on legs far too long for its body.

“Gosh,” said Mr Connolly, “the kids didn’t take long to find them.”

And sure enough both Rosy and the calf had long daisy-chains draped round their necks in garlands.

Rosy shook her head as they came up and moved round to keep between them and the calf. The calf was licked and clean.

“Well, old girl,” said Mr Connolly, and he slapped her on the shoulder, “so you made it all right. Just hang on here, Mick and I’ll see if I can find her cleaning. If she hasn’t eaten it already, the old devil.”

He began to walk about the paddock, searching the grass. Rosy looked from Mick to the calf, all pride and fondness for the calf, confidence and suspicion for Mick.

“It’s here, all right, Mick,” called out his father. “We’ll leave her in the home paddock tonight and you bring up a spade and bury it in the morning.”

He came back and looked at the cow and calf. “A bull,” he said. “Pity, I hoped we’d get a nice young heifer out of her this time. A strong little beggar he looks too.”

Mick watched Rosy compassionately. She was licking the calf and each lick was a caress. Poor Rosy. She always had bulls.

His father bent over, picked up the calf and slung it over his shoulders. Rosy tossed her head and lowed, her eyes wild. The calf lowed back at her. She rushed round to where the calf’s head was and began to lick it.

“It’s all right, Rosy,” said Mr Connolly, bending his legs and heaving the calf further up his shoulders. “We’re just going home, that’s all.”

They set off for the gate. Rosy followed just behind, lowing anxiously. She walked awkwardly with her full udder.

Rob came scampering over the hill, saw the procession, stopped irresolute, then followed behind Mick, subdued.

As they passed Walsh’s house old Mr Walsh was still at the gate. He took out his pipe.

“A fine bag of milk she’s got there,”  he said. “A bull, by the look of him. A pity, and him with a touch of the Jersey. It’s a good cross for Southland, the Shorthorn and the Jersey. Well, you’ll get five bob on the skin, I suppose.”

Mick glared at him and then looked back at Rosy. She didn’t understand, luckily.

At the big wooden gate of the cowshed they stopped.

“We’d better get him in right away,” said Mr Connolly. “If she gets used to him sucking her there’ll be the devil to pay. You open the gate and as soon as I’m through nip in and close it so she can’t get through.”

The door clumped to in Rosy’s face and Mick slid the wooden bolt.

“That’s the style,” said his father.

Rosy’s roars came frantically through. The cows in the next paddock began to bellow in sympathy, recognising their common fate.

Mrs Connolly was feeding the hens, her sugar-bag apron caught up with the oats in its fold, her hand strewing out the grain in fistfuls. It fell like a rain of sunlight and the hens scurried about in a frenzy, their heads jerking up and down like the needle of a sewing-machine, their eyes always ahead of their beaks, their greed in advance of their eyes.

“A bull, Nellie,” called Mr Connolly.

“Poor Rosy,” said Mrs Connolly, “such fine calves and never a one we could rear.” Then, as if ashamed of that softening or frightened of it: “Well, I suppose the sooner it’s killed the sooner we’ll have peace and quiet again.” She pursed her lips and went on strewing the oats, mind closed against the sad bellows beyond the wall.

As Mr Connolly came with the calf to the lawn, the Scovy duck retreated with dignity and her family to the hedge. Molly, the ferret, left her young in the darkness of the inner compartment and climbed up the netting of the cage spreadeagled and pink eyes cold and curious.

Mr Connolly set the calf down on the dark of the rich, clipped grass. It stood there, doddering with its awkward grace. It had Rosy’s colouring, only at the ends the hair deepened into the Jersey’s tannish black. It was still wet from the mother’s licking. It shivered a little. It was alone for the first time. Suddenly it gave a strong young bellow, startlingly strong from something so young. Rosy’s answering bellow was prompt, desperate with solicitude.

“We’ll have to get on with it, Mick,” said Mr Connolly. ‘Fetch me the mall.”

Mick dragged the heavy mall from the tool-shed. His father hefted it above his head and put it down again. He liked the mall because it was heavy enough to make him feel his strength. Mick looked at the iron rings which bound each end of the wooden, barrel-shaped head. The calf’s eyes were big and dark.

It stood shakily in the square of green. Two hands on the handle of the mall, Mr Connolly was leaning forward, muscles relaxed, watching the calf. His grey eyes were inscrutable. Mick felt the layers of feeling inside his father, the indifference – almost callousness – forced by life which held these necessities, under this the gentleness that puzzled at the necessity, the strength and weakness of man forced by life to give life and take it.

The cables of muscle and sinew on the heavy forearms rose and tautened, the biceps bulged against the rolled sleeves. Mick looked at the mall raised high above and behind his father’s head. Would he be able to watch the down stroke? He must if he were to be grown-up.

The mall came swiftly down. Mick looked away. But his ears heard the thud.

When he looked back the calf was down. It had made no sound. There was blood at its ears and nostrils. His father was leaning on the haft of the mall, breathing more heavily. Red hairs, short and curly from the calf’s head, red and tannish black, clung in blood not curving but broken to one of the iron rings. Mr Connolly was looking down at the calf.

“Poor little beggar,” he said. And then to Mick: “I’ll show you how to skin him tomorrow. You can have the skin. It’s a good skin, worth five bob.”

But Mick was running up the path towards the house.

Mrs Connolly came back from the fowl-run. She looked down at the dead calf.

“It’s a shame,” she said. “But what else can you do? I’ve fed the pigs.” She went on towards the house.

“Bring the milk bucket back with you,” called Mr Connolly after her. “She’s got a big bag of milk on her and there’ll be a nice drop of beastings.”

“I left the bucket in the cowshed,” she replied.

He put the mall back then went to the cowshed and barred off the opening so that Rosy couldn’t get through to see her calf. He opened the wooden gate and let her into the bail.

“Poor old girl,” he said as he leg-roped her. But while he milked her, easing the great swollen udder, she kept her head turned towards him in the bail and from time to time she moaned.

“Perhaps you’ll have a nice little heifer the next time,” he said.

In the kitchen chops were frying and you couldn’t hear Rosy. Mick’s young brother came in. “What was it?” he asked.

“It was a bull so we had to kill it,” said Mick casually.

Taken from the newly published short story collection The Gorse Blooms Pale by Dan Davin (Otago University Press, $45). Next week's short story is by Kathryn van Beek.

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