All Creatures Great and Small
By James Herriot
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1972 James Herriot
All rights reserved.
They didn't say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.
I lay face down on the cobbled floor in a pool of nameless muck, my arm deep inside the straining cow, my feet scrabbling for a toe hold between the stones. I was stripped to the waist and the snow mingled with the dirt and the dried blood on my body. I could see nothing outside the circle of flickering light thrown by the smoky oil lamp which the farmer held over me.
No, there wasn't a word in the books about searching for your ropes and instruments in the shadows; about trying to keep clean in a half bucket of tepid water; about the cobbles digging into your chest. Nor about the slow numbing of the arms, the creeping paralysis of the muscles as the fingers tried to work against the cow's powerful expulsive efforts.
There was no mention anywhere of the gradual exhaustion, the feeling of futility and the little far-off voice of panic.
My mind went back to that picture in the obstetrics book. A cow standing in the middle of a gleaming floor while a sleek veterinary surgeon in a spotless parturition overall inserted his arm to a polite distance. He was relaxed and smiling, the farmer and his helpers were smiling, even the cow was smiling. There was no dirt or blood or sweat anywhere.
That man in the picture had just finished an excellent lunch and had moved next door to do a bit of calving just for the sheer pleasure of it, as a kind of dessert. He hadn't crawled shivering from his bed at two o'clock in the morning and bumped over twelve miles of frozen snow, staring sleepily ahead till the lonely farm showed in the headlights. He hadn't climbed half a mile of white fell-side to the doorless barn where his patient lay.
I tried to wriggle my way an extra inch inside the cow. The calf's head was back and I was painfully pushing a thin, looped rope towards its lower jaw with my finger tips. All the time my arm was being squeezed between the calf and the bony pelvis. With every straining effort from the cow the pressure became almost unbearable, then she would relax and I would push the rope another inch. I wondered how long I would be able to keep this up. If I didn't snare that jaw soon I would never get the calf away. I groaned, set my teeth and reached forward again.
Another little flurry of snow blew in and I could almost hear the flakes sizzling on my sweating back. There was sweat on my forehead too, and it trickled into my eyes as I pushed.
There is always a time at a bad calving when you begin to wonder if you will ever win the battle. I had reached this stage.
Little speeches began to flit through my brain. "Perhaps it would be better to slaughter this cow. Her pelvis is so small and narrow that I can't see a calf coming through," or "She's a good fat animal and really of the beef type, so don't you think it would pay you better to get the butcher?" or perhaps "This is a very bad presentation. In a roomy cow it would be simple enough to bring the head round but in this case it is just about impossible."
Of course, I could have delivered the calf by embryotomy—by passing a wire over the neck and sawing off the head. So many of these occasions ended with the floor strewn with heads, legs, heaps of intestines. There were thick text books devoted to the countless ways you could cut up a calf.
But none of it was any good here, because this calf was alive. At my furthest stretch I had got my finger as far as the commissure of the mouth and had been startled by a twitch of the little creature's tongue. It was unexpected because calves in this position are usually dead, asphyxiated by the acute flexion of the neck and the pressure of the dam's powerful contractions. But this one had a spark of life in it and if it came out it would have to be in one piece.
I went over to my bucket of water, cold now and bloody, and silently soaped my arms. Then I lay down again, feeling the cobbles harder than ever against my chest. I worked my toes between the stones, shook the sweat from my eyes and for the hundredth time thrust an arm that felt like spaghetti into the cow; alongside the little dry legs of the calf, like sandpaper tearing against my flesh, then to the bend in the neck and so to the ear and then, agonisingly, along the side of the face towards the lower jaw which had become my major goal in life.
It was incredible that I had been doing this for nearly two hours; fighting as my strength ebbed to push a little noose round that jaw. I had tried everything else—repelling a leg, gentle traction with a blunt hook in the eye socket, but I was back to the noose.
It had been a miserable session all through. The farmer, Mr. Dinsdale, was a long, sad, silent man of few words who always seemed to be expecting the worst to happen. He had a long, sad, silent son with him and the two of them had watched my efforts with deepening gloom.
But worst of all had been Uncle. When I had first entered the hillside barn I had been surprised to see a little bright-eyed old man in a pork pie hat settling down comfortably on a bale of straw. He was filling his pipe and clearly looking forward to the entertainment.
"Now then, young man," he cried in the nasal twang of the West Riding. "I'm Mr. Dinsdale's brother. I farm over in Listondale."
I put down my equipment and nodded. "How do you do? My name is Herriot."
The old man looked me over, piercingly. "My vet is Mr. Broomfield. Expect you'll have heard of him—everybody knows him, I reckon. Wonderful man, Mr. Broomfield, especially at calving. Do you know, I've never seen 'im beat yet."
I managed a wan smile. Any other time I would have been delighted to hear how good my colleague was, but somehow not now, not now. In fact, the words set a mournful little bell tolling inside me.
"No, I'm afraid I don't know Mr. Broomfield," I said, taking off my jacket and, more reluctantly, peeling my shirt over my head. "But I haven't been around these parts very long."
Uncle was aghast. "You don't know him! Well you're the only one as doesn't. They think the world of him in Listondale, I can tell you." He lapsed into a shocked silence and applied a match to his pipe. Then he shot a glance at my goose-pimpled torso. "Strips like a boxer does Mr. Broomfield. Never seen such muscles on a man."
A wave of weakness coursed sluggishly over me. I felt suddenly leaden-footed and inadequate. As I began to lay out my ropes and instruments on a clean towel the old man spoke again.
"And how long have you been qualified, may I ask?"
"Oh, about seven months."
"Seven months!" Uncle smiled indulgently, tamped down his tobacco and blew out a cloud of rank, blue smoke. "Well, there's nowt like a bit of experience, I always says. Mr. Broomfield's been doing my work now for over ten years and he really knows what he's about. No, you can 'ave your book learning. Give me experience every time."
I tipped some antiseptic into the bucket and lathered my arms carefully. I knelt behind the cow.
"Mr. Broomfield always puts some special lubricating oils on his arms first," Uncle said, pulling contentedly on his pipe. "He says you get infection of the womb if you just use soap and water."
I made my first exploration. It was the burdened moment all vets go through when they first put their hand into a cow. Within seconds I would know whether I would be putting on my jacket in fifteen minutes or whether I had hours of hard labour ahead of me.
I was going to be unlucky this time; it was a nasty presentation. Head back and no room at all; more like being inside an undeveloped heifer than a second calver. And she was bone dry—the "waters" must have come away from her hours ago. She had been running out on the high fields and had started to calve a week before her time; that was why they had had to bring her into this half-ruined barn. Anyway, it would be a long time before I saw my bed again.
"Well now, what have you found, young man?" Uncle's penetrating voice cut through the silence. "Head back, eh? You won't have much trouble, then. I've seen Mr. Broomfield do 'em like that—he turns calf right round and brings it out back legs first."
I had heard this sort of nonsense before. A short time in practice had taught me that all farmers were experts with other farmers' livestock. When their own animals were in trouble they tended to rush to the phone for the vet, but with their neighbours' they were confident, knowledgeable and full of helpful advice. And another phenomenon I had observed was that their advice was usually regarded as more valuable than the vet's. Like now, for instance; Uncle was obviously an accepted sage and the Dinsdales listened with deference to everything he said.
"Another way with a job like this," continued Uncle, "is to get a few strong chaps with ropes and pull the thing out, head back and all."
I gasped as I felt my way around. "I'm afraid it's impossible to turn a calf completely round in this small space. And to pull it out without bringing the head round would certainly break the mother's pelvis."
The Dinsdales narrowed their eyes. Clearly they thought I was hedging in the face of Uncle's superior knowledge.
And now, two hours later, defeat was just round the corner. I was just about whacked. I had rolled and grovelled on the filthy cobbles while the Dinsdales watched me in morose silence and Uncle kept up a non-stop stream of comment. Uncle, his ruddy face glowing with delight, his little eyes sparkling, hadn't had such a happy night for years. His long trek up the hillside had been repaid a hundredfold. His vitality was undiminished; he had enjoyed every minute.
As I lay there, eyes closed, face stiff with dirt, mouth hanging open, Uncle took his pipe in his hand and leaned forward on his straw bale. "You're about beat, young man," he said with deep satisfaction. "Well, I've never seen Mr. Broomfield beat but he's had a lot of experience. And what's more, he's strong, really strong. That's one man you couldn't tire."
Rage flooded through me like a draught of strong spirit. The right thing to do, of course, would be to get up, tip the bucket of bloody water over Uncle's head, run down the hill and drive away; away from Yorkshire, from Uncle, from the Dinsdales, from this cow.
Instead, I clenched my teeth, braced my legs and pushed with everything I had; and with a sensation of disbelief I felt my noose slide over the sharp little incisor teeth and into the calf's mouth. Gingerly, muttering a prayer, I pulled on the thin rope with my left hand and felt the slipknot tighten. I had hold of that lower jaw.
At last I could start doing something. "Now hold this rope, Mr. Dinsdale, and just keep a gentle tension on it. I'm going to repel the calf and if you pull steadily at the same time, the head ought to come round."
"What if the rope comes off?" asked Uncle hopefully.
I didn't answer. I put my hand in against the calf's shoulder and began to push against the cow's contractions. I felt the small body moving away from me. "Now a steady pull, Mr. Dinsdale, without jerking." And to myself, "Oh God, don't let it slip off."
The head was coming round. I could feel the neck straightening against my arm, then the ear touched my elbow. I let go the shoulder and grabbed the little muzzle. Keeping the teeth away from the vaginal wall with my hand, I guided the head till it was resting where it should be, on the fore limbs.
Quickly I extended the noose till it reached behind the ears. "Now pull on the head as she strains."
"Nay, you should pull on the legs now," cried Uncle.
"Pull on the bloody head rope, I tell you!" I bellowed at the top of my voice and felt immediately better as Uncle retired, offended, to his bale.
With traction the head was brought out and the rest of the body followed easily. The little animal lay motionless on the cobbles, eyes glassy and unseeing, tongue blue and grossly swollen.
"It'll be dead. Bound to be," grunted Uncle, returning to the attack.
I cleared the mucus from the mouth, blew hard down the throat and began artificial respiration. After a few pressures on the ribs, the calf gave a gasp and the eyelids flickered. Then it started to inhale and one leg jerked.
Uncle took off his hat and scratched his head in disbelief. "By gaw, it's alive. I'd have thowt it'd sure to be dead after you'd messed about all that time." A lot of the fire had gone out of him and his pipe hung down empty from his lips.
"I know what this little fellow wants," I said. I grasped the calf by its fore legs and pulled it up to its mother's head. The cow was stretched out on her side, her head extended wearily along the rough floor. Her ribs heaved, her eyes were almost closed; she looked past caring about anything. Then she felt the calf's body against her face and there was a transformation; her eyes opened wide and her muzzle began a snuffling exploration of the new object. Her interest grew with every sniff and she struggled on to her chest, nosing and probing all over the calf, rumbling deep in her chest. Then she began to lick him methodically. Nature provides the perfect stimulant massage for a time like this and the little creature arched his back as the coarse papillae on the tongue dragged along his skin. Within a minute he was shaking his head and trying to sit up.
I grinned. This was the bit I liked. The little miracle. I felt it was something that would never grow stale no matter how often I saw it. I cleaned as much of the dried blood and filth from my body as I could, but most of it had caked on my skin and not even my finger nails would move it. It would have to wait for the hot bath at home. Pulling my shirt over my head, I felt as though I had been beaten for a long time with a thick stick. Every muscle ached. My mouth was dried out, my lips almost sticking together.
A long, sad figure hovered near. "How about a drink?" asked Mr. Dinsdale.
I could feel my grimy face cracking into an incredulous smile. A vision of hot tea well laced with whisky swam before me. "That's very kind of you, Mr. Dinsdale, I'd love a drink. It's been a hard two hours."
"Nay," said Mr. Dinsdale looking at me steadily, "I meant for the cow."
I began to babble. "Oh yes, of course, certainly, by all means give her a drink. She must be very thirsty. It'll do her good. Certainly, certainly, give her a drink."
I gathered up my tackle and stumbled out of the barn. On the moor it was still dark and a bitter wind whipped over the snow, stinging my eyes. As I plodded down the slope, Uncle's voice, strident and undefeated, reached me for the last time.
"Mr. Broomfield doesn't believe in giving a drink after calving. Says it chills the stomach."
It was hot in the rickety little bus and I was on the wrong side where the July sun beat on the windows. I shifted uncomfortably inside my best suit and eased a finger inside the constricting white collar. It was a foolish outfit for this weather but a few miles ahead, my prospective employer was waiting for me and I had to make a good impression.
There was a lot hanging on this interview; being a newly qualified veterinary surgeon in this year of 1937 was like taking out a ticket for the dole queue. Agriculture was depressed by a decade of government neglect, the draught horse which had been the mainstay of the profession was fast disappearing. It was easy to be a prophet of doom when the young men emerging from the colleges after a hard five years' slog were faced by a world indifferent to their enthusiasm and bursting knowledge. There were usually two or three situations vacant in the Record each week and an average of eighty applicants for each one.
It hadn't seemed true when the letter came from Darrowby in the Yorkshire Dales. Mr. Siegfried Farnon M.R.C.V.S. would like to see me on the Friday afternoon; I was to come to tea and if we were mutually suited I could stay on as assistant. I had grabbed at the lifeline unbelievingly; so many friends who had qualified with me were unemployed or working in shops or as labourers in the shipyards that I had given up hope of any other future for myself. (Continues...)
Excerpted from All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. Copyright © 1972 James Herriot. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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