Shane Tivenan

Royal Calves

Traipsing over the orange and silver granite, I followed the rib of the mountain upwards as daylight found full pitch. The green of the fields either side so rich as to look dyed. Surely no natural green of that beauty exists in this world and at it they all stared. Everywhere they stared. Trees and bush and stone and minerals. Animals domesticated and wild. Everything eyed and eyeless stared and I stared and we all just looked on as the earth spun slow on an unseeable axis that stretched out into crow- black infinity.
…….Many songbirds flew a V formation overhead and I saluted the air as they passed. Supplies I needed before I walked further. At the back of a farmyard I crouched for some time and studied the form of a farmer. A butty client with round bacon cheeks and a head balded from the elements and eyebrows like sensors turned upwards for a better signal. I knew from a scan of the hill up ahead that the farm was the last outpost before the roads and half trodden trails all ended and merged and spiralled up into the knitted veins of the wild.
…….The farmer stopped midway across the yard and looked back down at his house then looked skywards and in my direction and scratched his crown and beard before settling his stare back on the house once more. Fresh smoke rose in a steady pillar and a shadow busied itself inside, cutting back and forth across the window opening. The farmer looked again at the sky and again at his yard and then stood. Stiller. He knew his place in the world. He knew every hair on the back of his farm’s hand. And now he sensed something. Oddness. Sensed being watched. But I imagined a cloak of white light over me so no eye could find me, and it being close to an hour that people like him considered their bellies, the farmer’s hand rose to his empty gut and off he walked with a perplexed look on his face. He shook off the feeling with a light whistle of a tune – a slow air if the ears weren’t playing tricks on me – made of low tones and triplets and his dog sniffed at the heels of his wellingtons as he slipped them off. I waited until he walked into the farmhouse and the whistled tune had faded into wind before I darted into the closest outhouse. Stone walls capped with corrugated sheets. Bags of fungus growing in large amounts. Alien looking and fat and springing out at quare angles from beds of vermiculite and rice. A mushroom that might fry well and I harvested all I might need for a couple of days. A stove in the corner took the worst of the cold out of the air and in the corner opposite lay a baby lamb under a large red bulb. I stood over its manger and gazed at the lamb and it at me and to it I said: I reckon you’ll make it. You’re smallish but sure look it, we’ve no need of any more monsters walking them fields. And you’re better off where you are, I said before I left her. It’s looking like rain out there but you never know, it might hold off.
…….Beside the stove a small fuel box and from it I took a canister of green diesel and some matches the farmer had left aside. I put all inside an empty bag of calf nuts and threw it over my shoulder. A stick of flint I found under an older stove, rusted orange, out behind another outhouse, and a steel bar to spark it. Both I took. My empire growing and no, not one speck of guilt ran through me. There are no such things as gifts or thefts, just energy imbalances, and I would someday balance out the energies between me and this farmer, or something greater than the both of us would do the balancing for us.
…….At the border, between his land and wild-land, a freshly dug pit and in it the corpse of a young calf. Perfectly intact. No lesions or wounds. Eyes closed in peace. Just fallen down and gone. The small smooth jawline told me she was a female, and I put the name Beatrice on her: Maybe the black leg got you, Beatrice. Or was it the sudden death? Common enough they tell me in these months in these parts and while I said this I scanned the land and took a breath deep. Or maybe Beatrice, being a little calf you just couldn’t handle the enormity of what it was that you had to face? Maybe during them first few days of new life you remembered your last life where they milked you to death or electrocuted you or fried you with gravy and onions. Or maybe I have it all arseways? A fine life you may have lived previous. A matador slaying bull in Madrid is what you were Beatrice and that’s that. Unless you tell me you were a revered nose-ringed manifestation of the Godhead who walked the streets of New Delhi unbothered and unowned with flowers chained around your neck and love locked in your heart and talk of enlightened beasts following your every move. I have you now Beatrice. I have you now, friend. Safe travels, and may the road rise up.
…….I knelt a moment beside the pit. Bowed my head. Told myself to pull myself together.


Trotting along out by the edge of the farmer’s land, with one hand fingering the uncut growth to my left, I flirted with my move. Before I crossed over, I stopped. Friesian and Simmental eyes pulling me back. Chewing pensively as if their rotary jaw movements were the cogs upon which their minds spun. I crouched down in the grass they grazed. Heifers all and some in calf and others with calf and one slumped over herself, her udders almost burst and her head hung low and she had herself well distanced from the rest. I bear-crawled towards her and she walked away slow but then stopped as when walking it looked like the bag under her would snap free with weight. I stood and ran my hand up along her soft snout and pushed my forehead against hers. She did not pull away. I whispered some noises of condolences in her ear and told her the young go to a better place when they go. I sat myself down underneath her and took out my empty stout bottle and pulled gentle and fast between finger and thumb to get a flow and then slowed to get a fill and then drank and emptied and tugged and filled and emptied and filled once more. I dipped my finger and ran a white milked line down vertical over my forehead and along the bridge to the tip of my nose. To her I did the same. I left her less loaded and she waddled off towards the parlour house below when the milking hour approached. Some starlings murmured overhead. A door banged and a tune very faint and possibly a reel rose up and I sidestepped into the invisibility of nature.


I walked along naturally gravelled paths and hopped stone walls stained in moss drops. Cutting through closures too dense to till and getting chased out of a space held by a knot of wild horses as I snatched a bag worth of fallen apples. Before the winter sun slid from the sky in mid-afternoon, I built a small bender from lengths of willow. On a smallish flat square of field, I pushed one end of each piece down a foot into the ground and rubbered it over into an arc before pushing the other end down opposite. I rotated and pushed and bent and arced until I had a dome. The growth in the area surrounding was so high that I reckoned my bender to be not visible from outside the enclosure. I threw my tarp over to keep the rain out and floored the inside with my blanket. A small fire I built from willow kindle and old felled branch. The kindle was damp so I dipped two or three lengths into the diesel can and sparked with the flint. I finished off my bread and cheese from the night previous and I washed it down with fresh Friesian milk and tasted her grief and later pissed that grief out and let the ground alchemise it into something else.
…….The wind rustled life into the high grass all around. I checked for incoming. Into an unseeable black I gaped and waited but no one came. At least with the fire I had company. The fire a teacher that made me look and swerve and swoop and be present if I wanted to keep the two eyes in my head. In the fire, I saw his strong arms move, and the breeze it picked up and up and then dropped and all these cycles danced in and out of each other and in and out of each of them as well I danced.


Stretching back the length of myself, half in and half out of my bender, I fell into dreams. Dreams where I walked behind royal calves with red and white lines painted on their crowns. Dreams where they moved along paths and people stood out of their way and from the steam of their fresh shite rose visions of other worlds where they were adored and where they reigned again sovereign and in through one of these portals I stepped and on into their dreams I walked and walked and walked and I walked.

Shane Tivenan is an Irish writer based in Madrid. His short story about the Irish woman who shot Mussolini, ‘Flower Wild’, won the RTE Francis MacManus Award in 2020. He was shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize in 2019. His work has been published in Spain, the UK, and Ireland, and has also been broadcast on RTE Radio 1. He is currently working towards a collection of short fiction with the help of funding from the Irish Arts Council. ‘Royal Calves’ is an excerpt from a so far unpublished novel.

The above piece features in our February/March 2022, which is out now. To buy as a single issue, go here.

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