The veterinarian comes in a black hole of a night and she comes to bring out a stillborn calf. She has her chains and the gloves that pinch at her biceps and she has her tired eyes. In the field there is a truck idling with headlights blaring and when the farmer wipes away his tear he leaves behind dreck and blood across his cheek. He looks up to the sky and its lack of stars and without a cloud smear and shakes his head. He says he has felt the stillborn kicking. He says things just aren’t right anymore.
When the veterinarian reaches inside there is life and not life. Blood and not blood and something truly dead. She nods to the farmer who nods in return, because there is nothing to be said. The Holstein cow, such a gentle thing and sporting such a beautiful shade of white and gray with black smudges, turns her head back.
The veterinarian finds two hooves and two spindly legs and she pulls—the cow’s muscles in spasm around her arm—and the legs churn to pull away as though the mother Holstein knows this is not supposed to happen even if she cannot explain the difference between that and any other.
The farmer asks if there is anything he can do to help. The veterinarian shakes her head. As she pulls, she gets a better hold of the stillbirth, the thighs and then the hips, and its flesh feels cold even inside of this incubation. When the hooves pass out into the air and then most of the legs—two feet, more, passing, the farmer runs to the Holstein’s head and points it forward and cups his hands behind her eyes so that she might not see. He speaks louder than he needs to: Everything will be okay. You’ll be okay. And quieter: I’m sorry.
The veterinarian wars with the cow until it relinquishes its birth. A gray and wrinkled rag of a body and barely without structure—no muscles and brittle bones unhinged by a lack of collagen. Still tucked in a transparent cocoon, amniotic fluid wetting the grass. She throws it aside and reaches back inside because there may be another.
As the veterinarian searches inside of the Holstein, she wonders if this leathery gentleness will walk on into the night and understand what has transpired tonight. If she will come to understand the death of her child and the truth: her window into motherhood is closing quickly and her womb is half-inhospitable to life. Near impossible to endure. And yet, there is more she does not want the Holstein to understand. Mostly, that this stillbirth will go the way of all the others—thrown into a bag until an orange-suited man hauls it to a state-run anaerobic digester with squirming bacteria hungry for flesh.
The veterinarian hears a rustling from the grasses behind her, a shuffle, a heart-kick, the first cracking of newborn bones. The calf is alive—no, not alive, but moving. Kicking and struggling to stand, running. Breaking free of the pre-birth sac and wobbling to find its balance on legs with little muscle. The veterinarian watches as the stillbirth learns to walk and then prance, out into the field where it is lit only by the truck’s two head beams as they diffuse into the grasses, only silhouetted by the loitering fireflies. Its skin, so transparent she can read its whole anatomy—a heart yearning to beat and lungs still clogged with mucus and a nub of ganglion incapable of processing sight or sound or know why, just why, this is happening.
And what of it? What is the meaning? What is the consistency of the truth? Is it that of blood, or amniotic fluid, or the skin of a thing not quite come to life? As the stillbirth gallops and begins to fall apart, begins to leak blood from its joints and from its ears, the answer is clear: horror alone.
Is it just premature? the farmer asks.
It has no heartbeat. It’s been dead for a week.
So, will it live?
The veterinarian goes to her truck and pulls out the sodium thiopental and tries to approximate a dosage. Fifty pounds, at the most—she can do the math, make divisions, allot proportions. But there is something else. How does one kill what isn’t living? What prayer does one say?
The mother Holstein turns back once to the mess that has spilled from her and then her eyes track the stillbirth as it learns to buck and kick its legs mid-air. She opens her mouth and makes a baritone sigh.
Before the veterinarian steps out into the field, before she chases down the stillbirth that glows a perfect pearl white, before she slips a needle into dead skin, before she ceases a heart that has never started, before she kills a child that was never living, she stops near the Holstein’s face, runs her fingers in the space between her eyes. I know sorry doesn’t help, the veterinarian says, but tonight, the sky is a black hole. Maybe it will take away our memories of what has tried to happen tonight, and what did, and what didn’t. Maybe it will take away what you are trying to understand. Maybe, come tomorrow, we will all wake and find that nothing here, beneath this dark, memory or flesh, really did try to endure.
Joel Hans is a writer and editor living in Madison, Wisconsin. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Redivider, Nashville Review, Pear Noir!, The Ampersand Review, and others. He is currently working on a novel about a man who composes epitaphs with an algorithm and extracted final thoughts. In the meantime, he can be found at www.joelhans.com.