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“Struggle,” by Ted Hughes

“Struggle,” by Ted Hughes

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We had been expecting her to calve
And there she was, just after dawn, down.
Private, behind bushed hedge-cuttings, in a low rough corner.
The walk towards her was like a walk into danger,
Caught by her first calf, the small-boned black and white heifer
Having a bad time. She lifted her head,
She reached for us with a wild, flinging look
And flopped flat again. There was the calf,
White-faced, lion-coloured, enormous, trapped
Round the waist by his mother’s purpled elastic,
His heavy long forelegs limply bent in a not-yet-inherited gallop,
His head curving up and back, pushing for the udder
Which had not yet appeared, his nose scratched and reddened
By an ill-placed clump of bitten-off rushes,
His fur dried as if he had been
Half-born for hours, as he probably had.
Then we heaved on his forelegs,
And on his neck, and half-born he mooed
Protesting about everything. Then bending him down,
Between her legs, and sliding a hand
Into the hot tunnel, trying to ease
His sharp hip-bones past her pelvis,
Then twisting him down, so you expected
His spine to slip its sockets,
And one hauling his legs, and one embracing his wet waist
Like pulling somebody anyhow from a bog,
And one with hands easing his hips past the corners
Of his tunnel mother, till something gave.
The cow flung her head and lifted her upper hind leg
With every heave and something gave
Almost a click –
And his scrubbed wet enormous flanks came sliding out,
Coloured ready for the light his incredibly long hind legs
From the loose red flapping sack-mouth
Followed by a gush of colours, a mess
Of puddled tissues and jellies.
He mooed feebly and lay like a pieta Christ
In the cold easterly daylight. We dragged him
Under his mother’s nose, her stretched-out exhausted head,
So she could get to know him with lickings.
They lay face to face like two mortally wounded duellists.
We stood back, letting the strength flow towards them.
We gave her a drink, we gave her hay. The calf
Started his convalescence
From the gruelling journey. All day he lay
Overpowered by limpness and weight.
We poured his mother’s milk into him
But he had not strength to swallow.
He made a few clumsy throat gulps, then lay
Mastering just breathing.
We took him inside. We tucked him up
In front of a stove, and tried to pour
Warm milk and whisky down his throat and not into his lungs.
But his eye just lay suffering the monstrous weight of his head,
The impossible job of his marvellous huge limbs.
He could not make it. He died called Struggle.
Son of Patience.

17 April 1974