Mateship With Birds - By Carrie Tiffany

For Peter

Birregurra, 1949: a boy of thirteen dies of tetanus after being pecked severely on the head by a magpie. Lake Boga, 1951: a local medical man nurses a magpie back to life after striking it with his car. When the bird duly recovers it returns to the bush bearing away the doctor’s lower dentures. Cohuna, 1953: Trevor Mues is coasting up his driveway in his Ford utility when a magpie enters through the driver’s side window, pecks him viciously on the ear and flies out through the window on the other side.

Kookaburras, magpies, butcherbirds, wagtails; the farm birds own the pasture and the bushes and the tree-top sky, but the parrots are supreme. The lemon-cresteds launch their scouts at sunrise, then the whole flock follows. In the few seconds before they rise the chiacking intensifies; as if each conversation must be shouted to conclusion before they are on the wing. Every morning the massed army of parrots – sometimes three or four hundred – fly inland to toil at the crops, every evening they return to the river to roost.

Harry watches the flock work the air as they leave. Their wing effort reduces as soon as they gain height and the sky opens up cleanly in front of them. It’s dawn again. Milking again. The miracle of water into milk via grass must be performed at the start of each new day.

COHUNA, 1953

Glenalpine Chrysanthemum, White-eye, Linga Longa Wattle Flower, Banyule Tiddlewinks, Pineapple, Enid, Fatty, Yarraview La Mode, Licker, Babs, Big Joyce, Wee Joyce, Pauline, Stumbles and the others. They gather by the gate in the half light, stamping their feet and swinging their hips into the wind. He can see the outline of their faces through the rain; their ears swivel towards him as he closes the back door. He splashes through the puddles to the dairy, his head cocked against the downpour. They watch him with the same deep attention every day. As if they have just seen a new species for the first time – a species that is not cow – and they mustn’t ever lose sight of it again. His milking clothes hang from a row of horseshoes behind the bails: matted overalls stiff with mud and faeces, a corrugated raincoat, a canvas apron florid with milk mould. Pails and buckets from the wash room, hay spread in each feeder, leg ropes kicked back and at the ready. He stands just under cover and looks out at the morning. There is more light now; he can see further across the paddocks. The rain is pooling badly in the low spots, if it doesn’t let up soon the pasture will drown. He spits a mouthful of tobacco bile into the mud, pulls on the raincoat and goes out to fetch them. Sip is anxious to follow, but for the rain. She whimpers, hops from one front leg to the other, then slinks along the eaves, only darting out at the last minute, her ears flat against her neck.

On these wet mornings the world seems close around them – Harry and the herd. It is the same greasy rain that hits them both, that sticks to hide and skin, that gushes down their legs and gathers in their eyelashes. Harry opens the gate and pushes in among them. Their blood is hot. Each cow gives off her own great heat and takes in the heat of her sisters. They are urgent with milk and hunger, stamping and bellowing and thrusting out their necks. The damage is done here, when they are bagged-up and waiting – an udder squeezed against the fencepost, trodden on, torn or ripped. Harry flicks an old towel across their dented rumps, choosing who should go first and who should hang back. Sip lets off a few hoarse high-pitched barks from the sidelines. He has ten out now. They are docile into the bails, quick to get their heads down to the mash. The first cow brings back the feeling in his fingers. He slides his hands up and along the warm skin between her udder and her belly, throws up a mug of wash from the pail, sluices the whole thrumming organ, feels for the cups, tests the pull of suction and threads them on. Fat udders with bud teats, small, fruity udders with long spiked teats like landmines, slack udders, tight udders. Every day, twice a day, often with the help of young Michael from next door or Mues from over the road,