Did they look like cows?

I guess so, Con. Shrunken sky cows with wings and blazed chests. And beaks.

What’s a beak?

It’s a dreamy sort of a question. A question for off times, shovel leaning, inside from too much rain.

A beak, Con, is what a bird has.

What’s a bird? I mean, you’ve said what a bird is. Avio –

Avian –

Avian, all that. But what is a bird.

A bird isn’t anything.

She climbs off the couch to right the handle of a bucket and to haul it – nuggety little thing – across the room. The rain hangs from the ceiling crack like a string of beads and scatters over the floor. Connie would more know a string of beads than a bird. We have beads. I used to see bird carcasses around but their hollow flying bones are no good for swamping. The floods. What was left of the chickens – those mass graves – is washed away. She opens the door, crosses the wet porch and tips. The water from the bucket sloshes into the water channelling past the steps of the house.

How high? I call. What about the cows?

Um. The milking shed. And it’s up to our first step. The cows are on the island.

She puts the bucket back – the leak in the ceiling now a bony beat on the plastic base. Connie’s face when she gets on the couch again.

I’ll do it, I tell her, from now on.

Can you say about the other animals?

It’s too upsetting.

Come on.

I take a breath. There were lizards – reptiles. One old as anything.

She doesn’t ask if a lizard looks like a cow, but how else to describe it?

You know how our feet get when we’re unstucking the cows? I say.

Bare foot? Wrinkled. Old.

That’s a lizard. That’s tuatara. Was. Old as anything. Older than … Why mention dinosaurs? Pointless … older than 279.

Bye 279.

When the oldest one slipped and fell in the drink we took off our gumboots and waded in. I wasn’t worried for us – the tide wasn’t much and with Connie eight already and so sensible – but 279 was embedded and lowing in the sucking mud. The rain stopped for a bit; the cow quietened, looked around, then gathered her haunch muscles and heaved, swimming her forelegs for solid ground – it seemed hopeful. I could almost have joined her without getting trampled. Out of habit, I glanced at the sky, expecting to see a bird where only clouds flocked. It rained so hard then I did fear for Connie. We withdrew up the hill to the porch. The cow slipped again, went under.

Bye 279, said Connie. But there were nightmares and a kicked-over bucket, a refusal to eat the beans that we don’t really have enough of to refuse. Next flood, we got the big headphones and plugged her into my phone and I found a quicker way to deal with it.

She’s staring at her feet, a bit pruned, calling them lizards.

Why are there cows? I mean, why only them? Do you love them the most?

Outside one of them calls through the rain. There are no other sounds. Lowing and water.

What will you play? I ask Connie.

Her eyes go blank. What should I? I mean. How loud?

The loudest.

I wait until the guitar tins through the room. I honestly downloaded that hair metal once as a joke. Second step. Don’t drop the gun. Toes dipping into the water like ducks used to drink. The cows have found the island but their swamp-weakened hooves have not. Twenty-two of them pressed like at a cattle yard. One slips and can’t make it back up the bank. I’ve got a good eye.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "279".

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Laura Jean McKay is the author of The Animals in That Country, which won the Victorian Prize for Literature and Britain's Arthur C. Clarke Award.

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