“Are you all right, Hector?” asked a kind young voice. It belonged to Esmerelda, one of the calves. She came up the slope toward him. “Did you hurt yourself?”
“No,” he grunted. He glared around at the other cows; they went back to eating grass.
“You broke the fence,” said Esmerelda. She stood beside Hector and stared at the busted fence rail. “I thought the fence was unbreakable.”
From her earliest days, Esmerelda had set her affections upon Hector. Instead of fearing him, as all the other calves did, she looked up to him. She watched him, and tried to imitate him, and talked to him whenever she got the chance, even if he seemed uninterested in listening. For this, the other cows figured she was stupid. The other cows figured Hector would tire of her soon enough and gore her with his awful horns. But Hector, after failing to scare off his young follower, had accepted her.
Esmerelda went over to the destroyed section of fence and inspected the damage. She turned to the great bull. “What are you looking at?” she said.
Hector, eyes skyward, remained silent a minute, then turned to the little calf. “There… There was a beetle in my ear. It flew up into the air. Did you see it?”
Esmerelda looked up. “Mm, no.”
“I know it was there,” said Hector.
“Why was it in your ear?” asked Esmerelda.
Hector looked at her. Her face was so innocent. “Have you… ever talked to a beetle?” he asked quietly.
“A beetle?” said Esmerelda. “Oh no, I would never talk to a beetle. My mother said beetles are liars. You shouldn’t trust them.”
Hector thought a moment. “That’s right. That’s what they used to say. ‘Never listen to a beetle.’” The memory comforted him.
“They trick you with magic,” said Esmerelda. Hector stared at her, almost fearfully. She lowered her eyes. “That’s what my mother says.”
After a moment, Hector huffed and swished his tail. “Do you know what the beetle told me?” he said.
Esmerelda looked up at him, eyes wide with wonder. “What did it tell you?”
Hector lowered his huge head to the calf’s level and whispered, “It told me… little calves should stop believing in magic!” With that, he made a playful lunge at Esmerelda and nudged her with his nose, toppling her to the grass. She stood up, giggling. “Now go back to your mother,” Hector said. “Go eat the grass before it grows too tall.”
Esmerelda skipped back down the paddock to join the other calves. Hector watched her go, then stared at the ground in front of him. “Beetles are liars,” he whispered to himself. “Never listen to a beetle.” He lowered his head, curled his tongue around a tall bunch of clover and tore it free. As he chewed, he turned and looked over at Mr McGinley, and at the big blue tractor. A noisy gush of flatulence erupted from Hector’s rear end.
Late that night, Esmerelda crept over to Hector’s stall. “Hector?” she whispered. In the darkness, by a needle of moonlight threading a hole in the barn wall, she discerned the shadow of Hector’s massive head rising from the straw on the ground. His horns, like two terrible spears, turned imposingly toward her.
“What are you doing here?” whispered Hector in his deep voice. “Why aren’t you asleep?”
“I heard you moving about,” answered Esmerelda. “Why aren’t you asleep?”
The shadowy horns turned away, and Hector’s head rested upon the straw. “I hear voices,” he said.
“I don’t hear any voices,” said Esmerelda.
Hector sighed. “They’re in my head. I hear them when I’m asleep.”
“Like a dream?”
“No,” said Hector. “These are bad voices. They tell me things. It scares me, so I try to stay awake.”
“Ah, so that’s why you sleep so late in the mornings—because you’ve been awake all night.”
A silent minute passed in the dark.
“Hector?” whispered Esmerelda.
“Are the voices loud?”
“No. They are quiet voices. Buzzing voices. Persistent voices.”
“What does persistent mean?”
“It means they don’t stop.”
“Persistent. Is persistent scary?”
“No,” said Hector.
“Then why are you scared of the voices?”
“Because,” said Hector, “I think they might be telling the truth.”
Esmerelda thought about Hector’s answer for a moment, then repeated the word persistent under her breath. “I don’t think you should be afraid of voices,” she said. “After all, you are a bull, and how could anything harm you? You’re so strong you destroyed the fence today.”
Hector raised his head. “You need to sleep now, Esmerelda,” he whispered.
“It’s okay, I’m not tired,” she said. “Do you think I’ll ever be strong enough to break a fence? I hope so.”
“Don’t think about things like that. Go to sleep.”
“I’m almost four months old now. I can stay up late. What else could you break, Hector?”
A mountainous shadow rose from the floor; Hector’s horns glinted in the moonlight as they lowered level with Esmerelda. “Go away from me. Go to sleep,” commanded the great bull, his voice trembling.
“Humph. Fine. I’ll ask you about it tomorrow. I was only saying how strong you are. I bet you are even stronger than the tractor.”
With a step forward and a short flick of his horns, Hector shot Esmerelda across the barn floor like she was a pebble skimming a pond. She slammed into the nearby wall with a thump. Some of the cows stirred. Hector huffed and laid down again in his stall, as Esmerelda whimpered and went to lie down beside her mother.
It was midday when Hector emerged from the barn again. The stifling sun blanketed the farm. Three shiny orange beetles flew out the barn door behind him and disappeared up into the clear sky. The great bull stood and looked out across the cow paddock. His eyes were bloodshot. His ear twitched. Up the slope on the north side of the paddock, Mr McGinley was putting the finishing touches on the new rail where Hector had charged through the fence. Behind the farmer stood the big blue tractor, with its headlamps fixed upon him like preying eyes. Hector froze as a bolt of fear surged through him. He huffed and grunted, then shook his head, brandishing his deadly horns. He slammed his hoof into the turf and dragged it back. With a loud, ominous bellow, the great bull lowered his head and levelled his horns. Mr McGinley looked up from his work. Hector squeezed his eyes shut. His powerful legs trembled beneath him, and his breathing quickened. “Never listen to a beetle,” he said. He gasped and cried out, “Beetles are liars!”
Instantly and effortlessly, Hector’s breathing calmed. He opened his eyes. Strength returned to his legs, and he stood tall and raised his head. A shiny orange beetle crawled to end of his horn then flew up and out of sight. A dozen more beetles flew up from the grass around him and drifted buzzing into the air. Hector stood there staring up at the farmer.
© 2021 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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