The Old Man and the Nervous Cow

An Old Tale of the West of Ireland

 

“There once was an old man who said,

“How Shall I escape from this horrible cow?

“I will sit on the stile,

“and continue to smile, “

which may soften the heart of the cow.'”

The old man was walking thoughtfully through the field, with his hands behind his back, when the nervous cow saw him. She wasn’t ordinarily a bad-natured cow, but she was very angry just then, for an aggravating fly had been biting her half the morning. Then, on top of all that aggravation, just as she was drinking at the stream, a frog had jumped up with a cry and bitten her on the nose. These things had completely unsettled her nerves, and she was ready to run at anything. With the old man being the only living thing in sight, she rushed toward him.

Nervous Cow 1What could the old man do? He was a short, stout old man, and could not run very fast. Although he tried his best, the old man just managed to reach the stile and plump himself down on it, all out of breath, as the cow neared him. Then he suddenly recalled reading somewhere that if you were to look an animal directly in its eyes, it would run away from you. “Ah!” he thought to himself, “I’ll look her straight in the eye, and if I smile at the same time, she won’t have the heart to hurt me.” So, he put a smile on his face, even though it was not a very attractive smile, and he stared straight into the cow’s eyes. When the cow saw that smile, ugly though it was, it so touched her heart that she stopped in her tracks. She sauntered back a little way, but the memory of that aggravating fly, and that awful frog, proved too much for her poor nerves and, turning around, she dashed madly forward again. Within a minute, the poor old man; his cane, little legs, smile and all, was up in the air.

He landed on top of a chestnut-tree. One branch grazed his eye, while two ran into his legs, and another held his smile stiff and straight. The old man stayed this way until he was sighted by an eagle, which immediately pounced down on the poor man, and flew off with him to her nest, built on a huge rock that rose straight up into the cold air and reached the summit of a mountain. Can you imagine how astonished the eagle’s chicks were when the old eagle dumped the little old man down into their nest? They opened their beaks as well as their eyes, and cried out to her, “What’s this, mother? What is this?”

Oh! it’s only a man,” cried the old eagle. “I found him roosting in the top of a tree. I don’t know how he got there. Maybe he thought that he could fly, and suddenly discovered he couldn’t. Tell us how it was, old man.

Can he talk?

Talk!” said the eagle. “Of course, he can talk. And I bet he can tell all sorts of stories. So, if you like, you may keep him to tell you stories.”

Oh, wont that be nice! Tell us a story, right now,” the chicks all screamed at the old man, as they pulled the old man down into the nest.

But it’s so dirty here,” complained the old man, looking around, with his nose turned up a little. “Just let me sit on the edge of the nest, won’t you? And I’ll tell you all the stories you want.”

You’ll fall over.”

Oh no, I won’t. I’ll hold on with my cane and my legs. Now just shut your beaks, so you won’t look so savage, and listen carefully.” So, the old man perched himself on the edge of the nest and the eaglets took strong hold of his coat with their beaks, to prevent him from falling. Then, sitting comfortably, he began to tell them the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves“. and when that was ended, another, and then another. The old man did not eat much supper that night, for there was nothing he cook on, and he didn’t sleep well, for whenever one of the eaglets woke up during the night, it always pinched him with its beak, to make sure he was there. Tired of this, the old man quickly resolved to get away as soon as it was possible. But he didn’t seem to have any chance of escape, and so he stayed where he was and told stories until he began to yearn to wring the necks of the gaping birds that kept asking him for more.

Now, all this time, the cow had been getting more and more nervous. Every day she thought of the poor old man and his meek little legs, and his sweet old smile, and just how his coat-tails looked as he went up in the air. Finally, she sadly laid her head down on a tuft of grass by the stream and began to cry. After relieving her sadness in this way, she became calm, and, getting up from the ground said, “I’ll go to his house and find out how and where he is, if I can.” So off she started. But the house was closed, and there was no one there except for the cat, which became very frightened when the cow pushed up the pantry window with her horns.

Through the window she bellowed, “Where’s your master?

I don’t know,” replied the cat nervously as he retreated into a far corner, with his back up. “I haven’t set eyes on him since last Sunday.

Oh dear!” sighed the cow, dropping the window with a crash that broke two panes of glass. “What shall I do?

What’s the matter with you? And what do you want of the old man?” asked Tabby, bounding out through one of the broken panes. The cow told him.

Well,” said Tabby, stroking his whiskers reflectively, “I guess I’ll go with you and help you look for the kindly old man.” So, they walked on, asking everybody they met about the old man. But nobody knew where he was, until finally they came across an old crow who knew everybody’s business.

An old man?” he asked. “Sure, the eagle took an old man the other day. Did your old man have thin legs?

Yes, yes!” said the cat and the cow together. “With a sweet smile on his face?”

Yes, yes!” cried the cow.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          “He went up with that smile, and it has been haunting me ever since,” she said as she burst into floods of tears.

Well,” said the crow, “he’s in the eagle’s nest telling stories to the eaglets, and I’m sure the man sore and tired of that business by now, if I’m not mistaken.”

Where is the nest?—and how can we get there?”

It’s up at the very top of that mountain over there. Go straight ahead, and you can’t miss it.

Nervous Cow 3
Bill Doyle Bill Doyle was born in Dublin in 1926 and has lived here all his life. From an early age Bill was involved in photography, but it wasn’t until after he won the Daily Telegraph Magazine Photographer of the Year Award in London, in 1967, that he took up freelance photography as a fulltime career. He won this for a collection of photographs of the Aran Islands, many of which were included in the major retrospective held in the Gallery of Photography in 2007 and which toured to Ennis and to Inis Oirr in 2008. Doyle has won numerous awards and has exhibited his work in Japan, Germany, England, Australia and the USA. His books include The Aran Islands, Images of Dublin ??? A Time Remembered and Bill Doyle???s Ireland.

So straight ahead they went until they came to the rock where the eagle’s nest was, and wondered what should they do next? They could hear the old man’s little, thin voice telling stories to the birds, but they knew he wouldn’t chance to come where the cow was, even if he could clamber down that steep rock. Finally, Tabby suggested that the cow should hide herself, while he climbed up into the nest and persuaded the old man to come down. So, as the cow hid, the cat scrambled his way up to the nest and carefully poked his head into it. “Ah, master!” he whispered, “climb down the rock to-night, and I’ll show you the way home.” And then he disappeared. But his visit bolstered the old man’s courage, and when the mother-bird came home he calmly told her that he thought he would sleep at the foot of the rock that night, and she unsuspectingly took him in her talons and dropped him gently on the ground.

As soon as the Eagle had gone, the old man looked all about him, and called “Tabby, Tabby,” very softly. Tabby came out from under the roots of a tree and bounded on his shoulder, and told him how sorry the cow was, and how she was waiting in a thicket ready to carry him home, if he wanted to go. Of course, the old man wanted to go home, and in a moment the cow had come out from her hiding-place, had cried a little. But she took the old man on her back, and started down the mountain at full speed, with the cat chasing after her. It was a long way to the old man’s house, and tired out they finally reached it, got something to eat, and then they went to bed, where they slept right through the next two days. On the morning of the third day they all got up together, full of life, and, after eating a hearty breakfast, they all agreed that they would live together for the rest of their lives. This is the way that they have lived ever since that day, in perfect peace and harmony.