Disclaimer: I don't own Firefly or any of its characters.
Note: Written for the Cotton Candy Bingo challenge, prompt "smell." Set well before the Big Damn Movie (immediately after "Shindig").
All Creatures Great and Small
"The whole ship smells like cow," Jayne complained, sitting down heavily across from Wash.
"Well, Jayne, that could be because we are currently transporting a herd of said animals," Wash replied.
"I know why the ship smells like cow, I'm just saying I don't like it."
"I don't know, I think it's kind of comforting," Kaylee chimed in. "It almost makes you feel like you're planetside, with dirt under your feet and natural sunlight shining down on you."
"No, it makes you feel like you're trapped on a spaceship with a bunch of cows! And you wouldn't be saying that if you'd had to shovel their shit."
"Well," Mal said as he entered the room and took a seat beside Kaylee, "maybe if you hadn't got so preoccupied polishing Vera that you completely forgot to show up for your duty shift, you wouldn't have been put on the shit-shoveling detail."
"I have to admit, seeing Jayne with that lacy handkerchief tied over his face was a pretty amusing sight," Zoe teased.
"It was perfumed so I didn't have to smell the damned cows."
"Don't listen to her, Jayne," Wash said in a reassuring tone. "I thought it was very fashionable."
"Now where, pray tell, did you get a perfumed handkerchief? Don't tell us Vera has some competition." Mal smirked as he spooned protein paste into a bowl.
"I'll have you know it was given to me by a very classy lady at a very classy establishment."
"Ooh, 'establishment,' that sounds fancy," said Kaylee.
"I think the word you're looking for is 'whorehouse,' Jayne," Wash suggested.
"Or possibly 'brothel'," Mal added helpfully.
"Look, all I'm sayin' is, a man's got to go pretty far to escape the smell of cow on this boat. It wouldn't be so bad if we could at least eat one or two of 'em. You can't tell me you wouldn't rather have a nice juicy steak than this gunk." He lifted a spoon full of protein paste and let it fall back into the bowl with a splat for emphasis. "I mean, would the folks we're delivering these animals to even notice if just one or two of them was missing?"
"I'm fairly sure they would, through the magical ability known as 'counting,'" Wash opined.
"Well, what about that one that's pregnant? We could just say the calf died on its own or something, and the buyer'll never know the difference."
"Look, we are not going to butcher and eat any of these cows, and especially not the calf once it's born. I mean, do you wanna explain to River that the 'nice juicy steak' you're eating is actually the cute little baby cow she's been obsessing over for the past two weeks?"
Jayne paled. "Yeah, I see your point."
River had indeed developed an unusually strong attachment to the pregnant cow. Simon had searched Serenity high and low for her, only to find her leaning against its bulging side with one ear pressed to the rough skin. "I can feel him dreaming," she said when Simon asked what she was doing. "I can see green fields, and feel the yellow sun, and there's a breeze like the way you stroke my hair when I'm feeling bad." She had stared up at Simon with that unfocused look in her eyes she sometimes got. "He's swimming inside her, like we all swim in space. Does that mean space is our mother? Where'll we go when we're born?" The cow, for its part, went on chewing its cud as if River wasn't even there.
"I just hope she doesn't take it bad when we offload the cargo," Wash said.
"I've been thinking about that too," Mal said, "and I think the best thing might be-" He was cut off as the door to the galley swung open with such force that it banged off the wall and nearly hit River in the face as she rushed into the room.
"There's something wrong with the mama cow, and the calf too! It's stuck in the dark and all its dreams are turning into nightmares!"
Mal, Zoe, and Simon stood over the cow, which was indeed lying on her side, head resting on the deck and eyes closed. Her ribs rose and fell in shuddering breaths, and the bale of hay that had been set out for her was untouched. Simon knelt down beside her and placed his palms flat against her abdomen. The cow's head jerked up and her gaze fixed on him. "Shh, it's okay, it's okay," he soothed.
"Just keep talking to her real calm like that," advised River, who had suddenly appeared at Mal's elbow. "That always works when you have to give me a shot."
"Right, well, do you know what's wrong with her, doc?"
Simon continued palpitating the cow's swollen abdomen. "Well, the calf's kicking, so it's not..." He trailed off, not wanting to say the word "stillborn" in front of River.
"Of course it isn't stillborn, silly," she admonished. "I said its dreams had turned into nightmares, not that it had stopped dreaming altogether."
"Well, when you put it like that, it's obvious," Zoe quipped. "But what is wrong?" She and Mal exchanged a glance. They were being paid for each animal transported safely to its destination, and besides, if they could pull this job off without any snags, Warrick Harrow would likely contract with them for future (and maybe even more lucrative) deliveries.
"The calf should have turned so its head is pointed toward the birth canal. That hasn't happened. It's a breech birth."
"Okay, so what do we do about it?"
"Usually a veterinarian would perform a Caesarean section, just like doctors do when this happens with women."
"And what'll you need to do that?"
"Wha-" Simon looked around, as if hoping that one of his crewmates would burst out laughing and explain that Mal was joking. "Captain, I'm a doctor, not a veterinarian!"
"You're the closest we've got to one. So what'll you need?"
"Are you sure you want to stay here while I do this?"
There was no way they were going to be able to get a cow into the infirmary, so Simon had set up in an area of the cargo bay partitioned off by crates. He'd calculated a dose of anaesthetic that he hoped would knock out the cow without harming the calf. All his instruments were laid out on a clean towel beside him, and he was garbed just as he would be in an operating room. River, in matching gown, gloves, hair net, and booties, was sitting cross-legged a few feet away with the cow's head in her lap.
"'Course I am. Her dreams are deeper now. There's mist like that cotton candy at the fair you took me to when I was little, covering hills like waves on the sea except green. And grass, real sweet grass with dew still on it, 'stead of just old dried up hay. She knows where she came from better'n we do."
River had that faraway look in her eyes again. Simon reached over, resting a hand on her arm. "River, you understand what I'm going to have to do, don't you? I need to cut her open so that we can get her calf out. It's best for both her and the calf, and I promise you she won't feel anything, but there'll be-"
"There'll be blood, and guts, and a smell like rivers if rivers flowed with iron instead of water. I know. But she needs me."
Simon considered this for a moment. He had always heard that dogs could dream, and he didn't suppose that the brain of a cow was substantially less complex. When River spoke of the cow and calf dreaming of rich pastures, she might simply be imagining things...or it might be another of those unsettling traits that she sometimes displayed as a legacy of her time at the Academy. And if she was connecting to the bovine on some level, then maybe her mental presence was somehow calming?
"All right," he said, "but promise to let you know if it gets too much for you, okay?"
Simon took a deep breath and laid his scalpel against the cow's brown hide. He sliced carefully through each layer: the skin, the fat beneath, the muscle of the abdominal wall underneath that. As River had predicted, the metallic scent of blood rose into his nose and throat. Across the stack of containers, he could hear the other cows snorting and stamping.
Sliding his fingers carefully into the slit he'd made, he felt for the uterus and pulled it up to the lip of the wound. It was strained and rigid, bulging where the calf's hooves and head pushed against it from the inside. He could see immediately that two hands would be needed to keep it steady as he sliced through it to free the calf. "Zoe!"
Serenity's second-in-command peeked around the wall of crates. "Something wrong, doc?"
"I need someone to hold the uterus while I get the calf out. Think you could do that?"
Zoe nodded briskly. "I'll go get suited up in the infirmary."
When she came back, Simon showed her where to place her hands. Zoe tugged on a pair of gloves (yellowish-white, because you did not wear blue gloves around River) and slid her hands under the cow's uterus as if she performed C-sections on livestock every day. "River, I'm going to need your help too. Can you still feel the calf's dreams?"
"Yes. He's stuck. He's stuck in a tunnel, and he's scared."
"Okay, well, you can see I'm trying to get him out of that tunnel, right? But River, I'm going to have to cut through the uterine wall to do it, and if I cut too deep, I could hurt him. I need you to tell me the instant he feels any pain, so I can pull back before I do any real damage, okay? Can you do that for me?"
A broad smile spread across River's face. It wasn't often that she was asked to help with anything. "Of course."
"Good." Taking a deep breath, Simon sank his scalpel into the taut layer of muscle. He applied slow, steady pressure, watching the flesh part as neatly as an unzipped jacket. Gradually, the calf came into view: eyes closed, downy fur slick with amniotic fluid. It was an earthy brown, like its mother, with a large white patch in the center of its back. As he drew the scalpel down towards the tangle of its legs jammed up against the cervix, he heard River's breath hitch. "Ouch! A bee-sting!"
Simon quickly lifted the knife and parted the lips of the uterine incision with his fingers. There was a shallow cut in the calf's left hind leg, but it wasn't deep enough to cause any worry. "I'll be able to bandage that when I get him out. He'll be fine." He lifted his gaze to meet River's. "Thanks to you." Returning to his task, he lengthened the opening in the uterus until he was sure he'd be able to get the calf's hooves clear. Then he cradled it in his hands, lifted it out, and set it on a large towel he'd spread out on the deck. Following the trail of its umbilical cord, he scooped out the placenta, then turned to the painstaking task of sewing up the incisions.
River crooned to the calf as she tenderly wiped it clean with a fluffy towel. Zoe rendered one last bit of assistance by expertly bandaging the shallow cut on its leg while Simon removed the umbilical cord. Now all that was left was to monitor the mother as she woke up. Her eyes flickered open and she let out a faint moo as she gazed blearily at the calf. For its part, the youngster wasted no time in finding the cow's udders and beginning to nurse.
"See, I knew you could do it!" Mal said brightly. Simon turned to see that he, along with the rest of the crew, was peering over the top of the crates.
"It's kinda amazing, isn't it? Somethin' so tiny and fragile, thriving out here in the black." Kaylee's gaze flicked to Simon for a moment, then quickly returned to mother and baby. "And it's all your doin'."
"Not entirely," Simon protested. "River and Zoe helped too."
"Hey, if we can't eat it, can we at least get some of the milk?" Jayne inquired, not to be diverted from what was, in his mind, the truly important issue. "I mean, look at that tiny little thing, it ain't gonna need all that, is it?"
"You've done a fine job, Doctor," Shepherd Book said, coming around the crates. "Kaylee's right. Life is awful hard out here sometimes, and it's a triumph whenever a new life enters the world."
"You got any fancy words for an occasion like this, Shepherd?" Mal had leaned his forearms on top of the crate, and a tiny smile was playing around his lips.
"As a matter of fact, I do." He approached the cow slowly, and when she didn't object, bent down beside the calf and laid a hand on its head.
"All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all."
A/N: Shepherd Book's prayer at the end is the chorus of an Anglican hymn. The British veterinarian James Herriot used the second line as the title for his famous autobiography (and later wrote three more books using the other three lines of the chorus).
This is my first foray into Firefly fanfic, and I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. Hopefully you all agree!