Re­mem­ber­ing Joker Jack and Lit­tle Mary of Bow­bak’s Cove


“The day I was born, me mother was gone away, an’ so me sis­ter had me!” Thus spoke Jack from Bow­bak’s Cove, his words ac­com­pa­nied by a rau­cous laugh.

Jack and Mary were my pa­tients, man and wife, liv­ing on the edge of the ocean in a small house on a piece of land that Jack said had been in the fam­ily “since Moses was a boy.”

They are dead and gone, but their mem­ory lives on, at least in the mind of this old coun­try doc­tor.

The orig­i­nal Big Mary

Most of the people in their lit­tle cove had the same sur­name and of­ten there were sev­eral with the same first name as well. For that rea­son, and to dis­tin­guish one from an­other, nick­names were as­cribed.

Our man, be­cause of his propen­sity for com­i­cal say­ings, be­came known as Joker Jack. His wife, be­ing of small stature, was called “Lit­tle Mary,” to dis­tin­guish her from an­other per­son of the same name who, noted for her ro­tun­dity, was named “Big Mary.”

Joker Jack and his wife had no chil­dren, but they had a milch cow housed in their small sta­ble and a cat of un­known vin­tage. The two an­i­mals, as is of­ten the case with a child­less cou­ple, be­came their “chil­dren” and were treated to a life of ex­cel­lent care and af­fec­tion.

In Bow­bak’s Cove, at the time we are talk­ing about, most people owned the home they lived in, with-

Wil­liam O’Fla­herty

out the mod­ern curses of mort­gage pay­ments, rent, property taxes and high util­ity bills.

A small wood lot was used to sup­ply fuel for Jack and Mary’s wood stove — their only source of heat — and a small pas­ture gar­den, close by the wood lot, was big enough to keep the cow in hay for the win­ter. The calf that she pro­duced ev­ery spring was al­ways passed over, come the fall, to the lo­cal butcher who of­ten added the an­i­mal to his own herd, rather than killing it.

There was in place, of course, a hand­shake agree­ment that fresh meat was sup­plied all year long, when­ever it was re­quested.

They lived fru­gally, not be­cause they had to do so, but be­cause they had lived that way all their lives, and knew noth­ing d i f fer­ent; in­deed, all the neigh­bours lived much the same way as they did.

Their cow was cer­tainly not of pure­bred stock; she was rather of the mixed breed va­ri­ety, her genes stretch­ing back, pos­si­bly, to the first sea­sick bovines that sur­vived the long jour­ney across the North At­lantic 350 years be­fore. She was dun coloured, with an ud­der that was noth­ing to brag about, but which sup­plied milk enough for the two el­derly people and her calf.

A hearty diet

Jack sup­plied the brawn — he cut the hay with a scythe, har­vested the fire­wood, and grew pota­toes in the kitchen gar­den close by the cliff that fronted onto the beach.

Mary looked af­ter the cow. It was her re­spon­si­bil­ity to do the milk­ing, and, usu­ally — other than the few times when she was ill — feed­ing the an­i­mal as well.

She vis­ited the crea­ture sev­eral times each day, all win­ter long, of­ten bring­ing her a gal­lon of small pota­toes boi l ed on th e back dampe r s of t h e wood s tove, mashed with the fin­gers and mixed with a small amount of bran; the cow flour­ished on this reg­i­men.

In the sum­mer months the an­i­mal was let loose to roam free range and feed on the aban­doned pas­ture­land and bar­rens sit­u­ated to the north of the com­mu­nity, al­ways re­turn­ing daily to her calf.

Some­times, in­deed of­ten, Mary went to the same gen­eral area (as the cow did) in the late sum­mer and early fall for the pur­pose of pick­ing blue­ber­ries and par­tridge­ber­ries.

A unique walk­ing stick

When the two — hu­man and an­i­mal — en­coun­tered each other, the cow waited un­til Mary was ready to go home. People wi l l re­mem­ber — as I can — see­ing the two walk­ing out from the bar­rens, to­gether, with no teth­er­ing needed, Mary guid­ing the cow along, her hand on one of the horns.

If truth be known, Mary stead­ied her­self on the rough ground in that way; Joker Jack of­ten said that Mary had a “four legged walk­ing stick.”

The years passed by, and even­tu­ally the cow stopped pro­duc­ing a yearly calf. She de­vel­oped a per­sis­tent limp in one hind leg and ap­peared to have sig­nif­i­cant dif­fi­culty ris­ing from a ly­ing po­si­tion in her bail. The lo­cal vet­eri­nar­ian was called and ad­vised that the time had come wherein he could of­fer no help, and ad­vised that she be put down.

Mary re­sisted that ad­vice for sev­eral months, but when she re­al­ized that the an­i­mal could no longer walk to the pas­ture­land north of the com­mu­nity, she re­lented.

A sad day for Lit­tle Mary

The butcher, ac­com­pa­nied by a cou­ple of men with re­strain­ing ropes, ar­rived in the early morn­ing of a sunny day in July; a hal­ter was placed on the cow, a rope at­tached, and at­tempts were made to get the an­i­mal to walk up a ramp into the back of a stake bod­ied truck.

All at­tempts were fruit­less. The ter­ri­fied an­i­mal, never hav­ing en­coun- tered rough treat­ment pre­vi­ously, es­pe­cially from strange in­di­vid­u­als, was com­pletely un­con­trol­lable, re­fus­ing to go any­where near the load­ing ramp.

Mary, mean­while, quite up­set about the im­mi­nent loss of her cow, had gone into her bed­room, vow­ing to have noth­ing to do with the whole af­fair.

Fi­nally, Jack came to her and asked her to help out, “else they’re talkin’ about killin’ her right there in the yard.”

Mary walked out­side; on see­ing her the ter­ri­fied crea­ture calmed down. “Take off the hal­ter,” she or­dered. Plac­ing her hand on the cow’s horn the two took their last walk to­gether, up the ramp into the butcher’s truck.

I saw Mary sev­eral times in the weeks fol­low­ing; she was tear­ful each time, rec­og­niz­ing the ne­ces­sity of what had oc­curred but guilty about her part in the whole af­fair.

“Doc­tor, she trusted me to look out for her; she would have fol­lowed me out to the break­wa­ter if I had held onto her horn. I wish it hadn’t hap­pened the way it did; she was my pet, you know.”

They never did get an­other cow; or an­other cat. That crea­ture lived for a year af­ter that, and dis­ap­peared one night when let out­side, just be­fore bed­time; her crushed body was found on the high­way the next day.

When I re­turned on a locum, years later, Joker Jack and Lit­tle Mary were both dead.

A re­view of the of­fice notes, writ­ten by an­other physi­cian af­ter my de­par­ture re­vealed her sorrow per­sist­ing long af­ter the death of her bovine friend.

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