Somewhere deep in my memory of children’s books is an image of the shepherdess tending her flock by the light of the moon. An old, romantic tradition of doves cooing on the cowshed roof, sheep scratching out a spot to bed down, and the shepherdess wandering among them, knowing the calls and murmurs of each animal, disturbing them little as possible as she looks for a water bladder to alert her to an imminent birth, or a little lamb off in a corner, just born.
I remember this as I find my way to the lambing shed. The half-timbered house casts a thick shadow across the yard. The cows in the field are talking in their sleep. The legs of my waterproof trousers brush in a whispering rhythm, punctuated by the clomping of my wellies. There’s just enough light to make out the crouched bulk of the meal house, silage pit, and milking shed in the distance. It scares me a little bit, being out here at midnight, but I know that many lambing students before me have walked this very same path. They had the advantage of actual courses in pulling lambs and dosing sick ewes, but I have the advantage of desperation. I’m five thousand miles from home, and if I muck up here there’s nowhere else to go.
As I get closer to the shed, I can hear the sheep shifting in their sleep and faint squeaks. When I open the door and flip on the lights, the rats scurry across the pens and make a tinny noise as they scramble under the barn wall to freedom.
It’s warm in here. Most of the sheep are lying down in the straw, dreaming of grass and sunshine, but a few are wandering about. Please, God, let them be restless rather than lambing. I’m not entirely certain that I’ll know what to do if a sheep gets into trouble. No one else is awake to help. Richard said I could wake him up if I needed, but I’d be too embarrassed. I’m shepherding by moonlight, doves cooing and all that jazz, and all I want to do is crawl back in the sheets.
Just a few minutes earlier, I was in bed, curled beneath the covers with a pillow clutched to my chest. When the alarm went off, I groaned in disbelief. I’d only gone to bed two hours ago. I reached over to the nightstand for a bottle of beer and took a long gulp, hoping it would help me get into a mindset where getting up from the warmth of my bed in the middle of the night didn’t seem insane.
Sighing, I pulled on my dirty jeans and felt my way downstairs. Richard’s wife Arwen had left the porch light on for me. I grabbed my work coat from the peg on the porch, brushing off the bits of straw sticking to it, and shoved a wool cap over my head. I get cold easily when I’m drowsy.
At least I am getting used to the feeling of not having any sleep, that tightness in the forehead that doesn’t go away, the dark ground that surges beneath my feet like an ocean wave. Late nights are hell on the indigestion. Between Arwen’s farm meals and the work itself, my gorge rises every time. Images shove their way into my gut and stay there: the brown mush of a miscarried fetus, the ewe ambling about with her lamb hanging out halfway out her rear end, the hoof-shaped bruises on my shins.
Something’s happening to me. I’m losing control over my most basic bodily functions. Just a few days ago, I peed my pants just two feet from the farmhouse door. I actually peed my pants. I’ve never done that before. I was on my way to use the bathroom; I only had to hold on for thirty seconds more. I stood there disbelieving as warmth and dampness weighted down the denim. What was happening to my control over my own body?
I didn’t tell anyone. God, Richard would laugh if he knew. I went inside, changed my jeans, and went back out again without a word.
Richard likes winding people up, especially his lambing students. He particularly enjoys throwing darts at their pride. Every day, he wanders in a slow circuit around the sheep shed just before we go in to eat. He stands for long moment in front of each pen. He’s got dark, busy eyebrows and sharp eyes that don’t miss a thing. Sometimes he jumps in and walks among the milling ewes, craning his neck to catch a better glimpse. Then he comes sauntering back up the aisle and asks me if any sheep are lambing.
I tell him, with a bit of trepidation, that I’d seen none as of fifteen minutes ago. It’s just the bait he wants.
“Oh, you haven’t seen that one in the corner there? I thought for sure you’d catch that one. Where all the commotion is?” He looks at me sidelong. “Keep an eye on the ewe in the bottom pen. She’s going to lamb.”
“Oh!” I slap myself on the forehead. “I did it again!”
The twinkle comes back into his eye. “I’ve had vet students here who couldn’t see a blooming thing the first few days. Walk right by a lamb. But by the end of it they catch on. If they don’t….” He chuckles wryly. “They get the piss taken out of them every time!”
So maybe I’m not a veterinary student or even an agricultural one, but I grew up around sheep. I was a good little sheep tamer. I spent hours sitting on the fence babbling away to the sheep until they were no longer scared me. The orphaned lambs even came to the sound of my voice. But all I could say about lamb-pulling was that I knew how to sit on a sheep while someone else did the dirty business. At six years old, that’s all I was capable then.
I told Richard the truth from the get-go. “I’ve never pulled a lamb before.”
He shrugged away my confession. “That’s alright. I can hire you, without much experience, and you can get on with it while I’m off doing what I want to do. These ewes didn’t cost me much, so if I lose one – and I don’t want to lose one – but if I do I can live.” He picked up his mug and took a thoughtful sip. “If I get less lambs, well, there you go. But you can bet I’m not up until three o’clock in the morning worrying about each little lamb that might be lost.” He glanced back at me, and his mouth twitched.
Of course. That’s why he hired me: to stay up until three o’clock every morning worrying about his lambs.
They were wild ewes, Richard’s, bought from the cheapest flocks at the livestock market. Everyone knew that Richard would buy on price alone. They laughed at him, but Richard figured that he got the last laugh. “I just pump each ewe up with 10 ccs of penicillin,” he told me, “and turn them out to pasture. I figure that gets rid of any abortion sickness or anything they might have had. You’d be amazed at how sprightly those ewes turn out! Fit as a whistle!”
Fit, maybe, but to my eyes they were scruffy and manure-sodden beasts with a wily look in their eyes. He’d warned me about them, sneaky little bastards. They’d hide the signs they were lambing by finding a corner where no one would see them. They’d lie down and groan and push until the instant they saw a person. Then they’d stop and lick their lips as if they were just chewing their cud.
Their looks deceived.
Before I came here, all I knew was the brand: Welsh lamb. Welsh lamb has a reputation as the best in Europe, and it all starts here: in the wet fields sliced by hedgerows and supervised by a grim slate-gray sky. But even at the best of times, no one could accuse Wales of a hospitable climate. Bringing the pregnant ewes indoors is the quickest way to ensure that the lambs don’t die of exposure as soon as they’re born.
That’s what Richard does. Richard is a lanky but spry dairy farmer from England with a nose for realpolitik in world affairs and business savvy at home. He married a Welsh woman he’d met through Young Farmers and settled on a farm in mid-Wales without bothering to learn the language himself, and proceeded to raise a family alongside dairy cattle and sheep.
But to get through lambing season with twice-daily milkings and three children under the age of five, he needs help. That’s where the lambing student comes in. Veterinary or agricultural students use their school holidays to get in a little work experience, and Richard gets their labor in exchange for teaching them a wham, bam, thank you ma’am style of lambing that couldn’t be more different from what their professors taught them.
Being a sheep’s midwife isn’t glamorous, trust me. Medical glory is only part of it; the rest is grunt work. Feeding, watering, tagging, disinfecting, you name it, I did it. I was good at being a grunt. I wasn’t so good at being a savior.
I’ll never forget that first one. I was watching Richard pull a lamb. He shoved his hand in, fiddled, and next I knew the lamb slithered out in a steaming heap. He made his way to his feet with a groan and wiped the blood and shit off his wrists on the ewe’s wool. Then he pointed across the pen. “You take a go on that one.”
God, it was frightening. I squinted and stuck out my hands to grasp the two hooves peeping out of the ewe’s back end. I pretended that I couldn’t feel the slime sliding up my arms and dripping onto the straw. I could smell the shit lacquering the sheep’s back, rubbing into my jeans like furniture polish, and feel her heave her belly against my knee with each breath. Then I tugged, both hands gripped tightly onto the lamb’s ankles, worried that if I let go the lamb would slide back in and disappear forever into a watery womb.
It worked. The lamb slid out with a ploop and a sound like wet leather slapping, in a cascade of dark blood and blue streamers of tissue. Tiny black dots of feces and yellow puddles spread into the straw. The lamb flopped a bit, choking. It was sodden, each ridge of its coat soaked with a thick yellow fluid. It didn’t open its eyes, as if to deny for as long as possible that it had left its mother’s body. I understood how it felt.
“You want to know if she’s having another? Here. Feel this.” Richard showed me where to place my hand on the underside of the udder. “Tap it. You should feel something hard. It’ll slide back and forth if you push. That’s a lamb.”
I put my hand on the ewe’s udder. The skin was warm and textured and full as a human breast. My touch faltered. Was it right, groping a ewe’s privates for educational purposes? But then I felt what Richard had described, something that wasn’t breast or udder but body. A miracle right here, just under my hand, where the twin lamb sat curled in the womb, awaiting its call to ascend.
At twelve thirty Richard comes to the shed to get me for dinner.
“I was surprised you didn’t set up your radio out here,” he comments as we clomp to the house.
“The one in your bedroom.”
I force a laugh, suspecting he’s trying to lead me into something. “Nope, nope. You can’t hear the sheep that way. Why, have you had vet students do that?”
Richard just nods, chuckling to himself at the thought of his new lambing student boogieing among the pens.
We wash up before going in. There’s only space for one person at the sink, so the boss goes first. While Richard strips off his boiler suit and scrubs his hands, I shake off my wellies and wait. He goes into the kitchen, and I take my place at the sink. I soap up thoroughly, remembering Arwen’s admonition to use the nail brush. I splash water around my mouth as well, worried that the sheep splatters on my face will make anything I eat taste of wool.
Dewi comes through the kitchen door and toddles down the stairs. “What are you doing?” he calls, his voice high. “What are you doing, Amy?”
“I’m washing my face,” I say. “Washing up before lunch. Er, dinner.”
His mouth opens wide. He looks at me with round eyes. “You said lunch!”
“Dinner, I mean.” I grin.
I turn off the water faucet and dump the tub of lukewarm water down the sink. I turn around to see Dewi standing in the door.
“You said lunch!” he exclaims with glee. He runs back into the house to tell his mommy. “She said lunch!”
I follow him into the kitchen.
It’s hell when kids make fun of me. I don’t know why Richard seems to think I need to be taken down a peg when this language is doing it for me. I don’t know what a spanner is, because I’m used to calling it a wrench, and my tongue keeps twisting to call the concrete area in front of the house a yard, the gravel roads tracks, and all old stone barns sheds. Dewi even tried to teach me the numbers up to ten in Welsh and listened with wide-eyed delight as I repeated them back to him. Of course I mangled them. It’s Welsh, not Esperanto.
Richard takes his daughter on his lap. Arwen is bringing jars from the refrigerator. We’re having chips and mushy peas, but there are jars of pickled onions and Branston pickle as condiments. I can’t bring myself to eat either; they’re just too foreign.
Richard picks up the newspaper and let his daughter play with it. “She likes to eat it,” he tells me.
Dewi starts to cry.
“Stop moithering,” Richard commands, not looking up.
Dewi just cries harder, rubbing his eyes until they’re red. “I want to sit by you,” he whimpers. His mother has put him across the table to make room for their hired man Peter, who’s working late today to construct and hang the doors for the lambing pens.
Peter takes up with a hired man’s graciousness. “Here, Dewi. Don’t worry, lad. I’ll take your seat. See, watch this.” Dewi watches with big eyes as Peter swoops him up and places him in Peter’s chair. Peter slides himself into Dewi’s seat and sets his elbows down around the blue Thomas the Tank Engine plate. “Is this mine, too? Mmmm, I like this dinner.”
Stars begin to shine through Dewi’s tears as he watches Peter pretend to start in on the chips with a plastic knife and fork. “Mine,” Dewi whispers with a smile. He’ll snivel again a few minutes later for some unfathomable reason, but at least for now he is happy.
Arwen sets a pot of tea wrapped in a cozy and a jug of milk from the morning’s milking on the table, and settles herself in the remaining seat. She has curly black hair and a curvy figure that couldn’t contrast more with her husband’s gaunt height. She’s as pure Welsh as you can get. I find it endlessly amusing that she speaks Welsh to the children and English to her husband.
The kids follow her lead. They understand that they can’t speak Welsh to their dad. Sometimes they’ll tease him, “There’s a pickle in your trwyn!” They try to push their fingers up their dad’s nose, shrieking with laughter. “Do you know what trwyn means?” Richard just smiles and doesn’t say a word. He brushes their hands away and lets them laugh.
Richard’s voice breaks me out of my thoughts. I brace myself for what he’s going to ask me next, like why I talk out loud to myself in the shed or what I’m scribbling down in that notepad of mine.
“What do you think of this war we’re having?”
I’m not sure if there could be a worse time for me to be traveling. Kosovo is playing havoc on America’s relationship with the rest of the world, thanks to misguided NATO bombs. Monica Lewinsky is still in the news. When Richard learns that I’m from the “wild West,” he begins cracking jokes about John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Columbine. I don’t understand how I can be blamed for my country’s embarrassments, but, then again, I’ve never worked outside the U.S. before.
I’ve got lots to learn.
I write down everything Richard tells me. I can’t afford to forget and give him more ammunition. I keep a notepad and pen in my pocket, along with a Swiss Army knife and toilet paper.
I don’t go anywhere without toilet paper now. I can blow my nose on it, wipe blood flecks off my face with it, or run behind the lambing shed and pee any time. There’s a bank of bushes perfect for hiding behind, and it’s certainly better than making the long trek back to the house. Except, when I put my brilliant bathroom plan into action, I found it had a flaw. I squatted down in the bushes and was just about to relieve myself when I felt a sharp sting. I jumped up, but I couldn’t see the bee anywhere. It was only later that I found out about stinging nettle.
I think I’m starting to develop an eagle eye to rival Richard’s. I’ve got all the signs of a ewe about to lamb written down. She’ll be off by herself in a corner, preoccupied, scratching at the straw with her hoof, grunting or baaing as if she wants something. Then she’ll lie on her side with an oomph, stretch out her legs as far as she can, strain her neck upwards, and push mightily. She might think she’s done it after a while. She’ll get up and sniff all around for her lamb, but she won’t find anything. That’s when I need to keep an eye on her, to make sure she gets there in the end.
You’d think that if any animal could spit out babies, it would be sheep. But there are dangers in birth. Sometimes there is skin, like a fine membrane, surrounding the lamb like a plastic sheet. If the skin doesn’t rip open during birth, the lamb will suffocate. Other times, the lamb will refuse to wake up and lie there like a dead thing until you dip its ear in cold water or stick a piece of straw up its nose. It doesn’t like that, so it squirms and starts life with a sneeze and a kick.
So when a lamb is born, I have to be on it. No excuses. As the lamb coughs, lying stretched out, splayed-legged, sides shivering and shaking its floppy ears, I am there. Sticking my finger in its mouth to clear out the mucus, turning the ewe around so she can start licking off the afterbirth, and glaring about for lamb-stealers, ewes whose maternal instinct has kicked in early and want a lamb, any lamb, even if it’s not their own.
If everything looks okay, I leave. Give the ewe ten minutes with her lamb to clean it up and bond. Then back to the pen. Prop open the gate. Grab the lamb by its two front hooves, squeezing out wetness as if I’m wringing a rag. It’s time to get this pair into private accommodation.
I carry the lamb out through the gate, dragging its back legs gently on the ground. To get the momma sheep to follow, I have to catch her attention by making lamb sounds. “Maa, maa.” The lamb’s head dangles to the side as it struggles uselessly. “Maa, maa.” With any luck, the ewe will think her lamb is being carried away by a predator, and she’ll follow me with fury.
The first time Richard demonstrated this, I laughed. You don’t often get to see a grown man making baaing sounds. I’d thought he was trying to mimic what the lamb would really sound like, that high-pitched bawling that sounds so terrified even when the whole turmoil is for its own good. But I was wrong. The only point of making sound is to get the ewe’s attention.
You see, a momma sheep can’t recognize the sound of her own lamb’s voice. She only knows its smell. A lamb, on the other hand, can hear a sheep call and know immediately whether she is its mother. But, for the ewe, sniffing is the first and last answer.
So when the ewe hears a ruckus and sees her lamb being carried away from her, she’ll stagger to her feet and rush over and headbutt you from behind with all the force of maternal instinct. That’s the sign of a good mother.
But there are always one or two stupid or shortsighted ones who don’t realize that it’s their baby being carried away. They go back to where they gave birth, nickering anxiously and casting about for their newborn. You have to set the lamb down and wait patiently until the sheep sees it and gets the point. Once the lamb struggles or lets out a bleat or two, she notices, all right.
From there the ending is quick. Set the lamb down in a private pen and close the gate after its huffy mother. Spray the lamb’s navel with iodine. Give her water. She’ll want lots after her lamb is born, because she’s lost so much fluid. Leave them.
Dewi follows me around after school with a first-grader’s keenness for getting things right. “You give them nuts at supper, and nuts for breakfast. Do they get silage for dinner? Or just breakfast? And you give the lambs milk at breakfast, and milk at supper, and milk at tea. And the sheep will have water for tea. Will they have water again for supper?”
He reminds me of myself at that age. I was only interested in either feeding sheep or playing with them. I didn’t have to help with anything else. My job was to talk to them, imagining replies in the stamp of a hoof or flick of an ear. After all, in books sheep can talk. Maybe you just have to make the first move and gain their trust before they start talking back.
But I am dealing with Welsh sheep now, and I don’t think my English words will do the trick.
I check with Dewi to see if I am pronouncing my new phrase right.
“Oen bach,” I say. “Little lamb. Is that right? Oen bach?”
He is kicking his feet from his seat high up on the haystack. He looks down at me.
“Is that right, Dewi? How do you say, ‘little lamb’?”
He looks towards the lambs, then looks back at me. “Say it again.”
I oblige. “Oen bach.” I swap the bucket of silage to my other hand and wait.
At first, there’s no reaction. Then he sits upright and starts to giggle. “Say it again. Say it again, Amy.”
“Oooen baach.” I draw out the syllables.
He just laughs. He’s delighted by it. What am I doing wrong?
Ah, it’s no use. I dump a handful of silage in the next pen and move on. The whole thing is ridiculous, anyway. I’m just supposed to feed the dumb sheep, not call them by name.
Two weeks and counting. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and flinch. It’s a lie that farmers are fit. Farm work may be physical, but it doesn’t count as exercise, not when farm meals accompany it. Arwen serves us chocolates and biscuits at every meal but breakfast. For teatime there’s plenty of bread and butter and full-fat milk straight from the cow. I am becoming a right Rubenesque shepherd girl. Luckily, I wear so many layers that the only time I notice is when I take a bath.
I have to take a bath each morning, as the centuries-old farmhouse doesn’t have a shower. Easing myself into the steaming water is always a shock. The tub screeches as my skin makes contact with the ceramic. Water closes over my legs. Ahh, this is what it feels like to be warm and safe.
I paddle in the water with my fingers. My hands are unrecognizable, raw, knobby, and streaked with wounds gone sour. Perhaps they’re pretty in an odd sort of way: rainbow-colored with blue marking paint and white lime and the dark creases of dirt that never come out, not even with scrubbing. It’s my fingernails that bother me most, though. I sniff them. They smell like day-old menstrual blood, and the blood isn’t mine.
I miss feeling clean and pretty. I really do. I haven’t worn makeup in weeks. I’ve still got a bottle of scented shampoo I brought over in my suitcase, so at least one part of me smells like roses.
I avert my eyes from the sight of my soft skin and splash water onto my face and neck to rinse off the previous day’s uncleanliness. But, really, there is no need. In a few minutes, I’ll put on my dirty clothes again, and all that clean skin will be covered up as if it never was.
Richard offered me a blue boiler suit for work, but there is no way I’m looking like a Smurf. Instead I throw a flannel workshirt over my t-shirt and ignore the smears and stains. I usually wear my t-shirt for several days in a row anyway. When I put it on in the morning, it is as if I’ve never stopped work. Waterproof trousers go over my jeans to keep them clean. The trousers take the brunt of the mess, with layer upon layer of manure, iodine, blue spray paint, and blood. Lastly, I put on two pairs of cotton socks. I need them both to fill up my wellington boots. The socks are a bit brown along the toes where the pitchfork put a hole in my boots one night. There are some memories I’d rather forget.
“Do you know how to keep a sheep still?” Richard asks me. We’re standing around a sheep in the center of the big pen. In the strain of pushing, the ewe has expelled her insides in a big reddish lump, and we’re going to push the prolapse back in.
I hold a red piece of plastic, trailing bows of twine. “Uh-huh.” Of course I know. I get ready to grasp the sheep as I’ve seen my father do it, pinning the head to the side so that the neck will curl round and the sheep will sink into the embrace of the person holding it.
Richard just stands there. He has that dopey smile on his face, and his limbs are hanging abnormally loose. He takes the ewe from me. With barely any motion, he has his thumb in the ewe’s mouth like a bit, pressing back against the jaw and circling around to reach his forefinger.
He says nothing, just smiles at me with those hawk eyes.
The ewe struggles. This is her first time having a lamb, and she doesn’t understand what’s happening to her body or why she’s in a shed with these strange humans who dispense feed and fear with the same visit.
And now she’s got two of those two-legged beasts against her. She’s all on her own; her friends are crowded into the back corner of the pen as far away from us as possible. Her eyes roll in her black face. She jolts her head back and stamps, pushing herself backwards against Richard’s hold.
She’s a fierce fighter, with four square legs of power and a wooly back to match. She twists her head, squints her eyes, and grinds her teeth. But she can’t bite Richard. He’s got her behind the row of teeth. She can’t move backwards; she can’t move sideways.
The shed is silent except for the ewe’s struggle.
“It’s very painful,” Richard says, “because it presses against sensitive skin. If they struggle, you just hold them tighter, and they’ll learn.”
The ewe slows her squirming and stands there heavily, eyes wary, breathing noisily through her nose.
Richard has won.
I glance up at Richard, complicit in this as in all things.
“How did your dad teach you?”
“One sec.” I want to get this over for her as fast as possible.
I bend down and collect the flesh poking out of the ewe’s rear end in my cupped hand. I slowly push it back in and hold it with one hand while I ease the plastic spoon inside with the other. I tie the spoon on, wrapping the twine around the ewe’s belly.
I let go.
“He taught me to hold the neck.”
“You’ll have to show him this one,” Richard says. He has a bright gleam in his eye. “It’s better.”
As the lambs grow stronger, it’s time to release them into the fields with their mothers. I have to mark them with numbers matching their mothers’ eartag, in case they get mixed up on the journey. I pull the spray paint out of my vest pocket in a shower of twine and straw and lean over the fence to scoop up a lamb with one hand. I balance the lamb precariously on my knee as I brand it with a blue number, then shove the spray paint back in my pocket and pull the elastrator out. As I slip a rubber band onto the lamb’s tail, I get soft little black poops under my fingernails. I take no notice.
This isn’t working for me. Four weeks with no days off, no time to be by myself, and no space to get away. I’ve begun shaking the damn little lambs that won’t lie still. No more caresses, just in and out. I no longer think twice when I fling a lamb into a pen and knock out its breath with a wheeze. The lamb will get up again, and I have another one to get. Efficiency is everything.
My notepad stays in my pocket, pages stained and rumpled. I can’t think of anything reasonable to write anymore. I scrawled my last note days ago, just a line saying that I wished the sheep wouldn’t shit in their own water buckets, but then again, what could I do?
Perhaps, by not writing, I’ll forget things, like the memory of the water breaking on a ewe, gushing piss-dark over Richard’s wellies as he reaches inside to pull out three dead lambs, dried and deceased so long that their mother has lost the lubricant to push them out. They’ve been holed up inside her for days, bloated with gases. If they’d been left there long enough, Richard told me, if the shepherd was a poor shepherd and didn’t notice that the ewe had lost its water bladder, then only a Caesarean could get the lambs out, and the ewe still might die from the poison fermenting in her system.
I throw the dead lambs and the remains of afterbirth into plastic feed sacks. Every day, there are more. Today it’s one stillborn lamb, one suffocated lamb crushed by the weight of its mother, who sat on it as she slept, and five straw-specked placentas.
I’ve left one dead lamb left by the pens in case Richard wants to skin it. I don’t know how to do it myself, and I’m not going to ask for a lesson. You have to slice through the skin so the pelt peels off into a jacket that another lamb can wear. You put the jacket on an orphan lamb, and the bereaved mother smells it and believes that this lamb is hers, that her lamb never died in the first place. If all goes well, she fosters the orphan until its smell becomes familiar and displaces the smell of the dead.
The stink is getting to me. The line of body bags is four long now. The dogs like to get into the bags and pull out the bodies of baby lambs or bits of afterbirth. They swallow the afterbirth whole or chew on the lambs’ faces and leave a pale red mess behind. Then I have to pick up the carcasses and put them back in the bags, folding the tops over carefully and smashing them down with something heavy so that the dogs can’t get inside.
I’ve stopped petting them because of that. Moss and Sam and Bob. Now I wish I hadn’t learned their names, so that I could despise the dogs more easily.
You can’t get too attached. That’s the first lesson of farming. You can’t have a personal relationship with an animal. I learned that the hard way as a kid. Don’t love the little boy lambs too much, because by autumn they’ll be loaded into trucks and sent off to become lamb chops. All the crying in the world won’t bring them back. Trust me: I tried.
After dinner, Richard tells me to pull the watery-eyed lamb off his mother. The lamb had been born that morning, and his twin brother must have taken all the milk, because that afternoon I found him hollow and huddled in the corner of the pen. Richard figured that the ewe was bunting him away because she was too stupid to realize he was hers.
I take the lamb out of the pen and put him on his own under a heating lamp for the night. When his temperature returns to normal, I figure I’ll take him back to his mother.
That’s not what happens. By the next morning, the lamb still hasn’t moved. He doesn’t even twitch when I touch him. I feed him the only way I can, by crouching down and cradling his head in my hand, then slipping a rubber tube into the corner of his mouth and down through his throat into his stomach. With a plastic syringe of milk, I pump him until his sides swell.
When Dewi finds out about the orphan lamb, he follows me out. “Are you going to feed the lamb, Amy? I want to feed him. Let me feed him.”
“You can come with me,” I say, “but I’m going to tube him. He can’t drink properly yet.”
“Why? Well…” I look at the lamb. It’s been two days, and he’s still huddled on his side, tongue hanging out. He hasn’t lifted his head since I put him there. Richard told me to flip him over every time I thought about it, so that circulation goes to both sides of the body. He told me that he’s seen lambs that have lain in one position too long, and when they get well enough to walk they’re lopsided.
“He’s a nice lamb, isn’t he, I? Not naughty at all.” Dewi holds the lamb’s head while I prepare the syringe.
“No, Dewi, not naughty.” I moisten the tube with milk.
“Why does he not have a mother, then?”
I stare at Dewi, but he won’t look at me.
“Oh, Dewi, he wasn’t naughty. It was just that his mommy didn’t have enough dinner for both him and his brother. He still has a mommy. It’s just that he can’t go back to her until he gets well.”
Dewi plays with the lamb’s ears as I slide the tube down the lamb’s throat. “We’ll have to name him then, won’t we, Amy? We’ll name him.”
“All right. What will you name him?”
“I’m going to call him….” Dewi glances around for inspiration, mumbling under his breath. Then he has it. “Peter. We’ll call him Peter, won’t we?”
“Peter. Good. Hi, Peter.”
I hold Peter in my arms and look at him. His left eye is teary and milky, and I wonder if he can see out of it. I stroke him gently, but he doesn’t bleat or move. He’s far, far away from here. I set him down, and the tube of milk splashes onto his forehead. Peter sinks back into the straw, baptized in milk. I’ll bet he dies in a few days.
The ewe with the dead triplets doesn’t seem to want to pull out of it. She won’t lift her head, and she stinks. She’s had that glazed, aimless look ever since she was pumped full of penicillin, after her lambs were pulled out of her.
But Richard has an idea.
She has milk, and Peter needs a mother.
Even Richard is surprised at Peter’s turn-around. Maybe having a name helped him. He can stand up on his own now, feet splayed for balance. His weepy eye is half-shut, making him look a bit dozy. I’ve moved him to a pen with a few other lambs, and he fits in perfectly, even though he’s been alive for a week and they just a day.
Richard tells me to take him over to nurse on the sick ewe twice a day. He’ll need to be taught how to suck, but he should pick up it fast. And who knows? Maybe having a lamb will give the ewe a reason to live.
Peter takes to nursing with gusto, but the ewe still doesn’t respond. I give her another intramuscular injection of penicillin in the leg: ten ccs, three times the normal dose. I am to repeat the injections until the ewe gets better or dies. Boss’ orders.
Richard reckons that it does no good to give them what it says on the bottle. “Give her a good jolt,” he says. “If that won’t cure her, nothing will. No use fiddling about with a piddly three ccs. You can bet that’s not what the vet uses. It won’t kill her.”
It won’t kill her. I repeat this to myself. It’s only penicillin; it won’t kill her.
There’s another prolapse in the barn the next afternoon. Nobody is around. The lambing shed is quiet with stamping ewes and sunlight slanting into the dust. In the second pen on the left, a ewe is lying on her side. She grunts and strains, but no lamb comes.
When she rolls to her feet, I see why. Her guts are hanging out. At least, that’s what it looks like to me: a knotted up mess of organs spilling out of her rear end, flattened where she’d been sitting on them.
She’s a speckled-face with a green ear tag, which means that she must be an older ewe. That’s good: she’ll be calmer than a first-timer.
There’s a clean spoon on the shelf. I pick it up, tie strands of twine to it, then jump into the pen with one hand on the bars. I land with a thud. Sheep scatter.
Warily, I start moving towards where I’d last seen her. The ewes closest to me jump to their feet with a bleat and dash away, the straw hissing with their steps. I scan their black and pink behinds. Ah, there she is. The speckled face races by. I leap to catch her.
Holding tightly to the fleece with both hands, I wheel in circles as the ewe continues to run. At last she slows, tiring, and I find the breath to pull her over to the fence where I can pin her against the bars with my knees.
I lay the spoon on the ewe’s back. She stands there, breathing heavily. She can’t back up; my knee is there. She can’t go forward; my other knee is in her shoulder.
With two gentle fingers, I push the prolapse in. A few dry clods of manure that had been trapped inside fall from the folds of flesh. As my fingers sink in further, the fleshy folds collapse in on each other, taking their right shape.
A fountain of warm water hisses out and splashes over my hands. It smells like urine. The ewe’s bladder has been blocked since she prolapsed. This must be a relief to her.
I let the urine wash over my knuckles until it stops and I can work again, then gently push the prolapse in the rest of the way. I insert the plastic spoon and tie it on with good strong knots.
I let the ewe go. Without even a glance at me, she moves ahead and is back in the herd, surrounded by their comforting numbers. I watch her as she walks to the water trough in short struts, hitching up her rear end to accommodate the new feeling.
It’s not that I’m disappointed. I can’t expect the ewe to look up and bleat appreciatively. That’s the balance of power between the human and the ewe: whatever I do, I am always the one to be run away from.
Still, if the ewe had just recognized me, looked me in the eye, known it was me saving her life, me who cared, not Richard….
But all human legs look the same from a ewe’s point of view.
I sigh. I wipe my hands dry on my shirt and hop back over the fence to get some more marking spray. I don’t know why I always seem to think everything’s about me. It’s not. None of this is personal. The sheep seem to do a better job remembering that than me.
One week later, I move Peter and his new mother outdoors at last, to the observation field below the house. They’re still alive. They’ve taken to one another with the fierce attachment of survivors.
Peter’s wooly belly feels full in the crook of my elbow as I carry him outside. The sun is a white halo in the overcast sky, and it smells like grass and dew. I set him down inside the gate and step back as the ewe charges in, collects Peter, then flees down the hill to join the others. The two merge into the flock and are gone.
No pause, no glance back.
But I’m okay with that. Only children name lambs, after all.
I head back to the shed, towards the warmth and rich barnyard smell. With only a handful of ewes left to lamb, I’ll be moving on soon. Richard has promised to send me to a friend of his, an organic farmer. Apparently the farmer uses homeopathic treatments on his sheep, making him the laughingstock of the county.
I can’t wait.