Menu

Shepherd’s Watch by Melanie Viets

 

A laboring ewe digs a nest in winter’s packed bedding. She licks the fresh straw, her own scent mixed with lamb. Grunts from her gut, a sound heard only now, before blood, cries, milk. A small pair of hoof tips appear, pointed down. Wet nose above. The ewe lies, strains, reaches her own nose high. Looks down her back. She watches me across the paddock and checks that I hold our understood distance. Releases a string of grunts that slow and soften with her progress.

 

Up again to turn a half circle, back down to push. Moans. Hooves, mouth, nose, head, shoulders, legs pour out as one. Steam rises from bloody curls. A small damp head shakes clear its nose and mouth. The ewe stands to smell, lick, pull caul back into her own body. Sides heave with short nickers. She bids her lamb home.

 

Midnight: Starlight glints through the eastern ridge of pine and spruce and a lamb arrives face first, his legs tucked back. I slip my hand deep inside the ewe. Reach in turn for one front hoof then bent leg. My fingers meet the inner wall of the ewe’s womb, her muscles ribbed in symmetry with the ridges of the ram’s horns.

 

The hay smells like mint. Red clover and vetch, pressed thin as in a book, layered in wisps and stalks. Heads of timothy ride the flakes I pull apart and serve to eager sheep. Hay from a neighboring farm because World War II yanked the last farmers from this ledge-filled hillside in Vermont. Open fields quickly folded to dense maple and birch, ash and hemlock. Drystone walls built in the ‘sheep fever’ years grew thick, shaded worlds of moss.

 

Mint scent rises as the sheep coax hay through the wire rack, tear loose mouthfuls and kick off the nips of opportunistic lambs. Two weeks old, they’ll nurse from anyone. When the lambs are half-grown, mint leaves will crush under boot as I set fence along the orchard pasture’s marsh. In August’s heat, sheep run for early apples on the ground, red streaks through white sweet flesh.

 

Yarrow, black-eyed Susan, daisy, paint brush, clover white and red, vetch. The sheep snip blossom from stem in their new paddock. They spread out across the fenced expanse, a few days’ pasture I’ve contained under watchful eye and demanding bleat. The ewes with lambs in step stream forth to bite the thickest blades of grass and rogue shoots of red maple or poplar. They snap mouthfuls of herbs and grass along the perimeter. Forward, always forward to find the plant that meets their need for nourishment, lactation, variety, pleasure. Sharp hooves crack the barrier between plant and soil to let in seeds, air, rain. Pellets and urine return minerals and nutrients from animal to earth. The flowers go first. Thin yellow petals hitch in dense black fleece.

 

I set the net fence along the old barn foundation, shore up my efforts with thin posts beside the crumbling layers of slate. Within sight, sugar maples tower over the farm cemetery, wild roses push up between the gravestones. A crooked line of small slate markers stitches through the creeping myrtle like partridge tracks through snow. One carved heft of granite places the father. Where is the mother, I wonder. What was her name? Did she watch the apple trees in the old orchard brighten the western hill in blossom? Did she welcome the earliest variety, sweet, marbled globes too soft to keep? How surprised to see meadows filled in with trees, her house a poplar-spiked cellar hole, stone walls little more than decoration. She lives in the landscape if not in memory.

 

Frost on black rams’ backs. Etched glass on each loose crimp of outer wool tog, heat held close to skin by dense curl of inner layer thel. Thick, warm, curved horns shiny with dew. In the garden beyond the sheep, frost on zinnia: red petals crinkle under crystal weight. When the sun on the hillside hits the garden, cell walls give way, brown rushes in where bursts of red, orange, pink brightened summer’s garden path. Basil and tulsi leaves blacken like burnt toast. Dark green kale stands guard and sweetens with each frozen morning. My fingers stiff, I pull up fencing cold and slick with frost. Into a pocket, under an arm, try to coax warm blood back in.

 

Outside each early morning, I meet the sunrise, the mist, the frost. Fit my body to the hills. To the day. The dog waits for my back to turn before he picks cracked corn between the scratching hens. Pretends not to have turned over the pigs’ bucket to lick the remains, however sweet or sour. There is no flank of cow to lean into, but to haul, pour, clamber over brings a welcome heat. Rest a hand on a pig’s back, bristly warmth, hotter than human touch.

 

Late October: the sheep shelter brightens with a shaft of light as I open the rough-sawn pine door. ‘It’s me,’ I say, easing back white from lambs’ eyes. Their fleeces, grey, black or brown, are five inches thick, two layers of wool to keep them dry and warm from snow and bitter mornings they’ll never wake to.

 

I push open the slatted wooden gate, take a few steps toward the lambs, keep my eyes just above their stare. The dearest lamb, Cinnabar, comes to greet me as he has since birth. His light brown fleece is checked with leaves and straw. I wrap my hand around a warm, black horn and lead him through the gate to the door, where my son watches and reaches out his hand. One hand each on horn, we tug the lamb over the threshold. His hooves dig for resistance on the slick plywood floor. A large, scarred hand reaches to meet my son’s. We release our hold on Cinnabar and step aside, yielding to the confidence in the broad hand of the itinerant slaughterer. I turn and open the door. Another seam of late fall sunlight spills across the shelter. Outside, one stunned ram falls to the grass and meets the let of knife while I reach for the horns of his brother.

 

My knife catches on gristle and then it’s my blood pooling bright on the deep red muscle of the lamb. Puck, a slip of a ram that lies now in pieces—leg, shoulder, loin, shank—on my kitchen counter.

 

I slide my knife under the glistening membrane of silverskin that cloaks a shoulder. Follow the striated bands of muscle until the pattern of growth is clear—deltoid, triceps, brachialis, discernable layers that build dimension, muscle origami—and fit the blade between the bundles for the desired cut. I don’t yet have the touch for this work, this functional art. It’s Puck I see on the counter and not tenderloin.

 

Early that morning, a drive through the first snow with the lambs’ kidneys for an elderly friend. Nine pairs of smooth, glossy, purple bean-shapes blanketed in layers of fat like melted candle wax. In trade, a pint jar of ginger-rhubarb-orange marmalade, and the loan of a Universal meat grinder in its original blue box, circa 1965. Grinder clamped to the counter, I fill the hopper with the leavings of meat sliced from bone, pulled between ribs, loosened from tendon and joint. I feel for the hinges where bone meets bone — hip, shoulder, knee — and slide the blade around ligament and flesh until the bald, rounded knuckles pop free. Feed the hopper with bits again and catch the ground meat in a glass dish to weigh and portion out and freeze for the winters’ meals, my finger wrapped to staunch the bleeding.

 

The twisting ply of sunshine, grass, well water, flowers, leaves, rain, frost, snow, care. I feed my family. I feed my neighbors. As all who’ve come before, I feed myself with the sentience and body of this land. Winter mornings, I break moon shadows to bring the sheep their hay. The smell of mint cuts through the cold. Last summer’s clover, buttercup, vetch bright against the snow.

 

MELANIE VIETS is a shepherd and small-scale farmer born and raised in northern Vermont. Her essays and stories have appeared and are forthcoming in NarrativeWhitefish Review and About Place Journal.

 

Share your thoughts