One Sheep a Herd Makes

Creative Nonfiction by Kate M. Carey

“Get Up. I need help with Snowball.” My mother shook my shoulder. It’s late winter in Ohio. Blowing icy crystals forced the farm animals into the barn. Not the best lambing weather. “C’mon on. Dress warm. It’s almost zero out.” She left my bedroom.

I opened an eye to the overhead light bright as the night was dark as the wind howled outside my windows. A chill creeped through the double paned glass. I climbed out of bed, the wood floor cold on my bare feet. Grabbed a ratty pair of jeans off a chair and slid them over my PJ bottoms, hoping the extra insulation might keep me from freezing. I pulled my brother’s hand-me-down, formerly-white-now-greying long underwear top from the drawer, added a flannel shirt, topped it with a faded sweatshirt, Danville High Blue Devils (7-2 this year). Forced two layers of socks onto my feet and stumbled into the kitchen.

Mom pulled a crocheted taboggan hat made of Snowball’s sheared wool that she’d spun into yarn onto her short grey hair. “Hurry up. She’s struggling.”

I pulled on boots, shrugged into my barn jacket, found mittens in the pocket, and followed her up to the barn wondering why I ever wanted the first lamb all those years ago.

When I was nine, I had my first birthday party. I suppose I had them younger, but we’d moved to Ohio when I was five and I don’t remember much of Seattle, or the long trip across America’s heartland. Atlas, the moving company, lost some of my toys, so I wanted all my friends to come to this party because I wanted more toys. I received some toys, but in this rural area, my friends were ‘country kids’ and I got an orphaned lamb, too. A boy. I named him Floyd.

Family farms were generations old in rural Ohio where rolling hills meet pastures dotted with goldenrod and joe pye weed. Some of my friends milked cows each morning before they caught the school bus. Others made hay all summer. Even kids in families who didn’t farm picked beans, shelled peas, and shucked corn, careful to avoid the little worms tucked into the tassels. Farming is hard, dirty, dependent on weather, yet full of hope.

I was sad, but not too surprised when the lamb died. Rural life is about life and death and even at nine, I knew that. It was lambing season at the Mickley’s farm, and a replacement orphan soon arrived.

I fed Snowball using a Pepsi bottle filled with formula and fitted with a black rubber nipple about three inches long. She grew, moved off the back porch and up to the barn, sleeping in a small pen smelling of last summer’s hay. On sunny days she chased me around the yard, wildly kicking up her heels.

Lambs are almost as cute in real life as the stuffed animals in the toy aisle, though the smell and feel of wool is more memorable than cotton fluff. Lamb wool is short, close to the body, thick to keep water out and warmth in. Your fingers don’t stroke a grown sheep as much as they get lost deep in dense wool forest and when you pull them out, they’re covered with a slick of lanolin.

Within a few weeks Snowball was joined by a beauty with smooth, black face. Jonquil, a Suffolk. Other farmers heard my mom would take in orphaned lambs and we’d go all over the county picking up babies that were too much work to keep alive. By the time I went to high school my mother had a flock of twenty-three ewes. She never lost one in childbirth. Snowball’s struggle that night produced a darling set of twins. My mom loved those sheep. I loved the money from shearing day, even though it went straight into my college savings account.

That night of Snowball’s distress comes back to me in dreams sometime. Brutal winter cold that froze any moisture in your nostrils and made breathing hurt. Snow that wasn’t deep enough for school to close yet slick to trample through to the barn. Car tires wore chains and kids wore hats knitted by mom or grandma. Determined rural folks made a living when a gallon of gas was thirty-five cents and four loaves of white bread cost a dollar.

One year a couple of just born orphans lived on the back porch when temperatures dropped as the barn had no heat. Those lambs were so tiny that they stayed in a cut off bottom of a refrigerator box, suckling formula from pop bottles, back then sixteen ounces. Four ounces, then eight, eventually a whole bottle.

As they grew, we’d let the lambs gambol into the kitchen, slip sliding on the linoleum floor, their small accidents as easily cleaned up as the new puppy’s. My father’s solution was to attach a plastic cocktail cup around the lamb’s middle to catch their waters. It was held on by a large rubber band. Ingenious, until the cup spilled onto the floor when the lambs got too rambunctious.

The lambing memory prods other sheep raising memories – the sickly pink color of worming medicine forced down a ewe’s gullet the way geese were force fed for foie gras.  Shearing time – we’d pen up all the sheep before some travelling guy would arrive in his truck, clippers connected to a small motor. He’d straddle a two-hundred-pound sheep, buzz off strips of wool, legs first, then up the back, finishing at her neck, leaving her head fuzzy. We would gather up long sheets of oily wool easing a bit of lanolin into our hands. Some sheep would struggle causing a nick to the tender skin, a spot of blood. Finished, nearly naked sheep ran into the pasture looking as though we’d robbed them of their dignity.

I left for college, bought books with my wool earnings. In my sophomore year, my mother decided sheep were too much work alone and she sold them all. She missed them for years. When I worked at Ohio State, a photographer took a picture of me holding a lamb at the university farms. I framed it for Mom’s birthday.

People liked my mom.  She was a strong, independent woman doing things that most women didn’t do in the 1940s…owned a Model A… drove her brother’s motorcycle…flew solo in a small plane. My dad thought she was rich when he met her because she owned a house and a car. Later, she mowed the fields, baled hay, fed the cows and sheep, wrote for three newspapers, had her own motorcycle, money, and way of being.

My mother brought care packages when she visited — beef when they butchered a cow, frozen beans and corn from her garden, freshly-made jam from the neighbor’s strawberries. When I bought a house, she bought me a Japanese maple tree for my birthday. The following year, a Harry Lauder’s Walking Cane, calling it a crazy mixed-up tree, all those twisted branches. She gave me giant yellow irises from her garden to plant near the tree. They bloomed every spring.

Later, I went with her to doctor appointments. It exhausted me to hear her recite her medical history. The pills for blood pressure, high cholesterol, breathing treatments for COPD, the visits, the hospitalizations. She spent a week in the hospital near my job. It wasn’t just the free Wi-Fi that tethered me there. 

She told the pulmonary doctor she wanted to go home and die. He looked at me. I shrugged my shoulders, made that stupid half smile/half grimace that I do when I don’t know what to say. I asked if she wanted to go home. Mom nodded and we were gone before the doctor warmed up the stethoscope.

Heading home, we smelled freedom. It smelled like fresh cut alfalfa drying in the field waiting to be baled on a hot, summer’s day.

We were relentless. Determined. She to die. Me, to give her whatever she wanted.

She was happy to be home. I took pictures of her sitting on the front porch, her dog Ben at her side. She watched the Buckeyes play that Saturday night. Visited with friends who came by on Monday. Ate the potato soup, brought by my aunt, close as her sister.

What did she feel in that fortnight in the bed, asleep, unaware, alive? Her breath deathly quiet as I bent toward her checking for an exhale. Wednesday, I left to see my family. Thirty minutes down the road my cell rang. My brother said he thought she was dead.

I made an onion, mushroom, and Swiss cheese omelet this morning using my mother’s cast-iron skillet, the 8-inch one, fully seasoned from years of eggs and home fries, chops, and burgers. It came, not with words of comfort and best wishes, but with silence and sadness.

My brother inherited our childhood home, lives there now in the middle of nowhere, Ohio with his two dogs, five tractors, and ten guns. No sheep. No cows. A neighbor plants corn and soybeans. I got the adjacent 54 acres, the hayfield, woods, a pond, that skillet.

When I see lambs, I remember bitching about that cold night, the pink worm medicine, and the stink of shearing day, and a late fall day when my mother whispered, I love you.

Kate M. Carey

Toes firmly placed in the sands of Topsail Island, Kate M. Carey enjoys local foods, beach walks, Buckeye football, and exploring the politics of everyday life. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Noctua, The Tishman Review, Panoply, Camel City Digest, Savannah Writers Anthology, Women AdvaNCe, and County Line Journal. She lives with her husband and cat in North Carolina.