Burying the Ewe

Marion was sick. No one knew what was wrong with her, but she was in pain and she had been in pain and she was not getting better.

It started when Avon had fed the sheep food that was too rich, and they got diarrhea, and then they got fly strike, when the flies lay their eggs in the wool moist from the diarrhea, and then the maggots burrow into the rectum. And some of the sheep had parasites, besides.

Marion had a prolapsed rectum, from the stress of it all Erika figured, but nobody knew what to do about it.

But a few days before a lamb had dropped its large intestine and they’d had to put it down, and suddenly yesterday Erika felt Marion was on the verge of the same thing. So she called Avon and Avon called Ted and Ted called his son Bill, and Bill said he’d come out and put the sheep down.

Erika interrupted her dinner and Jim’s dinner so that they could find Marion in the pasture and isolate her and get the horses and the other sheep away from her so that they wouldn’t be spooked by the gunshot. As though she could prevent the other animals from feeling Marion’s death. Like the horses, how Carita had called and called out to Cindi across the pasture when the bull was butchered.

As we were finishing dinner Bill walked onto the front porch. Bill had big eyes and tossled brown hair; he looked like my ex-husband, Tim, sweet and solid, if a little soiled.

The three of them walked down into the pasture and Vesper and I did dishes, and Gavin crutched himself into the living room to play the piano, slow and lovely notes that sounded nothing like an emaciated 25-year-old guy whose body is covered with tattoos and his leg in a cast from surgery on a severed tendon that happened when he broke the light fixture getting out of the bathtub in the tiny bathroom of his shared apartment in San Francisco.

I stood there drying dishes with a white cotton towel. The shot was faint but unmistakable. I caught my breath, my hand arrested in mid-wipe. Not a firecracker. Why do people say it sounds like a firecracker?

I didn’t know that I was listening for it until I heard it. A single shot, muffled by the close range of impact. a dividing line between what was and what is. A carved split second. Not even a loud one.

I stood frozen and in shock as though I didn’t know it was coming, as though I didn’t know who had just died. Could have been anyone. I knew the sound as though it were something I heard every day, the sharp distinction of it carried across the grass of the pasture, up the hill, through the trees, past the door and into the house to reach my ears. as clear as an ambulance siren cutting through the mix of traffic.

I have never heard anything like that sound. Clouded and muted by the wind and the earth and the distance and the sheep itself, the thick body muffling the crack, but I knew in my marrow what exactly that sound was.

Vesper said after a moment, “I’m surprised that Erika would want to watch that.” I looked at her. Vesper has total hearing loss in one ear and only 20 percent hearing in the other. “Did you hear that?” I said. She nodded.

I replayed the sound over and over, not believing how certain the knowledge of it was, holding my breath in hope that there would not have to be another shot. The drama of a small retort, packed, carrying so much weight.

All else of the day seemed trivial, mundane, bleary, a repeated worn record, before this. The entire day, my entire six months at the farm, condensed into that sound.

How does a soldier live with the memory of such sounds?

Slower now I kept drying the dishes. I fed Trevor, reducing his rations a bit because he’d eaten an entire loaf of bread fresh from the oven the day before and was still a bit sluggish. Erika came in. Her eyes were dry, her voice normal. “Lisa, could you help us bury Marion?”

I went upstairs, took off my itchy bra, put on another shirt and a jacket and some socks. went down and tied on my heavy farm boots. Sat on the porch and smoked half a cigarette before I went down into the pasture.

Passed the barn; Cindi and Carita looked at me, asking for reassurance, as I passed through the gate. Cindi even let me pat her nose, nuzzled me. I spoke to her in a soft low voice and loved her for the first time.

My feet were unsteady, as though my boots were the wrong size, as though the ground had been broken up by an alien ripple of fire and earthquake. The fields are so brown and dry right now. Heat cracking dirt and grass against July’s blue skies.

I could see Jim and Erika, at the wrong end of a telescope, standing there amid the oaks. A white lump in the wheelbarrow. Shovels, a pickaxe. The wind had picked up and the earth smelled like home.

I walked right up and touched Marion’s head. Her eyes were open, blank, her head sagging over the edge of the rusting wheelbarrow. A little blood ran from her mouth and her nostril. She was utterly still, but somehow I felt she was alive. Her energy hovered.

My hand on her head told me that she was not alive, for she was too still, rock still. But I was drawn to touch her head. I wanted to know death, touch it.

A sense of wonder – she was alive, walking around on this grass, just a few minutes ago, and now she is dead in a wheelbarrow. I don’t see death so immediately, so up-close, in ordinary life. I think of the crowd of people gathered around the canal in Beijing when someone drowned. Of Ernst, my favorite cat, when I buried him in Discovery Park. Those moments had so much pain and fear for me. Now I feel no fear, only acceptance.

We dug in silence. At first all three of us worked, but as it grew deeper we narrowed to two, then one at a time, not enough room to avoid colliding our shovels. The soil is rocky, hard, then layers of clay so dense they struck like rocks.

I wondered whether they had to pay Bill for the bullet, for his service, but didn’t know how to ask, it seemed so crass. Erika read my thoughts and said, “Bill told us, ‘It’s just a favor one farmer does for another.’ I was so touched by that.”

Me too. Just a favor one farmer does for another. An understanding that to kill an animal you have fed and treated and tried to save is hard, even for a farmer, even for those whose lives ride continually on the cycle of life and death.

Aren’t we all farmers. all struggling to scratch out nourishment from unforgiving soil, praying for rain, sweating in the sun, eating well when we’re strongest.

We dig and pick and dig. Hard going; we have to dig around a wedge of boulder whose edges are past our abilities. For a moment I resent the hard labor of this farm, the way I always do, think of how silly it is to take such care with a single animal. How labor-intensive is this way of caring, how insignificant in the big picture, bucking a tsunami.

Jim said, “At least this is for a sheep. The pioneers had to dig graves in this soil for family members.”

To dig a grave for someone you love, who did not choose his death, even an infant, like the gravestones we have found on the property. A mother. A spouse. How long it would take to dig a grave twice as long and wide and deep as this one for Marion. How many hours of toil. cathartic, I suppose, in a way, digging out your grief.

The four goats were grazing nearby, I noticed suddenly. pretending not to notice what we were doing, but surreptitiously watching.

Trevor starts tossing a tennis ball at us. Annoyed, I stop and throw it to him anyhow. It bounces across the hard, dry pasture.

“I didn’t know they spasmed like that,” Erika said. “In the movies when an animal or a person is shot, they just fall over and they’re still.”

“Yeah, they do, sweetie,” Jim said. “if you shoot an elk in the heart, he’ll keep running until he falls over. if you shoot him in the head, he’ll die there, but he keeps twitching for awhile.”

I think of Uncle Dick’s descriptions, of our discussions about the flow of anxiety that makes meat taste bad if an animal isn’t killed properly. We still don’t know how we’re going to kill the chickens.

“I suppose the nerve impulses are still coursing through the body even when the brain stops,” I said, feeling far too clinical, wanting to comfort Erika.

The blood from Marion’s nose had congealed, thickened into a lumpy red yarn. Jim said the grave was deep enough. Erika said she wanted to wait another 15 minutes. “What time is it?” she asked me.

“8:35.”

“Will you please let us know when 15 minutes have passed?”

I nodded. They walked up to the barn to bring in the goats.

I kept picking and digging, slower now. Not making any real progress, but not willing to stop quite yet.

Trevor tossed the ball at me and it landed in the grave. I threw it far away and he brought it right back and tossed it into the grave again. He paid no attention to the sheep. He’s a retriever; I guess he only notices what moves.

I studied the blanket of tiny roots in the soil waiting to drink of Marion’s body, thought about the worms and the countless bacteria, the million things that would decompose her and draw life from her. Shorn sheep skin still full of nutrients. The green plastic tag clipped to her ear is all that will be left someday, to be found by some future pioneer, sifting upward through the ground someday when Jim and Erika are dead.

I kept looking up and smelling the breeze, feeling the earth in its strangeness, feeling the foreignness of the place, still in culture shock.

Twelve hours ago I was in Seattle, in my living room, with my hands on a friend’s heart, doing Reiki. She has pain in her groin and abdomen; no one knows what’s wrong. Blood tests, ultrasound, show nothing. her mind and heart are thirsty for the flow of Reiki. I moved my hands to her torso and it drank deeply; I felt the pain under my fingers.

Jim and Erika came back without my notifying them. “It’s only been 12 minutes,” I noted wryly.

Jim said I could stop digging, that the grave was deep enough.

“She had a good life,” Jim said.

“She suffered for three months,” Erika said, shaking her head. “She was in a lot of pain.” I think of how Erika told me in the car, on the way in from the train station, how it was near the anniversary of her mother’s death, and how traumatic these two weeks had been for her as a result. But that she’d awakened yesterday no longer feeling guilty, for the first time in her life. Her mother made her feel she was born guilty, and finally her mother let her go. it had been a rough year for both of them.

Marion was only a year and a half old. Her sister had died a bad death as well, her head caught in the V of a tree trunk, she strangled slowly because no one saw her. I thought of the sheep we’d rescued from the fence back in May, and wondered if it was Marion.

Erika asked us to hold hands over Marion for a moment. We stood in a small circle around the wheelbarrow. I don’t have the smile on my face that I usually do when we hold hands at dinner, but I feel life’s force floating within the circle, as strongly as I have ever felt it, like qi gong or distance Reiki.

I don’t feel bad. I feel the death and I feel okay with it, facing it with my eyes closed.

Erika squeezes my hand, I squeeze Jim’s. We break the circle. I lay my right hand on the sheep’s stomach. It is still very warm, remarkably alive even in its stillness, shocking that it still contains so much heat.

Jim and I move the wheelbarrow next to the grave and carefully tip the sheep’s body into it. Part of her rectum is outside of her body, a red blob that flops as she falls. The body rolls into the grave with the softest of sounds.

She lands on her back; Jim pulls her by the legs onto her side, and Erika adjusts her head to lie against the vein of the boulder we dug around. She looks like a lamb again, an Easter lamb in a Catholic painting, peaceful, only dirty and shorn.

We pushed and slipped the pile of dirt onto her quickly. In just a couple minutes she had disappeared. I stamped down the dirt with the back of the shovel and hoped no wild animals would try to dig her up. The mound was slightly rounded. I could find it again.

Erika was brisk. I barely heard her telling Jim what the next tasks were – something about the goat barn and the chickens. I followed them back but had to keep stopping. The spirits and the wind gave me pause again and again. I wondered how there could be all this death, the chickens waiting to be slaughtered, Bussie feeling lighter every day as she waits to die, all this death in the midst of summer.

In the field to the west, the machines were running loudly, collecting the grass to ship to Japan. The grass seed already gone for the bigger cash. The sound of the machine is relentless.

I make it to the gate. The horses ignore me this time, keeping their distance from the gate. I close the gate and stand looking west.

The seven remaining lambs and a ewe stood facing me. Usually they run from me, the wild photographer chasing them with a camera, but perhaps in the shock of the moment they’ve forgotten. They stood facing me and waited and looked without blinking.

I looked back at them, their open faces, expectant, not quite fearful. Me too? I rewound to the video of me in February, holding these lambs when they could barely walk, when they still had their long tails and baby-skin wool coats, how innocent my own face was, the joy of being at the farm, Tom’s voice narrating my pleasure and soaking it in.

Some of us choose how we die, most of us don’t. Did the lambs remember me, remember the first days of their lives just six months ago, remember anything at all? They stood and stared. For once, I didn’t know what to say to them, so I said nothing.

They stood and stared at me for the longest minutes. Then two of them butted heads, and the circle was broken.

I looked at them, at the horses, thought of Tom and Vesper and Gavin and my own body. We’re all going to die. Death is relentless. But life is relentless too. Fecundity’s power equals dark endings. The smell of the farm. Gavin playing a requiem on the piano.

Erika was folding laundry when I went upstairs to bed. I kissed her on the cheek.

“Thanks for helping, with burying Marion,” Erika said.

“No problem,” I said.

Just a favor that one farmer does for another.