The day I met Mama the Sheep, it was a cold clear January morning. A man had called me and said he had sheep to sell, did I want a few. So we hitched the rusty stock trailer to the red truck and went North.
The fancy new subdivision on the outskirts of Chicago was like entering another world. The man’s house was sparkly new, well appointed and palatial, his drive was sweeping and unmarked, the cars in the drive were European and expensive. Each of these houses close by but not too close by, had long manicured winter lawns, bordered by beautifully crafted designer fences. Though the indiscriminate ice clung to the fences, and the slush of old snow was disobediently sluggish and grey in the gardens.
Quite convinced we were in the wrong place due to a lack of sheep in the cold sunshine, John waited in the red truck, and I walked back past our rusty stock trailer to the door of the house. A stocky, very smart man speaking loudly on a cell phone erupted from the back door slamming the door behind him, gave me the time honoured -I’ll be with you in a minute sign, and awkwardly pulled his farm boots over his suit trousers with one hand. Stomping and talking bosslike on the phone, he caught my rather surprised eye (where do these people get their manners) and pointed to a smart new barn sitting on the other side of the sweeping circular drive. As we walked across, he on his phone talking about prices and lost shipments, John coasting behind us in the truck, six huge dogs erupted from little doors along the side of the barn, they all shot out of their individual dog doors into individual pens, and leaping at the netting tried to rip the fence down to get at us.
Ignoring the dogs and still on the phone the man opened a solid wood door into the most stunning miniature stables. The barking quieted as we entered the barn and he shut the door on the winter. The vaulted ceiling echoed with the new sound of bleating sheep. We had entered at one end of a perfectly proportioned Hollywood set. The floors were pristine polished concrete, each of the stalls on either side of the generous walkway had grills of beautiful Amish wrought iron, the hay feeders and the gates matching with stunning, precise balance. The wood glowed in natural shades offset by the black and green of the trims. There was a huge beautiful railway clock and next to it a large digital read out of the temperature inside and outside. It was considerably warmer inside than outside.
The man waved me on and passed John with a nod as he hurried back outside, loudly gesticulating as he roared into the phone.
John joined me inside. The red truck idled deeply outside. A rolling drum below the baying of the dogs and the high bleating of the sheep. The man’s discordant exclamations introducing a rising tension. The volume decreased again as the man shut the door and we walked from stall to stall. Now there was only the sound of the sheep. Each pen was about as big as my bathroom, each area had clean green matting on the floor, and each pen housed a big Suffolk sheep. One sheep. Two rows of them facing each other. Probably about ten stalls a side. Each of these sheep was screaming out into the swept and polished corridor from either side. Their perfectly crafted solid wood doors not even allowing them a peek at each other. Their bleating in that sanitised area was so incongruous that it battled at the senses. Their scent hidden and subsumed by a designer blend of alfalfa hay and oiled wood.
I did not know sheep were so loud, John said.
They are flock animals, I said. They think they are lost. They are afraid.
We walked to the end of the Stable for Sheep, peeked into a huge store room that housed a mountain of beautiful green alfalfa being moved around by a hired man who gently closed the door. Where was the exit to a paddock. No other door. So we walked back up the other side to see more and more sheep standing crying alone in these tiny cubicles. The dogs increased their descant below the high bleating as the front door opened and closed. The man was back.
Then I saw Mama, she had her bottom backed straight into the back corner of her cell and she was braying wildly like a donkey. Her big head pushed out in fury. She was bigger than the rest and madder. Her eyes were wild and her tongue pushed pink at her lips as she cried.
I waited with her while the man took two more phone calls, between which we bartered for Mama and her sister in the next pen. He was not cheap so I could only afford two. He told me he had sold their newborn lambs to a zoo but they were pregnant again. I looked at him sharply but said nothing. I wanted to take them all home and set them free in a field of grass and let them raise their own babies.
Once we had decided on who and how much he suddenly turned his phone off and announced that he would have to trim their feet first. Asserting himself he took a rope and after struggling with her sticky gate, he chased Mama around and around this tiny space, trying to lasso her. Shouting at her. She was having none of it. She was terrified of him. He eventually got this rope around her neck and proceeded to try and drag her bucking and fighting out of the pen. I was paralysed with shock. Manners and polite behaviour kept my feet still. We were in his home and technically the sheep still belonged to him. For a moment my voice left me.
John who does not suffer from polite behaviour was visibly agitated, his jaw tightening and silently we decided to get this show on the road. Now. He went to back the trailer to the door and I got behind Mama and pushed her to relieve her of the rope that was tightening around her neck. The dogs started up again as I heard the trailer being reversed at speed towards the barn door but the man tied Mama to a ring and proceeded to quickly hack at her feet.
In seconds her hoof began to bleed. I recovered my voice enough to say, that will do. That’s enough. Here is your money, I said politely, my voice was quavering with reaction. The man stood up from the sheep holding the cutters in his phone hand, automatically reaching for the cash I held out. He raised his eyebrows at me as he pocketed the money. I am taking the sheep now, I said. The dogs heaved and barked with fury as we pushed and cajoled Mama and her sister out of the fancy pretend barn and into the stock trailer. Mama’s foot leaving little hoofprints of red blood on his white concrete pad as she limped reluctantly along. With an interesting sleight of hand the hired man appeared and threw a fat slice of hay into the trailer as we closed the gate. The bossman lost interest in us again as his insistent phone called to him. Not waving, we sighed with relief and drove our sheep back out into the country.
The man had told me on the phone that the sheep were bred, but they weren’t. So it was not until the following autumn that Mama met Hairy. She was always flighty and wild eyed. She could not find it in herself to settle much. No-one could ever get near her and doing her feet took three people, a halter and a long time, but no ropes, no blood.
Then in March of last year when she was huge with lambs, I went out to check her. There was baby Mia, already born and on the ground already and bleating with her tiny lamb cry. Mama then moved to the other side and easily dropped another lamb. After a while as she moved about cleaning and giving birth she forgot I was even there. By the time we got to number four Mama and I were working as a team. She became so quiet with me, that I was rubbing down a lamb that would not stand and felt Mama licking and cleaning blood off my jacket behind me.
She would not feed Mia, and the last lamb born never took a proper breath though I tried and tried to save him, for hours. But we lost him. It was a strange time. The temperatures dived down to way below freezing. The wind was howling and found more cracks in the walls to whip through. It poured with icy rain for days. I put the lambs under a warm light and held them up to her to feed every two hours. Two of them were so weak they could not stand for long. They needed to be fed every two hours. So I met myself going as I was coming, on the track to and from the barn. I gave them all little sips of colostrum from my own frozen supply trying to get them up. Mama’s milk did not come down for hours. Her lambs were small and would not suck. She and I worked through that night, and into the next day to get those lambs to feed. Then every two hours all day and night for many days after that.
I was feeding Mia one time with Mama watching from behind and almost like a dream I felt Mama’s chin rest heavily on my shoulder and she sighed a big sheep sigh. I can not describe to you that amazing feeling. I mean she is a sheep. But here she was leaning her head on me as I worked with her babies. Watching. I could smell the musky heat of her breath right by my face. I could feel the warm of wool against my back. She is a big sheep. My Mama Sheep. And she was resting her heavy tired head on my shoulder as I crouched on the floor of her pen feeding her lamb.
Never again was she afraid of me. Now, when I come into the paddock she will trail after the others and thoroughly sniff at my hands and then saunter off confidently. She will come when I call her name. If my hands are still, resting on a gate, sometimes she will rest her head atop them. When I put her in the pen every night now she looks at me with such a sorrowful look. She always looks into my face this sheep. With her sheeps flipside eyes. There is something about this sheep.
Good morning. We have a dark stormy day ahead of us. A bendy tree day. A barn door day. You all have a great day. I will go and say good morning to Mama for you.