With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Mid-March marks the beginning of the lambing calendar here in this border valley between England and Wales — 3,500 miles from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I was born. The ewes have to be checked every four hours when they’re due: first thing in the morning, midday, midafternoon, evening, eleven at night, and three in the morning. Then the cycle repeats.
The most dreamlike check is the last shift: 3 AM, in the middle space between night and morning, winter and spring, conception and life, awake and asleep. Often in March a fog settles like a blanket over the River Teme. We — my husband Byron, our flock, and I — live halfway up a hill, sometimes just above the fog, sometimes inside it. Some mornings the mist is so thick a flashlight barely manages to catch silhouettes of the sheep in the darkness, and I don’t see a ewe until I’m nearly standing on top of her, or until an overfriendly one comes up in the heavy fog and breathes on my hand. It’s so dark, even standing beside me she is only a shadow, blurred at the edges like a photograph taken with unsteady hands.
Byron and I were given our first three lambs as a gift in late October of 2017 from a friend who was selling his small farm to start a new life just as we were settling into our own. We’d lived in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and a small town in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds before buying this ancient farmhouse in Shropshire, closer to Byron’s Midland roots. If we were going to live this rural life, I’d said, we were going to do it with sheep. I’m embarrassed to admit that we jumped into raising sheep thinking you just put them in a field and they do the rest — eat the grass, look after themselves. We could learn as we went along, I thought.
We were supposed to get eight lambs from our friend, but five died of unknown causes before we could bring them home. This should have been a sign that keeping sheep wouldn’t be easy. More than one farmer has since told me, “A sheep’s main goal in life is to die, and to do it as fast as possible.” Six or seven weeks after we’d welcomed our first sheep home, we lost one. Aria — the smallest, prettiest lamb — went off her food. We rang the farmer next door, who came to take a look. He’d bring a dose of antibiotics the next day, he said, but she seemed all right. “See,” he said. “Her ears are relaxed.”
When a ewe is afraid, she raises her ears. When she is surprised, they go asymmetrical. And when she is in pain, she twists them so the insides face down. Her cheeks change, too — you can see the muscles tense, as if she’s clenching her jaw. And she squints. But Aria’s ears were horizontal and forward-facing, which is how they are when there is no stress. Her eyes, wide and alert, followed our neighbor as he examined her posture from a distance. And she was grazing. A good sign, surely.
We woke the next morning and found her dead. “Legs up,” as people who have grown accustomed to this particular loss would say.
I snipped a lock of her wool to keep as a reminder that she had, for a few short weeks, been ours. Then I froze it, in case she had germs. Which is crazy, both the keeping and the freezing. But it’s what I did with fallen bird nests and other found objects. I’m not good at letting go. I’m much better at hanging on.
Aria died on a Sunday in December, and we put her in the barn. She felt heavier than she had been in life. The next day I lifted her onto taped-together plastic bags in the back of my car — carefully, because death is unkind and bodies begin decomposing quickly. I drove her with the windows down through sleet to the livestock-disposal company seven miles away. Because you can’t burn or bury your own sheep — it’s a health hazard. They aren’t pets, however attached to them you get.
I hadn’t fallen in love with Aria yet. We’d had her less than two months. But I had grown fond of her. She was the sheep I’d often had to untangle from brambles. Once, I’d had to rustle her into a corner and scoop her back over the fence after she’d found a weak spot in our netting and gone for the neighbor’s low-hanging branches — because there is nothing sweeter to a sheep than the still-green leaves of someone else’s hazel trees. I wanted to say a better goodbye, but when I parked red-eyed outside the loading dock of the processing warehouse, an unsmiling man picked her up by her feet and tossed her onto a pile of other dead sheep.
She was so small compared to the rest.
Leaving her there felt wrong, like I was failing both her and myself. The smell was nauseating: God knows how many other bodies were piled in that warehouse and in stacks of shipping containers. I realized I knew nothing about keeping livestock. I didn’t even know where they went after this sad place — if they were burned on-site or transported somewhere else.
I could feel the losses of my past lurking nearby. Not just animals but other losses, too. They exhaled from the piles like human whispers.
When I was fourteen, I sat with my mother, my younger sister, and my mother’s parents in a waiting room in Philadelphia’s Presbyterian Hospital while my father’s colon was cut out of him — along with his gallbladder, his rectum, and half his small intestine. The removal of a colon is called a “colectomy.” When I heard the word, I pictured organs collected as specimens and lined up in cases. The surgery took hours longer than expected, and no one came to tell us why. (We learned later it was because they kept having to take more.) My mother’s face was ashen. My sister played with one of those wood-and-wire roller coasters. I pretended to read a book but kept forgetting to turn the page.
He had ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that causes ulcers in the colon. The cause of the disease itself is still unknown: Genetics? Environment? My mother wondered if it was because of the years my father had spent drinking, or all the rare red meat he ate. My father wondered if it was because, when he’d worked construction for a pharmaceutical company, there had been some kind of spill on the job site. People need answers, even when there aren’t any. Regardless, something — DNA or chemicals or red meat or alcohol or another culprit entirely — had suddenly turned his digestive system against itself, so that it attacked his good gut bacteria and left him in so much pain he was hospitalized multiple times for what felt like weeks on end. He contracted secondary infections — the worst of which was staphylococcus. I remember how slack and yellow and frail he looked. How he’d stopped looking like my father.
Colitis is usually manageable with medication and diet: cut out seeds and nuts, spicy foods, gassy greens. But my father’s case was serious enough that they had to operate, to take out the organs that had ulcerated and reshape the end of his small intestine so it would perform the functions of both a colon and a rectum. A “J-pouch,” it’s called. I remember telling a friend’s family about it at dinner once. The friend’s dad had ulcerative colitis, too, the kind that was treatable with pills. He didn’t understand how my dad’s case could be so bad — the same way people didn’t understand why my recovering-alcoholic father couldn’t have a drink every now and then like everyone else. They pressured him at summer parties, offered him cups of frothy, sun-warmed keg beer.
“Go big or go home,” my father always says. That and “Cowboy up,” and, an embarrassingly redneck pun on our family name: “Built Ford tough.”
But what does “Ford tough” mean when our bodies are made of skin and organ and bone instead of steel?
Aria died, but our other two lambs did well. They grew bigger every day — and friendlier, coming to eat out of my hands, something Aria had never been brave enough to do.
In April we brought home three seasoned ewes and a yearling from a woman in Pembrokeshire named Hannah. When we asked if they were “in lamb,” Hannah said, “Oh, no. They’re not pregnant.” We didn’t doubt her answer, even though she had greeted us with two rams at her side.
The sheep made the three-hour journey home safely. They took to our plock — small field — and to our first two girls, plowing through tall sprays of grass and leaving the newly blooming meadow flowers untouched: forget-me-nots and dandelions, celandines and daisies. They climbed fences to get at the new shoots growing on the hedges. They scratched their bottoms on the trunks of trees.
A few days after they’d settled in, my phone pinged.
A miracle! the message from Hannah read. Below it was a photograph of a newborn lamb, still slick with birthing fluid.
The look on Byron’s face mirrored my own: Shock. Excitement. Terror. Did this mean our new ewes were pregnant, too? We hadn’t planned for lambs in our first year.
Luckily we were surrounded by farmers who kindly offered help and advice. A neighbor, Huw, who farms on one of our village’s harshest hilltops, came over. He was curious about our strange choice of sheep: Icelandics, a primitive breed that almost look more like woolly goats than sheep.
“Her’s wide as a house,” Huw said of our oldest ewe, Lucia, as she waddled nervously away from the gate. Huw is the smilingest man I’ve ever known, with rosy, wind-blown cheeks and kind eyes. When I’m around him, my own face often aches from smiling in return. “Twins in there, I expect. And soon.”
Byron and I spent hours sitting in our old farmhouse, looking out a drafty upstairs window over our field. We didn’t want to stress Lucia by watching her too close. She was still so new and unsure of us, nearly feral.
Huw had told us what to look for when birth was nigh: Pawing at the ground. Lying down, getting up, lying down again. “Restless, see,” he’d said. We’d see her throw her head back, he told us, stretch her body, keep well away from the other ewes. Her back end would turn vibrant pink as it filled with blood. It would swell. We would see. And we saw it all for days on end, or dreamed we did, walking into the field to check on Lucia or peering through binoculars out that window. I couldn’t count how many times I was convinced it was starting.
Then, one of those times, it did.
The curve of Lucia’s spine was crescent-moon shaped. We gathered our coats and welly boots and a jam jar filled with iodine, and we crept down to the plock to watch. We were much farther away than I wanted to be. I wanted to see it all, every detail of new life entering the world where before there had been nothing. We sat with binoculars thirty yards away and saw the hooves appear, the tiny head, and then quickly the whole lamb.
Then: “Oh my God, there’s another one.”
A second set of hooves, a wider head with horn buds already growing. A boy, or tup. The first lamb was on her feet but kept sucking at Lucia’s wool instead of finding the udder. The second one found it faster. While he drank, we scooped the little ewe up and dipped her umbilical cord in the jam jar to stop bacteria getting in through the delicate string. Lucia wasn’t pleased. She was a protective mother. While she licked at her ewe, we lifted the tup and dipped his cord in the jar. After we put him down, Lucia stepped in front of us and shooed her lambs to the far side of her wide body.
Farmers say a lamb needs colostrum — the initial mother’s milk, rich in nutrients and antibodies — within the first two hours of life. The ewe lamb didn’t get it. She kept searching and missing, sucking wool as far away as her mother’s chest. I tried catching her and holding her up to Lucia’s udders, but each time, Lucia shifted to keep me from getting too close. It took the ewe lamb hours to latch on properly. Lucia was protective and nervous, and we were inexperienced and only got in the way.
The next day the ewe lamb was sick — hunchbacked and “scouring,” yellow excrement dripping like water from her backside. Scouring — a word both more polite and more horrible than what it means. She was dehydrated and couldn’t stand up. We brought her inside, laid her in a cardboard box in front of our ever-hot cast-iron stove, and rang another pair of farming neighbors. They came quick, saw the lamb, and said it was too late for them to help. “Best take it to the vet. Now.”
Byron strapped me into his car with the box on my lap and sped into town. The nurses fussed over the lamb — a beautiful mouflon: black with a thick stripe of cream from her chin all the way down to her tail. Tan patches on her legs made her look more like a deer than a sheep. The vet explained she would put the lamb on an IV drip — for fluids, because she was dehydrated — give her some antibiotics, and keep her overnight. She didn’t say what the chances of survival were.
It wasn’t going well, this sheep plan of ours.
I decided to name the sick lamb Siggy. I didn’t tell Byron, because saying it out loud felt like a jinx, but even silently giving her a name made her seem more alive, as if I were directing my hopeful energy into her small, thirsty body.
Back home, Lucia wouldn’t stop bleating for her baby. The sound was desperate and constant. I shut myself inside the house to drown it out, but still her pleading mother’s voice seeped through the windows. She’d stopped by morning. When I checked on her and her tup lamb, they were cuddled together in the shade of a hawthorn tree.
Byron came outside with the phone in his hand.
“The vet called,” he said.
I tried to read his face, but all he looked was out of breath.
“She’s OK. She can come home.”
So much love for this lamb, this new little life. Too much. If I carried on loving every lamb our sheep brought into the world, grief would surely follow.
Every summer my father took us to the Jersey Shore. For years we stayed with my dad’s friend Pete and his wife in Cape May, in a dark house with shag carpet and a three-legged dog. We’d go fishing on the bay, and afterward my dad would sit with Pete in the backyard, a cooler of bluefish between them, and slice fish up the belly to pull out their guts. Pete with a beer in his hand and my father with a tonic and lime, fish-blood fingerprints on the glass.
My father liked to teach me things: How to make sand sculptures of turtles and dolphins and mermaids. How to swallow raw clams. How to spot sandbars. And he taught me how to bodysurf. How to wade out past the breakers and wait for the swell. How to swim just ahead of it, point your arms like arrows, hold yourself flat, and let the waves carry you to the shore. The sea lifted us up, suspended between earth and sky. The sun was so hot it shone white. I’d catch glimpses of him held by the water, but he would always make it farther ashore than I did, surfing until he ran out of ocean.
There was a new worry, now that Lucia’s lamb was healed: that the mother would reject the ewe, refuse to feed her or acknowledge her as her own. It had been eighteen hours since we’d taken Siggy from her mother. Eighteen hours was a long time for a ewe to be without her baby, enough to forget the smell of her — a smell that would be different now because there would be strange scents mixed into her wool: the cardboard box, Byron and me, the nurses, the smells of sanitizer and medicine.
I’ve lived in the UK long enough that I must smell different to my mother and my father, too — like another country, unfamiliar people, a life lived apart.
If Lucia rejected Siggy, they would lose each other. I would have to feed this lamb powdered milk every four hours for weeks on end. I would become her surrogate parent. I had no idea how to prepare powdered milk, how warm or cold it should be, how much or how little to feed, at what angle to hold the bottle. It’s dangerous to overfeed a lamb. The milk can spill from her first stomach into her immature rumen and ferment.
When we came back from the vet with Siggy in her cardboard box, we walked her toward the orchard, where her mother and brother were resting under the hawthorn. Siggy let out the tiniest baa, as if she knew somehow that her mother was near. Maybe she just baaed because she was hungry and feeling better. But at the sound of her little voice, Lucia raised her head. She baaed back.
Byron lifted the lamb out of her box and put her down on the grass, and all three sheep ran to each other and huddled nose to nose. Mother sheep make this sound I can’t describe: a low-level, throaty bleat reserved for their young children. It’s entirely different from the sounds they make before lambing.
I often long for my own mother. The sound of her laughter doesn’t come often enough, because there is too much distance between us. I long to hear my father’s laugh, too, but a father’s love is different. At least, my father’s was: guiding and mysterious, invincible and so high up it hurt my neck to see.
Watching other families stay together as a unit, I’ve often wondered if there’s something fundamentally missing in me. I moved from the U.S. to the UK in 2015 without blinking, as if it weren’t a huge decision with consequences like loneliness, separation, and anxiety over aging and illness. Will I see my parents in time if something goes wrong? If my father’s illness flares up and he needs a liver transplant, or my mother’s heart gives out the way her brother’s did? How much time do we have, and have I wasted too much of it by leaving?
What memories have I lost because I never made them? Because I didn’t stay?
I can pinpoint this shift in my way of being, toward separateness, to a moment when I was a teenager. It was after my father had been hospitalized, after he had slept for months in a bed that wasn’t his own, when it seemed he might never come home.
The J-pouch surgery had been unsuccessful, and he’d had half his digestive system removed and his rectum sewn shut. There hadn’t been enough small intestine left to connect the pieces that remained in his body. So they’d fixed an ileostomy bag to his stomach instead, which he had to empty after eating. As he recovered, his eyes turned from mustard yellow back to white, the steroid bloat fell away, and the shape of my father’s face returned. The moment I’m thinking of came not long after that, when I sat in the sand at the Jersey Shore and watched him walk into the sea. Swim trunks pulled up over his bag, he waded in waist deep, then deeper, waiting for a swell. From the shore, with my father so deep in the salt water, I couldn’t see the fragile parts of him. They were hidden. He looked just the way he had all the years of my childhood.
Of course, my father wasn’t the same as he had been. He wasn’t an unbreakable monolith anymore. I kept imagining what would happen if he threw himself into a swell and misjudged the depth of the water; if a wave was too strong and sent him crashing into the sand. I imagined the ileostomy bag pulled loose from his skin, partially digested waste and blood pouring from a hole in his side while the bag floated in the foamy surf. I didn’t understand the way a stoma worked. I thought if you took off the bag, his insides could just fall out of the opening.
I was wrong, of course. That’s not the way it works. The bag just catches half-digested waste, which smells sharp and sour — mostly liquid, except for things that don’t digest well and, as my father says, come out the way they go in: corn, peanuts, raisins. If his bag caught in the surf, his body would simply spill that waste into the ocean instead. But at the time I thought he was risking his life, the years I could have with him. Go big or go home. Cowboy up. These were gentler ways of saying, Big boys don’t cry. (And big girls don’t either.) Of saying, Don’t be dependent; be strong. You have only yourself in the end.
I’m sure that’s not what he meant to say. What he meant was: Grab life by the swim trunks, and fuck brokenness. Even if the salt and sand stung, live.
A few days after Siggy was reunited with her family, another ewe — Olwen, Lucia’s daughter — lambed. She had a single coffee-colored tup. Healthy as could be, he bounced and played in the spring sunshine with Siggy and her brother. Once lambs find their legs, they are unstoppable, leaping and scrambling from one corner of the orchard to another, headbutting each other and the food troughs and the trees and my closed fist (something that is not to be encouraged but hard to resist). And when lambs find their legs, their mothers can rest. Lucia and Olwen watched their children from the shade, baaing occasionally to remind their little ones it was time for lunch; their udders were full and ready.
When I was in the ninth grade, my English teacher caught me crying in the bathroom. I’d been fine when I’d gone in there, but while I washed my hands, something about my reflection in the mirror, or the way the water tap resembled hospital taps, hit me like a brick in the stomach. I saw my father, sallow, almost dying.
I was sent to the guidance counselor to talk about it, but I couldn’t.
We all get sick. We all watch our loved ones get sick. Sometimes they get better. Sometimes they die. Whatever happens, we’re different after.
On the 3 AM dream shift, I look up from my flock and wonder if the moon has risen in Philadelphia, too. If my father is outside having a cigarette and looking up.
The March full moon is the “Worm Moon.” Walking the fields when the blanket of fog is thin and the moon shines through, I see movement between blades of grass. The dewdrops shudder as worms poke out of the soil and pull themselves back down again, leaving holes with small, wet piles of earth crumbs around them — worm casts. Squirming bodies a few shades lighter than the soil scramble out of the way of my flashlight and my feet.
I look at the earthworms and hear my dad waking me up on a Saturday morning while it’s still dark and handing me styrofoam cups full of night crawlers. We would bring them to the creek a few miles down the road from our house, thread them onto fishing hooks below red-and- white plastic bobbers, and cast our lines into the water as the sun came up. “The early bird catches the fish,” he would say. But I wasn’t an early bird. I often fell asleep on his tackle box only to be woken up by his excited voice: “You’ve got one! Reel it in slow, Booper.” The fish we caught were mostly sunnies, and he would pull them off the hook, careful not to jab himself with their sharp ray fins, then toss them back into the river.
I look from the worms on the ground to the sheep: my girls. The air is sharp and crisp, and by the light of the moon I can see the life bulging in their bellies. I picture them as I saw them in years past when their babies came, muscles heaving. I used to be grossed out by the mess, the same way I was disgusted by fish slime and guts, by the thought of my father’s insides. The animalness of our bodies. The birthing fluid on the lambs. The afterbirth that soon appears, glistening like a jellyfish in the dirt before it gets swallowed up by the ewe herself, or swept away by a hungry fox or badger or bird of prey. Once, I saw a red kite flying down the valley in the morning sun, a dripping placenta in its talons.
The wetness of bodies: A sheep decomposing a day after passing. Blood and spit. The mucus on the soil that earthworms rise up from. Sheep urine soaked into the knees of my jeans. Milk fresh from silken udders. The moon-glow on the dew. Iodine. My father’s colon, unspooling like fishing line into the river.
My hands feel slick with all of it.