Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Saddest Story I Could Think to Tell

I’m at home.

Home, at the house I grew up in, means a lack of neighbors in the traditional sense. Other people do live near this house, yes, but not in the way they might in towns, where you can hop over in a minute and ask for a cup of water or a pound of sugar or a gross of bowling balls. (I’m not a cook and didn’t grow up anywhere typical, so the intricacies of recipes and neighbor-bothering escape me, you see.) However, it would be false to say that my family was isolated, strictly speaking. For example, cars pass by in the distance. (It’s more noticeable at night, when the headlights shine into my bedroom window from a mile away.) And also there are the animals.

sheep on the hill

The very young me assumed everyone grew up alongside such a variety of hoofed, furry, feathered, and clawed things. Why shouldn’t they? How could life be better in a place where you wouldn’t see herds of quail engaged in their polite little stampedes? And wouldn’t anyone be thrilled to spot a coyote in the summer, when their fur blends so well with the brown-gray brush in which they live?

I remember once noticing a fawn trapped on the wrong side of the fence in front of my house. It frantically ran up and down our edge of the property, while its mother did the same on the opposite side of the fence, her adult body apparently too big to squeeze through whatever hole that Junior had found — and then promptly forgotten about. By the time I walked down the driveway, the fawn was panting, too tired to run away from the scary two-legged thing coming toward it. Its skinny legs buckled and it just looked up at me. I did the only sensible thing I could: I scooped the fawn up — it didn’t fight me in the least — and lowered it over the fence. It eventually walked to its mother, and then the two just stared at me before slowly crossing over the hill and out of my sight. The interaction took only a few minutes, but I’m sure it shaped me, somehow, and probably for the better.

Interactions with the animals, however, were not always so pleasant. Watching a neighbor’s herd of sheep today reminded me of The Saddest Story I Could Think to Tell, as I refer to it. When I was an old child — that is, not quite a teenager but far from a toddler — my father decided that the two sheep we kept on the property, essentially as lawnmowers and firebreak-creators, should have lambs, as the experience of raising them would be a good one for my brother and me. Dad was right. However, only the twin lambs born to my ewe survived. The two lambs born to my brother’s ewe couldn’t have lasted for more than a week. I can very clearly remember coming home and seeing only the two ewes and the two black lambs moving in the grass. After a quick search, we found the two speckled lambs lying near each other and not far from their inattentive mother, their collapsed little bodies not visible beneath the level of the grass. “These things happen.” “It was probably the mother’s fault.” “She may have not been letting them drink milk.” If I remember correctly, my brother and I weren’t so much sad as disappointed — both in the apparent failure of the one bad ewe and the reduction of the total number of lambs from four to only two. My dad buried the lambs near the vegetable garden, where they joined the company of an Australian Shepherd, a rabbit, and a cat named Garfield that was neither fat nor orange.

The tragedy of the situation didn’t become apparent until the lambs were in the ground. Curiously, it was only then that the maternal instincts clicked on in the one bad ewe. At some point, she realized that she could not find the lambs she previously didn’t care about. Panicked, she raced around her pasture, calling out to babies that would never answer back. She probably had no clue that they had died. I’m almost certain sheep don’t understand death.

And that’s not even the sad part.

The “where are my babies?” despair continued into the next morning. I had fallen asleep listening to this very particular kind of bleating, and I wasn’t surprised that it had persisted through the night. Upon getting home from school the next afternoon, I found that the ewe was, at last, quiet. She was calmly eating grass and altogether behaving no differently than she did before she had lambs or while these lambs were dying. At the time, the very young me decided that she truly was a bad mother, as evidenced by the fact that she so quickly stopped caring about her missing lambs. Later on in my life, I thought back on this when I better understood how animals’ brains worked, and I realized that my initial conclusion was wrong: It wasn’t that this animal decided to stop caring so much as she simply forgot that she ever had babies and went stupidly, blissfully on with her life.

The English major spells it out: In a few ways, the story about the deer works as a thematic opposite to the one about the sheep. However, both affected me in a lasting way that I’m not sure I understand now or ever will understand. I’m tempted to say that the lesson doesn’t stop with animals and their young. On some level, I’ve opened these stories and pulled out from them something — a map? — that has given me some direction in life. I suppose I have to choice but to be grateful.

I will never again live in a small town and I will likely be moving soon to a large city. But I wouldn’t trade my childhood for any of the advantages a bigger city could have afforded the very young me.

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