In Like a Lion

“You have to walk slowly,” Pema said, and she did. We were approaching the small shed where the lambs were born, just days ago. It was still early, but the fullness of morning was alive and present and a bright sun illuminated the small enclosure and surrounding fields. I had little on my mind.


“And you have to be quiet,” Pema reminded me. As we neared the gate, I saw, contrary to my expectation, that it had been swung wide open. One of the lambs, easily recognizable by two dark patches around its eyes, was stepping cautiously outside the gate, and then quickly retreated as it discovered our approach. Pema, moving with a grace that pleasantly surprised me, advanced slowly. Children are often asked to sit still or settle down, something they usually achieve only by stifling or controlling their eagerness. This was different. Guided by an inner stillness all her own, a calm focus accompanied every movement of her body.


I sat down on an old railroad tie. The sun was above the eastern mountains, and the thick bed of golden hay at my feet radiated warmth. The pungent scent of urine and hay, mixed with an unidentifiable sweetness, struck my nose. To my right lay the shed, which had served as a small barn for the five adult sheep (four ewes and a ram) through winter. Now, with the addition of the four lambs (two boys and two girls), as well as the advancing spring, the sheep would largely be left outside. Odin, the ram, was in the field beyond a distant fence, anxiously walking back and forth.


The rest of the sheep were only a few yards away, lambs peeking curiously from behind their mother’s rumps. An old wheelbarrow belly, full of alfalfa, lay on the ground nearby. Pema, her back to me, took a few cautious steps forward, then squatted to the ground. Turning to look back at me, I could see pure innocence and joy brimming in her eyes. I took a conscious breath, swelling with pride. Now only a few feet from the sheep, Pema held out her hand as if greeting a dog. Slowly, with utmost care, she ambled forward on her ankles, still squatting. The dark-eyed lamb, recently christened Leroy, took a small step out from behind its mother, craning its neck to get a better view. Pema’s whole body, like the moment, expressed a quiet, calm serenity.


A year and half ago, a few weeks after the sheep first arrived, Pema and I had come out here to see them. All yearlings, they were pretty much full grown, but just beginning to become sexually active. Having milked goats for several years, often with Pema’s help, I had expected an easygoing group. Goats can be a bit ornery, but I had had no hesitation to have Pema in the pen with me. Besides, these were sheep, animals so revered for their docility that they filled the imagery of religious proverbs. So I was completely unprepared when Odin, the ram, squared up solidly and knocked Pema, face to face, flat on her back.


Pema, thankfully, survived that incident with little more than a good shock. She lay on the ground, silent, largely unhurt, as recognition slowly crept through her, as me. I quickly inserted myself between her and Odin and lifted her to my chest. Holding her dearly while simultaneously scanning her head for injuries, Pema finally burst forth in a terrible cry when we made eye contact. Humiliation seeped into my bloodstream like caffeine. What kind of a parent lets his child get knocked in the head by a ram?


Shortly after the incident with Odin, our neighbor’s goats had kids. One of them had been born unexpectedly in the middle of the night, the second offspring of what had at first appeared to be only one. When it was discovered in the morning, the little goat, an all-white female, was exhausted and cold and couldn’t stand up. She was a bit of runt. Unsure whether it would survive, my neighbor, a shy and stoic man around adults, took it inside and nursed it for a few days. His calloused hands, after years of farm work, hide the sweetness inside, which comes out in his gentle way with animals.


After those first few days inside, the little goat became an exceptional playmate. My neighbor’s daughter, Ruby, and Pema spent months carrying that little goat around and dressing it in all kinds of stories. The goat, patient and content as a puppy, not only tolerated the children’s games, she seemed to enjoy them. Ruby and Pema took turns scooping her up, then awkwardly ambling from place to place, pleased as pink to be carrying something so large, so alive. After setting her down, one or the other quickly identified some reason to pick her back up. But kids grow up fast, and within months the little goat became too heavy to carry, then heavier still. Now mature and strong, she is still quite fond of people, but Pema and Ruby, dwarfed in her presence, have moved on to other things.


With each step shedding another layer of timidity, Leroy, the little black-eyed lamb, crept out from behind its mother and began a slow, curious journey toward Pema, who still squatted patiently with her hand open. Slowly, slowly, its nose working audibly, the lamb crept closer. Its little legs and body were trembling, not so much from fear, but lack of muscle tone. I watched contentedly, anticipating. Then suddenly, as if bit by a fly or a devil, the little lamb kicked its back legs, then forelegs, jumping and springing in a wild twist before finally running off to the side of the shed, where it lodged itself between the wall and the gate. Pema turned to look at me, laughing ever so faintly, as if to say, “Did you see that?”


“Ehhhhhh...!” a sheep bleated directly behind me, the distinct call of Freya. Nothing like the soft “bah” of nursery rhymes, the plain, guttural sound never fails to draw laughter from me. It sounds like they just drank a liter of soda and have suddenly lost the ability to keep silent. Each sheep has a unique voice, all vowel, some like the e in egg, others like the u in ugh, all throat. But they all sound as if they’re absolutely bored and can’t stop belching.


Pema stood up, surveyed the yard, and walked over to the gate. “Ehhhhh…!” Freya let out again, followed by a raucous, “Gullah-gullah-gullah-gullah” from the turkeys, two toms, who had obviously just joined us. Leroy, appearing uncertain of the way he came in, was wedging himself further into the corner. Putting her hand on the gate, Pema raised her eyebrows and laughed. Silly lamb. She swung the gate away from the shed, and Leroy, spying his chance to escape, ran as if someone had taken hold of his forelegs and another the rear; fast, but not quite in unison.


Last summer, after the first generation of lambs had been born, Pema and I watched as they quickly turned from scrawny little things to fat, squat versions of their parents. Free to roam the grounds during the day, we chanced upon the sheep during all kinds of play - at the mud pit, the labyrinth, the sand box, even the pond. New Buffalo, where we live, is a modest-sized community with eleven adults and two children, about twenty acres to explore, and much wilderness beyond that. It’s paradise for lambs and kids, and the varied activities of the residents allow Pema and me to have a rich diversity of experience. I would not, on my own, have chosen to have sheep. Soon, it seems, we may have a donkey.


After a month or two, the first lambs were weaned, and the sheep were milked throughout the summer. Only familiar with cow and goat milk, I was surprised at how creamy and rich the sheep’s milk was. Three sheep only gave about a quart and a half of milk a day, but it was like drinking pure cream, and it made copious cheese, much more than the goats I was more familiar with.


By the end of the summer, that first generation of lambs, two boys and one girl, were nearly indistinguishable from their parents. The ewe was added to the flock, but the boys, Remus and Romulus, who were maturing into bucking rams, were slaughtered. I heard the gunshot one morning, so it was no surprise when I saw Remus strung up in the old olive tree by the courtyard. Kerim, the man who keeps most of the animals, was making quick work of the hide, which hung limply from Remus’s body. Next to him, another of my housemates, Brant, had a thick plastic bag full of warm organs. He was smiling. “Can’t get a healthier liver than this,” he said.


“Do you mind if I grab Pema?” I asked, indicating that we might watch.


Kerim smiled, cackling his deep-throated laugh. “Sure. But be quick about it. We’ll want to move as fast as we can.”


I ran to find Pema, who was still eating her breakfast inside. “They’re butchering Remus,” I told her. “Do you want to watch?” She put down her spoon and looked up at me eagerly.


I was uncertain of what Pema would make of it, but I had an inkling that it would be good for her to see this. I grew up, like most city boys, without any direct relationship to my food. Meat came in a package from the store, neatly cubed or ground. As an adult, I’ve sorted through all kinds of ethical relationships to the food I eat, but it’s become clear that, as I do so, I’m mostly just lost in thought. What I want is real, visceral, and I’d like Pema to have the opportunity now, before the complex mentality of later years, to witness these moments of life and death. We had watched Kerim kill a chicken once, the blade of his machete hacking through the living bird’s neck. I was thirty-six. I had probably eaten hundreds of chickens over the course of my life, but this was the first time I had seen one die. Pema was four. Afterward, I asked her about it, gently, without making a big fuss. She shrugged and smiled, skipping ahead to get chalk for the mud pit as if it was just another thing to do. I paid attention over the course of the day and the next, looking for clues as to its effect, listening for stories or subtle variations in her play. But nothing came up. She was perfectly at peace.


Outside, Pema sat on a rock as my hand, buried up to the wrist, cut the fatty layer of skin from Remus’s warm body. I could smell him, the stink of the wool mixed with the metallic scent of blood. Hung from the tree branch, I could feel his weight swinging gently, a presence looming against my chest and neck. I felt awkward, a little foolish, but I had a deep sense that it was right to have my hand in it. Pema watched curiously, asking questions and joking with Kerim, who cut down the front while I worked on the back. Soon, we had the entire hide separated from the muscle and bone, save for the gristle around the neck. “Here,” said Kerim, stepping in to finish the work. “Sometimes you need to…” and with quick, deft movements the hide was free.


“We’re going to let him hang for three days in the cold room,” Kerim said. “Then we’ll butcher him.” Remus, now headless, skinless and eviscerated, seemed a quarter the size he had been when, only an hour or two ago, he was walking on the ground.


“Ughghghghghg…” Frieda bleated. She was standing by the wheel barrow, her mouth yellow and green from all the alfalfa she had been chewing. I laughed. Her deadpan look and scratchy voice, which sounds like a man who has just been punched in the gut, seemed a comic masterpiece. Then Leroy, with his distinct black eye patches, poked his head around the corner of the shed. Pema looked at him, his hide-and-go-seek expression, and giggled. She dropped, once again, to her ankles and held out her hand. Slowly, he took a step toward her. Then another. The dance was renewed. Silently, cautiously, they moved toward each other, keeping their distance, daring to touch.


A few weeks ago, I was playing with Pema and Francis in the library. As they were setting up their “house,” I noticed the sheepskin on the floor. It was Remus’s hide. Brant, our housemate, had tanned the hide and it was now used a meditation cushion, or just a warm rug underfoot. Mostly, the kids flopped it back and forth with the other blankets as they played various games. I recalled that moment, now more than six months ago, when my hand was wrist-deep in soft flesh. I had felt a bit hurried, as though I was making up for my lack of experience with mock bravado. I didn’t really know what I was doing. Now, as Pema and Francis arranged the sheets and blankets around the room, I ran my hand along the soft wool, recalling another moment when, playing out at the mud pit, Remus and Romulus had come up and eaten the apples I had just sliced up for the kids. “Get out of here!” I shouted, and I stood up to chase them away. Then I heard the children laughing. There were more apples.