How to Take a Bath

Thursday, September 18, 2014

I wake up early and find my morning work no longer necessary. I can stay home. Good. I have work to do.

I move slowly through the morning, working slowly toward the main task of the day which is to do something I do not want to do.

After lunch I put a shovel in the bed of the truck and a knife on the dash and open the gates and drive down across the creek through the tall, too tall grass.

At the top of the hill I get out and load wood in the truck. Osage orange wood. Ironwood that will, true to an old farmer's word, make your chainsaw smoke. Lengths of wood left from some other year's cutting.

The radio in the truck is AM. I turn it on. It's set to the one station that comes in clear. I turn it up loud and open the truck doors as I work.Then I find silence is even more golden after listening to Rush for twenty minutes. His show is three hours long. I think about that for a while.

Some of the wood is cut in lengths good for the stove and I toss these in the back of the truck, willing myself to gather each one instead of leaving some behind. A strange thing, to have to will myself to clear the spot. I do not know why there is an urge to move on before it's done. I do know there is satisfaction in leaving behind only grass.

Other lengths are taller than I am. Unwieldy. Some are just as round as I am and I struggle to maneuver them into the truck bed. My arms are scraped, but I'm stronger than the last time I did this work, and I'll have fewer bruises to show at the end of the day.

It's hot. More than that, it's humid. Sweat drips into my eyes. I drink liters of water.

I move through three areas of leftover wood, then cross a fence and chance on another spot. I lift and leverage lengths of wood into the truck, working slowly. Working my way toward a sprawling osage orange tree.

Under the osage orange tree is Wully-Wully. Named after a little creature in a Babar the Elephant book, Wully-Wully is an old ewe with a massive coat. In the cold months of spring, her lamb would climb atop her and snuggle into her deep wool. We'd find them like this, a two-headed one-humped wooly sheep, lounging in the barnyard.

I found her under the osage orange the day before, her regal head held high. She's one of the less skittish ewes, from some combination of experience, trust, and old bones, so she doesn't always stir when I approach her. But this time is different. She's not getting up again.

She is not a young ewe. Her wool is still faintly marked with the red chalk paint my sister used to mark the cull ewes. She's old and strong, but she's not getting up again.

The evening when I found her I brought out a bucket of water. She drank deeply. I left the bucket at her side.

And so now I'm making my way to her again, with the truck and a knife. But the truck is now full of wood. I picked up more than I expected to. I picked up enough to gather more courage.

At the house I unload the logs and limbs and small cuts of wood near the woodshed. Then Dad and I work together, he with his splitting maul, me with his chainsaw. Yes, the chainsaw smokes. We work until it starts raining. Then we break and work some more. We stop for dinner, halfway done.

Once, a long time again, my dad said if I wanted to be a writer I needed to experience this--life, and then no life. I thought then, and still think now, that it might have been a ploy to have an extra set of hands on deck. I don't use a ploy, I just ask. He agrees to help me.

I think sometimes that I'm making this too dramatic. What you do is take a knife and slice through the neck, through the jugular vein and throat. Then there's a lot of blood, and you probably want to stay out of the way. You probably also want to avoid accidentally kneeling in it, hidden as it can be in the grass. So it's pretty straight forward. It's more work after that, with butchering, or field dressing, or skinning, or simply moving and burying the carcass. Digging the hole is a lot of work in itself.

But it is dramatic. There is life. Then there is not. There is Wully-Wully, and then there is a carcass. A carcass to be field dressed, moved, skinned, buried. The blood is dramatic. It's the richest, truest red you can imagine. It has weight to it, a solidity, some kind of a force. The scent is dramatic. With butchering as with birthing, the scent attaches to skin, to clothes and clings, hard. During the two months of birthing season I surrender to always smelling faintly of sheep. And it's a smell that will always remind me of my dad.

We raise sheep for meat. When I pull a package of meat off of a shelf, I think about how I'll cook it, how we'll eat it at the table. I think of who we'll eat it with, and how long it will last. I think of anything but how it got on that shelf.

I read somewhere that eating meat should not be convenient. My reaction to this idea is resistance. My reaction to butchering is resistance. Both of these reactions drive me toward buying meat off of a shelf.

I'm working my way, slowly, toward a way of being honest about all of this. It's not a process for everyone. If you don't kill and eat your own meat--if you're not a hunter, or a farmer, it may not be your process. Good meat can be found on a shelf. You can buy good meat from us.

It is my process. I am (partly) responsible for managing a flock of sheep. This involves culling. This involves butchering. It also involves eating good, healthy meat, and providing this meat to our customers.

Working toward a way of being honest about this isn't the same as working toward making this easy. May it never be easy.

But this is about a bath. A bath you take after a day working and sweating and working mentally toward a difficult end. Your shoulders will ache. The scratches on your arms will sting. So you scrub out the tub and run a hot bath, wondering if Madeleine L'Engle's character in The Other Side of the Sun is correct about hot baths in hot weather. Pour in handfuls of epsom salt. Go to the kitchen and make toast. It's the strangest thing, toast in a hot bath with a glass of cold, cold water to drink and, if you happen to be the type to plan ahead, a bottle of cold, cold sweet white wine. There's something about the decadence of a bath with the austerity of a piece of toast. I can't explain it. Peel off your soaking wet clothes. Sink into the water, up to your hips. Wonder if you'll ever have a bath large enough to fit your whole self. Alternate soaking upper and lower halves. Scrub your hands. Your knees. Anything smelling of sheep. You will still smell it, later. You should get your hair wet, all of it, down to your scalp, because when you get out of the tub, still sweating, sweating more, you'll want wet hair to cool you down in this humid-air cooled house. 

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