The General

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The General was a bottle lamb from last year, a hefty twin his mother abandoned in favor of his smaller sister. I worked for an hour to try to coax his mother to accept him. Her neck in a stanchion, we all worked with different goals. The lamb cried and cried and his mother kicked and butted him and fought me as I tried to get him some of the colostrum that was his due. Then the stanchion was unhooked, the ewe released, and the lamb brought inside. A mark should have been made, or was made, in the record book. A a mark noting a trait to cut from the breeding line. At any rate, if it was or wasn't made, I don't remember and doesn't matter much at this point because this summer we sold all but the best of our best ewes.

We sold ewes, lambs, and the yearlings who managed to escape earlier trips to the slaughterhouse. Several truckloads to the auction barn where by now the handlers know our scrapie flock ID number better than I do.

They also know me, maybe because I'm one of what might be the few women driving truckloads of sheep to their auction barn. Maybe also because of the truck I drive, an ancient red Ford F150 that refused to restart the last time I backed it up to the unloading dock. That load of sheep held the General. I'd loaded him from a group of sheep we'd separated from the flock and marked to sell. At loading time I focused on the work, refusing to stop to think about specifics. It didn't make any sense to keep him, a castrated male too old to market as lamb. We loaded as many as we could and released the rest with the main flock.

The General was one of a group of very special bottle lambs from one of the years my sister and I worked lambing season together. This troupe of bottle lambs was made up of (from left, above) Lemon, Lili, Shekina, and the whopping General, nearly twice as big as the others.

The General was thus named because it seemed important that a lamb with such a brutal start in life should have something great about him. (There is time for irony in other places.) He was my favorite of the four and toward the end the only one who would still approach me every now and then.

When the truck would not start that humid August evening, I was hot, drenched in sweat, tired from the work of the afternoon, and oh, so frustrated. I walked through the loading lot, trying to cool off, trying to reach a mechanic on the phone. Out there in the heat I heard a baaing from the barn, a familiar, persistent baaing that I registered and walked away from.

It wasn't until a few days later, standing out in the pasture with a flock of sheep whose faces I am still memorizing, that I remembered that familiar baaing from inside the auction barn and I let a small, short moment of grief well up and spill out. I walked home in the too-early dusk of late summer, wondering about too many things.

In that strange way things tend to work out, this story has a twist ending. The next evening as I walked out to the flock, a large, fluffy sheep separated from the group and ambled toward me. His long ears flopped with each step and he walked with leisure, with purpose toward my hand for scratches behind his ears and a few minutes of knowing what it feels like to be known, recognized, and, apparently, still on the farm.

The General was not a part of that fateful truckload to the auction barn. In my determination to not take stock of specifics, I'd confused the General with another yearling with the same build. At a glance they looked alike, and that afternoon I was making glances.

On a farm where production is the goal, the General has no purpose. He should have been sold to make room for an ewe. There's something, though, about walking out into a flock of sheep and watching as one separates himself and approaches. There's a lightness to it, a levity, and in those few moments of feeling known and recognized by a sheep, I find myself smiling, feeling gentler. I'm happier when I walk back through the field toward home, darkness be damned.

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