Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Burying Sheep

I wrote this piece to get the attention of some big whigs at The New Yorker who I've been ballsy enough to approach about a job. I like it. It's a mostly true story about having to do some icky jobs on the farm in France.

Burying Sheep

At 5:45 am on the farm it is pitch black and you fumble down the stairs and grope in the foyer for your boots that are always as cold as you hope they won’t be. You milk the sheep with the stripes on their backs, your eyes mostly closed, and you take the milk to be made into cheese. At 7:30 you call for Nina, your sheep dog, and she helps you take the herd five miles up the mountain where it eats and sleeps, and at 1:30 it follows you back down and allows you to put it in cages. There are six pigs and thirty-four chickens and four dogs, and you feed them. You feed the other farmers, you put the roof back on the pig hutch, and you fix other things that are broken. You milk the sheep again. Twenty-two of the sheep are pregnant but only nine of them have their babies and one is stillborn. Six of the babies won’t eat so you force a plastic tube to the backs of their small throats and a syringe of their mother’s milk. They gag because they don’t know how to swallow. Their little bodies convulse on your crossed legs and they start to shit and vomit and both of your bodies, yours and the lambs’, are sloshy and hot with its mother’s milk and the yellow-green shit-vomit spurting out of its ass and mouth. Both of you are covered in flies. In the end, three survive.

In the fall, I was working as a shepherd in the southern French Alps after a long summer in New York City. In the summer, I had been making massacres from minor violences I saw on the subway. Every stranger's face was droopy with hate and heavy with human badness. At night, I dreamt of my little sisters with snarled faces hunting small animals, other times of my own body becoming stiff and cold. Often, I dreamt of being buried alive.

On the farm, I think my days were too full of new challenges to expend energy on self-injury at night. I was responsible for the health and safety of the sheep. In return, the sheep were patient listeners and a good distraction. It didn’t matter to them that I didn’t speak French. I gave them names and sang songs for them in English and put on dance recitals for their benefit and mine. Sometimes, I wanted nothing to do with them or their mountain and cursed at them for running into thorny bushes or chewing my hair; but this never made me feel good. When the herd was napping, I took dreamless, midday naps in the sun, too, and used Nina’s warm body as a pillow. In return, I protected her from Rocky, the bumbling Great Pyrenean Mountain Dog whose job was to guard the sheep from the wolves. Rocky spent his time trying to rape Nina, who protested hotly. Most of the time, she would outsmart him or I came to her aide, so Rocky would try the sheep, who were less able to refuse him. When the sheep’s babies were born and had trouble eating, I sat cross-legged on the barn floor with their little bodies in my lap and held their chins and fed them little drops of milk from my fingertips. When they died, I tried to mimic the matter-of-fact responses of the other farmers.

Then the mother of the only lamb that I had nursed back to health died, too. At lunch, I offered to bury her before anyone asked. When lunch had ended, I set to work unthinking. I collected my boots from the foyer and a pair of leather gloves from the tool shed. I collected a shovel, a pickaxe and a sharp pair of pruning shears and carried these tools to the big tree where the dead were buried. I called it Skull Valley. I had watched another farmer dig six other holes that week. Now, those holes were filled with dirt and babies and there were little piles of rocks like headstones where the holes had been. As I set up my station, I imagined myself looking as she had: strong and graceful and tremendously capable. But the only hole I had dug was for a bunny on Easter. It had come in my Easter basket and our grandmother’s cat killed the bunny before I had even named her. We found her left in a pile of clean laundry with her broad pink ribbon still tied around her half-neck. Our grandmother helped us bury her under a rosemary bush and because she felt so sorry, bought us a frog that died, too, and we buried him next to the bunny.

I didn’t pause to think of the strangeness of my task. My focus instead was on mimicking the other farmer’s motions. But I could hardly lift the axe off the ground. When I finally hoisted the axe above my head, my arms were so limp and the axe was moving so slowly that when it came down, the tip hardly cracked the dirt’s surface. The second time, I dropped it mid-swing and the falling blade dug into the back of my leg and there was a little blood. I took a spade from the tool shed and went to work on my knees, pulling up a cup of dirt at a time until I had made the shape of a hole. I jabbed and pried at the dirt pell-mell with my boot and the spade, and in four hours I had a four-foot hole.

The dogs watched from the garden as I gathered the sheep, who was waiting in a wheelbarrow outside the barn with a blue tarp covering her body. Her body was folded into a gunnysack, like the gunnysacks my grandmother used to wrap a skinned goat tightly when someone in my family was baptized. She dug a hole in her backyard and put the goat in the hole. She covered the goat with charcoal and sticks and we started a fire. She kept the goat in the hole wrapped in the gunnysacks until its meat was soft and peeling off its bones, then we dug it back up and shredded the meat to serve to our guests. I thought of the goat as I wheeled the sheep to the hole. She was very heavy. When we reached the hole, I took off the tarp and the gunnysack, folded them neatly, and placed them next to the hole. Her collar and bell were still around her neck. Her neck was bloated and the jagged edge of her metal bell cut deep into the underside of her throat. The bell made a noise, even though she was dead. Using the shears, I cut off the corner of her ear to remove her plastic tag and blood oozed slowly from her ear and neck.

My hands were sweating hard, now, so I took off the gloves. When we were both ready, I took the handles of the wheelbarrow and dumped her into the hole. She landed all wrong. Her hind legs were poking out of the hole and her back was against the wall of the hole, like she was sitting in a chair upside down. When her head hit the bottom, her mouth opened stupidly and her useless tongue fell out.

I lowered myself into the hole to fix her. I wrapped my fingers around her fore legs and felt dizzy because she felt like my grandmother. Nothing else in the world feels the way a dead thing feels. Both are cold and a little squishy, like a reusable Freezee gel pack. When you feel a dead thing, many of the things you wonder are the same whether the dead thing is the sheep or your grandmother. You wonder if its tongue is hard and dry. You wonder if its eyeballs will shrivel up quickly. Of course, you wonder if it knew it was going to die and you allow yourself to wonder these things because of course you can’t help it. You think about rearranging its face into winks or frowns. When your grandmother dies you put pink lipstick on her and jewelry and you dress her in her favorite dress with gold and sequins. You don’t do this to the sheep but you could and the sheep wouldn’t notice and neither did your grandmother. I held on to her cold limbs for a long for a long time and found it hard to let her go. Then I pulled her until she was flat on her back and could fit in the hole, and I hoisted myself out of her grave.

Her belly was bloated and stretched out like a drum and the clods of dirt made a sound like sad music when I began to shovel her in. Now, it was mostly over. Soon, the hole was filled more with dirt and grass than it was with the sheep and it became possible to lose track of my task. Soon, the hole was gone and I rolled the heaviest rocks I could onto where it had been. I put the blue tarp and the gunnysack in the empty wheelbarrow. When you bury a dead thing, the dead thing is gone. Your grandmother or the sheep. But at night both make you dream of bloody waves carrying dying horses, or of bad men cutting the limbs off your brother and sisters with a butter knife, or of your own body becoming stiff and cold.

Two weeks later, you are picking tomatoes in the greenhouse with your shirt off and singing when you hear Rocky panting loudly. You turn around to shoo him away and you see that his face and his paws are covered in blood and there is something bloody and yellowing in his mouth. The scent is unbearable. Before you can move, the dog drops a pile of rotting organs in your lap. You start to gag and you stand up quickly with your eyes shut tight and your teeth pressing impossibly hard against each other. You brush the organs off your body and you start to vomit and cry. You rinse yourself with the hose in the garden. You gather yourself and the shovel from the tool shed and the wheelbarrow from the barn and you start slowly toward the hole to rebury your dead.

Connie Coady
January 12, 2009

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