Worming the lambs, ZJ Farm

            “Put on different shoes, you and George are worming the lambs today,” Susan said the next morning, almost in passing. Approximately a quarter of the things she said to me were in this type of foreign language. Worming the lambs. I thought about what this might mean as I walked to the house.

I went in the back door with the missing lower right windowpane. The door stuck and squeaked. Going into the house mid-morning meant I could sneak a snack. I cut a hunk of bread from the fresh loaf sitting on the cutting board, the knife ripping through the homemade crispy crust. I covered it with my first batch of goat cheese I’d made a few days ago. It smelled goaty, but tasted creamy and delicious. Then again, I’d never had goat cheese before so perhaps I wasn’t the best critic. I got my shoes and glanced at the wall next to the door jam. “You owe me $5,” written in pencil. This little note, in David’s handwriting, always reminded me of something I was trying to grasp about this place. Where I came from, a teenager doesn’t write stuff like that on the wall. But here, the buildings and furniture and tools and dishes and walls are really intended for living in, not just inhabiting and upkeep. Which isn’t to say that things aren’t clean—the old farmhouse was beyond beautiful. It was just that the farmhouse was also a scarred and authentic and unembarrassed member of the family.

I obediently laced up my shoes, feeling like the human sheep. I rarely fully understood what was going on, but people pointed me in the right direction, spoke some language I didn’t know, and I did my best. My college degree meant nothing in this real world. Luckily, I had full faith that George, age seventeen, would know exactly what to do with the lambs.

Martin whined to come out with me. He was some sort of herding dog, so I decided to bring him. I found George arranging wooden fence pieces to make a sort of small enclosure at the end of the sheep paddock. I climbed over the orange gate to get in, and Martin squeezed through below me.

“I’m going to get the syringes and the marker,” he said. “Can you bring the lambs over here?”

“Sure,” I responded, trying not to reveal that I had no idea what was going on. George thinks I know how to herd sheep, I thought. What a compliment. I’m like a real farmer. I walked to the back edge of the flock. They didn’t look like cute storybook lambs, but bigger, with matted dirty wool embedded with burrs. I looked for the one I named Valencia, with a black patch on her eye, but they all looked the same. At least to me.

I started clapping, waving, and hollering. Martin got excited with me and was crouching, running and barking. The lambs moved like giant squirrels in the middle of a road: quick and anxious on their toes, but only in a non-productive zigzag confusion.  I thought herding sheep was supposed to be easy, I thought. I went to the back of the paddock again, stepping through their piles of round poo. I tried again with lots more hand waving, like I must’ve seen in a movie somewhere. Martin added some ankle-biting. As soon as I got the whole group running away from me, a handful would sprint back around behind me. It was like playing Red Rover, but with sixty lambs versus me and a dog. 

George came back. “Sorry, Martin’s no help. He gets too excited.” I pretended that Martin was the problem and brought him back to the house. When I returned, George was quietly walking behind the lambs, which were now calmly moving as a group. He was all subtlety and experience. That is, the opposite of me. I held the gate where he told me, and quietly and calmly they were all cooped up in his tiny pen. A hundred times a day that kid was my hero.

The next phase of this operation was sort of a blur. My job was basically that of lamb-wrestler. I caught one at a time and held it while George squirted something into its mouth and drew an orange line down its head with the fat crayon. Then he marked his count on the barn wall with the orange crayon, and I let go. All this within the dense, thigh-high sea of wiggling, wooly panic. How could it be so hard to catch them when they were all squished together?

As usual on this land, I wanted to prove myself, and prove I was strong enough. Some lambs outweighed me, and many stepped on my feet. My adrenaline rose with theirs each time George went to refill his medicine and I scrambled to headlock the next unmarked animal within reach. I was definitely sweating, bruised, and possibly bleeding. Yet something about farming made me not notice those things. Like the house, and the marked barn walls, my body was there to be lived in. 

Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

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