I am driving home, down this long, languid stretch of interstate that seems to grow more miles every time I travel it. The asphalt lies in great curves, snaking up the side of the Green Mountains that divide my state down the middle, looking for a way through from west to east. It’s a long road, and I am tired, and it has rained all day, and there is no sun. I think I am praying as I drive, though it’s hard to tell if I am talking to God or myself or these mountains I am cresting. When the world falls away before me, though, I am jolted all at once out of reverie and into wide eyes and an eager leaning, staring. The interstate slips down the eastern side of the westernmost mountain, and the road tosses me into the valleys and it runs along the river, like the river, curving, looping, sweeping lazy and slow and beautiful along the feet of this jutting, hugging the foothills, its path dictated by the geography. Mist is rising, covering the mountaintops, and they disappear into cloud, and I have never seen them quite like this before. It reminds me of photographs my sister has shown me of the Rhine river, curving between German hills that run down right to its edge, dangle their toes in its waters, dip their fingers in it and tickle the swans.
I have envied my sister, getting to see that view daily, if she wanted, getting to walk those hills, getting to live in the middle of a new kind of beauty that I have never seen before. But suddenly it is here, too, and I am in the middle of it, and I have lived in Vermont my whole life and it still surprises me, it still lifts a curtain sometimes, brushes back the Veil with a breath of spring breeze, and I catch a glimpse of something far deeper than I thought was here, something wild that does not belong to me or anyone, something that has been here longer than I have, that I do not see, because I am blind, because I have lived here my whole life and it is so easy to stop really looking, to stop being surprised, to stop noticing how much this is a blessing and an unimagined joy. God met Moses on the mountaintop.
I walk out at night, later, with Kai. The moon is only partly there, a sickled lighthouse pointing my shadow away from home. It is fully night, but I put my flashlight in my pocket and walk up the road in this half-moon’s half-light. It is enough to see by, but not so much to swallow up the stars. They blaze out above me, and I look over my right shoulder from the top of our mountain, see Orion kneeling over me to the south, Cassiopeia further northwest, the Big Dipper directly above. They are bright as the terrible charity of angels’ eyes, and I can’t look at them for long without turning my face away. The shadows are long, and they hide us. The moon is veiled with a scud of cloud. Kai and I walk on, he running ahead so that the dark covers him and I can only hear the pat of his footfalls, moving quick and sure over the frozen ruts that I cannot see.
It is spring now, in earnest. The barn is full of lambs–twelve of them, bouncy and energetic, scarcely a foot tall, most of them fat and curly and getting too heavy to hold for long. A few are still small–Luna looks at me with bright eyes and begs to be gathered up, all gangly legs and perky ears and tiny, perfect, shining black face. She is a week old, but still wobbles a bit when she stands, like a stiff wind might make her stumble. She hasn’t grown into her legs yet.
Lambing began with a rush, this year. The first five of our seven bred ewes all dropped within 21 hours of each other–eleven lambs in less than a day. We were in the barn at 5:00 in the morning the day after the biggest blizzard of the year, and hardly left it for a moment until 2:30 the following morning. By the time most people would be rolling out of bed, making coffee, showering for work, I had already watched a ewe give birth to triplets, helped rub the birthing fluids from their faces, held them, still slimy and slick in my hands, up to her udder, fought for two hours to teach them to nurse. My parents stand back, let me help these young ones learn to breathe, to drink, to live. Maybe they know how much I have missed this, how much I want to be a part of every single moment. Maybe they are just thankful for the help.
We lost two. The first, stillborn. The second, hanging on to life by a thread for three days. He lay in the corner and wouldn’t move, wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t talk. We are all a bit thankful to find him no longer breathing when we go out to do chores one morning. It is not heartless. It is mercy. We let his mother out of the jug where she was confined with him–there is no need, now, to keep her in. Both of her lambs are dead. We offer her our sympathy in the form of dark molasses water and an extra handful of half-fermented alfalfa. She looks at us, mournful, turns to stare at the other lambs gamboling in the run-in. We are sorry.
It is our twelfth year of lambing. It’s hard to believe it’s been so long, and it’s hard to believe it’s not been longer. The lambs snuggle up beside their mothers to sleep, and we count them off in the barn before closing the door and shutting them in for the night. Linnea, Lars, Leif. Lina. Lindi, Linus. Lisbeth, Lasse, Lennart. Luna, Liam. Lokki. We name them by the alphabet, one letter for each year. They stretch and cozy and lean their chins on each others’ flanks, and even their energy is not boundless, it seems. There are so many I can scarcely tell them apart. We put velcro bands around their necks with their names and the name of their dam written on them in sharpie. Their ears are too small to be tagged yet, and if we lose track of which jet-black face is which, we won’t be able to sell them because we won’t know their ancestry.
Our house still smells like sheep, from so many trips in and out of the barn over the past few weeks. We do more laundry during the two weeks our lambing season lasts than we do in a month any other time of year. Our barn coats and coveralls are stained with amnionic fluid, milk replacer, nutri-drench, sloshed drops of homeopathy. Our sheep have it good, and we are proud of that.
When I go out again after all of this, to travel the interstate, it looks different. The stars and the night and the new life in our barn and the taste of spring in the breeze and the way my muscles ache from so many hours of kneeling in wet straw, all these things, they make everything new, and I am not worn but I am tired, and the miles of my road are a resting place, and this drive is where I think and pray and plan, and now, when I crest the westernmost mountains on my way home and slip down into the valleys between, along the river, it still looks like the Rhine and I know I am lucky or blessed or both and I don’t deserve this beauty but I have it, it’s mine, and I don’t understand it and I hope I never will. It shouldn’t be understood. Only seen, really and truly, with new eyes, fresh from the lambing barn and the mud of the dirt roads and the way that spring comes drip, drip, dripping in to the buckets we hang on the maples that line the road. These are things that I have treasured up in my heart, burned like calluses into the palms of my hands, written behind my eyes and sunk into my voice, where they will be seen and heard and felt. These are things that are so hard, and so good, and, somehow, deeply sacred.
Some lamb photographs by my mother.