Home > Essays > What I Know, What I Don’t
Published: Fri Jul 1 2005
Eva Lundsager, We are quiet (nowhere to hide) (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
What I Know, What I Don’t

I know the farm on cold mornings—the white sky hangs low over the barnyard and the air snaps. Smooth black pebbles of yesterday’s shit scatter like buckshot under my boots. The barren ground is firm with frost, and the sheep’s breaths fog the air with my own. Their woolly bodies huddle together for warmth, but when they see me they run to the empty feeders baaing, and watch expectantly as I stand, mittens jammed in my coat pockets, snot running down my nose. Lolly pokes my arm with her muzzle and I pull out a handful of corn, pale yellow as the February sun, and she dives deep into my cupped palm, kernels plummeting every which way to the ground while the rest of our herd scuttles around my legs. Bits of straw hang from their thick dirty wool.

The sheep were my first babysitters.

We live on the old Ray Davis farm. “1903” is stenciled into the peak of the big barn, marking the year it was built. One weekend some migrant workers stopped by the farm and asked if they could paint the big barn. My dad hired them and now the barn, originally a dull yellow, is red.

Standing in the oat room, a square building with plastered walls but no insulation, I look out the single-paned window to the sheep yard: frozen mud, rutted with hoof prints, crisscrossed with rough wooden fences. The manure pile looms like a dark haystack behind the old chicken shed. My mother steps carefully out of the big barn with two tall white buckets of feed and sets off toward the shed. She calls and my father slides open the door for her.

Even in winter, the oat room makes me sneeze. Dust rises with every full shovel as I pour the grains into a five-gallon pail. My eyes water. I retreat outside to catch my breath. I carry a red handkerchief everywhere I go and bury my face in its thin cotton weave. I feel trapped on this farm where I am allergic to everything; wool, mold, corn pollen, and dust conspire to shorten my breaths. “Oh, you’re allergic all right—allergic to hard work,” my father says.

Icy winds whistle through the slats of the leaning corncrib and I push ear after ear through the iron corn-sheller. Kernels spill into the metal bucket with the sound of cold rain, the pink cobs pop out clean, and I try to keep a rhythm going. The iron crank turns tight in my fist, and I feed in another and another. I haul the brimming bucket back to the big barn and furiously block the nosing ewes from the grain.

Dad built the feeding troughs out of two-by-fours now gray with age, bleached by sun and wind. My practiced pitch sends a splash of green protein pellets from one end of the trough to the other, and the sheep dive in pushing and jumping for the best spot, fighting over the last bits, until every stray pellet is gone.

The walls of the chicken shed have coops where chickens once perched and laid brown eggs, but my mother doesn’t want chickens. Sheep sleep in two low-ceilinged pens under the haylofts on either side of the main room. Sun shines in through the high windows in the lofts. Dust sparkles down over the wooden ladder, rubbed soft with eighty years of use.

“Boeskool” is spelled out in white shingles on the sloped green roof of the neighbor’s barn across the field, but no Boeskools live here anymore.

The 300-pound ram we rented for rutting season struts around the barnyard like he owns it. He rears back and butts anyone who comes near him. Mom had warned me to stay out of the sheep pens, but I forgot. I was five, and climbed down off the fence to find the ram standing six feet away and looking at me. He charged and pushed me to the ground. There was nowhere to run, no one to help. I pushed myself up out of the dirt and punched the ram hard on the muzzle. He trotted away and never butted me again.

February and March bring lambing season. In the birthing barn, my father has set up L-shaped wooden pens piled with straw, and each expectant mother ewe has her own berth. Heat lamps hang over the pens, and I peek through the gates at the fat-bellied ewes lying calmly in the straw, rhythmically chewing at cud. Dad will watch them carefully and check on them in the night. He knows which ones might panic.

Ewes will give birth on the coldest night in February at 2:00 a.m. I am asleep in bed when Dad puts on his boots and walks out to the barn.

There are lambs that kick their way out of the bloody sack and bleat into life while being licked clean by their mothers. There are ewes that ignore those small leggy black bodies and let them die, covered with the clear amniotic fluid. And the young mothers might trample the lamb to death out of fear. Sometimes we lose the ewe, the lamb, or both, between the spasms of birth. For breach births, Dad calls the veterinarian for help. Often, the vet has gotten lost on these snowy country roads in the middle of night.

I come home from school to find a lamb in a cardboard box next to our fireplace in the living room. My mother has spent the day coaxing it to life. She put the lamb in the oven to bring up its body temperature and fed it droplets of warm milk and sugar. I squat next to the box and whisper to it; I pet the lamb’s soft black ears. When it gets strong enough to jump out of the box, Dad returns it to the barn.

I mix powdered milk on the stove, rinse green and brown beer bottles, and fit them with rubber nipples to feed the motherless lambs. Out in the barnyard, I stand and watch the lamb suck from the bottle in my hand. Milk runs down its black woolly neck. In the spring, it will go into the fields with the herd.

These Suffolk-breed lambs will grow into sheep that have black faces, ears, and legs, and white wool. Dad will bob their long, wiggling tails before summer.

In the main room of the chicken shed, large needles and brown glass bottles of medicines line the wall; I step back and look away as my father wrestles a lamb to the ground.

The barnyard connects to several fields—the lamb field, the larger pasture, the turnip patch, and a path through the swamp to the meadow in the woods. In the spring, Dad builds hurdles between the birthing barn and the lamb field. The young lambs jump straight up in the air as if their hooves have springs. The old ewes climb one leg at a time over each wooden plank. Our small herd mows the grazing fields to the quick, then lines up through the gates back to the barn before the sun goes down.

My friend and I take turns leading Lolly across the pasture with an ear of corn while the other rides on her slow, swaying back. I shut my eyes and imagine she is an old saddle horse.

The biggest threat to our herd is a loose dog. A dog will chase a sheep until it dies of exhaustion. Dad patrols the barnyard and fields with a loaded rifle.

Sheep are dumb animals with wise eyes, or maybe it’s just spite.

Sheep are not sheepish.

Sheep will piss on your foot and not care.

The shearer flips the sheep backwards over his knee while he runs the shrill electric razor around the edges of its belly. It tries to kick, but my dad grabs it by the hooves and holds it tight. Holding the sheep by the neck now, the shearer pushes the razor firmly against its skin and carves off strips of fluffy wool from its broad back, nicking the skin here and there. The beast’s eyes roll and flare to the whites, terrified of the noise and the razor and the rough hands. I can’t watch until the sheep is freed and skitters off with yellow iodine splashed over its cuts, staining the quarter-inch of wool still on its back. At the shearer’s feet a woolly pile, knee deep. He wipes the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve and calls for the next animal.

Dad puts the tractor in first gear and I drive slowly around the hayfield while my brother and his friends toss bales into the trailer. The boys’ bodies are dark from working in the sun, but my dad always wears a white T-shirt, work pants, and a brimmed hat. Brown sweat stains my brother’s trucker hat. Neighbor kids without farms watch my every loop of the field and I am secretly proud.

I’m sent into the rafters to stack the short rectangular hay bales. Local barns have gone up in a blaze of trapped heat from stacked hay. I worry about losing our barn.

Every August, we take a few sheep to the county fair to sell. The week before the fair, we’ve set up the bathing stand, the hose is on, and laundry soap runs through the soggy grass in gullies. I slip a halter over the head of the next market lamb and lead it to the stand. It immediately attempts to leap off, but I hold tightly to its head and my dad chains the animal to the stand. I pick up the sprayer and press it against the skin. The sheep nearly strangles itself jumping to escape the cold water. It chokes and cries, “Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat! Blaaaaaagggggghhht,” but the dirt rolls off its back, revealing white wool beneath. My mother grabs the scrub brush and pours on dry soap. Its bleats strain and grow weak; the purple tongue lolls while my father holds its head down and we scrub as fast as we can, turning its brown wool to bleached white.

At the fair, we card the wool, making it stand up full and lush. The flat wooden brush has short pins that separate and clean the wool. Lanolin rises up through the wool, turning my hands soft as butter.

We staple the farm tags listing the sheep’s name, breed, and owner to the pens. I haul water, clean straw away from the buckets, and pour in fresh corn and pellets from Folgers coffee cans. I once crawled into the pen with our market lambs, laid my head against a sheep’s beating chest, and fell asleep.

Twelve years old and unsure of myself in my homemade jeans and blouse, I hold my sheep in the judging line. The girl next to me wears a pressed white shirt and black Chic pants; her curly blond hair trails from under a cowboy hat. The judge looks her over. When the judge digs his hands into the hips of my lamb, it rears up and takes off at a run across the judging area. Through clenched teeth, my father says I need to hold onto my animal and not let it run, but every time the judge touches the sheep, it bolts. I come in last place.

In the den, ribbons in blue, red, green, and yellow cover the bulletin board, and the shelves are lined with sheep-showmanship trophies. I run my fingers over the looped bows and gape at the grand champion trophies that my older brother and sister once brought home. In time, I win some as well.

Besides a few of the birthing ewes, we don’t name the sheep since many of them will be sold for meat. My mother begins calling them “Ditto,” which I repeat (“dit-toe, did-o, di-do”) until the sound becomes unique to my ears. I watch my favorite animals sell for one dollar, two dollars tops, per pound. Grocery shopping with my mother at the local Bill’s Shop & Save, I point to the meat packages and lightly announce, “There’s Jethro,” or whatever name we had concocted for the Fair tags. The economy being mostly local, it isn’t too far from the truth.

I remember playing in our dirt driveway one day when a strange truck pulled up. Open in the back, racks and hooks hung at crazy angles. The man drove around to the gate and into the sheep pen. Mom came out to the porch and waved me inside. I dragged my feet, wanting to keep playing, but she insisted. A few days later, we got a delivery of taped white packages and Mom filled our basement freezer.

In September, Dad borrows a corn picker and hooks up the grain elevator. I sit in the top of the corncrib as the elevator dumps in fresh ears, which I push into every crevice of the crib. I imagine myself buried in corn.

I was raised to be not a woman, but a farm girl.

I remember the cool darkness inside the big barn, its womb-like center piled high with hay and the bodies of abandoned machinery; wooden walkways and storage rooms; doors opened by complicated levers and blocks that kept the barn closed even as the walls shuddered on windy nights. In the winters, our cats would hide their baby kittens among the hay bales, and I sought out their frail mewing bodies.

I learned about death on the farm. I tasted its sweet meat.

Lolly and Sprout, our first two ewes, mothered much of our flock. During my senior year of high school, Sprout died giving birth. I stood in the lamplight and stamped my boots as I watched the veterinarian inspect Sprout, who kicked and moaned with the lamb still inside her. When he pulled it out, Sprout just stopped. The next year my father stopped breeding Lolly, but she died after I left home for college.

My parents asked whether any of us kids wanted to keep the farm. We all said no, and the farm sold.

I thought my dad managed the farm with a cold heart, doling out shots and food, watching births and deaths, like a god. Now Dad says, “Taking care of the sheep used to get to me. One would be coming along good and then ‘pbbth’ it would die.”

When I last visited home, the neighbor’s cow bawled day in and day out, a constant lowing of ache. “They probably weaned the calves from their mothers today,” Dad said. “Don’t you remember what it was like when we used to separate the lambs and ewes?” And I do not.

I was raised not to farm, but to remember the farm.

This rural childhood seems far away now, but I can recall Lolly’s tufted face and wide gray eyes in an instant. Lolly is as familiar as my own mother, and the farm, my father.

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