In the Company of Lambs

IT had never occurred to me to be afraid out in the barn at midnight.

Although I had grown up in a Miami neighborhood where we locked the doors and stayed inside when darkness came, I found comfort in the crisp silence of a dark winter night on our Kentucky farm. Going to the barn to visit the sheep flock was like an evening rendezvous with old friends.

The barn was down a slight hill from where our wooden farmhouse sat. Shaped like a Gothic church, it presided over the dark countryside, a hulking giant made of wood and tin. The tin siding groaned and creaked on windy nights, reminding me of its old age. Built 75 years ago by a relative, it had sheltered countless animals, both wild and domesticated. Barn swallows nested below the strong oak beams of the hay loft.

My husband had grown up on this farm, and as a small boy had imagined a monster lurking in the dark corners of that upper loft. For me, the barn was filled with earthy odors of dried alfalfa, manure, and livestock. Bright sunbeams filtered down dustily from the loft's open window onto the floor below. And in winter, the barn was a fortress against the cold where our sheep were kept cozy and secure. Neither coyotes (our local predator) nor an icy chill could threaten new lambs inside its walls.

With only the occasional whir of a lone car passing on the distant highway, I went each night to check that all was well. During the several weeks of lamb season in February and March, I couldn't sleep soundly without knowing the condition of each expecting ewe. Every job has its critical time, a time of heightened excitement and extra demand. For the sheep farmer, that time is during the lambing season, when both ewe and newborn may need some help. I was a midwife in the presence of our flock.

In the stillness of the night, the sheep could always hear me coming. Their ``baas'' would greet me as I climbed the metal barn gate and stumbled to the light string. A single bulb illuminated the large central stall, leaving dis-tant corners shadowy, and all heads turned my way.

And there we were - 40 ewes, two rams, assorted lambs, and I - looking at each other. The sheep remained immobile - watching me intently - some lying down, some standing. In those first seconds, before I'd stepped past that invisible barrier between human and flock, I always felt as if I had intruded upon some private gathering.

They considered me. I waited. Then, without warning, a lamb would start to nurse, another would bound away, and a ewe would bend to eat loose hay. Once more, I was accepted as one of the crowd.

I try to explain to people, who don't understand my fascination with sheep, about the tranquility I find in their woolly company. Sheep possess a humble, self-contained timidity that many interpret as a sign of low intelligence. Knowing differently, I try to describe the sheep's true nature - one of contented docility and innate shyness. Being shy myself, I feel both comfortable with sheep and grateful for their gentle acceptance of me.

I always began my check of the pregnant ewes by looking for signs of labor. These signs were subtle but unmistakable. A restless pawing of the ground, a low moan, or, maybe off in some corner, an experienced ewe would make a kind of nest with the straw. I would usually find one or two who seemed imminent, my cue to go on alert.

Finding a bale of hay, I'd settle in for a stretch of sheep watching. My special friends, Ophelia and Christina, would wander shyly over and let me rub their fleecy necks. The lambs would race back and forth, sometimes leaping two feet in the air like children released from school.

The night became festive. Older sheep moved around, nudging each other at the wooden hay feeder. I might dip into the corn barrel for a handful of the yellow kernels, a sheep's favorite treat. Then, even aloof ewes would come closer for a lick from my outstretched palm.

Part of the fascination each night was the possibility that I might catch sight of that momentous spectacle of birth. In all our years of raising sheep, I had seen surprisingly few lambs being born. The ewes seemed to time their deliveries for the hours between when I left the barn and my next visit, as if wanting to preserve the privacy of this remarkable event.

I'd walk into the barn and there would be a new member of the flock, still wet and unsteady on long, gangly legs. The pleased mother would look up at me as if to say, ``Look what I did! Where've you been?'' And although thrilled with the healthy lamb and mother, I'd vow anew to see the next one born.

So night after night, I'd sit waiting while the moonlight waxed and waned. The barn was cold, but dry and padded well with straw. The heat lamp hung ready to revive chilled newborns, and the molasses mixture was there for the mother's first nutritious drink. Weak lambs needed me, I'd tell myself, and mothers might have problems.

More than other farm animals, sheep seem to have obstetrical problems requiring the help of humans. Even in our small flock, when my husband made his daily rounds and I was at school teaching, he'd occasionally find a stuck lamb needing his strong pull. With twins or triplets, a mother might need help clearing off the sticky fluid that blocks the lamb's nostrils. We had also bottle-fed several lambs whose mothers lacked sufficient milk.

Even after I'd been in the barn long enough to check the sheep, I'd find myself still sitting there, reluctant to leave the calm fellowship of the flock. All sense of time passing would stop, and there would be just the present moment and the soothing sounds of hay being chewed, a lamb's hungry cry, and the distant noise of a train racing through the night. For those moments, I forgot about my other life amid the world of warm houses and human conversation. I had absorbed the placid contentment of the flock and felt soothed and perfectly at ease.

The lambs would finally settle down, hooves tucked underneath them, to sleep next to their mothers. Pregnant ewes would drop down awkwardly, two front legs bending first, their stomachs heaving sideways in the straw. The ewe that I knew was imminent would stand watching me, as if waiting for the darkness that would leave just moonlight on her labor.

Eventually, I'd feel my eyes closing. Calling out, ``Bye, girls!'' I'd turn off the light, heading back to the house. Until tomorrow....

One day I came home from teaching and ran down to the barn to fill up empty water troughs. I found Naomi, one of our purebreds with long, silky crimped wool, in a corner. I treasured Naomi for the wonderful spinning she had afforded me after the last shearing.

She was in a corner lifting her head high in the air, as if stretching a sore neck. I recognized the look of concentration in her eyes, the tense bearing down. I approached softly, not too close. In seconds she produced, quite calmly, like the experienced mother she was, the first signs of birth: the clear bag of waters.

I was engrossed and found my heart beating wildly. I watched as two small hooves appeared. Then with a gentle thud, a perfect lamb dropped onto the straw. It lay lifeless, so I came near and bent down to wipe its nose clear. The narrow ribs began to flutter. As Naomi turned to lick her lamb and mumble sounds of greeting, it moved all over and tried to stand.

All was well. Lamb and ewe had bonded. Soon the little lamb was butting its mother's belly, searching for the comfort of her milk. I left them, gladdened and grateful to have seen this barnyard miracle.

That evening when I returned, I was eager to discover just how our newest lamb had fared. I wondered if her now-dry wool would be like her mother's fine crimp, another fleece good for spinning. Was she nursing well and staying warm enough? Had another ewe begun the telltale signs? I sat down on the nearest bale, regarded placidly by my gracious woolly friends.

Usually it's spring that we look to as the time when new life burgeons forth. Before the earliest shoots have broken through and the ground is still frozen like impenetrable stone, we shiver impatiently. But no matter where I find myself, I always think of late winter as that special, intimate time when the woolly creatures on our Kentucky farm once gave me such peaceful companionship. I may not have sheep to visit on cold winter nights now, but I find solace in the thought that somewhere there is a sheep barn being bathed in expectancy and moonlight.

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