By Nancy Haydon Gray
It wouldn’t matter if I cried because I didn’t want to help shear the sheep this year. Everybody in the shed was so wet with sweat and dirty with dust and grease and circles of sheep fleece that tears wouldn’t show. I licked tears from my upper lip and felt the hair and the grit stick to my tongue. I sneezed from the irritation of the dust in the air, and then my face was wet from that, too. I wiped my nose on my sleeve, and it didn’t every show, I was so coated with hair and dirt. My eyes were stinging, and Ian’s and Matt’s were red. Nobody noticed my tears.
Dad let one sheep in at a time, and he kept count: 5 done, 25 to go. They were all ewes with lambs waiting up on the hills, always hungry. It was only one in the afternoon. We’d have to work until six. Once the dogs had rounded up the sheep, Dad liked to get them done that day; he didn’t like to keep them penned overnight. If we kept the ewes in all night, the lambs could starve by the time the ewes found them and started nursing them again.
We all took turns shearing. This time, Matt grabbed the sheep; Ian held its back legs. They turned the frightened, baaing, greasy, wiry animal over on its back. It was my turn to shear. To start, I put my hand under the chin of the sheep. Every time I sheared my hand got more gummy with saliva. We shear the underside of the neck first, then the belly side around the teats. Careful of the teats. Dad would whip me like I was a little boy if I sheared over them. It was hard enough raising the lambs without infected teats. God, you’d think they would be teaming with infection, they were so wet and dirty. Their feet were rotten from the damp. Their eyes had to be filled with ointment not to get runny. Sometime we’d miss one with the ointment, and its eyes would stick shut. How did they find their lambs? By smell, of course. All lambs look alike, and to me, all of ‘em smell alike too: terrible.
The front’s sheared. Ian and Matt turned the sheep over. I started at the neck and worked down the back. Dad watches ‘cause he knows I am sick of the whole thing. He wants the fleece off in one piece. It’s easier to count and sell a solid fleece.
I’m down the back under the fleece now. It falls wrong side out just like it’s supposed to.
“Hold the beast tight, Ian.”
“Keep those legs from kicking me, Matt.”
If I get another one of those musty, rotten hooves in my ear, I will fling the shears into someone’s teeth and run out.
Why does the shearing shed have to be so small, stuffy, airless, and thick with pieces of every stinking thing from these cursed sheep? Why isn’t there more sunlight to dry up the eternal damp? Why isn’t there some place clean, dry and bright where I can go, up and out of this life of sheep?