Inside the farmhouse Rose lifted her head and pricked up her ears. She heard the troubled wheezing of a ewe. From the window, through the dark, she could see mist, mud, and the reddish shadows of the barns. She pictured the herd of sheep lying still, spread out behind the feeder.
Raising her nose toward the pasture, she smelled the rich, sticky scent of birth, of lamb. She smelled manure and fear.
She heard a gasp, the sound of death or desperation, and then one ewe calling to the others in alarm. She stood and padded quickly from the window to the side of the farmer’s bed, then looked up at his sleeping face. She barked once, insistently and loudly.
Sam, the farmer, startled awake from a dream of Katie in the dark January night. He muttered, “Are you sure?” and mumbled something about a night’s sleep, but got out of bed, pulling on pants and a shirt.
He knew better than to ignore Rose, especially at lambing time. She seemed to have a sort of map of the farm inside her head, a picture of how things ought to be. Whenever something was wrong or out of place—an animal sick, a fence down, an unwelcome intruder—she knew it instantly, and called attention to it, sniffing, barking, circling. She constantly updated the map, it seemed to Sam.
Occasionally her map failed or confused her—but that was rare. Sam saw to it that Rose was always with him, that she was apprised of everything that came and went—every animal, every machine—so she could keep her mental inventory.
Among his friends, Sam called Rose his farm manager. They had been together for six years, ever since he had driven over to the Clark farm in Easton and seen a litter of border collie/shepherd mix pups. He had still been debating with himself about whether to get a herding dog—he had no idea how to train one, and no time to do it, anyway.
But, perhaps picking up the scent of sheep, Rose ran right over to him, looking so eager to get to work, even at eight weeks old, that he brought her home. A few weeks after she arrived, some sheep had wandered through an unlatched gate and across the road, and Rose shot out of the house through the newly installed dog door, corralled them, and marched them back, working on instinct alone. She certainly had no help from Sam, who wasn’t even aware that the sheep were at liberty. The two had been working side by side ever since.
From then on, Sam would shake his head whenever he saw the elaborate, highly choreographed herding trials on television. Rose grew into the role on her own; she simply seemed to know what to do. The farm, he told his friends, was the world’s greatest trainer. And the sheep did what she told them to, which was all Sam really cared about. Get them from one place to another. Didn’t have to be pretty, though sometimes it was beautiful.
The relationship had grown way beyond anything Sam understood at first, or even imagined. It was more like a partnership, he had told Katie, an understanding subtler than words. It was something he lived, not something he thought much about.
I think you love that dog more than me, Katie would sometimes joke. Sam would blush and stammer. She’s just a dog, he would say, because he could not say what Rose truly meant to him.
Now he could tell from the urgency of Rose’s bark that something was wrong. She kept tilting her ears to the pasture, agitated, eager to get outside.
So on this cold and windswept night, Sam, a tall, thin man with what had once been a ready smile and a full head of reddish-brown hair, went downstairs and got a flashlight, pulled on a jacket and boots, and he and Rose walked out the back door and into the night. Even in the dark, in the reflected light of the moon, he could see the glow of her fiercely bright-blue eyes.
The farmhouse sat at the bottom of a gentle, rolling pasture. By the back door, there were two paths. The one to the left led out into the woods, and the one to the right ran toward the two barns and the pasture gates.
The first barn was big, filled with hay up in the loft and tractors, and sometimes cows, down below. A shed was attached to the big barn, which housed equipment and supplies, as well as some feed. Farther up the hill was a large pole barn. A three-sided structure with the fourth side open to the air, it allowed the sheep to be outside, which they preferred, while still offering some shelter from the elements. When they were kept inside a closed barn, they got fearful, claustrophobic, bleated day and night. Anyway, it was the way Sam’s father had done it. The three buildings formed a triangle: the farmhouse at the bottom, the big barn off to one side nearby, the pole barn a hundred yards up the hill. The cows were in the other pasture on the far side of the barn.
A few hundred feet from the farmhouse, the path led to a gate that connected to a fence encircling all of the pastures and barns. Sam was proud of that fence. He’d spent years shoring and patching it, and in the past year or so, no animal had slipped out, or in.
As they neared the barn, Sam finally saw in the beam of light from his flashlight what Rose had heard and sensed, up behind the building. He moved faster, opening the pasture gate. Rose raced through and ran to the struggling ewe. Sam retrieved his sack of medical equipment from the barn and hurried behind the dog up a path well worn by the animals, marked by manure and ice-encrusted mud, pungent even in winter. The big barn was on the right, looming like a great battleship, its lights sending small beams out into the dark, foggy pasture. That old barn had a lot of stories to tell.
The lambing shed where Sam had put this pregnant ewe a few days earlier was also open on one side, though protected from the snow and wind. An open hatchway led from the lambing shed inside the barn to an area warmed by heat lamps and lined with hay and straw, where the ewes could take their newborn lambs. With this arrangement, they were outside when they went into labor, so they could be near the other sheep, and Sam could still see and hear them from the house. Or at least Rose could.
He trained his light on the sick ewe, number 89. Her wheezing had calmed, which was an ominous sign, and she lay still, on her side, in the corner of the pen in a bed of hay.
Rose waited for Sam to open the birthing pen gate, then rushed in to the mother and attempted to rouse her, nipping at her nose and chest.
Sam opened his bag and pulled out scissors, forceps, bandages, syringes, a jar of iodine, antibiotics, and some rope and salve. He was serious and calm as he followed Rose’s lead, this small black and white dog, with those piercing eyes, moving with speed and confidence.
The other sheep gathered in the pole barn up the hill, watching, intent and anxious. Rose glanced up at the crowd of ewes, and at the Blackface, their leader, who had appeared at the front of the flock. Rose’s eyes and posture gave clear instructions—stay back, stay away from Sam—and they obeyed.
If necessary, she would use her teeth, pulling some wool to get things moving, or to stop things from moving. She rarely needed to do that. But tonight, particularly since there was no food around the lambing area, Rose knew they would keep their distance. The sheep wanted no part of a human or a dog in the middle of the night.
It was black and cold, and the ground was icy. Rose saw and smelled the amniotic fluid puddling under the ewe. Rose could see the almost imperceptible movement of the ewe’s stomach, hear the faint breath, see the moisture in her eyes, the stream from her nostrils. She could hear the faintest of heartbeats.
She could smell the ewe’s struggle.
Rose and Sam had done this before, many times.
Having failed to get the ewe to her feet, Rose backed up while Sam set up his light, kneeled down, rolled up his sleeves. She watched him rub salve on his hands before turning the ewe and plunging his arm into the dying mother, finding the lamb stuck in the uterine canal.
The smell was intense, and troubling. This was a bad sign. Lambs didn’t last very long after the water had broken.
Sam muttered and cursed. He turned the lamb’s feet until they were pointed in the right direction, then he grunted, pulled, and pulled again. Finally, Rose saw him draw out his hand, and with it, the lamb. The small, matted creature was not moving.
Sam dipped his pocketknife in a bottle and then used it to cut the umbilical cord. Then he stood, lifted the lamb by its feet, and swung it, left and right, in the cold air, to get its heart beating. The lamb was slick with fluids, and the air was frigid. Lambs can die quickly in these conditions. If they’re healthy, their mothers will usually guide them through the hatchway to the warmth of the heat lamps.
Rose barked, excited. The lamb suddenly coughed and wheezed. It was alive. Rose ran around to the ewe’s face and began nipping at her nose, urging her to her feet.
The dog and the farmer worked with urgency. The cold was biting and Rose felt the sting of it in her paws. Her whiskers were covered in ice. She needed to get the ewe up quickly, had to get her to clean her lamb. And the lamb needed nourishment.
Sam pulled out a plastic bottle with sheep’s milk that he had stored in the freezer and thawed, putting it gently in the lamb’s mouth. He pulled a syringe from his other pocket—a vitamin booster, for strength and energy—and gave the lamb a shot. Rose kept working to get the mother up, so she and her lamb could bond by smell and know each other.
The ewe began to stir, looking at Rose. The dog did not waver or back off, but barked and lunged, nipped and kept her eyes locked on the ewe’s.
The ewe closed her eyes, reopened them. She was suddenly alarmed, breathing more heavily now, as she struggled to get to her feet. Afterbirth trailed from under her tail.
Sam carefully put the lamb down and came over to help, pulling the ewe up gently. She was disoriented, panicky, and as soon as she was upright she tried to bolt. Rose headed her off. She and Sam knew all too well that when ewes ran, they could forget the smell of their lambs and abandon them entirely. That was not going to happen, had never happened when Rose was there.
Rose held the ewe to the spot while Sam positioned the lamb beside her. Then he ran into the barn and came back with some water laced with molasses syrup for the ewe. She lapped it up greedily while the lamb searched for its mother’s nipple. The ewe seemed to gain strength, returning to the world, becoming aware of her baby.
The ewe began to call out to her lamb. Now protective, she turned, lowered her head at Rose, and charged, butting her, and catching her off guard.
“Head’s up, Rose!” said Sam.
Rose was sometimes unprepared for how powerful the mothering instinct was in ewes once it kicked in and they bonded with their babies. It was a testing time for her, as the formerly compliant ewes changed, and she was suddenly, sometimes violently, challenged. She always regained control, with her body, her eyes, her teeth, and her ferocious determination, which eventually wore down even the most maternal ewe, even though it sometimes left Rose bruised or limping. After a time, they became sheep again, doing what they were supposed to do.
The vet once told Sam that Rose weighed thirty-seven pounds, and that any one of those two- and three-hundred-pound ewes or rams could have stomped or butted her senseless, but they didn’t know they could. Rose had to make sure they never knew.
Sam looked up and saw that it had begun snowing lightly, and the wind was picking up. He was huffing hard on his hands, looking up at the sky. Rose looked up, too, and felt a stirring in all of her senses.
Sam appeared different to Rose than he used to, quieter, not as strong, not as clear-headed. A lot of things were different since the night Katie had been taken from the house.
The very map of the farm had changed.
She watched Sam as he worked silently, purposefully, toweling off the lamb. Once he was sure the mother had the smell of the lamb, he picked it up in a cloth sling. It was time to get it under the heat lamps and onto a pile of straw. There the mother would finish cleaning her baby, and the baby would find her teats and drink some more, getting warm and dry, and the ewe could bond with him—it was a ram—and know his cry. The two would nestle up together and talk to each other in a language all their own.
Sam was now backing up to the hatchway, and the ewe looked around frantically. Rose kept her distance, a bit away and behind her, so that she wouldn’t panic and head for the other sheep, who were still watching from the pole barn.
The ewe darted a few feet up the hill. Rose dashed ahead of her and brought her back. They repeated this two or three times, Rose and the ewe, in a kind of a dance, Rose anticipating where the ewe would go and blocking that route. Even though her lamb was being carried in that direction, it was unnatu- ral for the ewe to move away from her flock, and toward the barn, especially with a human and a dog. Only the ewe’s intensifying mothering instincts kept her from running off. That and Rose in her face, whenever she looked or turned to go up the hill.
Finally at the hatchway entrance to the barn, the ewe froze. Rose watched her look up the hill, then toward her lamb. Rose saw that she was still thinking of bolting up to the pole barn, to the Blackface, to the safety and comfort of the other sheep.
Sam backed into the barn, making sure the ewe could see him and the lamb in his arms. He opened the lambing pen gate, then turned on the heat lamps and put the baby down in the warming glow. The lamb bleated, and the ewe bleated in response, rushing through the hatchway and into the pen.
Rose kept the mother in until she settled down there. The ewe eventually forgot Rose, and nosed the lamb under the lamp and onto the hay. She began licking him. Sam closed and tied the plastic fencing of the makeshift pen. The ewe, exhausted, would let her baby feed, and then the two of them would sleep.
Sam turned away to check the wiring of the heat lamp and bring some fresh hay. Rose sat down, calming also. Her job was done. But in less than a minute she stood again and turned away, limping slightly from the butting of her shoulder.
“Okay, girl,” Sam said to Rose as he shone the flashlight around to see if the other pregnant ewes were up to anything. Rose did not understand his words but understood the tone of voice, his approval. And she also understood it as the end of this work.
Rose smelled the warm, rich mother’s milk, heard the sound of suckling. The timeless map, a compilation of countless memories and experiences and images, was as it should be, and now updated to include one new creature.
Sam slid the door shut.
Rose followed him to the gate and then trotted toward the house. Sam walked on ahead of her, but on the stoop, she paused for a moment. Something made her look up again at the predawn slate sky.
Rose felt the storm coming, smelled snow and heavy air. She remembered other storms, the snow and wind and killing cold. She felt a flash of deep alarm run through her like a bolt of lightning. The hair on her back and neck came up. Sam called for her, but she waited a moment longer before following him inside.