By GARY EVANS.
SPRING? DOESN’T FEEL like spring. These fields are colder now than they were in winter.
Hands all swollen, fingers fat and red.
Unless I just wasn’t feeling the cold this much in winter.
Don’t think about the cold. Work quickly, carefully mind. Don’t hack at it. Let the knife do the work and don’t think about the cold.
I pin the lamb down flat on its back, legs in the air. Around all four legs I knife circles skindeep.
I pinch the skin under the lamb’s throat and stab into it, making sure I don’t hit any veins and squirt blood everywhere like I did last time. I glide the knife through the skin covering the lamb’s little belly all the way from throat to arse.
Down there at the arse end the knife slips, hacks a chunk of skin out my finger. The blood runs warm. I suck the blood and shove my hand under my armpit. The blood tastes of metal, of rust. The gash clots a bit. Just the bark. That’s what they say. Just took the bark off.
Back to the opening running throat to arse. From here I slide the knife up through the flesh on the inside of each leg all the way up to the skindeep circles I made first.
Finally I cut a ring in the skin all the way around the lamb’s neck. I put my knife down.
With both hands I pull the skin around the lamb’s neck away from its body.
Quickly, carefully mind.
I stand on its front legs, dig in with my boots for better grip.
I’m peeling the skin off more easily now, tears, clicks, velcro sounds as the skin comes unstuck from the flesh in one neat piece.
The poor little bugger looks tiny without its jumper on.
I DON’T WANT to get out of this warm bed, up into the cold and the dark, away from my Marla. But I do.
It’s a ritual.
Light the stove and spark up a cigarette from the flame.
One of those little moka pots, a present from my Marla. Boil the kettle. Fill the base of the moka pot with water just off the boil. Has to be just off the boil.
There’s a small basket that fits plumb in the base.
Fill the basket with ground coffee. Screw the top of the moka pot, the part with the spout that looks like a kettle, screw that onto the base.
Put the moka pot over the flame, medium heat, not too high.
The pressure pushes the water up through the basket, up through the ground coffee, up into the top of the moka pot.
Moka pot gurgles.
Fetch Bunk and McNulty from the barn.
The boys are awake, tails wagging. They want to work as well.
Sit at the kitchen table with my big mug of black coffee and smoke my second cigarette, dogs at my feet.
I’m awake now, happy to be up.
The coffee’s hot and strong and helps me see what needs doing that day.
That’s the ritual.
THE EWE STANDS to clean the newborn lamb with her tongue.
I move closer, shining my flashlight.
From her rear the ewe is busy giving birth to a second lamb.
Here’s the head coming out, positioned between its two front feet.
I crouch down for a better look.
The front legs are out now. I can see the back legs. All wrapped in membrane, the lamb squelches onto the grass.
The ewe turns to clean off the membrane, the mucus. She knows to start with the membrane covering the lamb’s mouth.
A wise auld ewe, she does this well.
The second newborn lamb bleats.
I move a bit closer.
The ewe keeps on cleaning the second newborn lamb, but she ignores the first.
I watch awhile then move towards the first lamb, pick it up and put it down in front of the ewe.
I whistle Bunk over to intimidate the ewe, get her maternal instincts going.
She shields the second lamb but not the first.
I call Bunk off and go to my trailer, fetch my bag.
From my bag I take used coffee grounds and rub some around the first lamb’s backside.
I rub used coffee grounds up the ewe’s nose, one nostril, the other.
I pick up the first lamb and put it down right under the ewe’s nose.
Aye, she’s a wise auld ewe and doesn’t fall for this either.
I need to make a decision.
I watch a bit longer. The second lamb finds its feet, falls flat on its side, wriggles around.
I need to make a decision here.
I shine the flashlight on Bunk and McNulty. The boys sit side by side, watching, panting, fog from their breath.
The second lamb finds its feet again. It teeters and it totters and, go on youngun, the little bugger takes a few shaky steps. It falls again, head first.
I pick up the first lamb. The ewe pays no attention.
The second lamb stands and walks. It’s getting the hang of it now. It sucks on its mother’s teat, tail wagging, little belly going in and out as it sucks.
The ewe looks at me and bleats.
ON THE QUAD bike with the boys sitting in the trailer attached to the back. We’re motoring across the fields and down the track in the dark before dawn. The newborn lamb sits tucked away in my coat, zipped right up, so just her little head peeps out. The wind whooshes in my ears, eyes streaming with the cold.
An orphan’s only got a couple of hours.
We need to give the little bugger the bottle if she’s going to survive.
I take the lamb down to the farmhouse and hand her over to Marla.
The ewe cleans the newborn with her tongue but the lamb doesn’t move.
I know straight away.
I fetch a bucket from the trailer and scoop up some of the ewe’s shit and afterbirth, slop it into the bucket.
I pick up the lamb and carry it over to the quad and dump it in the trailer.
On the quad I ride slowly down the track.
The ewe follows behind the trailer.
I order Bunk and McNulty to follow behind her, just to keep her coming. I don’t let the boys get too close though. I don’t want to make the ewe more upset. She wants to come. She doesn’t know her lamb’s dead. She opens her mouth wide and bleats all the way.
I lead the ewe to a drystone pen.
The boys do the work getting her into the pen and I close the gate.
I pin the dead lamb down flat on its back, legs in the air, and get to work skinning it.
OUTSIDE THE FARMHOUSE I lay out the skin from the dead lamb on the ground.
I fetch the orphan lamb. It’s trembling. It bleats. I talk to the poor little bugger like she’s a bairn.
‘I know, darlin. I know, I know.’
I’m putting the skin from the dead lamb onto this orphaned one. Like a jumper or a baby grow. One leg, the next leg.
‘I know. You’re alright though, aren’t you, eh? You’re going to be alright.’
The skin’s a perfect fit.
I tie a bit of string around the lamb’s body, just to keep her new skin in place. The orphan shakes and bleats while I do this.
‘Nearly there, darlin. We’re nearly there. Just a bit more and we’re going to be alright.’
I stick my hand in the bucket of shit and afterbirth, mix it around, mush it together between my fingers. I scoop out a big pile and smear it on the lamb’s head.
‘Right, pet. Giz a look at ya. Why aye! Your new ma’s not going to know the difference. Is she?’
The lamb bleats.
THE EWE WHO lost her lamb and the lamb whose mother rejected her are together in a pen in the barn.
The orphan’s wearing the dead lamb’s skin.
The ewe sniffs the lamb, really sniffs her head.
Warm now form all the work and with the sun coming up outside.
The boys are sitting at my feet.
Marla comes out to watch. She brings the moka pot full of fresh coffee, pours us a cup each. She rubs my back.
I really want this to work.
The ewe sniffs the lamb and looks at me and sniffs the lamb.
This little orphan smells like her lamb, exactly like her lamb, but still the ewe walks away, leaves the lamb to tremble and bleat in the corner of the pen.
I open the gate and go into the pen, pick up the lamb and put her under the ewe’s nose.
The ewe sniffs the lamb. She sniffs and sniffs.
The lamb takes a few wobbly steps towards the ewe’s teat.
The ewe’s not sure. She could butt the lamb or kick the lamb and that’d be that. One kick and she’d shatter every bone in the poor little bugger’s body.
Please let this work. Go on, lass.
The ewe takes a step forwards and away.
The lamb can’t reach the teat now.
The ewe turns her head to sniff the lamb again. She sniffs and she sniffs and fuck me does she sniff.
Do I want this one to work. Go on, my auld lassie.
The ewe toddles forwards a couple more steps, finds the ewe’s teat with her mouth.
The ewe doesn’t move this time.
I watch the lamb’s little belly go in and out.
The ewe looks me right in the eyes and opens her mouth and bleats.
Gary Evans is a writer from Sunderland. His work has appeared in Dazed, Rolling Stone, The Guardian and The Independent and he writes a bimonthly feature about his travels around the world for Open Skies. In 2016, he began a creative writing MA at Newcastle University.