For as long as time had a name, wind scraped a high plain down to its translucent skin. For nearly as long, a cottage on the haunch of the land sheltered a man who kept sheep. Wendell was known to many as a cook, to some as a shepherd, and to a few as a gardener. He’d reached a tranquil age and claimed no title himself. Feltmakers told him of pastures closer to town. Farmers presented their daughters as if he might check their teeth. Wool merchants guaranteed a salary for managing their suppliers. But in these areas, too, Wendell was content. He watched the lambs drift like opals through the clover until his visitors went their ways.
The land, despite its exclamatory nature, provided stones to stack into directional cairns, cane to picket the garden, and peat to smudge the hearth. Wendell seeded the pastures with forbs and legumes, and uprooted bracken and ivy. He bargained early for alfalfa and hay. He packed the silage pits and, when the sun lounged along its winter path, he hacked ice from the stream. He predicted which dams would breed and whether a yearling would develop a gentle nature and checked the teeth of the aging ewes. He was not their father, yet they were his family.
After rams romanced the flock, when the snowbanks melted into the stream, Wendell caught the steaming, rubbery lambs. He clipped their naval cords before rubbing their coats with felt. As he recorded the weight and length of each newborn, he tallied their future. A great many rode away in the wagons of neighbors. Those whose wool would come in coarse were delivered to widows and widowers. A select few, ones quick to find their legs and eager to nurse, remained on the wandering land with their rumps to the wind.
The months unspooled. Wendell weaned the newcomers from their mothers, inspected their tails for maggots, and trimmed their hooves. He massaged away bloat without breaking their wool. With firm hands and a murmuring voice, he sheared them without nicks. After they cut their first incisors, he led them behind a low wall in front of the cottage. They followed his lead, his obedient children, and tossed their heads only when they no longer spied the flock. Wielding a blade as sharp as love, Wendell opened their narrow throats.
A splash of chores commenced. The carcasses, still twitching as if snared by a dream, emptied their veins into a bucket. Always, Wendell marveled at the weight of blood. He stripped off the hides to make pockets as tender as the face of a rose. He whittled away livers and kidneys and hearts scented like earth and iron and ore. Intestines would be knotted into condoms. Quickly, with cracks that lit the air, he chopped away shanks. He flensed the cheeks and racked the ribs into crowns. Royalty, those lambs, which their father spun from straw.
Swarms of wasps, thieves with a thousand mouths, demanded their due. The village, too, hungered. Wendell subdued collagen with earthenware and embers. He cured loins with tarragon and thyme. He sweetened stews with parsnips and swaddled mince in squash blossoms. He stuffed the breast with curds and garlic so it would not mourn its absent heart. Then he stacked the oxcart with pots and urns, backstraps and roasts.
The same cindered path led to weddings, births, catechisms, and funerals. The axle cried through its grease and announced his approach. Hands that flapped as heavily as hawks arranged his gifts on groaning tables. Deep into the festivities, the seamstress spilled her plate of mutton. The cobbler’s boy gnawed the sausage with foxlike teeth. The bride’s sobbing happiness oversalted the loin, and dust from the grave mineralized the shanks. Hogget fell to the floor to be sniffed at by dogs.
Returning home with empty kettles stacked in his cart and a mist of cider souring his throat, Wendell shivered. The axle, relieved of its burden, croaked like a mob of crows. The wandering plain welcomed him with the shimmer of ice. As he clucked the flock into its shed, the wethers, having long forgiven their castration, bumped his legs. The meaty scent of estrus held no interest for them. On the day of their death, he realized, they would have nothing to forget. He watched the ewes dance past and recalled, when lambs were weaned, how the dams panicked only briefly before mowing their mouths full. The sheep he led behind the wall weren’t missed at all.
He staggered into the cottage and through the glassine shadows. He stirred up the embers then lay awake until the peat collapsed beneath the bruising chill. Wind puffed down the chimney. The floor grew wooly with ash. He rolled toward the wall as the ewes and the lambs belched their drowsy screams.
For a time, the flock carried on eating and bleating. Clover and chicory and brassicas disappeared from the pasture, followed by millet and amaranth and buttercup. The sheep grazed the sedges to nubs before stripping moss and lichen from boulders. When they stretched their necks through the garden fence, jostling to mince the tender greens, the posts cracked like spines. The herd plundered the silage pits, they leaped onto the shed and plucked every weed from the sod. When the roof buckled, they plunged into the hayloft. They ate as if famine had sheared them bloody.
They grew fat; they grew fatter, and cunning and mean. They gathered behind the low wall in front of the cottage. Around and around the killing field they jumbled and groaned; with a single heave, they splintered the door. Parsnips gone limp bittered their tongues. Beets grown soggy stained their lips. The mob kicked over pots and licked out the lard, they gulped down wicker seats and gobbled up sweetgrass mats. Then the bacon along with the rind. Cheese from their milk nourished the yearlings. A dish of butter, a bowl of salt, an urn of sugar stippled their throats. They lapped up the cider, they sneezed out bubbles of beer. The cleverest eyed the smoked shanks dangling from the rafters, rose up on their hind legs, and devoured their dead.
They chewed Wendell’s belt and his strop and his shoes until the leather was slippery enough to swallow. They yanked off his blanket and choked down the felt. A dam swallowed his socks. They ate mattress and ticking, pillow and sheet. Wethers crunched through the ledgers and burped up parchment dust. They scythed the fingers from bouquets of gloves. They guzzled the condoms and fouled the fleeces. Where the wattle sprouted straw, holes appeared. They bleated and cried. They jostled and thrust. They mounted the table and crammed into the fireplace and perched on the mantel and click-clacked along the rafters.
Let them, Wendell thought as he huddled against the wall. Let them, and let me be.
The breeders stayed too busy to wonder why Wendell needed no rams. Maidens baked harvest cakes only for their beaus, and widows never ventured far enough to notice that the chimney on the wandering plain puffed no smoke. The dust that settled on Wendell’s skin caught his sweat. Moss grew into a lush suit, was nibbled away, and grew again. Clumps filled his palms. Mounds draped his thighs and cradled his belly. The carpet closed over his eyes.
On a night sung to splinters by the flock, the wind cooled the last of the fever. Wendell opened his eyes. A miniscule act, barely more than a twitch, yet lambs took their time waking to their lives. A firefly cast a translucent light here and then there, distant and near. Like a heartbeat, perhaps, or folds of honey collapsing into a jar. The glow, as soft as a veiled lantern, lingered in Wendell’s mind. He breathed deeply and split a seam in the moss suit. He turned away from the wall.
Only shards and specks remained: a sprig of rosemary adrift on the floor. The spines of ledgers well chewed. A dented pot, the iron handle from the blood bucket. The blade that had split so many throats, trampled and bent. Far beyond the killing field, the sheep rollicked and pranced. Their wool would win every prize.
Wendell stood, wobbled a bit, trusted his rubbery legs. He would nurse on the gifts the flock might give. Then, on a day as fine as any other, he would walk down to the village. Without the oxcart to announce his approach, he would greet each person over their gates. He would share bread and cheese in the windbreaks, he would toast ordinary days with ordinary beer. He was not their father, and yet they were his family.