Rose is standing patiently in her stall and whinnies when I enter the stable, greeting me, eager to go for a ride. I reach into her stall and stroke her velvety muzzle, wondering for the hundredth time: Did I ride horses before I lost my memory? Even Ms. A has noticed I seem to have a way with them, so it’s not to say I’ve gone without experience. And, though I’ve never told anyone this, I feel a sense of familiarity whenever I’m around horses, as if they make up most of my memories, and when I see them, my brain starts working overtime to try and recover where I’ve seen them before. It never works, no matter how long I stay with the horses.
“No ride right now; I’ve got too much work,” I say, pulling a carrot out of my pocket. Clipping the lead rope onto her halter, I lead Rose out of the stall and into the cross ties, handing her the carrot as I begin to brush her, being extra careful to clean her face well. I do a decent job, and when I’m done, her unique Arabian tail is full and shiny, her long, scarlet mane hangs down and glitters in the light like blood flowing down from her neck, and the star in the middle of her forehead shines like a real star. I step back and admire my work. Not bad.
Ms. Ashton comes into the stable, dragging a bale of hay behind her, whistling loudly. I lead Rose back to her stall, and she protests, hesitating before entering.
“We’ll ride later. I promise. Right now, I’ve got work to do.” I give her one last pat before following Ms. A down the aisle, dropping hay into the stalls. While the horses are eating, I carry the water buckets one by one to the pump, where I fill them to the brim with fresh, clean water before returning them to the stalls. Since there are only six stalls and the work is split between me and Ms. A, it’s a job easily completed.
Once the horses are all fed and watered, I help Ms. A bring the horses out to the paddock, where they will roam free for the rest of the day, or until Ms. A or I decides to ride one of them. Sometimes, she’ll let me ride bareback, and there’s no feeling quite like galloping around the paddock, feeling the tall grass tickle my bare feet and letting the wind blow my hair in crazy, random directions.
The paddock stretches precisely a half mile, almost reaching the woods and stream where I sometimes go to be alone. It would be much larger if it weren’t for those woods, which house all kinds of danger to the animals: bears and coyotes and wolves and wild cats. I’ve only seen a coyote here once, and never one of these larger, more dangerous predators, but Ms. Ashton proudly displays a large assortment of the pelts of wolves and bobcats she’s shot stalking the sheep, horses and cows on the wall of her shed. It’s a rather impressive collection, I must admit, and I hate it. My love of animals deprives me of enjoying the sight of their pelts on a wall.
The next job is to milk the cows. There are few cows on the farm, only about eight, so this is not too time-consuming. I’m fueled by the knowledge that when I’m done with milking, Ms. A will let me squirt some of the milk into my mouth. This is rather childish, I suppose, but on a warm, sticky day like today, there’s nothing quite like a mouthful of sweet, thick milk.
Ms. A helps me finish the last two cows, and in the sunlight, I can see streaks of gray here and there in her auburn hair. Funny, I never really thought of her as old. I guess that’s because she hides her age well – she doesn’t look a day over forty. Her hair is thick, short, and full of color, though it must be getting very gray, because I’ve noticed it becoming darker colored. This is how I know she’s coloring it.
She’s a somewhat short lady, only a few inches taller than me. (I’m 5.4, or so the doctors said.) Her hands are rough and calloused, probably from her years and years of farm work, but there’s not a wrinkle on her face, and if I didn’t know for a fact that she was 51, I’d say she’s thirty.
The next job is the hardest: herding the sheep. It’s already almost noon, and I estimate this to take a good hour or easily two. This leaves very little free time for me to ride, considering we still have to go to the Saturday market, three miles north on the old dirt road. Supper is usually served at five, after which I bathe and read for the remainder of the night, until lights out at nine.
We stand outside the sheep field, a large fenced in area that’s nearly as large as the paddock. Inside are fifty or so sheep, and their numbers will soon be growing.
Ms. A scratches her head. “I don’t rightly know how to go about this,” she confesses, leaning on the fence and wiping the sweat from her forehead. “All these years I’ve had a dog. How to do this…?”
“Well…couldn’t we just let them give birth out here? I mean…what’s wrong with that?”
She smiles, obviously grateful for the idea. “Well, lambs, especially newborns, are easy pickin’s for all them predators I warned you about. We need to get ’em in the barn, where it’s safe. Once they’re a few days old and can really run, then they can stay out in the pen. Now, how to start…?”
I never thought about it in this way. The sheep usually come in at night just by instinct, so there’s no work but closing the doors once they’re in the barn. The barn is almost always open, but the sheep rarely go into it during the day unless it’s very hot or raining. How we’re going to get all twenty-seven pregnant sheep into the barn is a mystery. (Yes, we counted and marked the expecting sheep mothers.) Not to mention they’re all mixed up with the other sheep and rams. Indeed, this is not a job for people. It’s for dogs. Despite knowing this, Ms. A and I set about picking each pregnant sheep out one by one and working together to herd them into the barn, closing the door behind each one. I can hear Harley barking wildly, chained to the side of the shed, and I sympathize. I, too, wish he were here, doing this work.
It takes a good hour and a half to get all the sheep into the barn, and by the time we collapse against the door of the barn after having closed it for the last time, we can already hear little “baas” coming from inside. This being my first time working with sheep (I think), a sense of excitement comes over me that I can hardly control, and I beg Ms. A to let me see the new babies. She smiles and allows me to go into the barn and observe the sheep giving birth from a distance.
“Why do they all give birth on the same day?” I ask.
“They don’t,” Ms. A says, pointing to a few sheep in the corner, still fat but not looking like they’re going into labor. “Usually, they’ll all give birth within three days. Alright, you’ve got an hour to do as you please, but I’d like for you to be cleaned up and ready to go to the market in time.”
I nearly bolt out of the barn. Freedom at last! I head to the paddock, eager to ride before we leave. I can’t say I’m not excited to go to the market, though, because that means I’ll get to see my best friend, Rachel.
Despite the work, today isn’t turning out to be so bad.