You’re on a farm.
Wind whips through rain.
Footsteps on gravel.
A knife unsheathed.
Dad with his knife goes cut cut cut cut and then stab in the neck. My turn. Dad shows me how to do it properly. I don’t cry because I’m a big lad to be using a knife. I hold the knife and dad holds my hand and we cut the skin from the neck down to the private parts. Together we cut the skin up the legs but I cut around the neck all by myself and dad doesn’t even need to help much. I put the knife down careful because a knife’s not a toy. I don’t cry because there’s nothing we can do about it now. We sometimes eat bits for our tea because there’s nothing bad about it but this time we just need the skin. We both pull the skin off the body.
You hear rips, clicks, velcro sounds.
You picture skin torn from flesh.
It’s not a bad thing. He can’t feel anything because he’s dead and that means you go to sleep and don’t wake up. Anyways, I’m a dragon and dragons don’t cry.
Now you’re in the farmhouse.
An alarm clock buzzes, bedcovers rustle.
The man turns off the alarm and kisses the woman.
Bedsprings squeak as the man gets out of bed.
Maggie thinks he’s too young. We got into a shouting match about that last night. But the lad’s asking questions. He needs to know how things are. This is us. Plus, he’s interested in the animals, interested in learning their ways and things.
The bedroom door opens and closes softly.
Footsteps on creaky floorboards.
The man opens the boy’s bedroom door.
At first the lad doesn’t understand what’s happening. I touch the skin on his face. I feel the texture of his hair. His eyes aren’t open but I lift him out of bed. I dress him, put on his waterproofs, his big jumper. He wraps his arms around my neck. I carry him into the kitchen, sit him down at the table. He stares into space. He blinks. Maybe that’s something he’s picked up from me, subconscious like. I never want to get out of my nice warm bed on a morning. But with me, it’s like a ritual.
Cups clink and the man lays them on the table.
The coffee’s hot, nice and strong. I’m awake now. I drink another. I’m happy to be up. It’s a ritual and the lad doesn’t take his eyes off me. He’s always been fascinated by the little stovetop coffee-maker. Got a good mind, not like his dad. Inquisitive like. He drinks his pretend coffee, mostly milk. This lad doesn’t just want to know the hows. He wants to know the whys.
The door opens and closes.
Paws tap-dance on floorboards.
Used to be I’d smoke a few fags with my morning coffee. That was breakfast. The lad tells me about a hippo that sweats sun cream so it doesn’t get sunburn. He watches all them nature programmes. He tells me about an octopus that’s like a real Transformer. It turns into a flatfish or a water snake. Mimics the other animals. Fits in with its surroundings.
A storm now. You hear it. You feel it.
The quad bike motoring up a bumpy road.
The breaks squeak and you picture red brake lights shining.
Dad shines his torch and I shine my torch. In the field the mam sheep stands next to a tiny baby sheep. The proper name for a mammy sheep is a ewe and the proper name for a baby sheep is a lamb. Another lamb sticks out of the ewe’s private parts. I see the lamb’s head and two legs popping out. Dad walks closer and I walk closer. The legs are all the way out now and so are the other legs and the lamb plops out onto the grass like splaaat! Dad says it’s a big one. With her tongue the ewe licks off all the sticky stuff. First she licks off the sticky stuff on the big lamb’s mouth so it can breathe. She’s a very clever ewe. She’s clever but dad says she’s not looking after the other lamb, the tiny one. Dad picks up the tiny lamb and puts it down near the ewe’s nose. The ewe turns away.
You picture the smoke from their mouths.
Dad tells Bella and Tess to scare the ewe. Dad says it might make her protect the tiny lamb. The dogs bark. The mammy sheep stands in front of the big lamb but not the tiny one. Dad tells the dogs to stop. I tell the dogs to stop. I run fast as I can to the bike and get dad’s bag from the trailer. From his bag dad gets some of the coffee mush from breakfast and rubs it on the tiny sheep’s bum. I rub it on the tiny sheep’s bum. Then we rub some of the coffee mush right up the ewe’s nose and she sneezes and it’s so funny. I laugh lots but dad only laughs a little bit. Dad’s beard is itchy and that means he’s trying to get an idea. The big lamb walks funny because it’s just a baby and it’s still learning and it keeps falling down. It falls falls falls but gets up and tries again. It can walk better now. It walks to the ewe because it wants to drink the milk out of her tummy. It’s drinking the milk fast because I can see it’s belly going in and out, in and out. The tiny lamb stands by itself. It’s shaking all over. Dad’s beard is really itchy now.
The quad bike motoring down the bumpy road.
Wind and rain, wild.
You feel it.
The lad sits between my legs, holds onto the handle bars, pretends he’s driving. The newborn lamb sits tucked away in my coat, zipped right up, so just his little head peeps out. The dogs sit in the trailer attached to the back. We motor across the fields and down the track. Wind whooshes my ears. Eyes streaming down my cheeks. I ride with one hand and with my other hand shield the lad’s eyes. He swots my hand out the way.
The quad bike breaking.
An orphan lamb’s only got a couple of hours. I don’t like raising them by hand, away from the flock. I take the lamb to the farmhouse and hand him over to Maggie. I tell her if we’re not back in two hours give the lamb the bottle. Maggie takes the lamb in her arms. She fusses about the boy. She wants to know if he needs to put another jumper on. She tells me in a stern whisper that he’s not ready. I tell him he can go back inside if he wants.
Wind and rain.
Sheep bleating, bleating.
You focus on the bleat of one ewe in particular.
I tell dad I don’t think we should have taken the lamb away from the ewe. Dad says we had to do it. I think maybe it was because the ewe didn’t want the lamb. Dad says it doesn’t mean that. It just means that sometimes the ewe can’t look after all her lambs because she hasn’t got enough milk in her tummy. Dad says that doesn’t mean she’s a bad ewe. It’s not her fault she doesn’t have enough milk in her tummy. I feel a bit upset but I don’t let dad see because I’m a big lad to be out working with dad and the dogs. We’re in a different field now. Dad shines his torch to shows me another ewe. With her tongue this ewe cleans her lamb but the lamb won’t wake up. Dad cuddles me and says it’s okay to get upset. Dad says I can go back home if I want. Now dad’s being really daft and I’m still crying but I’m laughing as well because with his hand dad picks up the ewe’s poo and he chases me pretending he’s going to splat it on my head. He puts the poo and other sticky stuff in a bucket and I help even though it stinks worse than when dad’s been to the toilet after his Sunday dinner.
Something thrown, landing.
I shout at dad for chucking the lamb on the trailer. He tells me the lamb can’t get hurt now. So what? That’s not nice. That’s really not nice. Dad says sorry and that he should’ve been more gentle.
Quad bike motors, bumpy road.
Slower this time.
The wind blows harder and rain comes down heavier.
That one ewe bleats and it gets you.
On the quad I ride slowly down the track in the dark before dawn, looking back over my shoulder. The ewe walks behind the trailer. I shout the dogs to follow behind the ewe. The boy shouts the same. I don’t let the dogs get too close to the ewe. I don’t want them to make her more upset. She wants to come. She wants to follow the lamb. She doesn’t know the little bugger’s dead. I lead the ewe to a drystone pen.
You’re on a farm.
Wind whips through rain.
Footsteps on gravel.
A knife unsheathed.
I kneel down, hold the lad by the shoulder. I tell him that what we’re going to do might seem like we’re hurting the lamb, like we’re doing a bad thing, but we’re not. I tell him we’re doing a good thing and if he’s brave, he can help, he can use dad’s knife. I ask the boy again if he wants to stop. He says no. He says he’s a dragon and dragons don’t cry. I pin the dead lamb down flat on its back, legs in the air. I get to work skinning it. Around all four legs I knife circles skin-deep, cut cut cut cut. I pinch the skin under the lamb’s throat and stab into it. I pass the knife to the boy. He takes it. His hand is steady.
The lamb bleats.
The boy breathes two breaths to the man’s one.
My mam brings the little tiny lamb back out of the house. Dad says we’ve still got enough time because it hasn’t been two hours yet. The lamb is shaking, shaking. I talk to it. I say it’s okay, don’t be scared, pretend like you’re a dragon. Dad holds the skin we cut off the dead lamb.
The lamb bleats.
You need to be strong.
Dad tells the tiny lamb everything is going to be all right. He calls it bonny lad. Dad says the skin’s like a big jumper. He puts the big jumper on the tiny lamb. He says to the tiny lamb that we’re nearly done, bonny lad. I say we’re nearly done, bonny lad. Dad ties a string around the tiny lamb’s belly so the big jumper doesn’t fall off. Dad says perfect, why aye. I say why aye! Then dad gets the bucket with the poo and other sticky stuff and he pretends he’s going to slop it all on my head. He’s just pretending again. He’s just so daft. With his hand dad scoops up the poo and sticky stuff and puts it on the lamb’s head. I do the same.
The ewe bleats.
The lamb bleats.
You need to believe.
In the barn, in the pen, the ewe whose lamb died and the lamb whose mother rejected him. The orphan’s wearing the dead lamb’s skin. The ewe sniffs the lamb, really sniffs her head. The lad says he’s hot now. I help him take off his big jumper. Maggie walks from the farmhouse to the barn. On a tray she carries the stovetop coffeemaker and cups. She pours us each a cup, a pretend coffee for the boy, mostly milk. The dogs sit at our feet. The ewe sniffs the lamb and looks at me and sniffs the lamb. The lamb tries to reach her teat. This little orphan smells like her lamb, but still she walks away, leaves the lamb to tremble and bleat by itself in the corner of the pen. I open the gate and go into the pen and pick up the lamb and put her under the ewe’s nose. The ewe turns her head to sniff the lamb again. She sniffs and sniffs. The lamb takes a few wobbly steps towards the ewe’s teat. The ewe’s still 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. The ewe steps away. I take the boy into the pen. I’m on my knees, my arm around his waist. The ewe turns her head to sniff the lamb some more. The lamb tries again for the teat. The ewe sniffs and she sniffs and you fucker does she sniff. The lamb teeters and falls and totters and falls and finally, finally, it finds the ewe’s teat with its mouth.
The silence carries their echo.
You feel the inside-warmth of the barn.
At first the mammy sheep doesn’t want the little tiny lamb with the big jumper on to drink the milk out of her tummy. But then it works because the lamb’s belly goes in and out, in and out. Dad picks me up and lifts me upside down and we run around like when you score a goal like yerrrsss!
You hear the birds sing.
You feel the sun shining.
You picture the breeze strumming the trees.
Dad puts me down. Mam’s crying and I think it’s happy crying. But then dad looks at mam and his beard is very very very itchy. He picks me up and cuddles me and cuddles mam at the same time. Dad touches the skin on my face and feels my hair. Dad says he and mam need to tell me something that might be hard to understand.
You need to leave now.
Now you’re free to go.
Go on and leave.
WALTER BURRELL lives and works in North East England.