Monday, July 4, 2011

Scent of peony

Every nice weekend during the summer, we sell lambs. This Fourth of July weekend, morning two men came. “White lambs,” they said.

“The white lambs are small,” I explained. “They cost $105 if they weigh less than 70#. The black lambs are a better deal because they weight more.”

The youngest buyer climbed into the pen and began feeling hips and spines. “What about that one,” he said, pointing to the largest lamb in the pen. I explained that the one with two tags was already sold. He continued checking lambs. “Too skinny,” he said, “you should feed corn.”

“I don’t like to feed corn,” I told them. “I don’t think it’s as good as grass for the lamb.” I could also have said that the price of corn right now would force up the price of my lamb, or that feeding corn might increase the number of nasty bacteria in the lamb’s gut, or that most of my buyers told me that they liked the taste of pasture fed lamb better.

They finally chose the biggest white lamb without two tags. “Aren’t you going to weigh it?”

I shook my head. “The biggest white lamb weighted 65 pounds yesterday and I sold that one. I know this one is smaller.” I went into the house to write up a receipt. When I got back, the lamb was dead. “$105,” I said.

“I already pay you,” the younger man said with a grin, looking up from the body of the lamb.

“You did not!” I said, hands on hips. He shook his head and handed me the money.

The next day, the young man came back with three friends. We put the lambs in the barn. “You can’t buy the lamb with two tags,” I reminded him as I left to find my weighing bag. When I got back, the younger man pointed. “That lamb is bleeding,” he said, “Can I buy it?”

That lamb had had two tags yesterday. It was bleeding today because it had either gotten its tag stuck in the fence and pulled itself free, or someone had torn a tag from its ear. “No,” I said. "That’s the lamb with two tags. I already sold it.” After a bit more discussion in Bosnian, they chose three white lambs. When they were done butchering, they honked their horn to call me back to the barn yard.

“Now, a lamb for me,” the younger man said. “Your husband promise me $85 because I bring you so much business.”

“No, he didn’t!” I said, by now quietly furious. “$105 for any white lamb that is left except the one with the torn ear.”

He shrugged and selected a white lamb. “What about a flower for my wife? Your husband promised,” he said as we carried the lamb out to the barn yard.

“I’m pretty angry at you right now,” I told him.

“Why? What I do?”

“You tore that tag out of my lamb’s ear,” I said.

“No I didn’t. It was like that when we got there.” He looked at the other three men. They shook their heads. “No, he didn’t. “He didn’t” “No.”

"I hope that’s true,” I said, as I left the barnyard, “I didn’t want to believe that of you.”

Dave had asked me about the peony several weeks ago when the younger man had last bought lambs. They had been in full bloom then, their fragrance filling the yard. Now they were done blooming. The flowers dried and brown, still clung to the ends of their stems. I don’t like digging up flowers, but it seemed unfriendly to refuse. And if the lamb really had torn out the tag on its own, I felt guilty of accusing him of the deed. I dug up a small peony with its rhizome and potted it for him, leaving it next to the driver side door of his car. When they left, they left the potted peony beside my peony bed.

‘I hate selling lamb to the Roma, the Gypsies,’ I thought. But my mind ran a self check. I knew some Roma who I trusted to pick out their own lambs, weigh them, and leave the money, even when I wasn’t home. I was characterizing an entire culture based on the actions of one man.

‘Okay, I hate selling lambs to the Bosnians,’ my mind muttered. But I have lots of Bosnian friends, so I can’t generalize like that either.

‘It’s the refugees,’ I thought, ‘I can’t communicate with them.’ And yet, some refugees seem to communicate quite well with their hands and their smiles. The young man who had started my thought train communicated with sly grins and mis-truths, an entirely different thing.

‘No, it’s the immigrants. They do things differently.’ It’s true, the immigrants do have different cultures than Americans, but they are gradually adapting to us as we adapt to them. Without the immigrants, I would be hauling lambs to the stockyards in West Fargo, a process I gladly gave up sixteen years ago when we began selling lambs to the immigrants. Now, our lambs are killed quickly and humanely in my barn yard, no sales barns and hot pens in the merciless sun, no frightened animals and manure bedded feed lots, no assembly line into the abattoir. Just a quick catch, a short carry and a quick death.

It’s not the immigrants, the refugees, the Bosnians or the Roma that I hate, it’s the selling. I’m not a good salesman; I just don’t enjoy it. But if I’m going to have the joy and wonder of baby lambs, it is my responsibility to see to their deaths, and that means selling lambs. And occasionally, replanting a peony

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