Thursday, March 13, 2014

Eleven P.M.

Eleven P.M. After a fifteen minutes of persuading, of rushing back and forth to head the flock off as they went up the hill behind the barn, or down the hill in front of the barn, anywhere but into the barn, they finally tired of the game and filed slowly into the barn. I closed the big door on all of them. All, that is, except #22 orange who was in labor at the bottom of the hill.

She lay quietly as I knelt beside her and slipped a forefinger into her vagina to feel two hooves. Then she surged to her feet and circled the spot, wandered off, came back, wandered off. I stood there, hands in pockets to keep them warm, waiting for her anxiety to ease or for the contractions to become strong enough that she lay down and labored.

I stilled myself, relaxed, practiced not thinking of bed. The moon moved across the sky. Finally, she settled down. She lay facing away from me, but she kept looking over her shoulder, watching me. Slowly, gradually, I moved closer. 10’, 9’, 6’, 4’, 2’. I was standing right beside her. Slowly, I took my hands out of my pockets, one at a time. They hung at my sides – no threatening motions. I bent one knee and knelt. As I bent the second knee, she surged to her feet again. My hands even touched her back, but there was nothing to hold on to.

At least this time, I was able move her away from the site where her water broke. I cracked the people door of the barn open and a thin path of golden light streamed across the snow. If I could just move her close enough that she could see, hear and smell the rest of the flock…

I harried her. Up the hill. Down the hill. Up the hill, down the hill. I held my breath, not moving as she investigated the golden path. She stepped through the door. I breathed again. Now she was inside the barn, away from predators. I could wait endlessly, curled up on a dry patch of straw for her to go into hard labor, a labor so intense that she would ignore my interference.

I waited another hour. She paced, lay down, immediately got up, paced. I wrote this essay. When she lay down for more than an instant, I threw my body on hers and slid a finger into her vagina. The hooves weren’t any closer to the outside world. She threw me off and struggled to her feet. We began our dance again, but now I was worried. 22 orange had been in labor before I found her two hours ago. She should have progressed. There must be something wrong.

I needed Dave. I couldn’t hold her down and pull a lamb. It’s nice that he has retired, we always have backup in the house. The two of us didn’t wait for her to settle. We cornered her and Dave dived for her hind legs. Sheep can’t usually drag themselves away from him.

I slicked my hand with lubricant and slid my fingers into her vagina. The opening was unusually small for a ewe in labor. I forced the rest of my hand in through the constriction and realized why. I could feel three hooves up front and a head way back in the uterus. There was no way this baby (or, more likely tangled twins) could ease out through the vaginal opening.

A normal presentation for birth is a lamb’s head centered over the same lamb’s two front feet. We’ve never had a third foot from the same lamb. Minutes passed. Dave lay on 22 orange. I followed the contours of a lamb’s body, blindly. Teeth. Arch of the head. I forced my hand deeper. Shoulder. Is that shoulder connected to the head? I think so. I pulled on the leg connected to the shoulder. It straightened and appeared at the vaginal opening. A white lamb. Now what about the second leg? Is that connected to the same head? My jacket sleeve wouldn’t go any further up my arm. I pulled my hand out of the slimy warmth of 22 orange’s uterus and slid out of my jacket. Then I reinserted my hand, arm. The second leg was bent at the first joint. I slipped my finger behind the angle of the joint, but couldn’t straighten it out or pull the leg far enough forward. I pushed that leg back and focused on the head and leg that I was pretty sure were connected.

By now, the opening to 22 orange’s uterus had stretched large enough to deliver a large lamb. I pulled on the leg with one hand and cupped the fingers of my other hand over the arch of the head. I kept steady outward pressure on the head and pulled as hard as I could on the leg. The head and leg had felt connected, but it just seemed like I was pulling too hard. I must have the wrong leg.

I followed the line of the leg up to the shoulder again and across to the lamb’s head. All one lamb. I pulled harder on the leg, directing it out and down. Finally, head and leg of a large lamb eased through the cervix and out into the world. The rest of the lamb followed. A very long, large lamb.
We ripped the amniotic sack off her face and began the process of encouraging her to breathe. Dave rubbed her body with a towel. One breath, then nothing. Her mom licked her over and over, concentrating on her head and neck. One breath, then nothing. Dave lifted her in the air by her hind feet and jiggled her up and down like shaking a bottle of ketchup. Finally the lamb drew a deep shuddery breath and began to breathe normally. I was practically shaking.

I returned to 22 orange’s uterus and pulled a black, large, long lamb. When she was breathing, we moved mother and babies into a jug, turned on a heat lamp, fed her hay and fresh water. We checked for new lambs, closed the barn door behind us, crossed the barnyard, greeted Newton at the door, and climbed into bed at 1 A.M.


  1. Love your writing! As I have just moved to NC from NYC to pursue my farm dream, reading about your experiences as a shepherdess and farmer is really helpful to me by giving me realistic expectations of what being a sheep caretaker is all about. Wishing you all the best with your lambs this year!

  2. I found myself holding my breath as I read this Joan. You write so well. The little magical triumphs that happen in your barn are beautiful....gae