|Life and Death in Spring
Earlier I had mixed milk replacer with boiling water from the kettle on the woodstove. It smells like stale vanilla. In the corner of the laundry room was a thick cardboard box filled with old flannels. A small lamb lay in its makeshift embrace. He gazed straight ahead with fixed attention, but his eyes were nearly sightless now. Their deep black in the soft black face had grown dull. The little body, covered with the tight, close curls of the first weeks of life, twitched in protest as involuntary spasms stiffened and curled the spine, series separated by irregular pauses.
The symptoms were not entirely unusual. And sick lambs were a natural consequence of the events of spring, of imperfections in the rituals of birthing. Some years the number was very low. But there were always lambs that died, especially if you counted the stillbirths—that awful rottenness of death instead of life.
Kneeling by the box, I struggled to get the lamb to swallow the milk, stroking his throat lightly with a practiced finger. He had a little before, but not enough. His muscles had mutinied and would not contract on their own. If only the natural reflexes would help a little. The little tongue flickered and then responded. His mouth closed and he swallowed. His tongue moved again and perhaps the level of the milk in the bottle dropped. A little more and then he stopped swallowing as his neck pulled back under the reign of another spasm.
This was, it seemed, an old fight on old ground, between the nameless, helpless animal and relentless death. Yet, somehow, tonight the outcome was in doubt. Perhaps when the odds were against living, the small percentage of a chance to live would be the statistic that triumphed. Perhaps swallowing that teaspoon full of liquid was a turning point. Perhaps the spasms were easing. Perhaps he would live; perhaps death would halt, turn, and slowly flow away to take up his watch, at least for a little while, somewhere on the periphery of life.
The rest of the house was silent. Empty of motion and light. Outside a thaw had brought the first ugly signs of spring to our hilltop, isolating it from the rest of the far away world, a mist-shrouded shallow pool of soggy brown muck. My lanky younger brother, taller than the rest of his entire class, was starting tonight in the basketball game at the high school. The rest of the family had gone to watch, gone to the thrill of human bodies and shouting voices and echoed laughter in a gym. Thoughts of the lamb would be replaced by the awareness of hands closing around leather, the hesitation on the rim and the pull of the net as the ball went through, and red figures on the scoreboard.
The timer signaled that I should try again, and I returned to the laundry room. I knelt in the single small pool of light, near the small, unimportant lamb. This time he barely swallowed once, and even that might have been imagined. Most of the milk dribbled onto my jeans, soaking outward in a pattern of dark circles. His eyes moved a little at my touch and his breath pushed his narrow chest.
Another spasm pulled his neck back, lingering in its jealous hold. Farm animals died, I’d seen them. I’d buried them, when they needed to be buried. How many pious lectures on realism had I delivered to mildly horrified and sentimental outsiders, confidently asserting my indifference? You didn’t cry. You couldn’t. You didn’t even blink.
Another fifteen minutes. Finally the garish beep-beep-beep of the timer. When I pushed the door open again the lamb looked even littler than before, an anxious grey against the faded green plaid flannel. I was holding the bottle to his mouth before I realized he wasn’t breathing anymore. I felt for his heart and found that the body was already growing cold and that I had been holding my breath and that the room was too small to hold both me and the dead lamb. With clumsy limbs like a child again, I ran to the kitchen and then to living room, flicking each light on as I went.
At long last, headlights swung off the road and up the driveway. The engine turned off, the car doors slammed. Voices drew closer, up the path and onto the porch. My father came in, his jacket large over his tall, full frame. I buried my face in its front, smelling the cloth and the cold, wet night.
And I wept like a little child in the bright, fearful house.
As always, the dark first thaw eventually gave way completely to sunshine on the pastures and trees covered by nature’s first green-gold leaves. Other lambs lived and grew, unsteady legs became strong and fast. But I remembered my horrified rebellion against the assurance that death is part of life – not to be dismissed. And while I no longer watch the seasons change on the hills of my childhood, that knowledge remains through the darker nights and brighter days of later springs.
~ Emily Alianello
Announcing – FPR Conference at Mount St. Mary’s
For those of you who may have missed the announcement on our blog, FPR, in conjunction with Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD, will be hosting a conference titled “Human Scale and the Human Good: Creating Healthy Communities in a Global Age.” The conference will be held on Sept. 24, 2011 at Mount St. Mary’s. This is a great opportunity for FPR writers and readers to dispense with the screen and continue the conversation face-to-face. We will keep you posted on details as they become available.
Front Porch on Wisconsin’s Union Fight: February hasn’t exactly been a month of business as usual – particularly up near the great lakes. Our Contributors weigh in on the situation in Wisconsin.
James Matthew Wilson – Your Justice is My Pay Check: Far from my native Midwest, which sometimes seems to be working out the details of its final collapse after decades of decline, and far from the equally depressing backroom corruption and social-democratic clientalism of Pennsylvania, I have appreciated…
Dan Knauss – Wisconsin’s Unions Can Use a Good Kick in the Ass:
Russell Fox – A (Compromised) Localist Looks at Wisconsin: The demonstrations in support of union power in Wisconsin ought to speak powerfully to all localists, despite the complicated baggage they bring with them.
Joy Pullmann – The Signs You Don’t See: Public union members from as far as New York and Iowa have bussed to Madison, Wisconsin, to join protests against new Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposed changes to compensation and collective. . .
Front Porch Conversations Online:
Pete Peterson – Title-town: The Green Bay Packers – like America itself – are a study in ironies: the smallest city owning a franchise in the largest professional sport, a non-profit corporation in one of America’s most commercial businesses. It is fitting, then, that they should win the championship in Dallas – home to the Dallas Cowboys – that most market-driven of sports franchises.
Jason Peters – Carbonara-Based Life: Bacon! Is there anything it can’t do? And, O, thou egg! How noble in design, how infinite in flavor!
Katherine Dalton – Locavoracity: What is the point of eating local? Are we actually feeding something besides our own ego and gluttony?
Mary Berry Smith – Agriculture vs. Agribusiness: A visit to a CAFO makes it clear that to have sustainable agriculture, you have to make sustainable the lives and livelihoods of the people who do the work.
Jerry Salyer – Is Western Civilization Un-American? Thoughts on the “Andrew Jackson versus Mr. Peanut” debate.
Susan McWIlliams – Why We’re Gaga for Gaga: For all the unpredictability of her outfits, there is one thing that has been quite predictable about her work: Gaga’s constant equation of love with violence and humiliation.
Mark Mitchell – Gentlement Don’t Wrestle with Ladies: Edmund Burke lamented that the age of chivalry has passed. He was, of course, commenting on the attempted eradication of all social distinctions by the revolutionaries in France.
Front Porch Conversations face-to-face
To connect for face-to-face conversations with readers near you visit our Porches page at the FPR website
If you would like to bring an FPR author to speak at your event, please visit our Speakers’ Guild page at the FPR Website
Our Future and Our Need
As discussed above, we are planning conference later this year at Mount Saint Mary’s University that will bring together a collection of creative and thoughtful individuals to discuss concerns central to FPR’s mission. We hope that gatherings of this sort can be a regular part of what we do. Currently, groups of FPR readers meet in an array of cities to enjoy the kind of conversation and friendship that only face-to-face encounters provide.
Will you invest in our mission by supporting us today? Giving is safe and easy through our website. And it’s entirely tax-deductible: Front Porch Republic, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) educational organization. Your donation will be used immediately to help us improve our site, recruit writers, and compensate (just a little) our hard-working technological and editorial assistants. It will also help us sponsor speakers and conferences across the country. Most importantly, your support of FPR is an investment in our vision: place, limits, liberty.
~ Board of Directors, Front Porch Republic
Questions? Feedback? Contact Ashley Trim, editor of Front Porch Monthly at [email protected]