“Yes, but only once. I remember what you told me when you came out to help with the foal last spring. A farmer should go in once and if he can’t figure out what to do, right then, he should call the vet.” He sits back on his haunches and smiles, and I notice one of his front teeth is missing. Except for that, he’s a handsome man with a brown mustache who reminds me a little of Hemingway. “I know it will cost me an arm and a leg, but I can’t find the head and there’s three legs presenting.”
Daniel throws his coat to me and hangs his hat on a post, then walks over and squats next to a bucket of steaming hot water and begins to scrub his hands and arms with a bar of lye soap. “These are my assistants, Dr. Blum and Nurse Myers. You know them?”
The farmer looks over, but the sheep is so exhausted she doesn’t even lift her head. “Nice to meet you. I’ve heard you were back,” he says this to Blum and then tips his hat to me. “Nurse Myers . . . This is Martha.” He stokes his ewe’s head and puts his forehead to hers.
“I’ll need the rope in the trunk, Becky. Can you get it, please?” Blum is now taking his turn soaping up. “Oh, and bring the old blanket.”
Now I see what my role is. Gopher! Go for this. Go for that. I push open the big doors and the little boy follows. “Can I help you?” He’s a pleasant little fellow of about seven, who wears tiny spectacles and his voice is deeper than what you’d expect.
“What’s your name?”
“Petey. Peter Schmidt, I mean.”
I open the trunk of the Ford and feel around in the dark for the blanket. The ropes are harder to find. They turn out to be a bundle of cord and I hand this to Petey. As we reenter the barn, the doctors are waiting. The little boy hands the cord to Dr. Hester, who hands it to Blum. I shake out the old wool coverlet. “Here?”
“Little more toward her back side.” The vet points with his boot as he rubs some lubricant on his right hand, all the way to his elbow, then lies down on his side on the old lap robe. With the three-foot-long cord, a slipknot at the end, he works his way into the ewe’s vagina.
“Well, this is a challenge!” He smiles his crooked smile. “Good thing you called me. It’s going to be tricky. The first thing I have to figure out is which lamb the legs belong to.” I’m surprised when Petey comes over and leans up against me. Maybe he misses his ma, I think, imagining what it would be like to be the mother of such a child.
“Baaaaaa!” Martha cries. “Baaaaaaaaaa!” She struggles to get up, but Blum and Mr. Schmidt hold her in place. The farmer whispers something into her ear to keep her calm. Other than her cries there’s only the hiss of the Coleman and the snorting and footfalls of other larger animals in the dark recesses of the barn.
“Mmmmmmm,” the vet moans. “She’s straining against me. Trying to push my arm out. This is a real puzzle. Another rope please.”
Blum fixes a loop at the end of another cord and hands it over. If I ever had any doubt that Isaac can understand, it’s obvious that he does. He even anticipates what the vet will need next. Daniel screws his face up as the ewe tries to expel him. “Baaaaa!” She shakes her head and almost gets up.
“Let her,” Daniel orders. “Let’s see what happens.” Blum and Schmidt back off as the sheep springs to her feet. Hester still holds the ends of the cords. “I’ve got them attached to two fetlocks that I think are from the same lamb, so let’s hope I’m right. We’ll let her strain again and see if we can help her.”
I look at my watch. It’s now ten P.M. Petey yawns, but Daniel’s guess is right: the first lamb comes out with traction from the cords and the next two lambs follow without a problem. In a little more than thirty minutes, three miniature sheep are wobbling around in the straw, trying to get to their mother.
“By God, that was slick! Thanks for coming out, Hester!” the farmer expresses his appreciation. Then in a much quieter tone, “I can’t pay you anything now, but you know I’m good for it.” The vet doesn’t show his disappointment, but hearing Patience talk, I know they have bills to pay too, the mortgage on the Hesters’ large farm, for one.
“That’s okay, I know how tight cash money is. You’ll get it to me when you can, or we’ll work out a trade.”
Back in the Ford, we all sit up front, me sandwiched between the two men. I smile in the dark. Patience was right. I’m glad I came. Seeing a birth when I have no responsibility is uplifting. Linus is dead. He has left this earthly home for a new one, but three fuzzy new lambs are born. Life is a circle, renewing itself, one way or another.
It’s almost midnight as we drive home and there’s a light snow, big white flakes coming down from the west. Hypnotized, I watch them dance in the headlights. It’s so peaceful; twice I fall asleep and when I wake I find my head on Blum’s shoulder. The second time, his arm is around me.
Finally, we bump across the wooden bridge and into the yard.
“Better check the stock before bed,” the vet says as he turns off the engine.
The minute Blum opens the passenger-side door I know something is wrong.
What alarms me as I stand outside the Hesters’ stone house is the sound of Danny crying from his dark bedroom upstairs while the light is still on in Patience’s room. “I’ll see what’s going on.” I enter the kitchen and take the stairs two at a time while the men head for the barn.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I push open the door. What in heaven’s name? My first thought is that someone has spilled paint on the bed, but that’s absurd. Patience is lying in a pool of her own blood, and the red spreads down the sheets to the floor.
Tears run down the midwife’s white face and she speaks slowly as if drugged.
“I shouldn’t have done it. . . . I was having bad stomach pains and thought it was because I was constipated so I convinced myself maybe I could have a bowel movement in the commode if I squatted and strained. When I got up, the blood came and I realized the pains weren’t from being blocked up. Oh, Becky, I’m so scared!” She lets out a sob, just as Daniel enters.
“God in heaven!” His face turns gray. “Fucking hell. Fucking hell,” he curses, looking around at all the red, as upset as the time we found him in the ditch saying he’d killed his wife. “Oh, Patience, honey.” He collapses next to the bed, kneeling in the blood and taking his wife’s face in his hands.
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