I can feel a nose and two feet. The feet are soft and pointed, positioned just above what I think is the head, only I don’t know if they are back feet or front feet. I need to know, because the answer tells me if I have one lamb coming out more or less okay, or two lambs tangled together with the first lamb folding its feet back and its twin doing a sort of backward somersault over the top of it. This would be bad.
It’s Sunday morning, about 2 am I think. I’ve been out in the three-sided shed with my twenty pregnant ewes for a few hours, and I have that all-nighter feeling when time is suspended and you are hovering slightly outside of your body. Near the shed’s opening, I sit in the damp hay blown over by fine snow that shines in the moonlight, and lean my back against the cold stone of the wall. Some of the ewes lie around me, eyes closed, chewing their cuds rhythmically, like the circular lines of a lullaby. A black ewe, Bluestem, lying on her side in an awkward position against the far wall, is the only reason I’m awake. I’ve had my eye on her since about 10 pm when her water broke.
Usually if a ewe doesn’t deliver on her own a couple of hours after her water breaks, it’s a good idea to help her out. It often signals that something is wrong with the way the lamb is positioned in the birth canal. A ewe straining to deliver a lamb that has its legs or head bent back, or a lamb that’s tangled up with a twin coming out at the same time, can rupture her womb or end up delivering a dead lamb. I’ve waited to see what Blue can do on her own, but now she is exhausted, heaving on her side, her eyes wild.
I stand up and stretch my back, wash my arm with cold iodine water from a tin bucket, and roll my thick sleeve down. I’m suddenly bone-cold. I step out of the shed where I can look east to the Northfield range, collecting myself. The stars are glittering on the snow. A few sheep have made their beds in the drifts, and they look at me placidly; their puffs of white breath like question marks against the dark.
Blue is my favorite. A runt at birth, rejected, her own mothering instinct is so strong that she never lets her lambs out of her sight. This is my fourth season of being a solo shepherdess. I’ve had rejected lambs and stillborn ones. Worst of all, a ewe with a grotesque prolapsed uterus that required an emergency call to the vet. But mostly I’ve had the joy of seeing lambs come into the world without a hitch. I have never delivered a pair of tangled twins.
My husband, Peter, is away, and though he knows nothing of the art of birthing, at least he could hold Blue’s head. My vet isn’t on call this weekend and his sub lives over an hour away. I have only the crazy birthing stories that shepherds tell each other about all the things that can go wrong and how they saved the day. Or mostly, how they didn’t. I push the worst possibilities from my mind—lambs that had to be dismembered to come out, wombs rupturing, emergency C-sections in the muck of the barn floor where the ewe was sacrificed for the lambs.
Strangely, as I come to the full realization that I have no choice but to work through this on my own, my fear subsides. Returning to Blue’s side, I roll up my sleeve and reach inside her, following logic as a caver without a light might feel her way, inch by inch along the wall to a passage that’s familiar. The mass of womb and placenta are warm and wet, like a jellyfish in a tropical sea, while the bony wall of the pelvis grinds against the back of my hand. I find the nose, rounded and soft. Then, above the nose, I feel the hard triangles of two feet. I try to lock my fingers around them to pull and they twitch back. I’ve lost them! Gently I reach farther in, find the feet and trace the legs back against the unforgiving pelvic wall to the second joint. I do this to determine if what I have is a knee (front foot) or hock (back foot). I am 51 percent sure they are back feet. If they are, there is no anatomical way they belong to this nose, unless the lamb is a contortionist. To pull the first lamb out, I have to find its front feet, but they are folded back, out of my reach.
I step back from Blue, stand up, and rinse my arms. Her twins are jammed in the birth canal like tangled tree branches in a narrow stream during spring flood. The natural birthing position for a lamb is like a diver, head between front limbs, shoulders forward, and streamlined for the sprint to air. When the arms are back, the shoulders are too broad for the opening. This is the problem with the first lamb, I think. When they are breech, they can come out backwards, but there’s a high chance that the lamb will gulp in fluid on the way out as the umbilical cord is stretched and breaks. Then it’s unlikely to survive.
When our daughter Wren was born, the midwife lifted her to my chest and let Peter cut the cord near her belly. In my exhausted state where images took on a strangely supernatural intensity, I remember thinking how thick it looked, like a sinewy tree root you find while digging; the kind that resists every effort of the spade. Something muscular and undeniable.
A lamb’s umbilical is as translucent and soft as a bit of milkweed down. I’ve never had to break or cut a cord; it always happens on its own as the lamb slips out of its watery home and onto the hay, becoming a creature of the breathing world. This has always astonished me, that the cord that sustains life could be so thin. Perhaps it’s a function of being a creature that’s closer to the wild. A ewe would have to lick the birth membranes from the lamb and be on her way, to leave no trace of blood behind in case of predators. The lamb’s ability to get to its feet and follow its mom within a few minutes of being born is an evolutionary imperative.
Would Blue die in the wild, I wonder? No doubt all these thousands of years that humans have been shepherds and helped with births have tweaked the evolutionary arc so that not only the easy birthers pass on their genes. A nomadic shepherd would have helped a birth so that the whole flock could more quickly move out of the wind or away from predators, or to the first grass. Only in the worst cases would they have abandoned a laboring ewe and unborn lambs to the wolves. On a Vermont sheep farm, like most of these hill farms were in the 1800s, another live birth would have meant more food for a family that faced spring with little but potatoes and cabbage left in the cellar. The peaks surrounding our farm tell this story: Scrag, Stark, Hunger Mountain, while Shepard Brook drains their slopes to the Mad River. Those are the practical reasons, but I know there were more important reasons shepherds would do everything to assist a birth; this ancient, primal thing of caring for a flock is ultimately about human attachment.
Blue’s eyes are weirdly white, her sides no longer heaving. She lies still, lets me probe again. Inside her womb, I trace shapes of the yet-to-be-born with my fingertips over and over, guessing their anatomy aloud—front foot, nose, back foot—a lock picker in the dark. I have to get it right before I pull.
A faint noise comes from the doorway where a dim light spills from the barn into the sheep shed. Wren, who is three, has padded out through the snow in her dinosaur pajamas to find me. Her cold hands find the warmth of my neck beneath my parka hood and her too-big boots dangle from her sockless feet. Since her father was away, at bedtime I had told her, “If you wake up in the night and I’m not in my bed, then look outside. If the barn lights are on, I’m out there and you can come out. I’ll leave your boots by the door.” I honestly wasn’t sure she would figure it out, but I hadn’t come up with any better options.
“Are there babies?” she whispers close to my ear.
“Yes, soon,” I say, and I put her on a hay bale so she can watch. Idrape my huge coat around her.
I can’t take her back to bed. We are in this together now. The first time she saw a birth she was two months old, strapped to my chest under my down coat as I worked to deliver a lamb, her tiny head so close to my hands that I was afraid of hurting her. She is old enough now to observe more closely. I wonder if I should warn her about how seeing blood can be scary, and how when a lamb is born, it’s normal for it to be wet and limp, sometimes coated with a kind of yellow feces called meconium. And sometimes not alive.
But I say nothing. I’m certain now that I have found the missing feet that belong to this soft nose. I reach under the nose with two fingers, find the wrist joint, and unbend the folded-back legs, first one side and then the other. Then, I push the breech twin back. It will have to wait its turn. With my right hand locking the lamb’s feet together, I pull back hard while bracing my left palm hard on Blue’s side. I hear myself groan as I pull with all my strength to get the head through the opening, and the newborn slides into the world at last.
She is tiny, legs frail as icicles, white with black spots around her eyes. The thinnest of translucent membranes covers her body and nose. She lifts her head immediately. I towel her off, wiping the birth sac from her nose and mouth, rubbing her curly black coat vigorously to stimulate her to rise. She feels ephemeral, a ragdoll of bone and blood, water and air. Blue makes a soft throaty nickering sound that ewes make only when licking their newborns. I stand back to watch the lamb shakily rise up on her front feet, fall, rise up, fall; her nose all the time butting against mom’s flank for milk. It reminds me of a sea turtle watch I went on years ago and wanting so much to help the hatchlings to the sea, but I was told they needed to struggle into the waves and be tossed violently back up the beach again and again to get their strength to swim.
As the little creature butts against my legs, trying to find a teat, and Blue stands to lick and nuzzle her, I kneel and gently reach a hand into Blue’s vulva one more time. I can feel the breech lamb now, pointy feet, no head. He seems impossibly long as I pull his back feet with both hands and he finally lands on the hay with a thud, wet and shining. His head is strangely huge, with horn buds already breaking the skin. He doesn’t stir. I move fast to clear his nose and mouth, swing him like a pendulum by the back legs to shoot out the phlegm from his airway. It doesn’t seem to help. No cry, no gasp. I can feel panic rising in my chest. I lay him down and palpate his heart with two fingers. I’m whispering, praying, working so fast I’m not sure what I’m doing or why. Aware of Wren on the bale beside me, miraculously asleep, I will myself not to cry out.
It takes only seconds for the light to die out of his eye. His cord, like a snail’s trace, gleams in the hay.
I think, “That was it. His whole life.”
Blue rubs her nose on him and cleans him, pawing at the ground for him to rise. Her sharp feet scrape urgently at his still-warm lifeless body, and he crumples under her hoof like a discarded strip of towel, streaks of blood and mucus staining his white fleece. Blue’s call to him becomes louder, more desperate. It’s more than I can bear. I go up the stairs to get a burlap sack, which I line with some hay from the floor. I slide him in, back to the dark, with the smell of clover fields he will never know.
The sky is a pale yellow over the range. The wind has picked up just before the dawn and I realize I can no longer feel my feet. I lift Wren and she is warm and heavy against my chest. I know she will ask about the lambs when she wakes, and I will tell her. “One is good. One didn’t make it.”
In case she wants to see it, as proof of what death looks like—toddlers being more curious than sentimental—I decide to leave the lamb in his burlap by the door. Later I’ll do a sky burial— an offering to the coyotes— since the ground is frozen solid. This is a heartless practicality, or perhaps an earthly spirituality, that I’ve made my peace with as a shepherd. Rather than feel hardened by it, I feel more and more gratitude—for the birthing, the offering back, this strong love.