The $83.20 Cat & Other Stories

Cave Painting

Argyle

I didn’t know you could have thunder and lightning in a snow storm, but there it is, searing the black and white night with jagged tracings that mean to copy the stars but that come out looking more like cave paintings. Do we have such funny weather because we’re on a mountain? I wouldn’t think a sheep would want to have its baby on a night like this, but then sheep aren’t sensible.

Jonathan comes in, stamping snow onto the kitchen floor.

“Did she have it yet?” I ask.

“Not yet,” he says, and wanders off into the living room.

I pull the afghan tighter around me. I’m cold on the window seat, especially the side of me nearest the glass, where the air seems to grow thick and fall of its own cold weight, but it’s the best place in the house to sit and watch the storm.

Jonathan comes back leafing through his animal owners’ veterinary guide.

“That’s just going to tell you to call a vet,” I say. “Is she having trouble?

“I don’t know, but she’s taking a long time. I think.”

A searing crackle illuminates the space beyond the window. “I think that one hit a tree,” I say, and try to pick out a change in the silhouettes near the house. It’s too difficult to tell, though, with the weight of the snow bending the trees and making them unfamiliar anyway.

“Damn,” says Jonathan, slamming the book shut.

“What?”

“It says to call a vet. I’m sure one would love that, at midnight, in a blizzard, for a sheep.”

“Do sheep always have their babies in the middle of the winter?” I ask.

“That’s when they’re born, yes.” He pulls a box out of the back of the kitchen cabinet and hunts through the old books it holds, garage sale books from some old farmer who was selling up and moving to Florida.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I say. “Why have babies in the middle of the winter when there isn’t anything for them to eat?”

“Sheep are mammals. They have their mother’s milk.” He’s found an old animal husbandry book and is paging through it.

“There’s nothing for their mothers to eat to make the milk. And it’s awfully cold out there for a baby. I suppose bears are hibernating, but that’s not much help because wolves are very hungry this time of year, and wolves are more…”

“Here it is,” he says, setting the open book down on the kitchen table. “I’ll need twine and scissors. You’re going to have to help me.”

“Help you what?”

“If she doesn’t have the baby soon, we have to tie twine to it and pull while she’s having a contraction. It says so right here. Come on.”

So I put on my boots and coat and wrap a scarf around my head and get about three steps from the door before a gust of wind flattens me against the house. Jonathan shouts something, but the wind carries the sense of it away. I follow him and the flashlight on the one-person-wide path he’s shoveled through the snow to the barn. About half way there, lightning blazes in the swirling snow and we’re caught for the instant, figures in a snow-globe paperweight whose storm has been set churning. Somewhere beyond the glass the stars are still points in the dot-to-dot sketch for the constellations. It’s more lively down here.

The ewe is in the room Jonathan’s sectioned off from the rest of the barn with two-by-fours and chicken wire. He’s stapled plastic all round, and piled up hay bales for insulation. The plastic rattles in the wind, but keeps it out. We open the door to this oddly shaped bubble and step inside.

Jonathan sets the flashlight on the floor and the ewe’s shadow leaps onto the barn wall. If I traced it quickly with charcoal, we could keep the picture of this instant up there. Jonathan goes to her, and the flashlight captures his shadow as well. The sheep-shadow flicks it ears, moves.

“What do you want me to do?” I ask.

“Hold her head.”

So I do, putting my arms round her neck. I rub her between the ears and hope she likes it. She bleats softly, her breath leaving a soft trail in the cold air.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s too soon,” Jonathan says. “There’s nothing I can tie a string to.”

The ewe’s face is long, the nose flat. She looks at me, and her eyes… I don’t know what she’s thinking. The sheep usually come over eagerly enough when we visit the barn, but I know that’s because they want corn. They don’t object to being petted, but they don’t ask for attention, either, the way a cat or dog will. They have their own purposes.

“I don’t want to make things worse,” Jonathan says. “Maybe we should come back in an hour or two.”

“I’m freezing.” I say, and let go of the sheep’s neck. My mittened hands smell of lanolin, and I wonder whether the wool mittens have a sheep-smell to her. “We’ll check back later,” I tell her. She watches us go. We take the flashlight, but leave the scissors and twine in the barn.

Back at the house, Jonathan starts a pot of coffee while I shake the snow out of my boots, then set them to dry by the woodstove.

“Should I put another log on?” I ask.

“No. I’ll do it.”

He’s convinced nobody nows how to tend the fire but him. His face looks haggard in the firelight.

“It’s going to be a long night,” I say, curling up in a corner of the sofa. “Do you think she wants us around?”

“Of course she does.”

“How can you tell?”

“She wants reassurance. The sheep like us.”

“I wouldn’t like us if I were a sheep,” I say, but I’m yawning as I say it and he probably doesn’t understand me.

Jonathan wakens me.

“Come on,” he says. “I need you.”

I sit up, get a bearing on the century, who I am, where I am. “All right,” I say.

He hands me my boots. It’s time.

It’s cold out, the cold of a world that doesn’t care if it’s hospitable to people or not. Anyway, it wakes me up fast.

“I’ve been up there twice since you conked out,” Jonathan says. “She needs help.”

The wind has stopped, and the snow. Ragged clouds are scudding off, and from the way the light comes and goes you’d think the moon had a loose electrical connection. The snow crunches under our feet.

The sheep is lying down this time. There’s a baby part way out, not much more than a hoof showing. “She looks tired out,” I say.

“Hold her head,” says Jonathan.

I sit and hold her head in my lap. She flicks her ears, but lets her head rest as though she’s glad of either the warmth or the human contact. Jonathan’s busy with the string.

“Okay,” he says. “Next contraction. Now here’s one; hold on to her.”

The sheep strains silently, then the contraction ends and she rests. I stroke her head and she nuzzles my other hand.

“I think the next one will do it,” Jonathan says.

The sheep lifts her head, straining.

“Here it comes,” says Jonathan.

“There!” He grabs the towel he has hanging nearby and rubs the baby vigorously. A bleating cry, brand new, makes the sheep raise her head.

“I think she wants it,” I say.

Jonathan brings the steaming baby to its mother’s side. She crooks her head and baas softly, licks her baby.

“Isn’t that tender?” says Jonathan.

The ewe begins another contraction.

“The afterbirth,” Jonathan says. “Good. I think they’ll be all right.”

“I’m freezing,” I say. “Is that little thing warm enough?”

“Sure. It has its mother. You can go back to the house, if you want. I want to make sure the baby nurses.”

“I’ll wait,” I say, and soon the ewe stands up. The baby follows in a floppy way, making up this business of standing as it goes along. It butts its mother’s bely. As soon as it finds what it wants, it begins wagging its long tail.

“We can go now,” says Jonathan. “They’re going to be fine.”

Outside, the moon is so bright Jonathan switches the flashlight off. All the clouds are gone, and the stars are ice hard in their places, as unwavering as though there were no air at all between them and us. I pick out the pattern of Orion, and Ursa Major. Jonathan sighs.

“You must be tired,” I say. “Are you gong to work?”

“I have to. I’ll probably fall asleep at my desk. But wasn’t that worth it?”

“I suppose. It seems like a lot of trouble to take over something you’re just going to eat when it grows up.”

Jonathan stiffens, as icy as the night. His face looks blank for a moment. Then the moment passes, and it’s as though what I said doesn’t fit into his reality and so he just doesn’t hear it. He looks up instead at the unchanging pattern of the stars.