by Willie Orr
Donald sits by the fire, sharpening his lambsfoot knife. The blade slides smoothly across the carborundum stone, shaving a grey skin of oil from the surface. For the task ahead it has to be razor sharp.
He leans back for a moment to rest his fingers, twisted and scarred by three score years of herding and handling sheep. Snow is blowing past the window, thick white flakes in the dark. The sheep at the head of the glen are drawing together as the snow covers the ground. They will move in slowly towards the oak woods, the wet snow forming blocks of ice on their fleece-ends; some of them, unable to bear the weight, will perish in the drifts. Still, he has done all that he can.
The light is fading. He shifts his feet so that the stone lies level on his knee and once again rubs the knife along the surface, following the hollow worn by the blades of his shears. He tests the edge of the blade with his thumb, spits on his arm and runs the blade over the skin. It shaves off the hair cleanly.
He replaces the stone in its oak box, stained crimson with oil, and, snapping the knife shut, crosses to the sink. His hands are washed thoroughly, removing all traces of oil, and dried on a length of sacking behind the door. He lifts a bucket from the space beneath the sink to catch the blood and leaves the room.
The old dog lying under the table, suddenly alert, watches him go. As the sound of his nailed boots fades, it rises slowly and climbs into the warm chair. An ember slips in the fire and, for a moment, the room moves with shadows. The dog curls up in the chair and closes its eyes. A hen’s feather blows across the bare concrete floor.
In the barn outside he lights the oil lamp and hangs it on a wire hook near the door. Lifting a hemp rope, he throws it over one of the rafters and slides it from side to side to remove the dust from the beam. Removing his jacket, he rolls up his shirt sleeves. Fine snow blows in over the half door and the wind blows chaff and hay seed across the cobbles. Once again he tests the edge of his knife.
A small blade - no more than the length of his middle finger. Small but sweet. A tiny hole in the right place and life will just flow away. No noise, no pain, no torn flesh.
He does not see the figure watching him from the shadows. He has forgotten that he let Sligo spend the night there. The tramp had arrived at the back door begging for a night’s sleep in the barn. His gnarled face, pitted like pine bark and bruised by the weather, could not crease into a smile. The woollen hat, tugged down to his brows, glittered with snow. Donald had studied the rheumy eyes and blue lips for signs of drink.
They all know the rules, these solitary travelling men. No drink. They can sleep in the barn as long as they are sober for there is a bond between these outcasts and the hill shepherd - the shared quicksands of solitude, the ache of loneliness and the chasm between them and other men. Sligo, though, had sneaked in a bottle and so he lies half asleep on the hay bales near the roof, his button-hole eyes barely open and his greatcoat pulled up to his ears.
Donald ties a short hazel stick to one end of the rope and, lifting a shearing stool from its place behind the hay bales, places it beneath the hanging rope.
He sits for a while. The visions return. He fights to dismiss them, to drive them back, to crush them like vermin but they are indestructible. Memories of his friends dying in the war - their jaws wide, straining to expel the uncontainable agony in a scream, though never wide enough for, in the cradle of their jaws, he had seen their pain crushed like a monstrous, still-born calf lodged in the pin-bones of a beast too small to give it birth. He sees his cousin lying on the deck, his leg blown off at the knee, trying to run. He hears the sound of the shattered bone scraping on the steel deck and see the boy’s face as white as a gull’s breast and his blood splashed over the twisted metal of the gangway.
They had all been killed - all his friends - and, when he returned to the island in his ill-fitting civilian clothes, there had been no-one to talk to, no-one to share the memories, no-one to calm the terrors of the long nights.
He had lived alone in the croft house above the ocean - the last house on the track leading to the point - and, like his father, had herded the township sheep. But, all the time, the sea cast up the memories like flotsam at his door. In the thunder of the surf at night gunfire shook his bed and the room flashed and howled with shells.
Sometimes he leapt from his bed and crashed against the wall, his fingers groping for the rungs of a ladder that was not there. When the sea lay sick and still in the summer heat the eider drake’s moan echoed in the room and, beside him, lay a carcass with no face, the round mouth of its severed windpipe spasmodically sucking in air. He had dreaded the nights and, most of all, the bedlam of sleep. He sat by the fire, listening to the nasal voices of trawlermen on his radio till the dawn seeped into the sky. Anything but sleep. Sleep - the plunge into terror, the lurch into chaos, the fall off the edge of the earth. When he had left the island, haggard and pale, his neighbours had not been surprised.
He has never known a woman. Once, when the hair had just started to grow on his body, he had entered the kitchen when his sister was bathing by the fire. She had not turned away and, in the amber light of the oil lamp, he had watched beads of water slide down her breasts and glisten in the shadows of her thighs. Tempted to approach her, his hands started to tremble but he had turned and fled from the house. Staggering in the dark, he leaned against the the midden dyke and beat his fists on the stones, chastising himself for the moment of temptation.
“God forgive me,” he had sobbed.
But the god of his people was not a forgiving god and, for years afterwards, he had lived with the fear of punishment. His guilt had borne down on him, grinding his confused emotions between its mill-stones till they had blown away like chaff. Since then he had not spoken to a woman - not in that way. Frightened of them, he had lived alone in remote cottages most of his life, living for his work.
His work. Years of rising before dawn and working till dusk. Walking till his thighs ached and his heels seemed to splinter like shells. Whistling the dogs in a lashing wind till his lips bled. Staggering through soft snow topped with a skin of ice so that each footstep held for a moment then plunged deep into the powder beneath. Bending over lean ewes at the shearing with a monstrous pain gnawing at his back. Never complaining. No, not a word. Out to the lambs in the spring when other men slept – back for breakfast as they woke. All for nothing.
Sligo closed his eyes and slept, too tired and befuddled to speak. He had walked the railway that day, sleeper after sleeper, bone after bone till each joint screamed, hunger gnawing at his gut. He had found a fellow traveller asleep in a railway hut, sneaked in, stolen the man’s wine and walked on, trying to reach the farm before dark.
Donald rises from the stool, shaking off the snow that gathered on his trousers and the memories that troubled his mind. Crossing to one of the pens, he pulls out a young wedder, ties three of its legs together with a length of twine and lifts it on to the shearing stool so that it lies on its back with its head over the edge..
With the point of his knife he makes a small incision in its neck. Blood streams into the bucket, steaming in the cold air. The animal barely moves, seemingly unaware of its fate. He sits beside it, holding its head so that the blood flows cleanly into the bucket.
He remembers when it was born. High in the corrie on a morning hung with larks and vibrant with the drumming of snipes’ wings, it had been stretched out at the mouth of an old badger hole. He had watched it grow and had searched the flocks for it at every gathering. He was fit then and could reach the summit cairn before the sun.
The memories are broken by a movement beneath him. The beast is breathing quickly and he can feel the tension in its muscles. He speaks to it in Gaelic. He knows that it will not hear. He speaks inside his head as he used to pray, sending the words of comfort into the darkness like young dogs into the mist, like petrels over the Minch. He remembers the moss on the pillars of the ancient church and the skin of salt on the lancet windows. He can hear the whine of the precentor and smells the scent of peat on his mother’s coat. A long time ago. But he remembers.
The wedder kicks twice, sighs, stiffens and then lies still. He touches the surface of its eye with his finger. It doesn’t blink. It is dead.
He cuts the twine which binds its legs and, starting at its knees, begins to skin the carcass, sliding his fist between the warm flesh and the skin. Within minutes it lies pale and naked on the smooth surface of its own hide. He removes the stomach and entrails and pulling down the rope, fits the short hazel stick through the tendons of the back legs. He hauls on the rope and raises the carcass off its skin into the air.
Sligo wakes with a gasp, furiously beating out imaginary flames on his legs, re-living the night in the woods when, semi-conscious with wine, he had rolled into the glowing embers and his plastic leggings had caught fire, the molten material clinging to his legs like boiling tar. No-one there to help. Always on his own. He hated the others. One of them had kicked his face while he slept. No reason. Just let go of his spite at the world.
Donald does not hear. His task is almost complete. He severs the head from the neck, cutting through between the spine bone and the skull. Then, as one unit, he plucks out the heart, lungs and wind-pipe. A perfect operation. No blood spilled and the meat not marked. He spins the carcass round, admiring his handiwork.
The colonel will be pleased. He frowns. No, the meat is not for the colonel. It must be for the new shepherd. But he is on holiday. It must have been killed for someone. Who is it ? He can’t remember. Can’t remember. In the vast, tranquil acres of his mind a storm gathers on the horizon and a wind moves menacingly across the fields, bending the corn and lifting the crows into the air.
He looks up at the carcass. In the ribcage the membranes shine silver and scarlet in the lamplight. The waist and flanks are smooth and unblemished, smooth like a girl’s flesh. For a moment he wants to reach out and touch the flesh but he crushes the impulse in his fist, his lips twisted with distaste. A memory, buried securely for years, has slipped out into the light. The resurrection of the dead.
“All that are in the graves shall hear his voice and shall come forth; they
that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done
evil, unto the resurrection of damnation....”
He punches the flesh with his fist.
“It’s a sheep!” he shouts, “A sheep.”
Sligo, asleep again, jerks instinctively under his greatcoat but does not waken, hearing only his child whimpering and it’s mother’s fury as she shut the door on him forty years before. The night of the storm. He had walked through the rain till the dawn greyed the sky and he found shelter under an upturned tree-root in the forest, the fresh, warm soil on his cheek.
“A sheep,” Donald murmurs.
And killed perfectly. A perfect job. They always said that.
“A grand job, Donald.”
He hears them, voices echoing endlessly in his head.
“Grand job. Grand job.”
“Damn them !” he snarls and plunges his knife into the soft rump flesh of the wedder, tearing it across the back. The carcass rocks violently and the rafters creak. In a frenzy he stabs the beast again and again, cursing with each blow.
“Damn you, damn you, damn you,” he repeats, tearing at the carcass till it dances crazily in the gloom, long slivers of flesh, like macabre feathers, trembling as it spins. He stabs till his arm aches and he staggers back exhausted to collapse on a hay-bale, his cloth cap tilted over one ear. A film of froth glistened at the corner of his lips.
Sligo wakes in the dawn. The oil lamp is still burning. He slides down off the hay bales and sees the shredded carcass hanging in the gloom, the knife stuck in its haunch. Behind it, Donald lies sprawled across against a railing, his jaw wide open and his eyes staring at the roof. His cap has fallen on the ground and his silver hair falls across his bloodless face. Sligo plucks out the knife, slices off a sliver of meat and stuffs it in his pocket. He scuttles away, his bleary eyes streaming in the harsh wind. Fresh snow covers his tracks.↑