First of all, have you noticed I keep writing that it’s spring, or almost spring, or sure to be spring soon, and it KEEPS NOT BEING SPRING. This past week featured record lows all over the state of South Dakota, and a swirl of winter storms. The man of the ranch has been checking the herd around the clock, so it’s been another string of days that bleed into night, everyone blurry, sleep-deprived, and cold.
Which is why, I am not going to mention the weather at all. No, instead I am going to tell you the other thing I was wrong about. Baby lambs. Remember how I said I didn’t feel as attached to my little orphans as I used to? I’ve had to eat my words in that regard as well. If you happened to stop by our house this week, you could not have helped but notice a small lamb snuggled in blankets by the sliding glass door. I really have to stop tempting fate with these proclamations…
Suffice it to say, after writing that I felt my time serving as mother to orphan lambs was past, we found Belle, one of the tiny twins we got from a neighbor, huddled on the barn floor, struggling to stand. She could lift herself with her back legs, but, try as she might, the front legs buckled beneath her despite her efforts. So, she’s now snugly ensconced in the house, and just as snugly ensconced in my heart.
Mostly likely the cause of her condition is “joint ill,” a bacterial infection that attacks the joints of young lambs, causing stiffness, swelling, and lameness. The course of treatment is high doses of penicillin. Normally, we would have treated her in the barn, and left her with her brother, hoping for the best. But, the aforementioned record low temps precluded that, and now we have a house lamb.
(Oops, I just mentioned the weather again! That’s the last time, I promise.)
Belle is the third house lamb I’ve had in the five years since I began keeping sheep. A house lamb, in case you were wondering, is different from a lamb in the house--the distinction being that while a lamb may come into the house for a few hours or a night, house lambs come for a day that somehow turns to weeks. The result? A lot of extra laundry, and an undeniable bond.
Like Belle, my other two house lambs also started out ok, but lost the ability to walk within their first week of life. (Which is how they ended up with me--that was back when my house was the hub for injured babies of all kinds.) Another similarity: All three exhibited a preternatural calm. Usually lambs are frenetic, bouncing, bleating balls of joy and mayhem. These lambs, though alert and affectionate, conserved their energy, turning their wide, brown eyes to the parade of daily life as it passed their nest of blankets.
I’ve learned from mistakes I made with the first two, so, even with the wintry weather, we’ve been taking Belle outside to visit her brother and cousins--we don’t want her to forget she’s a lamb. While the healthy lambs practice grazing nearby, Belle nibbles at the brambles she can reach with her outstretched neck. All is well, until the others decide to leap away, and then Belle cries out in dismay. She doesn’t want to be left behind.
Her distress is heartbreaking, but the Bean has devised a solution: wagon rides. Dragging a sickly lamb over the frozen ruts of mud and snow that serve as our yard doesn’t seem like a great idea, but the Bean offers his lap, and warm arms as a buffer. So, I set him in the wagon, then nestle Belle onto the cushion of his thick snowsuit.
From the first, it was clear the Bean was right. Bumping around in wide circles, snuggled close to her human brother, Belle was the lamb equivalent of beaming. The Bean stroked her wooly head softly, and she looked up occasionally to offer a small kiss. “Belle likes me!” he murmured gently, as we continued our voyage.
I’ve written before that caring for sickly animals, some of whom I knew there was little hope of saving, taught me how to love bigger. It’s painful to open your heart to something you will more than likely lose, but the pain is your heart muscle growing stronger, its four-chambered walls hung bright with stars. And watching my small son learn tenderness through his careful attention to this sickly creature, is another unexpected gift.
What does it mean to let yourself get a little broken by loving? Well, I think it means everything.