West Texas in February. It hasn’t rained since November. (No longer quite true now that I’m posting this; the temperature dropped 40 degrees and it sleeted the day after we left.) The air and the earth are bone dry. In fact there is little division between them, as the windy season is arriving and the two elements have struck up a permanent molecular barn dance. We get intimate with dirt. Grit in our nostrils and pores. Great clouds of it billowing out of the children’s pants when I try to thwack them off before letting them indoors. Ada’s hair is a tumbleweed.
But the sun is warm. (The dirt loves the sunscreen. The children look like tiny miners squinting in the light after a day in the pit.) The little peach tree behind the barn is already setting blossoms. My in-laws’ new house is muscling up out back, shrugging on its plywood and Tyvek and half a roof, and there is no playground like a construction site. The kids bicycle through the future rooms and pull Jolly in a wagon. They haul in scrap lumber to block in the furnishings. They excavate the big dirt pile and slide down the sides.
And it is livestock heaven: six sheepdogs, a brazen and friendly cat, five horses, a little herd of heifers, Muscovy ducks, and sheep. The kids are beside themselves. “Hwose ooouuuut! Wide! Wide!” Jolly pleads, shaking the gate to the corral, trying to scale the saddles in the tack room. And we do. His cousin’s gentle old horse is willing to amble along with a speck of a boy on his broad back, and there’s room at the front of his aunt’s saddle to nestle him aboard the more sprightly gray mare. Jolly is alight with joy, humming happily and crowing “Bump bump bump!” when a faster pace jostles him a little. And when it’s Ada’s turn, the lead rope comes off. She listens seriously as her aunt explains what to do. She is calm and confident, sitting tall, unflustered when Brownie shakes his head or stretches his neck enough to pull her forward. She coolly steers him right and left, circles the arena, stops and starts as she wishes, waves to us railbirds with our cameras.
We put the horses up and then help move some sheep to the pasture near the house. They’re half-grown Dorper lambs, born last autumn and still impishly sneaking milk from the ewes, so Amy cuts them from the flock one at a time and passes them through the gate. We straddle their stout warm bodies, fingers buried in their coarse wool. My lamb yaws and plunges; I tighten my grip and stroke her under the chin. Amy heaves the trio of sheep into the back of her ATV and deftly ties their limbs with twine. Their ankles are wonderfully delicate, slender as my small son’s wrists. They blat and void showers of moistly shining pellets. Their sides heave with worry and I speak soothingly to them. “Why are they frightened, Mama?” my daughter wants to know. “We won’t hurt them!” “Yeah, we’re not going to kill them yet,” chimes my unsentimental nephew, old enough at almost five to have seen the cycles of life on the ranch a few times over.
All these years I’ve been a knitter, and I grew up with horses and plenty of other animals, but it’s my first time handling sheep. Even with three legs hobbled, the lambs periodically struggle to right themselves. I clamber into the back of the ATV to ride with them and make certain they don’t try anything foolish. Sure enough, the largest gets some leverage with her free leg and tries to plunge overboard. I hoist her off her little flock mate and keep a grip on her wooly neck. Her breath is moist and warm on my arm. The third lamb gives up the struggle and closes her eyes. I like these sheep. It might be better if I didn’t; they aren’t wool growers or pets and there’s no escaping that they’re raised for meat. But I am pleased to be cozily amongst them, hands and a knee on their round bodies, rubbing them gently to make the restraint friendlier. I’m a long way from being a shepherd, but I’m glad to know my fondness for wool holds up when it’s on the hoof.
We’re far from home. Ada begs to stay forever. The journey back is three and a half hours in the car and two plane rides. I knit as we roll west over this unfamiliar country, studded with yucca and treeless mountains. We’ll be back.