Last summer I raised sheep. Three. This was them when they first arrived.
They had a small sibling but he didn’t live for very long. It happens. Animals die. It’s okay. It was out of my control.
Every morning I woke up, had a coffee and a cigarette, made up their milk powder with warm water, fed them, cuddled them, did checks (legs, bums, feet, eyes, noses, ears), and went about my day knowing that I had helped someone. Even if that someone happened to be a sheep. They needed me, and I needed them, because they gave me a purpose.
My babies grew. They developed personalities. The big white one, Napoleon (named by Nathan after the pig in Animal Farm) was the most boisterous lady sheep I have ever met. She would use her strength and size to do precisely as she pleased, occasionally barging into chicken sheds, but mostly employing sheer brute force to steal more than her share of dinner. I ran intervention, made sure that her greedy tum was satisfied but not bulging.
Tigger, the black sheep, liked jumping. (He was named Tigger before this trait fully developed.) He would climb the structure in the yard, which was a few stacked palettes covered over with a tarp, and leap like a gazelle on the savannah before springing away. In retrospect, a giant hamster wheel would probably have been an excellent investment; if we could have harnessed his sheer kinetic energy he could comfortably have powered the farm, if not the road.
Eliza was my special girl. I named her after Eliza Hamilton. She looked like an alien llama. She was always the smallest, and she was the first one to enjoy being cuddled. Sheep don’t tend to be particularly keen on cuddles, preferring more noble pursuits, like grass, and pooing, and making loud noises for no discernible reason. But on the second day she was there, while I was sitting on one of their hay bales, Eliza climbed onto my lap, started nibbling on a loose thread in my jeans, and let me pet her until she fell asleep. I obviously didn’t have a favourite but Eliza was my favourite, and she knew it – she would gravitate towards me when I walked past, orbiting my legs like a little woolly moon.
My babies grew. Pretty soon they were off their milk and onto pellets. Time was rocketing away from me, I was unable to think about the future. Stuck in a strange suicidal purgatory with these daft sheep as my main reason to wake up every day, we developed a rare co-dependency. They needed me because I brought them food. I needed them because they brought me a reason for continuing my existence. (There were other things, but I was firmly blinkered by my illness against any other good influences in my life at the time. In my head, the sheep were it.)
Conversations started happening. Half-hearing snippets of phone calls. ‘Next month they’ll be big enough.’ ‘Have you phoned them yet?’ Nobody asked me. ‘The sheep are a bit of a pain.’ They’d started escaping, but it wasn’t their fault the fences were all shit. I kept cuddling them every day. ‘They’ve got out again.’ I loved them. ‘Have you phoned yet?’
Nobody asked me. They were mine. I fed them every day. I loved them with everything I had. Nobody asked me.
The lorry turned up on a Monday night, after a long, emotional whirlwind of a day at college.
Nobody told me.
If. If I’d had time I would have found somewhere else for them to go. A sanctuary. Somewhere safe where they could live and be happy.
If I’d known I would have fought for them, I would have made sure they were safe.
Nobody told me it would happen that day. It had been mentioned at the beginning – ‘don’t get too attached, they’re gonna be dinner when they’re big enough.’ That didn’t matter to me. I had a reason to wake up in the morning. I didn’t want to think about the morning when that reason would be gone.
I followed them into the lorry and wept. They didn’t understand. I couldn’t say goodbye.
Control is a dangerous thing. I was given control over these creatures, they were mine, my responsibility. From this, I have learned a) that life is agonisingly temporary, b) that sheep will continue to want milk more than pellets even when they’re far too big for milk, and c) that my brain can be astonishingly creative when it comes to processing guilt.
I saw their heads in my dreams for months. Sometimes in the darkness when I was awake too.
From this, I have learned that ‘I am the one thing in life I can control’ (Hamilton, track 13, Wait For It). My heart has grown a layer of steel around part of it. This industrialised atrium is where I pour adversity until I am strong enough to process it with my soft heart.
‘Don’t take it to heart.’
I will. I do. I store it there. It grows.
But my steel-capped heart doesn’t break as easily these days.