December, 1990; a routine miracle.

The back door slammed shut, the wind pulling the knob out of my hand. Cold. Almost zero. It was late to be doing chores, 8:30. I could see the light in the barn. The eager baaing of the ewes expecting fresh hay and a sprinkling of grain echoed through the trees, the blackness of the night so close it seemed to cling like sticky tar. Without a moon, or much snow, the stars were no match for the dark. I shivered and looked up. Orion and Capella seemed farther away than ever, pinpricks in the vast sky.

The ground crunched under my feet. Trees moaned, then cracked like rifle shots. On a night like this, the outdoors becomes a threatening place. Usually the three rabbits scuttle across the barnyard in the dark, dancing like wraiths in the starlight. But on this night I saw no sign of ghostly long-eared creatures. They have a hole in the east side of the barn where they scoot into the hay bales. I imagined them there – gray beside black beside gray – huddled together for warmth.

The back of the barn is not lit. I entered, picking my way carefully between the John Deere with its alien arm, the backhoe, at rest like a monstrous appendage, and the ancient gray Ford, our neighbor Jack’s friendly tractor. Its old engine makes a wonderful quaint sound in the July hayfields, steadfast and true.

A chicken flew, startled, from the Ford seat, and I jumped. But the murmur of my husband’s voice as he talked to the sheep guided me into the heart of the barn. I closed up the chicken coop; the geese and the ducks quacked under their breath and rearranged themselves by the back door.

In the big center pen are three old Dorset ewes and their five lambs – all about a month old. The ewes are calm and collected, old hands at lambing. I climbed into their pen to hug a few lambs who kicked and twisted, trying to escape my arms. But I cornered each one – Selma, Clara, Lulu, Henrietta, and an unnamed ram who has a bad eye – and gave them a Christmas pat. They still didn’t care. Only their mothers pushed and shoved to get close to me because I might have grain. Few sheep have ever “loved” me for being me. They aren’t like dogs.

We finished the chores, tarrying another moment to watch Lulu slip into the manger to eat from the top of the pile. It was then, when we were ready to come back to the house, that we thought we heard a tiny lamb’s voice. We waited, listening, but only the wind answered. Just the same we took our flashlights, walked through the paddock and into the long stretch of fence which leads to the several-acre pasture that stretches from the forest to the front yard.

Again we heard the cry – distinct now and frequent, accompanied by the throaty nurturing answer of a ewe who has given birth. Unlike the usual uproar of hungry sheep’s sounds, this ewe’s voice was speaking to an offspring. When we found her in a grove of small saplings, there were two lambs, one white, one black. My husband scooped them up, and Midnight, the old ewe, followed. She has taken a liking to dropping her lambs in the pasture on stormy nights, but she is an old accomplished mother and both Magic and Mistletoe, the new lambs, had round bellies and were dry.

It seemed like a tiny miracle that above the howling wind we had heard the cry – that we had lingered in the barn longer than usual, and that in the darkness and acres of woods and fields we had found them at all.

Midnight and her lambs were bedded in the middle stall. My husband left me alone with them while he went to the house to mix the warm molasses water we give to new mothers. The peaceful spirit of a barn at night descended quickly. The disruption of new lambs gave way immediately to a resettling. Five roosters in the peak of the rafters fluffed and reseated themselves. The geese slipped their heads under their wings. The 35 ewes in the main paddock chewed and pulled mouthfuls of hay from the manger. Midnight stood quietly, nuzzling her lambs.

I started to pick up the grain bin area. One empty garbage can had two tiny, soft brown mice in the bottom of it, trapped. The mice had huge ears and long tails and wide eyes that were full of fear. I tipped the can over, and they scrambled as if I were a cat, running for shelter under the gate into the lambing pen. A barn is a wonderful place to be in winter in spite of the cold, for a special presence dwells within.

When Midnight finally got her molasses water, she drank quickly. We refilled the bucket, then flipped the light switch. Everything fell into darkness and silence except for the rhythmic breathing of animals. Seventy-six creatures sleep together in this place, never mind the seemingly limitless number of rodents and other weasel-related population that live under the hay bales and barn floors.

I walked back to the house swiftly. It was too cold to be out in the open for long. By morning, more lambs had arrived, two white ewes, one black ram. Then another white ram. That evening the barn was more abuzz than ever.

It is still cold out there, and on Christmas Eve now when I look back at the house from the paddock, the living room lights flicker in the spitting snow. The house is such a warm, cheery place with the woodstoves hot and hungry for logs, gobbling one after another. A kettle bubbles; someone pours a cup of tea. I am eager to get back inside.

But for a moment I hesitate. One more hug for a newborn lamb. One more scratch to an old ewe’s ears. Then, guided by the tree near the little chicken coop, a tiny fir decorated with white lights that hold the promise of goodness, I follow the road back to the house and my family who waits inside. “Any new lambs?” they will ask.

“Not yet,” is the reply. “But soon.”

ABOUT THE WRITER

JANET GALLE and her husband, Pete, began farming in 1975 in Brunswick, and 10 years later moved their farm to more acreage in Bowdoinham. Apple Creek Farm is now run by their son, Jake Galle, and his fiancée, Abby Sadauckas, who raise sheep, cows, goats, turkey and chicken and sell organic meat and eggs at the Brunswick Farmers’ Market. This essay, which is set at the farm, was first published in 1990 in the Times Record and is reprinted with the permission of author.

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