Lanolin, First Place, Winners’ Circle

By Eric E. Wallace

It was easy to imagine the chalky white clouds over the distant Owyhees as milling sheep. For months Luke Garton had been awash in sheep, literally knee-deep in sheep, many fat fleeces flopping off obediently, others detaching sullenly and reluctantly. Often the sturdy ovine hearts thudded with fear and distress, much less frequently beat with dull complacency.

On this last day of his shearing season, Luke himself felt fear and distress—and certainly not complacency—as he grappled with his delayed decisions and last-chance deadlines. There were no firm hands to hold him down, no quiet voice to murmur little sounds of reassurance or to sing odd lullabies, the words made up, melodies rising unbidden from a choirboy past or inspired by the enduring grief of the present.

Luke might not have this dilemma if Elizabeth were still alive, but he couldn’t blame her or the other driver. Blame, he thought, interfered with making difficult decisions.

Grief was an even bigger impediment. Sometimes you had to leap over it like a frightened lamb bounding across a ditch.

Squinting in the midday brilliance, he carefully checked for cross-traffic and turned his rusting old Toyota toward Marsing. The steering wheel, frictionless after years of absorbing wool grease, slipped easily through his hands.

The truck clattered over a pothole. Luke thought again of New Zealand, where he’d have to learn to drive on the other side of the road. Well, if I act on the offer.

It was a generous offer, and he was certain he could turn the temporary visa into permanent residency and make a good career as a shearer down there. But they needed an answer in what was now less than three weeks.

Luke drove past Chicken Dinner Road—he loved the name, though today, like whenever he’d skipped meals, it made him salivate—and kept an idle eye out for his turn towards the Crestwood place.

He barely sensed the sun grilling his window arm, earthy alfalfa sweetness twitching his nostrils. During shearing months, he crisscrossed the valley so much he drove mostly on autopilot, his mind free to snip away at quandaries.

He continually returned to an overriding issue: was he really seeking opportunity or was he fleeing grief?

And he had his daughter to consider. Although Mirari was to change valley schools this fall, she could find it a challenge to move to the other side of the globe.

When he discussed things with her, she displayed her usual optimism. “There are over 25 million sheep in New Zealand,” she announced. “That’s plenty for both of us to shear!”

Thank God for Mirari. His miracle, not just in name or in her resemblance to Elizabeth, but in her resilience. Mirari clearly mourned her mother, and deeply, but she refused to curl inward. Instead, Mirari raised her bright, black, moist eyes to each new day and set out to learn more of what she needed to thrive in the world.

Even at age eleven, she’d already crossed that critical threshold between childish sureties and intellectual questing, and she was deep into the desire for knowledge, the desire for accomplishment. Somehow—had it been Elizabeth’s strong guidance?—Mirari avoided the deadening quicksand of social media. Her strong focus on moving towards adulthood kept Luke amazed.

However, while she loved school, Mirari had a harebrained notion—or was that sheep-brained? Luke smiled thinly—that she wanted to go into shearing like her father and like two relatives she’d never met: her great-grandfather Curtis, closely shorn by the Army before being butchered by the Viet Cong, and her grandfather Logan, felled by his daily Camels at age 63.

Mirari knew that decades back Curtis had sheared 181 sheep on one day. Logan’s record was 164. Luke, who wasn’t overly-competitive, had a best of 152. But there it was: three professional shearers in a row, never mind their many shepherd ancestors.

“Tradition is so important,” Mirari pronounced grandly, apparently more sure than Luke about the past and its hold on the future. “And if need be,” she smiled, “we can keep our tradition going in New Zealand.” She hugged the wooly sheep Elizabeth had knitted for her.

So far, Luke had not talked much to Mirari about that other important, totally-insistent factor: change. When you put tradition and change up head to head, like two rams fiercely going at it with stubborn skulls, change almost always wins. But how much of that abstract thought do you want to lay on an eleven–year-old? Even a wise one.

Change in the Treasure Valley particularly concerned him. In a way he was furthering it.

Off-season he was a draughtsman for a large architectural firm. The firm worked for major developers whose projects continually chomped away at the amount of farm land. Luke knew that his skillful renderings of condos and shopping centers were contributing to the decline in the number of ranches and in the sheep population.

Fewer sheep, less shearing. He felt trapped in an irony partly of his own making.

A shaggy brown mutt dashed across the road. Luke sounded the Toyota’s rough-edged horn. The dog tunneled into tall weeds.

“Believe in portents,” Elizabeth frequently said. “They’re cousins to intuition. Pay attention to them.” But this was only a reckless dog. Not even a black cat. Luke returned to considering his dilemma.

He focused on the other offer, one which severely added to the complexity of his decisions.

Last week, his architect bosses summoned him. They told him they wanted another fulltime draughtsman, year-round. Luke had the position assured, but it almost certainly would mean an end to his shearing career. An end to the family tradition.

If Luke couldn’t oblige, the managing partner said, sighing like a ruminal puncture, Luke’s part-year job would go away. The sigh ended with a flash of well-polished teeth.

The steering wheel tugged like an impatient retriever yanking on a leash. Luke made the turn onto the lane to the ranch. He sniffed at the tang of mint.

Ahead waited his last flock of the season.  Unlike the cloud-sheep over the mountains, who were free to roam, to transform, to vanish, the flock at the old Crestwood place was constrained by fences and dogs and an ancient, inbred sense of place and duty.  They didn’t know they were waiting for Luke and his shears and needles and clippers. They simply waited. Could be a good thing, not knowing, not thinking.

As the truck rattled down the last quarter-mile, Luke tried to distract himself by remembering the names in this flock, a primer of Idaho places. He tallied with his slick fingers.

Among the Merinos were Melba, Ola, and Sweet.  There were Rambouillets named Star, Jerome and Emmet, Romneys named Hailey and Challis and Lincolns called Ada, Gardena and Shoshone. One of his favorites was Iona, a mischievous Wensleydale.

His smile slid away.  The naming whimsy came from the Widow Mincher, also waiting just ahead.

Only a little older than Luke, Yvonne Mincher was capable, charming and smart. This past year, she’d been flirtatious in a sympathetic kind of way.

“You must have the smoothest hands of any man in the valley,” she said at his last visit, slow to end her handshake. Was she setting her sights on him? Not something he needed to deal with. Not now.

The Toyota hiccupped, as if to draw Luke’s attention to the fact they’d rounded the last corner and were coming into the broad main yard.

He pulled up near the entrance to the barn. The two big sheepdogs, Cowley and Triumph, loped over with easy familiarity. Not a bark between them. Luke envied those dogs. They knew what they had to do, did it exceptionally well and were rewarded with food, comfort and lots of loving encouragement. We should all be so lucky.

As he was dropping the tailgate, Yvonne Mincher, not barking either, came up quietly, smelling of a cheerful, lemony soap. They made small talk while Luke got ready. Which is to say, Yvonne talked, brightly, and Luke mostly grunted, carrying a fresh tarp and his tools into the barn.  He left the shearing board on the truck. Here, with a small flock, the barn floor was a fine place to work.

The sheep, already in their stalls, began a ragged chorus of bleats and baas.

Luke set up near Yvonne’s skirting tables. Her flirting tables. He declined her offer of lemonade—”well, maybe afterwards then?” she said—plugged in his power shears and set right to work.

Yvonne’s hired hands—the ageless Stumpy Wilson, limping cheerfully about in sloppily-patched Carhartts, and Stumpy’s grandson Brandon, gangly and all Adam’s apple—did the sheep fetching, while Yvonne dealt with the fleece and the piles of detritus.

Luke worked quickly. He crutched the legs, wigged the eye wool, sheared, gave shots, cut nails, checked for injuries. Sometimes he muttered or crooned softly. He was part barber, part manicurist, part vet, part animal counselor, part entertainer. And part wrestler.

He thought about his high school wrestling days. Here he was, still crouched, still trying to overcome other slippery beings, getting them into holds, flinging them skillfully on their backs, subduing them. These days the only referee was internal, but tough: Luke didn’t cut himself much slack.

Deftly, he quieted convulsively-kicking sheep, touched styptic to the occasional flesh nicks, blotted the sudden spots of blood which his father thought were symbolic—if you wanted, you could tie everything back to religion—and quickly undid the rare cord snarls with precision flips.

The rhythms were steady and comforting. Except for the modern shots, there was a timeless, meaningful flow, everything connecting far back into history.

Endeavoring as usual for complete fleeces, Luke remembered trying to peel apples as a kid, long skins unwinding, unwinding, unwinding as he held his breath until a dangling curl finally dropped as one, a small helical triumph.

New Zealand apples are supposed to be really good. But the apples at the fruit stands out here were good too. He loved crunching on Honey Crisps as he looked down from the rim toward the gorgeous Snake River valley. Then again, the vistas in New Zealand were said to be among the best in the world. But then again—aargh!

His thoughts were a wooly tangle. They needed cleaning, teasing, carding. Baa!

He speculated about ovine emotions. He wondered if ewes were embarrassed at their new nakedness, rams were unsettled at losing their imperial locks. But each sheep merely seemed to shiver briefly, shrug it off, ready to go back to the stall or into the pasture, forgetting.

He de-tufted the shears. How wonderful to just to shrug things off, to forget.

For the sheep, all was of the moment. Mostly it was noses down, lips bared, big teeth moving among compliant grasses and startled grasshoppers, pushing at weeds and clumps of earth and the dusty crust and crumbles of the centuries-ago Bonneville Flood. Eat and eat until you rest. Eat and eat again. Until you die. There was much to be said for that.

Being morbid wasn’t in Luke’s character. But grief had its own big teeth, and it continued to bite hard, exposing the scree of loss, the bedrock of sadness.

Elizabeth, his wife, his love, his other essential self, out early on a sunny Idaho morning, driving through a familiar rural intersection, and oblivion conspired with fate and timing, with one of those milliseconds which makes all the difference in the world, and she was gone.

Luke replayed it and replayed it, trying to replace the tragedy with a different outcome. All futility. You can’t unshear a sheep.

Now he feared for Mirari’s safety with an unsettling, rabid concern.

During the school year, he fretted as she rode the big yellow buses, not immune to dangerous rural intersections. In the summer, shearing, he worried, although his daughter was well-looked after by Aunt Suki and a neighborhood of friendly kids. Accidents still could happen. Sometimes he would bring Mirari out on a job. But then he simply worried up close. On the ranches lurked barbed wire, dogs, wasps, poisonous plants, rusty nails, big water troughs—all part of his fears.

He tried to relax. Would moving to New Zealand help? He wasn’t sure. Sweat trickled down his back. His shearing pants chafed.

“41, Mr. Garton! Going fast!” Brandon’s voice cracked as he led away another naked Merino.

Luke wasn’t counting. His hands did the work. His mind roamed.

As he trimmed a ewe’s nails, he remembered himself as a wide-eyed boy watching his father showing him the cloven hooves, assuring him that sheep were innocents and not devils. But Logan’s clear message was that Satan was never far away.

If the devil’s in the details, Luke thought, how could he stay in Idaho and give up shearing, watching the long fields slowly succumb to rows of drab houses and dreary strip malls? How could he give up the long Garton family tradition-in-place? Or does place not matter, only who you are?

He flipped a remarkably-docile Iona on her back. The silver Wensleydale stared at him with her wide eyes. Tickle my belly. Make me light and new. He sheared her, mumbling nonsense syllables while struggling through his competing choices.

Stay in Idaho and shear but need a new job for the fall and winter months. Move to New Zealand, shearing until they run out of their 25 million sheep. Remain here, but switch to full-time architecture, watch beloved pastures become pavement.

Luke glanced at Yvonne, who sent back a kind smile. Marry a rich widow, ha-ha.

My brain needs a shot of lanolin.

His morose attempt at jocularity freed a question. What would Elizabeth do?

He heard an immediate answer: under the purr-whine of the shears, beneath the low complaints of the sheep, behind the clumping and shuffling of the heavy bodies, he heard his wife’s soft, soothing voice.

It’s all about intersections, Luke. Remember how we first met, colliding between the rows of rodeo booths? If you’d not wanted a churro or if I’d turned left instead of right, we’d never have met, never have loved each other.

You think you lost me at another intersection. But wherever you are, Luke, I’ll be with you. Forever. You know that, don’t you?

And now at this latest crossroads, deciding which way to turn, do you remember what I used to say about small signs, portents?

He blinked away sweat and tears. Stumpy, bringing over another sheep, was saying something. “Last one, Mr. Garton. Here you be!”

Luke focused and saw the final sheep of his shearing season. The large, bright eyes looked at him expectantly. Luke sized up the animal. It took him a moment to realize it was one of Yvonne’s imports, a big, curly-haired New Zealand Romney.

Portents.

With fierce, unconditional love, Luke sheared the animal. What fell—in one big, warm embrace of wool—was a perfect, complete fleece.

copyright © 2018 Eric E. Wallace