Not everyone knows about Pokey. The kids describe him as their Sheep Brother. I think of him as a good friend, a forgiving and simple fellow with a strange voice and an odd look in his eyes. He is different from the other sheep, not just in the way his spine twists and his front hooves point out toward the sides. Or that he was the only black sheep that stayed. He has been a comforter and a parable, a test and a reward.
Pokey was the first lamb born in our second year. His mother was an old, tired polypay with a freckled nose. One morning in February, before lambing was due to begin, M’barek headed out in the pre-dawn dark to feed the ladies and found a cold, wet, stiffening little black mound of lamb slipping away in a corner. Pokey’s mother had come in early, and she wanted nothing to do with the thing.
M’barek did what any soft-hearted, gentleman-farmer fool would do under the circumstances. He rushed back to the house with the slimy lamb in his arms and handed the mess to me. Then he returned to the barn and fed the sheep, changed his clothes and dashed off to work.
I placed the little wretch in the kitchen sink and started the warm water, enlisting the help of the kids to hold the baby’s head up so he wouldn’t drown. While they worked on warming the little body, I ran to the barn and milked colostrum from the old lady, which I would warm and feed to the lamb with a Pritchard nipple on a soda bottle. I continued to re-warm the water in the sink, sticking a finger in the little mouth to check for a sucking reflex and to feel for a change in temperature. As he warmed, his breathing picked up. Eventually, he tried to suck, and I fed him colostrum.
He came to life. We dried him with a hair dryer and several bath towels and laid him next to the heat register in the dining room. He slept.
By the end of that day, we would discover that his limbs were too bent for him to walk, and his face was sideways on his head, and his twisted spine left his muscles so weak that he had to be carried. Over the days to come, we would discuss whether and how to euthanize him. Many times. He wasn’t supposed to survive, and had we not been such fools, we’d have recognized this and moved on.
Instead, I cried over it and M’barek left for a work trip, and by the time he returned, little Pokey was managing a sort of crawling walk on his front knees. He was bleating at me like a lamb bleats at its mother. It was over: Pokey was my baby.
If I recall right, that was a terrible lambing season. I think our losses were high. It was cold and early, our mothers were aging, and lots of babies died. Curly lost twin boys that spring. I think we may have lost nearly a third of our lambs at birth.
We spared Pokey from castration, figuring he was weak. I carried him around like a toddler. He sucked on my earlobe to soothe himself and developed a taste for dandelion flowers. He had a hernia. His bellybutton got infected. If I was outside, he was with me, scratching along to keep up, or carried in my arms. He grew slowly, so he was carried most of the summer, but in time his legs straightened enough that he could walk. Then run. And now he can jump.
Still, Pokey is not the kind of sheep any real farmer wishes to keep. So while the ladies all found a home down the road at a proper sheep farm, Pokey was still here when I returned from my day of denial. Another friend was taking him home, and he was there with his pickup truck when I arrived.
I was not ready for that.
But we packed him up on the back of the truck and secured the old calf hutches over him, and while he waited, he stuck his nose into my hood, into the spot between my earlobe and my neck and just leaned in so I could listen to him breathe. I kissed the hard bridge of his big face over and over, inhaling lanolin and hoping the scent would sear itself to some deep and permanent lobe of my brain. He didn’t cry as they drove out of the yard. He is stronger than we are.
I am thankful that we made such a gorgeous mistake. Thanks, Pokey, for your gentleness and wisdom.