Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Sheep May Safely Graze
By Lyn McConchie
The woman who lay in the bed was old. So old that the veins showed blue through the paper-thin skin and the flesh had melted into a delicate skeleton under that same covering. Beside her the nurse sat quietly. It was a waste of money hiring her to watch the old lady, but then the family had it to waste. Her patient was a pleasant change. She might be uneducated, with the faint accent of her childhood, but she was always polite. Grateful for the caring, uttering her thanks in a weakening voice.
Soon the patient would wake and talk again, rambling through her memories. It was all she could do. It wouldn't be much longer now. The nurse had seen it before. After all, what was there to hold the old lady to life? She'd lived for many years, married, born children and seen everything that she'd loved dead or gone.
The nurse stood, stretched and sat down again. It was a shame for the old girl to have come down to this -- a deathbed in a fancy house in a city suburb. The nurse was a local woman and knew that originally the Murchison family had owned farming land outside the city, high in the hills.
There they'd raised sheep; a large flock cared for in the old way. Not surprising since both had come from another country to settle here. Alec Murchison had worked the land, bred his beloved Beth for sons and then watched them go to war. None had returned. Left were a daughter and the pregnant wife of the youngest son. Both women had left the farm though, claiming the work was too hard and the older couple too old-fashioned in their rejection of change. The daughter-in-law had married again and they never saw the child, or those who came after it, although through the trust they made their wishes known.
A tiny sound from the bed alerted her. Soft faded blue eyes looked up. The nurse straightened the bedding, held a cup of water to withered lips. Then she waited patiently as the wavering voice began to speak again.
"You asked about sheep, my dear. Why they can't be left to graze alone. I suppose you can blame people for that. We tamed them; changed them so long ago they don't remember how to get along any more. At home when I was a small child we always shepherded them. Not the way they do here, but in a flock with a dog and someone to watch over them."
She gave a tiny chuckle.
"You'd never believe the places a sheep can get into if they aren't cared for. Down cliffs, into holes, old mine shafts and streams. Why, they only have to have a bit too much wool and be in lamb and sometimes they can't get back onto their feet."
She nodded to herself.
"Cast, they call it here. Leave them like that too long and they die. You have to get them up, walk them about until they steady."
Her voice trailed off as she slipped into the increasingly regular drowse. The nurse moved quietly to the door to arrange for lunch to be readied while her patient slept. Next time the old lady woke it would be time to eat. It was, and Beth Murchison ate slowly, savoring last of all the raspberry jelly and ice cream.
She dozed again and woke, still remembering the sheep. So often she had saved them. From all the dangers of the hills and rough lands in which she lived and cared for her family's flock. She came of peasant stock and her family lived the old way. She'd never known any other until she wed Alec and left all she'd known to come here. Even here there had been dangers.
Once she'd climbed far down a cliff to rescue a strayed lamb. Alec had held the rope for her. It had to be that way. She could never have supported the weight of an adult man and a solid lamb. Not that either had cared. They were partners. She turned her head silently to hide the single tear. She'd loved only him; no other man could ever have matched him in her heart.
She'd loved her sons in a different way, but they too were gone. Her daughter had died childless several years ago. Only grandchildren and their children were left. The bloodline went on, but not the name or traditions. The family trust paid for her care, but none never visited. To them she was ignorant, uneducated and with foolish fancies.
Beth Murchison nodded to herself. How should they know, poor things? Brought up in noisy cities, living with the rush and bustle, shut away from the land and the flock. She spoke her thoughts aloud without knowing.
"The flock is life. They're what living is about. Seeing birth, and love, and death. All in their time. It's a hard life, working from dawn to dusk. Caring for the sheep, out on the hills in all weather. But it's all I ever wanted. Seeing the sheep graze in safety. Rescuing them where I could."
She looked at the nurse, not really seeing her.
"You know, sometimes I could understand how Christ must have felt about people."
The nurse felt awkward. She patted the wrinkled hand.
"Yes, dear. Of course."
Really, the old lady was fading fast, growing senile.
"Why don't you have a nice nap again?"
She settled her charge and reached for a magazine.
Beth slept, hearing again the bleating of the flock, which had trusted her. She knew every sheep, each lamb. They knew her too. Her grandchildren had made her sell the land, the flock was gone and yet, in her dreams they lived. Each woolly form known, as she knew the folds of the ancient hill on which they all roamed. She woke in the dawn chill still hearing the sound, the long, low, surf-like murmur, which is the sound of a grazing flock.
Beside her, on the comfortable chair the nurse slept too. The sound rose and fell, calling more urgently now. The flock, they needed her. She had to help the sheep. She was trusted, their shepherd. She must answer the call. With the final dregs of her strength she rolled from the bed and staggered to the window. Below, the great tide of sheep swirled about the house, the affluent suburb in which she lived faded into rugged hills. Lifting her eyes she could see mountains, purple in the distance, the light flickering on silver streams.
Below, the sheep bleated. Demanding. She must go with them. She was their shepherd. Theirs- as they were hers. She looked back into the room one last time, to where the nurse slept, to where Beth had been caged away from the hills to die. Then she laughed. They'd forgotten, all those wise children, all those city-born and bred. In the end shepherd and sheep belonged together, no city could divide them.
She dropped lightly from the sill and walked among her charges. They bunted her gently in woolly welcome. All was well, their shepherd was with them, and they could leave to graze in safety. Beth reached out to pull a loose tuft of wool from a bouncing lamb. It baaa'd and she laughed, winding the wool in her fingers and lifting it to sniff the scent of her flock. The cries were commands now and she moved to the lead. Skirts swinging about sturdy legs as she tramped away, the flock following.
Ahead she could see a second flock dropping down from the hills to meet hers. Soon they would merge and she'd be with Alec again. This was the way of the shepherd. All her life she had cared for the flock, now the flock had called her back and together they would move on.
She hurried. It would be good to see Alec again. Behind in the hot noisy city a nurse stared in horror and disbelief at an empty bed. Outside a man mowing his lawn muttered at the tufts of raw wool left on his fence.
But Beth was gone with Alec and their flocks. Into the green of silent hills and the purple of far distant sky-reaching mountains. The sheep had called. She had answered. For Beth Murchison it was a circle of the heart come to gather her in with loving arms - to hold her with sheep and that other shepherd forever.
Lyn McConchie started writing professionally in 1990, since which time she has seen thirty-two of her books published, with a further five sold. 277 of her stories have also been published to date, her work appearing in nine countries and four languages. She was crippled in an accident in 1986, and took up writing once she was no longer able to work nine to five.
Lyn has a small farm where she breeds colored sheep and raises free-range geese and hens, sharing her 19th century farmhouse with her Ocicat Thunder and 7479 books by other authors.