Farm-to-Market-Road had iced up and it took longer than usual to drive the thirty miles from the dark little farm town of Midvale out to the Old Man’s bleak 640 acres in central Idaho. Even driving carefully, my truck fishtailed on the frozen snow, but I’d learned to keep my foot off the brake and steer out of the skids. The stars sparkled above, and dark herds of cattle, all of them facing the same direction, never moved when my headlights hit them.
The place was all but impossible to find unless you’d been there several times before and it was where I went when I wanted to disappear for a few days when I began to feel too crazy to deal with the city—when I worried I might do something that would get me arrested—assault or aggravated assault was the most common offense that had jailed other veterans like me, but just the wrong kind of eye-contact with a cop might be enough. I’d been lucky so far.
It was late by the time I got to the Old Man’s shack and I assumed he was asleep when I opened the door, the only light in the room a glow from the crazed mica window in the woodstove. I laid a few chunks of split locust into the stove, closed and latched the door again, and pulled the junkyard rocking chair close to it. The Old Man had replaced one of its rockers with a barrel stave, canting it to one side.
I’d just taken off my coat and sat down when he came out from behind the quilt that hung from the doorway to his bedroom, a small cardboard box under one arm, carrying a paper bag in his other hand. He’s a big man, well into his seventies, still ropy with muscle from working the place by himself. Alone way out there, if he got hurt, he’d die before anyone found him—bleed to death or, this time of year, freeze.
He set the box and bag on the floor next to the tilted chair, said, “You see to them,” then turned, pushed the quilt aside, and was gone. The box shifted and thumped but I ignored it for as long as I could, watching the fire.
Finally I looked down and saw two tiny lambs, their legs tucked beneath them, curled into one another against the side of the box. With only the light from the fire, it took a moment to see their ribs bow in and out. They were not quite formed, unfinished, like an underdeveloped photograph. They’d been born at least a month too soon. It was well below zero outside, snow on the ground. I found out in the morning that their mother had frozen to death and the old man had cut them out of her. Normally, I’d have broken their necks, put them out of their misery, buy they didn’t seem miserable, only lost. Maybe I was just a dream to them.
Whatever the reason, I sat up with the lambs, feeding them with the baby bottle that had been in the paper bag, keeping the milk warm by tucking the bottle under my arm.
There was something otherworldly about them, as if they had come too soon from the place where light takes on substance and becomes life. Their eyes looked inward rather than out into the world, like unborn stars, I thought, taking shape over centuries, eons, in a faraway galaxy. I knew they wouldn’t live through the night, but, following the Old Man’s instructions, picked them up, one then the other, every two hours, and fed them with the baby bottle for their trip back to where they’d come from.
The wind picked up outside the cabin and Bear, the Old Man’s dog shifted in his sleep behind the stove. I wasn’t sleepy after the icy four-hour drive out there. I hadn’t known it—maybe the Old Man or Death had—but I’d driven out to feed the dead lambs. I lifted the tiny survival compass hanging on a cord from my neck, held it level and watched the arrow twitch, steady up until it pointed north. Good old north, I thought, you can depend on north to be there, where it is always ice and wind and distant shadows of polar bears in the blowing snow.
Each time I picked one of the lambs up, I expected it to slip through my fingers like smoke, yet I felt the heartbeat and the tiny ribs press against my hand with each breath. I lifted one up to my face and inhaled his breath, a faint odor of sour milk and almonds. I tried to look into his eyes but he wouldn’t admit me, or he was already too far away. It was good, I thought, that they had each other.
When dawn came, the last of the stars gone like a memory, a gold and bronze sunrise bleeding through the mountains, the lambs were dead. The old man came into the room, looked down at the two dead lambs in the box, put more wood in the stove and closed the door on the fiery wind trapped inside. He filled a coffee pot with water and set it on the stove, studying one of the star charts on the plank wall
“You ok,” he asked me.
“Yes Sir. Just thinking.”
Kent Anderson is the author of Night Dogs, Sympathy for the Devil, and Green Sun.