Armagh, Ireland, 1790
Lambing was a relentless duty, in the season – a beat around the ewe fields three times a day and once in the night. They couldn’t afford to let any lamb die from a difficult birth, and much less a ewe. Kathleen proved adept at the task. She learned how to right them when their labour toppled them, especially if it was against a water-filled ditch or a wrinkle in the earth, blocking the lamb’s passage into the wet, green world. How to knead their bellies to ease the birth. How to reach right into the dark and gently juggle a breached lamb, one-handed, coaxing it into turning. And how to free a fat one that had got stuck, how to find its just-poking hoof and pull it, a whole new creature, into the light.
So effective a midwife was she that her uncle told her one chilly spring morning he had a reward for her, beyond her board and keep. They were washing their hands for breakfast after the dawn lambing beat. She sat with him on the back step of the wash-house and waited, her sharp freckled face shining. He looked away, gruffly pleased at her openheartedness.
“Y’can have the orphans,” he said. “Ye’re doing all the work to raise them, anyway. They’re yours. You can breed ’em next season and sell what you get. Or build up a flock if that’s yer pleasure.”
Kathleen couldn’t stop herself from wrapping her arms around him. He grunted, bore it a second then shrugged her gently off.
“Right, so. Get some breakfast in you then, Little Bo Peep.”
That first year there were two orphans already, and they had another by spring’s end – the mother drowned in a bog during heavy rain before Kathleen could reach her. The second hurt herself badly during a hard birth; and the first had been too old to lamb, really. She robbed milk from other ewes and raised the orphans up; they had no fear of her and would run up and wriggle all over whenever she reached the stable. She cut and sewed blankets to fit over their little bodies for the cold nights, she let them suck milk off her fingers, she fashioned a teat from leather and poured milk through a funnel. Nothing was too hard – they were hers.
The next autumn, she put them to the ram and the following spring they lambed, in their turn. And each spring the same thing happened. Tired, Kath would sit back on her heels in the dewy grass and smile, watching her brood grow. It was a lot of work, on top of all the other cleaning, mending, cooking and mucking-out, but she was content.
By the fourth spring, Kathleen’s flock numbered fourteen. The whole woolly crew would follow her around the fields devotedly as she went about her tasks, a peaceful escort, golden-eyed and benign.
“You’re less Bo Peep and more Pied Piper,” her cousin Conor told her.
She smiled, proud and excited – fourteen sheep and lambs was no small fortune for a girl just turned sixteen. That spring she was busier than ever, attending her uncle’s flock with the same diligence as ever, but paying special, affectionate heed to her own gestating ewes. She kept them in a separate field, walled off from the others to make sure they got her full attention when she was among them, soothing and encouraging each quiet delivery.
One morning she was the first up, as always, and reached the lambing field as the first hint of dawn barely breathed in the blackness. She stepped into the field and noticed something strange – the sheep and lambs stayed down the far end, apparently sitting on the ground, instead of running or waddling toward her as they usually would. The last of the ewes was due to lamb any day, so maybe she was in the throes now and the others were keeping her company? Striding across the new grass, beaded with dull drops in the half-light, she saw a small shape in the middle of the field – something round and ragged. Her empty stomach clenched as she stood over the red wool, the staring eye, the splayed limbs. Then her head jerked up: what about the others? The clenching inside turned into a vice as she saw that they, too, were now nothing more than red-grey mounds. She ran to them. All but one ewe lamb had had their throats torn out. She checked each body: deflated, brutalised, dead. The sole survivor was huddled in the corner, where two stone walls met; she went to it, cradled it, and it butted Kathleen’s side, looking for milk. She let it suck her forefinger, feeling the warm-ridged roof of its little mouth, longing to cry but no tears coming. Then she pushed it gently away and knelt beside one of her first orphans, now a full-grown ewe in its third gestation. Or rather, now dead, its eyes glassy. Kathleen put her hands on its shoulder and threaded her fingers into the wool, dirty grey on top but warm and yellow with lanolin underneath. She combed the locks, her eyes burning, and looked around at the corpses. One of the lambs was partly eaten; the others, apart from the arterial wound in the necks, were untouched.
That was what outraged her the most, she told Conor afterwards: “The waste, that dirty bastard of a dog, the waste.”
For it was a dog that did it, some dog that had got loose in the night and got the taste for blood – who knew why, her oldest cousin said later; it just happens, sometimes. Once they started, they seemed unable to stop, and would keep tearing out woolly throats until none were left, or someone shot at them.
Her uncle and cousins were not adept at comforting words, but they did their best.
“You’ve still got a ewe,” said Conor, “a little one, but ye might get one or two more orphan lambs this spring. You can build your flock back up.”
She was too sad to smile at him for his effort and so simply shook her head.
“No, I think I’m done with sheep-breeding.”
“Ach, wait’ll next spring and we’ll see,” her uncle said.
Kathleen asked about the dog, and what was to become of it. She had never had this burning feeling before – this desire for justice. She didn’t know what justice might look like in this case but she knew, to the soles of her muddy boots, that she wanted it.
It was Charlie’s dog, it turned out. Its chain was broken, and it was gone – a rusted link snapped in the night. Charlie looked her full in the face.
“He’ll come slinking back,” he said, “and when he does, we’ll shoot him.”
She met his gaze a moment but dropped her eyes when she saw in it something she didn’t understand; a relishing of the shock she must have shown.
“Nothing else for it, cuz,” he said in a low, vibrant voice. “Sheep killer’s got to go.”
When the dog did come back, early the next morning, Charlie stuck his head into the back porch and yelled for Kathleen to come outside. He was standing by the washhouse with the dog on a short bit of rope. A skinny, shifty-looking creature at the best of times, it was bedraggled from a night in the open. There were rusty red-brown stains, still, on the white patches of its coat and it was cringing at its owner’s feet. Kathleen saw, with a sick slumping in her belly, that Charlie was holding his flint-lock.
“Here you go, cuz,” he said, “the miscreant. He dies. It were you he wronged, and so it’s only right you get to do it.” He had his strange gloating look again, watching her face. Kathleen refused to meet it, and watched the dog instead. It looked up at her with bleak desperation in its orange-brown eyes, as if it knew this could only end badly. She couldn’t bring herself to say anything.
Her uncle Henry intervened. “Get out of it, Charlie. You can’t ask the lass to do your dirty work. Give me the gun, or do it yourself.”
But Charlie held firm. “No, Da. It’s my dog and I says Kath is to do it. She has to learn sometime. It’s part o’ running livestock. And part o’ life.”
Kathleen stepped forward slowly, feeling half asleep. Her footfalls felt light, as if she were suddenly hollow. Her internal organs seemed to have shrunk far beneath her skin. It seemed hard to coax breath from her lungs and thought from her brain. She held out her hand.
Charlie laid the smooth-grained walnut stock against her palm.
“Careful, now. Keep the barrel pointed at the ground. I’ll show you what to do.”
Henry made a noise of protest but he had long since lost the final say over his sons, except Conor. Charlie watched her face, intent. The other cousins watched in silence too. But Conor couldn’t stand by.
“Charlie, this is pure shite. Kill your own mongrel. If you won’t, I will. Kath, give me the gun.”
They both ignored him while she watched Charlie show her where to point the barrel, just behind the flattened ear with its ginger tufts and pink edges. And how to hold the stock against her shoulder. And how to gently squeeze.
Conor swore softly but knew to step away, now. You don’t push or startle an armed person, young girl or no – not with that hard light in their eye.
Everyone held their breath. Kathleen’s eye drilled down along the barrel, until the spot of black fur behind the ear filled her head. The dog gave a hopeless whine. I don’t know if I can. But he killed my flock. And he’ll kill again. All she had to do was move her crooked finger a tiny fraction of an inch. It felt impossible. She shifted her gaze slightly and met the dog’s eye. They watched each other a long moment. Then she pulled her eyes away and back behind the dog’s ear, held her breath, and squeezed.
Later, when she watched Charlie drag the black, flattened body toward the carcass pit, she felt no solace, only shame.