by Rachel Stein

Traveling in Britain for the summer with my parents dislocated us. We'd packed our life in boxes. We had no routines or friends to distract us and without that padding we jolted against each other like naked ankle bones. Mother's tight-lipped scrutiny shadowed us always and Dad's jolly oblivion highlighted our discord. Against that foreign landscape, Donal's minor eccentricities loomed distinct as craters of the barren moon.

I lay one night in a strange bed staring at the ghostly ceiling and the smudged floral wallpaper. The nights here in Wales didn't blacken, but remained a lavender twilight. My eyes followed the trellised roses up and down, up and down. I set my palm on Donal's belly where it rose and fell in gentle waves.

"Donal? You sleeping?" My eyes still wandered in the roses.

"Um, almost," he whispered back. "Why? Can't sleep?" He placed one hand flat over mine and with the other pulled my fingertips one by one—this little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home.

I pressed my hand into his belly. “Listen, Donal. When we go back to the States, I don't want you to come to Atlanta with me. I don't want to be married anymore.”

The stomach muscles hardened under my palm, then sagged as he blew out a long sigh. "Just like that?" he whispered. "I know I don't make you happy anymore, but what happened?"

He curled up next to me, his head against my shoulder, his knees drawn up to his belly. He hid his face in my armpit and balled the sheet in his fist. My hand reached around him and petted his lank hair. He straightened away after a while and rose up on one elbow to look down at my face, ran his finger along my nose and rested it in the valley above my lip. I threw my head from side to side, then covered my face with my hands. I felt too cold, hard for that wistful fingering, impatient for this conversation to be over so I could get up and go on with my life. I knew I hurt him, but I didn't care tonight. I needed to get it over with. I had dawdled in this direction for a year, hoping to avoid this pain until I knew it was required and best administered quickly.

"You know, Donal," I said into my hands, "I just don't want to be a kid anymore. It's time to grow up. I can't see you getting serious about a career, a life, anything."

He lay down and put his mouth to my ear. "I'm serious about you."

"That isn't enough."

"Maybe not," he breathed, "but it's all I know to do."

"It still isn't enough."

We both fell silent and lay almost next to each other in that purple light. Every so often I felt the bed shudder. I knew then that he wouldn't fight me, that he would simply grieve. I knew that Donal didn't oppose, he either gave way or veered, but his gentle despair irked me. I saw it then as weakness. Maybe I could have wanted him if he'd fought.

When I woke the next morning Donal sat huddled in the chair, watching. His eyes hung on me as I rose and dressed hurriedly, half turned. I couldn't avoid his gaze in that flowered box of a room. Neither of us wanted to face my mother's worried brow or Dad's hearty "Good morning, children," and we had no taste for sausages and yolky eggs. We slipped a note under my parents’ door, padded down the stairs and out the guest hall, and walked awkwardly together through the little town in South Wales, past the darkened fish-and-chips shops and the bric-a-brac stores for tourists. Donal sagged. His hands and arms fell like wilted flowers and his spine curved. His boots dragged along the cobbles. I held my breath and slowed to his pace.

Just past the edge of town we found a trail, too narrow for us to walk side by side. Donal trudged in front. Luckily that made it hard to talk. I held back a few steps so I could keep my own pace and not worry about bumping into him. The air lost its dampness but still smelled like wet sweaters. I watched my feet and set them carefully between rocks and clumps of bracken.

The sun heated the treeless hillside. The narrow path rose through blooming heather and as we walked we startled sheep. Along the path and over the hills they spread, wild-looking—wool in long mats stained brown with dirt and dung. Some grazed, tearing the heather in long jerks. Some lay in piles next to large, heaped rocks. Often the older ones ignored us after a sideways look from a turned head; they went back to munching or rambling on the winding trails they'd made over the hills. But the younger ones startled as we came up. Lambs bolted, bleating to the large ones, and tried to hide under their bellies, or to scramble over them if they were lying down. Sometimes this commotion caused a stampede with all the sheep scattering and bahhhing. The sheep startled me too. I was an intruder out here amid their yellow eyes and their sudden dashes.

We started down a slope and I found myself looking down the hill at Donal's back. He had his hands stuffed in pockets, out of the way. His head drooped and the white-blond hair trickled over each side of his neck leaving a freckled triangle, pink and delicate as the new layer under a scab. He hunched forward, shoulders crowded toward his neck, his worn chambray shirt a blue sack of light floating around his knobby bones. I tried to ignore the scrape, scrape of his feet down the trail as he half fell, half scuffed each step. I imagined choruses of relatives and PE teachers chiding him through the years—posture, boy, posture: chin up, knees up, shoulders back, forward march. I knew his eyes were on the ground. They usually were when he walked. Our house had been full of odd junk Donal had found—a rusting cast-iron bell clapper, a professional photograph of three children that he convinced visitors was an old family portrait, song lyrics written on a cash-register receipt, a prison token. I liked it all too, but I wondered, shouldn't we hang something less happenstance on our walls?

Marriage to Donal had been an adventure, almost an accident. I had met him on campus under a banyan tree. Looking up through the branches to see the Florida moon, I had caught his silhouette black against the crook of the tree. He followed me back to my room, like a puppy, like Mary's lamb. I took him home from college that summer and, partly to spite my mother, partly because I loved his funniness and his urchin smile, I married him. I marched down the staircase into the living room in a dress I had sewn the night before and took his hand in front of the piano. My high school history teacher was witness and I tossed the bouquet over my shoulder to Katie, my buddy since third grade.

Marriage to Donal was a long game that didn't end at sundown, a slumber party. In Nashville, Tennessee, with Donal I could eat tuna on saltines, Oreos for breakfast. We took our cameras to the grocery store and snapped women figuring bargains on calculators, old men reading labels of frozen dinners. We worked together at the bar, took classes together at the local university, and slept as curled spoons in our Salvation Army bed. Most of the young people we knew lived in similar fashion, still drifting in the wake of the Vietnam War, which had left us beached, stranded from the old certainties of our Puritan-ethic heritage. It was almost as though each new day we had to once again invent the names and meaning of simple things.

Somewhere along the line I learned to cook nutritious meals, majored in literature, earned my teacher's certification. Donal looked at me in astonishment as I dressed for student teaching in nylons and a solemn dress. He yawned in the evenings as I described the students, the boys who surreptitiously chewed tobacco, the thirteen-year-old girl with a high forehead like a china doll who cut school to nurse her dying father. I dreamed about her— that cracks formed on the dome of her forehead even though I sheltered it with my hand.

My newfound seriousness bored Donal, became a wedge between us. Occasionally I felt an incestuous revulsion when he reached for me in the night, that same sense of the ridiculous I used to have in seeing my father stomp to the bathroom in his boxer pajamas, thin legs comical beneath his rotund trunk. In the heat of youth can you desire someone who is as familiar to you as the inside of your wrist and as ordinary? I think for me desire had once sprouted from hope, from curiosity, from the mystery beyond the kinship. At age twenty-three, after five years of holy matrimony, I sensed with Donal that I knew all there was to know, and that perhaps we did not even like each other anymore beyond our habit of companionship. We were branches of neighboring trees that had grown warped in their proximity, rubbing in the wind and stealing each other's portion of light.

Now across the Atlantic Ocean, on the old continent, at the bottom of the hill, Donal waited for me where a shoulder-high stone wall broke the trail. He knew I'd be timid about crossing. If you didn't climb these centuries-old walls delicately, the stones might topple. In many places the walls were only rubble; no one seemed to have the art anymore of re-laying them in the neat mortarless rows.

Donal climbed and waited astraddle the top. He reached down and pulled me by the left hand while I inched my weight up. When I balanced up there too, ready to let go and jump down, he squeezed my fingers and brought them slowly to his lips. He looked at me over the clutch of knuckles. His head tilted down, he looked up from under pale brows with the blue steadfast appeal of a child.

"Please don't, Donal," I whispered. I shook my head, pulled my hand away and jumped.

I walked fast and hard up the next hill, where tall and black against the light stood a Dolmen, two upright stones bridged by a horizontal slab. Soon my back was wet and my calves burned. My feet slid in my shoes. At the top I tore off my pack and dumped it, then lay in the cold shadow of the Dolmen. Blood drummed in my temples. I placed my palm flat against the surface of the standing stone. Even with that small touch I could feel the size and weight of the stone, its age—a human marker here in the wild. People had set this place aside unnumbered years ago and these rocks themselves seemed human to me, something upright and distinct against this desolation of sheep.

My lungs slowed. I wiped my steamy glasses and told myself that really a month was only a moment of time and after that I'd begin a bright new phase alone. I pictured myself a serious hermit reading literary texts late each night in Atlanta. Funny how the name sounded old, while all my imaginings of it glared with glass and metal.

Donal didn't like cities or heat anyway. But what would he do? I couldn't picture him going in a straight line toward anywhere. He eddied so. One year he took pictures and smelled of acid from the darkroom. Next he took up trout fishing, tying flies each night and going off to wade streams on weekends. Once he spent all our savings on a new guitar. Last week, in Swansea, he'd seen a fiddle in a pawnshop window and had stood there, jabbering about the marvels of the violin, until I'd pulled him away. That fit. He'd probably get a fiddle and hide in some cabin on the river, driving the squirrels crazy while he learned to carry the bow.

I heard the thud of Donal's pack, then the crush of heather in my ear as he lay beside me. He smelled like a child: clean cotton and old sour socks.

"Sorry," he said.

"Oh, I know. Me, too. Truly, me, too."

He rolled on his side. He stretched one curl of my hair out to its full length, then let it spring back.

"But," he said. "Couldn't we just try?"

"No. We’ve tried already. I think we’ve done our best with each other." I sat up, ran my fingers through my hair to neaten it. I started rummaging in my pack, my head down.

He sat too. "You know, I can't help it," he said. "I can't just stop just because you tell me to."

"Oh Donal, I know, I know." I handed him a slice of fruit bread. "Here, eat," I said. "I'm sorry. I don't know what to do to make it any easier."

He held the bread in his hand, looking at my face. I touched his hand, shook it gently. "Donal, eat. Please." I bit my slice. It was moist and spicy, but my mouth was dry. I chewed a long time before I could swallow. Donal broke off a small bit and placed it in his mouth. Then he began absently tearing the bread, rolling little balls and dropping them on the ground. They looked like the pebbles of sheep dung sprinkled about. He brushed his hands on his jeans and pulled his pennywhistle out of his pack. He blew a slip jig, his fingers jumping along the tube. The windy tune carried thin and bright over the stones and the open land. The sheep below stopped and raised their heads. They turned them from side to side but since we weren't moving, they didn’t seem frightened.

I looked back at Donal. I studied his still face above the jumping fingers. His eyes squinted against the sun, the brows and cheekbones drawn together, and without that round blue gaze his face was harsh, mask-like: the skin here unfreckled, a boiled pink. I could have bitten his nose, fleshy and pocked as a strawberry. He noticed me watching and stilled his fingers. The last note hung. He took the whistle from his lips and waved it.

"You too," he demanded.

I shook my head. "I can't. You know I can't keep up.”

“Yes you can. We'll do something slow." He replaced the whistle, took a breath and began to blow the sweet air, Star of County Down. The sad melody dipped and rose, rested for a moment on a mournful note like a question, then rose again. I hunted for my whistle, placed the mouthpiece to my lips, and began to play a simple harmony. I closed my eyes and thought the tune. If I watched Donal's hands or even thought about my own, I got lost. I had to play it from the inside. The notes of our whistles seemed to rest against each other, thickening, the chords trembling like a bridge over us. Then we switched and I played the tune slowly while Donal knotted harmonies around it, above, below, sometimes joining on a single note.

I broke off first. It tired me somehow to match Donal. His enthusiasms just circled. Sharing them exhausted me, like trying to walk straight across a running merry-go-round.

"I'm thirsty," I said stretching and shaking the spit out of my whistle. "Let's go down and see if we can find water."

After a moment he said, "Okay." He added falsetto, "Anything you want, dear."

I touched the Dolmen again in parting and headed down. A lamb that had been pawing and tossing his head on top of the hill jumped and pushed his way under his mama. He stuck his head out, then drew back under when I passed.

I was lucky. At the bottom in the hollow ran a stream. I lay on my stomach beside it and scooped water to my mouth. Then I splashed cold water on my face and head, and held my fingers in, feeling it push between them.

Donal drank. "Listen," he said.

I listened harder. Over the trickle of this nearby water I could hear a fuller, rushing sound farther away. He began to walk along the stream and I stood and followed him. We curved around the foot of the hill and the rushing became louder, deeper. Suddenly, Donal stopped and held his arm out to warn me. Before our feet was a pit. The ground made a natural well and the stream fell into it. Down below, circling slowly in the turning pool was a dead sheep. The dead sheep floated on its side, small hooves pointed slightly up on stiff legs, woolly body rotating slowly round them, still, except for that slow turning. Mats of wool, stretched and weighted by the water, spread around the carcass. There would be no way to get that body out. I foresaw the bones, washed clean, sinking to the bottom of the pool. We watched it turn around and around. I had an urge to push Donal in, too, and be free. Just a momentary impulse—the idea that it could be done. After another moment I tugged once on his sleeve and we turned away.

We didn't talk about the sheep on our walk back. Sometimes that summer and fall, as I made my way alone through the streets of Atlanta, I would see Donal turning and turning in the well. His shirt still buoyed with air, his hair pulled clean by the current, he circled contentedly, blue eyes answered by the sun.

Rachel Stein is a recovering professor of English and Women’s Studies, getting reacquainted with the right side of her brain. She is working on linked stories that explore personal and social awakenings and movements.

About Sheep—I wrote this story in a class focused on character development, and played with setting to reveal tensions between the characters.