Sheep, 1976

by Rachel Stein

Backpacking around Britain for the summer dislocated my husband and me. My parents had given us this trip for my college graduation, so we’d packed our life in boxes, hoisted our hiking gear, and flown across the Atlantic. Here, we had no separate routines or friends to distract us, and without that padding, Tim and I jolted against each other like naked ankle bones. My brain raced with all I didn’t say aloud, and Tim’s forehead creased with worry. I hadn’t wanted to ruin our travels with my pronouncement, but as our return to the U.S. loomed, I mustered my courage to speak.

We treated ourselves to a B and B near Swansea, where we could bathe, and sleep on a mattress. I lay in that strange bed staring at the ghostly ceiling and the smudged floral wallpaper. The nights here 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 Tim's belly where it rose and fell in gentle waves.

“Tim? You sleeping?” I spoke quietly, aware of other guests in the next room. 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, Tim. When we go back to the States, I don't want you to come to Atlanta with me.” He’d made clear his reluctance to leave his friends and pursuits in the small North Carolina mountain town we’d made home for the last few years. I said the harder words, the ones he’d hate to hear, “I don't want to be married anymore.”

His 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 I don’t want to lose you.”

He curled up next to me, his head against my shoulder, his knees drawn up. 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 awhile and raised 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, too hard for that wistful fingering, impatient for this conversation to be over so I could 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 half a year, hoping to avoid causing him pain but now urgency made me blunt.

“You know Tim,” I said into my hands, “we’re headed in different directions. I’m set on grad school, then teaching. I want to have kids someday. But I can't see you getting serious about a career, a family, anything.”

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

I shook my head. “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 he wouldn't fight me; he would simply grieve. Tim 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, Tim 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 our host and we had no taste for sausages and yolky eggs. We padded down the stairs, out the guest hall, and walked awkwardly together through the little town, past the darkened fish and chips shops and the bric-a-brac stores for tourists. Tim sagged. His shoulders and arms drooped and his spine curved. His boots dragged along the cobbles. I held my breath and slowed to his pace, one more small aggravation.

Just beyond the edge of town we found a trail, too narrow for us to walk side-by-side. Tim 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 damp 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 ewes 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 bah-ing. 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 toward Tim's back. He had his hands stuffed in pockets, out of the way. His head hung and the white-blond hair trickled over each side of his neck leaving a freckled triangle at the back, 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.

Eighteen years old and full of anti-war zeal, I’d married Tim so he’d look like a family man when he appeared before the draft board to plead for alternative service to Vietnam. We’d spent our first year as man and wife in rural Tennessee where Tim worked at the state hospital for the mentally retarded. Whenever I felt isolated and out of place, I blamed President Nixon for sticking us there, where the tiny rural library had only romance novels and mysteries on its fiction shelves. At night, Tim and I slept curled spoons in our thrift store bed, comrades dreaming of life beyond the war.

Oh, how we rejoiced when the draft ended and Tim was released. We whooped and hollered and hugged and kissed and swung each other around and around our small living room. Change in the air. The war waning. We two free to go on with our lives. We packed up our old station wagon and headed to a small city in the North Carolina mountains where I enrolled at the university to earn a teacher’s license and Tim found work as a printer’s assistant.

Our paths diverged. I thrilled to plunge head-first into a modernist novel or a collection of contemporary poetry, my brain fully active once again. Tim was content to set type all day, then enjoy an old-time music jam in the evening, and perhaps hike on the weekend. When he tried to lure me out to play, I jerked my head toward the thick textbooks covering my desk. I was a killjoy, but I needed to catch back up after my lost, drop-out year. Now that anti-war activism no longer yoked us together, the differences in our temperaments loomed large.

In my senior year, when I student-taught at a county high school, Tim looked at me in astonishment as I dressed in nylons and a solemn dress. He yawned in the evening as I described the students, the boys who surreptitiously chewed tobacco, the fourteen-year-old girl with a high forehead like a porcelain doll, who often cut school to nurse her dying father. I dreamed about her: cracks formed on the dome of her forehead even though I sheltered it with my hand. My seriousness about teaching bored Tim, wedged between us.

Worse, when I won a rare scholarship to a graduate literature program in Atlanta, I felt Tim lean back on his heels at the prospect of this move. I caught him studying my face with a puzzled expression. His eyes skittered away without meeting mine. Even though he agreed to come with me, I knew his heart wasn’t in it. We loved our life in the mountains and he had no wish to leave. I was asking him to sacrifice for my dreams and ambitions the way I’d stood with him against the war. His reluctance wounded me. It made me consider what exactly held us together now. Perhaps just our shared history. Perhaps not enough.

Sometimes when Tim reached for me in the night, I curled further into myself and pretended sleep. My desire had once sprouted from hope, from curiosity, from the mystery beyond the kinship. At age twenty-two, after four years of holy matrimony, I sensed I knew all there was to know of him, and of myself as his wife. 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, on the old continent across the Atlantic Ocean, Tim waited for me at the bottom of the hill 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 mortar-less rows. Tim 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 gazed 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, Tim," 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 dolmen’s cold shadow. 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 its size and heft, 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 soon I'd begin a bright new phase alone. I pictured myself a serious hermit reading literary texts late into the Atlanta nights. Funny how the name “Atlanta” sounded old, while all my imaginings of it glared with glass and metal. Tim didn't like cities or heat anyway. But what would he do on his own? I couldn't picture him going in a straight line toward anywhere. He eddied so. One year he took up geology and spent weekends hiking to exposed rock formations. Next, he spent all our savings on an old piano with broken strings that six of his friends lugged into our apartment like coffin bearers. Most recently, in Swansea, he'd seen a set of Irish bagpipes in a pawn shop window and had stood there jabbering about the marvels of Uillean drone harmonies until I'd pulled him away. That fit. He'd probably get a set of pipes and hide in some mountain cove, driving the wildlife crazy while he learned to squeeze the bag so it didn’t bleat like a dying animal.

I heard the thud of Tim'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."

He rolled on his side to watch me. 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 Tim, I know, I do know." I handed him a slice of Welsh fruit bread. "Here, eat," I said. I gave him an open look, let the sadness show in my eyes. "I'm sorry. I don't know what to do to make it any easier."

He held the bread in his hand, eyes on my face. I touched his hand, shook it gently. "Tim, eat. Please."

I bit into my slice. It was moist and spicy, but my mouth was dry. I chewed a long time before I could swallow. Tim broke off a small piece 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. We’d bought a pair of whistles in May and learned together how to move our fingers over the note holes. Even then, I’d been biting back words, but Tim had no idea.

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 weren't frightened.

I looked back at Tim. 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, masklike: 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 between his lips, took a breath and began to blow a sweet air. The sad melody dipped and rose, rested for a moment on a mournful note like a question, then rose again. Humoring him, I hunted for my whistle, placed the mouthpiece to my lips, and began to play a simple harmony. The notes seemed to rest against each other, thickening. I had once loved sharing music with Tim, but now our chords grated on me. I stopped my breath, cutting off this last resonance between us.

I longed to be uncoupled, free to move in my own direction without Tim’s sorry reluctance dragging behind. I ached to be my separate, single, solitary self.

"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 half-grown lamb that had been pawing and tossing its head on top of the hill jumped and pushed under a ewe, then stuck its head out, but 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.

Tim drank. "Listen," he said.

I listened harder. Over the trickle of this near-by 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 Tim 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.

It 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 Tim in, too, and be set free. Just a momentary impulse--the idea that it could be done. I breathed, felt my heart pound in my chest, and watched the sheep make a complete circle. After another moment I tugged once on Tim’s sleeve and we turned away.

We didn't talk about the sheep on our walk back. Sometimes in the fall, as I made my lone way down busy urban streets, I would envision Tim turning and turning in the well. His shirt still buoyed with air, his tattered hair fanned out across the surface, he spun slowly, flat blue eyes blind with sun.

Rachel Stein is a retired English professor who lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She’s completing a collection of linked stories. Her fiction has been published in Minerva Rising, Word Peace, and The Great Smokies Review, and one story was a semi-finalist for the Doris Betts story competition. She has also read several memoir stories on the National Public Radio show, “51%.”