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  • Lambing Midwife
  • Valerie Due (bio)

"Listen to that. You hear that chuckle?" Dad's breath floated gray in the halo from his flashlight and I shivered deeper into my coveralls, my eyes gritty with interrupted sleep.

"Who is it, mama?" His voice flowed low and warm, and he began to murmur to the sheep as he pushed among their woolly rumps and wide middles. His arms hung loose, and his knees wormed among the tightly packed sheep without force or speed as he slid the light over noses and tails in search of the noisemaker. I swung my own flashlight beam toward the deep beller of our ram, Earl, trapped in the lean-to while the girls got the warmer insides of the barn. Earl pawed at the gate between him and us, his hoof knocking the wood jam.

"Yeah, well, it's not feeding time yet," I grumbled at him, but he pawed again and I moved against the wall to reach over and scratch his cheeks. He grumbled back at me and his eyes half-closed. Earl was dangerous if you got in a pen with him, especially if there were girls in that pen, too, but we'd spoiled him as a yearling and he craved scratching. Problem was, you'd be scratching and suddenly he'd decide to kill you. A ram his size—about 250 pounds—could snap your femur or crack open your skull with one blow. [End Page 15]

I heard the chuckle the second time and swung my light in the same direction as Dad's. Old Marybelle stood with her head low, silver teardrop nose nearly touching the ground, and I saw her sides clench and ripple through the six-inch-thick wool. Her eyes squinted and bulged and her nose stretched forward, then she whooshed a deep groaning sigh and chuckled again. She was in hard labor, and we needed to move her into a lambing pen so that we could help her if needed, and so that none of the other old ewes killed her babies when they came out. Ewes could be like that; the smell of a lamb that wasn't their own brought out an instinct to butt it into the ground with the same force that old Earl might use to kill you. Dad warned us, and within a year we'd all know this truth firsthand.

For a week now we'd been watching closely each evening for half an hour after we'd fed the ewes; it was one of the few farm jobs at which I was equal to my big brother. "Maybe better," Dad had said as he grinned over the worn green Animal Husbandry manual filled with photos, advice, and diagrams related to caring for livestock. I knew what he meant. I was good at working stock—better than my brother, but not so good as Dad—and I had small hands. "Good for pulling," he'd said as he showed me the section I should read on birthing complications in ewes. So while my brother slept, I spent more time shivering in the barn each night with Dad, watching and listening for the signs, the ewe that didn't push in to eat like usual, the one that hung back, the one that seemed uncomfortable, shifting around on her hooves, raising and lowering her head. The one that chuckled was the one you really had to watch for; once they began talking to their babies, they were well on their way.

"Open the pen." Dad's voice was soft, and his tone never changed from the same smooth song he'd kept up since we'd come into the barn after the alarm woke us for the 2:00 a.m. check, except I could make out words now. Usually I couldn't understand much of what he said to the sheep; his vowels slid together like Danish poetry, soft and guttural and indistinct. He'd start these slow words before we'd reach the pool of light fed by our windmill's lamp outside the barn door, and by the time we'd open the door the old...


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pp. 15-22
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