Vultures. Again. As I drive the winding oak lined road to our new home, a home that had originally felt like the place I have dreamed about my whole life, I am greeted by about a dozen vultures. These giant black birds with fleshy red heads perch in trees and pick away at what is left of our sheep, the second sheep to be killed. Originally, I had imagined this home as a retreat, a place to heal that part of my soul that misses open land and grieves the loss of our wilderness. As more and more land is claimed by developers, the rolling wheat colored foothills seem to have an infection where mini mansions and subdivisions sprout like fungus. Little seems left, but this rural place with its three acres felt like my hoped for sanctuary.
This isn’t Dave’s dream. His dream is a brand new house with new fixtures on one manageable acre or less. For him three acres is overwhelming. Taking care of such a place is not how he wants to spend the rest of his life. But he also appreciates that we are moving close to his new job and that I am trading my easy commute for this place of my dreams. Because fairness is important to Dave, reluctantly, he agreed to move.
Included with the property is a herd of four wild sheep and Greg, a nine-year old Billy goat. The three nearly identical white sheep were purchased by the previous owners to eat the foxtails, stickseeds, and star thistles that cover the property. Greg and the black sheep are the elders of the herd who have called this place home since the original owners purchased them years before. Since the last owners traveled frequently, the animals have been left to fend for themselves. With food abundant for these grazing creatures, they have thrived with neglect.
The first sheep must have been killed shortly after we signed escrow papers. The following weekend, we filled a U-Haul truck, and brought the first load of boxes, beginning the arduous task of packing, sorting, and either giving to Goodwill or throwing away things that we have not used since our last move. As we unpacked essentials for the kitchen, my daughter and granddaughter found one of the white sheep while exploring the treehouse and tire swing.
“Mom, we found a dead sheep at the edge of the fence.” My heart sank. Just a few days earlier, while taking a shower, I looked out the window to find the sheep and Greg outside the window. “Baaaaaaaa,” I bleated ecstatically. All five heads looked up at once. “Baaaaaaaaa” I kept bleating to them hoping they would bleat back, but they were sure this woman was not a herd animal and were uncertain what she was up to. It didn’t matter. It was enough that they looked up as if trying to decipher my intentions.
Before I left for Sacramento to continue preparing our other house for sale, I asked Dave to help me bury our sheep. Greg, the old goat, followed us. Like an acrobat practicing for the Olympics, he leaped into the air, kicked his heels behind him, bounced onto a rock, and sprang to the ground below. A blithe character, he either did not understand the solemness of our task, or he was more accepting of the death of his friend than either Dave or I.
Together we found her and dug her grave. Side by side in silence, one shovelful of dirt at a time, we kept a reverence for this herding creature we never had a chance to know, and who now lay dismembered with rotting flesh near us.
Now only one week later, I am driving back up the hill to help bury our second sheep. The first death seemed like a fluke. These animals have lived here practically unattended for years. At the threshold of our becoming their custodians, they are being killed one by one. I wonder if this is some kind of karma for all the judgments I have had about people containing the wilderness and building fences. Now, my only wish is that our own fences were taller and more impermeable to these predators.
Sam, our neighbor, stops by on his way home from work to ask what happened. We talk about whether the sheep are being killed by a family of coyotes, by a mountain lion, or by a neighbor’s malamute which together with a renegade pack of dogs had killed a goat about three years ago. He hasn’t been known to kill any animal since, but his history raises suspicions. After awhile, I suggest we need to get back to work if we are to bury our sheep before dark.
“Do you want help?” We heartily accept his generous offer. Sam goes home and returns with a pick and a maddox to help pry the rocks lose. With the help of our neighbor, the grave is soon deep enough, and again we place this second sheep into the ground, cover her with dirt, and gather stones to place at the head of her grave.
One more week goes by. It’s Dave’s birthday. I awaken early to prepare for our children and granddaughter who are joining us today to go out for breakfast and to have a small celebration. When I go outside, only the white sheep and black sheep greet me. Vultures again fill the trees. This time it’s Greg. They sit and feast on his lifeless body, his teeth in a grin, playful in life, playful in death. I don’t want to tell Dave, not on his birthday, not any time. I don’t want to know this myself. It feels too awful to share, like somehow sharing it is going to make it more real. But then, there really is no way to not tell him.
“I have bad news.”
Dave is silent, a long silence. Then angry. “You wanted to move here, not me. I should have never given in. We’re from the city. We have no business here.” His anger catches me off guard. I feel too fragile to know what to say. When the kids arrive, Dave explains to them that he isn’t up for a party. They understand and leave. And then we are quiet, a long heavy quiet. The massive silence seeps into my bones, my arms, my legs. Immobilized, I sit like the ancient granite rocks around us, unable to think, unable to plan, unable to find a solution.
There is no solution. Though there is a small barn that could serve as protection, it is impossible to get within 20 feet of these wild sheep, who are used to fending for themselves. Even with alfalfa and grain with molasses to entice them, we cannot get close enough to catch them and put them someplace safe.
That night the black sheep is killed. The man from animal control comes out and tells us that it is coyotes, who are killing our animals. Dave says he wants to talk with me. “I’ve been thinking. I want to move into an apartment in Auburn. I don’t want to live here anymore. This is what you want. It isn’t what I want. I’m leaving.”
So this is how our marriage ends. If he leaves and moves to Auburn, we will have to sell the house, and I will return to Sacramento. We’ve had our share of challenges, but I didn’t expect this, not now. I am angry with Dave for not being willing to stick it out even though things are difficult. This isn’t our first hard times; it won’t be our the last, if we stay together.
On my way down the hill, I see our last sheep standing by the fence looking at me as I look at her, neither of us able to join together to save her. I know she will be next if we can’t contain her tonight, and I have no idea how to do so. A name for her comes to me: Angel, Angelina in Spanish, Angie for short. I say a prayer for her and vow to try to catch her tonight. It’s her only hope. This family of coyotes knows she is vulnerable and will pick her next.
My last two clients for the afternoon cancel leaving me free to go home at 3:00. I still don’t know how I am going to catch her, but at least I have a little time. When I walk into the yard, I notice she is in a small pen that has a large doghouse that she has climbed into for shade. This is the best chance I have. I race for the opening. She sees me and races as well. Just as she reaches the gate, I am there first and close it.
Later on our neighbors help Dave and me get a rope around her and coax her into the barn. Locked up. Safe. For the first time since we arrived, I feel we can offer protection to this last animal, who was left in our care.
That night, Dave says grace. “Dear God, please help us with the guilt we feel for not being able to protect our animals.”
Until that moment I did not know why Dave felt like he had to leave, and why staying was intolerable. What I have always loved about Dave is that he is both caring and responsible. Being unable to protect our animals must have been doubly difficult for him since he felt he should, that he failed if he could not. Not until it became possible for him to protect our last sheep did he decide to stay.
That night Dave apologizes. “Deep down I really do love you,” he professes.
“Way deep, right?” The illusion of living in paradise has faded as much as the illusion of marriage without struggle. It shouldn’t be such hard work, but it is.
Dave’s warm hand in mine, we walk our sheep down the winding lane to the mailbox. It shouldn’t be such hard work, but it’s worth it.
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