Grafted

Grafted

Farm.
Wind whips through rain.
Footsteps on gravel. They stop.
The knife unsheathed.

Dad with his knife goes cut cut cut cut and then stab in the neck. My turn. Dad shows me how to do it properly. I don’t cry because I’m a big lad to be using a knife. I hold the knife and Dad holds my hand and we cut the skin from the neck down to the private parts. We cut the skin up the legs but I cut around the neck all by myself and Dad doesn’t even need to help me much. I put the knife down careful because a knife’s not a toy. I don’t cry because there’s nothing we can do about it now. We sometimes eat them up for our tea because that’s the circle of life. This time we just need the skin. We both pull the skin off the body.

Rips, clicks, Velcro sounds.
Skin torn from flesh.

It’s not a bad thing. He can’t feel anything because he’s dead and that means you go to sleep and don’t wake up. Anyways, I’m a dragon and dragons don’t cry.

*

Farmhouse.
An alarm clock buzzes, bedcovers rustle.
The man turns off the alarm and kisses the woman.
Bedsprings squeak as the man gets out of bed.

Maggie thinks he’s too young. We got into a shouting match about that last night. But the lad’s asking questions. He needs to know how things are. This is us, our way. And he loves the animals. He likes to learn from them.

The bedroom door opens and closes softly.
Footsteps on creaky floorboards.
The man opens the boy’s bedroom door.

At first the lad doesn’t understand what’s happening. I touch the skin on his face. I feel his hair. His eyes aren’t open but I lift him out of bed. I dress him, put on his waterproofs, his big jumper. He’ll soon come round.

The boy yawns.
The boy stretches.
The boy opens his eyes.

He wraps his arms around my neck. I carry him into the kitchen, sit him down at the table. He stares into space. He blinks. Maybe that’s something he’s picked up from me, subconscious like. I never want to get out of my nice warm bed on a morning. But with me, it’s like a ritual.

Coffee grinds.
Kettle boils.
Cups clink and the man lays them on the table.

The coffee’s hot, nice and strong. I’m awake now. I drink another. I’m happy to be up. It’s a ritual and the lad doesn’t take his eyes off me. He’s always been fascinated by the little stovetop coffeemaker. Got a good mind, not like his dad. Inquisitive like. He drinks his pretend coffee, mostly milk. This lad doesn’t just want to know the hows. He wants to know the whys.

The door opens and closes.
Dogs bark.
Paws tap-dance on floorboards.

Used to be I’d smoke a few fags with my morning coffee. That was breakfast. The lad tells me about a hippo that sweats sun cream so it doesn’t get sunburn. He watches all them nature programmes. He tells me about an octopus that’s like a real Transformer. It turns into a flatfish or a water snake. Mimics the other animals. Fits in with its surroundings.

*

Farm.
A storm now.
The quad bike motors up a bumpy road.
The quad breaks. The breaks squeak and brake lights shine.
Engine off.

Dad shines his torch and I shine my torch. In the field the mammy sheep stands next to a little tiny baby sheep. The proper name for a mammy sheep is a ewe and the proper name for a baby sheep is a lamb. Another lamb sticks out of the ewe’s private parts. I see the lamb’s head and two legs popping out. Dad walks closer and I walk closer. The legs are all the way out now and so are the other legs and the lamb plops out onto the grass like Splaaat! Dad says it’s a big one. With her tongue the ewe licks off all the sticky stuff. First she licks off the sticky stuff on the big lamb’s mouth so it can breathe. She’s a very clever ewe. She’s clever but Dad says she’s not looking after the other lamb, the little tiny one. Dad picks up the little tiny lamb and puts it down near the ewe’s nose. The ewe turns away.

Loud whistle.
Smoke from the mouths of running sheepdogs.

Dad tells Bunk and McNulty to scare the ewe. Dad says it might make her look after the little tiny lamb. The dogs bark. The mammy sheep stands in front of the big lamb but not the little tiny one. Dad tells the dogs to stop. I tell the dogs to stop. I run fast as I can to the bike and get Dad’s bag from the trailer. From his bag Dad gets some of the coffee mush from breakfast and rubs it on the little tiny sheep’s bum. I rub it on the little tiny sheep’s bum. Then we rub some of the coffee mush right up the ewe’s nose and she sneezes and it’s so funny. I laugh lots but Dad only laughs a little bit. Dad’s beard is itchy and that means he’s trying to get an idea. The big lamb walks funny because it’s just a baby and it’s still learning and it keeps falling down. It falls falls falls but gets up and tries again. It can walk better now. It walks to the mammy sheep because it wants to drink the milk out of her tummy. It drinks the ewe’s milk fast because its belly goes in and out, in and out. The little tiny lamb stands by itself. It’s shaking all over. Dad’s beard is really itchy now.

*

The quad bike motors down a bumpy road.
Wind and rain, wild.

The lad sits between my legs, holds onto the handlebars, pretends he’s driving. The new-born lamb sits tucked away in my coat, zipped right up, so just his little head peeps out. The dogs sit in the trailer attached to the back. We motor across the fields and down the track. Wind whooshes my ears. Eyes streaming down my cheeks. I ride with one hand and with my other hand shield the lad’s eyes. He swots my hand out the way.

The quad bike breaks.
Stops.
Engine off.

An orphan lamb’s only got a couple of hours. I don’t like raising them by hand, away from the flock. I take the lamb to the farmhouse and hand him over to Maggie. I tell her if we’re not back in two hours give the lamb the bottle. Maggie takes the lamb in her arms. She fusses about the boy. She wants to know if his skin’s getting dry or if he needs to put another jumper on. She tells me in a stern whisper that he’s not ready. I tell him he can go back inside if he wants.

*

Wind and rain.
Sheep bleat.

I tell Dad I don’t think we should have taken the lamb away from the ewe. Dad says we had to do it. I think maybe it was because the ewe didn’t want the lamb. Dad says it doesn’t mean that. It just means that sometimes the ewe can’t look after all her lambs because she hasn’t got enough milk in her tummy. Dad says that doesn’t mean she’s a bad ewe. It’s not her fault she doesn’t have enough milk in her tummy. I feel a bit upset but I don’t let Dad see because I’m a big lad to be out working with Dad and the dogs.

We’re in a different field now. Dad shines his torch to shows me another ewe. With her tongue this ewe cleans her lamb but the lamb won’t wake up. Dad cuddles me and says it’s okay to get upset. Dad says I can go back home if I want. Now Dad’s being really daft and I’m still crying but I’m laughing as well because with his hand Dad picks up the ewe’s poo and he chases me pretending he’s going to splat it on my head. He puts the poo and other sticky stuff in a bucket and I help even though it stinks worse than when Dad’s been to the toilet after Sunday dinner.

The man throws the dead lamb onto the trailer.
The lamb lands like a sack.
The trailer shudders.

*

I shout at Dad for chucking the lamb. He tells me the lamb can’t get hurt now. So what? That’s not nice. That’s really not nice. Dad says sorry and that he should’ve been more gentle.

The quad bike motors along a bumpy road.
Slower this time.
The wind blows harder and rain comes down heavier.
The ewe bleats.

*

On the quad I ride slowly down the track in the dark before dawn, looking back over my shoulder. The ewe walks behind the trailer. I shout the dogs to follow behind the ewe. The boy shouts the same. I don’t let the dogs get too close to the ewe. I don’t want them to make her more upset. She wants to come. She wants to follow the lamb. She doesn’t know the little bugger’s dead.

Barn.
The engine idles, is turned off.
The gate creaks.

I lead the ewe to a drystone pen. The dogs do the rest.

Wind howls through heavy rain.
Footsteps on gravel. They stop.
The knife unsheathed.

I kneel down, hold the lad by the shoulder. I tell him that what we’re going to do might seem like we’re hurting the lamb, like we’re doing a bad thing, but we’re not. I tell him we’re doing a good thing and if he’s brave, he can help, he can use Dad’s knife. I ask the boy again if he wants to stop. He says no. He says he’s a dragon and dragons don’t cry.

I pin the dead lamb down flat on its back, legs in the air. I get to work skinning it. Around all four legs I knife circles skindeep, cut cut cut cut. I pinch the skin under the lamb’s throat and stab into it. I pass the knife to the boy. He takes it. His hand is steady.

The lamb bleats.
Man and boy turn.

*

My mam brings the little tiny lamb back out of the house. Dad says we’ve still got enough time because it hasn’t been two hours yet. The lamb is shaking, shaking. I talk to it. I say it’s okay, don’t be scared, pretend like you’re a dragon. Dad holds the skin we cut off the dead lamb.

The lamb bleats.
It cries.

Dad tells the little tiny lamb everything is going to be alright. He calls it bonny lad. Dad says the skin’s like a big jumper. He puts the big jumper on the little tiny lamb. He says to the little tiny lamb that we’re nearly done, bonny lad. I say we’re nearly done, bonny lad. Dad ties a string around the little tiny lamb’s belly so the big jumper doesn’t fall off. Dad says perfect, why aye. I say why aye! Then Dad gets the bucket with the poo and other sticky stuff and he pretends he’s going to slop it all on my head. He’s just pretending again. He’s just so daft. With his hand Dad scoops up the poo and sticky stuff and puts it on the lamb’s head. I do the same.

The ewe bleats.
The lamb bleats.
They cry.

*

In the barn, in a pen: the ewe whose lamb died and the lamb whose mother rejected him. The orphan’s wearing the dead lamb’s skin. The ewe sniffs the lamb, really sniffs her head. The lad says he’s hot now. I help him take his big jumper off. Maggie walks from the farmhouse to the barn. On a tray she carries the stovetop coffeemaker and cups. She pours us each a cup, a pretend coffee for the boy, mostly milk. The dogs sit at our feet. The ewe sniffs the lamb and looks at me and sniffs the lamb. The lamb tries to reach her teat. This little orphan smells like her lamb, but still she walks away, leaves the lamb to tremble and bleat by itself in the corner of the pen. I open the gate and go into the pen and pick up the lamb and put her under the ewe’s nose. The ewe turns her head to sniff the lamb again. She sniffs and sniffs…

*

…The mammy sheep doesn’t want the little tiny lamb with the big jumper on to drink the milk out of her tummy…

…The lamb takes a few wobbly steps towards the ewe’s teat. The ewe’s still not sure. She could butt the lamb or kick the lamb and that’d be that. One kick and she’d shatter every bone in the poor little bugger’s body. The ewe steps away…

…It’s going to work, son. If we want it to, it will work…

…Okay, Dad. Mam says, It will work. Just you watch. Okay, Mam…

…Do you trust me, son?…

…Yes, Dad…

*

The gate creaks.
Footsteps.
The ewe bleats.

I’m with the boy in the pen. I’m on my knees, my arm around his waist. The ewe turns her head to sniff the lamb some more. The lamb tries again for the teat. The ewe sniffs and she sniffs and you fucker does she sniff. The lamb teeters and falls and totters and falls and finally, finally, it finds the ewe’s teat with its mouth.

Wind hushes.
Rain hushes.
Noise of wind and rain noticeable by absence.

*

The lamb’s belly goes in and out, in and out. Dad picks me up and lifts me upside down and we run around like when you score a goal like Yerrrsss!

It’s quiet outside now.
Nearly silent.
But not.

Dad puts me down. Mam’s crying and I think it’s happy crying. But then Dad looks at Mam and his beard is very, very, very itchy. He picks me up and cuddles me and cuddles Mam at the same time. Dad touches the skin on my face and feels my hair. Dad says he and Mam need to tell me something that might be hard to understand.

We all look up to the sky.
We all hear the birds sing.

Walter Burrell

Walter Burrell lives in north-east England.

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