Lambing Snows

    “Lambing Snows,” Friend, Apr. 1992, 34

    Lambing Snows

    Dear to the heart of the Shepherd,
    Dear are the sheep of his fold;
    Dear is the love that he gives them,
    Dearer than silver or gold
    (Hymns, 1985, no. 221).

    The snows stayed late in the highlands that spring and gave Jamie great cause to worry. Fiona, his very own ewe, would probably need help with the birthing of her first lamb. What would happen if she stayed too long in the highlands and became trapped by the sudden fury of a late storm? She and her lamb might die.

    “Grandfather,” Jamie began over breakfast, “I’ll carry feed to the sheep today. There’s time before school this morning.”

    Grandfather poured milk onto his porridge. “We’ll not be carrying feed up the hill any more this spring,” he said. “There’s work to do below—the fields must be readied for sowing.”

    “But, Grandfather, the sheep could go hungry, especially …”

    “Especially those heavy with lambs,” Grandfather finished. He wiped his gray mustache with a thick cloth. “I know that’s what you’re thinkin’, lad. But they’ve only to scratch through the snow and find spring timothy grass for food now. It’s in their nature to know these things.”

    “But Fiona …”

    “Jamie, if she gets caught in the hills when her time comes, she’ll take shelter and give birth the way it’s always been done. When you’ve learned more about crofting (farming), you’ll find that it’s hard, hard work. There’s no room for soft feelings for just one sheep.”

    Jamie opened his mouth to speak again but stopped at Grandfather’s look. His eyes were the shivery blue of a November sunrise, his face a craggy reminder of Aberdeen’s moors. Jamie could not speak again, not in the face of Grandfather’s wintry look.

    Had Grandfather never felt the warmth of the work he was doing? Would he, Jamie, lose the tender feelings he now held for all the living, breathing things on the croft? Would he, one day, become like Grandfather? Once, he wanted to be just like him. Now he wasn’t so sure.

    “Take up your books now, lad,” Grandfather said. “I’ll take up my plow.”

    Jamie hurried through the soft fields that were waiting for the seeds of oats and barley. They were the staple of life for those on this land. Without them Grandfather could not keep his croft. So Jamie knew that the planting must be done on time and that the sheep must look after themselves.

    But Fiona … Fiona was different. Jamie knew that too. He paused and looked to the low hills beyond the meadows. This summer they would be covered with the lavender glow of wild heather, but now they were dull with patches of spiny gorse (a shrub) and dirty snow. Fiona was up there somewhere, waiting.

    At school, Jamie’s books lay open to the thoughts of Robbie Burns and the deeds of past Highlanders. But his mind stayed with Fiona and with remembrances of past lambing snows. It was during the lambing snows two years ago when he’d first seen her trembling legs take a step towards him and he’d touched her still-damp wool. Her mother had died with milk sickness, so Jamie had bottle-fed Fiona until she could join the other spring lambs dancing in the fields.

    But she always remembered him and waited for his visit. Then she cavorted around and around on sturdy legs as they traveled the craggy paths together. And she still hurried over to him when he managed to find chores to take him her way.

    The day was as gray as slabs of cold porridge when school ended. Jamie hurried along the pathways, eager to be home. Despite Grandfather’s words, surely he would give Jamie time to carry a basket of feed to Fiona. Surely there would be time for that much.

    But the milking had to be done, the hens fed, and the fires tended in the cooking stove. And then it was dark and a cold wind blew. Before they’d finished supper, rain clawed at the windows with sharp, scraping sounds.

    Sometime in the night Jamie awoke to a great silence. The storm had moved up to the highlands, and he knew that when he looked in the morning, he would see new scarves of snow tossed over the hills. Fiona was up there, waiting for him to come.

    At first light Jamie dressed in his thickest woollies and set out for the feed shed. He filled a basket with grazing supplements and began the long walk to the hills. As he climbed, he burrowed deeper into his mackintosh and hood, glad for the Wellingtons that kept his feet warm and dry.

    Soon he saw the sheep lying in the snow in soft, lumpy clutches. Fiona was not among them.

    “Fiona,” Jamie called.

    The wind carried his voice away from the hills toward Grandfather’s house below, where a light now shone in the kitchen window. Jamie hurried on, his heart cold with what he might find. He called again: “Fiona.”

    He stopped where the snow drifted against the stone fence. Should he follow the fence line or climb over it? Every moment counted. Decide quickly, he told himself.

    Fiona, in her heaviness, could not climb over the fence, he knew, so she would stay on this side. But which way had she gone? There were no prints in the snow, nothing to show that she’d ever been here. There were only the drifts, as smooth as the icing on the tea cakes in Mrs. MacCrae’s bakeshop window—except for that one small place where the snow mounded in a small, round hump.

    “Fiona!” He ran, dropped on his knees, and pawed away the snow until he found her lying still and quiet. Was there breath left in her? There’d not be much air under the snow.

    Then he saw and understood. Her small muzzle was tucked into a crack between the stones in the fence. There she’d found air to keep her alive.

    She pulled her soft, woolly face away from the fence, and something stirred against her. Jamie saw then that her lamb had only just come, looking as trembly and damp as Fiona had when she’d been born in the lambing snows. Bent beneath the lamb were tender shoots of timothy grass. Air and food. Fiona had known just what to do after all.

    Jamie looked up to see Grandfather standing next to him. “You were right, Grandfather. She doesn’t need me any more.”

    “But I do,” Grandfather said, “to remind me about the way of crofting that I’d almost forgotten.” His eyes had lost their shivery blueness and were warm and caring.

    Grandfather carried Fiona, and Jamie carried her lamb down to the warmth of the house below.

    Illustrated by Dick Brown