The first I noticed was your thumbnails, large, round and flat, like two plates. They were marked with yellowed ridges and covered in grime where they met the cracked tips of your thumbs. I couldn’t help looking. Perhaps I had sensed it already, in a mere handshake that morning. Perhaps that handshake had convinced me to stay and watch you skin the sheep that afternoon?
Not the stench of the two-day-dead ewe, the scuds of wool fallen to the air like a dandelion clock, nor the skin slow peeling back, revealing, not blood-lust…
I was so taken by your grimy thumbnails. And, I was crouching so close in that lost field one afternoon. We had hauled the ewe out of a pit. Found dead the previous dawn, her eyes gone, pecked out by the crows. The ewe, one of three Frieslandto start up a dairy herd, had been brought on to the island a week before; no one could get near her, not time enough even to give her a name. Some thought: she may have starved herself or she sure perished of thirst, seemingly terrified since her arrival, shuddering at the hill edge against a stone wall. The farmers think otherwise: redwater, blackleg they mumble like proverbs or curses.
She was already well swollen, her legs shooting out like on plastic models of farm animals. Rigor mortis sets in almost immediately. We had hauled her out of a pit with a blue rope around her shockstuck legs. A newly-dug pit crammed with bits to bury: a pram frame, rusted so. (And, we had always planned to repair it.) Oil barrels: two; rusty too. I forget what else. I remember that the pit was not as deep as I had expected.
Nor had I expected you to reach for some latex gloves, to stretch the opaque white rubber over your hands, your grimy nails, to then pass me a pair. And a knife.
Dead two days! a neighbouring farmer had laughed. The sheep were only there a week, and on the third day he had come round, bringing his ram to cover them: a lame, runt-of-the-litter sort of ram, with a snub bulldog nose and tail and a sloping backside. Not much go on him, one bad leg, but still a hold on his manhood. He’ll cover them yet, reliable I call him. Not like some of those other fellows on this island. Nor some of the fillies for that matter… A lame ram, and a mouthful of filth to go with.
She’s been dead two days. If she was still warm I’d have it done in five minutes. You take it across the chest, sharp through the udder, and you thump your fist right through. It’d slip out like out a woolly jumper. He was laughing. They are often laughing. Sure, you won’t get a fleece out of that one, the wool starts to fall as soon as they’re cold, what are you wanting it for?
I was merely there to watch your thumbnails, but you handed me a knife, and had me hacking across the belly like I would a fish. (Remembering how I did a fish. A trout, and not having noticed, her eggs lay still in her gross belly, red swollen lengths of trout roe under my knife.) The knife was blunt. The skin wouldn’t fall. I pierced the flesh in places, feared the great swelling would pop, pour all over, near gave up. You kept on.
A grey day. So calm that the stench of the sheep swarmed in foul clouds around us, our knives tearing gashes in the close air.
Not a limp calm, on which one leans collapsing through the air so flimsy it is hard to stay upright. No. A thick calm. A thick, slow calm in which a cloud sat above the Big Hill at dawn will descend so slowly that only as night falls will it begin to shroud the hill. Still, so dense that walking one has to physically push through it. Speaking, the voice ricochets over the air, like a stone skittering across a still sea. But we are not speaking.
We are in the grass crouching, kneeling, crawling with our knives over this ungiving sheep. And the kids run up and gape or try pulling one another away and cry a bit: It stinks I’ve had enough Let’s go Look Wait a second. They are silently challenging one another to surrender. One boy, pale, his tee shirt pulled up over his mouth and nose, shrinking behind another’s shoulder, his eyes caught in the slow manoeuvres of the operation, and his body turned away, home. And a horse being lunged nearby starts at the stink, shying, and the two more ewes and the lame ram still atop the hill, and probably still shuddering back against the stone wall at the hill edge.
There is a membrane, white, cobwebbing between the skin and the flesh. A sort of caul. I was cutting the underside, you up the chest to the neck and around the knees, but it was not loosening. We hauled her onto her other side so you could continue around her neck, continue the strange collar you were picking. I continued along the belly, my blunt slice from the chest towards the udder. The udder was stinking, sour, a lilac-stained blue. A flaccid piece of flesh flopping to the floor. Lilac-stained blue, with a curded yellowing milkmass on her teats. Eventually my latex fingers felt a loosening pushing through the membrane, in around the deep belly the skin had started to go, and it was somehow easier on her right side. For an instant that stretch of membrane had held the mystery. It was the secretive plane where the sheep was no longer dead ewe, not yet mutton. Beneath the skin, sheepform shrinks to meatform. And the membrane, that silken slip of soul, had dissolved in our touch.
You have joined me on the belly, your knife is sharper and you are ahead, at the udder. I see, suddenly your knife carving through the udder, flapping it open to form a butterfly.
The day of the sheep market at Maam Cross, a ram had been on the boat coming in. The head tossing, it dragged its puffed-up new owner on a long rope around its horns. Its wool was clumped, yellow, with grease at the roots. Two hundred quid from Maam Cross. Most of the men go off the island for the market. Often they won’t come back in for days, sometimes weeks, particularly in winter their absence drags on long. Blaming a bad swell, they remain in their boots and jackets sat on that long bench, hunched, as if waiting, their glasses lining up along the lean breakfast table at Molloy’s. Weatherbound and waiting for nothing. Gnarling words between their teeth they are hammering out a scornful commentary that can only be spoken away from the island’s limits. Leaning their backs against the wall. Blaming the weather. In Molloy’s or one of the other reputed houses that seem to stand for this purpose only. Better under drink ashore than at sea.
There was another younger fellow on the boat eager to handle the ram. Pulling the jaw apart, peering in. What age’d you give him? Then, with his thumbs along the back, feeling the flesh lain under the wool. Tha’s a big fella for two hundred, like, you hope he’ll do the job, got a bit of go on him. But I’m now thinking they’re better calm. Across the rump a handgrip testing, squeezing. He’ll certain do the job, but you hope he’s not too skitty, a great hind, but not worth two hundred for the eating. Nor for much else, mind. Ay, but he’ll do the job. A thick hand measuring over the backside. A firm, testing, teasing grip. A grope. Rubbing up the thighs as if to warm me up. Working up between the legs. Gentler fellow, a bit gentler. I watched him, handling the ram like he once had me.
It is autumn, and although the seasons here slip unnoticed one to the next, a burnishing has happened. Where this field used to stare out west over a green wave-shaped hillock marking the edge of the land, it is now an ochrous basin from which the sky looms.
The skin is coming away easier now. We have just to pull it back, the wool falling into our hands. I hold the legs out to the side to give you a better grip to pull against. At times it catches, but is loosed with a sharp nick of the knife. With one last pull at the neck it releases and we are holding the sheep’s skin between our four gloved hands, separate to the body, lain aside. The skin removed, our ewe so resembles the odd mutton carcass seen hanging in markets, or in the back of cold lorries. Lying intact, the marbled reds and purples cross-hatched with sinews, a model for anatomy class. The skin itself is lumped with meat, and with fat. You tell me that maggots will hatch and eat these remains, leaving it bare.
We dragged the carcass back to the pit – the ewe with her comic stiffjaw smile and pecked-out eyes. Only a pantomime ruff of wool remained, frilling around the head. That, a stub of tail and four white socks, one with green patches, becoming like those on a cricketer’s whites.
You dropped the weight of the skin into my hands, running off a list of instructions. Then you strode away. Reaching the far end of the field you glanced back and waved a jovial latex hand. I could just make you out removing the gloves, before leaping the gate and taking the late road southwards to the harbour.
Leaving me in this lost field one afternoon. And I had merely come to watch your thumbnails, crouching so close. I was so taken by your grimy thumbnails. On instructions, I rooted through the shed to find some two inch nails and a four by four board to stretch the skin on.
A low western sun is churning the landscape yellow, a wind picking up, and I am crouching in this field with a hammer nailing a sheepskin onto a four by four piece of ply, stretching it tight like a canvas.