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Memento Mori

We found the skull in a field by the creek. We were young then, my sister and I, young enough that an old sheep’s skeleton, still mostly preserved, still unravaged by dogs, was no more than a curiosity, and the heavy skull, still greasy, still smelling strongly of brains, was a trophy waiting to be brought back and presented to our mother. She accepted it, washed it, and finally decided to display it on a shelf in the basement. She cherished most of our macabre prizes—the fox skeleton, the crow skull, the hardened bird nests and torn snake skins—but, more than a decade later, she told me that she was never fond of those which came from sheep. She discreetly returned almost all of these to the fields. “In some sense,” she explained, “they were a testimony to my inevitable failure as a shepherd to keep things from dying.”

My family came to the farm sixteen years ago. My mother competed actively in sheepdog trials in those days, and she had grown tired of training her dogs on other people’s sheep. And so, when I was a little over four, my parents sold their tiny apartment in west Palo Alto for an improbable sum and bought fifty-three acres in rural Maryland, which they then populated with a flock of about fifty sheep. I have no recollection of Palo Alto—for me, it is a city that lives only in mantel pictures. My earliest memories are of wading through weedy meadows down by the creek, of sculpting clay with my sister on the banks, of wondering what it would be like to get lost in the woods, of staring at mistrustful ewes that always kept me thirty paces away from their lambs. It was in these years that our basement became a repository for dead animals: we accumulated several shelves full of their remains. For much of my childhood these bones watched over me while I played with blocks in the basement, and I expect that most of them will never leave the farm. One familiar bone, though, left about a month ago, and now it resides in a strange country without fields, creeks, or sheep. It sits on the table before me in my dorm in New Haven. It is the only part of the farm that I have carried with me into the city.

The skull is old now. There are cracks running through it, down the middle and along the sides, and in many places the bone is fraying—where the outer surface has worn away, the honeycombed interior resembles a desiccated coral. The deterioration is worst around the nose: there, the bone has thinned to a paper’s width, and it has fractured so jaggedly that if I run my finger along the edge, I fear that I will be cut. Amidst my never-living books and papers, the skull seems out of place. It has never heard traffic before or been much inclined to religion, but in the city a thousand cars pass by it every hour, and every hour it is startled by the sound of church bells. My dorm’s single window gives it a slanted view of Temple Street, but the scene beyond the glass never changes. It watches people hurrying past, pushing each other aside, checking their watches: moving with urban urgency. And it never sees any sheep.

My family has had this skull for nearly fifteen years. By now it has lost most of its weight—has become lighter than a newborn lamb—and has also lost its smell. Or rather, it has lost its original, unmistakable smell. What it has retained is faint, subtle, and indescribable. It does not smell like hay, but it reminds me of springtime lambs nursing in a hay-stocked barn; it does not smell like grass, but it reminds me of yearlings grazing on a summer paddock; it does not smell like wool, but it reminds me of old ewes huddling under their fleeces in an autumnal frost; it no longer smells like carrion, but it reminds me of a childhood January when I saw vultures arcing lazy spirals over a snowy field. It does not smell like sheep, but it reminds me of sheep in a way that the skull’s hollow eyes, fractured nose, and jawless grin never could.

Sometime in early March of every year I can remember on the farm, I have woken to hear bleating from the season’s first lambs echoing down from the barn. On the matted hay and between the small blue stalls, the lambs come out covered with placenta. They are ugly at first, and wobbly, and as tired from labor as their mothers. Yet they stand and nurse within an hour, and they are steady within a day, and within a few weeks they are on the wide green fields, crying petulantly and incessantly for milk, tumbling and jumping in their little lamb races over the hills. This was the single season when we children were regularly conscripted to farm work. It is by spring that I best remember the farm, and it is by the lambs that I best remember the sheep.

The Border Collies, on the other hand, have never been fond of lambs. A sheepdog is accustomed to a certain respect from livestock, and most ewes, remembering the dog’s ancestors, grudgingly give it to them. But a month-old lamb, too young to remember anything, will sometimes approach a Collie, sniff its nose, and seem to ask whether the dog would like to be its friend. This spectacle is almost as traumatizing for the dog— who would like nothing better than to eat the insane lamb but knows it is not allowed to do so—as it is for the lamb’s horrified mother. Collies prefer carrion, which for them is not only a delicacy, but also a perfume even more captivating than feces. Sheepdogs who have beautified themselves with such perfumes are, as one might imagine, best admired from afar. But if one admires them from the proper distance, if one watches as they circle around a flock, as they creep up slowly on it, ready to dart left or right, their unblinking eyes steady and fixated, dominating the sheep through sheer will, their tail down, neither wagging nor tucked, their deliberate paws silently treading the ground, slowly closing the distance…from that vantage, my mother’s dogs are nothing less than beautiful.

When our sheep have had to run from neighbors’ dogs, they have almost always chosen to run downhill, and that always leads them into water. There is some safety in this habit—it’s harder for the dogs to get a grip on the sheep while they are swimming—but sometimes they reach the water too late. And so it was that, about ten years ago, a year-old ewe jumped into our little pond and two black-and-white German Shepherds jumped in after her. I was only ten. What I remember is a frenzy of unfamiliar barking from the yard and a commotion in the kitchen and my mother shouting to my father and my father running upstairs and coming down with the long black rifle and then the sound of gunshots and an end to the sound of barking. Silence. My father coming back into the kitchen and returning to the fields with a knife. More silence. Silent minutes pooling like summer molasses. Then finally my mother storming back into the house furious at the woman who had let her dogs get into our sheep and my father following her and washing his hands and then explaining to his children in measured tones that the yearling whose throat he had just slit had already been bloody and mangled and gasping and dying. Telling us it was happier now that it was dead.

My father is not a violent man by nature. None of this came naturally. He loves dogs and sheep, and he could never kill either of them without regretting the need for it afterwards. His first and favorite dog, a beagle named Rupert, was exactly the sort of unruly animal who would terrorize sheep if given a chance. Years later, when he became a buddhist and started to begin each dinner with a prayer for the happiness of all sentient beings, he regretted shooting dogs even more. But if he is a poor buddhist when he runs upstairs for the gun, he is also a good shepherd.

Over the years, my father has shot four more dogs. The most recent one was a yellow and brown Labrador mix named George, who broke into our sheep twice with his brother Fred. There will not be another. Now, there are hardly any sheep left for them to chase. My mother gave up sheepdog trials years ago and began teaching philosophy at a small college. Vic, Lark, and Bonnie—the dogs she once brought to trials —are all buried beside the pond, and the current generation of Collies is beginning to grow gray. So are my parents. They are both in their 50s: a fine age for teaching philosophy and for counting breaths, but an unwieldy one for maintaining a farm. That is part of the reason why, this past summer, they sold all but our three oldest sheep, and why they hope to sell the fields those three will die on within a year. The other part, which my mother confided to me only a few days ago, is that she can no longer bear to be a shepherd.

She can no longer bear to help a ram lamb take its first steps and nurse, knowing that after six months of sunny green pastures she will send it to the butcher. She could no longer bear to eat lamb five years ago: that was when she began feeding it to the dogs, selling it to friends, or if she served it to us, not eating it herself. But soon that will all be behind her, for the lambs are gone, the farm will soon go, and my parents have just made an offer on a little green house in New Haven. And perhaps here, in the city, eating lamb will be easier.

In a city, it is so easy to buy lamb stuffed into lifeless packages from sterile counters—packages that do not bleat, that do not remind you of living creatures racing across spring meadows: packages that were prepared by others. In a city, perhaps my father will finally be able to make the Prātimokṣa oath of nonviolence that he could never commit to on the farm. Here, no sheep will die because of that oath, and so keeping it will be easy. Many things will be easier in a city. And maybe that is why, since I have lost the sheep and the fields, I feel that I must keep the skull. I will set it on a shelf in my dorm, and there it will remind me of what it meant to live on a farm.

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