Sheep

sheepPublished in The Atlantic June 1999.

Before┬áthe sheriff came to get him, Lloyd found the sheep out by the pond. He’d counted head that morning and come up one short. He did the count over, because he was still hazy from the night before. And he’d waked with a foul smell in his nose. So he had gone into Mr. Mac’s house — it was early morning; the old man would be dead to the world — and filled his canteen with white lightning. He felt shaky and bad, and the spring morning was cold. He shouldn’t have gone to town the night before.

The sheep lay on its side in some rushes. A flow of yellowish mucus was coming from its nose, and its eyes were sickly thin slits that made it look afraid. Lloyd thought the sheep honorable — it had gone off to die so that it wouldn’t infect the rest of the flock. Lloyd knew that the sheep’s sickness was his fault and that he couldn’t do anything about it, but he squatted down next to the animal and rubbed its underside. In this hour before sunrise, when the night dew was still wet, the warmth and animal smell felt good. Lloyd moved his hand in circles over the sheep’s lightly furred pink skin and lines of blue veins, its hard cage of ribs, its slack, soft belly. Across the pond the sun peeked through the Panhandle dust over a low line of slate-gray clouds. With his free hand Lloyd took his canteen from a pocket in his jacket, clamped it between his knees, opened it, and drank. For a moment the liquor stung the sides of his tongue; then it dissolved in him like warm water. The sheep’s lungs lifted up and down; its heart churned blood like a slowly pounding fist. Soon the sun broke free and the pond, rippled by a slight breeze, ignited in countless tiny candle flames. When Lloyd was a child, Mr. Mac used to tell him that at the Last Judgment the pond would become the Lake of Fire, into which all sinners would be cast. Lloyd could still picture them falling in a dark stream, God pouring them out like a bag of nails. The sheep closed its eyes against the light.

When Sheriff Lynch walked up behind him, Lloyd started. He still caressed the sheep, but it was dead and beginning to stiffen. His canteen felt almost empty; it fell from his fingers. By the sun Lloyd saw it was almost noon. Big black vultures wheeled so high above that they looked the size of mockingbirds. Uneasiness creeping on him, Lloyd waited for the sheriff to speak.

Finally the sheriff said, “Son, looks like that sheep’s dead.”

“Yessir,” Lloyd said, and tried to stand, but his legs were stiff and the liquor had taken his balance.

“You look about half dead yourself.” The sheriff picked up Lloyd’s canteen from the dry grass, sniffed it, and shook his head. “You want to turn out like Mr. Mac? A pervert?”

Lloyd waggled his head no. He thought how he must look: his long blond hair clumped in uncombed cowlicks, the dark reddish-gray circles around his eyes, his father’s dirty herding jacket hanging off his broad, slumped shoulders. Sheriff Lynch stood there, his figure tall and straight. He wore a star-shaped golden badge hitched to a belt finely tooled with wildflowers. His face was burnt the rust color of Dumas County soil, the lines on it deep, like the sudden ravines into which cattle there sometimes fell. His eyes were an odd steely blue, which seemed not to be that color itself but to reflect it. He studied Lloyd.

“That probably doesn’t make much of a difference now,” he said, lowering his eyes as if embarrassed.

“What?” Lloyd said, though he’d heard him.

“Nothing. We just need to ask you some questions.”

Lloyd wondered if Mr. Mac had found out about the sheep somehow. “But I ain’t stole nothin’,” he said.

“I’m fairly sure of that,” the sheriff said. A grin flickered at one corner of his mouth, but it was sad and not meant to mock Lloyd. “Come on. You know the drill. Hand over your knife and shears and anything else you got.”

After Lloyd put his tools in a paper bag, the sheriff squatted next to the sheep and ran his hand over its belly. His hand was large and strong and clean, though etched with red-brown creases.

Read the rest at The Atlantic.

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