Gheorghe skinned the lamb without saying a word, and now he stood facing me with bloody hands, the carcase lying at his feet.
Over and done with. The five-day-old berbec had run into the wheels of a goods train two hours before. I was supposed to be in charge, and I had expected – deserved - a tirade. I had volunteered to look after 21 of Gheorghe’s sheep for a couple of hours while he was busy elsewhere, and he had, hesitantly, left me looking after a score of mânzari (ewes which had given birth) and their young. I could see that he was torn between his doubts about the wisdom of leaving an inexperienced person on their own with his animals, and wanting to give me a chance.
I had felt so smart, a real shepherdess. Poţi sa le lasi acolo, unde iarba e mai proaspata; nu o sa trec linea. Gheorghe with his slight lisp, his air of mastery belied by his unfamiliarity with foreigners, had told me that grazing the sheep by the railway track would be alright; even during the winter there had not been enough moisture in the ground to grow grass and now, on 1st April, there was so little decent fodder anywhere that they needed every available blade.
Like most of Romania, this quiet corner of north-west Transylvania hadn’t seen serious rain for nine months. In spite of heavy snowfall in January and February, the ground was parched, and the hills were the colour of dun and khaki. They won’t cross the line, he had said, they’ll stay with the most succulent grass.
Of course I should have reacted quicker but as it was, I just stood there, in disbelief as the tiny male lamb passed for a split second within reach and headed straight for the thundering, lumbering train, five feet away. He ran beside it for yards, while I followed clumsily trying to grab him. But I was paralysed. Horrified, I saw him falter and his limbs flail beside the grinding metal. Then he disappeared altogether.
There had been plenty of warning; the siren from the nearby level crossing had wailed for three or four minutes in advance. The train vanished as inexorably as it had come, and I imagined the driver cursing me – he had stood on his horn, and disentangled the soft and twitching limbs. The lamb had fallen in a crumpled heap between two sleepers. I cradled him in my arms. His blood dripped onto my sleeve.
Stricken with sadness and guilt, I hustled the ewes and their offspring away from the ditch by the railway track. They seemed unaware that something catastrophic had happened to one of their tribe. There was no traffic on the narrow country road which ran beside the line and I harangued them across it up the low hill which separated us from the village.
I couldn’t believe I had let the lamb get hit. Every now and then a chill wind ruffled his ears, mocking my hopes that he would come to again if I held him long enough. My tears dripped all over him, willing him to live, but he did not move. His eyes had milked over and his neck hung limp. He remained warm long after he had died.
Gheorghe had been busy with arrangements for the 200-km walk to his summer grasslands high in the southern Carpathian Mountains. He had said it would be OK to let the sheep stay near the railway; because that was where the best grass was, and although he was still feeding them on maize they were terribly short of fresh food.
As the minutes ticked by and no-one came - Gheorghe had only left me half an hour before and I had no mobile phone - the flock grazed on regardless. I had to quash my urge to run and hide. The sheep cropped the dry spikes with a frenzied nibbling. Driven by hunger, they had no time for sentiment.
It wasn't hard to identify the dead lamb’s mother. She was the only one who was seriously perturbed. She ran here and there, calling for her baby, sniffing alien lambs and rejecting them with an impatient jerk of her head or stamp of her hoof. I watched her with the sickening realisation that her distress was a thousand times worse than mine. What should I do? Eventually, I put her lamb down on the grass and retreated. I was still in shock myself but I thought, She has to know. How else will she accept its disappearance?
A long spell passed before she had the courage to come close. She walked forward uncertainly and then suddenly changed her mind, running away from me as well as the small white heap on the ground. Then she came back again, her muzzle outstretched in fearful tenderness, inching closer, not wanting to believe. Then again, turning her wary, accusing eyes on me, she would rush away to the safety of her sisters, unable to cope.
It seemed years before Gheorghe’s van pulled up at the derelict farm where he and his hired shepherds had lived for the past five months, while over-wintering a thousand long-haired Ţurcana sheep. The air was so clear that even though it was a quarter of a mile away, I could see every movement as he busied himself in the yard. Agonised because I couldn’t shout loudly enough, I followed him with my eyes, anticipating his sense of anger and loss, dreading the moment of confession.
As I was standing there, impatient to leave the sheep in safe hands, Marcel came up beside me. Marcel was one of Gheorghe’s hired shepherds. He said he was fourteen and that he had run away from school because it bored him. Marcel was half man, half child: gawky as a lamb but street wise. His dark brown eyes, innocent and clever, were set in a flawless skin; he was as ready to pounce as to submit. He loved laughing, and would yell his carelessness to the world, heedless of the outrage he caused. Life should be a breeze to a kid of fourteen.
I was carrying the lamb again. Marcel looked askance at it, screwing up his eyes against the sun. Ce s-a întâmplat? When I told him what had happened, stumbling over the Romanian words, his looked disdainful, but said, D’you want me to take it? I shook my head; I wanted to face Gheorghe myself. Fighting against an awful, cold, indifference, I walked down the cracked slope, past the balance well whose sun-bleached arm looked as though it were grasping a sword of judgment, and into the farm.
A split-second stab of shock, then Gheorghe put his emotions aside. Is it dead? He took the lamb from me; I didn’t want to let it go. He said, Nobody slows down, neither cars nor trains. I knew it wasn’t the driver’s fault. Gheorghe had the lamb by its hind legs so that its head dangled. Where is its mother? I pointed dumbly behind us to where Marcel’s slender form stood outlined against the late afternoon sun, the ewes scattered around him, but not too far.
Gheorghe took a folding knife from one of his pockets and set about removing the lamb’s skin. He slit the soft tissue under the belly, peeled the skin forwards from the tail end forwards, and yanked it expertly over the ghastly head. As he pulled the curly fleece from the lamb’s skull I saw the extent of the damage, a bloody mess where two hours ago there had been a bright and frolicking eye. Finally Gheorghe cut the skin away from the legs. Several of his dogs - two large white hairy Carpathian ciobănesti and a Scottie-sized, dark grey heeler called a câine de întors, crept towards the enticing smell. They shrank back again when their master kicked out at them, roaring Cuşti-mă!
Throwing the body into the tumbledown wattle-walled farm house, Gheorghe took the skin across the yard to a straw-bedded lean-to where the latest newborns and their dams were sheltering from the cold. Some of the ewes had twins, and Gheorghe grabbed of them by the scruff of its neck. Fitting the lambskin like a tight football jersey over the surprised infant’s head, he tied the leg flaps in place with some red wool that he happened to have about him, tucked the replacement lamb under his arm and went into the barn next door. Two ewes were suckling sickly babies in the dark; one of them was snug in a pen that Gheorghe had made for individual sheep and their lambs by fencing off a corner with wooden palettes. He dropped the substitute infant into the next door slot. The other ewe was a first-time mother who didn’t want anything to do with her off-spring. Gheorghe had tied her to a feed trough so that the two-day old lamb could get at her teats. He swore violently at the reluctant mum, letting his stress show for the first time since I had brought him the dead lamb. Seeing my discomfort, he threw me another peace-offering: Nu ai fost primul. I hadn’t been the first, and regrettably, I probably wouldn’t be the last. Then he strode off to his van and drove back up the hill, bumping over the grass to collect the bereft and bewildered animal.