You can come to us two ways, whichever suits you best. The back-roads,
or pick up the motorway from the west. Whatever, come at us off the main
road, and slow right down or you’ll miss the turn entirely.
Out here it rains a lot, the trees go high, shading the track in a dark,
iron-rich green. Like jungles. As if out here there’d be jungles. But
that’s what it makes you think of, just wait and see.
All that cabbage green makes the farm a slap in the face, if you know
what I mean. Always did for me, right from when he first brought me out
I’ll tell you what I think. It’s like the forest squatted down and did
its business right at the edge of nothing. Like the farm’s an
unspeakable toilet hole men dug out at Earth’s edge, and here we are
scrabbling about in the mess of it.
When I told her I intended marrying this quiet farmer, my mother said,
Multiply ten-fold the worst thing about him. Imagine living with that.
Because that’s marriage.
I went with him, in spite of the filth and the warning. Spitting out
what my mother fed me, growing up. Thinking living out here would be any
sort of freedom.
Something peeled away as he drove, both hands on the wheel. The city
made him nervous.
Come summer, the farm’s a dust bowl, the sun bleaching the yard mean. A
season crater, you’ll see no natural things down here. Nighttime there’s
the half call of an owl, the screech of a fox, the howls of the rabbit
it chases down.
I cover my ears.
Winter, you wouldn’t believe. The place is a wound, clay-sod up to your
knees, all over everything. Trod indoors, across the kitchen floor.
It looks like lumps of shit.
In the lambing shed, I feed the weak ones colostrum formula through a
stomach tube. Given time, if they fail to suck their mothers, my husband
dashes their heads on the ground behind the shed.
What did you expect?
Sometimes the eyeballs come loose with the force, blown out like the
still of a cartoon. In the beginning, he tried to show me how to kill.
He passed me the lamb.
Hold tight at the ankles. Now up.
He lifted his arms to show me.
Now bring it down hard, he said.
The lamb hung against my back.
Now. The harder you hit, the kinder you are.
Go on, he said. Chrissakes.
The lamb gave a thin cry.
He shook his head, taking the lamb. It bucked midair. Go on, he said.
I turned away, ducking at the dull thud.
He rations words. I imagine pure silence to the marrow of his bones and
it feels like he’s a dead man.
Sometimes, upstairs, I walk in as he’s shaving, and I feel a burr of
lust at the intimacy of it, his human closeness to sharpness. He could
slice ear to ear and hold quite still. I stand behind him, made cold by
the back of his head.
You can fuck someone’s brains out, but you can’t fuck them in.
That’s something my mother used to say, crowing drunk with her friends,
angry with my father. She opposes my husband. Pink, warm, I think of her
like foam, too much air. She just said whatever the hell she wanted too,
We hire Clem for lambing. He works hard. Flushes easily, like his blood
is thin. He’s tall, sinewy. Shy.
Coming in from the field, he asks,
Anything need knocking on the head? No point letting it suffer.
I watch him gather the doomed ones. There’s a greediness to it, the way
a man eats a sandwich or unbuttons his fly.
He hits them on a rough, sharp edge jutting from the mouth of the skip,
which stands beside the usual killing place. A plain, dark red patch on
It’s perfectly quick, he says.
Opening the skull, little pieces of bone matter and brain spattering the
wall opposite. He isn’t wrong.
I’m not saying I like him, my husband says.
We’ve kept Clem on, he’s in the tiny flat above the barn. It has a sink,
toilet, bed, and chair. I pack him lunches, same as my husband, and he
eats his evening meal with us in the farmhouse, watching TV awhile
after. My husband sets the conversational boundaries. Those boundaries
are bottom line. I lean over the washing-up, yawning steam into my empty
mouth. I drink sweet coffee, bulls-blood black, though it keeps me wide
My husband says,
If there’s a way to die, a sheep’ll find it.
The last ewe to lamb falls upside-down into a shallow stream at the
bottom of a steep field. She bashed her eye repeatedly on the pebbles,
in the night. At first attempting to right herself, but finally driven
mad, after hours in labour, half submerged. Clem finds her at first
light and brings her home.
She’s done in, he says.
She gives birth as she dies. He pulls one small ewe-lamb from her. It
has a ginger circle of wool in the white above its tail. I’m
bottle-feeding thirty orphan lambs already. My back aches from squatting
on a bucket to feed them. I have stared at the shed wall so long, I
swear I see movement. The concrete would swim away if it could. The
lambs paw at my back, chew my hair, so needing of love because that’s
how it is for orphans. They know only that something is missing. I say,
One more won’t matter.
He saved her, it’s what he expects.
That fucking thing’s not going to live, says my husband, later. It won’t
Give me her a minute. Clem ties a bag to the orphan pen, making
leg-holes, and stands the lamb inside.
She’ll find her feet.
Baby, I call her. She isn’t taken to the killing place. She is ignored
by my husband.
If that hasn’t stood by morning… he says, pointing at other failing
I’ll try to help it stand.
Don’t bother with one trying to die, he says.
Baby cries for me from the orphan pen. When my husband is out in the
fields, I let her out.
How’s Baby? Clem asks, laughing at the barrel-bodied lamb trailing
behind me. She has a close-cropped coat, besides the fuzz above her
tail. Eyes bulging, ears flopping, she’s ugly as sin itself. Clem
reaches down and scratches the back of her neck, and she raises her
head, nose to the air.
Baby is a softness.
His father suffered a stroke, my husband has returned home to Hereford.
This evening I expected Clem to take his food to the flat, but he comes
right in, pulls off his boots, washes his hands. My gut pinches.
The hot food flushes our faces. Cottage pie, so soft you hardly need
More? I ask.
Clem shakes his head,
It was good, though.
I look at him, properly.
Do you have a girlfriend, Clem?
I have my eye on someone.
He smiles into his lap.
The mute wood of my husband’s chair. The familiar kitchen turns like a
snow-globe, when I touch Clem goosebumps ripple my arm. His hands dig
into my shoulders, rolling me onto my back. When he is inside me I think
of the give-less pull on a turkey wishbone. Comic tongues, speaking in
tongues, thick sponge. I grip the sturdy chair leg. Pink lizards, I
I think, not in words.
I think of swimming pool changing rooms. The removal of clothes, the
hairless fuzz of young limbs. The smell under chemical, the smell and
touch of skin.
A child, I think. And I buck, hard.
Laying on our backs in the dirt of the kitchen floor, I say,
Let’s go to bed.
Not your bed, he says. Not his.
I stay all night in Clem’s tiny flat above the barn. Baby calls when I
cry out. Clem laughs like a boy.
Nine days and nights we do this.
One night I ask Clem,
Do you think certain things can change you, when they happen? Just
sometimes, I mean. Do you think a thing happening can change you?
Like how? What do you mean?
I think, What do you mean, what do I mean?
Last time I saw my mother, she was pulling the meat off a chicken and
drinking Cinzano neat with a slice of lime. She said that a place could
change you. That if it did, that was where you belonged.
Just a warning, she said.
Her chicken-greased hands slipped around the glass. A pervert hand.
What’s the harm?
She said, A man can make you regret the future, and popped the round
disc of brown meat from the underside of the carcass in my mouth.
My husband returns, his father dead.
I thought you were coming tomorrow, I say, as he appears in the kitchen.
Clem’s eyes, round as horror, scream as much as eyes can scream. He
leaves his coffee gone cold on the table, makes for the door.
See you, he says, pulling on his boots in the hall.
Something I said, my husband asks, as Clem shuts the door.
You look tired.
I make his sweet, weak tea and two thick slices of toast with beans.
I turn on the light in the hall and, peering into the mirror, pluck a
pubic hair from between my teeth.
He says, It’s for me to run things now.
Two-hundred acres, his long-awaited inheritance.
Dawn and Butch, his sister and her husband, took the house already.
Where will we live?
Caravan for now. We’ll see about building a bungalow, in time.
What about here?
What about here? He frowns like I’m God’s own idiot. It’s a fucking
lease, he says. We aren’t tied.
This is what I want. I’ve been waiting for it.
What about Clem?
My husband shrugs. He nudges his crusts to the side of his plate.
I’ll tell him tomorrow.
Today in the barn Clem nods and smiles.
You didn’t tell him, I say to my husband, when we’re alone.
I did. He found another job weeks ago, shepherding two-thousand ewes
over on the east coast. Got his eye on the farmer’s daughter, there.
Been holding off telling me.
My husband raises an eyebrow.
Sly, he says.
Clem has gone. He thanked me for everything, shook my husband’s hand.
After my father left for good, my mother said, Cheaters think the grass
is greener. Takes them a while to learn it’s yellow both sides.
My husband’s breath hitches in his sleep as I open the door. Downstairs
I slip my bare feet into his boots. I shut the door behind me. The moon
is blade-sharp, strung impossibly high. The barn lights are on, that
fattening lambs find their way to the trough; pale orange shafts cast
across the yard, between gaps of roof and walls. The bone-white blue of
my nightshirt stripes as I walk. Inside, there is the thrum of the
overhead battens, the scent of ammonia-soaked straw, and the shit of
Baby stumbles toward me, bleating.
I snatch her up. She nuzzles my armpit, for the bottle which is not
there. I carry her to the dark place behind the shed. My fingers seek
the rough edge of the skip.
I take Baby by the ankles and raise her high over my head.
Holly V. Chilton has had short stories published in print and online. She has also completed various illustrative commissions. She works as a shepherdess, and volunteers on a sexual violence helpline. She has six dogs and one excellent child. She loves horror films and good books.