Fantasy Horror Strange

Lambing Season

By Nicole J. LeBoeuf
5,858 words · 22-minute reading time

I'm lucky to be here. Things are peaceful. I do good work for Maud, and I'm well cared for. I will never be cold again.

I'd so badly needed to escape. Months had passed since I'd last been able to relax. In my mind, I was always on duty, no matter what the clock said. Then my partner went to the hospital on a bullet fired by a twelve-year-old girl, and I started suspecting everyone I met of being armed and dangerous. The chief suggested I take off the uniform and badge for a while before I wound up shooting someone for startling me.

So I filed a request for a six-month leave of absence and advertised my apartment on Denver Craigslist under "sublets & temporary". I found the ad for Maud's farmhouse just a few clicks later. No phone number was provided, just an address in some town I'd never heard of called Shempf. Google Maps helpfully asked whether I'd meant Brighton. It sounded likely. I started driving. Forty-five minutes later I was pulling up in front of Maud's place.

And five months later, here I am heading back to Maud's after a phone call with the chief. He's sorry to lose me, he says, and he sounds almost suspicious when I tell him why; but I know it's for the best. I'll have to make another call soon, arrange for the transfer of my apartment's lease to the couple subletting it--but that can wait until tomorrow or the next day. Right now, the sheep need me.

Maud's farmhouse lies on the outskirts of a sprawl of rural residences east of Brighton and north of Weld County Road 2. It's huge. I think it must have begun life as a one-room shack during the original Wild West expansion, only reaching its current size after succeeding generations each added a wing until pockets of warring in-laws living at opposing ends of the monstrosity could go weeks at a time without catching sight of one another. When I first arrived there, the winding driveway took me no less than five minutes to navigate. This had a lot to do with the small brown sheep who was in no hurry to get out of the way.

I pulled up and killed the engine by the barn-like garage doors. A woman emerged as I approached to knock. "You here about the room?"

"Yes ma'am. Betsy Waite." I stuck out my hand.

She stepped forward to shake it. The strength in her grip surprised me. Between the lines of her face and the color of her hair--white tinged with the sort of blue I hadn't seen since my great-grandmother had died--I'd assumed she was at least in her eighties. "Call me Maud. Three hundred a month and the occasional odd-job. How d'ya feel about sheep?"

Things are different now, of course, but at that time I'd had no opinion at all about sheep. A little relief, maybe, over the recent driveway incursion resolving itself harmlessly. "No problem. You want that check now?"

Maud opened the front door and ushered me through. "Now's fine. Tomorrow's fine too. Every first of the month, sharp. Leave it here for me if I'm not around." She indicated a small, waist-high table just inside the door. Its mosaic top was bare of keys, spare change, junk mail, or anything else. A walking stick leaned against it, and that was all.

Thinking of keys, I looked behind me. There was no lock in the handle of the front door. "Just--leave it here? Where anyone could walk in and take it?"

Maud shrugged. "No one in my town'd steal from me." She led the way into and through a huge living room. It was sparsely furnished; a rocking chair presided over the space before a hearth big enough to cook at, and a heavy wood table with attached benches dominated the wall to our right. Throw rugs of woven, undyed wool warmed the flagstone floor. Maud made no comment, neither to point out family heirlooms nor to warn against shoes on the handmade rugs. She walked us without a word past the table, into the adjoining kitchen, and straight down what felt like a quarter mile of hallway.

I said, mainly to break the silence, "So you'll be wanting me to drive you places?"

"When it can't be helped." Maud's answer came in a matter-of-fact monotone. "Thanksgiving's coming. Donations won't drive'mselves to the Mission."


"Big bagga knitted things. Whole town pitches in. Not much else to do in winter. You knit?"

"I--" I was having a hard time keeping up with my host's train of thought. "No?"

"You'll learn. Here's your rooms."

We were at the end of the hallway, at the extreme east end of the house. The last door opened onto a small, bright study with one door leading back outside and another into a tiny bedroom. The latter held only a narrow bed, a dresser, and wardrobe of unfinished wood, but it commanded an extravagant view thanks to the picture window encompassing nearly the whole east wall. I could see an irrigation ditch about thirty yards distant, its course lined by cottonwood trees and a bright green grass border contrasting sharply with the surrounding scrub. Two sheep, clothed in varying shades of off-white wool, grazed there. Someone on horseback rode past on the far side of the ditch.

"Bathroom's to the left," Maud said behind me. "Lets out into the hall, too, so be sure you lock it. Kitchenette in the study should get you through your morning coffee'r whatever. You're welcome in the big house if you wanna cook for real. You'll wanna bring your car around; you got your own driveway. Your own address, too--just put 'one-half' on the end and Ben'll know where to deliver. No phone, no internet--that's what Bob's Cafe by the post office is for. Remember, first of the month by noon, and I'll let you know when I've got a job for you. Welcome to Shempf."

Having reached the end of her checklist, Maud turned and exited my "rooms". I stared after her as the soft slap of bare feet on stone receded up the hallway.

Well, then. I decided to drive back to Denver and pack some things now, and save moving in for the next morning. On my way out, I noticed that the study door, like Maud's front entrance, had no lock. I supposed the locals all knew and trusted one another; I supposed I'd learn to trust them too.

The walk from my door to the main driveway seemed even longer than when Maud had led me down the hallway, possibly because I had to dodge another sheep. It looked at me as though memorizing my face against future encounters.

Bob's Cafe, as Maud had called it, took up two office-sized spaces in the center of Shempf's single retail plaza. When the locals spoke of "going into town," they meant here and not, as I'd originally assumed, Brighton proper. From the left of Bob's all the way to the end of the building was the post office. To the right was a tiny video rental. The last suite was empty. A sign on the door labeled it available for scheduling, see Postmaster Ben for details.

On my way "into town" I noticed that most everyone in the town of Shempf seemed to have a couple of acres of grain and vegetables growing out back or beside their house. A good handful of these private farmers also raised horses. Horseback seemed the preferred method of getting around town; I saw a few riders that first morning but no drivers at all, nor even a single parked car. Did they ride into Brighton for supplies, I wondered, or were these backyard gardens indicative of an unusually complete level of self-sufficiency?

In addition to horses, I saw the odd cow or two. Occasional outbreaks of chicken-chatter came to me through my rolled-down windows. In a pen beside a bright purple cottage, I saw a trio of what appeared to be alpaca but what their owners would later introduced to me as paca-vicuña. "Warmest, softest, densest fiber you will ever feel without climbing a mountain in the Andes first," Bibi Neldham would tell me. "I'll knit you a scarf next shearing."

I also noticed the sheep. I'd have to be oblivious not to. They were everywhere--on front porches, in the roads, at the post office. Bob Hartland, owner of the aforementioned Bob's Cafe, was happy to tell me all about them and other local peculiarities as I sipped my first cup of coffee at his establishment. "Maud's flock have the run of the town. Like them cows in India, 'xcept of course we don't worship them. Ha!" He laughed in a single burst of over-loud sound, like a balloon exploding. "You know this whole town pretty much belongs to Maud, right? That's her name, Shempf. Her great-great-great-grandmother came out here with a bunch of sheep way back when, maybe a family too, and the town sorta grew up around 'em. Maud's the last one, been here since before I arrived, and that was forty years ago. Dunno what we'd do without her."

A look of real terror flashed across his face then. It was almost too quick to see, but I was trained for it. I tried to change the subject. "Isn't Maud worried about her sheep getting hurt or lost?"

"Nah, why should she? It's not like they'd wander off. If she wants one for shearing or whatnot, her shepherds find 'em quick enough."

"Shepherds? I haven't seen anyone but Maud back at the house."

Bob shrugged and topped off my coffee. "They're around, doin' their jobs just like anyone else. Maud keeps 'em busy. You wanna see 'em show up in a hurry, scare one of the sheep good. Not that I recommend it," he added hurriedly. I assured Bob that I had no intention of distressing my host's livestock. Bob smiled, called me a sensible girl, and returned to the kitchen.

He came out again a few minutes later with my pigs-in-a-blanket. I was busy staring out the diner door at a wooly face staring back in. Bob laughed and greeted the sheep with that baby-faced babble used by pet-lovers everywhere. "How ya been, Smitty, how ya doin'? Doin' good, huh? You doin' good?" He tousled the wool on its head. A little girl ran up the porch and buried her hands in the deep fleece of its back. I heard a woman's voice shouting, "Joanna! You just washed your hands! I told you we could pet the sheep after we eat."

I settled back in my chair with a sigh and poured syrup over my pancakes and sausages. I was surprised by a sense of deep contentment, even relief. That word I'd been using to think about Bob and the rest, "locals," it flipped over in my head and became "neighbors." It meant more than proximity here; it meant people who'd knit you a scarf as soon as look at you, share their home-grown, home-canned pickles if your larder was low, refuse to charge you for your coffee because you let them talk at you a mile a minute all through brunch. For God's sake, Bob knew Maud's livestock by name.

"Smitty used to be a regular here," Bob said, returning to the counter as the sheep wandered away.

I gladly held out my cup for another refill. "Looks like he still is."

"Yup. Gonna miss him when he's gone." Bob saw my raised eyebrows and shrugged again. "Sheep don't live much longer than a few years, and they all end up as mutton. Ha! What can you do? But take a look at these socks. These are his."

I gazed politely down as Bob raised his trouser cuff. I don't know from socks. They looked toasty enough. "Maud sure is generous with her wool, isn't she?" was all I could think to say.

"Maud is very generous," said Bob, and his voice went soft and heartfelt as he said it. Hearing him warmed me to the core. People who were really human--imagine that! Or maybe it was the other way around: I'd gotten so used to mistrusting the human animal that I'd forgotten how they could be actual people.

Maud's generosity was plain to see when I pulled the car around on Thanksgiving morning. She had two gigantic clear plastic bags that bulged with sweaters, socks, mittens, hats, vests, and even the odd felted toy. I popped the trunk and came around to help her. "You did not do all that."

"Like I said. The whole town." She hefted the first bag easily and set it down in the trunk. I struggled with the second while she retrieved a third from inside.

The journey took about an hour in holiday traffic. It seemed longer; Maud was not one for drive-time conversation. Upon our arrival at the Denver Mission, three young volunteers helped us unload the bags, all of us fighting a sudden icy gust that threatened to bowl us down the street. We brought our burdens in at last and sat down at a long folding table with the shelter residents. Someone microphoned a prayer at us, and everyone took the "Amen" as their cue to get in line. Sliced turkey, canned cranberry sauce, and reconstituted mashed potatoes were distributed, assembly-line fashion, onto plates. When everyone was done eating, our donation was announced, and another line formed as residents took turns picking out items for themselves.

I watched them, feeling warm and full and happy. At each exclamation of delight, I'd glow with as much pride as if I'd helped create the treasured item myself. My neighbors did all this, I thought. Next year, so will I. Then I remembered I'd only planned to stay six months. Plenty of time to knit a scarf or two, though.

The man returning to his seat across from me shrugged into a variegated brown-and-white sweater that would not have looked out of place in a high-end department store. Whoever had knitted it obviously knew their stuff. Vertical bands of criss-cross ridges ran from waist to collar, like vines creeping up a wall. "That's beautiful," I said.

"Yes," said the man. "Thank you. I like very much." His English came in fits and starts but his smile was confident and true.

That smile widened like a reward when I responded in equally hesitant Spanish. "Me alegra que te gusta. ¿Cómo te llamas?"

"David." He used the English pronunciation rather than the hispanic "Dah-VEED" I would have expected. He touched his chest, spreading fingers wide over the soft wool. "David Regalo."

"Betsy Waite," I said, imitating the gesture. "Me alegra conocerte."

"Is good to meet you also."

Some weeks later I was at Bob's Cafe when a stranger rolled through town. It wasn't clear why; maybe he was on a road trip and got lost. Anyway, he hit one of the sheep.

The sheep--Smitty, I think--was OK. More scared than anything, if you ask me. Maybe he got a banged rib. The driver had only just let off his brake at the four-way stop, and thank God he wasn't in a hurry. He stopped again real quick when Smitty stepped into the intersection.

Smitty bounced off the bumper, gave a terrified bleat, and ran straight up the porch steps to smack hard into my knees. He stood there next to me, shaking like a dog at the vet. I'm not much of an animal person, but I pet him as soothingly as I knew how. It seemed to help. Smitty leaned against my thigh and muttered into my shirt tail as the driver got out of his car.

I admired that. Not everyone would have taken the trouble. I watched him walk around the front bumper and peer underneath the car. Neither of us noticed the small crowd that had gathered until he straightened up and the first rock hit him in the back.

His head whipped around, and I stood up so fast that I hit my knee on the table hard enough to bruise. Smitty stumbled backwards. I widened my field of attention and saw roughly ten or twelve people loosely surrounding the car and driver. Another missile smashed into the man's shoulder. I traced its trajectory and saw a little girl--Joanna, maybe; I recognized her mother. They were accompanied by a boy near Joanna's age. He bent to pick up another stone. None of the adults in the crowd moved to stop him.

The man put up his hands. I heard him apologize, then apologize louder. No one responded to him, at least not verbally. Bibi and Dennis Neldham came out the video rental and strode purposefully into the intersection. Bob Hartland, already in the thick of it, raised his fists. Postmaster Ben, usually big on keeping the peace, clenched his hands until the knuckles strained white. The two kids, having grown impatient with rocks, surged forward in eerie silence to attack the man with punches and kicks. The man swore and backed up against his car. Manny Billings, the owner of the convenience store where I filled up on gas and bought the occasional Coke, stepped closer. The bottle opener that habitually resided on his check-out counter was in his hand like a weapon.

And I finally opened my mouth. "Woah, woah, OK everybody, calm down." The out-of-towner glanced up at me in the midst of fending off the enraged children. No one else even seemed to hear me, and I was ashamed of the relief that made me feel. I should have been on the situation immediately--God knows this was Police Officer 101 stuff--but the crowd's stares were so icy, so focused, so very expressionless: predators intent on the hunt. I was terrified of having my neighbors look at me that way.

It took my every ounce of effort to try again. "Smitty's fine, see? He's fine, he just got scared. Everything's OK."

"You heard Betsy. No harm done." At that voice, everyone turned. Even the children stood motionless and gave their undivided attention. Maud was walking up the road, walking stick tapping along in the gravel beside her. "Y'all stop pestering this man. 'Msure he's sorry."

The man nodded desperately. "Very sorry, ma'am. Very, very sorry--"

Bob was the first of them to regain any sort of expression. He ignored the apologetic out-of-towner and said, "Is that right, Betsy? Smitty's not hurt?" He turned and jogged over to me and the sheep. He bent to reassure the animal. I noticed he was wearing his Smitty-wool socks again today. "You OK there, fella? You OK? Some people, huh?"

"Some people," echoed Bibi. She and Dennis sat down at my table. "I could use a coffee, Bob."

Maud took the fourth chair. "It'll be on me," she said. "Make it a round." Bob stood up from examining Smitty for bruises and fetched the pot. I heard the stranger's car peel out and vroom down the road. Maud turned to me. "Could do with a ride home."

"You got it." I looked around the table, feeling the adrenaline slowly recede. Bibi and Dennis were chatting pleasantly about the movies they were going to watch together. Ben waved at us as he returned to the post office. He, like the Neldhams, like Manny and even little Joanna, was wearing a wool sweater from the bounty of Maud's flock.

I fully expected a renewed case of cop jitters after that, but it's amazing how, when everyone else acts like nothing happened, you just naturally play along. It's not that the incident went entirely without mention; Manny Billings, for instance, tch'd over it a bit next time I topped off my car. "Some people! So careless. Who raised that man, I ask you? Fifteen eighty-four, please." But his mild disapproval had nothing in common with the cold, inhuman stares of the crowd that day. In the face of such banality, my memory of impending violence simply faded into the abstract, unable to attach itself in my mind to the people who'd been involved. The bruise on my knee turned from blue to yellow-green, then disappeared.

I went so far as to try to describe the event in one of my increasingly infrequent letters to the guys back at the station. I preferred writing; it helped preserve the illusion of isolation. A phone call would remind me I was only an hour away. "Some tourist scared one of the sheep and got the whole town mad at him," I wrote. I reread the sentence, knew it was wrong, but couldn't figure out why anymore. "Glad to hear Phil's up and about again. He should come visit."

I did go to Bob's less, over time, but only because I'd begun to realize my half-pay leave-of-absence budget wouldn't cover constant restaurant meals. Instead I took long walks down the roads of Shempf, waving at neighbors and occasionally getting invited in for coffee. (It was on one of these impromptu visits that Bibi Neldham told me about paca-vicuña and promised me a scarf.) Sometimes I walked through Maud's pasture instead. If the weather was sunny and there was no snow on the ground, I'd find a grassy patch near the irrigation ditch and lie down. I'd watch hawks cross the sky, listen to the water if the ditch was flowing, maybe just think. The novelty of having nothing to do still hadn't worn off. Sometimes a handful of sheep would amble over to investigate and then become bored with me. My world would become a lanolin-smelling forest of legs and swishing tails until their grazing took them away again.

I was dozing among the flock one day when a gentle touch on my shoulder woke me. I sat up, startled, yammering "I'm OK! I'm fine! Just napping," until I recognized the man I'd spoken with in Denver. "David! What are you doing here? ¿Qué haces aquí?"

He said nothing. His steady gaze was like that of the sheep, blank and mildly curious. I looked in vain for the smile I remembered from Thanksgiving; his face wore no expression at all. The rest of him wore jeans, good field boots, and the same variegated brown sweater he'd picked out at the Mission. He was sweating in it; a sunny day in mid-December can surprise you even in a normal season, and this year was abnormally dry and warm. I'd briefly stripped down to my T-shirt during my walk. "Hace calor," I ventured, plucking at David's sleeve. "¿No quieres quitar ese suéter?"

Immediately I regretted it. I hardly knew the man, could barely communicate with him. Suggesting that he remove an article of clothing was probably inappropriate. But he didn't respond at all. He seemed not even to recognize that I had spoken--not that he hadn't heard, but that the sounds issuing from my mouth didn't register for him as communication in the first place. The look in his eyes suddenly put me in mind of my neighbors, the way they'd looked at the man from out of town.

I stood up. David did too. I took a step backward--he took one step forward. His hands remained loose at his sides. I put mine up, remembering the man beside the car again. "Look, I live here," I said. "I'm not going to hurt the sheep, for God's sake!" I instinctively dropped a hand to my waist before remembering I was unarmed and emphatically not a cop in the town of Shempf. I tried talking like one anyway. "Stay where you are! Do not come any closer!" And at my next step, he stayed, but probably not because of anything I'd said. My retreat had simply taken me far enough from the sheep that I no longer posed a threat. "That's better. Good. Stay there, stay...."

A few more steps and I lost David's attention entirely. He turned to survey the sheep. Me, I turned and ran.

Back at the house, I had a long soak in the tub, safe in that special comfort that only near-scalding water and a private, locked room can provide. These were probably the only two locking doors in Shempf. Two or more hours later, I had prunes for toes, but I felt a lot more at ease. I got dressed and headed down the long hallway to "the big house" to look for Maud.

She was knitting in her rocking chair, the classic picture of domesticity. I made myself a cup of hot chocolate and joined her by the fire. "One of the men from the Mission was out in your field," I said. "He's working for you?"

"Yeah," said Maud. She rocked and knitted and said nothing else.

"I didn't see you two talk. Have you got some sort of arrangement with the Mission, that they send you people?" Which was nosier than I was comfortable with, but even after my long soak I was too shaken up for tact. "How'd he get here, anyway?"

Maud examined a stitch, found it good, kept going. "Walked, I expect." She finished knitting the row while I nearly chewed off my tongue from impatience. Finally she said, "Sure, there's an arrangement. Wool for work. I always need a few extra shepherds in the winter." Her needles clicked. They looked like ivory or polished bone. The yarn they transformed to textured cloth was a smoky mixture of black and white. "And during lambing season, of course."

"When's lambing season? Spring?"

"Whenever we get new lambs," said Maud. And, try as I might, that's all I could get out of her.

In the weeks that followed, the weather turned colder until it resembled a proper Colorado winter at last. Snow fell more often and stuck longer. Even the sunny days turned icy. I unpacked my winter clothes and layered up for my habitual walks. When I walked the pasture, I kept an eye out for other human beings and avoided them when I could. When I couldn't avoid them, I cut the encounters as short as possible. I could not ignore the threat implied by the blank stares of the shepherds. Their eyes livened a bit as they turned toward such tasks as digging a sheep out of a snowbank or patrolling the pasture fence for coyotes, but they were dead shark stares when they landed on me. I never heard a single one of them speak.

I walked the roads less and less as the snow made them near impassible. Shempf was outside of Brighton Public Works territory; what plowing happened was thanks to Manny Billings and his draft horse. "Used to have a snowplow," he told me once when we met on the road. "Broke down. They don't make the part no more."

"How come you never replaced it?"

"Who needs it when I got Seely here?" He patted the neck of the big horse. She gave an amiable stomp of one of her dinner-plate-sized hooves. "Gas is expensive--I should know! 'Sbetter to have a plow runs on hay'n oats."

Thanks to Manny and Seely, neighbors began to visit in the evenings surrounding Christmas and New Year's. One or two came by car, but most arrived on horseback or in horse-drawn sleds. Their animals were tied loosely to support spars in the sheep barn where they kept as warm as the humans did in Maud's cavernous living room. One night in the barn, I saw a team of huskies lolling in the traces of their sled. Turns out they belonged to Postmaster Ben. He sat me in the sled that evening and told me the commands for driving it, but the dogs would only respond if he issued them.

In the big house, people sat at the table or sprawled any which way on the woolen rugs, their faces turned toward the fire and their hands busy with fiber. Some brought stools to sit on as they dangled drop-spindles from new-twisted yarn. A few spun on spinning wheels that folded up cleverly for travel. Most people knitted. One woman I saw brought a portable loom and wove with it at the big wooden table.

And, as Maud had prophesied, I learned how to knit. Maud was an excellent teacher. Her verbal instructions were terse as ever, making her sound always on the verge of impatience, but when she held up her needles for me to watch, her movements were easy to follow. She loaned me a pair of her antique bone needles and I began knitting my first scarf.

The visitors brought home-canned vegetables, potatoes and turnips from their root cellars, and a stunning variety of squash. They took turns in the kitchen transforming these into soups and stews. Maud contributed mutton to the table and wool for the work. In the companionable warmth of hearty meals and shared productivity, any last remnants of unease or stress just melted away. My mind became empty of everything except for a running count of my stitches.

At times Maud would say, apparently to the room at large, "More wood's needed," and someone would stand up and head for the back door. Just one person, always. It amazed me the first time I saw it. I remembered my co-workers jumping up three at a time, "I'll get it!" when the pizza delivery arrived. There'd be good-natured confusion, guffaws, sometimes a race to the door or a quick flip of rock-scissors-paper. But in Maud's house a single neighbor simply did what was needed while the rest continued their work without pause.

I hadn't been here long enough to get into the rhythm. When Maud said, "More wood's needed," and no one got up at all, I didn't understand why until she said it again. "More wood's needed, Betsy."

"Oh--sorry--" I sprang up, blushing, and nearly fell over Dennis Neldham's feet in my haste. "Sorry!" No one looked up from their yarn to chastise the new kid on the block, but I was mortified nonetheless. I muttered "sorry" one more time and headed out the door.

Neat pyramids of firewood stacked high against the wall under a protective jut of the roof. I regarded the collection and sighed. The tops of the stacks were well above my head, and for all my detective skills I couldn't find the first clue as to where the last person had retrieved a log from.

I finally settled on climbing up the side of the pyramid nearest the door. It was stupid of me, but the pile looked sturdy enough, and I was too embarrassed to ask for help after having made Maud repeat herself. And everything went just fine until I got two thirds up the stack, knocked my head sharply on an unexpected rafter, and managed to kick a log loose. The whole she-bang came down and took me with it.

I guess I'm lucky I wasn't hurt. The bulk of the avalanche rolled out underneath me and I mostly surfed it down to the yard. By the time I lost my balance and went over backwards, I was already close to the ground anyway. Something soft and warm broke my fall--one of Maud's omnipresent sheep. The damn thing bleated high and scared as I collided with it. We both went over into the snow. It didn't rise immediately; it didn't even move. Oh, God, I thought as I slowly got to my feet, don't tell me I broke its neck!

Then I heard a gunshot.

I didn't realize that's what it was at first. I was too disoriented, and my head was throbbing. I saw Maud standing on the back porch, and I thought I'd heard the door banging into the wall when she'd come out. But then I followed Maud's eyes and, turning, saw David Regalo cocking the rifle and taken aim anew. It was not the first time I'd looked down the barrel of a firearm. I was pretty damn sure it would be my last.

Maud had never yet raised her voice in my presence; she did not do so now. She simply pointed her walking stick at David and said, "That'll do." And nothing else. Not "No," not "Cease fire," though those would have made more sense. "That'll do," she said. And in the space of two seconds David Regalo turned into a new-born lamb.

The rifle dropped into the snow with a ploomf, vanishing down a three-inch hole. The lamb stood over it, bleating lowly. Its short, nubbly fleece was variegated brown.

For a moment it sniffed at the rifle where the falling snow had already made a good start on burying it. Then it approached the sheep that I'd knocked over. "What a waste," said Maud. I thought she meant the fallen sheep. But as David licked its face, it twitched an ear and then rolled up onto its knees. "What a shameful waste," Maud said again. "And me already a few men short." Then she stepped forward to catch me. I sagged against her, and she didn't even sway.

She helped me into the house and sat me by the fire. "Look how you're shaking, girl. Here. Put this on." She was tugging a sweater over my head. "You like it? I made it for you." I stuck my arms through the sleeves without protest. It was a smoky mix of black and white, knitted and purled in a checkerboard pattern. Inside my head, a distant voice screamed No!

Someone pressed a pair of knitting needles into my hands. Bibi Neldham. "Go on, get back to work. It'll calm you down. I'll get the wood, don't worry. Dennis, make her some tea, would you?"

"On it, Bee." Dennis disappeared into the kitchen. I found myself desperately tracking his movement, Maud's movements, Bibi's, like a trapped wild thing, evaluating every twitch for threat significance.

Bibi put my hands on the needles again; I'd dropped them. "Go on, Betsy," she said in the tone she used to calm her animals. "Did you do all this tonight? Look how consistent your gauge is getting! This will be a lovely scarf. One day you'll be making sweaters like this one, huh?" She touched the cookies-and-cream sleeve. "No time at all."

It really was a gorgeous sweater, and so warm. Take it off, the voice in my head said. Get it off me! Now! My fingers went knit, knit, knit, purl, knit. Take it off take it off take it off! A bead of sweat rolled down my face. I was too close to the fire to be dressed so warmly. I put my knitting down, told my hands to reach for the sweater's waist cuff and pull it over my head. They didn't, though. They just hung there, near my knees, idle.

Then Dennis brought me my tea, warm and smelling of chamomile, and my hands reached gratefully for the mug.

"It's a lucky thing you're here," said Maud.

This story originally appeared in Nameless Digest.

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