Velvet paws the feathery pine shavings below her swollen belly. Her ears are drawn back defensively, her eyes set on some destination on the ground before her.
I sit just a few feet away, staring through the rusty green bars that separate us. I recognize the determination in her eyes; I sense an instinct that has taken over her tentative spirit.
It’s 11 at night, and my mom and I have been dragging ourselves back and forth between the barn and our house for hours. I’ve missed all opportunities do my math homework, but I have a far more important calling to attend: Velvet is in labor.
Velvet is the matriarch. The first ewe I ever bought, her genetics now make up half of my Katahdin flock. Two of Velvet’s daughters stand in the adjacent pen, watching her intently. They, too, are carrying lambs and are due any day now.
Because Velvet has the most offspring in the flock, she is regarded as the queen. No one engages in head-butt wars with her. She’s too regal for roughhousing.
Velvet has navigated three lambing seasons and produced a healthy set of twins each time. Surprisingly, this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to see her give birth. Velvet is notorious for stealthy lambings while we foolishly run for coffee or try to warm up in the house. This year we come armed with hot tea and hand warmers, determined not to miss it.
Velvet is carrying a pair of lambs fathered by my ram Salty, who is stout, striking and surprisingly sweet. His back end is a bright white, and the rest of his body looks dipped in an inky blackness that covers his head and the long, exceptionally luscious beard that hangs off the bottom of his neck. From where I sit, I can see Salty’s snout peeking out between the slats of his pen, his eyes glued to the maternity ward. He knows something is happening and seems interested, but occasionally gets distracted by the affectionate demands of his roommate, Herfy.
Herfy is Salty’s enormous, flame-colored counterpart. When visitors come to the barn to see my sheep, they almost always compare him to a lion. He is a powerful and masculine king who jealously demands kisses, back rubs and scratches. Herfy and Salty have a strange yet formidable bond. There’s no doubting the fact that the two rams are soul mates. They are in love, and not just in a “bromance” type of way. They follow each other everywhere, lick each other’s faces, nicker to each other in sheep love language and occasionally partake in very public displays of sexual affection.
In late summer, when the orchard below the barn is ripe and green and breezy, Herfy and Salty are separated for breeding season. Last year they each produced some beautiful lambs that won their share of ribbons at our regional livestock shows: Salty and Velvet had a yin-yang pair of ewes, one black and one white; Herfy sired a beautiful cinnamon ewe with Velvet’s daughter, and two elegant white rams with another ewe. All the offspring are in the barn now, standing at attention, eager to see what comes of the queen’s labor but careful to remain quietly respectful. Even Jonathan the donkey brays softly from the ram pen, his enormous ears trained on the maternity ward.
It isn’t long before an inky shape makes its way out of Velvet. As she contracts it wriggles upside down, halfway suspended in the air. Finally it drops on the shavings in a gelatinous pile. My mother and I exchange quiet and joyful exclamations.
Velvet swings around to begin licking the wet pile. I see a sense of duty and wisdom in her eyes. She is no longer anxious and uncomfortable. She has a lamb now. She has responsibility. As she licks, her lamb is gradually revealed. It is ink-black with white hind legs and tail. A ewe. Her name is Raven.
Not long after Raven begins to wobble around, another tiny body makes its way into the brisk air. This one is all black, too, but with a tiny white cap accentuating its head. A sister. Her name is Violet.
Nothing can top my stress levels during lambing season. Even anxiety over midterm exams can’t compare to nightmares about breech births and pregnancy complications. Sometimes I think Velvet knows how I feel. We’ve been through so much together over the past five years that I can sense her mentality, and I have every reason to believe that she can sense mine. I’m as grateful for that connection as I am for the priceless gifts she brings each year: two little voices stirring the night, adding new life to our family.