When I was small a woman came to my school with three sheep. We were all allowed to walk outside in two long, orderly lines and watch her brush their dirty white wool with a big and flat wooden paddle brush. The day was cool, and I remember the grass being very green and bright that day. I wore a worn pair of blue jeans with a hole in each knee; I grew very fast, as most children do, and my legs were as knobby as a praying mantis’.
The woman was plain and calmly efficient in her actions and her speech. Her hair was shorn, salt and pepper and thick. Maybe she used the paddle brush to comb her hair, too. I remember how smart she seemed, but how beige and colorless too. I felt a little sorry for her because she didn’t have any mascara or lipstick on…every grown up lady I knew when I was a girl always had mascara and lipstick on. Even so, I liked the brisk way she talked and how she didn’t seem to mind wearing muddy boots or having grass stains on her pants. When she turned on a shining silver pair of clippers and sheared each of the sheep, I felt a deep, metallic pang of remorse for them. Sheep should be as full and round as cotton balls, now they were thin and insignificant, ready for the heat of aTennesseesummer but diminished in stature and importance. They belonged to humans again.
When the lady was finished shearing she let us come up and touch and take small pieces of the raw wool that had fallen to the grass in clumps from her sheep. I picked up an apple-sized ball of dirty wool, squeezed it, and felt and smelled the sheeps’ oily musk push into my nose and skin. I wanted more of the wool. I wanted to make my own personal, small sheep stuffed animal at home out of parts of the real thing. I thought I could sleep with it at night and rub and tickle my face with the soft white wool when I couldn’t sleep.
When I thought no one was looking I took an extra clump from the ground. My classmates hadn’t noticed and they were already walking to where the woman was twisting and pulling and turning a piece of wool in her hands; showing how strong it was and how one ball of wool could make a thick strand of yarn. I shoved my stolen, extra wool in my jeans pocket. When I pulled my hand out I noticed a thick green sort of smell coming from my hand. I looked down and saw a thick streak of brownish grass-stained sheep manure on my palm and thumb. The second piece of wool, the stolen one, had been soiled. I tried to wipe my hands off in the damp grass at my feet, tried to pull out the piece of wool that was coated in excrement, but when I reached into my pocket I made a bigger mess of my hands and my pants. In my disgust and distraction I accidentally stepped in a soft, fresh new pile of sheep manure. I felt guilty and ashamed. God had punished me for taking the extra wool when I hadn’t been told I was allowed and I would be teased for smelling bad and having sheep poop all over my hands and pants.
When we were dismissed from the field and back to our classrooms I galloped frantically to the closest girl’s room and tried to wash out all the farm smell from my pants, shoes, and hands. It helped a little: I now smelled like Dial soap and just faintly of livestock.