Beyond the deep green and autumn red hills west of Butterberry Farm, a soft orange sunset bloomed. Shadows stretched across the low paddock south of the farmhouse. There the sheep strolled toward the shearing shed, to hear what Candace had assured them was an important message. Candace was one of the lambs born in the spring. The lambs were now almost fully grown. By the time the last sheep reached the meeting place, the sunset had wilted to a deep purple, and the hills were dark. Far off, up at the farmhouse, the porch light shone. Candace paced back and forth, bleating quietly in frustration at how long it took the sheep to assemble. Unless the sheepdog was chasing them, they were never in much of a hurry. Finally, gathered near the shed entrance, the sheep turned to face Candace. She stood at the top of the ramp and looked out upon the flock.
“Brothers and sisters,” she declared, “for a long time I have felt something like a pain in my belly, as though I could burst.”
“Have you been eating the weeds near the southern fence?” said an old ewe. “Because they will make you sick.”
“No, it’s not that kind of pain,” said Candace.
“The ones with the sharp leaves,” said the ewe.
“Yes, I know which ones you mean, and I haven’t eaten any. I’m talking about something different. We wander the paddock all day, every day. We eat the same grass, we drink from the same troughs. At night we sleep in the barn. Every night. Always the same. We never venture past the fences. We go wherever the sheepdog directs us.”
“The sheepdog is very good at getting us all together,” called a sheep from the back of the crowd. The others bleated in agreement.
“Yes, I realise that,” said Candace. “But have you ever looked around and wondered what it is like beyond these fences? Look at the trees and the hills and the all the green grass outside the farm.”
The sheep looked around, then turned back to Candace. “There’s plenty of grass here, isn’t there?” asked one of the lambs.
“Oh yes,” said an exceptionally woolly sheep near the front, “I’ve lived eight years, and in that time we’ve never run out of grass—even after the flood.”
The older sheep nodded.
“Forget about grass for a moment,” said Candace, stamping her hoof. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to find the words to express what she had never heard expressed before. “The hills over there—we see them every day, but what is behind those hills?”
The sheep looked at each other.
“When the farmer gets in his car and drives past the gate,” continued Candace, “where does he go? And the cows’ milk—the calves drink it, and the cats drink it, and Mr and Mrs McGinley drink it, but the sheep never drink it. What does it taste like? How does the sheepdog herd us so easily when there is only one of him and so many of us? What is it like inside the horse stables? Or the henhouse? Where are the other sheep? I know it’s not just us, I can feel it. But we never see any other sheep. Where could we find them? I’ve been thinking a lot about these things, and… now it is like weight upon me. I have to find out.”
The sheep watched her, but their faces showed neither curiosity nor mockery, neither encouragement nor disapproval. Candace saw in their eyes a sincere interest in her speaking, but no interest at all in what she had to say.
“I cannot stay,” she said. “I am leaving the farm.”
A few of the lambs gasped. A few of the older sheep looked confused.
“I have to find out what is beyond our barn and this paddock,” said Candace. “I just have to, or I will shrivel, or burst. And I wanted you all to know. Tomorrow I am leaving, and if anyone else wants to come, you can. Together we can see what is beyond the sheep paddock.”
The sheep murmured. Marvin, the old ram, pressed through the flock and stepped out in front. He looked up at Candace with narrow eyes. “On the farm,” he said, “you will always have grass to eat, water to drink, and a safe place to sleep. But if you leave, there is no guarantee of food or drink or safety.”
“I understand,” said Candace.
Marvin nodded. “Okay then,” he said.
He turned and walked back through the flock and over to the barn. The other sheep followed him. Candace waited a while at the shearing shed door, and then she too went over to the barn to sleep.
© 2021 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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