As I unlatched the barn door's creaking hasp,
The grey ewes gathered, hungering, at my back,
Dawn's sallow glimmer pricked the tine and cusp
Of hawthorn crowns and slipped across the beck.
He wasn't in the clamour for fresh hay,
Nor by the mistle, so I went to seek,
Hurrying through the damp grass, till I saw
The great, slumped shadow against the lambing creep.
A rim of light, pale cuticle of day,
Peeled back the shroud of night and, naked, trembled
About his corpse. The scavenging jackdaw
Retreated where the briar thickets scrambled
Down the banking to the weedy waters.
I knelt beside him in the soft churned mire,
Clasping the thick, coiled horns, whorled tortuous
As giant ammonites, and pulled him clear.
Thirteen winters toiling on the fells
Had earned him old age in the lower pasture,
And easy forage from the brimming pails
Of plump, flaked barley; shelter, a placid cluster
Of shearling ewes. He thrived for two more years
Before his withering heart curled like a leaf
And snapped its sinewy stem. Caught unawares,
Hot tears sprung, overwhelming me with grief.
Beneath the rowan tree we dug a pit,
No knacker's hacking blade to slit and skin
The heathery fleece, or spill the ripening gut
In heavy slicks, no splintering of bone
Against blunt cleaver. The sharp spade sliced the turf.
The rowan, giving up its dappled greens
For brief fire, spilled a russet blaze of leaf
And blood-spot berries across the earthy wounds.
The grey ewes move like shadows down the slope,
Blue smoke, straight up, from ashed and riddled fires,
Dogs bark, the wild, black geese reclaim the lake,
A cockerel's cry eviscerates the air.
Lesley Quayle was born in Fife. Daughter of a naval officer, she moved all over Britain, attending eight different schools in six different counties, always returning to the family home in Glasgow whilst her father was abroad on long tours of duty. She finally arrived in Yorkshire in 1982 and has no intention of moving anywhere else. She now lives on a farm near Leeds.