By Joanna Lucas,
Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary
She kissed his sleepy eyes, rested her chin on his head, slowed her breath to steady his, stilled her heart to quiet his, and breathed all her love into his worried soul: that it may make him stronger, that it may sustain him on his long, lonely journey ahead, that it may turn the dark heart of the world toward the sun. And then she closed her eyes to dream with him one last time.
She knew he was there, waiting in the dark outside her barn. She could smell the prairie on his skin, and all the tantalizing grasses of distant fields clinging to his hooves. At first light, when the earth turned its dark face toward the sun, he was still standing there, waiting for her--a prodigal presence, teeming with all the strength and splendor of summer. She scrambled to her feet and teetered out of the barn with an almost spring in her rusty step, as if she had never needed our help just to get up, just to stand, just to put foot before foot, and she rushed--as much as an elderly, arthritic ewe can rush--to greet her estranged boy. Frank.
When he was rescued from a neighboring "family farm" the year before--a skinny, scared, motherless calf--he was almost catatonic. No one could touch him, no one could reach him. He avoided contact with everyone, of any species, acting as though he was, or wanted to be, invisible. And it was poignant that the only being he trusted and bonded with at first was someone who could not see him--Pierre, the blind calf, Pierre the outsider, Pierre the oddball to everyone except elderly Louise, Louise who embraced him, the way she had embraced every other orphaned soul--without hesitation, like the good mother she knew the child needed, and who, later, opened her heart and her barn to Pierre's new and only friend, Frank.
But, if Pierre was still her adult child who adored her with all the passion of a vulnerable, lonely heart, and if, a year later, he was still leaving his cattle tribe every night to sleep next to his adoptive mother in the sheep barn, Frank had grown into an independent and confident young steer who loved to wander and whom Louise hardly saw any more. He stopped by her barn only long enough to collect Pierre and lead him on their daily treks, but she was too old and arthritic to follow them or to venture out of the yard at all any more. In the past few weeks, she was barely able to walk unsupported and, even with our support, and even with the best treatment received around the clock, she still wobbled and shuddered with every step, her feeble frame trembling with the effort, her arthritic joints aching in protest.
But today she almost strutted out of the barn. She walked into the yard with a bounce in her step, and a twinkle in her eye, and a flutter in her being: Her boy Frank was there, waiting for her, walking next to her, syncing his sturdy steps to her brittle ones, breathing the solace of his presence into her pores, licking the pain away from her sore shoulders, and carrying the promise of something wonderful, in gaze, voice, touch, and breath.
At first we worried that, in his heft and his youth, he might accidentally hurt her with one playful swing of his head. But he was so careful, so restrained, so clearly aware of her vulnerability, so deliberately gentle, and so precise in the way he ministered his tenderness, that we trusted she'd be safe with him. And Louise was so happy, almost giddy, that we wouldn't have had the heart to separate them anyway.
Frank's company enlivened her, it emboldened her to venture out of her yard for the first time in months, and they soon set off together, a frail old ewe, bent to the earth by time and illness, and a hulking young steer crackling with the endless summer of his youth. They were a site to behold, Louise, with her spindly legs and reed-thin neck and rheumy eyes, walking in slow, creaky motion, next to her giant adopted boy. She wheezed, stuttered and shuddered with every step, lifting her legs with exaggerated care, as if stepping over invisible obstacles, setting each foot down with a thud that sent a quiver in her fragile frame, but she kept walking, leaning against Frank's ample side and trusting that he would get her to her destination. Because, we soon realized, she wasn't just out strolling with her prodigal boy on a lush summer day, she had a specific destination in mind. Or several.
Her first port of call was Simon, her oldest friend, the gander she knew from the bad old days on the farm when he sought solace in her company after his life partner was butchered, when he crawled to her side, mute with grief, and she cradled him in the crook of her neck as if he was the child she had just lost in the name of "lamb roast". They stuck together all those years of being used as "breeding stock", and they helped each other bear the anguish and the despair of losing love, in the only way hopeless creatures can: not by hoping for an impossible release, but by helping each other endure.
Yet that impossible dream of a release did come true and, when, against their wildest hopes, they did find Sanctuary and, with it, the freedom to become, they evolved in ways that set them on separate paths. Louise, whose mobility was already restricted by complications following multiple pregnancies, births and bereavements, kept mostly to the sheep yard where she found joy and purpose in caring for a seemingly endless procession of orphans and outcasts and where, in the past year, she had been anchored not only by old age and arthritis but also by her love for a grown orphan who still needed the sustenance of mother love: Pierre, the blind calf. And, for his part, Simon had build his new life around his partners, Cheryl and Carol, whom he cherished and whose gifts and demands pulled him away from everyone and everything that was not them. He lived in his loves' gravitational pull and could not bear to lose sight of them, much less be physically separated from them.
Today, Louise made it only halfway to Simon's pad before her weary bones demanded a break. Exhausted, she lied down next to Frank and waited for her breath to settle and her step to steady before continuing on. At a seemingly impossible distance, her friend and his partners were enjoying their midmorning swim, splashing and thrashing with wild abandon. It might have taken Louise hours to get there but Simon caught sight of her and did something unprecedented in his life at the Sanctuary: he left his loves unattended and walked over to visit his old friend. Their new life paths may have diverged but their old bond, and its treasure of soul, had remained intact. Simon waddled over to the spot where Louise was resting, approaching in his usual way: honking, hooting and hollering, puffing his chest and craning his neck in a gesture of supreme supreme self-confidence. And Louise welcomed him in her usual way, too: smiling with her whole body, her chocolate curls brightening to amber, the rasp in her voice softening to silk. Simon swayed silently for a while, stepping in place as if waiting for a marching order, then he lowered his head and waved the wand of his neck along Louise's spine, as if dowsing for water--the deep waters of her being, the deep river of her life that was now nearing the ocean. There was immense tenderness in his caress, there was also sadness, and worry, and something else, too, a reverence, a salute, a valediction.
When he left, summoned by his loves, called back to the fullness of his life and its seemingly endless future, he was uncharacteristically quiet. This gander whose every appearance was a pageant, whose every stroll was a parade, whose every utterance was an aria, walked away with small, quiet steps, a silent syrinx, a listening heart, and the glow of a new knowledge in his being.
At midday, when Louise acted eager to move on, we helped her to her feet and supported her as she teetered over to her next destination: Sven, the recluse gander who chased away everyone but Louise, the gander whose solitary fortress was closed to everyone but her. It was a lot quieter there, in Sven's country, and a lot more secluded. No one was splashing in a nearby pool, no one was squabbling over treats in a nearby barn, no one was wrestling empty wheelbarrows for the sheer merriment of it. It was just Sven and Louise, with Frank at a respectful distance, sharing the gift of a late summer afternoon. Louise, resting in the grass, and Sven waddling slowly around her, preening the galaxies of alfalfa bits off her face and forehead, lingering on the tender spots around her eyes and ears, showering her with the balm of his goose kisses, the way he had done so many times before. And Louise closed her eyes with such blissful abandon, and entrusted her vulnerable being to him so completely, as if his offering was not a mere preening but a benediction. She stayed there until supper, resting with Sven in the middle of the ecstatically surrendering summer day, surrounded by the rapturous chirping of crickets and the symphonic rustling of grasses, absorbing the prodigal dreams of seeds waiting to become trees, and the stillness of roots dreaming in their underground shrouds of coming to bloom on the other side.
It was almost dusk when she signaled that she was ready to go home. We helped her get up and supported her all the way back, stopping every so often to let her catch her breath. Back in her yard, Louise drank deeply and ate heartily before savoring her nightly "dessert" of treat-wrapped medicines. Then she headed back to her barn where Pierre was already waiting for her. The light was dimming, the earth was slowly turning its face away from the sun. She was tired to the core, but she was glowing. She had seen all of her boys that day: Simon, once a sobbing mess who sought solace in her presence, was now passionately involved in the work of living and loving. Sven, lovely Sven, who understood loneliness (and loveliness) better than anyone else, who opened his home and his heart only to her, and who changed in her presence "the way a house that a guest has entered changes". Frank, her beautiful boy, her prodigal boy, who grew so robustly independent, changing from the frightened young calf who clung to her and refused to leave the sheep yard because she could not, to the vibrant youngster who advanced so boldly toward his future. And Pierre, vulnerable Pierre, who needed her still, who left his tribe every night to sleep next to her, to absorb the sustenance of her love, and to wake up every morning to the reassurance that he still had a mother. Pierre was the reason she was still around despite her growing burdens of age and illness. Pierre, who was now waiting for her to join him before he could sleep. He was her heart and her worry.
She teetered into the barn and cuddled him as she had done so many nights before, drawing the substance of his fears into her being, and exhaling the substance of her hope into his. She kissed his sleepy eyes, rested her chin on his head, slowed her breath to steady his, stilled her heart to quiet his, and breathed all her love into his worried soul: that it may make him stronger, that it may sustain him on his long, lonely journey ahead, that it may turn the dark heart of the world toward the sun. And then she closed her eyes to dream with him one last time.
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