Chapter 5 John & Elizabeth
February 10, 1988, Early Morning in the Barn
Elizabeth woke for some reason and twisted about in bed to see the clock. 3:38, and her husband John’s side of the bed was cold. She thought for a minute about scrunching back under the warm quilt and pretending that she never woke up, but a mixture of curiosity, worry, guilt, and love made her sit up and put her warm feet on the cold wooden floor. She sighed.
Making her way into the kitchen, she smelled the coffee and noticed the half-empty pot. She called gently down into the basement, so as not to wake any children, just to see if he was down in his workshop. Then she remembered the children were all in town spending the night at her parents. There was no answer from the workshop, but she didn’t expect one; several ewes were pregnant and due soon, and he was most likely in the barn.
She peered through the kitchen window, but there just wasn’t a good view of the barn from the house. That had always frustrated her — who would build a barn that you couldn’t see from the house? Or more likely, why wouldn’t you put windows in the house, so you could see the barn?
Her warmest wool socks were stuffed into her barn boots by the door. She pulled them both on and shrugged into her barn coat; the lantern by the door was gone. Perhaps she should fill a thermos with more coffee.
Trudging out to the barn through the new snow wasn’t easy, but at least the snow had stopped and the stars were plentiful and twinkling in the cold night sky. She stopped for just a minute to gaze upwards and listen to the snowy silence of a winter night in the country. A great horned owl hooted in the distance and added mystery to the stillness.
She followed John’s larger footprints and quietly let herself in the man door around the side of the old barn. Through the dim overhead light she could see her husband in one of the far stalls. He had his back to her and was kneeling in front of Bathsheba, one of their best ewes, who was on her side in front of him. As Elizabeth got closer, she could see a lamb cuddled up next to the big, wooly mama. A large bubble of fluid lay on the ground behind her, and John’s arm was up to his elbow inside Bathsheba’s birth canal.
“I’m here,” she said softly, not to startle him. “Is there anything you need?”
“I just don’t know if I can turn this second one,” he said, his voice muffled because his face was leaning against the matted wool of a sheep’s rump. “The first one there came easy, I guess, but it’s been almost an hour and a half for this one.”
“I can try,” she volunteered. “My arm is smaller.” There was nothing she liked less than lambing season. Give her children, chickens, plants, fruit trees, even bees, and she was fearless, but the possibility of death that hung in the air during lambing always gave her pause. They’d lost relatively few lambs — it was true. And John always knew which ewes to breed for easy births. Those who had a hard time were sold for meat or sheepskins, depending on their age.
“I can feel its little elbows locked,’’ he said. “And I just don’t want to hurt Bathsheba. Give me another minute.” John knew his wife’s hesitancy on helping with lambs; she’d done it in the past and was gentle and unflappable. But afterwards, when the lamb was stillborn, he had found her crying — shut up and hiding in the little room downstairs with the extra bales of straw. He tried not to ask for her help unless it was absolutely necessary.
Bathsheba had borne twin lambs with no problems for the last three springs. Even as a first time mama, she’d been fine. She was one of their Icelandic ewes, known for their amazing wool. They didn’t have too many, most of their sheep were Katahdins, raised for meat and didn’t have to be sheared. But Elizabeth had wanted just a few for wool, and John had chosen the best breed for wool and easy lambing. He, too, had come to love Bathsheba, with her proud horns and soft grey wool.
Elizabeth watched her Mennonite husband intently; it was in times like this that she was so grateful for him. He was strong, silent, dependable. He always knew what he was about and where his strength came from. He never doubted, and she was often in awe of his unwavering faith. She thought of the two men who had lost their lives in the accident earlier this evening, and of the truck driver’s wife, who most certainly now knew that she was a widow — her life changed in an instant. Silently she prayed for peace for the new widow that she didn’t even know, and then she thanked God for her blessings — John, the children, the farm, her parents both still living and close by — and she ended the prayer thanking God for the blessings of new life, for Bathsheba, the new little lamb by her side, and the one being born to be delivered safely tonight in the sheep stall.
John twisted a bit and suddenly sighed. “Ah, there she goes,” he said quietly; and with a gentle tug, he pulled out his arm and with it plopped the tiny lamb, yellowish and gooey. Bathsheba turned to lick and clean the newborn, and the one by her side bleated its displeasure. He looked back at her. “Were you praying?” he asked smiling.
She smiled back at him. “I was,” she answered joyfully. “For two fine healthy lambs and a good end to a difficult birth for Bathsheba.” They stood together looking down at the new family. John gently pushed the newborn over to suck the colostrum.
“I guess I should wash off,” he said, but he made no move to go anywhere.
“I’ve got more coffee,” Elizabeth said as she brought out the thermos. “And I’ll get a warm rag.” She walked over to the large trough sink right inside the door. With a closet next to the sink, she thought this might have been the smartest suggestion she’d ever had — running hot and cold water in the barn — and a deep sink to fill buckets. The barn was far enough away from the house and she’d spent her first winter as a pregnant farmer’s wife hauling buckets of water to the chickens who were wintered that year in the barn. John eagerly agreed that it was a necessity when she had mentioned it — he already had visions of sheep farming and keeping real livestock in the barn. That running water and sink trough committed them to being real farmers. That and the fence… She smiled as she wrung out two soft old towels with warm water — one for Bathsheba and her lambs and one for her husband.
When she returned, John had turned over two buckets for sitting. She gave him the warm wet rags and poured coffee. “I’ll share,” he smiled as she handed him the thermos cup. “Have a seat, my dear. It’s the best seat in the house.”
“It is,” she agreed. “So what do we have here?”
“Two happy little girls already sucking at Mama,” he smiled, rubbing his arm briskly with the wet towel. “And it really wasn’t that difficult. I probably didn’t even need to help, but I do love that Bathsheba girl. Listen to her talking to them.”
Indeed, as they were nursing, Bathsheba was still licking them clean and making little mama sheep noises to her babies. “Two girls! What a fine start to lambing season! How about the others?” Elizabeth asked. Now that danger seemed to be over, she was relaxed — a successful farm birth is a joyous occasion.
“Well, there’s nine more, you know?” He thought she had been counting, but often she was distracted with children and chickens and food, and he was never sure how much attention she paid to the sheep. They were in his care. “But they are all still eating fine — no one’s off their food yet, so I think we’ll have at least a day or two of good night’s sleeping.”
“Too bad the children missed this,” she mused. “Eli would have been the first one out here — and more help than I was,” she admitted.
“Didn’t need help, did we Bathsheba?” John rubbed her wool and checked her back end to make sure all was well. He sat back down and took the cup of coffee from her. “Since we’re here in the barn in the middle of the night, drinking coffee, and celebrating two young ewe lambs,” he paused. “What do you think of trying to buy the orchard this spring?” He pointed across the road as if she didn’t know where the orchard was.
Yes, the orchard… Across the road, adjacent to Mary’s. They’d talked and talked about it, but never could decide if it was the right time. Elizabeth spoke her thoughts out loud — If we don’t offer him something soon, the trees will be so broken down, none of them will be worth trying to save…
“Yes,” John nodded. “It’s the truth.”
Elizabeth bit her lip, wondering if she had really spoken that thought aloud. And so she added, “But we don’t even know IF he will sell, OR what he wants for it… We’ve just been talking about it forever, it seems.”
John looked warily at her and grinned. “Have I worn you down at last?” he asked.
“I look over at those apples just rotting on the trees, and it kills me — you know that. But…” She started to say something, bit her lip again, and stopped.
“Yes, we both know the monetary objections,” he said. “But the farm is doing well, we’ve got, God willing, ten to twenty new lambs coming and all the seeds for this year are bought and paid for. That’s a first! In March! Perhaps, it’s time to ask, at least. Then we can know and act on it. Or not,” he added.
Elizabeth nodded. She had prayed and prayed over this and never had seen or heard a clear answer. But tonight’s events, the thoughts of life ending suddenly no matter what you did or who you were — well, trusting God and stepping out in faith to live your life as best you can — Was that an answer? Perhaps.
She took her husband’s hand and squeezed it. “We’ll never know until we ask, will we?”
He pulled her up from her elegant bucket seat. “Sheep grazing among the apple trees?”
“Only in the spring and summer,” she warned. “You have to keep them away from my apples in the fall.”
He kissed her.