KR OnlineFiction

Bummers

From the Kenyon Review, New Series, Autumn 1993, Vol. XV, No. 4

It’s the middle of February, twenty degrees Fahrenheit and some clean, wet snow is falling on the scuffed, stained snow of the sheep pasture.

Ariella and Dirk Envers are supposed to be cleaning the sheep shed. None of their own ewes are due until March but Bonnie, their mother, is hoping to pick up a couple of bummers this month. She’s a weaver and a vegetarian. When she culls their flock in the spring, though, she sends the unwanted ram lambs and the used-up ewes off to market.

Ariella hates her calling it market when it means to be killed. Hung up on a meat hook for the blood to all run out. That’s where her last year’s ram lamb Mocha went. Also, Ariella hates her name, she plans to change it to Anne as in Anne of Green Gables when she comes of age. Of age in this state (Massachusetts) is eighteen, light years away, as far as Ariella is concerned. She will be twelve next week.

Dirk, who is eight and small for his age and legally blind besides, is chipping away at the frozen sheep shit with a garden trowel. Tears are running down his face, melding with snot. He hates this job, he hates Bonnie even if she is his mother and besides being multiply handicapped he is clinically depressed.

When she saw the word written on his school record Ariella thought it was multiply, as in addition and subtraction. Dirk is an albino; he was born without any pigmentation and he can’t ever be out in the sun without tons of sunscreen slathered on him. He is so nearsighted that in order to read he has to hold the book right under his nose. But there’s nothing the matter with his brain; in fact, he is smart. He reads a lot of the same books Ariella reads, even parts of Animal Farm, but nobody knows this except the two of them. There’s a little bit of palsy in his left leg from being oxygen deprived while he was getting born. Bonnie calls it a hitch in his gitalong, as if he were somebody’s pony.

She says it’s all right for Dirk to hate her out loud and Ariella can too, anytime she wants. She understands why they call her Bonnie instead of Mother. She says hating your mother is a way to defend yourself against admitting how much you love her and want to keep her around. She knows this because she used to hate her own mother behind her back and after her mother died she felt horrible. Bereft. That’s a word Ariella loves.

It’s lousy the way Bonnie is always cheerful and wears her blond hair in one big braid down her back while Ariella’s dark mane has to be cut every few weeks to keep it in a Dutch bob. Besides acting as 4-H leader of the ten girls in the sheep club, Bonnie is room mother of Dirk’s third-grade class and she says Dirk will grow out of his sadness. Look at all the sadnesses she’s had to grow out of, beginning with her husband’s desertion.

So there isn’t any father (this contributes to Dirk’s depression, in the words of the school psychologist) though there was one once, named Peter. Ariella thinks that Bonnie and Peter did drugs together a lot and that he went off to fry his brain alone when Bonnie quit.

They must have been on drugs to give her and Dirk their ridiculous hippie names even though the whole hippie thing was over with long ago. They should have stopped being hippies before they had us, is what Ariella thinks. Maybe Dirk’s palsy came from drugs. Maybe hating Bonnie behind her back came from drugs, too, and not from loving her too much to admit.

While they’re chipping and raking out soiled bedding they can hear their mother singing away out front. She’s stacking firewood the county delivered in a big dump truck last week, just slid out yards of split logs into a pile and drove off. Whatever’s free Bonnie takes. They have two woodstoves and the house is always toasty warm.

They inherited this house from Peter’s family, who called it a camp and used it weekends and for a couple of weeks in the summer. It has no indoor plumbing, something Ariella is careful not to bring up at school or 4-H meetings. She never really minded until a couple of years ago, as if it were perfectly normal to have to put ashes on the icy path to the outhouse or pee in a chamberpot in the kitchen in the middle of the night. For b.m.’s you went outside no matter what, that was a house rule. They have a cold water tap in the kitchen sink and there is always hot water in the kettle on the woodstove. But when Ariella visits other houses, she spends a long time in the bathroom gravely memorizing the configuration of tub and shower, toilet and basin. A mirror over the sink with fluorescent lights would be neat. Pale yellow tile on the walls and dove gray ones on the floor, that’s what she plans to have in her house. Plus a big glass jar of bubble bath crystals.

Any minute now she is going to get her first period and then she’ll be trundling to the outhouse a zillion times a day to check if her napkin is all bloodied. Her best friend Maggie, whose mother is a state senator, has already begun to menstruate. Men-stru-ate, three syllables. Maggie’s mother said when she was a girl they called it flying the red flag. Bonnie snorted when Ariella told her this. She said where she came from they called it getting the curse.

Ariella still finds it hard to believe that everybody female over the age of twelve bleeds once a month, they keep it such a secret. One of these days she’s going to get up the courage to ask Mrs. Arkwright, who is Maggie’s mother’s mother, what they called it when she was a girl. Even though Mrs. Arkwright is old enough to be their great-grandmother, she insists that Ariella and Dirk call her Helen, which is her first name.

Ariella and Dirk spend a lot of time with Mrs. Upright, that’s how Bonnie refers to her, which Ariella thinks is plain ordinary jealousy. She is a fixture in Dustin, says Bonnie, who grew up in New Jersey herself and would give anything not to be known as a former flatlander. Helen was born in the house she lives in and Ariella knows she plans to die there. Ariella loves Helen’s old Welsh ponies that are the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of ponies she started out with; ponies with little pointy ears and bright Arab-like eyes. She used to go to shows with them and she still drives them around in pairs sometimes.

Moreover, she has an ambitious vegetable garden (for no good reason, says Bonnie, who has a good-sized one of her own) and she pays Ariella to help in it. Dirk mostly watches because he doesn’t see well enough to plant the feathery little seeds of parsnips and the microdots of lettuce. Helen always has something for him to do, though. He brushes the patient ponies and he washes Helen’s show cart, a phaeton. Ariella is mortified when she discovers how it is spelled. She’s been seeing it in her mind as fayton.

Your mother is pretty terrific, Helen tells Ariella. You should be proud of how self-sufficient she is. This is in response to a discussion of bummers, which are newborn lambs the ewes can’t or won’t nurse. Ariella really wants one because she has heard that a bottle lamb is much easier to train than one raised with its mother. Last year, in 4-H—it stands for Health, Head, Heart, Hands—the visiting county agent told Ariella that she was going to have to walk Mocha a mile a day for a whole month to get him trim enough to take to the 4-H show.

Look at it this way, Bonnie said. Be glad you live at the end of a dirt road and have some place to walk him. What if you lived downtown, on Main Street?

What Ariella said in reply to that was predictable.

I don’t want to hear another word about bathrooms, Bonnie told her. And you can stop mooning about your long-lost father, too. He was only good for one thing, like a borrowed ram.

Ariella’s first class, Fitting and Showmanship, was the one she worried about most. Mocha not only had to be svelte and spotless for it but his fleece had to be exactly half an inch long. All over. That in itself demanded some heroic labors, mostly on Bonnie’s part, as she wielded the shears. He had to stand quietly in his halter and lead line, squared up on his recently bootblacked hooves.

His performance was respectable enough for Ariella to go on to 4-H sheep camp for a whole week of ovine education. While she was there enjoying the communal bathroom with four sinks, three toilets and two showers, she allowed herself to be homesick for her mother a couple of times. Also, she thought about her father. She didn’t have a single living memory of him, only of the way his barn jacket smelled. (It still hung on a hook by the back door.) She thought that Bonnie’s hating Peter was probably a way of defending herself against loving him too much. Maybe she smelled his jacket too.

Once the sheep pen is decent, Ariella gets Dirk to help her wrestle a bag of shavings onto the toboggan. Together they pull it to the shed and tear the kraft paper open. They make two more trips before Bonnie is satisfied. By then, the new snow has magically whitened the smudged pasture.

Last year, Ariella’s other lambs were named Cocoa and Butter Pecan. One of the other girls in 4-H, the granddaughter of a sheep farmer, was a bit cannier. She’s been naming her lambs after states. So far, Wyoming and Mississippi have made it to the big time. Her best friend Maggie has lambs called Marigold, Petunia, and Violet. Bonnie tells Ariella that she may be painting herself into a nomenclatural corner.

They are just sitting down to Bonnie’s vegetable lasagna (Ariella’s secret favorite) when the phone rings. It’s Lila Anderson, on the far side of Dustin, a call Bonnie has been expecting. One of her aged ewes, a Cheviot, has a newborn she can’t nurse, born this morning. They’ve milked out the colostrum and ask if Bonnie wants her. It’s snowing pretty good so they’d like to bring her up right away.

The lamb, a tiny, pure white female, arrives in a laundry basket. For Ariella it’s love at first sight. Bonnie’s already set up Dirk’s old playpen in the kitchen and the kids line it with newspapers. Vanilla settles in, greedily empties a two-ounce bottle of colostrum and falls asleep. In exchange, Lila, who is also a weaver, takes one of Bonnie’s ewes, the one with the silvery brown fleece she’s had her eye on.

For unfathomable reasons as attributable to sunspots as to stock market conditions, this is going to be a big year for bummers. Not an hour later, the phone rings again. Gertie, the Delbert Lords’s prize black ewe, the one who had mastitis last year and now has only one usable teat, has just delivered triplets. One is a little ewe lamb, very weak. There won’t be enough colostrum for three, but Rebecca Lord has a pint she froze last week, when one of her ewes had a stillbirth. Just their luck, she says, to have the births so far apart. Otherwise she might’ve tricked Beulah, mother of the lost lamb, into taking on two of these. She’s dried up now, though.

Their nearest neighbors, the Lords run about sixty head on their farm, which is a mile down the road, downhill all the way. In order to take advantage of the Easter market they breed early and lamb early. They are kind but unsentimental about losers and winners. It is decided to leave the weakling on the mother; Bonnie drives the sometimes unreliable old Ford pickup down to the Lords’s place to collect the two black ram lambs. One she will give back when it’s ready to run with the flock. The other, she’ll get to keep. Dirk goes with Bonnie, and Ariella elects to stay home with Vanilla.

What should only be a twenty-minute trip—ten down, ten back—stretches into an hour. Ariella is not going to worry. It’s probably the truck, she tells herself, and it turns out she’s right. Delbert drives Bonnie and Dirk and the two bummers back up the hill in his Bronco. Even so, he barely makes it up to the turnaround. T

Looks like it’s turning into a good nor’easter, kids. No school tomorrow. He ought to know; he drives the school bus on their route. Bonnie says she won’t be needing the pickup in this weather anyway and they all joke a little about being snowbound.

The wind picks up not long after the three lambs are snugly packed in the playpen. Bonnie pops some popcorn, since there won’t be any school tomorrow. She mixes up a batch of lamb milk replacer and goes out to pull down some more hay for their flock, securely penned in their shed. And while she is out, the power fails.

Resourceful Ariella opens the woodstove box just enough so she can see across the room. She fetches the emergency candles from the shelf by the window and is just tilting one into the flame to light the wick when Bonnie comes back in.

That is goddamn dangerous, Ariella. She uses her totally uninflected I-could-kill-you-for-that tone.

I didn’t know where the matches were.

For future reference, they are in. this. drawer. Then she relents and says in a normal tone, Always strike away from yourself.

The wind is a presence now, wailing around the corners of the house and slamming doors in the treetops. All three lambs start in at once. Vanilla is so much smaller than the coal-black woollies (Ariella has already named them Coffee and Chocolate but can’t yet tell them apart) that she is getting squashed. It is decided to swivel the couch around to block off the kitchen and then liberate two lambs at a time. They skid around on the linoleum, dodging chairs. It’s better than television, a regular baa-ing convention.

Almost happy, Dirk falls asleep on the couch watching. Ariella and Bonnie set up the Scrabble board at the kitchen table. By the light of two candles and an old kerosene lamp they each draw seven letters. Straining up the grade toward them they can hear the lovely grating music of the plow.

They must be expecting a good one if they’re clearing in the middle of the storm, Bonnie says. Else it’s the Jack Daniels I gave Rusty for Christmas.

Ariella goes to the window to watch as the grader lumbers into the turnaround, its flashing lights rotating as it negotiates the tight space. The sliding will be terrific tomorrow! She and Bonnie listen to the machine’s slow retreat. Ariella feels a little twinge of regret. For one sunlit moment, while the plow headlights slanted in their windows, she could belong to the world outside. She turns back to the game. Bonnie has made quest on a double word score.

Afterwards, no one will be able to say how it happened. A candle fell to the floor; a lamb bumped the table and the lamp fell into the playpen; guttering wax dripped unnoticed and eventually ignited the newspaper. The kitchen is aflame in an instant and then the couch is engulfed. Dirk is screaming. Bonnie snatches him up in her arms, flings open the kitchen door and rolls with him in the snow.

Ariella finds that her mind has divided from her body. It is hurling direc- tives from somewhere else, somewhere up high. Her body grabs jackets off their hooks by the door and heaves them outside. Somehow her hands find her boots and Vanilla at the same time. Going out, she throws the lamb ahead of her, clear of the doorway.

Dirk is sobbing Mommy Mommy Mommy and Bonnie is cradling him, kissing him, weeping tears onto his uncovered head. One whole side of him is badly burned. Oh, Dirky, darly Dirky, Bonnie is rocking and rocking him, it is all happening in slow motion, the house lit from inside now like a Halloween pumpkin.

Ariella is somebody else. She is in charge. She guides Bonnie to the sheep shed, thrusts her inside, rushes back to capture soaked and shivering Vanilla, who is lying inert on the snow. Finds the jackets and hands them in through the sheep pen door. Stay in here, Mommy. You’ll be warm enough. Vanilla too. I’m going for help.

It’s only a mile, she keeps telling herself as she strikes out through the now unfamiliar cottony landscape. Her feet trot down the roadway where it was plowed, stumbling here and there where the wind has mounded drifts. This is the mile you walked with Mocha. They killed him. The other two lambs are all burned up by now. It’s only a mile.

At some point she becomes aware of the jacket she has pulled on, a foreign jacket that hangs down to her knees. Her father’s abandoned jacket with its adored smell. My father was just a borrowed ram. My mother is Bonnie, my Mommy. Poor Dirky, poor Mommy.

Delbert Lord is plowing his barn driveway. As he backs out and half turns to make a wider sweep, his headlights pick up Ariella. She is bathed again in false sunlight; as he stoops over her she whimpers, Fire.

Dirk is coming home tomorrow from the hospital in Pittsfield. Home, for the three of them for the time being, is with Helen Arkwright, whom Bonnie is now calling Helen. Vanilla is off her night feedings, thank goodness, and has her own stall in the pony barn. One of the black ram lamb bummers lived, no one can figure out how. Delbert says the other one asphyxiated right off and didn’t feel himself burn up. Delbert told Bonnie that the saved lamb can belong to Dirk, if he wants it. Ariella doesn’t know whether the survivor is Chocolate or Coffee, so they’re going to let Dirk decide what to call it. It’s still in a playpen in the back hall, but will be ready to move to the barn in another day or so.

During his two weeks in the children’s ward Dirk has grown progressively more cheerful. The doctors say there isn’t going to be any appreciable scarring. Appreciable, a word Ariella collects. Was it being with other suffering kids that turned him around? Was it nearly dying in a fire that leveled his home? Or, as Bonnie insists, was he simply outgrowing his melancholy on his own schedule?

Ariella now calls Bonnie Mother. It’s a formal word and feels rusty in her mouth, but they are both getting used to it. Her period has still not arrived. She did ask Helen, though. Helen says in her day they called it falling off the roof. Ariella thinks she would like to invent a new figure of speech. She will call it catching your bummer. She will rush out to meet it.

Maxine Kumin (1925-2014) was the recipient of a number of prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. She published eighteen books of poetry, most recently, Where I Live: New and Selected Poems (2011). From 1981–1982, she served as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (now called U.S. Poet Laureate).