On the day jumping season started, fat clouds drifted lazily across the sky. They weren’t the type of clouds that threatened rain; they were the type one could watch transform into dragons and cows while lying on one’s back, perhaps with a piece of straw working up and down betwixt one’s teeth. The flock was grazing in a state of languid contentment in a hilly meadow this June day.
A breeze blew over the sheep. It was a nice breeze, cooling the air from a warm twenty-three degrees to a slightly colder, but still pleasant, twenty-one degrees. It passed through their wool and signaled the start to their workday. They lifted their heads and began to line up on the incoming side of the white fence that stretched into the horizon. It rose with the hills and fell with the valleys, an endless barrier between the start of their day and the end. A group of sheep stretched their calves as a confident sheep further down the line snickered at them.
“Rookies,” he said to his neighbour. He spat into the grass next to him and tested his footing out in an easy dance, left and right. “It’s one jump, not the friggin’ Olympics.”
His neighbour did not hear the confident sheep’s comment however. Stanley was busy. His head was lowered between his shaking knees and he was spitting as well because he had just thrown up. That was the third time that day, and at that point it was mostly bile. It was his first time jumping the fence and his anxiety was really kicking his ass.
“What?” he coughed to the confident sheep next to him.
“Never mind,” he replied and turned away, yawning. “Fucking rookies.”
The sheep at the front of the line began to lope gently towards the fence and Stanley watched them float over peacefully. They made it look easy, going over one at a time with what seemed like no effort. On their faces were looks of gentle determination. The importance of the jump was great, but they did it with an ease that comes with years of repetition; it was a job they did every day.
Stanley heard the sheep behind him clear his throat, and he noticed a space had opened up before him. A flush came over him and he rushed forward to close the gap. The flush deepened as he heard one of the sheep behind him step in his sick. “Ah, Jesus, someone fuckin’ chucked!” Stanley lowered his head and tried to get as much distance from his chuck. His lack of forward vision propelled him hard into the sheep in front of him and he bounced back onto his woolly ass.
“Oh come on, rook. Get your act together.”
“Sorry,” he muttered and got back in line. After a moment of shuffling forward towards the fence, he heard a wooden knocking sound and raised his ears in curiosity. The sheep in front did the same, looking around for the source of the sound before lowering his gaze to Stanley’s legs.
“Your knees, mate.”
Stanley looked down and saw his knees shaking together like they contained magnets alternating between attracting and repelling polarity. With strong force, he succeeded in slowing them down so they only brushed together as they shook. The sheep in front rolled his eyes.
“Sorry, this is my first jump,” he bleated.
Clearly the sheep in front of him was not interested in conversation, so Stanley gave up his attempt at it and instead tried some transcendental meditation he had heard so much about. The flock’s duty was to impart peaceful thoughts that calmed any observers, and they were all indoctrinated in the mission from an early age. If Stanley didn’t get control of his knees, he would fuck up the jump and the day would be a write off. Everyone would scoff at him. They would make sarcastic comments, and if there was one thing Stanley dreaded it was passive aggression, second only to aggressive aggression.
“Aying,” he told himself in a quiet calming voice as he tried to focus his consciousness on his inner self. “Aying,” he intoned as he acknowledged the damaging thoughts of self-denial that drifted through his mind, much like the fat clouds in the blue sky above them. “Aying,” he moaned as he stepped in a pile of waste a sheep ahead of him had left behind.
“Oh jeez. Sorry, buddy!”
Stanley had closed his eyes to fall deeper into the meditation, but at the polite exclamation he opened them. His hoof was deep in a patty and the smell wafted up at him from beneath the crust that had baked around it like some clever joke pie. Ahead of him, a sheep was craning his head back in Stanley’s direction. The offending sheep was two spots ahead of him. Stanley couldn’t see the confident sheep’s expression, but he imagined him rolling his eyes as he plodded ahead between them.
“My fault,” Stanley called to the owner of the rotten cake that was now embedded within his hoof. “Wasn’t watching where I was going!”
The line moved closer to the fence as more sheep cleared it. Stanley noticed a beautiful sheep that had meandered by in the pasture float over the fence. Her name was Barbara and she sailed over with such grace that he was momentarily transfixed. The fact that they were almost to the fence broke him from his trance, and he remembered where he was.
He was five sheep from his turn and his stomach churned again.
He was four sheep from his turn when he felt the bile tickle his tonsil in an attempt to water the lawn.
He was three sheep from his turn when he clamped his lips together and swallowed the puke that threatened an appearance.
He was two sheep from his turn when the sheep that had left his lunch behind in a pile made a misstep when jumping the fence. His hoof pushed back and slipped in between the top and middle board. The sheep’s fluffy body flew forward as his ankle locked in the fence and a resounding crack shot through the flock. He grunted and fell down on the outgoing side of the fence.
“Baa,” he cried in surprise.
Stanley had never heard of a sheep getting stuck in the fence, so he was surprised as well. The sheep on the other side of the fence all turned around, all bleating their surprise.
When the stuck sheep saw his hoof stuck in the fence and his ankle bone stuck in his skin, he began to shriek. “Oh fuck!” he cried as tears began to squirt from the corners of his eyes.
The confident sheep that was in front of Stanley in the queue ran forward, seemingly oblivious of the incident before him. As he soared over the fence with the sense of self-assurance that many cocky veterans of the trade possessed, he became aware of the deviation to the day’s event. His own legs scrabbled at the air and he landed on the stuck sheep. He bounced off and looked around shocked before making a feeble grab at his own ankle.
“Oh no, I think I sprained it!” What his moaning lacked in authenticity, the stuck sheep made up for in gales. His own shouts were piercing, and the sheep who had already succeeded in their tasks gathered around.
Stanley felt his legs propel him forward at a canter, and he observed with interest as they carried him over the fence for the first time. He landed next to the stuck sheep and crouched down.
“Jesus Christ, help me, please,” the injured sheep pleaded. He was sweating through his wool, and Stanley would’ve liked to take his coat off. The fellow looked awfully warm.
“I’m here,” he said in an attempt to reassure the victim. “I’m Stanley. I stepped in your poo.”
“I’m hurt too,” cried the cocky sheep from Stanley’s right. “Somebody needs to help me!” The flock remained in the congregation that had formed around the stuck sheep.
“What’s your name?” Stanley wiped sweat from the brow of the sheep, but instead of replying, the injured sheep began to weep from pain.
A veteran of fence jumping spoke up from the surrounding flock. “His name was Rory,” he said. “Right?”
Sheep from his left and right nodded and said, “I think so” and “It was something along those lines” and “By George, he’s bleeding all over the fence. Somebody’s going to have to paint it again.”
“Alright, Rory, I’m going to try to get your hoof unstuck okay? It’s probably going to hurt a little bit.” Stanley waited for some sign of acknowledgment and Rory gave a pained nod. He shuffled over to the fence and assessed the scene. There was an awful lot of blood. Stanley felt the colour drain from the day. He looked away before he could pass out. “He’s nicked an artery,” he called out to the gathered sheep. “Do we have a doctor in the flock?”
A couple sheep chuckled and from within the crowd someone said, “We’re sheep, mate. We jump fences and shit.”
Stanley steeled himself. Placing a hoof on the fence board and a hoof on the sheep’s leg, he made an attempt to separate the two. When he applied pressure, Rory screamed, and Stanley thought he saw the clouds high up wince. There was no give in the board and Rory’s leg remained stuck.
“It hurts, it hurts, it hurts,” he muttered in a steady stream from the ground, and Stanley watched him fade into delirium. He tossed his head to and fro. It made Stanley dizzy.
“We need to do something,” he called out, and the sheep surrounding them shuffled their hoofs and looked at some very interesting grass.
“The rookie’s right,” said the cocky sheep as he cradled his own ankle like an injured but dignified sprinter. “We are both equally hurt and should receive treatment.”
Barbara stepped forward. “Cut off his hoof and drag him away.”
Stanley was taken aback. “But… he’ll bleed out.” He met her gaze in a way he could never have achieved in the days leading up to the big jump. Those were days when the pressure of the jump was a faraway problem, days when he could keep to himself and graze in the pasture without anxiety crippling him and tying his stomach in knots. He could watch Barbara as she pranced around the pasture, a delicate flower basking in the attention she received from the flock.
All those lovely qualities had faded away, and what stood before Stanley was a battle axe of a sheep. She spoke with the air of a leader making a tough but fair decision and the sheep around her nodded. They seemed to be glad that someone else said it and not them.
“He’s ruining our mission. We are to provide a gentle scene for anybody wishing for a little peace and serenity before bed. People want to hear gentle bleating. They want to watch fluffy sheep jump over a nice white fence. If rumours from the flock two pastures down are to be trusted, they even count us. How are they to count when the idiot screams his bloody head off? How are they to fall into their deep sleeps when his blood is staining the wood? It’s horrible. The best we can do to salvage the day’s work is to just cut the hoof and drag him away. It will be a warning to others, an advisory to stretch and make sure they don’t make any stupid mistakes like Rory.”
Stanley wondered how he could have admired her. All at once she seemed tremendously ugly. They all did, nodding away and whistling like they had no part of it but agreed nevertheless that you had to do what you had to do. The veteran who had come forward with Rory’s name looked at his own hoofs and shook his head.
“Please…” The whisper came from the soil, and Stanley looked down. Rory had his eyes in slits, looking out along the ground as his breath came in slow pants. He was fading out of consciousness, and the blood that had been flowing from his wound had started to slow to a trickle that ebbed and flowed with the beat of his heart. “I’m scared…”
“I’m going to break the board.” Stanley stepped away from the fence to get a running start.
“Don’t you dare!” Barbara was coming forward, but the veteran sheep intercepted her. He pushed her out of her path, grimacing against her weight. She was bigger than him and he was struggling to hold her back. “He’s going to ruin everything! We can paint the fence; we can’t build a new one!”
“Ram it,” he yelled and Stanley looked down in surprise at his hoofs. They were pounding away at the ground, carrying him in a gallop towards the fence. He figured he should lower his head to maximize his destruction and he did so, closing his eyes in anticipation of impact. When he struck, there was a tremendous crack that made the clouds wince, and a member of the flock threw up. Someone stepped in it. The cocky sheep cried at his lack of attention. Night came for Stanley.
Hay scratched at his side and he smelled chickens. Opening his eyes, Stanley noticed he had been moved to a stable. The makeshift infirmary was adjacent to the chicken coop and they clucked away at him from behind mesh. They cocked their heads left and right at him, confused at their new bunkmate.
A groaning tore his attention from his surroundings and he rolled over. He grimaced as a spike of pain shot through his head. Raising his hoof to the crown of his skull, he felt a large goose egg. When he rolled it off and onto a pile of hay, he noticed it covered a large bump jutting up from his head. The groaning came once more and he noticed the cocky sheep on a pile of hay next to him. There was a wrap around his ankle and he peeked out from nearly closed eyes. When he saw Stanley watching him, he clenched his eyes shut and wailed in agony.
“Save it,” Stanley told him, and he gave it up.
“It does hurt though.”
“I sprained my ankle!”
“Oh,” said the cocky sheep and gave up on his wailing. “You did it. You broke the fence. Barbara reckons we’ll be off work for at least a month while they fix it. Good job.”
He had broken through the fence! Stanley rolled over onto his other side and saw Rory on his own pile of hay. His ankle was a bundle of gauze and medical wrap, but he slept soundly.
“He’s fine. The old sheep rallied a couple others and they dragged him up here after you busted him out. Turns out the goat knows a couple things about basic nursing, so he patched him up best as he could. He lost a lot of blood, but they think he’s going to make it. Won’t be making the jump for a while, but I guess nobody will while the fence is broken.”
Stanley closed his eyes. No jumping for at least a month. That was good. Although he had cleared the fence easily on his first jump, he dreaded the next time. Oh well, he thought, that’s future Stanley’s problem. He breathed deep in and out and counted farmers in his head as they milked cows against the dawn sky. He was asleep before ten.
Christopher O’Halloran is a young writer living in the lower mainland of British Columbia. He is a trained actor turned writer and his short stories have been published by Scarlet Leaf Review and Heater. You can reach him at facebook.com/ChrisROHalloran or on twitter @Chris_Roman_O.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Counting Sheep”
Christopher O’Halloran gives us a story whose title is quite the opposite of what we expect, not about someone counting sheep, but about the sheep being counted. We loved the wry humor in this one. Let’s not forget the answer to “Do we have a doctor in the flock?”