By Hadrian's Wall
For some time, my uncle was the closest remaining sheep farmer to the glaciers. They were closing in from both sides: the continental sheet was coming up from the coast, while on the other side the Pennines had long
For some time, my uncle was the closest remaining sheep farmer to the glaciers. They were closing in from both sides: the continental sheet was coming up from the coast, while on the other side the Pennines had long since been covered. There was just a thin corridor in between like the one paleolithic peoples supposedly used to reach the Americas, except that it was a corridor which came to a dead end at the point where the glaciers intersected. That point drew nearer to the farm with every year. My uncle was not intimidated. He insisted that the glaciers might start to retreat anytime, and he was determined not to budge unless the ice pushed him out.
The ice had conquered more stubborn souls than his already. When it began to claim the cities, people tried everything from immense concrete barriers to blasting the glaciers with explosives. But once the weight in the centre of a glacier reaches a certain point, the edges flow out with a slow terrible force that eventually has its victory even over the most determined.
It was the year after they abandoned Edinburgh when I came to my uncle's farm to work for the summer, following a university term more distinguished by social activity than academic achievement. It did not take long for my situation to become awkward. My uncle knew that I was unsure about returning to school in the fall, and kept dropping hints about me staying on permanently and taking the farm over. I did not know how to break it to him that I was not interested, let alone how to fulfill my promise to my mother that I would try to convince him to retire and move in with her.
Lambing had already started when I arrived. I took turns checking on the ewes, though if there was any trouble my entire part in dealing with it was to go and rouse my uncle. There were odd jobs to do in between, and I had my share of free time as well. The farm ran right up to part of the last remaining section of Hadrian's Wall, and I planned from the start to go and see it, but it took a couple of weeks before there was a break in the rain that coincided with enough time to hike there and back. I knew that if the good weather held we would soon be hard at work shearing, so I took the opportunity at hand.
I had already been to the remains of Roman Coria, some even older than the wall, nearby. Many of the great Scottish castles had been rescued, stone by stone, from the path of the glaciers, and reassembled elsewhere, but money was running out for such heroic efforts, and Coria was not impressive enough to make the list. I wondered how many more feet would walk over those stones, undisturbed since being set in place by the soldiers of Agricola, before they were ground apart and scattered into moraine.
It was a fair hike to the wall, along a faint path which the sheep had made in moving from one grazing area to another. The rain had only just washed away the last of the snow, and the pasture was still more brown than green, but the sun shone in a way that almost made me think it meant to beat those glaciers after all. There was no question that they had slowed down, advancing only a few feet in the last decade. Perhaps my uncle would be proved right: I could just imagine how smug he would be if the glaciers retreated at last, just as he had said they would. Certainly, the sheep had a confident air about them as they milled about sampling the first spring growth, occasionally glancing at me over their long aristocratic noses.
I was getting tired by the time I reached the wall. It was larger than I had imagined it: just a little too tall for me to see over the broad, flat top. It looked as though it would be easy enough to climb up, but I decided to take a rest first. I sat down to eat my provisions with the air of a great explorer pausing at base camp, leaning my back against the old, weathered stones. They had been cut in neat squared blocks and were surprisingly comfortable. I had a fine view down across the pasture.
A sandwich, an apple, and an energy bar later, I was feeling less hungry but if anything lazier than before. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the feeling of the sun on my face.
I was disturbed by a little cry from the other side of the wall. At first, I thought it might be a lamb that had somehow got itself trapped over there on the wrong side. But then it gave a longer cry, and it sounded to me more like some sort of bird. I wanted to get up and see what it was, but felt too sleepy to move.
The third time it cried, it sounded like a little human child.
I managed to find my voice. "Hello?" I called. "Is someone there?"
"Alas, I am! I am!" The voice was thin and high, but it did not express itself like any child I had ever heard.
"Who are you? Do you need help? Should I climb over to you?" As I spoke, I struggled to shake off my lethargy, but could not even manage to open my eyes.
"It's no use."
"I am trapped. Ice to the left of me, Ice to the right of me, Ice behind me and the wall before."
"I can help you get over the wall." I said this in confidence that at any moment I would be fully awake and on my feet.
"It is kind of you to say it. But the wall was built to keep my kind out. You don't know the enchantment on it. So long as Roman sheep graze by Hadrian's wall, none of my folk may pass it."
I was beginning to suspect by this point that I was dreaming, and remembered that I had experienced something similar before: a state that felt somewhere between waking and sleep. I think this feeling of unreality must explain why I accepted these strange words with no more challenge than to point out: "My uncle's sheep are British."
"You can tell their Roman ancestry by their long locks of wool. Though the mirk on their faces shows they have some of the old Celtic blood too. Are they your uncle's then? Will he leave?"
"Not until he dies or the glaciers force him."
"Alas, then!" There was no describing the desolation in that little voice. It pulled right at my heart-strings.
"How many of you are there?"
"Just I alone. I was asleep when the others left. It was after the capture of Roxburgh. I had gone all about casting dust in the eyes of the English so they would mistake the Black Douglas's men for grazing cattle. I was so tired I made up my mind to sleep a thousand years. A white foe more ruthless than the Douglas came and carried me here."
"Where did the others go?"
"To the land beneath the wave. We knew that it would come again when the ice returned."
I had visited some of the megalithic sites found on what had been the bottom of the English Channel, now dry land. I seemed to feel again the chill that had run down my spine as I stood in the centre of a huge ring, wondering what structure beneath was marked by that sediment-softened shape.
"Oh, how I long to be there! I have not seen the place I was born in ten thousand years!"
"Is there no way for you to go?"
"I must hide beneath the ground in a badger hole, and wait until the ice has come and gone. But oh, it will be cold. Will you do something for me?"
"What can I do?"
"When you help your uncle to shear his sheep, take a lock of wool from each of them and bind them in a bundle, then toss the bundle over the wall just here. I will wind myself up in the wool and it will keep me warm. Will you do it?"
It seemed like a small enough request, and the voice was so earnest and sad that I truly wanted to help. And yet I hesitated. My mind felt cloudy, as if there was something I was trying and failing to remember.
"Please be kind." The voice quavered with emotion, and I felt that I simply had to relieve such misery.
"All right. I'll do it."
"I promise." As soon as I said those words, my eyes opened and my limbs felt able to move again. The pasture stretched out in the sun as before and I was freshly aware of the wall, solid and rough at my back. I got to my feet and climbed up. From the top of the wall, I looked all around on the other side, but there was nobody there. The dry remains of last year's ungrazed vegetation might have given cover to something small enough to hide in a badger hole, but certainly not to any human creature.
Shearing is hard work. The legs get the worst of it: that is the part of you that holds the sheep in place while the hands part and cut the wool. The sheep behaved perfectly for my uncle, and he could be done a fleece in five minutes, but he could not do many of them before his back ached too badly to continue. They struggled every step of the way with me, right up until I let them go and stepped back, my thighs feeling like jelly. Then they would just lie there for a bit and look at me as if to say 'About time,' before haughtily getting to their feet. They had a scrawny look to them after shearing: they seemed about a quarter the size that they had been in their full fleece and their skinny necks barely seemed capable of holding up their heads. The rams all decided that their rivals looked easier to take on than before and got into butting matches.
Surreptitiously, I took a lock from each fleece. I felt a sort of compulsion to do it, and also a compulsion to keep it secret. I pretended to myself that it was just a sort of game that I was passing the time with, playing along with my weird dream. I told myself that my uncle wouldn't understand. When the shearing was all done I made the promised bundle. After I hiked up and left it on the far side of the wall, I was surprised just how relieved I felt that the task was over.
The next morning I was woken up by my uncle with the worst look on his face I had ever seen. I followed him out to the barnyard not knowing what I was going to, and there they were, stumbling and staggering about, their poor nostrils straining and their flanks heaving and their eyes rolling. Every last sheep in that flock looked about to die, even the young lambs whose first fleeces still clung about them in little ringlets.
At last, my uncle started talking.
"What am I to do?" He was so desperate, he seemed to be seriously seeking my opinion. "If I call in the vet, he will have the whole flock shot, I know it. These sheep have been here longer than there have been books to record it, and now! Gone!" He sat down suddenly and heavily, right in the muck of the yard, and I squatted beside him with no answers to give.
"I can bear to see the land gone, and the old places and all, but once the bloodlines that my ancestors raised are gone, no force on earth can bring them back. I would rather die than see them shot. I would rather die!"
"Maybe they just ate something and they'll get better," I suggested, feeling desperate myself.
"They may get better," he said as though grasping a lifeline. "There are no other flocks about. It's as if we're quarantined anyway. Nobody needs to know. I'll do what I can, and then. . ."
I looked away from the tears welling up in his eyes, only to meet other gazes. They looked at me with those queer rectangular pupils in their eyes: a blaming sort of look like the sailors gave to the ancient mariner of the poem. One ewe was laying on her side, twitching, with her neck strained back; it seemed to me that she was twisting it to that unnatural angle just so that her eye could fix its curse on me.
I could not stand anymore. I turned and I took off so fast that I almost slipped over in the mud. I didn't run all the way to the wall. When I no longer had enough energy to run, I jogged, and when I no longer had enough energy to jog, I walked until I could jog again a bit more. I made it to the wall before the dew was off the grass.
Up I went and started yelling at the top of my lungs. I think I did a fair job of making my feelings about the trick that had been played on me clear. As I vented my indignation, a family pride that I had hardly known I possessed rose up in me, and it seemed to me that I was speaking for my ancestors going back generations upon generations. I said that if those sheep died, I would go right out and get more, and I would stay for as long as it took until the glacier had knocked down every last stone of the wall. My uncle might not have many years of farming left in him, but I might live another hundred years and I was prepared to spend the whole of it keeping that flock going. I did not just say it, I swore it, and I meant every word. At last, I paused to gather my breath and my wits.
Standing before me was a little man. He had thick red hair that was braided about the top of his head so it looked almost like he was wearing a cap. His clothes were green and woven from what I supposed must be some sort of plant fibre. His eyes had no whites to them: just black pupils on a brown background like the eyes of a dog or an ape. Small hairs almost concealed the way his chin sloped backward beneath a broad, thin lipped mouth.
"If I lift the spell, will you take the sheep and go?"
I remembered what my uncle had said: it was the sheep that mattered most, not the land. "As soon as I can persuade my uncle to do it," I said. "I promise."
A smile split his face and seemed to run up almost to the pointed tips of his ears. And yet his eyes still looked sad to me. I felt caught in them, as though I had fallen into a pit ten thousand years deep, and full of the bones of myriads that had passed that way before. With a shudder, I looked away. When I looked back, he was gone.
I sat down on the wall for a while; there was nothing more to be said or done. Eventually, I climbed down and started on my way back. I saw the sheep walking out to pasture as they might have done any other day, except that they went just a little slower, and the lambs crowded just a little closer to the ewes. When I drew near to them, the old ewe who was in the lead gave me a piercing look then chose a path that would let the flock pass me without excessive proximity. The rest gave me only sedate glances.
My uncle met me not long after. We just stood and looked at each other for a while, and his eye had almost the same look in it as the old ewe's.
"So," he said to me at last, "You had a chat with our good neighbour, did you?"
There was not really any persuasion needed, though I was obliged to relate the whole story. My uncle made up his mind to leave as firmly as he had previously made it up to stay. It turned out that he already had a cousin of his in mind who had a new farm to the south and was interested in getting some of the old breed of sheep. He did not move in with my mother, though, as he insisted they would only squabble.
By the time I returned to my classes that fall, no Roman sheep grazed by Hadrian's Wall.