“The Sheep Shearers” by Joe Wilkins

The Sheep Shearers

By Joe Wilkins
 

A distinct culture has evolved out of the practice of shearing sheep.

– Wikipedia entry

 

All long necks and whiskers and three-day hangovers

sweated out on the peeling linoleum of some low-slung camper,

all greasy jeans and pearl snapshirts undone to the belly,

all black coffee and cigarettes and potted meat—

 

no one respectable, that’s for sure.

Though come March, it wasn’t about respectable.

From behind the old sofa, you watched Johnny Ahern

sprawl in a chair at the kitchen table,

 

wet trail of snoose dripping from his frog’s chin—

your mother fed him three kinds of pie,

your father shook his gnarled hand—

hand that could take a sheep to skin

 

in seconds—and said, Thanks for coming, Johnny.

Lord and the devil know we need you.

 

*

 

Skinny as a barn cat, the one that knocked on the door

and came in for chamomile tea and visit with your mother.

Her face was square and small, a ribbon of scar

from ear to chin, and after her small cup she rolled

 

a cigarette, tapped the ash into her palm. She was one of those

that could have been twenty-three or forty-two. No matter,

what you remember most is how her straw hair

was pulled back with flowers. It was yet mid-winter.

 

She must have grown them in whichever

rusted Airstream she called home, carried them in her lap

through a thousand icy miles of mountain two-lane,

set them in the sink after the table was broke down

 

into a marriage bed. And now, ringing her wrecked face—

umber buds, filigree of leaf, a crown of wild rose.

 

*

 

Milk-faced and bare-chested, trousers gone to threads,

they stood in a ragged line and stared at you. You

stared back. They didn’t speak but turned and ran

to the river. So, you followed. Picked up a rock,

 

like they did, and winged it at a carp. Together,

you floated a hunk of cottonwood to the far bank,

set a muskrat trap, jostled and laughed, and when the sheep

were sheared—the men gone into town for liquor,

 

women gathering dogs and laundry—

you sat on the steps and worked river mud

from in between your toes, felt with each breath the bluing bruise

on your chest, where, after she threw you to the ground,

 

that dark-eyed shearer’s girl propped a knee to pin you

and kissed you hard on the mouth.

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