“The Black Sheep”

Fiction by Sheila Flynn DeCosse

Jess was sitting by the window watching rain split the sandy glass like wandering ant trails; rain for the first time in six weeks.             Rain here was like blood trickling into a weak body.  Drought was so persistent that the land had near given up fighting for its life. For weeks, New South Wales was covered with a pall of smoke from brush fires.
    The slow-turning blades of the overhead fan blew dust into Jess’s face. She sat with sweat trickling into the folds of her breast, looking out the window at the bare acres, the eucalyptus trees, and the shriveled grapevines.
    Like everything else on this ranch, her daughter’s sheep were dying off one by one in this drought. Any grass there was shorn off by the rabbits, and the water from the artesian wells was so filled with sand and brine that the sheep would not even try to drink it.
    Jess heard the back door slam and looked up. Her daughter, Ariel, a black-haired woman, strong, with olive skin, walked into the living room and heaved a big sack of carrots in the corner. “Poisoned.” Ariel said confidently, “For the rabbits. Those dumb animals eat every last blade of grass. This’ll get ’em.”
    “I don’t think you should do that,” Jess said. “Your old dog Shep might pick one up.”
    Ariel shrugged her shoulders. “Dogs don’t eat carrots, Ma,” she muttered as she picked up the sack of carrots and let the battered screen door slam behind her on her way to the pasture.
    Jess watched the spitty drops of rain blown about by the wind begrudgingly sprinkle the earth.
    If she were back in Rose Hill in Sydney, rain would mean roses sprouting new buds. Rain would mean throwing the French doors open to the patio. Rain there was a pleasant add-on to life, a green smell in the back garden.
    But Jess knew she was not able to return to Rose Hill until she could manage on her own again. She wiped a crumpled handkerchief around her neck under her permed gray hair to dry the sweat. She fanned herself with a black fluted fan, mindlessly reading “WAE GRAINS AND FEED” stamped in bold red letters on the fan, as she cooled herself.
    Oh to be back in cool, breezy Sydney where little girls kept rabbits in a hutch and fed them sweet, not poisoned, carrots. Oh how she wanted to escape the harsh ranch life that the accident had returned her to, like a boomerang. Yes, she had lived it once. But she hadn’t seen much good about it.
    It had been spring when her husband Maurice had brought her out from England to his sheep station. She had left Oxford in spring when drifts of daffodils bloomed in her father’s Balliol gardens. She had been fresh and young as the flowers then.
    Once in Australia, on their own spread, she saw only desert flowers that bloomed and vanished overnight in the dusty fields. For years, her spirit was crushed by the heat, the dust, the stupid sheep that stripped the pastures as they grazed. But she’d endured. She’d done her best. And eventually, Maurice had sold the sheep station and put the money into a clothing store in Sydney. The business prospered and grew into a major department store.
    Then, for her, ranch life was only a memory. Her life had centered around Rose Hill in Sydney. When Maurice died he left enough money for school for Ariel, for the Sydney Club, and for all the nice English bits of Aussie life.
    But one day last September changed her life, and Ariel’s as well. John, Ariel’s husband, had driven to Rose Hill to pick her up for her birthday dinner. They were to meet Ariel at the Sydney Club.
    She still heard the screaming tires as his car, with her beside him, flew off the twisting road over Sydney Harbor. She still felt the seat belt that tore at her insides and the sharp pain in her leg, crushed as the car flipped over on its side.
    She knew her spirit was strong but her body was shattered. It would be months before she walked again. And Ariel had lost her husband in the accident and most of their savings for medical costs.
    Now, she was forced to live with Ariel because of her own injuries, and she saw close up how her daughter had changed. No longer a round-faced cherub with black curls, she seemed a driven woman. Ariel was determined to make her life on the ranch with her sheep work out. And since she had to live with her here, her every word seemed to annoy her daughter.
    The kitchen door slammed and Jess turned. Ariel looked strong and fit in lime green pants and a white tee, but her olive-skinned face dripped with moisture.
    “You’ve been weaving, Ariel?”
    “Yes, it must be a hundred degrees out there,” Ariel said. “You O.K., Mama?”
    “Yes, Ariel.”
    “I’ll leave Shep here with you. I’m going to take this wool rug I’ve made to the craft shop.” She held it up. She had woven a black St. Andrew’s cross into the creamy background of the rug.
    “It’s fine work,” Jess said. Ariel kept a few sheep with fine wool close in to her home. Those sheep kept her company while the meat sheep roamed the range. She watched her daughter fold the rug under her arm, dash out the door, and climb into her red pickup. Dust clouds flew up behind the car as Ariel headed down the lonely road to town.
    Ariel was strong and creative but living with her was a trial. Ariel’s house smelled like a litter basket. And with her smashed leg, she couldn’t straighten things up. But what did it really matter? A sharp pain seared through her thigh and she dropped her head in her hands. She was getting old and set in her ways, no question.
    Jess wheeled her chair over to the kitchen counter. Flies skittered over the lamb fat left on the drain board. The garbage can dripped dog food cans and lager bottles. “How can she live like this?” Jess murmured to herself.
    Hot stinky house, dust all over, flies crawling on her toes that she couldn’t reach; sitting trapped in the chair, the flies and stink drove her crazy. Jess wheeled herself over to a side window and nodded off.
    “Mama!” Ariel had returned quietly. She walked over and kneaded her mother’s shoulders with strong hands.
    Jess, woken unaware, spilled her emotions before she could stop. “How can you live like this?” she blurted out.
    Ariel’s hands froze on her mother’s shoulders and then fell away. “Ma, don’t start that,” she said.
    Jess’s mouth babbled on. “Why don’t you come back to Sydney, work in the theater, get out of this place?” she asked.
    “Ma, I need to make it here, with John dead. And,” Ariel said, “I’ve begun to love this land and this life. You never talked much about your years on the station. Before, I never knew the good things about living like this, on the land.”
    Jess laughed softly. She said, “I blanked it out. For me, a garden-variety Englishwoman, ranch life was hard. Rose Hill in Sydney was perfect for me.”
    “Ma, I know Rose Hill is perfect for you,” Ariel said. “I sometimes dream of the feel of linen sheets, the cool breeze, the roses. But I do not want to live like that. Can you understand?”
    “Yes, I can. But it’s hard to accept that your ideas are so different from mine.” Jess’s voice quivered but her eyes locked with Ariel’s as she spoke.
    “Ma, look, I’ll drive you back to Rose Hill and stay till you get someone to help you. But my life is here on this sheep spread. Try to remember a good feeling you had when you and Daddy lived like this.”
    “For a long while, I’ve tried to forget those times, honey. I tend to remember the exhaustion, the tough nights when Dad and the men were in the lambing shed and I stayed awake up in the kitchen, to feed them.”
    Jess sipped her tea. “But yes, now I do remember those good times. My heart would spill over when I’d see dawn stealing up over the horizon, the endless stars at night, or the rare gift a visit of a friend was, then. Times like those.”
    Ariel let a tear escape before she got up and hugged her mom. “That’s what I mean, Mom, that’s what I live for: those moments.”
    “So, pay no attention to an old woman. I’m butting in again,” Jess said briskly. “Your life is here, now.”
    “Mama, the black sheep Benjamin gets sheared tomorrow. That’s my most choice wool. I’d like you to card that for me.”
    “There’s nothing wrong with my hands,” Jess said, “I’ll be waiting.”

    Sheila DeCosse, a freelance writer, is a resident of East Hampton.