Cracking Skulls

When I was young, my parents owned a little hobby farm outside a little town outside Tulsa. This surprises people who know me now, but as a kid I spent all my time outdoors. I never got into comic books or G. I. Joe and Transformers, because I wouldn’t sit still long enough.

I loved to be out on our land, roaming through the hills and trees or splashing through the streams. Out there in the woods, I was some kind of hero. Sometimes King Arthur, sometimes Robin Hood, sometimes Robinson Crusoe surviving the in wild.

And then, sometimes I was David, the shepherd boy who would be king. I didn’t know the sadder stories then, just that it all began with a shepherd boy who would be king. And I was a shepherd boy.

My parents had a little herd, and we had a bit of grazing land just down the hillside, and I would sit on an outcrop of stone and watch the sheep and tell myself adventure stories. It felt right, that I should be a shepherd. It was a proper beginning to the story of my life. I probably complained at the chore, but the narrative element pleased me anyway.

But sometimes the narrative broke down.

Sheep are big and brutish creatures, but mostly they’re pretty easy to care for. I was…maybe eight or nine. I wasn’t very big, but I could swing the gate to let them run off down the hill, and when the sun was setting I could chivvy them back up and pour the feed.

The only problem, really, were the rams. They were always big and mean, and we had one or two I hated. They were dumb, and mostly easy to avoid, but once or twice I got a smacking from one of them and ended up bruised and bitter.

I remember one harsh winter, when the snow lay thick and we’d burned through our stock of firewood, and we finally got a break in the bad weather. Dad decided to take advantage of it, so he bundled up us kids–my two sisters and me–and told us we’d go out playing in the snow! He took us to the top of the long, wooded slope, pointed to the bare wall outside the back door, and told us to go gather firewood.

We went off grumbling, but it was not a miserable task. We kicked at the snow, and slipped and slid along the hillside, and threw snowballs at each other from fortified positions. Maybe we grabbed a stick now and then, but mostly we were playing.

And then, seeing how much we were benefiting from a little time outdoors and thinking the sheep had been cooped up just as long, Dad turned them loose to go romping in the snow. He was not a harsh taskmaster. He left his two flocks playing, and went to gather the wood we really needed.

Alas, that blasted ram found us, and he was in a rotten mood. Up along the fenceline at the top of the hill, I was playing with my sisters when the beast came charging along, his little hooves churning up mud and snow, his huge, curved horns lowered for the strike. Someone screamed. We ran. We dodged. Perhaps one of us slipped on ice and went sprawling, and shouted nobly, “Leave me! Save yourselves!”

I…don’t remember precisely how it happened, but in the end he treed us. The stupid, woolly behemoth had all three of us straddling one low-hanging limb, and he was stamping and pawing at the ground below, snorting great gouts of steamy sheep breath. We shouted and hollered for someone to come rescue us, and our knight in shining armor was my dad.

He came trundling down the path, head cocked curiously at the sight of his three kids arrayed on an ominously sagging sycamore limb. And there below us was his prize ram. Dad had proved more productive than the rest of us, and he came innocently down the path, his arms loaded with big, cut logs.

Oh, how many times had we tried to convince him this animal was a dangerous monster? He’d never believed us, but now the beast spotted him and turned his way. We tried to shout a warning to him, but he couldn’t understand our clamor. We could only watch as the creature, mad with rage, charged straight at our helpless father.

As it got close, his eyes got wide. He shouted, “Yelp!” and dropped his load of timber. Six stove-size logs fell like hammer-blows on the sheep’s hard skull, and the animal stumbled drunkenly past my dad, then sank down in the snow for a nap.

My sisters and I dropped to the ground and ran toward Dad, cheering and laughing that the beast had finally met its match. That must have shown him! Go Dad! What a hero.

But he wasn’t laughing. He ignored our celebration and left the wood he’d cut and gathered where it had fallen. He went to the animal and bent down over it, raised its head and gently prodded at the spot the logs had hit.

There a spot of shiny blood in the dense black wool. It wasn’t much, and rams are famous for their hard skulls, but Dad had hurt one his animals. I saw him cry a tear or two while he checked the wound, while he checked that the animal was only stunned, then he sent me to the house for gauze and some antibiotic ointment. He nursed the wretched monster like some precious pet, and in the end we all five walked together back to the yard.

I borrowed something of that memory for “Auric and the Wolf.” It’s one I think of often. I’ve learned a lot from my dad, and most of it was not when he was lecturing.

Other than that, it’s just things and stuff.