To the slaughterhouse

Mine is a green country. Not politically green, albeit, but green as in pine trees, mountain rivers and grasshoppers.

No, I don’t live in Greenland, which is not green, as it happens. Moreover, my country is only green for four months a year, and I grew up wearing long woollen underwear for the remaining 8 months, four of which were decidedly white – you know, the colour you see on Christmas cards – and four of which were tantalisingly undetermined. Autumn was anything but green, but gloriously colourful and crisp unless early snowfalls turned it into a soggy grey porridge, so grey and dark that it suctioned all spirit out of about a quarter of the population. Spring, however, made us weep or laugh hysterically, as glittering icicles would melt and brooks tinkle one day, only to turn hard as stone the next. And it would go on like that for two whole excruciating months, at the end of which we would be quite woozy.

We longed passionately for Summer in spite of the periodically daily showers, the mosquitoes and wasps, and the ice-cold floors that would meet our naked feet as we got out of bed in the morning. We loved the little patches of farmland scratched out of the landscape we passed on our way to summer vacation as the guests of aunts and uncles in the country. As for the distant blue mountains, we took them for granted, as we did delicate birch trees, bluebells, waterfalls, furry bumblebees and warblers.

Above all, though, we loved those rare days – maybe a week or two every year – of “real” summer, when we left town seeking those warm, smooth coastal granite shelves on which we would bask or rise to dive like terns into the sea. No matter if summers were full of rain, if day after day was uniformly grey, cool and wet, our mental health for eight months depended on those rare days of “real” summer.

I speak in the past, as you see. Winters are no longer white, for one thing, and the seasons are all mixed up. This year, an unusually cold Winter started when Spring should have begun, and all of a sudden, on 14 May, Summer erupted with a vengeance. Andalusian temperatures, no less. People couldn’t sleep at night. Not a drop of rain, not a cloud in the sky, not a single fly or wasp to be seen, not to mention bees or bumblebees.

Eventually, after four weeks, torrential rains battered us for one day. Floods, avalanches, even deaths. After a couple of cool days, a new heat wave bore down upon us.

No rain. Weeks and weeks of no rain. The country isn’t used to this. Farmers aren’t used to this. Animals aren’t used to this. There is no grass for livestock, and slaughterhouse employees are being called back to work in mid-holiday. Never, ever, as far back as records go, has there been such a long-lasting heat wave and drought in these parts. But we, the cityfolks, are blissfully unaware of the farmers’ plight. So was I, until ….:

I sought refuge from the heat in a cottage by the sea. How I enjoyed basking, once more, on a warm granite coastal shelf! How ecstatically I dove into the sea. My joy was, however, short-lived: On the island across the sound, a ewe with her two lambs was disconsolately examining the stones and shells of a little beach, while a solitary lamb was bleating pitifully, as it ran back and forth along the shore. It had evidently lost its mother. Have you ever heard a lamb bleating for its mother? The lamb was several months old and quite able to fend for itself, I should have thought, but it was, I insist, heart-broken. No other word will do. Some of its cries were uncannily similar to those of an abandoned child! I could not bear the sound and ran indoors.

Even there, the lamb’s cries pursued me. Until it fell silent. That was almost worse, because I was sure it was still there. I looked out the window, and indeed, there it was, lying by the shore. It had lost all hope. I asked myself: can lambs be suicidal?

I could not stand the idea, so I went out again and down to the shore. As if sensing the existence of an ally in me, a human on the opposite shore, the lamb jumped up, ran back and forth along the shore bleating even more desperately than before. Just how desperate it was became apparent almost immediately, because it waded into the sea, deeper and deeper – ‘NO!’, I shouted and started talking off my clothes, because a lamb is not a dog who obeys orders, while deeper and deeper it went, and of course in the end, the sea lifted it off its feet.

It swam, would you believe it! I’m sure it had never learnt to swim, but it swam, knowing, as it must have, that the alternative was death by drowning. Staring straight into my eyes, it swam and bleated, while I stood waiting for it with tears streaming down my face.

No, I did not have to go out and rescue a drowning lamb. It managed to swim across the sound and clambered to shore, looking no less frightened than it should, because humans are mostly dangerous for sheep, though some humans offer fodder and a safe haven. It had risked its life by trusting me, and now it doubted.

There is one thing I have not told you, though. I knew where its mother was. She had crossed the sound over to my side a few hours previously, taking one of her two lambs with her, and they had all been taken care of by good people and their children, who also phoned the owner. “Come,” I said, “follow me”. The lamb had no alternative but to follow hesitantly, evidently terrified that I would lead it to the slaughterhouse.

The children who were looking after the mother were the first to see it. Their gleeful shouts alerted the ewe, and I shall never forget the ensuing concerto for a reunited ewe and two lambs in two octaves. The joy was simply – I apologise for abusing the word – heartbreaking.

Two days later, I crossed to the island to inspect matters there. Walking around the entire island would have taken the better part of a day, but I turned back halfway. The sights that met me were too depressing. Barren fields. Dead vegetation. No fresh water. Not even mosquitoes.

I came upon the owner of the sheep, who was rounding them up to drive them elsewhere. I dared not ask: Was she going to the slaughterhouse? She was unhappy: Two were missing, a ewe and a lamb. We both knew that they might have crossed over to my side and drowned.

What can you do?