A Christmas (Sheep) Miracle

A Christmas (Sheep) Miracle

Like most everything in life, it all started with one small idea: a living nativity at our church. I agreed to find the animals, and called on friends and neighbors, who happily loaned their sheep, calf, goats, and dogs to us. We added our chickens and rabbits, and behold: we had a nativity scene.

On the day of the blessed event, I watched carefully, making sure no animal could break through a fence or slip through some loving child’s arms.  I have these terrible nightmares of cows running down Western Avenue with cars screeching to a halt, and I feel full responsibility for their safety.

But… it was all lovely–a perfect, sunny morning

in December bright with promise and enough warmth for all to linger.  An adult snuggled with the baby calf who stood quietly and unassumingly near the manger. A second grader laughed as the goat licked his coat. Teenagers held bunnies for toddlers.  The chickens happily stomped around in their fence, the dogs wagged in joy, the sheep and the goat went to nose to nose on the front lawn. The congregation acted out their parts with a Mary, a Joseph and a some rude innkeepers turning the young couple away.  “Away in the Manger” was sung while a young angel held the star aloft.  

It had all come together nicely, and people were brimming over with enthusiasm as they filed out, maybe stopping for one last pat or hug with a new friend. The wonderful Christmas story retold yet again, we started to round up the various creatures, enticing the calf into the trailer with fingers for suckling, calmly swooping the chickens into the dog carrier, setting out the rabbit cages near their runs.

I was beginning to relax.  All animals had behaved.  Well, there had been a small moment when the goats thought head-butting one of the dogs was a good idea, but apples distracted them both.  Basking in the glow of the whole scene, I turned my attention to the sheep.  

Now, I am not a sheep person.  As a young child, I begged my father constantly for sheep. These days, I have regular discussions with my husband about how we have a wonderful location for a sheep pasture.  But alas, neither of these two men have shared my sheep enthusiasm. I resort to photographing the neighbor’s sheep.  And, one has ever-so-kindly allowed us to borrow two of his little flock to grace our living nativity several times.

Sheep are skittish by nature, and therefore trickier to move.  They are fast, too–remarkably so. Although it looks very strange, the easiest way to carry them is to grab them around the chest, letting their four legs flop straight out in front as you walk.  This is not an instinctive way to carry an animal, however–particularly for those of us with cow experience.  The best way to carry a cow, you see, is to scoop her up from underneath, with her whole body cradled in your arms.  Rarely does a dairy calf buck around much; they are calm after centuries of breeding to be in close contact with humans.

I was thinking about all that as I watched one of the retired dairy farmers swoop under the remaining sheep, and pick her up like a calf.  But this sheep’s eyes were now huge, reflecting her fear at being alone.  I reached over and removed the unfamiliar halter from her face and eyes, hoping to calm her, speaking quietly.

Suddenly, she jerked and thrashed violently… and she scrambled to the ground.  

My world stopped, narrowing to only the sheep and me.  She looked wildly from me to the sides and back again.  

“My nightmare is coming true,” I said out loud as I watched her size up her options.  My responsibility stared me square on… and then she dove to the left.  

Now all I heard was the noise of the cars–so many cars and so much danger to this sheep.  Falling back on childhood herding instincts, I stayed between the sheep and the road, my father’s voice booming through the years.  “Keep her away from the traffic!” he called in my memory.  “Don’t let her get run over!”

Our best chance was here, I knew: stop her now.  We still had the building behind us.  

But the visitors didn’t realize that this sheep was going to bolt.  Surely they assumed the sheep was just like the goats, who wandered from person to person freely all morning. When a woman I didn’t even know started to move, I had no choice.  “You, there, in the white coat!  Stop!  Do NOT move,” I said as quietly but as loudly as I could.  “I am sorry, I don’t even know your name.  Just don’t move.”  She froze obediently. I continued in the same tone, eyeball-to-eyeball with her wooliness.  “Someone bring one of those fences.”

The sheep didn’t agree. She took off, flying fast to my left.  I stayed in front, guarding the road.  She passed the B&B, headed to the gas station and rounded to the back. I saw my 17-year-old son on my right, mirroring my movements. I remembered that his star athlete friend had just left, and thought longingly of his speed and agility–good skills for sheep chasing, I thought.  I hoped that my other son, the 15-year-old and his friend, were joining in.  “Teenagers,” I thought.  “I need teenagers.”

The chase was on.  First priority was the road; Dad’s admonitions mentally reverberate eight years after his death.  

I took the Western Avenue side, racing down the block, seeing flashes of white diving through backyards. She rounded the B&B’s gazebo… and went out of sight.  “Do you have her?” I yelled to my son.  Breathing hard–did I mention sheep are fast?–we stood about 100 yards from each other while looking.  

Then we heard leaves rustling.  “There!” I cried, and my son took off behind the white blur. I could see the headlines now: “Sheep from Living Nativity Spotted in Retreat Woods Two Weeks Later”.  All these properties back onto the immense network of trails.  How would we find this sheep there?

I came around the other side of the church, and saw cadres of people now out on the other side, my son leading the charge, with the other two teens also in the pack.  I considered grabbing a car and going down to the ski jump, only to hear, “She’s coming back!”

About 15 people were now involved–and our luck had changed: we had a fence behind her. We’d gained some people, a lady I’d never seen before, some good sheep-chasing Samaritan from the neighborhood. One side was blocked; we had a chance.  My feelings of responsibility nearly choked me.  We. Must. Catch. This. Sheep.

“OK,” I panted.  “We have a fence.  Those on the left, stop moving.  Everyone calm.  No loud noises.”  The sheep and I were eye-to-eye again.  I kept quietly giving orders. “On the right, move in.  Slowly.  That’s it.  We are going to keep making this circle smaller.  Now, my father always said that if an animal got by you, you must have paw prints on your chest.  I mean it.  This is our best chance, people.”

The sheep had enough of my speech making.  She lunged forward… right towards me.  I stood with my hands stretched out fully, again hearing my father’s instructions “Look big!  Don’t move!”  She progressed, coming straight towards me.  As soon as I could, I tackled her.  I grabbed whatever wool I could.  I pulled her down to the ground, falling and rolling in a heap of wool and human.  We rolled.  But I refused to let her go. “Must keep her safe,” was my only thought as we wrestled to a slow-motion halt.

And there I was, on my back, holding my neighbor’s sheep with my grip tightly about her stomach, her four feet all straight up in the air, belly up to the world, the two of us breathing hard, exhausted.  

The teenagers piled on.  Our wayward friend was caught; there would be no newspaper headlines touting my irresponsibility for weeks, no death on my hands.

With very little remaining threads of dignity, I righted myself and pulled my legs out from under the poor girl.  “Good work, everyone.  We did it.  Thank you.”  

Indeed, it was a Christmas miracle at the ol’ living nativity this year.

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools–fifth grade, freshman and junior. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment and the Brattleboro Town School Board. Contact her at jill@globalcow.com.

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