Counting Sheep

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Grasmere, England – July 2004

England was never high on my list of places to visit. I always considered it too normal of a destination. Much too easy for adventurous types like myself.  It’s true that the usual dangers and annoyances are not present. However, I’ve finally realized that voyages don’t need to be difficult to be memorable.

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Every two days, I walk several miles through the forest to Ambleside and back. It has a public library, where I can send an email to my husband to let him know that I’m okay. Taking the bus here seems like a crime. This is walking country.

And so I walk. Over hills, around lakes, through forests, and across sheep-dotted fields. When they see me, they bawl in indignation until I pass. Then they lower their heads to the grass again.

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Some days, I go on longer hikes in the mountains. No. These aren’t called mountains, but fells. The small lakes in their crevasses are called tarns. It’s high tourist season, but only occasionally do I pass others on the trails. Low stone fences ribbon up and down the slopes. What, exactly, are they guarding?

High up on the trail to Alcock Tarn, I come across a lone sheep. It grazes near the edge of the fell. Plump and serene. Getting along just fine on its own.

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A few mornings later, I’m awakened by a chorus of bleating sheep. This is not their usual contented rumbling. I hear despair. I get up and walk through the blue smoke light of pre-dawn. I pull the curtains aside and look out to the neighboring field. The sheep are being herded into trucks that will take them to slaughter. They shuffle forward in an obedient line. What else is there to do?

Just turn away from the path you’re told to follow and look at the wide open field. Maybe you didn’t see this coming, but if you work together, you still have a chance at escape. The farmers can’t catch an entire flock.

A communal death is less intimidating than a solitary existence. I think again of the lone sheep on the fell.

Most of the sheep have been crammed into the trucks. Soft white muzzles poke through the vents; nostrils suck frantically for air. The ruddy-jowled farmers slap and push and kick the stragglers. I squeeze the curtains in my fists. There is nothing I can do but count the doomed.

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The Circle

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Keswick, England – July 2004

Somewhere around here is a stone circle. I walk down a narrow, stone fence-lined path. The hiss of cars drifts to my ears on the breeze. The Lake District is a country for walking, and yet it’s hard to get from place to place without a car. I fill my lungs with air that smells of cut grass and cow pies.  The fog that’s been hanging around in my brain for weeks dissipates a little.

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A cluster of cows breaks apart and approaches the wall as I pass by. Their demeanor is territorial. Almost menacing.

I stop. “Hello,” I say in my cheeriest voice.

They push against the wall and snort. I get the feeling that they would trample me if they could.

It’s been a strange summer.

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A few minutes later, I come upon the circle. Other visitors weave in and out of the stones, which are smaller than I expected.  However, the backdrop of mountains and valleys makes up for the circle’s modest size. This is my first stone circle. I’d take it over Stonehenge any day.

As I slowly circle the circle, the events of a few days ago enter my mind. I was in Kendal on an errand. It was around noon and I was walking down one of the main streets looking for an address. My head spun with hunger, and the fog was so thick in my brain that I could barely focus. I wouldn’t let myself eat until the errand was finished. The sidewalks were thronged with people. I was most certainly scowling. My foul moods are always connected to lack of food.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman standing between two parallel parked cars. In her outstretched palm she held some large, jagged amethysts on a soft blue cloth.  She could have been forty-five or fifty-five. She was dressed in a beige pencil skirt and matching mesh sweater. The sleeves were pushed up to her elbows. She wore beige pumps on her feet. Her hair was equally beige and pulled back into a sleek ponytail. Her pale skin was dusted with sand-colored freckles. She had long, skinny fingers and a French manicure. She wore no jewelry.

“Who’s going to bring me luck today?” She said out loud. She scanned the passersby and then fixed her fierce blue eyes on me. “Maybe this lady with the lovely smile.” She moved towards me.

“No.” I growled. My scowl deepened. I shook my head and quickened my pace. People who want something always seem to gravitate towards me. As if I have an abundance.

Her voice rose. Forceful words in some strange, gutteral tongue hit me.

I wheeled around and our eyes locked.

She nodded once. Her eyes bored right through me. “Good luck.”

I turned away and shook my head to try and clear it. I took a few more steps, and then turned around once more, but she had vanished.

Here and now, clouds begin to converge over the mountains. Shadows flutter over the slopes. I’ve heard that the barrier between the world of the living and that of the spirits is more porous in Great Britain. Good luck is not such an evil thing to want from someone. However, I haven’t got any to spare right now. I walk past the final stone and draw the circle to a close.

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