As a child I felt fortunate to grow up in the kind of neighborhood I did. We lived in a major city, but in a large valley where properties were commonly one acre or more. We had a huge house with a half-acre, fruit and cedar trees, and a bridged creek running through the front yard. We lived in front of and next door to two larger properties; families with children who had the usual childhood assortment of treehouses, forts, sandboxes and animals. We played in the streets without getting killed and we knew all our neighbors.
We also lived across the street from an elderly couple – people who practically raised me – and they had a rabbit farm. They were also somehow able to legally own sheep, goats, cows, pigs, and a donkey at one point. Sometimes, they would bring their sheep to graze in our yard or the yard of the family behind us. They lived on a large hill and allowed all the neighborhood children to sled down it in the winter and bring their little red wagons in the summer. We played in their trees and made up all sorts of games that usually came down to Boys Against Girls. How could we get back at the boys?
One day I gathered up a few friends – this must have been around fourth grade – and set off for Diane’s yard to see if we could plant pumpkins. We had been digging holes for weeks, so we hoped she said yes. But when we got to the top of the hill where her house was, we were greeted by the sight of a dismembered and disemboweled sheep. We screamed and ran and vowed never to return.
We were afraid of Grandpa Joe after that. He was a friend to all the families; he sold fresh eggs and little bunnies and he and his wife had thirteen grandchildren, but clearly there was something wrong with him. It was his sheep; he must have cut it up. Who would do something like that?
Finally I told my mom what I had seen and she told me that one of Joe’s sheep had died and he had “cut it up” (her words) to find out how it died. Suddenly it all made sense. Grandpa Joe wasn’t a sick freak who cut up dead animals for fun. I had just stumbled on the site of a sheep autopsy. (Technically referred to as a necropsy when it’s nonhuman.) The children all resumed their playtime on Grandpa Joe’s farm, the adults having no idea we were ever afraid of him. The dead sheep stayed where it was at the top of the hill.
The children continued to play in this yard as well. We all just avoided the sheep. We would tell other children just not to go over there; there was a dead sheep and it was really gross. They didn’t need to be told twice. The girls took over one tree and the boys took over another. Turf wars were happening.
I realized the girls could win the war on the boys if they could conquer their fear of the dead sheep. Then we could just pick up limbs and organs and hurl them at the boys, and they couldn’t do the same to us because they would be too scared! Then we would have the yard to ourselves. Since I was the oldest, I’d start.
All I had to do was become more comfortable being in closer and closer proximity to the sheep. I started testing myself, getting closer and running away when I felt scared, and then getting even closer and standing there for ten seconds before running away. Soon I was able to stand right next to the sheep. Its severed head was on top of the pile of limbs and viscera. (Do you call it “viscera” and not “offal” when it’s an animal?) Flies were everywhere. But being the brave girl I was, I poked the disgusting pile with a stick.
I was already the bravest kid in the neighborhood just by standing where they would not go. Now I was on a whole ‘nother level.
I excitedly told the other girls my plan. I realized I had not told them of my journey into the innermost part of myself that did not fear death, when death arrived in the form of a matted pile of wool and flies. I explained the brilliant plan – we are going to throw a sheep’s leg at the boys and that will…do something. They asked who would do the throwing and I explained we all just needed to get used to being around the sheep and that I’d been practicing. Look, I’ll demonstrate.
I couldn’t do it. I got a stick and a board, and I pushed one of the severed front legs onto the board with the stick. I held it at arm’s length in front of myself as I carefully descended the hill, hoping I wouldn’t stumble over a rock and perhaps drop the leg and be too scared to pick it up again. Remember, I am nine years old. The other girls, as well as all the boys, are seven and younger. Dead things are very scary.
I set the board and its grisly contents on the ground and the girls formed a circle around it, realizing I had actually gone to the Bad Part of the hill and had carried down a dead animal’s leg. “Now we just have to get the rest of it!” I explained. They didn’t want to play anymore. “We don’t have to touch anything; we can just use the board to fling it at the boys!”
The boys…there they were. My younger brother and some of his friends had shown up. Now was our chance. We would own this fucking yard.
“Look!” I shouted eagerly. “Look what we have! If you don’t get out of here we’ll throw this at you!” I picked up the board, the leg never having fallen off, and slowly walked toward the boys. They didn’t move. They probably didn’t believe me. I walked closer. “I will totally throw this! And the rest of the sheep too!” The girls hung back in nervous suspense and disbelief. Some of the boys shot some questioning glances my brother’s way, as if to silently ask, will she? His face was blank. He did not know, but he would not show fear.
Nor would I. I threw the leg as far as I could away from us, and suggested that we all try to catch and ride the remaining sheep. We were largely unsuccessful.
The next day, the dead sheep was gone. Only a bare patch of dirt remained. My mom got a few phone calls from parents who politely explained they felt I didn’t really have anything in common with their daughters. We all grew apart as friends, and never went into the yard or spoke of the sheep incident again. We grew up; started lives. The farmer and his wife died and I was at both funerals. I still have the memorial programs. The pumpkins never grew.