The red barn and the mad sheep – a short story

The red barn was glad when the sheep arrived as they represented a new lease of life for her old timbers. When they appeared to go mad, as she knew that they would, she enjoyed the notoriety which accompanied their antics.

The barn had all the standard features of a barn of her era and area; in her happiness she stretched her hipped roof upward in an attempt to conceal a sagging section to the north which leaked onto the rotting wood on that façade. She was pleased that her good south side faced the dirt road in front of the abandoned farmyard; and hoped that the distance was great enough to disguise her peeling red paint. She regarded her west gable end as her face and the upper eaves projection to be her nose although it had been built to accommodate a pulley for lifting bales into the upper loft. Now, where she had once looked across fields to a shelter belt of trees she faced a new retirement house which her new owners, Katrina and Mark, had constructed. The presence of the sheep and the new vista helped her to ignore the town to her east which she knew crept toward her, annually decreasing the distance until, she knew that one day, it would swallow her up.

The barn had been lovingly constructed by the surrounding neighbors for the original homesteader and his family. They painted her red using whitewash pigmented with red oxides from the earth. She was content to be red so that she stood out in all weathers including great snowstorms. Her first function was to house a milk cow, a few chickens and Ben and Jeb, the work horse team. Ben the lead horse was spirited and had a mean streak which he displayed when he kicked his stall walls. Perhaps, the barn mused, this accounted for the structural problems to the north. Jeb, on the other hand was calm and gentle. Oh how the red barn loved Jeb. She enjoyed the seam which arose from his shanks when he came in from a day’s work. She moaned in pleasure in union to his whinnies as he ate, and felt thrills of ecstasy when he rubbed his huge flanks against her structure. On cold winter nights she attempted to make him the most comfortable and to direct draughts from entering his stall.

When the horses were replaced by a John Deere tractor the barn had little time to grieve for she was converted into a busy milking facility. Twice a day her interior hummed with activity as cows took up their stalls patiently eating while they waited their turns to be relieved on their heavy udders of milk. Cats nested in the hay loft and two small boys made dens among the hay bales.

But times change and men age; the boys grew up and one was killed in Vietnam while the other left the farm to take up a career in teaching physics at a remote University; so that when the farmer and his wife decided to retire they sold their farm. The new owners were ‘gentleman’ farmers who leased out their land and sold off the farmyard equipment and ancillary buildings. Only the barn, a well and the original homestead remained. Everything fell into disrepair while the town, relentlessly, crept closer and closer. One November evening the empty homestead burned down. No-one knew how the fire started although the town’s police suspected the carelessness of local youth who had been using it as a hideaway, a place to hang out, smoke and drink. The red barn now stood alone. She projected a sad image of abandonment and neglect.

When Katrina and Mark retired from farming they bought the vacant homestead together with 40 acres of surrounding farmland. Katrina had a new house built on the west side of the property as far away from the barn and charred house ruin as possible. Here she set up home and planted her spacious kitchen garden and flower beds. Mark fenced Katrina’s compound and subdivided the remaining property with fencing into what he considered useable units. These included the old farmyard with land up to the road, two back sections, one with an apple orchard, and a field which he planned to lease to a local farmer for raising crops.

Now Mark didn’t like mowing and so he decided to house a friend’s sheep on his land. The set-up was perfect, the sheep could corral in the barn at night, drink the well water, and during the day they could graze on one of the three fenced sections. The barn accepted her new function with pleasure, tinged with a sense of foreboding. Every morning Mark went there and escorted his charges to the section of land in which he wished them to graze. In the evening he corralled them back to the barn. Over the course of the summer the sheep did an excellent job of keeping down the weeds and giving the property an air of upkeep while Mark only had to mow the gardens in the immediate vicinity of their home. Everyone was happy, the red barn, the sheep, Mark and Katrina, and perhaps even the town still gently creeping toward them.

One October day Katrina wandered over to the red barn looking for a good angle to take a photograph. She noticed that, although most of the property looked well kept the area behind the barn was full of weeds and needed “attention”. She mentioned her concern to Mark and asked him to scythe and mow the area. Mark went to investigate and saw that a fallen tree had blocked the area off so that his sheep couldn’t gain access. The barn creaked a warning,

“Leave this area protected, it is danger and not merely from my north façade instability.”

Mark wasn’t in tune with barn language and so he removed some of the rotting wood and the following morning made sure that the sheep entered the area. By mid-day the sheep were frolicking like lambs. When Mark noticed he told Katrina. A passing famer also observed the strange antics and when he got to town he told his buddies in the coffee shop. Mark and Katrina sat on their front porch watching. Soon they were joined by a parade of people who had heard of the spectacle from friends through the coffee shop.

At first the sheep forgot their age and played like lambs, jumping and chasing each other with abandon, while  making more noise than usual. The gathered crowd cheered them on and a journalist from the local paper took pictures. As the afternoon wore on the sheep became increasingly lethargic and eventually they lay down and slept. The voyeurs dispersed each with their own theory. Mark anxiously checked the prostrate animals, they were breathing peacefully in their sleep. The event was too curious not to get a second opinion and so Mark called the vet who, was regretfully unable to come that evening but, promised a morning visit. With difficulty Mark managed to wake up the sheep sufficiently to enable him to guide them into the red barn. He even spoke to the barn,

“Now you take care of my sheep.” The barn rustled a reply, but Mark didn’t hear her voice.

The vet came the following morning, looked at each sheep individually and shook his head,

“Strangest thing, I’ve never seen anything like it. They seem healthy enough. I recommend a light diet and I think that they should be fine in a day or so.”

Mark took the vet’s advice and herded the sheep into one of the pastures which they had already grazed fairly low. After several days when they were completely back to normal. By now the townspeople had lost interest and no one passed casually by to have a look. Everything was so calm that Mark again let the sheep graze the land around the red barn. Again the barn warned,

“It’ll be trouble. Make sure the fence is secure, and don’t let them onto my north side.”

Mark didn’t hear the barn, and went about his business. Sure enough by noon the sheep were madly frolicking in the giddy abandon of lambs.  Mark asked Katrina,

“What do you think has got into their wooly heads?”

They called the vet. This time he arrived accompanied by his recently graduated son and a horde of inquisitive townspeople who stood in the road watching. The vet examined the sheep.

“If I didn’t know better I’d say they are high,” he said. “We need to search the property; they must have found an abandoned still or something.”

At this his son became agitated and jumped up and ran toward the north side of the barn. “I know, I know,” he shouted. “It’s behind the barn. I guess that it must have seeded when we were teens!” The barn nodded her “I told you so” although no one heard or understood.

Mark and the vet followed. When they arrived they saw that most of the weeds in the area had been eaten. Now they could smell a potent aroma. The vet’s son looked forlorn,

“Such a beautiful marijuana crop, and they’ve eaten off all the buds.”

 

Jane Stansfeld, November 8, 2015

7 thoughts on “The red barn and the mad sheep – a short story

  1. This is lovely and gave me a big wide smile. First, a story from the barn’s POV – and you pulled it off well too, if you don’t mind me saying. And of course, that punchline about the marijuana plot – LOL!

    Good read, Jane, and thank you 🙂

  2. Nice, very nice! The concept of a flock of sheep on puff is extremely appealing, and the thought of the barn presiding over all that history makes a good frame for the story. Incidentally, I can testify that dogs do, indeed, get drunk. A friend of my youth had a labrador with a taste for beer!

  3. Leave it to an architect to personify an old red barn! This is very charming, Jane, and I, too, wondered for quite a while where you were going with it. Good thing the barn couldn’t speak for real, or those boys who planted mary jane would have been in trouble years ago! And I had never thought about the effect it might have on animals. I wonder if today’s potheads ever feed it to their cats or dogs…. This one’s a whole lot of fun.

    • I do so enjoy your comments and our exchanges even though I’ve been excessively busy and distracted away from blogging, so please forgive this late response to your quick comment. Sheep apparently can get high and dogs can get drunk. Once, when I was a child my mother prepared a sherry trifle for a dinner party and unwisely left it on the bottom rung of a trolley ready to serve at the opportune moment.. Our small dog found and ate it and was decidedly drunk as a result. I will always remember her trying to descend the stairs without falling. Perhaps I should try to weave this into a future story. Thank you for jogging my memory.

  4. OK, you had me by the nose all the way through wondering where the story was heading. Having been brought up in early childhood on a farm I could see the whole scene in my mind, but of course we did not grow marijuana. 🙂 However I remember tender alfalfa did some strange things to animals that broke into the growing fields.

    • Is eating alfalfa shoots what gives sheep stomach bloat as so vividly described in Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd”. My husband, Dan, also grew up on a farm. Some of my story’s; elements are drawn from his home turf

      • Not only sheep but cattle also. I’ve seen farmers plunge a knife into the side of cattle to let the gas out before the bloat caused fatal injury. I was too young to know how they dealt with the knife wound as the experience horrified me and I can remember running home after seeing it. 🙂

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