Letters from Home

Counting Backward from 1000

It’s black and dull in the room, but my mind shoots through with lights, flashes of bodies, voices shouting, tipping and wheeling around.

I roll over and feel the body, warm and snoozing, next to me. I huff and sigh, my eyes following the crack on the ceiling. I could read. I could get up, watch TV. But I am tired. I feel it, just over the edge of this restlessness: the exhaustion waiting for the apprehension to relent.

I remember New Zealand. I remember turning my head, on approach to Queenstown airport, looking out the window after 16 hours in that seat. The brown sugar mountain loomed a few feet, it seemed, off the 737’s wing. We curled like smoke around that hill, and glided into a tiny airfield. The lovely flight attendants, in their green bowler hats, saluted my mother as we disembarked onto the barren tarmac.

Sheep and man in oneI remember the shearer, cuddling the baffled sheep against his thighs and chest. He spoke easily, without eye contact, explaining how sitting the sheep on their bum, in this position, put pressure on a certain spot, in the back of their brain. It made them relax, loose. The sheep hung there in the man’s arms like gristle, its eyes lolling over the crowd in the barn, unconcerned. The wool fell away from its skin, like skimming cream off of milk. Then, slowly, kindly, the man placed the sheep back on its feet. Like a switch flipped on, its feet crackled on the wood floor in a panicked scramble. The shearer guided him into the pen.

I remember the border collie, a streak of fur on green, shooting out across a paddock on the man’s command. The field, open and wide, impossibly huge between the lake and the looming mountain face, held crevices filled with beige lumps. The dog, in fits and starts, dashed in one hollow, disappeared for a minute. I squinted in the sun. In the distance, a piece of the hill itself seemed to move on its own. The collie though flitted out from behind it. A mass of sheep scuttled around a bend, bleeting in protest. The dog froze at a sound from its owner, dropped belly to the ground, then skulked around the flank of the group. The sheep shuddered, en masse, their heads pressing into each other’s butts. A sound from the man, a move from the dog, and the sheep rose up, quivered, and shot down the hill, a raucous pile, into the paddock. The man clicked the gate shut behind them.

I roll over again, and the duvet continues it slow march over to my side of the bed, and the floor beyond. I stare at the numbers on the clock. There is a 2 and 3 and a 4. I forget the sheep and remember the counting.

Wakatipu, South IslandI start at 1000. I inhale through my nose, let my mouth fall open, pay attention to the breath. I close my eyes. I can still see the blue skies over Lake Wakatipu, but I try to let my attention go to the numbers. 999. The long bus ride, through the south island landscape, to Milton Sound. Breathe in and out. 998. The full moon hung on low sky. It wobbles as I breathe. 997. Water bottles filled in the stream. 996. Breathe. 995. Flash of deep brown seal flesh under the water. 994. 993. 992. water… skipping rocks on the lake …991…

The breath moves on its own now, the numbers have slipped away. The body slumbers. The mind lifts and drifts, then, into the memory, into the dregs of the day.

2 thoughts on “Counting Backward from 1000

  1. i love the description of the shearer. he’s like the sheep whisperer. your story makes me want to travel.
    -pete

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