“Lance” by Shauna Checkley

Illustration by Victoria Alex

Turning over in bed, Jeri-Lynne felt an ache and a grief so deep that she clutched her pillow reflexively. It could pass as his body. Lance. Poor little sweet guy. What had she done?

The night was wild with discontent. Voices babbled and chided. She knew that it was her own silver tongue now grown tarnished. Yet she was unable to stop the deluge of recrimination, the onslaught of regret. The blackness of her bedroom felt evil, hollow.

She clutched the pillow tight.

Seeing Lance and the other lambs herded onto the trailer, the fuzzy, fleecy white blur, continued to replay in her mind. She heard his bleats. She smelled the kicked up dirt, saw that look of confusion. She replayed it over and again like some unwanted rerun. Yet she was only caught within her own conscience, pinned by it as surely as by the bulk in the bed.

Beside her, Larry snored. She felt like punching him or elbowing him at the very least. It wasn’t just that he was disturbing the peace more than ever with his infernal snoring, he did that most every night. But his farmer’s indifference to the plight of little Lance outraged her.

Jeri-Lynne recalled his laughter when she broke into tears at the supper table. Then stormed off. He only became irate when their daughter, Hailey, began to howl from the confines of her high chair. Dribbled spaghetti. Thrown crusts.

But then he never really understood her bond with Lance. To him, Lance was just another lamb from just another ewe. Just another ledger line in his accounts. Money in the bank. That’s all.

The strength of the bond even surprised Jeri-Lynne. A farmer’s wife, she had went through many seasons of calving until the switch over was made to sheep. She had, of course, experienced a wide gamut of animals in her life. Other than her beloved cat Basil, a portly black Tom, that was presently curled at her feet and licking her big toe, she had never bonded with such intensity to another creature. It reminded her almost of her bond with Hailey. That overwhelming maternalism that comes to women sometimes, that lights them within, leaves all aglow.

It went without question that she’d feel that way for her toddler. Even her pet cat. But was it right for her to extend such love and devotion to one of the lambs? Especially a goofy looking one like Lance?

She believed as much. Why not? Lance was a sentient being, a child of God. It entered seamlessly into her mind with a spiritual sort of logic that granted her both the permission and the peace that she craved.

Yet she cringed when she recalled the reaction of Larry’s dad. Old Erv. “You got your wires crossed girl! Go hug your own baby for a change. But then you’re Irish after all, so who really knows?” Then he made that familiar, horrible death rattle in his throat, spit, and wandered off.

Larry wasn’t much better either. Just shakes of the head. Odd bouts of derisive laughter. But mostly he just ignored the cuddling and extra care that she lavished on the lamb, like the baby blanket she placed on Lance as he slept.

Jeri-Lynne knew they all considered her an odd duck. Larry and Erv and possibly the rest of the community of Oracle, that tiny farming town. She was the ill-considered catch of a no nonsense farmer who had married a sentimental, too thin, dance teacher. Tattooed no less. “She loves all those crazy books that she piles everywhere”, Old Erv once remarked as he stared grimly at an unflattering vegan casserole of hers.

She laid in that aching, throbbing darkness.

Lance…My little Lancelot

Without a doubt he was a character from the very beginning, the proverbial runt of the litter who had one folded-over ear.

“Look at that weird one,” Larry remarked when they were out in the barn one day.

Jeri-Lynne giggled when she saw the lamb pop loose from the ewe.

“Yeah,” she agreed.

Yet even a slightly deformed lamb is still a lamb and therefore cute by definition. In fact, Lance’s tininess and funny lopsided ear made him seem all the more endearing to Jeri-Lynne.

She recalled a childhood stuffy of hers, a lamb that went through the washer and dryer one too many times and shrunk and became misshapen. But though it looked slightly askew the stuffy was always still warm to the touch when her mother handed it back to her, and Jeri-Lynne continued to love it. She had only been seven after all, back when the world was fashioned for innocence and love.

Listening to Larry blaring away in the dark served only to fuel her agitation. Why in the hell can’t he wear his breathing apparatus like everyone else with sleep apnea? But he had refused, citing it as unnatural as a condom (another issue that outraged her).

In the early days of their marriage, she feared waking some morning to find him passed away from a heart attack caused by oxygen deprivation. But now she had just accepted it all with a curious resignation, a grim clarity, like awakening to a blue sky. If he croaked, he croaked. Whatever…

Wracked by guilt, feeling paroxysms of grief, Jeri-Lynne stared into a mouth of blackness that threatened to consume her. What have I done? How could I have let Lance go? I should have not let Larry take him to the processing plant. I should have slugged Larry in the gut if need be.

But she recoiled at her own rashness. It’s not Larry’s fault. He is a farmer after all. Animal husbandry is part of the job. Besides, what did I expect when I married him?

Did I really think that seeing Lance off would be a sufficient goodbye? Really? It was probably the very worst thing I could do to myself as now that image is forever seared into my brain. Like some sort of evil farm brand. Who would understand my grief anyways? Probably only my dear friend Clarice.

Jeri-Lynne quietly wept into her pillow. She was careful to keep the volume low so as to not awaken Hailey of all things.

Their fourteen month old toddler was a kitten during the day but a tiger at night. Never waken thesleeping lionhad become the family axiom. For she would emerge from the other side like a beast scorned. Raging her way back into wakefulness, the tiny tot would howl until she was freed from her crib, generally refusing to return back to sleep. Then Jeri-Lynne’s day of stress and boredom would be all the longer.

Hitting a sudden crescendo in his snoring, Larry jerked awake momentarily. Rolled over. Farted. then returned to a seemingly fitful sleep.

Gotta do something! Gotta save him! Gotta get my sweet Lance back!

Grabbing her cell phone which was charging on the night stand beside her, Jeri-Lynne saw that it was midnight. Probably closed until morning unless they run a graveyard shift. She googled the phone number for Thunder Creek Processors and then dialed.

 She listened to it ring and ring.

Ahh fuck, I’ve probably missed them for the day. They are likely closed.

But then the other line answered.

“Good evening. Thunder Creek Processors, Jerry speaking. Can I help you?”

Thank God!

“Hi. My husband, Larry Peterson, dropped off a load of lambs today. But I want to come back for this certain one. I’ll reimburse you the money of course.”

There was a pause. “What?”

“Yes, I know it may sound strange but I’m very serious about this. There is one little boy lamb from the group that we brought in. He is a runt compared to the others plus he’s got one funny, folded over ear. You can’t miss him really. His name is Lance.”

There was another pause. Then Jeri-Lynne heard the other line say in a muffled voice, “There’s some crazy lady on the line. Can you come gimme a hand?”

Crazy my ass! Who are the ones killing babies for a paycheque?

A brand new voice came on the other line, saying, “Hello, Donovan speaking. How may I help you?”

“Well, like I was telling the other guy, my husband dropped off a load of lambs today and I want to come back and get the one. Lance is his name. I’ll refund the money of course. Just please don’t kill him and I’ll be there tomorrow morning with the money.”

There was another long, strained pause.

“Uhh, okay. We might be able to do this?”

Thank God! Oh thank you Jesus!

“But how will we know one from the other?”

“Lance is a boy lamb and a runt. He’s the tiny one in the group plus he has one funny, folded over, lopsided ear. You really can’t miss him, I think.”

“Uh-huh. What was your husband’s name so I can track where he was dropped off?”

“Larry Peterson.”

“Okay, then let me just look this up in the system then.”

Jeri-Lynne was elated not only that the plant had answered the phone. She was also pleased by how agreeable they were with her change in plans. It was going smoothly thus far. And now if they only told her what she truly wanted to hear. That Lance was still alive and intact and hadn’t been slaughtered! Even just the thought of it sent chills down her spine, shock waves through her entire nervous system. Please Lord! Please let him not be processed or whatever euphemism they use for that whole horrible affair!

Bowing her head, she silently prayed, awaiting their response.

Beside her Larry snored.

With one mighty leap, Basil had rejoined them on the bed. She could hear him purring in the dark and welcomed the feeling of him settling once again at her feet. He was fluffy and heavy and warm. His snug little body reminded her of Lance’s even.

“Okay, that load went into pen number twelve and are still in holding. So what I can do is go down and have a look for him and put him in a separate spot. Then you said you’d come pick him up in the morning, right?”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry I’ll be there. My name is Jeri-Lynne and you’re Donovan, right?”

“Correct. Yes, I’ll just be getting off shift at noon. But I’ll see to it that you get the little fella.”

 Jeri-Lynne was ecstatic! She felt a proverbial burden lift like her entire being had been reset.

“You said he was funny looking?”

“Not exactly. He’s just a runt. Smaller than the others y’know. Plus he has that one floppy ear.”

“Okay, stay on the line. I’ll go see if I can pick him out then.”

“Alright, thanks.”

She was on hold for a long time. She lay in the darkness eager and intent. Am I like Jason? Will I get my golden fleece?

Basil was now lightly snoring too.

As she held her cell phone pressed to her ear, Jeri-Lynne began to wonder what she was going to say to Larry? Or worse yet, to Ervin, his father, the retired patriarch that Larry had taken over the farm from.

Old Erv was bound to be annoyed, that was a given as everything seemed to irk him, the weather, the government, the television, whatever vehicle he was driving, the list went on. She had shaky relations with him at best and only by producing Hailey, the light of his grandfatherly life, had she redeemed herself in Erv’s eyes.

Would they erupt on her? Order her off the premises? Would she become one of those bad women kicked off the farm, banished over vice, misappropriation?Everyone heard of the secret drinkers, those guilty of intrigues and infidelity run off either quietly or grandly. But was she a newbreed of farm Jezebel? The one sent away for saving cats, lambs?

She was able to hold her own with Larry. And she was just going to tell Larry that his own father was not allowed to interfere in their relationship and dealings. That’s all. She had made up her mind. She would stand her ground with, Erv, the crazy old codger. In the darkness, a light, a way had emerged. Was it a prayer answered? Could it be God?

“Donovan here,” the voice was back on the other line.

“Yes I believe that I found him. So I put him in a separate pen and flagged him. He’s ready for pick up then.”

Jeri-Lynne cried, “Oh, thank you so very much. I’ll be there to get him tomorrow. Don’t worry.”

“My pleasure. Alright then. Bye.”

“Good night.”

They hung up.

Like that small glow from the night light in Hailey’s room, hope returned to her. Jeri-Lynne smiled, closed her eyes. Thank you Jesus!And thank you too that upon your return, there will be no more killing and death, suffering and disease and aging and sorrow. It will all end with you. Praise the Lord.

Her eyes popped back open.

As beside her Larry threw of body heat like a furnace, she was warmed.

Once agin, she remembered the issue of her husband. What would she sayto him?As it’s not like they discussed her retrieval of Lance or that she was granted permission by Larry, so what would be her defence in the morning light? She stared into the darkness once again. She thought hard.

Listening as the ebb and flow of Larry’s snoring continued; Jeri-Lynne had an epiphany. She devised a plan. I’ll wait until the next time he awakens, then I’ll spring it on him quick. He’ll never knowwhat hit him. Plus he’s likely to just roll over and fall straight back to sleep. I’ll let Morpheus do thetrick.

Waiting somewhat impatiently, Jeri-Lynne rolled over to face her husband. She was reminded of The Flinstones cartoon that she watched every lunch hour while a school girl. Fred and Barney sawing logs. Once again, her thoughts returned to earlier, innocent times.

But then Larry bolted upright in bed as predicted. Awake momentarily, his sleep disorder had thrust him back into the land of the conscious.

“Larry, I’m going to go and get Lance tomorrow. I’ve already phoned the company and it’s all arranged. I’ll pay for him out of my own money.”

Larry didn’t respond. He lay back down dumbly and returned to sleep.

Ah, it’s done! I did it! He can’t say that I didn’t tell him. He was forewarned. Jeri-Lynne instantly felt relieved.

Then she felt deeply tired.

Gotta get some sleep. Nearly a two hundred kilometre trip early tomorrow, with no less than a toddler in tow, she thought, gamely. I’ll have to be up real early to get things going.

So she hugged her pillow and delighted at the silky feel of Basil at her feet. She waited for sleep to come to her too, just like all of the rest.

 Do I need to count sheep tonight? Nah…

Still, she knew that she had only just cleared the first hurdle in the whole Lance odyssey. There will be many other labours to deal with for certain. Larry. Old Erv. Everything will be a heroic feat from hereon in.

She yawned. Slept. Easily lulled into her own mythic underworld, she was.

SHAUNA CHECKLEY lives in Regina, SK with her family and cats. She works at Regina Public Library. She is Disabled. She is heavy into cat rescue.