The sheep lay on her back, bulky and bedraggled, her legs stiffly erect. I thought she was dead until the snow caked lane brought us closer and I saw her head loll sideways. She was limp, a bundle of grey rags, belly up, her brittle legs stretching absurdly. She seemed to be twisting around to discern our approach. Her dull eyes stared at nowhere.
"What on earth has happened to that one?"
We stopped. Level with her now, we could see she was not bleeding or birthing, simply fallen. "They can't get up" Elaine said. "If a sheep falls on its back, it can't roll over. They stay there until someone pushes them back up."
We looked around. Ice gripped the landscape. There was no sign of habitation, only whiteness stretching to the horizon below a pale feverish sky. The lane was thick with drifts and scarred with no other footprints than our own. Hunks of broken ice lay like tumbled sculpture beside a water trough. Everything was drained of colour.
"What if someone doesn't?"
"Their lungs fill up, and they die of pneumonia." Elaine spoke bleakly. My scarf lashed me, damp from wind cut tears and the condensation of my breath.
"We'll have to do it" I agreed. Laboriously we climbed the low fence and began to trudge across the field. Motionless sheep watched our progress.
"It's not difficult, apparently" Elaine said. "You just get on one side of them and push them into a standing position."
"They look so heavy."
We reached the fallen sheep and stood uncertain. She lolled her head again in that sad twisting movement, trying to see what we were doing behind her. She made no sound, but her stick-like legs wavered and her thick flanks trembled.
"If we both get on one side of her' said Elaine 'perhaps we can roll her past the point of axis, and then she may stay upright."
I squatted reluctantly. I thought, one of us will have to take the weight of her, avoiding those hard hooves if they kick out in panic. The other will have to force those stiff legs to the ground, and together we will have to steady and push her. Elaine squatted beside me.
The sheep slewed her gaze round to us with dilated eyes. Her palpitating terror made me afraid for her too. Suppose she died of shockas we struggled with her.
"Together--" said Elaine, and together we plunged our hands into the fleece. It felt tepid and slightly sticky. Together we began to roll.
Her flank swung and in an instant she was upright; in another moment she had blundered away. She ran for a few yards then stopped and turned to look at us.
She was indistinguishable now from all the others, apart from a dark stain from the drenching field on her fallen fleece. She stared silently. They all stared. Elaine and I stood up, impulsively hand-in-hand.
For the rest of our walk we talked elatedly about that moment. How unexpectedly easy it had been to roll the sheep back upright--how exhilarated we felt.
"We saved her life," I said.
"It was more than that," said Elaine. "It was like being at a birth." And we kept trying to describe to each other the extraordinary thrill of that moment of deliverance. I knew I would never forget that sheep's impassive twisted face and the sudden rush of life as it staggered away. But the image of deliverance curiously became mingled with another memory; my mother grey and inert in her hospice cubicle as I left her waiting to die.
I don't know why I think of this. There is really no similarity at all. It was summer in the hospice garden, a viridian lawn beyond the plump pink roses stretching down towards the blue of the bay and the shimmering sea. "She should have come here before," I remember saying. "She would have felt better if she had come here."
"You would have felt better. Your mother chose her own way." The nurse's calmness was comforting. She looked very young to me, her uniform crisp and colourful like a child's play outfit. She waited patiently with me until I was able to go back inside.
The nurse wanted me to stay and sit with my mother as her frail crumpled body turned from parchment-pale to ash-grey and her ragged breathing lessened into stillness. I did not. I don't know why. I had some muddy, muddled, feelings about dignity - about wanting to remember her fierce fight for life and not her slow surrender into quietude. I had other trivial anxieties, logistical things I can't even grace with recollection now. When the nurse phoned next morning it was to tell me my mother had not died alone. Someone sat with her, she said; your mother was not all alone. Again like in the garden I had that bleak sense that there was no deliberate reproach or judgment. I had simply got it wrong.
So I mounted my own vigil. For a year in my mind's eye I watched my mother dying every day. Sometimes I recalled the solace of the hospice garden but mostly I went back inside the shady room to watch her as she lay like a fallen fledgling. I listened to her quiet dragging breath and I waited, over and over again, until she was dead. After a while the image came less constantly. I can go for hours now, sometimes days, without this dry-eyed watchfulness. The memories of her death which scratched at me like jagged fingernails for so long are easier now to touch.
Elaine and I often walk outside the town at the dusky end of long afternoons. Sometimes some natural glimpse will shock and delight us--ablaze of berries, sun streaming through misty woods--but mostly we walk only half aware of the passing landscape of the lanes, immersed in talk about our children; their lives and loves and our passionate love for them.