My car door clanged shut, and I ambled down to the stony beach. Mountains issued out of the lake in front of me as the clear winter sun cast everything in an early afternoon haze. A medium-sized RV was parked down on the gravel where a stodgy man with mussy hair, his wife, and his three daughters stared out at the lake. Hearing my approach, the girls turned to gawk at me, and one of them whispered something to the other.
“Hey,” the man said as I approached. “There’s a sheep out there. You can see him floating.”
“No shit!” I exclaimed quite loudly, before remembering the little girls who stared up at me with wide eyes. I laughed nervously, then promptly shut my mouth and shaded my eyes to gaze for the sheep.
And there it was. A distant bobbing ball of white about a hundred yards or so offshore, frantically paddling this way and that.
“He just came tearing down here and cruised into the water,” the man said.
“Well, I’ll be…”
I stood there for several minutes, and then politely excused myself to go eat my lunch. Maneuvering my way around a downed tree and a small cusp of gravel, I found a nice spot overlooking the bay and plopped down.
As I cranked open the top of a can of garbanzo beans—a precise art with my bargain can opener—I carefully charted the progress of the sheep. I mean, what else do you do? Calling emergency services seemed a bit too dire for the stupidity of the sheep, and there was no way I would swim out there to save this sucker. Yet as I watched the creature meander this way and that, I couldn’t help but feel impressed.
Here was a sheep that somehow escaped the bounds of its home pasture, left his flock family, wandered across a road, saw a massive body of water, and decided what no other sheep had—I’m going to swim that. People may have questioned whether or not such a venture would lead this sheep to a top grass-eating career; some said it was impossible, that if God wanted sheep to swim he would have given them flippers. But I’ll be damned, that sheep was out there doing it.
Slowly, the sheep made its way to the shoreline and labored its heaving bulk up the shore about fifteen feet away from me. It stood there shaking, gasping short labored breaths, looking like it had no recollection of where it was or what it was doing. He reminded me of a lot of Ironman contestants I have seen.
I prepared myself to get the blast out of there because if this sheep was crazy enough to swim, who knows what else it was capable of? This sheep may have been the pasture equivalent of a cracked-up New York hood rat and with a malevolent, skewed “baaahhhh,” demanded my cash from me for its alfalfa addiction.
But this hood rat sheep was exhausted. For another twenty minutes it stood there shaking. Every once in a while, it would try to shake itself like a dog, which only resulted in almost toppling itself over. Garnering up courage, I crept down the shoreline towards him, curiosity nearly bursting. I stopped some seven feet from him and bent over to his level. He stared at me. I stared at him.
I was there for a long time, hands on knees, head craned forward. I didn’t know quite what to do. Should we vaunt this sheep among the echelons of the fluffy elite? Or was it mentally unstable? Did it matter?
It was such an elaborate feat, and only six people had witnessed it. At the end of marathons, we give people a medal, a free chocolate milk and a silvery heat warmer; we cheer runners on and recognize that they have accomplished something of value. But this sheep left with nothing and came back with even less. This sheep was just wet and cold.
It gazed at me, seemingly serene yet still in obvious misery. Was it questioning its life? Was he brought closer to some meaning in its purposeless sheep existence? Do sheep go that deep? Probably not. Just wet and cold.
It shook and made a few faltering steps forward before stopping again. I took a photo, the sound of the iPhone’s camera sounding harshly against the lightly lapping waves and the sheep’s labored breathing. Later, I looked back on the photo. The sun shone brightly in the background, illuminating the sheep with sunlit rays. It almost looked deified as it stared at me, like the pure white sheep from the Bible you see on flannel church boards.
I put away my phone. I felt it was fitting to say something before I walked away, something to acknowledge that I saw, that I cared for this awesome act of the pasture, that the comeback sheep, who was told he never could, swam in Lake Wanaka. Someone had to do it.
I stared, silent.
“Well done, sheep.”
Ben Rietema (’14) lives in Wanaka, New Zealand at the moment. Besides staring at and running in mountains, he makes a wicked hospital corner and can clean a bathroom like Gandhi (if he were a housekeeper) at his job at a local lodge. He also enjoys saying “HOUSEKEEPING” in the highest pitch voice he can muster before entering a room to service it. benrietema.wordpress.com/