Sheep: another scary dairy Halloween story
My own contribution to the growing, ah, corpus of Halloween tales. Submit your own story and win a bag of cheesy treats! Possible biological inaccuracy to follow:
At one time, I thought of them like you probably do. Dumb creatures. Afraid of the sunrise. Flockers, robbed by selective breeding of their essential stubborn goatness. Turned into pale blobs of wool and meat.
I’m in the dairy trade, myself. I’m a consultant. I visit cheesemakers, give them advice on aging. Affineur, it’s called; I’m a freelance affineur. For the most part, it’s a good job, although not one person in ten knows what you do. My parents don’t know what I do. They are dentists, unretired.
And, of course, the cheesemakers. They’d turn me away if they could, salt-of-the-earth not withstanding. It’s not that I represent capitulation; that their harebrained schemes have come to nothing, turned into flabby disks of moldy milk. And it’s not that I am expensive, although I am, and dairy farming is not a lucrative trade. It’s that I am especially unpleasant.
But I have a perfect record. Cheese is all about fungus and and bacteria, and we understand each other. It only takes one ham-handed hippie to queer the mix with a stray sneeze or buttscratch, or a tool infested, in its crevices, with an unwelcome germ that the cheesemaker won’t catch. I will, though. I am as thorough as bleach.
But back to the sheep. On the whole, they are characterized by fear—they run from the sunrise, startle at their own shadow. Bleat in fear at the passing of a cloud. Huddle against invisible, extinct wolves.
There was a certain farm. I won’t say where it was—Vermont is a small enough state, and it was a small dairy. Let’s call it Hippie Dairy. They were having trouble with their milk.
Now a sheep’s milk cheese is nothing to sneeze at. The delicate fatty milk of sheep makes exquisite cheese. I’m sure you don’t know how good, but it’s very good. Not only does it have a certain appealing sheepiness, but it captures the terroir exquisitely.
I’m sure you don’t know what that means, either. It’s French. The taste of the earth, the pasture, the sunshine. The distinct spirit of a place, made flavor.
And at Hippie Dairy, in Vermont, Vermont, there was something in their milk. I was sure of it.
I had noticed it last year at the Regional Sheep’s Milk Cheese competition, where I am tolerated for my expertise. Last year’s batch had a certain tang, a whimper in the paste that numbed the tongue, and turned the green grass flavor to bitter straw. An otherwise very fine cheese (I wouldn’t say perfect, I never do) was being spoiled by a small quiet scream.
Of course, when they heard my judgement, the hippies fretted. They cleaned their dairy. They pulled noxious weeds from the pasture. They swabbed the aging cave and plated the results in a laboratory, looking for stray microbes. And then they called me.
They thought it was microbes, but it wasn’t. That was clear. It was minerals. Put milk on a shelf, dry it delicately in a cave, and the minerals will concentrate. There was a sick and sad mineral making its way into the cheese. Were they grazing their stock on the tailings of a uranium mine? Perhaps there was an old Indian burial ground over the aging cave, off-gassing furious spiritual remains? A visit was required.
When I arrived, the hippies were looking a bit haunted, pale under their late-summer sunburns. I almost felt sorry for them. I would find it stressful to be a hippie myself.
The pasture was disgustingly bucolic. A valley of green grass tufted with wildflowers, dotted with placid off-white lumps. Bordered on three sides by thick mapled woods.
“What sort of sheep are these?”
The hippies stammer; some sort of hardy Scottish breed, or was it Sumerian? Primitive stock that could tolerate cold Vermont weather, a species very close to the Ur-sheep. Cave-sheep for the hairy cave-men who tended them.
They looked placid enough, though, and fat enough, with lumps of winter wool starting to come in in patches. And as we approached, they scattered with sheepish dread, parting for the hippie with the bent aluminum crook like he was Moses, and they were the Dead Sea. They turned to stare with fearful, golden, goaty eyes.
There was nothing else to do: I madeth myself lie down in green pastures. I took the crook from the hippie, laid a handkerchief on the grass, and sat down to watch. It was extraordinarily dull; what to sheep do? What could I learn? Would I fall asleep?
Of course I did. And when I awoke, the sheep were gone. A hippie, obviously, had corralled them and left me to nap in the evening gloom. I went to find him and collect my per diem.
But before I could go, a strange low sound came from the darkness at the edge of the field. It was like a roar, or the sudden simultaneous bleating of four dozen primitive woolbearing quadrupeds. I don’t know what you would do. I am a professional though, so of course I investigated.
There was no clearing for them to stand in. They stood in the woods, packing the spaces between trees, their dull faces just visible in flickering light. How they had ignited a fire, even this small one, I have no idea. There was a kind of chilled reverence in the air, with the biggest, fattest rams crowded into a circle, ewes behind, and shivering lambs tucked into the gaps.
“Bahhhhhhhh,” they burped, “mmmbahhhhhh.”
By firelight, I could see a red mess, spread out on the big stone in the center. A wild thing—a raccoon or groundhog, torn open and with guts spilling out. As if they’d found road kill and brought it here, for sacrifice.
And behind the stone, in the glimmer of that pathetic fire, there was a figure as big as a buffalo, but standing on hind-legs, its head crowned with long, curling horns.
And then I knew what was wrong with the cheese. These old sheep had not forgotten that they were once proud, wild goats. And they kept to the old religion, worshiping the greatest goat of all, the goat of the woods, goat that lived underground, that punished the souls of the vain and the cruel, and tortured them with fire for eternity. But being sheep, they feared their lord. They knew they were fallen, no longer the lusty bearded beasts he bid them to be. And it terrified them. And that was the mineral in the milk. The terroir, the character of the place, was that holy dread, like licking the concentrated essence of a cold, bloodstained stone.
I won’t bore you with details. Of course I was spotted—a little lamb bleated the alarm. There was a scuffle, as four dozen shivering beasts turned on me, and swiftly herded me forwards, pushing with their blunt bodies towards the altar of their Lord. And then afterwards, oh, the fire. You wouldn’t understand.
Photo: "Scapegoat" by h.koppdelaney