The lucky sheep were the ones who got treated for flystrike. They were taken to the shed to be shaven and given a chemical that treated their skin. Some of them didn’t make it. Those ones were called Ringbark because the infection had spread right around like a tree trunk. They weren’t going to live.
The Ringbarks weren’t dealt with straight away. Some were left lame for two or three days—until Jack felt like getting around to it. One ram couldn’t walk well, potential flystrike on the spine. Jack got angry—started to kick him.
The sheep still didn’t walk. Jack screamed at the sheep, beating it. He grabbed it and dragged it on its ringbarked back fifty metres to the paddock entrance. It didn’t move. Breathing deeply.
Is it dead? Mary asked.
I don’t care, he said. We’ll see in the morning if it stands up.
The next morning, the ram stood up. But Mary couldn’t forget what she saw.
The chickens were also Mary’s responsibility. They didn’t lay for a while—she didn’t know they needed to eat egg shells for extra calcium. Evelyn punished her for that.
There were dead crows tied to the fences, warding off larger birds of prey. They smelt like death.
There were foxes, 28s and galahs on the property. Beautiful birds. Evelyn loved bird watching. But these birds took up too much space, she said. She hated it.
There were hunters. Bird bodies could be found underneath most trees.
Get out of the ute, Evelyn would say to Mary. She’d tell her to sort through whatever mess of a species had been shot through the chest and report back.
Several arteries that run within the bone itself will be cut when removing the horn. Grasp these arteries with a forceps and pull them until they break off inside the bone. The clot that forms will prevent further bleeding. You will have created a hole into the frontal sinus. It is a painful procedure, and is best left to a vet or dehorning professional.
The worst of it was being tricked into dehorning a sheep. An immoral practice. It’s like cutting off a fingernail, they said.
The sprays of blood all over the walls, on Mary’s face and shirt, led her to believe otherwise. The ram screamed, tried to pull away. Blood trickled down its face, dripping into its eyes.
Actually, it’s more like cutting off a finger, they said afterwards.
Mary hadn’t been eating all that much; Evelyn barely ate. The neighbours joked about how little Mary must be getting fed—they weren’t wrong. She was always hungry. At one point the water got contaminated with larvae. The bath is full of wriggly worms, Mary told Evelyn. I think you have a problem with the pipes.
Don’t be a princess, Evelyn said. When I was little we bathed in the dam.
Mary bit her tongue but thought to herself that they also had cholera when Evelyn was little.
Mary went to sleep not long after the sun went down—around 7pm. Sometimes they watched Antiques Roadshow first. She was up again at 4am. She slept in an attached sleep out, dusty and cold. The floors creaked. She tried to think about her sanity. About the day. Was she doing the right thing? She didn’t have phone reception. She couldn’t call family or friends—would they think she was doing bad things? She thought of leaving but didn’t think she was allowed. She didn’t want to offend the farmer. She didn’t think the university would accept her reason. If she left now she would have to start all over again on another farm. She didn’t want to fail the prac. She was afraid, with no-one to confide in. Her days were filled with silence.
We don’t like talking all that much, Evelyn said. You talk a lot. Unnecessary questions.
Mary didn’t bathe for the last few days. She lasted two days without drinking water. Migraines persisted. As soon as she cleared the dirt track on her way out, Mary took off at 130kph in her beaten up red Yaris. Driving away, she knew she was leaving parts of herself behind. The first thing she bought in town when she left was two litres of water and a litre of milk.
When she got home, nobody was there except for Leo. She kept to herself for two days, the sterile grey sheen of the modern suburban house her haven. When her family returned they could sense that things were bad, but Mary didn’t talk specifics at first.
Contact the school, her parents urged.
She didn’t. It was school break, there weren’t any staff on campus. Maybe she should have emailed. But it was her problem—other students had talked about their farm practicals. Slamming piglets against fences to euthanise, sheep farms where the sheep’s eyes were falling out. It must have just been part of the process and her burden to carry. Maybe she wasn’t strong enough to stomach the reality of farming.
When semester resumed, it became increasingly difficult to study. Mary stopped attending lectures. She increased the time and distance she exercised. She swam 3km a day. Ran 6–8km. An hour of skipping, push- ups and crunches often at 3am or later. Lectures were watched online at double speed. Nothing was sinking into her brain. She felt stupid. Other students must have thought she was. She was the 83rd ranked student out of 86.
Stay, her family and friends persuaded.
Stay, her pride told her. You worked so hard to get here.
Six months later Mary emailed the university to make sure no–one went to that farm again. She was told that the partnership was terminated, that Evelyn had resigned from the university program. Maybe even she knew how bad it was. Evelyn had been conducting figures and data on the back of envelopes—she didn’t really know about money. It was just her way of living, a small operation of 5,000 unhappy sheep. Not a normal farm.
Can you relay some specifics? The university asked Mary.
But she has already been burnt by their processes. They had rejected her application for retrospective withdrawal due to her PTSD. She failed four out of five units. Mary wasn’t ready to tell them. Not now. Knowing that no one would return to the farm was enough.
The universe had been talking to her on the farm—and after. Sometimes through bees. She learned later that this was a coping mechanism. Bees were outside her bedroom window on the farm. They symbolised purity. Life. She identified with them, viewed them as holy. A marker from a higher power. Mary has one tattooed on her bicep now. Thin black lines. Needling pain. A reminder. Sometimes she isn’t sure if she actually saw bees or not, even when she got back to the city. But they were everywhere. If a bee landed on her or if she saw a photo of a bee, it was a good omen—a sign she was on the right path. Once she found eight bees buried in the sand, scattered along the beach. She saved them and put them in a tin, to make sure they were real. When she opened the tin, they were all dead.
The university didn’t prepare her—or anyone. Students who alerted the RSPCA of animal cruelty were ridiculed. Unnecessary, over the top, their peers would say. Mary was being such a city girl.
Vet school was the first time Mary had seen anything other than a domestic animal—dog, cat, rabbit. This had been her first farm practical—she thought it must just be farm life. She had no prior knowledge or expectations.
She was a sheltered city kid.