“He carved the coat off the dead winter lamb” . . . begins a short story by noted author Amy Hempel first published in Harper’s Magazine in 2010. A bleak opening for a piece that might have been an article on animal husbandry but is darker than that.
There is a great deal of violence and gore associated with the old west, and while I do not search out literature that glorifies such unpleasant history, I am fascinated with literary authors who puncture the myths and capture the human drama at the core of this hardscrabble world. Surprisingly, many of these authors are women.
When I was at Queens for my MFA, one of the female classmates talked about her desire to write of her memories from a childhood in Montana. An image seared into her mind was the castration of ram lambs in the wilderness by grizzled old Mexican hands who would bite off the testicles and save them for cooking.
Much of the harshness in the western by Annie Proulx is offset by the satire, but I was first drawn to this author because of a short story in Harper’s. In this story she sets a tale of young love, then sends the cowboy off to his fate in a wrathful blizzard and leaves the young wife to die alone in a bloody childbirth, the scene later ascribed to an Indian massacre.
But I think Hempel’s short story is equally searing – not because of the visceral description of the dead lamb, but because she ties it so closely to a universal theme of domineering and possessive love. “This was seduction,” she claims.
In using the power of the compressed form of flash fiction, her message, her warning, is magnified in “The Orphan Lamb.” Amy Hempel can say it so much better than I – and since the article has been republished on the internet numerous times, I offer it to you now in its entirety:
THE ORPHAN LAMB
By Amy Hempel
He carved the coat off the dead winter lamb, wiped her blood on his pants to keep a grip, circling first the hooves and cutting straight up each leg, then punching the skin loose from muscle and bone.
He tied the skin with twine over the body of the orphaned lamb so the grieving ewe would know the scent and let the orphaned lamb nurse.
Or so he said.
This was seduction. This was the story he told, of all the farm boy stories he might have told; he chose the one where brutality saves a life. He wanted me to feel, when he fitted his body over mine, that this was how I would go on—this was how I would be known.
— Jonnie Martin