The Round-Up

Kathleen Jamie

The minute the men
ducked through the bothy door
they switched to English,
even among themselves
they spoke English now, out of courtesy,
and set about breakfast: bread,
bacon and sweet tea. And are we
enjoying this weather,
and whose boat brought us, and what
part of the country – exactly –
would we be from ourselves?

The tenant, ruddy-faced; a strong
bashful youngster; and two
old enough to be their uncles,
who, planted at the wooden table,
seemed happy for a bit crack
– one with a horse-long,
marvellous weather
and nicotine-scored face
under a felt fedora,
whose every sentence
was a slow sea-wave
raking unhurriedly back
through the rounded grey stones
at the landing place
where their boat was tied.

Beyond the bothy door
– mended since the last gales –
the sea eased west for miles
toward the parishes, hazy now,
the men had left early – a sea
settled for the meanwhile,
Aye, for the meanwhile!
– then knocking their tea back,
they were out round the gable end,
checking the sheep fanks, ready.

High on the island,
uninhabited these days, sheep
grazed oblivious,
till the dogs – the keenest
a sly, heavy-dugged bitch –
came slinking behind them,
then men appeared, and that
backwash voice: will you move
you baa-stards! Bleating
in dismay the animals
zigzagged down the vertiginous hill
to spill onto the shore,
where they ran, panicked,
and crammed into the fank:
heavy-fleeced mothers
and bewildered, baaing lambs,
from whom a truth,
they now realised, had been withheld.

‘Ewe-lamb’, ‘tup-lamb’,
each animal was seized,
its tail, severed with one snip,
shrugged through the air
to land in a red plastic pail;
each young tup,
upturned, took two men
doubled over, heads together,
till the lamb’s testicles
likewise thumped softly
into the red tub, while we joked:
‘Oh, will they no’ mak a guid soup?’
No – we will deep-fry them,
like they do in Glaa-sgow
with the Maa-rs bars!
– Thrust then, one by one
to the next pen, the lambs
huddled in a corner,
and with blood dribbling
down their sturdy
little thighs, they jumped
very lightly, as though in joy.

Summer was passing:
just above the waves, guillemots
whirred toward their cliff-ledge nests,
but they carried nothing –
few young, this year –
Aye, the birds, we’d noticed that –
fewer than before …
and the men stood, considering.
Then it was the ewes:
each in turn, a man’s thumb
crossways in her mouth
was tilted upside down
like a small sofa, and sheared till she
stepped out trig and her fleece
cast over the side:
Fit only to be burned! –
No market nowadays –

All the hot Saturday
the men kept to their work
– a modest living –
pausing every so often
to roll cigarettes, or tilt
plastic bottles of cola
to their parched mouths,
as their denims and T-shirts
turned slowly rigid
with sweat and wool-grease
and the tide began to lift
fronds of dark weed
as though seeking
something mislaid,
and from the cliffs,
through the constant bleating
came the wild birds’
faint, strangulated cries.

When, late in the day
they were done, and the gate
opened, the sheep,
of their own volition
began to pick their way
up to their familiar pastures –
the old ewes in the lead
who understood – if anything –
that they, who take but a small share,
are a living, whom now and then
a fate visits, like a storm.

But though the sky was still
blue with teased-out clouds,
and the sea brimmed and lapped
at the shore rocks gently,
so they could have rested,
the men wanted away
before the wind rose, before,
– they laughed – The taverns close!
And I run out of tob-aacco!
before – though they didn’t
actually say this – the Sabbath,
so they loaded their boat
– a RIB with a hefty outboard –
and hauled the dogs in.
At first they chugged out
slow and old-fashioned,
like a scene in a documentary,
but suddenly the engine roared
and with an arched
overblown plume of salt spray
they were off, at top speed,
giving us a grand wave.