A poet and emerging author, Thayne Casper’s “Little Lamb” plays with exactly what it means to be human. Having spent his life surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, both he and his writing continue to be inspired by the depth of the Pacific North West. He and his girlfriend currently reside in Boise, Idaho, with their Olde English Bulldogge, Winston.
Sam Blackwell smiled as he wiped sweat from his eyes. His ax was buried deep into the base of the stump, angled just below the natural hanging point of his hand. Even though it had snowed, Sam’s T-shirt was wet under the arms and down the ridge of his spine. A few feet away sat Maggie, his wife. Her thick-rimmed, black sunglasses shielded her eyes from Sam’s gaze. He hated how he got lost in their emptiness, remembering the magnitude of their blueness. Now the sockets were a constant reminder of how much he’d lost. He used to tease her about the color.
“They. Are. Turquoise,” Maggie insisted, spitting each word out with breathy emphasis.
“I dunno, Lamb. I think they’re cyan,” Sam said, pronouncing the word with an air of sophistication and honor, tilting his chin in his best Prince Charles impression.
Sam went to Maggie and placed one arm under her knees, the other across her shoulders, and carried her inside. Sam laid her on the bed and ditched his sweat-stained clothes.
Wearing only his faded green boxers and the worn-in comfortability of his dark leather cowboy boots, he opened the back door and reached for a few logs. Sam looked at what remained of the snow. He noticed how the copper roof, now green with oxidation, had streams of water tracing the ridged lines where each sheet of metal had been crimped together. These crimps gave the roof a webbed look and, due to the morning cold chilling the beads of sweat still stuck to him, Sam’s spine shuttered as he closed the door.
The cottage, handed down to Maggie by her Gran, was a simple thing: a single circular room with a wood burning cook-stove in the center. Its chimney jutted up through the ceiling and into the mountain air. A six-foot fence divided the yard, blocking all protruding lines of sight. Spread out along the circular wall was the bed Sam shared with Maggie, the double-wide cedar dresser he built, the kitchen sink and fridge, the table, their recliners, the back door, and the closet that hid the bathroom. There was a single window over their bed, a large bay window which their recliners faced, one over the kitchen sink, and a small circular red porthole next to the door which had Gran insisted was the sole way to see a traveler’s true self.
Gran was born in the old world, a child of deep-woods mysticism as she called it. This meant nothing to Maggie, but, as Maggie whispered to Sam under the covers of their first night together, to her parents it meant closely supervised visits.
It was Sam’s first time meeting Gran, and it was a short visit.
Crawling out from beneath the lilac bushes that lined either side of the front door, Gran yelled at Sam, “this snow has been held in the warmth of Satan’s hands.”
Gran struggled to her feet and pushed her hands under his eyes, showing him something obvious with the snow. Unsure, Sam nodded and looked to Maggie with pleading eyes, unable to reply. Maggie laughed and hugged her grandmother.
When they started to leave, Sam already halfway to the car, Gran gave Maggie the necklace. It was a thin strip of brown, smooth leather with a large knot at one end. The pendant was made out of a squirrel’s cervical vertebrae, the jutting edges were polished by hand. Gran had rubbed it down with callused fingers until the white knuckle of spine resembled more of an inverted teardrop.
From then on, the necklace never left Maggie’s neck. Every date, every movie, every swim, every drive they ever experienced, she was wearing Gran’s necklace. On their wedding day, it lay across her breasts, as white as Maggie’s dress and Sam’s professionally whitened teeth.
When Gran died, she left the cottage to Maggie, the sole proprietor of her small amount of possessions. Gran mandated she be buried with her trees behind the property, and the week before the funeral, in order to get out of the house while the arrangements were made, Sam clear-cut timber, pulled stumps, and fashioned an old wrought iron fence around the new ten-by-ten foot clearing. It was simple, but Maggie thought Gran would have liked that.
After the service, Sam and Maggie walked to the cottage and stood under the polished beams. They stood in silence, the lights off, the door locked behind them. What remained of the setting sun streamed in through the bay window, casting strange shadows across the wall. The furniture was dated, moth bitten, mildewed, and a thick blanket of dust coated every surface. The cottage had become stagnant.
Alone in the cottage, the pendant cold against her chest, the weight of her loss washed over Maggie. As Sam held her, he brushed her curled amber hair with his fingers, circled his hands across her back and traced the stitched black rose design of her dress. He watched every car pull out of the driveway and down the hill towards the highway. They stood embraced as one, until nightfall.
In their past life, Sam was a general contractor. He had tripped off of scaffolding at a job site and broke his back. With a slow and prolonged recovery, he lost his job. Maggie was a kindergarten teacher and she had managed to save enough money for the two of them to survive for a while. She left the school to take care of Sam, sold the house to pay the bills, and they took advantage of what was left to Maggie and moved into Gran’s cottage. The goal was to move back once he recovered, but after spending their first winter in the woods, they never left. Maggie grew to love the mountain air, and through her new connection to nature, and in turn, Gran, it made it impossible for her to leave. Sam, however, thought it was because mortgages were “marriage killers.” The plan they then adopted was to move when the need for a child outweighed the serenity of the wilderness.
Sam and Maggie Blackwell ate their breakfast in silence. Sam had sat Maggie in her chair and placed eggs, bacon, and a tin mug of coffee in front of her. Over scrambled eggs and thick-cut bacon, he listened to the sounds of the fire in the stove.
“Eggs watery?” Sam asked, staring at Maggie over the top of his coffee.
Maggie’s mouth was hanging open, her jaw to one side.
“I think they’re watery.” Sam said.
Maggie’s plate was cold and her coffee had stopped steaming, its warmth escaping into the oak table.
“How ‘bout the snow?” asked Sam, reaching across the table to scavenge her bacon. His fingernails were black.
“Well, don’t wait for grace, Mags. Eat up.”
Sam waited the correct amount of time for a reasonable response.
“Not hungry? Alright, I’ll just have to take care of that. Starving Africans, you know,” Sam said smiling, setting his plate aside.
“You’re not one of them vegetarians now, are you?” he laughed, starting on her eggs.
“No, you couldn’t be a vegetarian. You loved meat. You loved animals, but you loved steak more.”
He smirked as a speck of egg launched from his mouth and embedded itself in his beard.
“Told you these were watery.”
Sam stopped shaving when they moved into the cottage years ago. He loved the warmth his black beard gave as he stood in his outdoor workshop. He loved the sweaty sawdust smell it held after a long day in the sun. He loved the way it peaked mid-chest, occasionally becoming intertwined with his chest hairs. Sam had embraced his mountain man’s life. Maggie had long since given up on trying to wrestle with him about it. Sam only needed to leave the canyon bi-weekly to visit Nails n’ Screws, the hardware store, or Ted’s, the grocery in town, so he saw no need to tame the wildness of his hair.
“Well, I’m full,” said Sam, leaning back from the table to expose the new two-breakfast plumpness. He was still in his boots and boxers, his beard perched on his protruding stomach.
“Let’s get you to your chair.”
Maggie’s head drooped forward as he lifted her and found his way to her recliner. Sam opened the blinds to let the morning sun in and thought for a moment about how light Maggie’s frame had become.
Sam rested his forearms across the top of the chair and stroked her hair with his fingers.
“I should finish that O’Riene build today,” Sam said, flicking his head towards his workshop.
Sam shared his small furniture business with his best and only friend. Jack, a short, bald and square man, was the high school linebacker who never managed to leave his home town. Jack swindled jobs from customers at Nails n’ Screws, where he worked as a clerk, and convinced them to hire Sam to complete their weekend building projects. From this, Jack got a small cut of the profit, and Sam was able to keep food on the table.
Jack had been to the cottage for dinner once, and at the end of the night after a few too many beers, he tried to kiss Maggie. Sam was outside, staring at the stars when he heard the floorboards groan as a heavy load hit the floor. Inside, he found Jack in a crumpled heap and Maggie up against the wall, her cheeks flush.
“What a lightweight,” Sam laughed.
He grabbed Jack by his ankles and pulled him out through the backdoor, taking notice of how sharply Jack’s head dropped on the three descending steps. Sam pulled him up next to the rain barrel and poured water over his head. Jack opened one bloodshot eye as he sat up, taking in the scene.
“What-ed-happen,” he slurred, his eye failing to focus on Sam. Jack lurched forward and used the barrel to steady himself.
“You tripped, you fool.”
“I pushed him,” Maggie said, the light from the cottage silhouetting her as she stood on the back step, making her features unrecognizable. “You tried to kiss me.”
“Well-waz-it-any-good?” Jack replied, smacking each syllable against his teeth as he forced the words out. He had closed his eye and his fingers dug into the grass as his body swayed back and forth.
Sam found out in the morning, while Jack’s hungover frame whimpered in the recliner, that he was, “stopping the world from spinning.”
Sam opened the mouth of the cook-stove and stoked the fire. He moved the coals around and added another log. He took Maggie’s cue and remained silent. He considered how silence was a mode of reflection, or meditation, as Doc said, but Sam hated how heavy the silence was. He imagined an old cartoon, an anvil hanging above his head. The silence, he thought, is worse than remembering. Sam moved towards the table and became frustrated as he replaced the condiments in the fridge. He closed the door and looked at the empty prescription bottles on the counter. Anger had found a handhold in his chest, growing stronger as he threw each canister away.
Sam stood at the sink with a pink, floral-print apron covering his naked chest, his beard flipped over his shoulder. He washed the breakfast dishes by hand, trying not to remember the last time Maggie missed a meal. It was a year ago and they had been fighting about moving. Maggie was ready for kids, and Sam was scared. When he refused, she stood up from dinner and walked into the twilight. It took hours for him to find her, Maggie’s legs taking her farther than he had imagined possible.
“You were in my dream,” Sam said, scratching at dried ketchup with his fingernail.
Outside, Sam watched a grey squirrel aggressively jumped from tree limbs, birthing a new shower of pine needles with each leap. He smiled at it, remembering Maggie’s pendant.
“I was hunting these wolves, two of them, and they kept circling back on me. I lost their trail. I was lost in the trees. It was getting dark. I turned to head home and they were behind me.”
The dishes squeaked as Sam dried them with a rag.
“They had a lamb. The wolves were laughing, dancing around the lamb as they strung her up by each ankle and wrist. She was hovering in the air between four trees. She was struggling, bobbing up and down, all the while screaming,” Sam said, his back still turned to Maggie.
He had stopped washing, focused on trying to recount the fleeting memory of his dream. Sam swallowed hard, and persisted.
“I rushed the wolves, and when I got close they transformed into men. They were naked. Their teeth were filed to points and their backs were covered in jagged black hair. Their movements were wild. The men ran hunched over as they circled the animal. Each one of them taking their turn with her. After they had their way, they left the lamb. But it wasn’t a lamb. It was you. You were in the trees. They had caught you. They took a knife and sliced you from breast to button. Everything came spilling out. I couldn’t stop staring. When the earth had its fill and the men were gone, you shined in the moonlight. It was… beautiful. You were beautiful.”
His breath had grown short, his heart beating hard as he remembered.
“I cut you down and carried you back home. I was running. You were still warm in my arms. You were warm and my arms were stained red. I remember crying. Big, fat, silent tears.”
Sam stopped and thought hard about his next words.
“I was bawling. My beard was wet. But you, you were almost smiling as I put you on the table, your bright, beautiful blue eyes staring at me,” Sam breathed out, almost whispering. He started washing again.
“They never caught the wolves.”
“I don’t think they ever will,” Sam said, turning around to face Maggie.
“Insane, right?” Sam insisted. He balled up the apron and threw it on the table as he walked towards Maggie.
He thought about how his dream made him sound like a child, furious over his balloon popping, begging for recognition.
Sam reached out and grabbed the back of Maggie’s recliner and spun her around, their faces inches apart.
“Do you love me?”
Tears were forming in the corners of his eyes. Sam leaned forward and kissed Maggie’s mouth.
Sam lifted his head to the noises coming from outside.
The porthole window next to the front door exploded inward and cold air flowed into the cottage. A single softball sized black river rock, one of the same that lined the driveway, sat among the broken glass. The window’s simple colonial grid, two squared white bars forming a plus sign, was bent inward, obtuse, hanging from its bottom rung.
Sam tore through the front door. It swung on greased hinges, but due to the sheer power of Sam’s rage and the thrust of his arm, it moved past its stopping point as the screws tore from the frame, and it sailed into the lilacs.
Sam puffed towards the boys. The cool air burned his lungs, stung his naked chest, and beat against the exposed meaty flesh of his legs. The old road they ran down wound its way up from the valley floor, through the trees and across the creek, ending at the Blackwell’s driveway. The natural grasses had reclaimed much of what was rightfully theirs, growing thick in some places, everywhere except for the two indented tire tracks of Sam’s truck.
It’s on these tracks they ran. Sam, still in his boxers and boots, marked his way down the right track, the boys on the left. They were unsure of the trail and kept looking back. This caused them to continue to run into each other, slowing their progress. In a jumbled, expletive filled game of follow the leader, the boys were losing ground. Fueled by the sheer rage in his chest and what distance he was gaining, Sam ignored the pain and pushed harder, trying to get hold of one. He wasn’t sure what he would do when he caught one, but he had to be sure they didn’t know. They didn’t see anything.
He quickened his pace.
Sam recognized two of the three as the twins, Randy and Ryan, whose father was a smokejumper who died five years ago in the Oregon wilderness. They were known to vandalize when their mother was working one of her three jobs. The third boy he didn’t recognize.
As they rounded a corner, Randy tripped. Sam pounced and dug his knee into the kid’s neck, putting all of his weight into the boy. His hands pinned Randy’s arms to the ground.
“What did you see?” Sam screamed.
“Get off of me, man!” Randy wheezed under Sam’s weight.
“Do you know what you’ve done?”
“I can’t breathe.”
Randy’s face had grown purple.
“You’ve ruined it, you little shit.”
Sam felt his stomach cave in on itself. He was on his back, laying in the dirt, gasping, the wind knocked out of him. The unknown boy stood above him, his leg poised for another kick. Sam rolled onto his stomach and sucked at the world around him. His eyes flickered and his brain switched into survival mode. He needed oxygen.
Far ahead of him, he heard one of the boys yell, “Freak,” as the three continued running.
Air found its way into his lungs again. From his hands and knees, Sam retched, and became reacquainted with his breakfast.
“No. No, no, no,” Sam gasped, trying to think. His mind was blank as fear overtook him.
He retched again..
Even if they saw, they wouldn’t say anything. I’d have them for vandalizing, I could blame it on them. I found them with her. The boys did it. They didn’t see, they couldn’t.
Sam did look like a freak. He was a barbarian, a half-naked man chasing boys down a mountain. His chest was now covered in mud, and he had half-digested breakfast in his beard. Sam didn’t notice. He was focused on the cottage. The broken window, the eggs, they had shattered the mystique of it all. The spell was broken, the magic of this place was gone. Reality poured over Sam once more as he thought about Maggie. The bubble of delusion had popped. He needed to fix it, to repair the cottage. It was the only way he could get her back. He needed to fill the void, to restore what the cottage had become.
Sam hobbled his way towards where the front door lay in the bushes, nursing a pulled hamstring. Inside, Sam put on his jeans, a black T-shirt, and his Carhartt jacket. He cut a piece of cardboard to fill the window and taped it closed. Sam lowered his head and spoke at the ground. Maggie, who Sam had moved back to the kitchen table, conscious of the direct sunlight and what it might do to her, was tilting sideways in her chair, her legs curling awkwardly under the seat. Sam placed a cigarette in her fingertips. You’d smoke when you were stressed.
“I need supplies to fix… this,” Sam muttered at his feet, throwing an arm up to motion at the door and window. He was unable to directly look at her.
Sam pulled the pendant over Maggie’s head and put it around his own neck.
“In case I get lonely,” he said, tapping his chest.
“Lamb, I’m sorry. I know you loved that window.”
As he made his way out the open frame, Sam picked the door up and leaned it against the house, trying to cover the hole in his world the best he could.
As his two-door Ford approached town, he looked into the trees that lined the highway. Always a hunter, his eyes worked subconsciously to recognize distant motion, and he spotted a deer kneeling among saplings. The snow hadn’t reached town yet, and the boughs and needles remained clear and lush. The deep and varying greens of the wall of pine were stark against the blue of the mid-afternoon sky. There wasn’t a single cloud. It was a beautiful, blue bird day. As he drove, Sam sobered up, and shook off the mystic qualities of the cabin. He was in the real world now. It seemed like most of the town lined the streets, shopping, laughing, and Sam scanned each of them, keeping an eye out for any of the three boys.
Sam pulled into the handicapped spot in front of Nails n’ Screws and looked at his hands. They were shaking. Sam looked at his arms and realized his body was caked with mud. He was a dusty brown and his frame moved strangely under its new, crusty exoskeleton.
Great, Sam thought as he wove his way through the store with a slight limp, searching for reinforced hinges. Just another dirty mountain man. In the power tool aisle, Sam watched a mother stop and guide her daughter back the way they came. What’s her problem? Sam thought to himself, scared of mud?
But Sam hadn’t taken into account the dirtiness of his face. Mud and vomit were still caked to his beard. He had lines through the dirt on his face where beads of sweat had cut their own paths. The morning run had given him a definitive smell, something he didn’t notice until he found Jack at the counter.
“Bud, you reek,” commented Jack, taking a step away as he picked up and scanned the hinges. “What the hell did you get into?”
Jack looked behind Sam and traced the path of dirty footprints.
“I’m gunna have to mop that ya know.”
Jack followed him to his truck.
“You alright, man?” asked Jack, a glimmer of worry in his voice.
“Yeah,” Sam said, closing the door.
Jack knocked on the window.
“I just wasn’t sure, ya know? Doc came in a couple days ago. Said you haven’t gone to your appointments. Every time he went up to the cottage you didn’t answer. He said he could see you through the window.”
“I was out,” Sam replied, glancing into his rearview mirror.
“Right, well if you are in, I can come by. Just a call away, Bud.”
Sam smiled, rolled up his window, and pulled out into the parking lot. As he turned down Main Street and entered the highway, Sam reached into his shirt and wrapped his fingers around Maggie’s pendant. He opened his hand and stared at its purity.
“What a strange man, don’t you think, Little Lamb?”
Holding a bucket of soap and water, a brush in the other hand, Sam scrubbed at the dried yellow yolks plastered on the side of the cottage. The brush was useless against their cast-iron mold. Sam was going to have to replace the siding. He opened the gate to the backyard and walked to his tool shed. He took his time as he sawed boards to match the length of the shingles, his craftsmanship and muscle memory guiding him. Sam’s mind was preoccupied. I need to be more careful, he thought, trying to devise better ways to hide Maggie.
Closing the gate, he turned back towards the house. The sun had passed behind the canyon walls and the yard was filled with grey light. In the driveway Jack’s pickup was parked behind his own. The front door to the cottage was open and light fell into the yard. Sam’s heart shuddered.
“No,” Sam gasped, setting the boards down as he moved towards the door.
He pushed it open the remainder of the way.
“You son-of-a-bitch!” Jack roared as he tackled him out of the cottage and into the grass. He punched wildly at his face. Each strike was coupled with a question.
“How could you?”
“She loved you.”
“I loved her. She knew, I told her that night. I loved her with my entire heart. She was going to leave you, she was. I died when she died, and you sit here playing house. How could you?”
“You can’t do this. You’ve disgraced her.”
Like a gorilla trying to crush a rock, Jack pounded at Sam’s face.
“She was happy. She was free. She was peaceful.”
Another punch broke Sam’s nose and blood poured down his face and into his mouth.
“She was happy,” Jack roared again.
Pure emotion had taken control of his body and he swung even more wildly, most of his strikes missing. Jack was crying.
“I wasn’t,” Sam gasped, spitting blood with each word. He could feel cartilage moving freely in his sinus cavity. His eyes were starting to swell.
“Don’t you dare talk to me, you don’t get to talk,” Jack yelled. He was out of breath.
“I wasn’t happy!” Sam screamed, choking on blood.
“Don’t,” Jack said as he pushed himself off of Sam.
“It was quiet. I was alone. It was so freaking quiet—“
“Then get a dog,” Jack interrupted, walking towards his truck.
Sam sat up and pushed his forehead against his knees. His nose pulsed with every heartbeat and blood soaked through his jeans.
“I tried killing myself but I couldn’t. I wanted to die.”
“You should have,” Jack said with poison. The words attacked Sam like a hive.
“Jack, I needed her. My Lamb, she was my life. I found her. I found her in the trees. I can’t stop seeing it. Can you imagine? Jack, please. She’s still happy. I’m happy. It’s not quiet anymore. The cottage brought her back. The walls, the floor, the bed, the chairs. Everything. She lives in everything. She’s still here.”
“Sam, she’s dead. Maggie is dead. You can’t do this, you just can’t. They’ll lock you up,” Jack said, shaking his head. “I have to tell Doc. You need help. I thought you needed someone to talk with. You’re up here all alone, but you’re already talking to yourself. You’re a lunatic. She’s dead, Sam.”
“You think I don’t know?” Sam shrieked, running at Jack, he grabbed him by the shoulders and rammed him into the side of Jack’s truck.
“You don’t think I see it every time I look at her? I know she’s dead. I can’t stop knowing. But this,” Sam motioned at the cottage, “this is okay. We’re together again. We’re a family. I need her.”
Sam was shaking. Tears were flowing down his face, blood and snot out of his nose, and his last words came out as wails. His head fell onto Jack’s chest and he sobbed into his shirt, staining it with grief.
“Don’t tell anyone, Jack, I’m begging you. This isn’t hurting her. It doesn’t affect anyone. It makes me… me. I feel like myself again.”
He looked up at Jack. A smile had spread across Sam’s face.
“Its magic, Jack. My Little Lamb, she lives here, she’s always with me. She never left.”
Jack pushed Sam away.
“Please, Jack, just stay for dinner. I’m making dinner. You’ll see. You’ll see it’s fine. She’s fine. I’m fine. Okay? I’m okay. It isn’t quiet anymore.”
Sam stared at Jack. He had stopped crying and his fists had unclenched. He needed Jack to understand, he needed him to feel his grief, to feel his remorse, to feel his loss. He needed Jack to know exactly what this was, it was love.
Inside the cottage, Maggie still sat at the table, the cigarette still in the tips of her fingers. Her skin had browned and grown tight around her bones as it dried with age. Her head had shrunk considerably and her empty sockets receded into nothingness behind the sunglasses. Maggie’s stomach, where the Coroner had sewn her back together, had pulled apart at the stitches, leaving gaping diagonal crevices. The wedding dress they buried her in was wrinkled and speckled with dirt. Her hair, while wiry, was groomed, Sam having combed it that morning.
The grey squirrel had found its way into the backyard, past the field and Sam’s workshop, past the tool shed, and over the knee-high wrought iron fence of the family cemetery. Gran’s marker was left untouched, but the squirrel paused at Maggie’s headstone. Peering over the edge, it became lost in the depth. As the squirrel tried to make its way over the pile of black earth next to the grave, it slipped on the unsteady footing and fell into Maggie’s open casket.
As it fell, the squirrel watched the four walls of the hole and how they marked a steady, deliberate digging. The top two feet of earth were squared, planned, and methodical. The next two feet were ragged, Sam having worked his spade at a frenzied pace. The last foot of frozen, black soil around Maggie’s casket had been clawed at, torn away by hand.