blackbirdonline journalFall 2009  Vol. 8  No. 2
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Laura Gilpin’s “Navajo Shepherd Boy”

—Red Rock, Laura Gilpin, Photographer, and Elizabeth Froster, 1950

We watched them come
            up the ridge all day,
the little Dine boy behind
            his herd of sheep, all day                                                          
across the undulating

            red, great masses
of cloud threatening
            hard, quick rain or
lightning, neither of which
            he could take cover from.

The sheep walked and grazed.
            We watched
their soft gray mouths
            tear at the silver grass,  
dark dirt quickly drying

into red as the sheep    
moved on, fine dust
kicked up
into the boy’s face, 
as he smiled

at us in passing,
and I thought
of what the rancher told us,
that to truly see the sheep
was to forget
our notions of it:
there is no weakness
to a hunger that must be
bottomless to keep itself alive.

the boy must know,
who trails his herd
eight miles in a day
to find it pasture

on land that shrinks
and desiccates
            from the herd’s need:
the sheep reshape this land
            the boy can never hope

will be expanded
for himself, given
already the gift of sheep
from the government.
The boy must walk, the boy

must feed
what forever hungers,
            then stand, sickened,
alongside his father later
            to watch him shoot

half these ewes according
to federal
conservation; dead left
to rot and blanch
in the wash: too much flesh       

to eat or sell.
The boy walks.
He does not have a hat.
He does not have a horse.
He carries his own food

in a pocket as he walks
noiselessly through the wash,
looking, for the moment,
so like the rancher
in his sense of purpose,

the one we watched
grab the struggling back
legs emerging from a sheep
and pull until we saw
the slick sac stream

from her body,
            followed by the next,
as the rancher tore
            the silver caul
of mucus from their mouths.

            When a ewe gives birth
to two lambs she chooses
which to keep
by waiting. She watches
until the first one stands,

then comes to it
and begins licking,
roughing the blood up
 into the surface
of its skin. Sometimes

the other dies.
the herder saves it,
and its marble eye trains
ceaselessly upon him.

That day, the other
lamb died. We watched
the ewe circle in her stone pen,
rubbing and rubbing
            against it till the living
 lamb scrabbled up

to follow through the gate.
            We watched
as it stumbled after
            through the wash,
its strangely

            furrowed face a knob
of bone, a bit
            of its mother’s wool
still clinging to the stone. end

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