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A Letter from New Boston, N.H.: Meeting Hester


New Boston, N.H. -- A year had gone by since we'd seen Hester and her extended family, so we piled in the van and headed north.

Ah, Hester, thy very name is daunting!

We're not talking here about some modern day Hester Prynne, she of Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. We're talking Hester the ewe, a sheep of great girth, baleful countenance, handsome coat. She might have been called Heather, so much purple is there in her gray wool.

She lives outside a town called Ne'Boston by its residents. Her hillside precinct runs from brambles bordering a steep pasture to a small cabin and hot tub.

I met Hester on this very site several years ago. Our meeting was challenging. After a winter of luxuriating on feed grain, she was asked to accept a diet of weeds just above the swimming pool. An electrified fence had been installed to confine her and one or two other sheep. This menu and this duty, she thought, were deplorable.

In Sheep, she said, "Hell no, I won't go." The utterings of sheep are usually called bleats, but some other word is needed. Hester's protests were amplified by a highly pitched percussive and pneumatic bellows deep within her expansive torso.

She declined to walk or to be coaxed or even dragged up the hill. Hester is strong and obstinate as well as large.

Having lived on this estate for some time, having seen the businesslike approach of her keepers, she must have known her resistance would come to naught. Lack of memory, of course, is both blessing and curse.

My good friend, Marcel, lord of this manor, determined finally to get wheels under her and enlisted my help. First we wrestled her to the ground, as gently as one can with so large a sheep. Then we hoisted her into a wheelbarrow.

Poor Hester. She hardly fit. And she lay there with hoofs upstretched, pleading for release and restoration of dignity. We told ourselves she would find her summer sojourn pleasant enough.

She did. And so did we. Hence our periodic return.

This year as we drove north we seemed to be back-tracking on spring, having a second dose of it. We got a second round of forsythia, snappier and brighter as we moved north. We got glimpses of luminous, celery-green weeping willows. We found Marcel's pasture covered in the most tender green shoots of grass as yet untrampled and ungrazed by Hester or by Gal, the horse.

Hester must surely have known it was us as the van rolled up the drive.

Hide the wheelbarrow! she bleated desperately. (By now I understand Sheep, though I cannot speak it.)

Her alarums were understandable though unnecessary. We went directly inside for dinner.

The next morning, Hester watched warily from inside the pasture fence as Marcel and I filled a trailer with manure (twice). It was time to prepare the vegetable garden. As we dug, we hit layers of lingering ice and snow, as pristinely white as the moon even in those dour surroundings.

Our friend Carol picked a few shoots of wild onion and some

spinach from the ground before we spread the fertilizer. And presently a neighbor arrived with a tilling harrow mounted on the back of his tractor. A few passes and the ground was transformed into a smooth, coffee-colored medium ready for seed.

That afternoon we walked 45 minutes up a mountain trail called "Joe English." Under canopies of hemlock we traversed upward to the promontory, its wide rib of granite protruding near the top and offering a clean route to the summit. A bit farther, and from a cliff of considerable height we could see the radar domes of a U.S. Air Force tracking station.

Our earlier chores that day had included stoking the small hot tub furnace so it would be ready for us later. Night fell, and the sky dropped down as it cannot do in the city without being punctured by tall buildings. After shoveling and walking, we knew, the waters would be balm and succor to both body and soul. (I thought I could hear Hester lowing jealously.)

The next day, Lucie and Marie, daughters of Carol and Marcel, leapt into their pool. The temperature of the water was 49 by actual measurement. I wondered if our two city mice would join their friends. Oh, yes! Peer pressure is a thing to behold. No one stayed for long, but the season was under way.

Marie took Gal around the field twice to shake out a little of the friskiness stored up in winter so the mice could have their turns. ++ Then we prepared to drive home. Our friends had their own jobs awaiting on Monday. Marcel markets robotics for quality control, and Carol advises students at the University of New Hampshire.

And Hester?

Her summer has not been plotted. Whether she is destined for another stint in the high pasture we know not. In another week, one of her cousins will participate in a "sheep to shawl" competition: The wool is harvested, spun into thread and woven into a shawl by competing teams of artisans from Ne'Boston and its environs all in a single day. Hester hopes it will be her turn to provide the wool some day. If her team wins, she should get a turn in the tub.

Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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