Short Fiction: Rosie the Ruminant

Janet Sarbanes

I like to stand at the top of the hill in the early morning, gazing down on the bright green valley wreathed in mist, the sheep clustered close to the barn like a ragged cloud. They lie down after we’re let out and continue sleeping, but I breathe in the fresh, grassy air and kick up my heels—literally, I too am a sheep—enjoying my freedom and the feel of the wind in my fleece.

This is just one instance of my iconoclastic temperament, which I’ve always suspected was the reason they chose my DNA for Dolly’s genetic blueprint. Wilmut, the head scientist here at the Roslin Institute, is himself an iconoclast, a free thinker, and I feel a kinship there. For one thing, he knows that not all sheep are idiots—most, but not all. Another thing he knows, which you may not, is that sheep are matriarchal. Oh, perhaps not originally, but certainly nowadays. The ram only comes around so often, you know, and for a very specific purpose. And being matriarchal, of course we’d have an interest in that final frontier. Parthenogenesis. Once the others had been chosen—Alice for her egg, Belinda for her womb—we talked it out amongst ourselves.

“I’ll be the real mother,” Belinda observed soberly.

“Depends on how you look at it,” I said. “Her genes will be mine—all of them. She’ll look exactly like me, though environment will play a role in the development of her personality.”
“Let’s hope so,” Belinda muttered. She and I have our differences when it comes to mothering. She bonds easily with her lambs, worrying about their milk intake and sleep habits and marveling over their satiny pink ears, whereas I don’t find my lambs all that interesting until they’ve learned to talk, by which time they’re usually removed from my care and swallowed up by the flock.

“What about me?” Alice piped up, wagging her fluffy tail. “I’m just, like, the egg stuff?”

“Your egg will have its nucleus deleted,” I explained, “and replaced with mine. But your mitochondria will continue to provide her cells with energy.”

“Oh. Look who’s here!” Alice spotted Sire and raced off to join him. They’ve put on his leather apron so he can’t mate with any of us right now, but that’s no deterrent for Alice.

“I don’t know about all this,” said Belinda, watching the two of them nuzzle. “Sire’s not got much going on upstairs, but I think I’d miss his company.”

“No one’s talking about getting rid of Sire. But aren’t you the least bit tired of birthing his stupid babies?”

“He’s got a good heart.”

“Look at all of these dumb, good-hearted sheep,” I said, swinging my head around to indicate the flock. “With no say over what we do or what’s done to us.”

“And she’s going to change all that, your little clone?”

~

I did think my clone had the potential to lead our flock out of bondage. With my brains and her youth—the possibilities would be limitless. “We’ll name her Hippolyta,” I said dreamily. “After the queen of the Amazons.”

“Sure,” Belinda smirked. “Hippo for short.”

But of course, we didn’t get to name her. It was old MacDonald, our “caretaker,” who did, just as he does all of us, silly names like Belinda and Alice and Rosie. Rosie! That’s me.

But this miracle, this beacon of hope for our species, he named Dolly. Suggested it to Wilmut for the coarsest of reasons, that they name her for a human singer with large teats since they sucked my DNA out of a mammary gland cell. And Wilmut, nodding and laughing and snorting away, communing with MacDonald on the crudest level—oh, that was a low point! Does he know what MacDonald does after hours, how he takes his pleasure with the ewes, all but me and a few others who stamp down hard on his execrable toes?

Dolly’s birth was amazing. All births are: that one life comes from another, that everything starts all over again, that we are given yet another chance. But Dolly’s birth was doubly amazing, because she was my exact clone, so it was I who was being given another chance. After the news came that she was born, and all the rumors that she would have two heads or six legs had been put to rest, I went off to the top of the hill to ruminate. Being a ruminant and having to chew your cud several times a day provides ample time for reflection, if you’re not always worrying over your lambs or flitting off after some ram in an apron. I looked down on the lab and the barn and wondered who among us had brought this creature into being, us with our bodies or them with their pipettes and petri dishes, their electric spark?

Belinda is quite convinced it’s us—or her, rather—they’ll never replace the womb, she says. But maybe they’ll decide they have to someday, if we cease to offer it up so willingly and actually demand something in return. The human females have already struck their deal, they have their marriages—though if Mrs. MacDonald’s condition is any indication, it looks a fool’s bargain to me. It’s she who does most of the work around the barn, dragging the pails of feed from place to place on old MacDonald’s orders. “There, no, not there, there, you idiot!” he calls from the doorway as she scuttles back and forth, their fifth bairn trailing miserably behind her. If that’s what a wedding gets you, I’ll take my chances.

The day Belinda and Dolly were released from the lamb jug and I laid eyes on my clone for the first time had to be the best day of my life. I say had to be, because while I possess a superior intelligence to most sheep, my long-term memory is more typical of the species. To tell the truth, I’ve stretched it a bit even to get this far with my story.

Belinda came out first, heavy and tired but smiling beatifically; then Dolly gamboling along behind her, wagging her little tail. I inspected her from a short distance; she seemed perfect in every way. Of course, upon rumination, I understood that she appeared perfect because she was a miniature version of me. She was a perfect copy. Same white face, horizontal ears and white fetlocks—but not merely similar in color, the exact same. So much so that the other ewes kept swinging their heads from Dolly to me and back to Dolly, as if their world had rotated on its axis.

“Handsome is as handsome does,” I chastised them. I was dying to know if she was curious, if she was bright—had she inherited my powers of observation, my restless intellect?

I made my way through the other ewes until I came face to face with her. I had wondered if she would run to me and nuzzle at my teats, but she merely stared at me with the same curious, open expression with which she took in the rest of the flock.

Environment: 1, Heredity: 0.

“Hello, Dolly,” I said. She seemed startled that I knew her name. “Has your mother told you about me?”

Dolly shook her head. Belinda was probably giving her time to bond, but I felt it important to lay out all the facts of her existence right away. I wanted her to know she wasn’t like other lambs, and okay, I wanted her to know she had my DNA. With Belinda’s back turned and the rest of the flock trying to horn in on the feed grain she’d received to aid with lactation, I took the opportunity to fill Dolly in on all the details. I knew she wouldn’t get it—she was barely a month old—but at the very least I wanted to lodge a seed of doubt in her mind concerning Belinda. Not for spiteful reasons, mind you, but to assist my clone in accepting her prodigious gifts as they became apparent.

So I launched into what I considered to be an exceptionally clear explication of the cloning process—clear, but not dumbed down—and Dolly listened with apparent interest. But halfway through, she abruptly walked off in search of Belinda and a snack. Was she flighty, this clone of mine?

“Is that her?” Alice asked, coming to stand beside me. “Yes,” I said proudly. “That’s her.”

“Funny, she doesn’t look like you at all. Oooh, is that feed grain?”

And Alice was off again. Was it possible—? No, I didn’t even like to think it.

~

I wrote off my first interaction with Dolly due to her extreme youth, but as she matured, she still showed no signs of turning into—well, me. I tried to connect with her several times, tried interesting her in animal husbandry, cloud formations, the constellations, you name it, but she soon began avoiding me, running off with her little friends whenever she saw me coming.

“Relax,” Belinda told me. “You should be glad she’s fitting in.”

It was true, Dolly was sweet and spirited and everybody liked her, which I guess counts as success from a cloning standpoint—after all, she could’ve been rejected by the flock. Instead she’d been quickly embraced, and her unusual origins just as quickly forgotten (again, our memories are not long).

“But she’s not a seeker,” I protested.

“A seeker!” Belinda scoffed. “Is that what you are?”

The day Dolly turned eight months old, the lab team decided it was time to announce her existence to the world. The world of humans, that is. What a circus! For a week straight, Wilmut gave interview after interview to the hundreds of reporters trampling the pasture—and always with Dolly standing in the background. Sometimes Belinda and I crowded into the picture (Alice couldn’t care less), but he never mentioned us once, and my startling likeness to Dolly went peculiarly unnoticed.

To be honest, I felt a little sorry for her, having to stand there on display day after day. She seemed confused and depressed, and I only wished she’d stayed still for my explanations, so she could at least follow what Wilmut was saying about her now. And then there were the protesters who came each morning to picket the lab—I gathered from them and the TV reporters that the humans had been surprised, caught off balance. None of them had thought cloning was right around the corner. They were afraid, too, because now one of them might get cloned and sidestep the reproductive process. If that happened, they seemed to believe, then all the humans would want to clone themselves, resulting in God’s wrath and/or designer families incapable of unconditional love.

If only I could’ve been interviewed, I might’ve put some of their fears to rest. I can attest to the satisfaction of physical self-duplication, but it’s a fleeting triumph, since it’s really your soul you yearn to see recreated, to live on as you after you die, and that, in my experience, is just not the way it goes—with a bairn or a clone. Plus I could’ve told them there is no God, and saved them a lot of worry.

~

One night, not long after Dolly’s unveiling, one of the ewes overheard old MacDonald chatting to the missus about a dastardly plan. Mrs. MacDonald tried her feeble best to dissuade him, but he brushed her objections aside. His plan was to kidnap Dolly and sell her to the very wealthy American who’d just bought up Inveraray Castle. Wealthy Americans were always looking for conversation pieces, he informed Mrs. MacDonald, and Dolly certainly was that. Plus he could easily blame the kidnapping on the Christians, or the animal rights activists, or any number of the daft bampots who’d been swarming his barn of late.

Once word spread of MacDonald’s plot there was general consternation amongst the ewes that their dear Dolly might be taken from them. I must confess I felt somewhat ambivalent at the prospect. What new and life-changing experiences might she have, I wondered, what intellectual horizons might open up for her, there on the estate of the wealthy American? At the very least, to what historically and architecturally significant buildings might she be exposed?

“For chrissake, it’s not like she’s going away to boarding school!” Belinda snapped. “You’d really let old MacDonald make off with her?”

“Well, what do you expect me to do?” I mumbled.

“She’s your clone. If you’d wash that manky face of yours, you could pass for her in her stall, if the night was dark enough and he didn’t see the heft of you.”

“And what? Get myself kidnapped instead?”

“Oh, come on. You can handle MacDonald.”

~

And handle him I did, with a swift kick to the groin, and one more to the head for good measure. Oh, there was a moment where I considered turning my back on the flock forever and venturing forth into the world as Dolly’s replacement, but I knew my subterfuge wouldn’t survive the dawn. And to be honest, I was interested in seeing our little experiment through.

MacDonald lied to Wilmut about what happened—no surprise there. He said it was the animal rights activists who’d clobbered him as he wrested Dolly from their self-righteous hands—knowing he’d be inclined to believe him. Wilmut hates the animal rights people; they get to him in a way the Christians don’t. And Mrs. MacDonald backed up her husband with an “eyewitness account,” so that was that.

From then on, Dolly was locked away in the lab each night for her own protection, and Old MacDonald kept his distance. At first, the other ewes bleated her name through the night, but after a while, you know—the long-term memory thing. And I don’t think it’s actually an unhealthy arrangement. Having some alone time every evening, that headspace to herself, has made Dolly more thoughtful and introspective. In the mornings she comes looking for me now, and tells me that she wants to learn.

She remains a difficult pupil—in science and math she’s nearly hopeless, but she’s shown a real aptitude for poetry. Predictably, her verse is chock full of pastoral imagery—green hills and grey rocks, misty mornings and all that—but I have to say, it sings. She rushes to share it as soon as she’s released from her quarantine—first with me, and then, when I encourage her, with the rest of the flock, her devoted fans. When Dolly’s up on a rock performing her newest stanzas, nothing can tear the other ewes away, not even the rattle of feed grain in the trough.

My Dolly’s become a leader, I guess, though not in the way I’d foreseen. She didn’t lead us out of servitude, but she’s nurtured our love of freedom and creativity, and that, I think, has strengthened the flock and made us aware of our own capabilities. Oh, we haven’t figured it all out yet: how to live with no gods, no shepherds, in control of our bodies and our reproductive destinies. But we know what the important questions are, and we’re ruminating on them.

Janet Sarbanes is a writer and scholar living in Los Angeles. She is the author of the short story collection Army of One and has published fiction and criticism in anthologies, artist monographs, and numerous journals, including Black Clock, P-Queue, Entropy, Afterall, Popular Music and Society, Utopian Studies, Los Angeles Review of Books and East of Borneo. She teaches in the MA Aesthetics and Politics and MFA Creative Writing programs at CalArts.

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