Andrew Stratton looked up toward the cliff top, ten feet above his head, but the afternoon sun was in his eyes and all he could make out was the silhouette of a woman's head and shoulders, etched against a Wedgwood-blue sky. Stratton was standing on a narrow grassy ledge above the sea, which he shared with a loudly bleating, black-faced sheep. The shape of a dog appeared beside the woman. The shape barked.
"Um, yes," he called back. "I was just walking along and saw this sheep stranded down here."
"And you decided to join it?"
"Yes . . . well, no . . . I mean, I thought I'd try to help it back up to the top. But whenever I get near it, it looks as if it's going to jump."
"Do you always have that effect?"
From the slender shelf he and the sheep occupied, it was, he guessed, at least two hundred feet straight down to the Atlantic breakers crashing far below--so far, in fact, that he could barely hear the thudding combers above the whistle of the wind. He'd been walking along the cliff path just north of the Cornish village of Boscastle and had paused to watch the waves roll in and dash themselves to foam and mist on the jagged rocks at the base of the cliff when he'd heard the sheep. There was a scar of loose rock and torn vegetation where the sheep had descended to the ledge, on the theory, Andrew imagined, that the grass there was greener.
"That's Darwin's sheep, that is," said the voice above.
"You know the farmer?" Andrew was suddenly more hopeful.
He heard the woman laugh. "No, I mean that what you have there is the dimmest sheep in the flock, the one that has to die to protect the gene pool and assure the survival of the species."
There was something in her tone that implied she thought he and the sheep had more in common than just the thin sill of grass they shared.
"Any suggestions?" he called.
"Not a one. The general idea is to let nature take its course."
He let this sink in.
"Right, then," she said. "As long as you're okay, I'll leave you to it." And with that the head pulled back from the cliff edge and disappeared. He could hear her whistling as she crunched off along the path.
Andrew Stratton--professor, from Philadelphia--did not know a great deal about sheep. He hadn't a clue, now that he was down here, how he would get the sheep back up. Come to think of it, he wasn't at all sure how he'd get himself back up, either. He approached the skittish animal once more and it backed away again, its rheumy red eyes wild with fear, until it was perched at the very lip of the precipice.
He gave up. He turned toward the cliff face and started climbing, only to slip back almost immediately when a chunk of rock came off in his hand. He could almost hear his wife Katerina's voice--ex-wife, to be accurate: "Never climb shale or slate if you can help it. It flakes off and you fall." She had taken up rock climbing more than a year earlier--taken up with a rock climber, too, and left Andrew for him shortly thereafter. Now he remembered some of her safety rules: Plan your ascent several moves in advance; maintain three reliable points of contact with the rock before you reach for the next hold; test each hold before you use it to bear weight. He'd often wished, in the weeks following her departure, that there had been similar rules for protecting oneself in the case of domestic landslides.
In a few moments of more-careful climbing, he regained the rim and hoisted himself up to the footpath. In the far distance, he could see a figure, a woman, striding along the cliffs, a large brown and white dog running circles around her. For reasons he could not fathom, she was waving her arms, as if in urgent communication with the dog.
He looked down. The sheep had returned to munching, utterly oblivious to the fact that it would soon be out of grass and luck. The woman had been right: This was a very dim sheep--although in his experience, limited though it was to the few days since his arrival in Cornwall, in the stupidity sweepstakes all sheep seemed equally qualified. He resolved to tell the manager at the Visitor Centre in the village about the stranded sheep and let someone who knew what he was doing rescue it.
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