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Interpreting the Lamb

By Natalie Johansen

They strung her up by her hind legs, matter-of-fact like, and there she swung, bawling and defecating in terror. There I sat, not six feet from the scene, trying to teach a shriveled raisin of a woman about Jesus while her sons and grandsons prepared the lamb for Christmas supper.

The abuelita, like everyone else, spoke in the murmured cascades of Uruguayan Castellano, a language as beautiful to listen to as it was impossible for me to understand. I had lived there for a month and still struggled to piece together the rambling Uruguayan words and phrases into some semblance of meaning. The majority of my eighteen-month mission stretched ahead of me, forever straight like a Kansas highway and strewn with jumbled language and bawling lambs.

My missionary companion, Hermana Self, a sturdy blonde girl seemingly unaffected by the proceedings, sat by me and conversed with the abuelita, whose lined face and puckered mouth remain in my memory as a mere backdrop for the lamb’s plight. Her cries bypassed barriers of language and species and settled like clay in my stomach, and I understood her animal fear far better than I understood the tiny matriarch sitting across from me with her bony arms and faded housedress. I made attempts to focus on the woman, on the lesson, to recall my prepared phrases and remember why I was there at all. Yo se que Jesucristo vive. Yo se que Jesucristo vive. Yo se que Jesucristo vive. That lamb is going to die. And, with a quick slash of the throat, she did.

After the last drop of blood had drained from the animal’s twitching body, the men started hacking at her coat with long knives, peeling it away to expose the lacey-red muscle and bone. I clenched my jaw and my seat, losing all desire to eat anything ever again. They ripped off the legs and sliced away at the meat and at about that moment my companion turned to me, expecting me to pick up where she left off, testifying of her words and continuing on with the lesson. I managed a “Cristo vive” with a few other (likely unintelligible) words, and when my companion realized that I didn’t have more to offer, we prayed and left.

I do not remember the details of the abuela’s face, much less her name, and I do not remember any of her murmured words. I do remember walking back to our apartment in the quiet evening, listening to the gentle crunch of our shoes brushing against the gravel road, thinking about lambs and language and wondering if it would ever, one day, make sense.

The next day—Christmas day—we ate dinner with the Fuentes family, Maria and Denis and their who-knows-how-many children who lived in a house with no doors. They piled a large offering of roast lamb on our plates, and I plastered an appreciative smile on my face as I tried (and failed) not to think about the slaughter, the blood draining into a bucket, the dead animal swaying back and forth as the men ripped off her skin. I shot a pleading look at my companion, who made a stealthy exchange of meat from my plate to hers, finishing my portion without comment.

Hermana Self and I never became close; to be honest, we spent much of our time getting on each other’s nerves, never connecting beyond superficial small talk and obligatory missionary dialogue.

But in the quiet of that small moment, in the passing of the lamb from me to her, I appreciated her—I understood her, and I understood that, that though it would take several more months for the Spanish language to make sense to my mouth and ears, sometimes the strongest messages are communicated better without words.

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About Natalie Johansen

Natalie is a graduate of BYU’s Creative Writing MFA program and has left the cold of Northern Utah to happily reside among the red rocks and sagebrush of Southern Utah. She teaches writing at Southern Utah University.

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