Baa-Tuna came to us a sickly, sticky little lamb, soaking wet and knock-kneed after being dragged from the pond the neighbouring farmer found him in. My sister, Tessa, and I weren’t farmers. We lived with our father in a seaside bach in Whangarei Heads, but we were staying with our mum for the summer holidays deep in farming country, in the backblocks of Maungaturoto. When we heard the plaintive sheep bleating faint in the distance, we were off, scouring the neighbouring farm, clambering over fences and through paddocks to seek the animal out. It was the last day of our holiday at Mum’s, one of those empty summer days, cloudless, the blue sky hazy with heat. The burnt grass crackled brown under our feet as we ran. We were 12 and nine, the exact right ages to be thrilled by such an adventure.
Mum phoned the neighbouring farmer when we arrived home again from our search, hot, breathless and empty-handed but with news—we had seen a small lamb on the edge of the farmer’s pond. Grudgingly the farmer went out. He turned up on Mum’s doorstep an hour later, the tiny, bedraggled animal with him.
“Been rejected by his mother,” the farmer said, almost accusingly, kicking mud off his steel-capped gumboots onto our back doorstep.
Tessa and I clustered around the doorframe, taking in the sight of the little lamb, his foreign pond smell clinging to him. The lamb’s spindly legs collapsed in all directions under him, and the farmer sighed, hoisting the animal back up onto his feet. “Unlikely to live,” he said, looking Mum right in the eye from under the rim of his hat.
The lamb’s tail waggled back and forth as he sucked on Tessa’s finger.
I was the one to call Dad. He was due to pick us up that evening for the long drive home.
“Can we have a lamb?” I asked Dad, winding the beige phone cord around my finger.
Dad’s reply was swift, short and unambiguous. “No.”
But when he turned up later to find us standing at the top of the driveway, waiting with a cardboard box Mum had found to transport the baby lamb in, Dad just looked at us. He said nothing, just loaded the animal into the back of the car beside our border collie dog, Fizza.
The lamb, in his little cardboard box, bleated the entire car ride home and he shat the whole way too, his tender new stomach unable to cope with the formula feed the farmer had given us along with the warning he’d probably not last the week. Dad gritted his teeth. It was a three-hour drive.
Tessa was the one who named the lamb. She spent hours talking to him, giving him name options. ‘Tuna’, one of our preferred sandwich fillers at the time, was the one he appeared to respond to. The "Baa" was to acknowledge his constant bleating.
At first, he was a model sheep, and oh, how we loved him. He grew up to be about the same size as Fizza. We’d take them both for walks at Urquhart’s Bay, the beach you could see from our windows, about a ten-minute walk down a path from our house.
When we got to our gate, we would tie Baa-Tuna to the handlebars of our bike that still had its training wheels on and make him pull one of us down the grassy slope to the beach while the other one ran alongside. When we got to the beach, we’d untie him and take both him and Fizza for a walk. One of us would hold Fizza’s lead, the other Baa-Tuna’s. Baa-Tuna seemed to enjoy eating shells and walking on sand.
Everything was idyllic for a time, but the thing is, Baa-Tuna just kept on growing. Suddenly he hit sheep adolescence and that made him frustrated. He didn’t know any lady sheep. He didn’t know any other sheep at all. He became A Bit Furious.
Mum moved to the city, Auckland, and we moved too, inland. Warkworth, farming country. Dad bought an old farmhouse surrounded by empty grass and miles from the sea. On the farms around us, people had normal sheep in normal sheep paddocks. Dad let Baa-Tuna roam loose by leaving the gate to the paddock next to our house open.
Dad started landscaping our new place and he planted some native trees near the house. Baa-Tuna, who had never shown any interest in trees before, ate the tops off all of them. Dad put Baa-Tuna in the one paddock that still had working fences and shut the rusted gate. Then the sheep took to chasing the dog in a misguided attempt to mate with her—luckily Fizza could still outrun him. Baa-Tuna would give up and spend hours butting at the neighbours’ fences, trying to get free. It got so that if we wanted to cross our paddock, we had to send the dog in the opposite direction first. Baa-Tuna would charge after Fizza in a blind frenzy, while Tessa and I would race to the other side of the paddock and scramble over the fence. The neighbour’s old tree house was in the next paddock across; their children had long ago left home so they said we could play in it. We wanted to cross our paddock a lot.
After a year of these antics, Baa-Tuna managed to knock Dad to the ground and stand over him, huffering, while Tessa and I watched, giggling uncontrollably from the safety of the other side of the fence. That put him in Dad’s Bad Books and besides, Baa-Tuna had developed a full-on passion for trees and Dad wanted to plant up the paddock. He decided to construct Baa-Tuna a new dwelling out of an old dog kennel, keeping him on a long lead to restrict his rampaging and tree-eating.
This was when the trouble really began.
That summer we stayed with Dad in Warkworth. It was the long, hot school holidays before the Internet revolution began. I was 14, spending every minute inside my bedroom, listening to my two cassette tapes (Green Day and Madonna) on repeat and doing my summer art project. Tessa was 11 and extremely bored.
She found the only person who would play unfailingly with her—Baa-Tuna. She discovered that if she went close to his dog kennel house to pat him, he would get incensed and lumber out, his considerable wool making it difficult to move quickly. But once he had shaken free of his snug house, he’d inevitably charge. He would lunge at her, head down in prime ramming position until his rope cracked when he reached the end of his tether. For a brief, glorious moment, all Baa-Tuna’s 50 kilos of wild, unshorn wool would be suspended in the air, his frenzied front legs kicking into space as he reared up against his collar, bunting and snorting fruitlessly, before snapping back down to earth, landing in a roaring ball of rage.
Tessa would stand just far enough back that he couldn’t reach her, laughing hysterically from the adrenaline kick. Making Baa-Tuna A Bit Furious became her favourite game. The game was never intended to harm Baa-Tuna and Tessa always rewarded him handsomely afterwards with a few stolen sprigs of his favourites, Dad’s forbidden native trees. But of course, this was a dangerous game.
I was in my room one day when the peel of screams penetrated over the edge of Madonna’s ‘Lucky Star’. Dad wasn’t home, he was out visiting a client.
Tessa’s playing with Baa-Tuna again, I thought. But now the screaming was moving, getting closer. It sounded like it was nearing the house, then actually inside the house. I opened my bedroom door just in time to see my sister bolting past, shrieking, an enraged blur of wool galloping behind her, snorting his furious huffing sound. I slammed my bedroom door shut again and leaned against it for good measure. Tessa screamed once more, a crash and a scrabble-scramble of furniture, thumps and bumps followed—dining room chairs? I couldn’t be sure. Then, for a time, there was nothing but a few furious huffing snorts.
“Are you okay?” I called after a period of no more screams or otherwise.
“Yeah,” Tessa called back, out of breath. “I’m just up on the kitchen table.”
I was relieved Baa-Tuna hadn’t murdered her, but this still presented a problem. Dad wasn’t due back for another two hours. He was an architect and always took ages when he was visiting clients. I weighed up the odds of Baa-Tuna calming down and wandering back out the still-open front door all on his own. I contemplated what we would do if either of us needed to go to the toilet, which could only be accessed through the kitchen. Or what if we wanted a snack? I wondered what Dad might do to me—the eldest and therefore in charge—if I let Baa-Tuna go mad in the house for the next two hours.
“We’re going to have to get him back outside,” I called to Tessa. “Can you outrun him?”
“Yeah?” Tessa’s voice wavered. “Maybe?”
“Okay, good,” I called out to Tessa. “I’ve got an idea.” Ignoring my fear of death-by-sheep, I told her my plan: she would climb down off the table and run back down the hallway and through the open front door, letting Baa-Tuna chase her. I’d then shut the door while she dashed around the house, where I’d be waiting to let her in the back door. Between us, I hoped we’d be able to make sure the bulking, rampaging huffing sheep stayed on the other side of the door. Outside. Where he belonged. This must be why houses have two doors, I decided, for situations such as this.
“Does he look tired?” I called, from my safe-behind-the-bedroom-door position.
“A little?” Tessa sounded unconvinced. From my room down the hall, I could hear the distinctive jolting sound of an enraged sheep butting the legs of the kitchen table.
I let Tessa catch her breath and then counted to three. “Go!” I yelled at her. “Go!”
Obedient and brave little sister she was, she sprung off the table. I slipped out my door in time to see Baa-Tuna barrelling down the hallway looking not the least bit tired. In fact, I’d never seen him look so energised, his rope and the peg that hadn’t held flying behind him like a battle cape, while Tessa ran, barefoot, around the house, just managing to stay a whisker in front of the feverish beast.
Terrified, I slammed the front door and skedaddled to the back door to let my sister inside. She was nowhere in sight.
“Tessa!” I screamed. Legs trembling, I gripped the back door handle until the old brass started to cut into my palm.
“Tessa!” I was sure by now Baa-Tuna had caught her. “Tessa!” I wailed, almost crying.
It was a glorious moment when I heard her familiar scream, and a shot of limbs and blonde hair flew past me and into the house.
“Shut the door!” Tessa yelled at me.
I had become petrified with fright.
“Shut the door!” She wrenched the door handle off me and we fumbled the door shut between us, managing to push the bolt across as Baa-Tuna rounded the corner, heading straight for us. Luckily for us, Tessa had managed to gain ground at the last moment. Baa-Tuna couldn’t be described as the fittest of sheep, after having a life of leisure in the dog kennel. His fury would only take him so far. We backed into the house, shutting the kitchen and hallway doors behind us too for good measure, while Baa-Tuna proceeded to give himself a head injury on the securely locked back door. He stayed there ramming and snorting until Dad came home two hours later.
“What happened?” Dad asked. He put his bag down slowly. We were sitting at the kitchen table, both of us reading our library books very quietly.
I looked across my Sweet Valley High book at Tessa and shrugged. “Baa-Tuna pulled his rope out of the ground.”
Dad looked at me for a full minute before turning his gaze to Tessa, who kept her eyes on her book, saying nothing. Baa-Tuna let out a desperate huff and we all turned to look out the kitchen window at the butting, snorting sheep at the back door.
“Did you provoke him?” Dad asked Tessa. He turned slowly to survey the room and frowned. “You’ve cleaned up the kitchen?”
We had never cleaned up the kitchen before.
“You’ve moved the table?” Eyes narrowed, Dad bent down and straightened up, brandishing the soft tuft of wool we had neglected to remove from the table leg. “Has the sheep been inside?” Dad asked, voice rising, “Did you bring him inside?”
“We didn’t mean to,” Tessa blurted.
“He almost bunted Tessa over,” I countered.
Dad looked down at Tessa, a skinny slip of a child. He looked out at the enormous 50 kilos of furious wool currently ramming the back door. Baa-Tuna went to a ‘new home’ soon after that.
A year later, a neighbouring farmer found a stray lamb and, remembering our quirky fondness for Baa-Tuna, came round to see about us fostering the animal.
“Please Dad,” we begged, clustered around him on the porch, “please.”
“No,” Dad said. “Don’t you remember what happened last time?” He shook his head and looked at us with his sternest expression. “Absolutely not.”
And that’s how we came to get Lambo.