I am a sheep herder.
I stand and watch my flock meander across the field’s floor. The wind is cold as it blows through my thin layers of cotton. It causes the clouds to scuttle across the sky and the grass to flatten. I watch my sheep as they pick their way through the waving sod, their bodies clumping and dispersing across the green background. They make patterns, like words spelled out amongst the field. If I could read, perhaps it would have some meaning for me. Or perhaps the stories and secrets are meant for some god lounging in the clouds, chuckling at the words my sheep reveal.
I scan the grassy basin. A collection of sheep crowd at one edge, milling in a semi-circle. The lead ram steps forward and disappears behind a hillock while the flock watches on. He reappears but hovers as if unsure of where to go. I think I am needed.
I pick my way down the slope, my crook stabilising my descent. The wooden pole is smooth and familiar in my palm. The grass-blades lap at my ankles as I cross the pasture towards the crowd of sheep. They circle me as I approach and their want for nearness alerts me. They sense danger and desire comfort. The ram is ahead and stamps a hoof as I near.
I walk around the low hillock and see the cause of their distress. The carcass is torn open, blood staining the stalks of grass red. I step close and crouch. It is one of my flock. Pearly white bone gleams from amongst the mass of wet maroon muscle. Chewed intestine spills across its gouged abdomen with no regard for dignity. I study the animal, newly transformed into meat and gristle. I see its hidden insides and am acutely reminded that I am no different. The same mess of organs and blood fill me. I am white bone and red muscle. I shiver and stand, dusting my hands on my pant front. It is time to move the flock on.
I whistle and black heads turn towards me. The ram trots forward, decisive now that he knows his role. I tap my crook against soft backsides and the sheep drift across the grassland in a slow wave. The ram is at the head and I am behind. I am nervous with the knowledge of a wolf nearby.
The sun sets while we drift across the open and empty land. I feel like a sailor floating on a solid sea. We ride the crests of gentle hills and sail the smooth grassy slopes into valleys. The sheep graze as we move and I am lookout. I see no other living thing in this paralysed ocean but am not comforted. The predators navigate better than the prey.
As the moon rises my flock lay down to sleep, warm huddled masses of life hibernating. The early anxiety has long slipped their minds and in this moment I envy their easy complacency. My capacity for memory and reason serves only to keep me awake. I sit against a tree trunk, eyes wide, and watch their rest. After an hour I hear the wolf howl.
I rise and wade through the field towards the noise. Moonlight playing along the sweeping grass blades sets the ocean to moving and I’m swimming through it. My crook serves as my tiller and as the wolf howls again I point myself towards its call. I feel a bubble of unease burst within my belly but make my legs continue their long strides towards the beast. This is my responsibility; I am a sheep herder.
I soon leave my flock behind. The world is quiet and colourless and I feel very small under the scope of the stars above me. The wolf continues its cry and it becomes an invitation, a primal call to contest. There’s no malice in the request, just the primeval benchmark of evolution. The stronger wins.
My decision to carry on is acceptance enough.
The howl echoes from my left and the closeness of it sends a spike through my spine. My body feels tight, my eyes wide, and my ears alert. I hear the wolf’s hoarse breathing and turn. It slinks from the shadows, yellow eyes a soft glow and moonlight reflecting from silvery strands of fur along its back. It is like a ghost drifting out of the grass, a creature far greater attuned to night than me. I feel like a foolish child in a land I can’t understand, standing before its god. The wolf shows its teeth and pinpricks ripple through the soles of my feet. I am vulnerable.
He circles me, unhurried in his hunt, knowing his role as predator and mine as prey. I take two deep breaths and feel a trill of adrenaline shoot through my limbs. The small part of me still thinking realises I am too frightened for action.
It is a small thing that readjusts my perception; I spot a matt of fur on the creature’s belly.
The imperfection sticks like splinter. I am forced to release my image of the perfect hunter and instead see the animal. I inspect the wolf again and see the thin convex of ribs circling its chest. I spot white lines crisscrossing its muzzle. It is a beast, no different than I. Inside it is merely white bone and red muscle.
I shift my crook between hands and the gesture feels like my first movement in hours. I squeeze the wood and the wolf stops its circling, as if hearing an instinctive call to fight. My heart is pounding hard and heavy in my chest. I remind myself that a heart is not a core of strength nor the measure of a man. It is no more than a knot of muscle designed to pump blood.
The wolf pounces. There is no build up; it is suddenly moving and I am reacting. I fall to my knees and the weight of its back legs collide into my side. The wolf rolls through the grass but regains his feet before I stand to mine. I feel out of breath.
I am ready this time as it springs. My crook cracks against the curve of its jaw and I step to the side. A jolt of pain shocks my wrists from the impact. The wolf growls and spins, and as it leaps, I strike again. Skin splits under the creatures eye and blood stains the curve of my crook. I don’t feel a surge of elation; I feel scared and hollow. I console myself with the thought that it is kill or let it kill. My resolution, as thin as paper, holds.
The creature shakes his head and watches me. He is more weary now and I know it is my time to attack. I lack the agility of the wolf’s offence and try to compensate with strength. I swing my crook with a grunt and clip the animal’s skull a third time. A crack echoes in the clearing as my wooden staff snaps leaving only a short splintered spike in my hand.
The wolf tumbles to the ground and I fall upon it without allowing time for thought. I stab the shattered spike into the beast’s chest. Its whine of pain is lonely and sorrowful as the wood punctures its lung. I can feel cold tears in my eyes and warm blood bubbling against my fist. The shattered remains of my crook has navigated the curve of its ribs and pierced its heart. The stub of wood goes still in my hand and I know the wolf is dead.
I sit in the moonlight, staring at the white reflection of its fur and the black gleam of its blood. My hand is cramped and sore when I finally uncurl my fingers and let my arm go limp. For the second time I am reminded of my own fragility. I stroke the wolf’s fur with my bloodstained knuckles and remember that I am no more than white bone and red muscle. I feel guilty that I am not more; perhaps a god could justify a murder.
Eventually my knees begin to ache against the cold ground and I rise. I stumble back through the fields to my flock, wishing the swaying grass was in fact an ocean, and that I could use its waters to cleanse myself.
Black heads poke from bundles of wool as I stumble up the rise to my tree. I walk between their bodies and thin bleats cry in the night as they smell death on me. I sit and let myself collapse against the tree trunk. The sheep are frightened by the smell of blood and crowd around me for protection. I smile at the irony of their fear forcing them to cuddle close to a killer.
I close my eyes and am soon warm from the press of bodies around me. The musty smell of sheep fills my nostrils and the regret of the kill is lessened. I am again reminded that I am no different from these animals, and in this moment, it is a comforting thought. Perhaps one day when red muscle has wasted away my bones will join theirs, and our skeletons will write stories in the soil for the gods to enjoy.