Shepherd Thy Flock

by Kelvin Knight

Email: kelvin.knight1@ewm.co.uk

I am not religious. I never have been. I think I never shall be. To flee the religious hatred tearing apart Bosnia, I head for the Great British Isles. The journey is long and secretive. Over many lofty European borders I trek, until finally, one dark night, settling in the bowels of a boat. The hardships endured are nothing for the profession I love; a family tradition modelled on shepherds from the Old Testament. Proudly I carry my father's crook. In the dark, this family heirloom rests upon my stubbled chin. Slowly my stubble grows, until, at the end of my self-inflicted incarceration, I sport facial hair like my brothers.

The Hills of Cumbria are beautiful, and bursting at the seams with sheep. I make my home in a close-knit village near Cockermouth. Exuding optimism I enter the only public house in the village.

"Please to make room."

The rotund barman chuckles.

"Money make," I say, putting my life savings on the counter.

Behind me fat men laugh. The barman stares until silence reigns.

"Shepherd," I say softly. "Good shepherd."

All my money is taken without comment. My room is tiny and cold. The food is colder. The next day I scour the picturesque landscape for farmers but see only sheep and the occasional four-wheeled motor bike. In the evening I walk through the village. I speak to all those who catch my eye, but my English is poor. Sniggers are hidden behind raised hands. Children point. Men stare. Women turn away in disgust. This treatment goes on for many days. Cold food. Cold room. Cold-shouldered.

I knew it would be difficult so I smile sweetly when really I want to cry. My dear mother taught me to turn the other cheek. This I do, day after day, until the end of the second week when I am confronted by a rowdy crowd of teenage boys in the bar. All I want is my cold room and cold food, but they block the naked stairwell. Like caged animals they stare at me, until I say, "Shepherd. Look sheep."

"Sheepish," bawls the tallest teenager, grabbing my father's crook.

"By hook or by crook," jokes the fattest.

A third stumbles forward. He is shorter than I and his drunken gaze levels at my chest. "Freak!"

His friends take up the chant. Slowly, the rotund barman muscles between us. In his eyes I see pity. He will shelter me from harm. Looking him squarely in the eye, I pull my shoulders back and say, "Dog I make. Crook. Dog. Shepherd."

"One man and his dog," bark the teenagers as they are bustled to another side of the room. Tears surface in the corners of my eyes, not because of the words but because of the malice and hatred in their voices. It is like being back in Bosnia. I have done nothing to dishonour any of them, so why must they dishonour me?

Nearby someone understands. Again I see pity. This time I also see hope. He points to a notice hanging limply from a pillar. "Good home required for collie pups." I recognise the black and white picture. Nodding, I say excitedly, "Good dog. Good shepherd make." He smiles when he wants to laugh, and directs me next door. Raucous guffaws mark my departure.

"She's the runt of the litter," grumbles the foul-smelling man. "She's too rough with the sheep." He rounds on me and glares. "I have tried everything. If you do not take her she'll be put down."

Smiling sweetly I lower to my haunches. The dog charges over to me.

"Steady, Jess," barks the man.

Frantically she licks my facial hair and responds warmly to my affection. I sense she has seen little. "Take gladly," I say. "Work too?"

I hear a grumbled "Aye", and leave the man to his alcohol.

Jessie loves me, and I love her. Together we are inseparable. By day we roam the hills, tending the boundaries and training each other. By night we take it in turns to watch the grouchy farmer's sheep. Once a fortnight I find money left for me. This coincides with my need to visit the village for provisions. The visits are never pleasant. Thankfully Jessie has a nature similar to mine. Any tempers we might have are buried deep beneath discipline and love.

Tails wagging, necessity drives us to the only hardware store in the village. Slaters is worse for abuse than the Fox and Hounds. Still I march resolutely inside.

"No dogs allowed in this store," barks the imperial owner.

To mumbles of "That means you, too," I gently issue the command for Jessie to sit stay. I do not indicate she cannot growl. This she does to great effect to frighten the children wishing to poke fun at her.

"No crooks allowed either!"

Upset by the insinuation, I bleat, "Criminal no. Good hard, honest..."

"Leave your crook with your dog, shepherd! Then hurry and buy what you need before you chase away my valuable customers!"

Quickly I choose the 8 lb mauling axe. I barely have enough money left to buy the essential food we need. As I leave the corner shop, hefting my axe and bag of bread and cheese, I stumble upon more abuse. Like the rain here it is never-ending. Amazingly the ruddy-faced farmers follow me up the steep hill to my gathered piles of wood, laughing every step of the way. Their cruelty grows louder as my chin juts out, bristling hair and defiance. Like their offspring, they stink of alcohol. Sadly I cannot control the heavy axe properly with my thinned arms. Easily it makes me topple. Red-faced I return it, with my audience in tow, to Slaters. Faces ooze rudeness through steamed glass as I swap it for a 4 lb tree-felling axe, with a comfortable wooden shaft. This I wield like it was made for me. Because of the wetness of the wood, it takes longer than I had hoped to chop. To the continued jeers I smile sweetly, then nod toward bulging tummies and say, "Good exercise. You try?" As I offer my axe, my chin juts accusingly at them.

"Bloody old woman," they shout. "You'll pay for that!" Dark clouds above their heads lighten my mood. More rain falls. Swiftly I carry armfuls of softwood to our shelter, Jessie obediently at my heels.

The rain pours all day and all night. Jessie and I stay alert. The rain continues for several more days, lessening only on the fifth, red-filled night sky. The scene fills me with delight. Unlike morning time, when a lingering redness fills me and Jessie with dread. Something awful will happen today. Jessie looks at the ground and then at my unkempt face, several times, as if nodding in agreement.

All day we labour through rivers of mud, my crook rock steady, much like Jessie's unquestioning loyalty. It is a shame our compatriots’ quad bikes are not as reliable. Still they sit despondently on them, opening and closing the throttle, again and again. It is as if they are afraid to walk. To me walking is freedom. To use one's skill with a dog, true teamwork. Trust is implicit. Love unconditional. Not like the opposite sex. I shudder, then whistle once and point to the ground. Jessie is by my side in a flash. While making a fuss of her I spy a sleek, silver 4 x 4, a brand new land cruiser, bouncing over the fields, spraying mud in all directions, vainly trying to round a handful of stray sheep into an inadequate-sized pen. Sighing, I whistle, hup then point. Jessie reads my mind and has the four sheep cornered in next to no time. All I receive for my camaraderie is an impolite gesture and a rudely shouted, "Hippy! Get your hair cut!"

At the nearest river I mirror my looks. My hair does need a wash, of that there is no denying, but it is only shoulder length. My face could do with some attention but I remember my brothers looking worse on their return home... Thinking of home, of how all my family were gone, so cruelly killed, brings tears to my eyes. Jessie tries comforting me but my emotional outburst has been long in the making and needs to run its course.

The next day starts with a scarlet-hued sky. There is woe in Jessie's eyes. What she sees in my eyes makes her howl. To stop myself from howling I scrutinise the emerald Land Rover driving sensibly along the thin, winding roads far below me. Regularly it stops and distributes leaflets. Intrigued by the gathering crowd I move to be part of the community. Seeing me marching down the hill, children giggle and point. Women laugh behind overfed husbands, who make no effort to hide their hatred. Remembering a scene from my youth, I see the women and children hurl stones at me. Before me, my mother, father and then each of my brothers dies. Whether it is the graphic memory, or the speed I walk, I trip and tumble down the hill. Jessie charges around me, barking and chasing her tail.

"You are not welcome here, go home!"

No one makes any effort to help me to my feet. Quite the reverse, their animosity is heightened.

"Go back where you belong!"

"In the circus!"

Men, women and children huddle and merge into a faceless mass, which hisses until I recoil, mumbling, "Community?" Clinging to my leg is one of the pamphlets. Ink, smudged by mud, reveals: "Abortion in sheep... Fox and Hounds... Saturday 18th March... bar food..."

I want to fill this gap in my knowledge. Gingerly I tear off a reply slip and hold it close to my heart. Here it stays while I avoid the villagers like the plague that ravaged the wicked capital of this Great Isled monarchy.

On the day I rise early and walk Jessie around our favourite three hilltops. Encouraged by the serene tranquillity of the glorious day, I leave my crook behind. Jessie is left behind, too. Ghosts from a torrid past haunt her as I bang in the stake. I point to my father's crook and say firmly, "Guard." It is the first time we have been separated. The feeling leaves an emptiness in my belly that transcends my continual hunger pains.

The journey to the Fox and Hounds is full of fear. Visions from my torrid youth assail me. Loved ones are tortured. Friends stoned to death. Families executed. The scenes seem unreal, and yet I remember the pain vividly. Mortally wounded I cry for the blood of my forefathers, and yet, for all its poignancy, it is nothing to my current predicament. I return to the present with a jolt. Pangs of fear stab my stomach and speed up my heart. The Fox and Hounds towers like a behemoth before me. What first seemed so homely, genteel and inviting, now appears abhorrent. Frozen, I contemplate fleeing.

"Is this what we died for?" says a wispy image of my father.

"Is this why we made all the sacrifices?" begs my bloody mother.

"All the pain and suffering we endured just for you," say my black-blooded brothers from their knees.

"No," I reply timidly.

Arms trembling, legs wobbling like jelly, I fumble with the door and fall into the smoky, warm and friendly interior. For a moment I feel part of the community, then silence descends, so rapidly my legs give way and I join it. Sprawled on the dusty floor I am forced to endure round after round of ridicule. When I can tolerate the abuse no more, I rise and shout, "Love thy neighbour!"

"Love you?” screams a heavily made-up whale. "I would rather love a sheep!"

"Less hairy," adds a faceless voice.

"Less costly too!"

Guffaws of laughter and waves of ridicule buffet me. Rather than flee, I stand tall and quiet. When they quieten, I look every man and woman in the eye. "Why hate me?" When no one replies, I shout, "Because foreigner?"

A spark of kindness ignites in several eyes. Slowly it spreads to the rotund barman, who pushes his way to the fore, and softly says, "We have no umbrage with your nationality."

"We have no problem that you do not bathe from one full moon to another," adds his wife.

"We have no issue with your sheep herding," says a grumpy farmer.

"The old-fashioned way," says the store man from Slaters.

"Being a better shepherd than us," adds my grumpy farmer.

"But please," they all say together. "In this country it is not ladylike to have a beard. Please cut it off or leave our village."

"Forever," squeaks a small boy, tugging at me so I see him, and his tiny sister, who adds sweetly, "Amen."

I find myself shouldered upstairs to my old room, where clean towels, a hot bath and even hotter food await. Spotless shaving equipment rests beside an oval mirror. A lost and lonely face peers at me from beneath a mass of hair.

I bathe then eat my fill. I try to sleep but the sledgehammer ultimatum makes me toss and turn. All night, wispy images of a naked fox and overfed hounds chase me, around and around in circles, while at the dead centre rests a foaming, cut-throat razor.

In the morning the razor rests upon my bed, the foam has long since gone. Without breaking my morning fast, I rush outside, then charge up the hill for Jessie. A lone wolf whistle follows me, swiftly followed by another, and then another. Surrounded by leering faces, I stop. Jessie bounds toward me, making me dazzle everyone with a brilliant smile. Fathers, mothers and children laugh uncontrollably. I laugh, too. Their trespasses against me are already forgiven and forgotten.

©2006 Kelvin Knight

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