Wild Sheep Dismayed
There was so much to learn about life beyond the safe, predictable life behind the hedges and fences and farms that most of the escapees found themselves bewildered and disorientated. Some even chose to go back, shortly after their frenzied escape from the field on finally understanding their fate. The cold and the hunger and the fear were all too much for animals who had been reared to accept the sweet hay and sheep nuts left out for them, and the ministering of the vet when ill.
But a hardy few survived the first months beyond the confines of their former lives and those who did realised that the long term survival of the wild sheep meant sharing both knowledge and experience with newcomers, still with their wool fresh and clean and smelling of sheep-dip. If you had comrades with whom you could stand when the blizzards came, then you would not freeze to death on your hooves, and when the predators came, as they will, you can stand and face them. If you all rush as one, you will put most predators to flight by your sheer force of united strength.
For sheep are far stronger than many imagine them to be, not seeing that beneath the layer of wool and insulating fat, they are powerful beasts and capable of laying a man out with ruptured internal organs. But they are herd animals and they are happiest in a group and as time went on the escapees formed small groups that were not quite flocks. The groups had to be small for obvious reasons, because no one wanted to draw attention to themselves and be caught. Fleeces were deliberately allowed to grow green with algae, as camouflage, and instead of following paths they tried to take new routes each time so no new paths could be worn.
As time went on, new arrivals were accepted into existing groups and taught what they might safely eat, where to drink without being seen and other vital things. Some of the new wild sheep were strange looking, rare breeds and even exotic ones escaped from parks and even zoos. The only requirement to join a group of wild sheep was to declare oneself to be a wild sheep.
Once a year, around the autumn equinox, the sheep would all meet high in the mountains to discover what the year had brought each group. A great gathering of silent sheep would scare the life out of any human watching but these sheep knew how to keep their peace and as they filed into the valley a watcher might have marvelled at their numbers, and the variety of the forms the sheep took. Small ones and large ones, black ones and (greenish) white ones, piebald and grey, they came in every shade and form you could imagine. There were even plenty who everyone knew were really goats but who could scarcely be distinguished from the canny, sure-footed little sheep who grazed the mountain passes. The goats were as welcome as any.
Each group had an elected leader who spoke their year’s news and when most had spoken and the wild sheep were feeling content that their fellows were thriving, a ragged looking fellow, so thin his backbone showed through his fleece spoke up. His little band of sheep were no better than he.
“Our news is not so good,” he said.
“Why so? Your territory has good grazing far from people. What has troubled you?” asked another spokes-sheep.
The ragged sheep was silent for a while.
“You will see that we are fewer in number than we were last year,” he said. “Shortly after our last enclave we were joined by a new sheep, fresh from the farm. He seemed as relieved as any to have escaped. He fitted in with our ways and all seemed well for a while. Then our sheep began to grow listless. To grow thin when we should have grown fat, for as you have said, we live on good land with rich grass.”
“So what happened?” a small black sheep asked.
Again the ragged sheep took some time to answer.
“I have only now understood what happened,” he said. “But I do not understand all of it. The new sheep….was not like any sheep I had known. He could do things I’d never seen. He could persuade you that the grass over there was better than this luscious patch of clover you had been about to eat, or that if we all went down to the road there was a load of spilled beets and carrots to enjoy. But the road is miles away and when we got there, the beets were all gone. If they had even been there. But the worst was to come. He became close friends with certain sheep; you would never seen them apart, grazing together, and slowly, his friends weakened. Some died, in their sleep; some vanished. Some we know went back to their farms. I did not understand that he could have the power to weaken the others until a dear friend of mine fell under his spell. When she became too weak to move, I found her, lying a long way from any of us. As she lay dying, her spirit broken, I made her tell me what had occurred. She had felt like she had fallen into a dream, and she would willingly give up the best grazing for her friend because he had suffered so when he was at the farm. Though our grazing is good, it is sparsely scattered and we are careful not to allow places to become obviously grazed. She would bring him the choicest of leaves and would even venture down to the farm to steal mangles and beets and carrots when he was flagging. He would talk all the time about going back to the farm, and that life out here was too hard and how he missed the life he’d led back there, and that while we would all eventually be slaughtered, better to die warm and well fed. And she would argue that living wild and free might be hard at times, but surely it was worth it to build a better life that was lived as true sheep should.”
The ragged sheep bowed his head.
“I sought to find our newest sheep and found him gone before I could question him and call him to account,” he said. “I do not know where he has gone. I cannot ask why he did what he did to so many good sheep, or whether it was his intention to do so. He may have gone back to his farm, or he may be wandering to find a new flock.”
“What did he look like?” asked a spokes-sheep from a little further back.
“He looked just like any one of us, an ordinary sheep that has sought to be wild,” said the ragged sheep. “There was nothing to warn you. It’s not as if he was a wolf wearing sheepskin. He was just another sheep.”
“So how can any of us know if he (or one like him) is among us?” demanded another sheep, her voice full of fear.
“We must be vigilant and we must talk to each other,” said the ragged sheep. “Support each other, share our burdens widely. Not with just one sheep, but openly. What we have learned needs to be shared with all, but so too does what we experience. I have heard tales of vampire sheep that suck the blood of others, but these are just tales to scare the lambs into silence at night. This is far worse because you offer your strength willingly to another, believing that the other will share with you when you need it. And they do not. I would rather a ravening wolf came among us than this.”
Soberly the conclave of sheep ended and the groups dispersed as silently as they had come, each thinking hard thoughts of their own and feeling a chill like winter had come early.