Wild Sheep Dismayed

 

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.

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Dark Place

 

Dark place, deep place, old place

I am in the dark place;

So dark I cannot see the walls,

Only the light that glimmers

Faintly round the edges of my hands.

Not enough to see by,

Only enough to remind me

That I still exist at all.

I hear distant voices,

Too far off to tell

Whether they mock me,

Encourage me, torment me

Or are simply oblivious

That I am here alone

In the dark place again.

It’s cold, but it always is here,

The steady unchanging chill

Of cellar or deep cave

Untouched by warmth of sun

Or the night-ice of frosts.

I am in the deep place,

So deep I cannot see the sky,

Only hear the birdsong

Far off in the distant world.

Not enough to climb towards,

Only enough to remind me

That the world exists at all.

My own voice rises,

Too indistinct for anyone to tell

Whether I am calling for help,

Or crying or simply singing,

Having forgotten the world out there

And have settled down to wait,

Here in the deep place alone.

It’s damp here, but it always is,

With the constant moisture

Of rivers and the moving spirit

Untouched by the need to conform,

To twist the soul to safe shapes.

I am in the old place,

So old I feel like a child again,

Only the heartbeat of earth

Distantly drumming in my ears,

Not enough to dominate,

Only enough to remind me

That I am not truly alone:

When I lie waiting to be reborn,

I lie surrounded by bright spirits

Whose home is here

In the dark place,

The deep place,

The old place

And who wait to guide me

Back to the healing light.

 

Stone soup

The following story is based on a dim memory of another story I read years ago and is written through my own personal filters since then.

Stone Soup

Once upon a time a large group of very different people began a long journey together. None of them were quite sure why they were making the journey but they all knew it was important; it may have been a pilgrimage, it may have been a holiday, it may even have been a diaspora. Who knows?

None of the people had had much time to pack or prepare for the journey and on the first evening as night fell, fires were lit and people settled down to rest. Tummies began to rumble and the question of food came up. No one had brought food, it seemed.

A little away from the main group of fires a man alone was tending his fire and to the surprise of everyone, he went to the stream nearby and filled a cooking pot to the brim with water and set it over the fire to heat. As the steam began to rise, he was heard muttering, “MMMmmm, soup!!”

Curious, a few people drifted over wondering what he might be cooking.

It’s stone soup,” he said when asked. “You see, I have here a stone that makes the most amazing soup. It’s an ancient magic from the time of Atlantis and I quested long and hard to find it. Anyone who owns this soup-stone will never go hungry. It’s time to put it in; the water’s about hot enough now.”

Out of his small knapsack he pulled a medium size round pebble, big enough that you could hold it in your hand but never close your fingers round it, and he dropped it with a plop into the steaming water. After a moment, he inhaled loudly.

Ooh, that smells SO good!” he said. “Doesn’t it, just? Hmm, but I do think it needs some thing else. Let me taste it. Yes, it needs a little onion.”

One of the bystanders suddenly rushed away and returned with an onion.

It was in the bottom of my bag,” she said, and the onion was duly chopped and added.

MMM,” said the man. “Smelling sooo fine now. But…” he breathed in the steam again. “I can’t help feeling it would benefit from a little bit of potato.”

Within moments another bystander had brought a large potato and was peeling it and adding it.

This is going to be such an awesome soup,” said the man. “Don’t you just smell the goodness now? Hmmm, I think it needs something….Yes, just as I thought, it needs bacon.”

Bacon was duly brought out of a bag and added.

Yummy,” said the man, tasting it. “It’s going to be superb. The stone magic never fails. I think it needs something though. Cabbage, and maybe some carrots.”

Bit by bit, the crowd grew and so too did the soup. Lentils, and beans and a host of other things were found to be lurking in people’s bags and before long the whole party were waiting and watching as the soup simmered away and the glade where they rested was filled with the savoury smell of delicious soup.

I think it’s ready,” said the man and began dishing up a few spoonfuls to each of the people in their bowls. When all had had a little, and had gone back to their own fires, he ate what remained in the pot. When he had finished, he patted his now very full tummy and sighed. The soup-covered stone waited in the bottom of the pot and he managed to get to his feet and stagger to the stream to wash it.

During the dark hours of the night, many of the travellers found they were unable to sleep well. The little soup had merely taken the edge off their hunger and most had the same thought going through their minds: If I owned that stone, I could make enough soup for me and my family and we’d never go hungry again.

Needless to say, the man with the soup-stone had little sleep that night as one by one many of the travellers crept to his bivouac and begged him to sell them the stone.

Well,” he said, in a whisper. “I might just part with it but….it will cost you all the money you have. You see, that stone would have fed me my whole life and if I sell it, I will always have to buy food again. So it’s only fair that I get a decent amount of money to compensate for it.”

Willingly, they gave him their money and in the morning, few travellers were left at the resting place and those were the ones who had not crept to the man’s bivouac. Hungry but ready to start the day, a man went to the stream to wash and ready himself for the new day ahead. As he splashed in the water, he noticed that the bed of the stream was made up of many rounded pebbles, though there seemed to be gaps where others might once have been.

That’s strange,” he said out loud. “Those stones look very like the soup-stone. I wonder where he got his from?”

The Parable of the Goldpanner

 

The parable of the goldpanner

 

Once upon a time there was a young man who ran away to seek his fortune.

 He had heard that men could get rich by mining for gold and so he travelled to the gold fields only to be told that the mines were all but exhausted of gold but he could still find gold by panning for it in the streams that flowed from the mountain.

Much gold still remained inside the mountain; indeed, far more remained than had ever been taken out but it had become too dangerous and expensive to go any deeper into the mountain and dig for gold and so men contented themselves with the gold that washed from the heart of the mountain. Indeed, this gold was known to be purer and need less processing before it could be used. In ancient times, the nuggets were simply taken and washed before being skilfully beaten and shaped into rings and cups of astonishing beauty. Now, gold that had been mined had to be crushed and heated and treated with dreadful chemicals to extract the pure gold and by the time the finished product was ready it had cost almost as much to produce as it was now worth.

On his first day the young man stood knee deep in the icy waters that rushed from the heart of the mountain and panned and panned till his back ached and his feet and legs became numb with the cold. All the while he squinted into his pan and every so often he would shout out with excitement and pick out something and stuff it swiftly into his leather pouch. At the end of the day, he ran, tired and cold as he was to the Valuer’s tent and poured out his day’s finds expecting to go home to his family that day, rich beyond belief. A long silence followed that was followed by a low rumble of laughter, first from one man and then from all the men present.

Why are you laughing?” he asked, bewildered and angry that they should mock him so.

Because all you have found here is Fool’s Gold,” said the Valuer, wiping his eyes of tears of mirth. “Every man here did this on his first day. Until you know what gold really looks like, you will think that this mineral here is it. Let me show you.”

The older man pulled from his pocket a small leather bag and extracted from it a small rough lump that shone like the morning sun rising above the hills. It was brighter and somehow purer in colour than the iron pyrites that he had shown the Valuer, and instantly the young man knew what it was he was actually looking for.

The old man who taught me gave me that lump so I would know what I was looking for and not be misled by fakes and forgeries. And now I am giving it to you because sometimes when the winter sun fails to shine and you are cold and miserable, you will need to look at the true gold so you can remember what you are seeking,” said the older man. “And one day, you will pass this nugget onto someone else so they too know what they seek.”

So the young man returned to his icy stream bed and began again. Sometimes he would see a gleam that made his look again but it only took a second before he knew he was once more looking at Fool’s gold and he would sigh and carry on.

Weeks passed and then months and all the time he carried on looking, his small reserve of money dwindling each day that passed until one day he had no money left to buy food. He looked at the gold nugget the Valuer had given him and considered whether he should sell that so he might eat that day, but after looking at it, he realised that he would maybe one day forget what true gold looked like and be led astray once more. So he put the nugget away and carried on swirling the water and sediment in his pan and suddenly, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, he saw first one and then another tiny lump of pure gold. All that day he worked and when he trudged back to camp, he had enough gold to sustain him for weeks.

As the years passed, the young man accumulated gold, and slowly and steadily he grew richer and older until one day, standing knee deep in the water of his stream, his bones started to ache with cold and tiredness like they had never done before and he waded back to the banks of the stream and sat down.

All I have had of this stream, I have spent and enjoyed so very little,” he said to himself. “I have bought food and only the necessaries of life. Maybe it is time I began to enjoy the gold I worked so hard for.”

So packing up his kit he walked back to the camp, which by now had become a small town, and went to the Valuer’s tent to say goodbye to his old friends.

I’m going back home,” he told them. “I have enough now that I can support my parents and maybe even marry my sweetheart and start our own family.”

As he started to leave the tent, a second young man came in. His eyes were filled with feverish excitement that the first young man recognised at once.

I’m rich, I’m rich,” shouted the new arrival, pouring out on the Valuer’s table the spoils of his first day’s work.”

The laughter that had seemed once so mocking now seemed friendly and rueful, the recognition of a mistake the men had all made in the past. The new youngster’s face became red and angry and he seemed almost in tears with frustration.

I’ve never seen gold before,” he admitted, sweeping his pile of Fool’s Gold to the floor in his disappointment. “How am I supposed to know if no one has ever shown me?”

The first young man, no longer so very young or so very foolish, went over to the other man and put his hand out.

Here,” he said. “This might help.”

In his hand was the gold nugget he had once been given to help him know what true gold is.

But don’t you need it any more?” asked the newcomer.

No,” said the first young man. “You see, after all this time, I think I will always know gold when I see it. And I have found enough gold of my own now to be able to be sure I will always know how to find more if I need it.”

And so our not-so-young man walked away, and went home to his family richer and dare I say, wiser than when he had set out years before.

© Vivienne Tuffnell November 15th 2008