Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Dissatisfied Sheep

There once was a shepherd who hated his flock. He hated them each and all in all their woolly ways. He despised their ovine invariance and ridiculed their huddled humility. "When you come right down to it," he often would say, "They're just sheep."

But his contempt was tempered by appreciation of their usefulness, providing, as they did, continual wool and occasional mutton. And too, he found confirmation in their very throng: at times he likened himself to the chief of a great nation, leading his adoring and submissive constituents from pasture to pasture. At such times he felt powerful and necessary, and perhaps a little grateful, for what is a shepherd without sheep?

But at other times a wisp of fear would nibble at the edges of his narcissism. For he was, after all, out-numbered. And being an apprehensive and credulous man of a morbid turn of mind his fancy would stray to terrible visions. He would sometimes imagine his charges mistakenly tasting meat for the first time, and immediately renouncing their pastural diet and turning mad for human flesh - as in the tales of man-eating tigers he had heard as a boy.

Thus, in part to forestall any possibility of coup d'├ętat, and in part because it was his nature to do so, he treated his flock with brusque and tyrannical disregard. He brooked no disrespect, and, above all, he did not take guff.

So the days grew, guffless and tranquil. And man and sheep grazed the hills in spring, and the valleys in winter; traveling in serene reciprocity: the one deriving market value and meals, and the other - well, you would have to ask the sheep what profit the association brought to them.

One day, quite by accident, the shepherd discovered another use for the citizens of his imaginary nation.

The past winter had been harsh, and of late there had been increasing incidents of wolf depredation throughout the countryside. It was said that not only sheep, but dogs and shepherds as well, had been ravaged by the opportunistic beasts. And now not a day passed that he did not find some evidence of pack activity - tracks across the graze, or occasional glimpses of swift dark forms darting through the deep wood.

One morning, several of the dogs began barking loudly at the edge of the wood. The shepherd realized that a lamb must have strayed into the dense trees. And though the thought of what else might be in there seized him with numbing dread, he gathered up his courage and stepped into the wood.

There, in a clearing, as he expected, he found the remains of the lamb. With swiveling head and sweat streaming like tears he fled.

There were no signs of wolves for the rest of the day.

He gave considerable thought to this change of habit, and it came to him that the wolves might feel no need to venture beyond the trees if that which they sought were brought to them instead. And so the devoured lamb became the first of many sacrificial offerings.

These acts of propitiation seemed to him the wiser course. Though he now lost more sheep to the wolves than he might otherwise, the risk to his own person was greatly diminished. And they were, as he had observed, only sheep after all. Each day he would select a single sheep and carry it into the trees, and that sheep would be seen and heard no more - nor would its attackers. And thus the days unfolded in wolfless content.

One day, while sitting on a hillside, looking down upon the flock and reflecting on how much he hated them, a ewe of singular appearance detached herself from the group and approached the shepherd. The shepherd did not like this. "This is not right," he thought, "This is not sheep-like."

This had all the earmarks of guff.

When she stood before him, the ewe said "Excuse me, sir, a moment of your time?"

Here you must bear in mind that, were you to be a shepherd for many years, you might have seen many things stranger than a talking sheep. For that matter, if you live long enough, without regard to occupation, you will find the years to have greatly diminished your capacity for surprise.

"All right," said the shepherd, "But know that I am not a man for guff."

"And certainly, none is intended" replied the sheep respectfully.

"We are concerned," she said, "We notice that each day you carry a single sheep into the wood, and then that sheep is seen and heard no more. What's up with that?" She waited patiently for his reply.

After some consideration, the shepherd said "Those sheep have sacrificed themselves in a great cause."

"And what cause would that be, boss?" asked the ewe.

"The cause of selfless patriotism," he answered, "Their sacrifice ensures the welfare of the flock." He paused and looked reverently at the sky. "In their sacrifice they are made noble and saintly," he said.

"Saintly," said the ewe, "As in 'dead'?"

"Quite," replied the shepherd, "The highest form of patriotism."

"Well, I'm all for patriotism," said the sheep, "Still, I wonder, boss: if we keep up all this noble sacrifice, won't the entire flock disappear eventually?" She smiled to indicate that she meant no offense, but the shepherd took no notice.

Shepherds are blind to the faces of sheep.

"I guess," he replied, "But we will have demonstrated our resolve."

The ewe stood silent for a moment, then asked "If you don't mind, boss, what is your part in all this saintliness?"

"My part," said the shepherd, arising and reaching for his crook, "Is having to listen to... GUFF FROM INSOLENT SHEEP!" And he swung the crook at the ewe, but missed, and she trotted quickly back to the flock.

Afterwards, the shepherd became aware of an increasing hubbub of activity surrounding the upstart ewe. For the remainder of the day she went among the flock, gathering them into tight lanolin clusters, and engaging them in what appeared to be deep and earnest conversation. The shepherd strained to eavesrop but heard only uninformative "Baaas."

Shepherds are deaf to the words of sheep.

It made him nervous, but he could think of little to do about it. Still, he thought, if nothing else he had at least identified tomorrow's offering.

The following morning, the shepherd awoke to find the flock gone.

He searched for them in dazed disbelief. They were nowhere upon the graze. Finally, not knowing what to think , he went into the wood.

There, upon a stump in the clearing, he found a large strip of tree bark covered with crude lettering the color of the surrounding berry bushes:

"Goodbye, boss," it read, "Sorry we're not as patriotic as you. We've gone to find some other way to be saintly."

As he read, he became aware of shuffling noises among the trees. Then a wolf stepped into the clearing. Then another. And then another and another.

And then they made him saintly.

In the noisy and untidy haste of his canonization, the shepherd had had no opportunity to read the last line of the message:

"We may be sheep, but we're not crazy."

Hank Blakely