Shepherd Thy Flock
by Kelvin Knight
I am not religious. I never have been. I think I never shall be. To flee
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.
to make room."
rotund barman chuckles.
make," I say, putting my life savings on the counter.
me fat men laugh. The barman stares until silence reigns.
I say softly. "Good shepherd."
All my money is taken without comment. My room is tiny and
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."
bawls the tallest teenager, grabbing my father's crook.
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
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.
"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
Smiling sweetly I lower to my haunches. The dog charges
over to me.
Jess," barks the man.
she licks my facial hair and responds warmly to my affection. I sense she has seen little. "Take gladly," I say.
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
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.
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.
crooks allowed either!"
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
back where you belong!"
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
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
this what we died for?" says a wispy image of my father.
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.
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!"
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,
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.
old-fashioned way," says the store man from Slaters.
a better shepherd than us," adds my grumpy farmer.
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
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
forgiven and forgotten.
©2006 Kelvin Knight
Kelvin would love to hear what you think of his writing - email him now