The Tale of the Herder-Sheep


There once was a wealthy landowner, who had made his fortune from raising sheep and selling clothes made from their luxurious wool. The fields on which his sheep lived were replete with pastures of rich grass, and streams of crystal clear water. The fields were enclosed by a fence of thick strands of barbed wire threaded through sturdy fence posts. The fence served two purposes – they kept hungry wolves from getting in, and protected the sheep from wandering out.

Wolves weren’t the only danger to wandering sheep. The land outside the landowners’ fields was covered with thorn bushes, whose fragrant and sweet-tasting leaves were a constant source of tasty temptation to his sheep. But the leaves’ sweetness was a cover for the dangerous toxin they held inside. Any creature that ate them would fall into a deep sleep so that they leaned into the bush’s thorny branches, becoming easy prey for the opportunistic wolves that hovered in wait nearby.

Each year, the landowner set aside a group of sheep and marked a small spot on the wool on their side with scarlet dye. Then he would carefully train them to become herder-sheep, who would help care for and protect the rest of the flock flock. The job of herder-sheep was to keep the flock moving from pasture to pasture, feasting on pastures of green grass and drinking deeply from the streams of water that ran through them.  Well-nourished sheep wouldn’t be enticed by the sweet smell of the thorn bushes that would waft across the fence and draw them toward it, where their soft wool might become ensnared by the barbed wire. In the struggle that would inevitably ensue, panicking sheep could loosen the fence posts, making openings for other sheep to wander through, so that both entangled and wandering sheep together became meals for the ever-watchful wolves.

Each day, herder-sheep strolled through the fields, nudging their fellow sheep towards the rich grass and cool water, and away from the sharp edges of the fence. Other herder-sheep walked the fence’s inner perimeter, stomping on the base of the fence posts with their hard hooves to keep each one straight, as leaning fence posts created gaps in the fence just big enough for a curious sheep to get through and out into danger. And as they walked, they would also stomp out the stray thorn bush seedlings that would drift on the wind over the fence and attempt to take root amongst the healthy grass.

The work was tiring, difficult, and often thankless, so herder-sheep loved nothing more than to gather together at the end of a long day to talk, trading tips about grass varietals, debating the merits of various fence post stomping techniques, and commiserating over particularly stubborn or needy sheep in their care. The camaraderie and conversation was so refreshing that, over time, they looked for more opportunities to gather together. Gradually, the time the herder-sheep spent talking amongst themselves grew longer and longer, and the time they spent amongst the sheep grew less and less.

One day, the herder-sheep were heavily engrossed in debate about the optimal distance for the strands of barbed wire in a fence. Some sheep that had had their fill of the grass and water nearest them, and were in need of direction to find different places to graze, began to grow restless. The intoxicating scent from the thorn bushes wafted across the fields, drawing the sheep to graze closer and closer to them, and to the fence meant to keep them safe. A neglected fence post leaned precariously, and a hungry sheep unwittingly bumped against it as she grazed, creating an opening between the strands of barbed wire. One grey sheep, spotting a nice patch of grass on the other side of the fence, strolled through the gap and out into the open land to graze on it hungrily. Several of her friends spotted her, and tried to follow her lead, but the opening wasn’t quite large enough for them to go through together. Their soft wool became snarled in the barbed wire, and in their growing panic to break free, they began to loosen other fence posts nearby, making more gaps in the fence through which other curious and hungry sheep began to go.

By now, the grey sheep had discovered a large thorn bush only a short distance away from the open fence, and had begun to feast on its sweet leaves. In no time, the soporific effect took hold, and she fell into a deep sleep and into the bushes’ thorny branches. The moment her head fell against the branches, an enormous wolf sprung from behind a nearby rock, tore at her throat and began to tear it apart.

Some sheep that were still deep inside the field began to bleat in distress, trotting towards the herder-sheep to sound the alarm. Still deep in conversation with one another, the herder-sheep turned away in annoyance at the noise that made it so difficult to hear. Finally, one turned to see what all the fuss was about, and he bleated in dismay. Fence posts were leaning left and right, with enormous gaps in the wire. Dozens of sheep had escaped, while dozens more were entangled in wire and bleating weakly. The wolf that had polished off the grey sheep in the thorn bushes had now turned to one of the sheep trapped in the wire, with other wolves racing towards their brother to join the feast.

Bleating the alarm to his brethren, the herder-sheep raced towards the nearest opening and the sheep who was about to walk through it. He butted his head firmly against her to move her back to safety, but the hungry sheep just bleated in anger and ran through another nearby gap into the open land where new grass and thorn bushes beckoned. The herder-sheep continued to cry out to his herder comrades to help and a few eventually broke away to corral the scattered flock. But many others just huddled together all the more closely to try to block out the cacophony, noting to one another with concern how needlessly loud and emotionally fragile some sheep could be.

Finally, the cries of the herder-sheep and the panicked bleating of the flock grew so loud that they reached the ears of the landowner. Looking through a window and spying the chaos in the distance, he ran outside and mounted his fastest white horse, rifle at his side. Racing towards the field as fast as his horse would take him, he fired a shot that felled the closest feasting wolf and scattered the others. Then he flung open the gate, and corralled all the sheep that had not yet become entangled in the broken fence or poisonous thorn bushes back inside to safety.

He spent hours setting the fence to rights, untangling the sheep who had not succumbed to injury or attack and returning them to safety, while taking the mangled forms of the ones who had and tossing them far away, where the eager wolves lay in wait.

Only when the last fence post had been put right, and the last surviving sheep was secure inside his fields, did he begin to look for the feckless herder-sheep who had failed him and caused him such loss. With a pair of shears in his hand, and tears of anger and grief streaming down his cheeks, he walked with purpose through the flock, looking for the telltale scarlet dye that marked a herder. Each one he found, he sheared off with grim resolve.

When the last herder-sheep was bereft of his mark, he left the sheep to rest, making sure the gate was firmly locked. After one final look over his flock, mounted his horse and rode slowly home, already thinking about the next morning, and how he would begin the hard work of marking and training new herder-sheep all over again, and how he would ensure they did better than the ones before.

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