It is my job to watch the sheep. It is a very important job.
We are a small mountain village. The earth is too rocky for crops. My family, and many families, must sell the meat and the milk and the wool of our sheep, if we want to keep hunger from our hearth. A saying around here is “a well-kept flock is a well-kept home,” which means that my work is as important as any other man’s.
Guarding the flock usually falls to the father. We share the mountain with many wolves, and in the dark of night the danger is great. But my father is dead now, and Mother says I must take his place.
Other villagers argue with her in whispers. It is not right, they say. Sixteen years is not enough to guard against a wolf. And he is a delicate boy, they say, prone to fancies, he would make a good daughter if nature had willed it so. Sometimes I am angry when I hear them say this, and I puff up my chest and raise my head high and stare at them with steel in my eyes. When I hear the howl of wolves in the nighttime, I think they are right.
Mother does not answer to our neighbors. I remember when my father was alive and she would sing to me in the mornings and talk to the sheep as if they understood. Now she does little but stare into the cold hearth and drink the wine I buy at market.
I am also sad that Father is dead. He was not a big man but seemed so when he spoke. His voice was deep and quick, and filled a room the way his frame did not.
He died last spring. He was out watching the sheep, and must have dozed. That morning there was nothing left but his boots and a large stain, dark upon the ground. He did not approve of me, I know. Love, yes, but he would agree with the comments from the village. He would have taught me to guard the flock, to watch against wolves, would have plucked the delicacy from my frame and fancies from my head.
I must do it on my own. Mother cares for very little. Our way of life is a hard one, and I am learning my lessons quickly. Our cottage is far from the stream and the market. Sheep are filthy animals, encrusted with their own muck, and they do not respond to my hands. The stall keepers at market are very good to me, giving me odd ends of their wares, and our wool is not worth the price they pay for it.
Sometimes I try to rouse Mother from her dark dreams. I am afraid to build a fire, but dislike a grey hearth and a cold supper. But if she is not crying she rages. She misses her husband, and I am not enough like him, in frame or skill. I suppose looking at me reminds her of what she lost, and what cannot be replaced.
There is nothing to fear but what we always fear in the dark of night.
It is my job to watch the sheep. It is a very important job. This is what I tell myself.
Even when it is cold outside, and dark, and the ground is damp, and I would much rather be in my bed.
The first howl I heard made me rush into our cottage and slam the door. This roused Mother. You are letting our sheep be eaten, she snapped, as I cowered against the door. Do you want us to lose our flock to the fangs and tearing claws of the mountain wolf? I did not say that the sheep did little for us if no one is to shear them or card the wool. She dealt me a blow and sent me out again.
Now the latchstring is kept in. I sit on the fence-post and pass the time.
After a day of much walking and many chores I begin to nod. To stay awake I test my balance on top of the fence. With wide-stretched arms I put one foot in front of the other. I am very careful, but a sudden gust of wind from down the mountain knocks me over.
“Are you all right?” a voice calls. Not my mother. A man, coming up the slope towards me, a man I have never seen before.
“Are you hurt?” he asks again. The fall knocked the wind out of me, but nothing hurts. I nod, still sitting on the damp ground.
He sits down next to me. “I’m Callum,” he says. “Traveling cobbler, at your service.”
“Duncan,” I say, still breathless. “Protector of the flock. At the service of the sheep.”
He chuckles. I feel it travel through the earth, rippling out in waves under my body. “I suppose I can’t ask you to be at my service,” he says.
I stand. There is more to be afraid of in this world than wolves. The townsfolk gossip about every traveller. The cobbler, the wheelwright, the tinker, the whipmaker. Some men have no wife or hearth to keep them in place. Some men are light of foot, going where the wind blows, dissolute and prodigal. Some men ply more than their trade in towns.
Callum stands next to me. He mimics my posture, leaning against the fence, arms crosses. The only light comes from the stars and the moon, but I see a twinkle in his eye. “So, Duncan,” he says. “Why is a wisp of a lad like you doing the job of a man?”
This is a question with too many answers, none I like to give. I hear a howl in the distance.
He leans toward me, a question in his eyes. He brushes a strand of hair from in front of my eyes. I look past him, into the dark. I’m shivering.
“WOLF!” I cry. He startles back, glances quick over his shoulder. He looks back at me in puzzlement, but I continue to raise the alarm. “Wolf! WOLF! A WOLF IS COME!”
The door of my cottage flings open. Callum wastes not a moment and slips away down the slope, quick and quiet, melting into the darkness. My mother, out the door, iron poker upraised.
She sees me leaning against the fence, and slows her pace. Where is the wolf, she asks.
He was here, I say. My cry must have frightened him off.
Mother looks at me, a dart in eyes that have been blurred of late.
There was a wolf, I tell her. I swear it. Perhaps a timid one, but he was scared off by my voice.
The first tendrils of dawn are spreading through the sky, and I am shivering. Mother lets me in. I try to comfort myself, in a way I learned alone, cold hands and warmth below. But comfort did not come that way. I lay abed through the morning, though sleepless.
This night I sit firmly on the fence. No more tumbling for me, but this time I knew to bring a pastime to keep from dozing. He will not dare to come tonight, I tell myself. There is nothing to fear but what we always fear in the dark of night.
Father and I used to whittle in front of the fire, side by side. There is joy in watching cunning figures emerge from a bit of wood, and my hands are nimble and strong. My knife is sharp. I cast about until I found a thick branch, snapping off the ends till it is stout and true.
Not a sigh. Not a growl. Not a hiss.
The moon is full and bright. I think to make a gift for mother, so that she might smile. I place blade to wood and begin to carve.
There are enough sheep in our life. I remember being a child, walking to market, holding hands with mother and father, swinging in the middle. We stopped to let a mother duck cross, followed by her peeping ducklings. I remember the laughter that came from my own Mother, pure and clear, bell-like. I will make her a duck, and see if that can’t bring her some joy.
I am fashioning the beak, intent on my work, when I hear the call again.
“Oi! Some watchman are you! If I were a wolf I would have ravished half your flock by now.”
I look up, and there he is again. The same dark cloak, the same worn boots. His face stern, but a smile in his voice. I put my head back down; watch my hands as they scrape the blade over branch.
I feel the fence shudder as he pulls himself up next to me. “I asked after you,” he says. “Not directly, mind you, not ‘who’s the young man up the mountain, too pretty for his own good if you know what I mean.’ But indirect. Tell me about this and that, and so and so. And your story came out from more than a few.”
I keep my head down. A question slips out despite myself. “And what did you learn?”
“You’re a good lad, they say. Doing a man’s job after the tragic death of your father. They allow you’re a bit different. Not weak, never weak, but carved more from willow than mountain stone. They don’t know quite what they mean. But I think I do.”
I turn my duck over. Should the legs be tucked against her body? Or outstretched? I smooth out her belly while I think.
“What do they mean,” I allow. I know what they say, but not how I know. No one would say to me directly. A look passed between the baker and his wife, when I remark on the decorated cakes. A comment from a farmer about his brother in another town, unmarried, you know. My father once broke a man’s arm, but would not tell me why. What could this stranger clear up?
He smiles. His weight shifts slightly towards me. There’s a hand on my thigh. Large, and warm. The warmth travels up to my face, and down.
I breathe out. Not a sigh. Not a growl. Not a hiss. But the sound from deep within my throat is like the cold wind whipping from the mountain peaks, the roar of the creek when engorged with snowmelt.
He moves closer. “Do you want to hear what they say about you,” he asks, “or do you want me to show you?”
I think I know. But I want him to show me. His hand starts to move; the sound of his breath matches mine. I grab the fence for support. The knife and the duck drop to the ground. Suddenly I hear everything—the rustle of wolves in the distance, my mother stirring in her lonely bed, the man doing my job on the next farm keeping his own self awake. I suddenly remember how sound travels in our valley, how we know who is beating whom, who is sneaking where, and with his hand pumping and my heart pounding “Wolf!” I shout, “WOLF! A WOLF IS COME.”
He curses, leaps off the fence, hurtles away. I fall off the fence, again, pants tangled around my ankles. I jerk them up, and no sooner is my backside covered but the door opens again. My mother, stepping out, poker held loosely by her side. Again she sees no wolf, only her son on the ground, flushed and panting.
I was asleep, she says. Her eyes narrow and her jaw clenched. I was asleep, and dreaming of better days. Where is the wolf?
There was a wolf, I say. She comes towards me, teeth bared. My cry must have frightened her off.
Mother stares at me. I do not think she believes me. I pick up the duck and the knife and climb onto the fence again. She tells me to come in at first light, and closes the door behind her. I try to finish what Callum started, but spend the rest of the night and day in anticipation. Waiting for something that I hoped would not come again.
It is night, and I am watching the sheep. I am wondering how well they know each other. Are there enmities among sheep? Amities? Are there plots amongst them, machinations beyond our ken, lust and rage and disdain that pass past human eyes? Or do they crop the grass, make their milk, grow their wool, and think of naught?
Or is it betwixt the two? Sometimes one will nuzzle me as I feed it, and I doubt I’m mistaken in thinking it affection. On warm days they drowse with what seems like contentment. Tonight I hear the occasional bleat, and see heads toss. They are wary.
I am wary. In the market today I hear that the cobbler has left early, leaving many a wife angry about the state of her family’s boots.
He would be a fool to return. He has moved on to another town. Another youth in need of an education. A student more apt than I. I sip from the jug of wine secreted from my mother’s store. Perhaps I will be a tinker or a cobbler. A travelling wood carver. A jack of all trades. I sip and stare out at the uneasy flock.
The moon is high in the sky, and I feel warm. The sheep are murmuring, and my body is melting into the fence. I look down. There is a hand on either side of my body. Not my hands. A voice rasps behind me. “Will you watch this flock forever?”
“Only until daybreak,” I say. My voice is dreamy.
A chuckle. “I mean in your life. Forever you’ll cling to this mountain, these sheep, these folk?”
“What else is there?” I ask.
“I could use an apprentice,” he says. “You’ll be a journeyman by the time you’re a man grown. You’ll have a livelihood, an honest one, that can take you anywhere.”
“You’ll train me to be a cobbler,” I say, a hint of a question in my voice.
There is a silence. I hear him breathing, imagine I can feel his breath on my neck, though I’m perched above him on the fence. “That too, yes,” he finally says.
Then the sheep are bleating, loud, some are running, some are frozen. Too late my eyes focus on the wolves slinking out from the treeline, low to the ground, ears pricked.
“Well?” Callum asks.
I find my voice. “Wolf!” I scream, louder than ever. “Wolves! The wolves! The wolves are here!”
The cottage stays dark. The door is shut. A wolf springs, ravenous, and there are screams from the flock, but I am running down the mountain path, Callum laughing by my side.
K.P. Lukoff is a writer based in New York City.