"The Shepherd of These Hills" by John Robinson

"Beneath the Snow Encumbered Branches"
Joseph Farquharson, 1901



It was colder than usual in the hills on Christmas Eve. It had never snowed at this low elevation before. The shepherd was wearing his coat lined with wool. Under his coat, he wore a sweater, shirt, and tee shirt. But the layers of clothing weren't keeping him warm. A mist enveloped the hills adding to the chill, and there was a thick snow covering. He just wasn't expecting the weather to be this miserable. He had no gloves or hat. His herd of fifty sheep weren't reaching grass through the snow, and he could tell they were hungry and irritated. He was a long way from his cabin. It would take him all night to get there, and the weather was unstable. He could get caught in a blizzard and become disoriented. And what about the sheep? He was afraid to leave them in the hills. If they starved to death, he would be held responsible. It would add to his mountain of debt.

"This might be the end", he thought gloomily. How will he make it through the night? With no way to get out of a blizzard, he would certainly suffer from hypothermia, and by morning he and the sheep might well be dead.

The worrying mood of the shepherd turned into a bitter reflection about his life in general. "Why do I have to be a lousy shepherd?" he asked himself, slapping his arms and shoulders to add a little warmth. His father had once owned the land he stood on, over a thousand acres of these hills. His father had made plans for the son. The son would inherit the property and continue to build on the thriving sheep and cattle business his father had started. The son would get a good education and become a leader in the agricultural community, but he would have other options as well: engineering, medicine, whatever he desired. None of those dreams materialized. His father became deeply in debt, then began to drink heavily to forget his troubles, and finally became ill as well. The land was sold to pay off the debts, but the funds fell short. The father died. The shepherd was left with next to nothing. He was forced to work for the new owner who paid him very little for long hours, and the shepherd was stuck doing the only job he knew how. He was not much better off than a slave. With what little money he made, he had to pay his creditors. He barely had enough for food and rent. Bitterly, he watched his friends succeed in fulfilling their dreams while he languished in these frigid hills once his, now managed by a stranger with no sympathy for either him or the sheep.

He couldn't help hating the sheep as well, though he never harmed or abused them. But he resented them. To him, they were the symbols of his failed, wasted life.

As his mood continued to sour, one bright thought occurred to him. He had been in such a hurry to get here, he was afraid he might have forgotten to bring the most important thing. He reached into the pocket of his wool lined jacket. Yes! The bottle was there. The brandy didn't appear to be frozen. A long pull of that brandy would be a welcome relief from the bleakness of this depressing night. He bent his head back and let the delicious dark amber liquid pour into his throat. A satisfying warmth flooded his stomach and he felt a tingling in his blood until the wave of alcohol reached his brain softening the edges of his anxiety. He laughed, or you could say, he heard himself laugh. He felt like he was two shepherds. One of him was drinking and the other was watching the drinker.

He took two more deep pulls of the brandy until the cold, while not going away by any means, began to seem less important. "I'll die tonight of hypothermia. So what? One less loser to clutter this sad universe."

Through the mist, he saw three white shapes heading in his direction. What were they? Robbers, murderers, monsters, or all three? He tried to run, but he couldn't get very far in the deep snow. They were faster. They seemed to float above the ground. Were they ghosts? The shepherd stopped, and in a moment, the three figures were the distance of his arm. He could see their shapes and he immediately knew who they were. They were three of his sheep. But why weren't they with the herd? Didn't they realize that away from the herd they were much easier for coyotes to catch? Why were they here?

The smallest of the three, a female, spoke to him. Her voice had a shaky quality. It was a strange mixture of a sheep's baahhh sound and a human voice. Her mouth actually moved making the words, but her lower jaw went side to side awkwardly. The English language she used had good grammar and she spoke with very clear pronunciation. The shepherd thought she was probably chosen by the group for her language skills. The other two sheep nodded in agreement or repeated her phrases. She assured him that he wasn't imagining their voices. She even called him by name, Greg Morton.

"Greg", she said. "You might think you are crazy or drunk because you can hear our voices. But we really are talking. You probably know the story about how the animals on Christmas Eve can talk. You thought it was just a story, another fairy tale to tell children at Christmas time. But it is true. We animals can talk on Christmas Eve, but we seldom use this power unless we have something important to say. Tomorrow, Christmas day, we will lose this capacity. So we really don't have much time to communicate with you."

Greg Morton covered his ears. This was very disturbing. It would have been better if they had been robbers, murderers, or monsters. He knew that he was bitter, that his life was bad. He was poor and trapped in a lonely, thankless job. He had no family or friends, only these brainless sheep for company. But he didn't understand that he was actually losing his mind. Only the insane converse with animals, he thought. He waved the intruders away.

"Go away. Go away. Leave me alone. Let me die in peace," he roared. The sheep, always obedient to the commands of their shepherd, backed off a few feet. But they went no further. Instead they looked at him with a combination of respect and pity in their eyes.

"Oh, go back to your flock, dumb, stupid animals! I hate your smell, your stupidity, your constant demands, your sheep illnesses, viruses. I cough every spring from sheering your fleece, the fine hairs congest my lungs even though I wear a mask."

"Greg Morton", another of the sheep spoke, a male this time. "We don't want you to die. You are our shepherd. You lead us to the streams and the best grass. You cared for us when we were lambs. You fed us from milk bottles with nipples when our mothers couldn't. You scare off coyotes who just want to kill us and eat us. We love you, our shepherd. We know you love us. You are as worried as we are about this night, and the ice that prevents us from grazing on the grass. This storm is not your fault."

"Greg Morton" the third sheep spoke. His voice was at a slightly higher pitch than the other male. "You have given so much of yourself to us, we want to help you tonight. Tell us your troubles, Greg. Tell us what we can do to help you."

By this time, Greg was feeling weaker. A numbness was overtaking his feet and moving slowly up his legs. He collapsed on the snow. He rambled, half drunk, to his new friends, forgetting the absurdity of the situation. The sheep listened to the story of his misery, poverty, and loneliness. They were sympathetic. They interrupted him every time he called himself a loser. "You are not loser" they said to him. "You are our shepherd". It looked as though Greg Morton only had status among the flock of dumb animals he was stuck with. And now, imagining they spoke, he realized that his unhappiness had finally snapped his mind. He closed his eyes and gave in to the freezing wind that was gradually numbing him and would soon take away all his pain.

As soon as their shepherd appeared to sleep, the sheep began to talk among themselves to try to find a solution to this problem. What will we do now? Our shepherd is dying of cold. We cannot let him die. "I know", said the female, "We must place our bodies over the body of our shepherd. Our wooly warmth will reduce the cold he is feeling."

"But", said the male with the deep voice, "We're very heavy. I'm afraid our weight will crush this delicate human being."

"We must try. We must try" said the other male. "We must dig our hooves into the snow so that not all our weight is on our shepherd. We must stay awake the entire night because if we sleep we'll forget our weight and it will be too much for Mr. Morton."

The female said, "I love our shepherd, Greg Morton. I want to be the one who is closest to him so that I can imagine he is my sheep lover."

"Yes, yes, and if his mouth reaches for your nipple, you can nurse him like a lamb."

So the three sheep gathered around the dying shepherd, protecting him from the bitter cold wind. They rubbed their warmth close to him, carefully pressing against him, breathing warm breath on him. They made sound so their bodies would vibrate, contributing to their shepherd's healing. They sang Christmas carols. They chanted the 23rd Psalm, again and again, in unison. "The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the still waters, he nourishes my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me."

But the blizzard was only beginning. As the night progressed, the storm grew worse. The temperature dropped to even lower levels. Even the sheep were afraid they would die of cold. So they prayed, and prayed. And their prayers were heard above the storm.

Where the hills came together, the sun appeared sending warming beams over the blanket of snow. The group of four was in the same place. One man, Greg Morton, with three sheep pressed around him. The man woke from a deep sleep. The sheep surrounding him, realizing that he was alive, parted.

Down the hill, the shepherd could see that the flock had managed to part the snow and had found a nice patch of green. They were feeding contentedly.

"All right," he said to the three sheep that had saved his life, "Thank you very much. It was nice talking to you," affection mixed with the tone of authority in his voice. "Without you, I wouldn't be alive today. I'm thankful more than I can say. Go now, your pasture is waiting for you."

The three moved off to graze with the others, the bells on the collars rang in the cold sunrise. Greg Morton held his face towards the sun, closed his eyes, and smiled gratefully.

It was Christmas Day.

COMPREHENSION CHECK

1. Three shapes approached Greg Morton in the snow. They were _____________________ .
a: sheep
b: robbers
c: monsters
d: ghosts

2. Greg Morton wasn't depressed because ________________ .
a: he owed money to creditors
b: the new owner of the land didn't treat him well
c: his friends were getting good jobs
d: he remembered to bring the brandy

3. The sheep could talk because _____________________.
a: they weren't really sheep
b: on Christmas Eve, animals can talk
c: a special computer can convert sheep sounds into human speech
d: Greg Morton trained their voices

4. The father began a successful sheep and cattle business but _________________ .
a: his competitors took away his business
b: his son refused to help him
c: debts added up that he couldn't pay
d: coyotes killed his sheep

5. Of the group of three sheep surrounding Greg Morton to keep him warm, the closest to him was ____________________ .
a: the male with the low voice
b: the female
c: the male with the high pitch voice
d: none of the sheep. They took turns.

6. The sheep were afraid to fall asleep because _____________________ .
a: their weight might crush the human being
b: they might walk away in their sleep leaving their shepherd
c: coyotes might attack them
d: they might freeze to death and not know it


7. When the sun came up from between the two hills, _________________ .
a: Greg Morton saw that the sheep had left him
b: Greg Morton found himself in bed at his cabin
c: Greg Morton was grateful to the sheep that he was alive
d: Greg Morton found out that the female had given birth to a lamb

8. The true Christmas message of this story could be "_________________ ."
a: Sheep really care for their shepherd
b: The best way to survive is to have good friends
c: The greatest Christmas gift is life itself
d: It is possible to rise above your condition if you work hard

9. Hypothermia is the medical term for ____________________ .
a: loss of body heat
b: a bad case of the flu
c: gradual numbness of the legs and feet
d: delusions from alcohol consumption

10. Greg Morton wasn't prepared for the cold evening in the hills because ___________________ .
a: he had forgotten his bottle of brandy
b: his cell phone wasn't charged
c: he didn't expect this much cold and snow at such a low elevation
d: he left his boots back at the cabin

The art of Scottish Landscape Painter, Joseph Farquharson, who painted wonderful winter landscapes:



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