The Wanderers

The Wanderers

A Short Story by Paul Teese

Enoch looked up at the cold dark night sky, speckled with stars, and searched for wanderers.

As a shepherd he knew the stars just as he knew his flock. But he viewed them differently than most of the kingdom’s shepherds. Most of the others were boys. When they raised their heads to the night sky they looked for visions. They could easily find the lions, bears, rams and human figures they’d been taught to see. But they wanted more. Not Enoch. When he looked up at the night sky, he saw only stars, beautiful bountiful stars, and the wanderers.

The wanderers were few in number. One was reddish and would range far and wide over the course of a year, drifting from one constellation to another. A whiter one stayed nearer to the sun. At sunrise or sunset it would be found, not far above the tops of the rugged ancient hills.

Those hills were green now. The rains of winter and early spring had brought shoots of grass and wildflower. So Enoch had half-led and half-followed the sheep up to the heights, arriving before other flocks, even before the lambing season was finished.

Up here the grazing was good and the stars were bright but the nights were cold. Reclined on a rock, he reached down and wrapped his cloak more tightly over his legs, then returned his arm under his head for a pillow. He looked up and spotted the red wanderer. The boys would have likened it to a wolf with a bloody mouth amidst a flock of scattered sheep.

Many of the boys tended family flocks so close to the village they returned home each evening to be fed supper and sleep in a bed. Most had never seen a wolf, yet they would spend hours practicing with their slings anyway, as if that would do them any good.

Enoch knew such family life would never be his and he had stopped giving it much thought. He had been an orphan, destined to poverty. The flock he tended belonged to a rich man who paid him wages for its care. And he was odd looking and stank of sheep. Not much of a suitor. Anyway, the village maidens looked down on all shepherds, even if pleasing to the eye.

It was time to leave the rock and return to the lean-to he’d thrown up. He sat up and looked over a landscape lit by a gibbous moon. He saw expansive slopes cut by ravines, a rocky ridge higher up and groves of scrubby trees below. Groupings of ewes and their lambs were clumped here and there. He looked and listened. They seemed restive. There was too much bleating and a few had got to their feet.

* * *

A lone wolf has no use for visions and this one, an old female, lived through her senses, memory and instinct.

At dusk she’d been lying in wait to ambush a hare when a balmy breeze swept up the hillside from the valley below. She yawned and raised her snout to the air. Her nostrils flared as she detected a scent. Something new was on the slope.

The scent brought a primal memory. It was bigger prey, a kind that came only in season, a kind she had not tasted for a year. Even at great distance their thick oily coats, warmed by the afternoon sun, announced their arrival. For the wolf it stirred vivid memories of biting hard on a pulsing throat as hooves thrashed wildly in the air, her nose buried so deep in the pungent wool she could hardly breathe. The smell of the blood-soaked fleece would stay with her forever.

This kind of prey was easy to take and kill, almost defenseless. But they were guarded by traitor dogs and another creature that wanted them all to itself. It would begrudge the taking of even a single bleater, and it would try to drive her away. Often this creature reared up on two legs, balancing itself for long periods, as if trying to seem bigger than it was.

The wolf hated them, and her hate was more than instinct. Years before she had fought one over a dead lamb. She had been struck viciously with a spiked club the thing had wielded with its forelimb. Her shoulder was injured, and when she and her mate were later challenged by an invading pack they were unable to defend their territory, their pups or themselves. Ever since, she had roamed the highlands alone, unmated.

She licked her lips, swallowed and got off her haunches. She would close ground before nightfall. Heading downwind she set off at a trot. As the breeze diminished and the rustling of grass stilled she could detect sounds at a greater distance. She paused, ears erect, twitching each in turn. There was faint bleating. She carried on and the calls grew louder. She came to a halt. The bleaters were over the next ridge. She skulked behind an outcrop and lifted her head. There. But with guardians.

She would watch and wait, biding her time. Darkness would be her cover. There would be no chase. Not as there would be with a pack. Her attack would be sudden and lethal.

* * *

When some ewes had stood, Enoch got to his feet as well. It seemed as if a nearby gully was the source of unease. He would have a look. He was glad he’d left the dogs lounging at the lean-to. He wanted the flock settled, not agitated, and having the dogs bounding about might make the ewes more nervous.

He’d left his rod, a club-like bludgeon, back at the lean-to, wanting to feel unburdened while gazing at the stars. It felt safe enough. The last few seasons he’d heard no howling on these slopes, seen no wolves. Anyway he had his staff which he now used as a walking stick on his way to the gully.

But as he neared he heard a nasty ruckus from below. And at the top of the embankment looking down he was stunned to find a massive wolf attacking a ewe. At first the beast was so intent on the kill, it didn’t even notice him. But when he started to jump and shout, the wolf spun, leaving the ewe limp, too maimed to flee.

With hackles raised and ears back, it bared its teeth and let out a long guttural snarl. Expecting it to stand its ground, Enoch was aghast when it hurtled up the incline toward him. For an instant he almost ran, but it would have been futile. Only because the wolf slipped on loose gravel did he have enough time to brace himself. Setting his feet, he held his staff in front like a bar on a door, gripping each end firmly. It saved him. As the wolf launched itself he caught its gaping jaws on his staff. There was a jarring impact accompanied by the click and scrape of teeth on wood. For an instant, they were face to face before toppling to the ground. Enoch fell backward. The wolf scrambled for purchase to no avail and slid back down into the gully.

They were both on their feet in no time, the wolf ready to charge again. This time Enoch pointed his staff like a spear, holding it low with both hands. But he saw to his horror it was now cracked and bent from the impact with the wolf’s maw. It would surely snap if his jab was true. At wit’s end, he raised the broken staff high over his head and waved it like a club. It seemed a flimsy threat compared to the bludgeon he’d left at the lean-to. But it worked. The wolf hesitated, reluctant to charge again.

Alerted by the shouting, the dogs arrived, barking incessantly, joining Enoch at his side. They kept their distance but the wolf had been sufficiently harassed. Knowing it would never be able to feed in peace, it broke off, spun abruptly and loped up the gully. The barking dogs followed, stopping when the wolf paused and glared. Enoch slid to the bottom of the gully, watched them disappear, then plopped to the ground.

When he’d caught his breath he turned to the motionless ewe. It was badly mauled and looked dead. He wondered how it had come to be in the gully anyway. It couldn’t have been dragged this far. It must have wandered here of its own accord before being attacked.

He looked more closely at the hind end. Even in the darkness of the gully he could make out an empty length of water bag resting lank on the ground. But there was more. Peering out was a small face, with two tiny hooves under its chin. The ewe had come here to lamb and died in the act.

He wondered if the lamb could be spared. It presented properly and was already half born. He might be able to pull it free, even with no push from the now dead ewe. Slicking his fingers on the bloody neck, he worked them behind lamb’s head, hooking the legs and placing the base of his thumbs behind the curve of the jaw. He pulled gently. Nothing. He pulled harder.

All at once the lamb slid out, a wet pile in his lap. He took the cord and bit through it. Then cradling the lamb in one arm, he brought it to its mother’s flank. It would never suckle here, but her fleece could be used to wipe the newborn clean. Cradling the lamb’s head in his broad hand, he pressed its face deep into the thick wool, clearing the nose, mouth and eyes. Then, holding it out like an offering accepted rather than given, he gave it a careful shake. Under the starry skies, he watched its ribcage expand.

It was cold and Enoch spent more time wiping the lamb dry. He had been unnerved by the ferocity of the wolf attack. His hands were still shaky. It was calming to handle the lamb.

But soon, it was time to return. Forgetting the staff was cracked, he reached for it and his hand touched fresh score marks and drool. He pulled back. He needed to carry the lamb, and that called for two hands anyway. Leaving his staff behind, he hoisted the lamb up over his head and around his neck, gripping two legs in each hand. He would shape another staff tomorrow.

* * *

The lamb shivered. It had been expelled from warmth into a cold unknown before. It had entered a new world, then been lifted half way to the stars. But on the shoulders of the shepherd, it had a better vantage to see all new things. Its sight was blurry, but it blinked its eyes and looked out at objects it would only come to understand with time. For now, as with all newborns, everything seen was awesome, wonderful and terrible. It was a vision, wholly and nothing but.

The lamb’s head wobbled as the shepherd lurched, finding his way over the rocky path back to the flock. The newborn was being taken to its own kind. By the light of day, the world would begin to look different.

Paul Teese was born and raised on Long Island. He attended Gettysburg College where he majored in Business Administration. Over his varied work life, he has been a tennis instructor, an officer in the USAF, a federal bureaucrat, an ecological researcher, an instructor at a university, the director of a small non-profit, and a candidate for public office. Along the way, he took a few years off to live on a commune where he learned to milk cows and weave hammocks. Now retired, he has recently taken up creative writing and is working on his first novel, The Flora of Heaven. He lives with his wife in a quiet village in rural upper Bucks County.