A soft breeze blew over the hills and through the quiet little town, rushing by a young boy walking briskly out of his house and into the meadow. The boy sat down upon a small stone wall, brushed his bare feet against the dew resting on the green grass, and gazed out into the sky, waiting for the sunrise, just as he did every morning; but this morning, something different happened.
He was about seven years old and wore a light brown tunic and sometimes sandals, which he didn’t like to wear. He had deep brown eyes and the most incredible smile; but he wasn’t smiling now. His mouth hung open in wonder as he watched another young boy herding a flock of sheep his way. The shepherd boy was about eight.
“Good morning,” said the shepherd boy.
“Good morning,” said the younger one. The younger boy began to ask many questions about sheep and shepherding and about the town where this young boy was from as he stroked the wool of a young lamb that had climbed up into his arms. The shepherd boy answered matter-of-factly, feeling important to know so many things another did not know.
“And your parents?” asked the younger boy.
“I don’t have any,” said the young shepherd, “I live with a foster father and his wife,” he said.
“Oh,” said the younger boy. They both paused for a moment. Then the older boy’s expression changed dramatically.
“Would you like to come with us?” he said, “My foster father and I are gathering sheep to take up to the mountains for grazing and we’re leaving today. You’d love it!”
The younger boy’s eye widened and that wonderful smile rose on his face. “I will ask,” he said, eagerly. He hugged the lamb, kissed it on the forehead, and then set it down gently and ran off all excited.
He arrived home just as his mother was making breakfast. She was kneading dough by the window with her back towards him and he washed his hands noisily in the wash basin without her asking, since he knew she liked him clean. He then crept up behind her, nestled his head under her arm, and hugged her.
“Whatchya’ doing Mommy?” he said, with a very innocent voice, “Can I help you?” She smiled and kissed his forehead, blowing off the flour from his hair that he had already managed to get dusted with.
In no time the boy had bundled up all his things and taken care of a few extra chores around the house and the workshop, before listening to his mother tell him many things that by all means he was never to do and what he should do in case of every bad thing possible happening. The boy was patient and too happy not to be, and he listened to his mother and then gave her a big kiss and hug; and after she gave him three of both, he said goodbye to his father and hugged his mother one last time, and he was off.
He ran across the meadow, looking back now and again to wave to his mom (who was waving the whole time and being held by her husband). The boy couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for her since he knew it would be hard for her. He began to miss her too, but was overjoyed at the thought of this first great adventure he would have away from home.
It began as a very wonderful first day. The young boy hit it off well with the shepherd from the start, as he had done with his adopted son that morning, and he felt what his father had said about the shepherd was very true: that he was a very good man indeed.
They walked a while with the sheep following behind, slowing climbing upwards, then heading into a small valley, then up a bigger hill than before, and another and another. The boy and his young shepherd friend had fun running in between the sheep and lambs and riding them from time to time until they knocked them off. The shepherd dogs were very friendly to the boy, as were their puppies who licked his face excitedly when he held them. Even more than all of that, the young boy liked walking with and talking to the tall shepherd and his son most of all.
“Why do they follow you?” asked the little boy.
“My sheep hear my voice,” he said, “I know them, and they follow me.” He put his hand on his son’s head. “Just as I know my son and he knows me,” he said, both of them smiling, “I would lay down my life for him.”
“They do not follow the voice of strangers,” said the younger shepherd.
The young boy’s face was still full of questions. “But what about the other sheep that belong to the people in the town that you are grazing?” he asked.
“These also I must lead, it is my duty,” said the shepherd, “And they will learn to hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
They continued in this way for some time, until the shepherd saw that they were heading into a dark forest down below. He gripped his staff and looked kindly at the boys below him.
“Did you know that King David was a shepherd once?” he asked.
“Oh yes!” said the little boy, smiling.
“And he tore lions and bears apart with his bare hands!” said the shepherd boy, roaring like a warrior and waving his small staff in the air.
“Yes,” said his father, catching the staff in midair, “And did you know that he wrote songs and sang them while he kept his sheep.”
The young boy smiled and nodded.
The shepherd’s eyes fixed again at the gloom down below. “Would you like to hear one?” he asked.
The boy nodded again.
“Very well,” said the shepherd, “This one is my favorite.”
And he began:
“The Lord is my shepherd;
There is nothing I shall want.
He guides me to green pastures;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
He refreshes my soul.
You walk with me on the right path
For your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil for you are at my side;
Your rod and your staff give me comfort and courage…”
All through the dark woods the shepherd recited these songs, and by the time he was done, they had already passed through the shadows and into the sun, where they let the herd graze by a cool stream that ran down from the mountains and made the land around it greener than anything the boy had ever seen before.
Just then there was a rustling in the trees beside the water upstream and the shepherd boy stood up and pointed, but before he could say anything, his father raised his finger to his lips, signaling him to be silent. Out from the bushes stepped a beautiful light brown deer. It had long thin antlers on its head, brown spots on its back and a soft bright white tail which stood on end as it surveyed its onlookers. It caught the eyes of the young boy who gazed in wonder for he had never seen an animal so beautiful before. The deer put its head down and began to drink, feeling safe though near strangers, and the little boy heard the shepherd whisper,
“Like a deer that longs for running streams,My soul longs for you my God.
When will I see the face of God?
Bring me to your holy mountain.”
And when the deer had finished drinking, it looked again at the littlest boy, who smiled back, and then the deer turned back into the thicket, and was gone.
They stayed at the river for some time, allowing the flock to drink and rest, while they did the same. The little boy was helping an older sheep find a good place to drink when he fell into the water and bobbed up with a surprised gasp. The shepherd dove into the river in a flash and quickly carried the boy to the shore. The boy shivered and shook off while the shepherd wrapped a heavy cloak around him and started a fire. The boy looked up at him.
“Thank you,” he said. The shepherd smiled back.
“Father,” asked the shepherd boy, who was helping his dad feed the fire, “When are we meeting up with the rest of the flock?”
“The rest of the flock?” asked the little boy through his chattering teeth.
“That’s right,” said the shepherd boy, “Father’s got a hired hand bringing in more from the towns on the other side of the forest and we meet up in the middle before we go up to the mountains. So when are we meetin’ him Dad?”
“Don’t worry son, we should meet him tonight before sundown,” he said, “Then we will set up camp and be off to the mountains tomorrow morning.”
It wasn’t long before the boy was dry, or at least said he was ready since he was even more eager to go on to see the flock they had spoken about. Already, they had nearly seventy sheep, goats, and lambs in all and from what his friend had told him, there would be well over a hundred altogether before sundown.
As they reached the rise of what the shepherd said should be the last hill that day, the shepherd’s eyes widened and he froze suddenly, looking down into the valley below in horror.
“Stay here!” he said sternly, and he ran down the steep hillside and vanished into the thicket below. Both of the boys stood silent as they stared down past the bushes. There upon the open field were the sheep, bleating loudly, swirling around in a frantic white blob with what must have been twenty grey dots charging at them from all sides. Wolves! Several of the sheep had been picked out of the herd and were running in every direction. There was no sign of the man who the shepherd had hired from what they could see.
“Dad needs help! Let’s go!” shouted the shepherd boy excitedly, swinging his staff in front of him.
“No,” said the smaller boy, “Remember what he said.”
But the shepherd boy didn’t want to remember. He charged down into the thicket and the younger boy ran after him, yelling at him to stop.
The shepherd boy reached an opening in the brush and raised his staff, ready to charge. Thump! All of a sudden he was on the ground: his young friend had tackled him from behind.
“What are you doing?” whispered the shepherd boy in an annoyed tone of voice.
“Trying to save your life!” whispered the younger boy.
They both lay motionless on the ground and turned their heads towards the action. The sheep were frantically running every which way while the shepherd tried to herd them into a cave a few yards away, while fighting off the whole pack of wolves. He swung strong and with precision – striking them one by one across the muzzle, knocking teeth out and sending them away bleeding. One of them jumped at him from behind and the shepherd turned just in time and drew a knife from his belt, slashing the beast across the eyes. It staggered away yelping. Another came at him from the front: it was huge and it lunged at him with all fangs barred, but the shepherd caught its throat with his blade and ripped out its gullet. The wolf fell to the ground, dead. Suddenly there was a long howl and the boys saw a large black wolf, twice as big as all the rest with large white fangs and piercing white eyes. It stepped out onto the edge of the field and howled again, calling off the attack, for now. The wolves scampered into the forest and disappeared into the shadows.
The shepherd lowered his staff, wiped the sweat from his brow and the blood from his knife, and breathed a sigh of relief. The sheep were safe in the cave. He walked over to another staff that was lying on the ground, a few feet away from where the herd had been minutes before, and knelt down, putting his head into his hands. The boys watched and listened intently and heard him say sadly,
“He didn’t even try; he didn’t even try.”
They crept up the hill out of the thicket and reached the herd well before the shepherd returned. His son said nothing about what he had done and the younger boy didn’t either. The shepherd didn’t say much himself, just that they were going to move the herd to a safer place before nightfall.
They counted the sheep. Nine had fallen in the attack, as far as dead bodies went, though no one knew how many had been dragged off by the wolf pack. That made one hundred in all alive, exactly.
They led the herd out and the shepherd was silent all the way to the campsite. His son and the boy he placed within the herd to protect themselves and keep watch on all sides. Toward sundown they reached a tall cliff which stuck out abruptly from the meadow below. There were hoof prints here and charcoal and rocks from a fire lit long ago.
“We stop here,” said the shepherd, “Son, show him how to fence them and count them as they enter.” The shepherd stuck his staff in the ground and returned carrying firewood. He lit a blaze and began to cook some food from one of the satchels. His foster son motioned to the young boy.
“Follow me,” he said. He led him to a bush near the forest and rolled out two great big bundles of sticks with rope and metal wire all around it. “This is the fence. We gotta’ roll it out and use the rock as the back wall. I’ll show ya.’” The young shepherd proceeded to roll one of the bundles out against the rock and then unravel it. He pointed to the other bundle and the younger boy dragged it to the other side and did the same. Then they each hoisted up their sticks and pounded the stakes into the ground.
“But there’s a gap in the middle,” said the boy to his young shepherd friend, “Where is the gate?” The shepherd boy’s mouth opened to explain.
“I am the gate for the sheep,” came a voice from the fire. They turned towards the shepherd who was roasting dinner. “I sleep in the opening to protect the flock and to prevent them from wandering into danger. The fire keeps me safe, but they will be safe in there and so will you.”
The shepherd boy chimed in excitedly, “Except when there are thieves and robbers!” He talked so quickly he was spitting everywhere. “They don’t go through the gate but climb up elsewhere and there was one last year but the sheep were making all this noise and so Daddy crept up behind him and took him out in a fist fight and you shoulda’ seen it, it was awesome!”
“That’s enough son,” said the shepherd, “Why don’t you start counting the flock now.”
“Yes father,” he said, turning to his young friend again excitedly, “Oh, but you should’ve seen it really…”
“Yes, father. I’m going.”
And so they counted up the sheep. By this time night has fallen and the moon was out. It was a full moon and it illumined the whole meadow which had cooled down considerably. The warmth from the fire made up for the cold and then some, however. The boys started the counting by holding out the staff a few inches from the ground across the gate hole. One by one the sheep, lambs, and goats all stepped over the stick and the boys counted them. If one of them couldn’t step over for some reason, said the shepherd boy, that meant he had a lame hoof or something and they would pull whatever thorn or barb that had stuck itself into its foot out. This they did more than once, since it had been a long walk that day, through many thorn bushes.
They took turns holding the stick and counting, the other nibbling on some of father’s food he had made for them, and they were very hungry. While the younger boy held the staff, the shepherd’s son talked to his father.
“Father,” he said.
“I wonder how many stars there are in the sky.”
“Only God knows that,” replied the shepherd. The little boy smirked but neither of them saw him.
“Suppose someday we’re gonna’ know it too?” asked the shepherd boy. The shepherd looked deep into the heavens.
“Perhaps,” he said, “When the Messiah comes and redeems us.” The fire glowed brighter for a moment and its reflection lingered in the little boy’s eyes, but the others weren’t looking. The little boy was still counting.
“Isn’t it Moses who is coming back? He was a shepherd. Or is it Elijah?” The fire crackled. “And what’d you suppose he’s going to do, Father?” The shepherd was about to respond when his voice stopped. He stood up quick holding his staff, signaled them to remain silent, and listened.
“Wolves. They’ve followed us,” he said, “Well there’s no danger unless…” They all turned towards the little boy who was watching the last of the flock step into the pen.
“How many?” asked the shepherd. The boy’s eyes widened in fear.
“Ninety-nine,” he said, “One is missing.”
The shepherd ran to his sack and pulled out a very long knife and fastened it hastily to his belt.
“Stay here,” he said very sternly, “Stay inside the pen, behind the fire. Nothing will hurt you there.” He flung a large brown cape around his shoulders. “I will be back soon. Do not be afraid,” he said; and taking a burning faggot from the fire as a torch, he grabbed his staff and disappeared into the night.
Both of the boys sat wide-eyed and trembling, their mouths open. They were silent for a while until the younger boy looked at the expression on his shepherd friend’s face.
“No,” he said, “You’re not going out there. We’re staying here like your dad said.”
“Ah come on,” said the shepherd boy, “We won’t get hurt. It’ll be fun.”
“No. If you love your father you would obey his commands,” said the small boy.
“Getting righteous on me,” said the other, “He’ll need help – this time for sure. I’m going.” Before the little boy could tackle his friend, the shepherd boy had grabbed his cloak and staff and was gone.
Meanwhile, the shepherd was flying through the woods, streaming through the darkness with his torch and listening for a sound of his lost sheep. Another howl from a wolf not too far off startled him. He paused only for a moment and ran on.
He was heading deeper into the forest. The full moon’s light rested on the tree-tops above; below, in the thickness, there was only darkness. He held the torch up and glanced at the brush below. And then he saw it: broken branches and wool! He followed the trail marks until he reached a clearing. The moon lit up the sky vibrantly and the meadow before him was blue and ended abruptly. For there, not ten feet ahead of him was a sudden drop-off of about two hundred feet into the valley below; and somewhere, down there, he heard his lost sheep crying out.
The little boy was still shaking as he drove the last stick into the ground.
“That will do it,” he said. He had taken a few flaming branches from the fire and placed them in the entrance of the pen, but he was scared. Many thoughts raced through his mind at once. He had to get back to his friend.
“You’ll be safe in there,” he said to the sheep now behind the fiery gate he had made for them. He whispered softly to himself and stopped shaking, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil...” Then he grabbed another branch from the fire and ran into the darkness to try and save his friend.
The shepherd crept up over the edge of the cliff and looked down the precipice. It was a steep drop to the bottom, but about a quarter of the way down, he saw a jagged rock sticking out and his lost sheep was lying there.
“How did you manage to…?” But a wolf howling in the background interrupted his thought.
“Have to get down somehow,” he said. His stuck his staff and torch in the ground and took off his cloak. The sheep bleated as it watched its master lower himself over the edge and cautiously climb down. His slipped once, but caught himself on a narrow ledge. Sweat was pouring down his face.
Not far off the shepherd’s son was walking through the woods, carefully tracing his father’s steps. He had forgotten to take a torch in his haste and now he was suffering from his poor decision. He shook violently as a wolf howled in the distance. The distance. “They are far away.” He walked on, but he heard rustling in the brush close by, and he froze.
“Gotcha!” The younger boy jumped at him from behind and again tackled him to the ground. He could see his friend’s startled and angry face from the light of his torch.
“Stop it! What are you trying to do, give me a heart attack?” he said.
“No,” said the younger boy, “I came to save you.”
“Well stop saving me!” replied the shepherd boy. A tear appeared on the cheek of the little boy and rolled down the side, but the shepherd boy didn’t see it. He grabbed the torch from the smaller boy and ran off into the darkness.
“Just a few more feet,” grunted the shepherd. He was almost there and had caught himself once more from falling. His leg was bleeding now. His eased himself down, closer and closer, and when he was close enough, he jumped and landed squarely on the rock. He took a deep breath and wiped his brow, raised the sheep onto his shoulders, and tied its legs together around his neck. “Hold on little one,” he said, “You’ll be all right now.” He usually broke a leg of a lost sheep so that it wouldn’t run again but depend on him, but this time he would wait until he got back to the fire: he couldn’t risk the wolves hearing the bleating noise of the sheep now.
The climb up was easier as far as footing went, but the extra weight strained his already tired limbs. He heaved with all his might and pulled himself slowly up the precipice, his breath moving heavily with every step. He would never give up. At last, he reached the ledge and dragged himself into the meadow again, wiping his face, recloaking himself, and collecting his staff and torch. He took one last look down into the valley, looked up into the sky, and whispered a prayer of thanks; then he headed back into the forest.
He hadn’t gone far before he heard the wolves again, this time much closer than before. He had been following his own trail back to the camp. It wouldn’t be long now before he’d be there.
He came to a clearing, one he recognized passing through on the way. The moon shown brightly on the grass there, and there was even snow that had not yet melted from the winter, since they were so far up in the hills. Something told him to stop. Perhaps it was the eerie silence of the woods, the fact that he didn’t hear the wolf yelps at all anymore; perhaps it was the dark moving shapes he could make out running back and forth in the trees around him; or perhaps it was the bright white eyes he saw emerging from the wood, from his path ahead.
They all came at him at once. The first to jump at him was a white wolf from his right side. He swung his staff and knocked it to the ground. The next pounced at him from the left, a quick grey wolf, and he pummeled it in the head as well. Two more charged from the front while another jumped at him from behind, biting his cape, looking at the sheep tied on his shoulders. The shepherd spun, dodging the first in front and catching the second with his torch; it ran away on fire. In a flash he pulled out his knife and stabbed the third wolf behind him in the chest, sending it to the ground. The pack regrouped and circled around him, hissing and barking and showing their white and yellow fangs. He looked back with fierce strength: they were no match for him. Suddenly his expression changed.
He looked up at a rock, jutting out from the wall that encircled part of the clearing. It was his son, carrying a torch; and the other boy ran up from behind and held him back.
The shepherd looked at the wolves in terror and breathed heavily through his nostrils. The wind: it blew hard through his hair and passed the wolves, up to his son. The wind was going towards them: the wolves hadn’t smelled the boys yet.
The large black wolf stepped forward under the rock where his son stood and starred menacingly at the desperate man. The shepherd knew what he had to do. He untied the legs of the sheep and lowered it into his arms. Looking up at his son, he stared deep into his eyes.
Deep in the woods, the shepherd was running with all his might: over fallen trees, through thorn bushes, under the thick canopy of leaves, which hid the sky, which he knew he might never see again. The sheep was screaming in his arms and the wolves were biting at his heels. Faster!
He had to get them far enough away, then he could leave the sheep and run back to his son and the boy, somehow. He heard howling and furious crashing through the brush all around him, except straight ahead, so he sprinted forward. It was pitch black.
All of a sudden the howling stopped and the noise of running feet was limited to his own. No time to look back. His sheep was still crying out. “Just a little farther, then I can set you down and get back to my son.” He didn’t see the large black wolf watching him from the blackness; he didn’t see the ominous snarl it had on its face: he couldn’t see anything, because of the thickness; that’s why he didn’t see the cliff.
It was a hill covered with tall trees, not like the open ledge from which he had saved the sheep in the moonlight. One side fell straight down fifty to a hundred feet. He landed on his leg. Crack! Both legs broke and their bones came out of his flesh. He stumbled to stand up but fell back down in agony. The sheep was still in his arms and began to bleat and moan for the last time. The shepherd crawled into a clearing under the moonlight. There was snow there. He knelt up and raised his head to the sky. Blood spattered from his lips.
“Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord…” he whimpered and caved over, “Lord, hear my voice.” All around him he heard low growling, and soft feet stepping forward, breaking twigs. He looked up and saw the great black wolf step forward and stand triumphantly on a raw rock pedestal, looking down on him. It sneered at him and then growled and barked, and then it lunged at him from above; and the rest of them ran in and began to tear him limb from limb.
Morning broke with a foggy white haze that covered the sky as one enormous smothering cloud. Light hovered over the cloud and illumined the cold, frozen forest below. Two boys were walking through the woods, one carrying a burnt out torch and a staff, the other walking softly behind. They had spent the night hiding in a cave nearby after they had followed the terrible screaming noises of the shepherd father and of the sheep until they heard them no more. The shepherd boy was trembling and biting his lip.
They walked to the edge of a high hill, covered in tall trees. They were still weary of wolves, though they were sure not to move from their hiding place until the last sounds of them had long passed. The little boy saw it first and reached out and grabbed his friend’s arm. The shepherd boy gasped, dropped his sticks and ran down the hillside.
There upon the white snow lay the remains of the sheep: a twisted mess of wool, blood, and bones scattered across the clearing; but further on lay the carcass of his father. The shepherd boy walked passed the animal bones and stood motionless looking down upon his foster father’s corpse. The younger boy walked silently behind him, his eyes and mouth wide open. The shepherd boy breathed a deep sigh, dropped his head in his hands, and falling to his knees, he wept bitterly.
The little boy stood there silent. His eyes were tearing too and the wind rushed around them both. He looked down at his young friend and slowly raised his hand from his side and over the dead body. Then he paused and lowered it again, walked over to his friend, and rested his hand on his friend’s shoulder while the little shepherd boy sobbed away.
It was quiet now. Most of the people had gone away and only the little boy, his mother, and his foster father waited by the tomb watching them roll the stone in front. What was left of the shepherd boy’s foster father was wrapped inside with the spices. His father’s wife stood far away. The shepherd boy had been standing closest to the tomb during the whole ceremony and now he rested his head upon the rock that sealed it shut; and his friend’s mother could see him whimpering. The other woman just watched coldly, so the little boy’s mother walked over to the shepherd boy, knelt beside him, and held him in her arms tightly. She closed her eyes and whispered softly in his ear while he cried on her shoulder. She was breathing heavily. When she opened her eyes she saw her own son standing behind the shepherd boy, staring at her with a very strange look she had never seen before, and she stared back, wondering.
The shepherd’s wife came forward and unfeelingly took the hand of the shepherd boy and led him away. The other woman stayed there kneeling on one knee, looking straight into her son’s eyes as if he was trying to tell her something and she was trying to understand. But he didn’t say anything, just embraced her. And she kept all of this in her heart.
Dust rose from the pavement outside, and the sun beat down upon the temple floor, reflecting off the marble and glittering through the mob of people milling about inside. There had been quite a commotion over a man born blind being healed on the Sabbath and that commotion had not entirely died down. Several leading scribes and Pharisees were encircling a man who stood calmly in the center. They were like wolves snapping at him, and the people swarming round behind them were like sheep without a shepherd. A tear caught in his eye, and his heart was moved with pity for them.
That little boy, who was now a full grown man, raised his hand and stood up on a pedestal for all to see; and everyone was silent. He gazed out over the crowd, breathed deeply, and said,
“I am the Good Shepherd.”