Shepherd

They say I'm old, that I should give up my flock,
stay back with the women in the warm.
They say the cold is bad for me, and hiking

over hills to find a lost sheep, sitting up
all night to nurse a lamb are young men's jobs.
When I tell my story, I see glances and disbelief.

Yet none would dare deny my flock's
the best-kept in the region, my memory
still sharp as winter wind. It was a night

much like this. We huddled round the fire,
and passed a cup for warmth. I was youngest.
Now the rest are gone, so when I die

there'll be no one to remember.
Each of us heard a voice that gave commands.
(Afterwards, we couldn't recall

what words were said, but all agreed
we had been instructed to go somewhere,
for a reason we didn't understand.)

While it spoke, Winter seemed
to withdraw, and it was Spring
(though still cold, dark, and wind blowing bitterly)

When the voice stopped, we didn't like to catch
our neighbour's eye: each thought
perhaps he should keep this to himself.

But there was a burst of light, that blinded us
as sunlight does when you
come out of a dark cave into the morning.

We had no doubt then, packed up our things,
and went, without much talking,
to where we had been directed.

At length, we stood, and saw. Just for a moment
it occurred to me that it was me that had been chosen
out of the whole world. Me, to stand here

and be a witness. Not kings, or lords or the village mayor,
but me. A warmth crept up like an August breeze,
or a woollen coat, or more like long thin fingers

trying to curl round me and drag me away.
Then it was gone, and I knew my thought
had been wrong, despicable. That is why

I'll tend my sheep, welcome the bitterest nights,
tell my story to anyone with half an ear,
and one day I will have atoned.

© Peter Howard

first published in The Faber Book of Christmas 1996