From then on, every evening BlackSheep would come to the edge of the forest and slink along the boundary of the field, growling and howling and looking very mean. All the sheep would then rush into a bunch in the middle and stay there until he went back into the trees. But after a few weeks of this, BlackSheep grew bored with BadWolf. It was not so much fun being scary if there was no one to share it with. He was also not quite so sure that he was truly fearsome. All he had achieved so far was to put a bunch of sheep off their grazing for a few minutes each day.
To make matters worse, the sheep were getting used to him. They still rushed to the middle of the field, but it was more out of wariness than terror. Indeed, the flock were now convinced that their fantastic bunch-up-in-the-middle-of-the-field tactic was paying off. Not only were they not as frightened as before, but the braver ones were even beginning to taunt BlackSheep, making little runs at him and bleating aggressively. The more this unsatisfactory behaviour developed, the more disheartened BlackSheep became, until he gave up being scary altogether and stayed inside the forest to sulk in his den. Finally, after some lonely days spent making up his mind, he decided to clean up and return to the flock. He wanted to belong somewhere. Maybe they would take him back.
When the rest of the flock saw BlackSheep return they were actually quite glad to see him! They’d missed him. They’d missed his off-colour jokes. They’d missed his weird way of bleating. They praised him for his bravery at surviving so long in the wild, despite the obvious presence of a wolf. BlackSheep, who was enjoying the attention and wanted to spin the moment out as long as possible, said he didn’t think that
particular wolf was really so
dangerous. The other sheep told him how terrible the wolf’s snarling was, but BlackSheep was not impressed. They told him how bloodcurdling the wolf’s howling was, but BlackSheep was still not impressed. They told him how low-slung and sneaky the wolf was, but BlackSheep was clearly not at all impressed. Then they told him how they’d developed this really brilliant tactic of bunching up in the middle of the field. They insisted that the wolf found this intimidating. BlackSheep said he didn’t think real
wolves would be that easily intimidated.
“What do you mean by real
wolves?” asked one of the sheep.
“Well, let’s put it another way”, said BlackSheep, “what does this wolf look like?”
“Like a big, huge, hairy … well, like a great, big, huge, terrifying, black, hairy” …
“Woolly”, corrected the smallest lamb, “he’s not hairy, he’s woolly”.
“OK” said the others, “he looks like a great, big, huge, terrifying, black, woolly …”
“Sheep”, shouted the smallest of the lambs, “he looks like a sheep!”
Suddenly the entire flock was looking at BlackSheep with that most rare of ovine expressions, the dawning of intelligence. “It was you” they all bleated at once and BlackSheep began to wish he’d stayed in the forest.
Fortunately, sheep are always ready to enjoy a good joke, once they’ve had it explained to them. The smallest lamb spent the whole of that day going through the finer points for some of the slower members. In the end, everyone agreed that yes, BlackSheep was the smartest, most brilliant sheep in ovine history, but no, it was wrong to terrify your own flock. However, since they had made him miserable in the first place, it was thought that he had suffered enough. The upshot was that BlackSheep was re-named SheepWolf by general consent and became accepted as the leader of the flock, which should have been the end of the story, except that rumours of howling and wolf-like behaviour, night after night, had reached some distant and far wilder places, attracting the very real attention of some very real wolves!
They came from the dark hills far away. They had travelled almost three days and nights. They were not sure whether they would be meeting a brother or killing a rival. Their leader was called SlinkFang, which is the wolfish equivalent of rich, famous and handsome to boot. SlinkFang lived by simple principles: he put his own pack first and other packs a very distant second. Anything non-wolf didn’t rate at all. He knew that it was his pack that made him what he was. He knew that without his pack he was lost. But SlinkFang was a good leader. Other wolves went willingly where he led them. They all knew that without his leadership life would be tougher than it already was.
On the fourth day they found SheepWolf’s den in the forest. It was strange to them. It smelt wild and dangerous, but it also smelt rather strongly of sheep. “This is a lone wolf”, thought SlinkFang, “he carries no pack scent”. SlinkFang had no respect for lone wolves. He did not find them romantic. He found them stupid. A lone wolf was generally a young wolf who had lost his pack, or else been thrown out for misconduct. Losing your pack was dumb. Disrespecting or misjudging your elders was even dumber. A wise wolf only challenges when he is sure to win.
“Listen”, said SlinkFang to the pack, “this wolf is a trouble-maker. He is young and foolish and thinks he is brave by living alone. Living alone is not brave. It is foolhardy. When you live alone there is no one to train you, no other wolves to learn from, you howl alone and no one answers. The rising moon will not guide you to a fair kill, she will only guide you into more foolishness. This wolf is living proof of that. He has been killing sheep. He must have killed more than one sheep for his lair to stink like this. How stupid can you be? He will bring trouble to us all. The men can count. They know when a sheep is missing. They will find him and kill him. And if they get wind of us they will come after us, too. They know nothing of packs. They will think he was one of us. All wolves are the same to them: bad when they’re alive and good when they’re dead. They will gather many farmers and all together they will hunt us down.”
“We are strong and fierce. We will slay them all”, cried the pack. “Men are pink and soft like worms, they are slow like cows, they are weak as cubs. They are no match for us. We shall rip them apart.”
“Indeed they are all these things”, said SlinkFang, “but they are much more besides. They are naked as worms, so they dress in hard leather. They are slow as cows, so they ride on swift horses. They are weak as cubs, so they make bows and arrows, some of them even have guns that throw death so far and so clear, they can hit the eye of a fly a hundred leagues away. We are no match for them. If we leave here now, we might save our fur, but they might still come after us. However, if we kill the sheep-killer first, they will not follow us. They will find the carcass and know that we can take care of our own.”
At first light the pack came upon the field of sheep and began to circle slowly around it, looking for traces of wolf. All the sheep bunched up into the middle of the field in a state of panic such as they had never known before, not even the first time SheepWolf had terrified them. They knew this was real. Those claws and those jaws could hurt a sheep in ways undreamed of. They shivered in the centre of the field and the grass grew sodden with their fear. All of them, that is, except SheepWolf. He understood at once what had happened. This was his fault. He had thought he was so fierce and clever with his howling and growling and wolf-like behaviour. Now look what had happened. They would all be killed, thanks to him.
Wearing his most resolute and least sheepish look, he walked slowly over to where the wolves were gathered in a huddle, inspecting the hedge for weaknesses.
“It’s only me you’re looking for”, said SheepWolf, using the common language.
SlinkFang gave him a cold look and said: “Walk on, sheep, or I’ll take your eyes out. We’re looking for someone worse than you.”
“There’s no one worse than me”, said SheepWolf.
“There’s a wolf”, said SlinkFang, “a stupid wolf who smells of sheep, a stupid sheep-killer who will bring trouble to us all ... our business is with him”
“Then your business is with me,” said SheepWolf, “I am the wolf who smells of sheep,” and, to prove it he stretched out his neck, hunched his shoulders, slunk low along the hedge and then, quite suddenly let out his finest and most lonely howl.
At this all the wolves in the pack turned their amber eyes towards him with a long look of something close to respect. This was a sheep, but a sheep that dared face SlinkFang and even dared to howl. And what a howl it had been: the stuff of legends, a howl that could drag the very moon from her chilly bed.
“You would kill the sheep-killer? Kill me then”, said SheepWolf. “We are one and the same”
“Do we look like rabid dogs? This is an honourable pack, a hunting pack. We don’t savage sheep. You cannot hunt that which has already been caught. We hunt the living, the free, not the captive fodder of other captives. But before you run back to your woolly friends, tell me what happened? You killed another sheep in a fight and they threw you out?”
“I never killed anyone, not even a rabbit; I left the flock because I didn’t fit in. I ran away because they didn’t want me. I pretended to be a wolf just to get revenge and show them how stupid they are and how I could live perfectly well alone, without them.”
“Then why did you go back?”
“Everyone needs a family. I had no one to tell about my bravery or my fierceness, my toughness or my lonely exile. If I were really a wolf I would have a pack, but I had no pack, so therefore I was a sheep, and a sheep needs a flock. I’m not making much sense, am I?”
“Perfect sense”, said SlinkFang, who understood all about belonging. “And are you content now, Mr SheepWolf, to be living once again with your stupid, condemned friends in your safe little prison?”
“I was the stupid one. I thought I could live out in the wild. I was wrong.”
“Maybe you were not wrong”, said SlinkFang. “We travel far and see many things. There are real wild sheep beyond the dark hills. They do not live in square fields, quilted like a farm-girl’s apron. They live on the Great Plains. They are not especially big, but they are strong and fierce and can defend themselves. They graze when and where they can. Every now and then they get careless and we kill one or two. They have no peace, for we and others like us are always at their heels, but they have a kind of freedom. You deserve better, Mr SheepWolf. If you chose to trust us”, and here he gave a particularly sly look, “we might take you there.”
“What if you eat me?”
“Believe me, there are worse things that can happen to a sheep.”
“And what must I do for you in return”.
“Just stay downwind and keep your mouth shut.”
And so it came about that SheepWolf once more left the flock, this time to travel with SlinkFang and the wolf pack. A few of the bravest lambs even went with him. As far as we know, most of them reached the dark hills without being eaten. The lambs of their own lambs’ lambs are wild sheep now. They still tell a tale of a black sheep of more than ordinary sagacity and courage. Most tell how he lost and found and lost and found his flock. But some tell the tale with a different ending: that he chose to remain with the pack, run with the pack, hunt with the pack, howl with the pack ... but that he never once ate with them, preferring to wander off a little downwind to safely graze, while they ripped apart the carcass of an elk or a deer or one of his wild half-brothers or half-sisters. In this version of the story, SheepWolf grew old and slow and died hunting, gored by a wild boar. They say that SlinkFang ate his heart. They say that his brethren howled the whole night through in his honour. There were worse ways to end, if you were a sheep.
< part one
© Edwin Drood
, October 2011