THE LOST SHEEP:
BY GARY B. SWANSON
Whatever happened to the sheep after he came back to the fold?
The old storyteller woke with a start at the persistent knocking on his door. Half asleep, he gazed for a long moment at the coals in the fireplace. Then the thumping on the door brought him fully awake.
“Just a moment,” he grumbled. “I’m coming, I’m coming.” He pulled himself painfully out of his chair to a standing position, tottering slightly in his slippers. Then, shuffling over to the solid, oak door, he threw back the bolt and cautiously opened it.
“Who’s there?” he asked the darkness. The slightest hint of a smile played across his lips. “It’s you,” he said, stepping aside.. “Come in quickly. It’s cold out there.”
A boy entered the cottage and moved directly to the hearth. He was a slight child-thin, a bit gangly, with large, questioning eyes. He stooped over, took an armload of wood from the wood bin, and threw it piece by piece on the fire. “Make yourself at home!” the old man said with an air of resignation. “What brings you out on a miserable night like this, as if I didn’t know?”
“I want you to finish another story for me,” the boy said.
The old man closed the door behind him. “Why is it you cannot leave a story alone?” he asked. “Why can you never be satisfied with happily ever after?”
The boy shrugged. “Can’t help it, I guess. Whether they are happy or not, I just don’t like stories to end.”
“Indeed,” the old man mused. “The end of a story for you is only a beginning. All right, all right. Tell me the story that has brought you to my door on a night like this. Let’s get after it so I can go to bed.”
“It’s the story in the Bible of the lost sheep. What happened after the shepherd brought the lost sheep back to the fold?” The boy hunkered down on a low stool before the fire.
The old man nodded and lowered himself carefully into his chair. “That is indeed a story worth exploring,” he said. He stroked his wispy beard and looked beyond the boy and the newly crackling fire in the fireplace.
“You would have thought,” he began, “that the ninety-nine sheep in the fold would have been excited about the lost sheep that had been rescued. You would have thought they’d have given him the choicest grass to eat and made him feel right at home.
“After all, the shepherd had followed the lost sheep out into the wilderness where fierce storms and wild animals had threatened his very life. But that isn’t at all the way things turned out.”
“I thought as much,” the boy said, hugging his knees to his chest.
“To be sure,” the old man continued, “there was quite a flurry of activity when the shepherd returned carrying the lost sheep on his tired shoulders. The flock gathered around the shepherd, bleating their happiness that he had rescued one of their kind. They misunderstood the shepherd’s weary smile as a sign only that he was glad to see them, which he certainly was. But as much as he loved his flock, the greater reason for the smile on his face this day was the return of the one lost sheep.
“But problems started when the shepherd had to leave the fold for a while. The sheep immediately broke up into their little groups again, some to the far end of the meadow, where the trees offered shade. Others gathered around the calm pool in the nearby stream and resumed their discussions. Yet others simply dozed contentedly in the sunshine, unaware of anything that was going on around them. Only a few took any personal interest in the returned sheep.”What was the problem?” the boy asked.
“Well, some objected to the smell of the returned sheep-the wild, alarming odor of the great wilderness from which he had come. To animals with such sensitive noses, there was something sinister about it. In fact, some even chased their lambs away from him when, in their innocent curiosity, they ventured too close. It wouldn’t do to have that awful odor rub off on their young.”
The storyteller sniffed and turned up his nose in a way that made the boy giggle.
“When the weather turned bitter and cold-as it is tonight-and driving rain soaked them to the bone, they huddled pitifully together in small groups, but not a one offered warmth to the lost sheep. He thought it odd that cold weather didn’t cause the sheep to draw together for warmth into one large group, but they seemed to prefer smaller groups.
“A few of the sheep were quite concerned about his appearance, too. His wool bristled with foxtails and cockleburrs. Matted and dingy, it crawled with lice. And everyone knows that these things cause
“Couldn’t they see that it takes a while for someone to fit in?” the
“To give them credit,” the storyteller said, “the sheep in the fold were not trying to be cruel. If the truth were told, they were deathly afraid of being lost themselves. At one time or another they had all
wandered off, and they were doing whatever they thought necessary to avoid getting lost again.
“Because of this, they were concerned about the influence of the lost sheep. He did have some rather peculiar ideas, and they felt safest just to leave him to himself. After all, what if he strayed again?
This time he could take several others with him.
Some pointed out that the sheep had actually brought his troubles on himself. He had got himself lost. He had made the choice to stray from the fold; no one had forced him to do it.
“All the sheep were well versed in the rules of the fold, as told to them by the aged ram with the great twisted horns and the bell hanging from his neck. Rule number one was to be as much as possible like everyone else. And straying off was certainly no way to go about that.
“One morning one of them looked up from his grazing and peered from one end of the meadow to the other. The sheep was gone-again. And no one could tell for sure how long he had been missing.
“There was a grave shaking of heads and the exchange of I-told-you-so looks. Surely he would kill himself this time, all because of his own willfulness and stupidity.
“But they didn’t know that this time the sheep had found the shepherd in a quiet, out-of-the-way area of the fold that many of them had forgotten existed. At that very moment he was happily resting in the shepherd’s lap. He was not lost at all.”
The boy yawned and stretched and rose to his feet. “There now,” he said. “That’s a proper ending to a story.”
The old storyteller smiled knowingly. “For tonight, at least.”