In a cottage in the highlands lived a kind shepherd who loved animals. He looked after his flock of sheep as if they were his family, and even gave them human names. He also learned to recognize their unique voices and personalities, and felt it was his duty to guard them from the wolves that would prowl the highlands at night.
One morning while the shepherd was tending to his flock, he noticed that something was wrong. A young lamb was struggling to keep up with its mother, limping and bleating frantically as it trailed behind. Seeing the young animal’s distress, he approached the mother and her lamb for a closer look.
To the shepherd’s surprise, he saw that one of the legs of the lamb had been broken – perhaps an accidental fall from a cliff. The shepherd’s heart went out to the wounded lamb, and so he gathered it up in his arms and carried it for the rest of the day, following closely behind the mother.
At night, when the rest of the sheep were asleep, he took the lamb to his cottage where he fashioned a splint out of wood and carefully wrapped it around the lamb’s injured leg. Once the splint was secured, the shepherd breathed a sigh of relief. He knew he had saved the lamb’s life.
Having kept the lamb with him through the night, he reunited it with its mother the next morning just as the sun was rising and the rest of the sheep were waking. The shepherd was glad to see the mother and her baby safe and secure, and a smile broke out across his face as she watched them comfort each other after only hours of being apart. On that day, the shepherd’s love for his flock seemed to grow even more.
Over the next few days, everything seemed perfectly fine. The flock seemed happy and healthy with plenty of time for grazing and play. But every so often the shepherd spot a figure in the distance – a large wolf standing no more than a few hundred yards from the flock. He suspected that it had been following them for a few days.
The shepherd, of course, was used to the occasional wolf encounter, and he could usually scare them off with a shout quite easily. However, this wolf didn’t behave like the others. It seemed especially watchful, as if waiting for the right moment. There was a kind of unparalleled focus and desperation about it that could not be matched by the others, and it made the shepherd wonder.
When a few more days had passed, the wolf appeared more regularly. In fact, it seemed to be getting closer with each passing day. The shepherd was now starting to worry. Remembering the ways his father had taught him as a child, he began to shout, throw stones, clap his hands, and even wave his arms up and down. This would scare off the wolf for maybe an hour or two, but as soon as the shepherd would turn around to make sure it was gone for good, the wolf would be back once more.
After a week had passed and the wolf continued to move closer, the shepherd’s mind often returned to the baby lamb he had saved. He worried what would happen to it during the night, and would often be plagued with nightmares of waking to find his entire flock gone – killed by a pack of ravaging wolves. In fact, the shepherd became so worried that he had taken to sleeping in the fields alongside his sheep just in case something happened, although he prayed that nothing would.
One night the shepherd suddenly awoke to the alarmed cries of his flock ringing in his ears. His worst fears had been realized, for his sheep were now under attack. The shepherd looked around to see several pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness, their silver-white coats illuminated by the light of the full moon. Upon seeing this, the shepherd began to scream at the top of his lungs, throwing anything he could find at the encroaching wolf pack, but this only seemed to annoy and anger them.
Out of the corner of his eye, the shepherd then noticed something that made his blood run cold – the lamb with the splinted leg was standing was standing helplessly out in the open, away from the flock. The lamb’s voice cried out for its mother, who now stood between her baby and one of the larger, silver predators.
Spotting a rather large tree branch on the ground, the shepherd instinctively grabbed it in one hand and charged at the wolves, swinging wildly as he did. When enough of the circling wolves had retreated, the shepherd rushed to the little lamb’s aid, lifting it high off the ground and into his secure arms. He knew he had saved it once again, and this was a small comfort. Still, the wolves had made their way back, but instead of attacking all at once, they seemed to be searching for something, appearing more curious than ferocious.
Suddenly the shepherd spotted the largest wolf in the pack. It was the same wolf that had been following him for the past week, and it looked like she was pregnant. As she moved towards the flock, it was clear that the others feared and respected her, as they scattered at her approach. Eyeing the flock closely while keeping her pack in check, she began to swiftly move in and out of the flock, weaving back and forth in zigzag pattern – almost as if she was trying to herd them.
Holding the lamb closely to his chest, the shepherd watched her move silently and gracefully, her sleek coat gleaming, her wolf eyes shining a deep yellow that was both beautiful and terrifying. In that moment, the shepherd stood paralyzed with fear and awe. He thought that this is what it must be like to encounter the gods, for there was something magical about her gate and her unwavering sense of purpose. And yet, he feared for his own life and the lives of his sheep.
As the minutes passed he noticed that the pattern of the female wolf began to change until she eventually stopped. She had found what she was looking for – an old ram that the shepherd had raised several years ago. Gathering up his courage, the shepherd dashed over to the elderly sheep with lamb and stick in hand, prepared to defend his elderly brother.
But as he moved closer, the reality of the situation became clear: the ram was deathly ill and in pain. Although fully grown, an unknown disease had weakened him so much that he could barely stand and could scarcely see. Upon seeing this, the shepherd cursed himself. After all, he had been so worried about the young lamb that he failed to notice the rest of the flock.
The shepherd now found himself in a dangerous quandary. If he kept the ram, it was sure to die, and if he allowed the wolves to get at him, he would also die. As the shepherd’s mind raced back to the days he had cared for the sheep when it was only a lamb, tears began to well up in his eyes. He simply couldn’t bear the thought of parting with it. It had become part of his life and his family.
The shepherd’s anguish and anger now completely conquered his fear, as he began to angrily and defiantly curse the wolves with every fiber of his being. He yelled and screamed at the top of his lungs, letting his body tremble and his eyes light up with rage. He called the wolves all sorts of names, spitting at them, mocking them, even throwing his stick into the pack where a few wolves yelped with pain and surprise. He wished then and there that these wolves had never existed, for they had brought him nothing but worry and misery.
And yet, even as the shepherd’s heart continued to sink and his rage continued to burn, his eyes were drawn to the sagging stomach of the pregnant wolf. Slowly, the shepherd began to think about why she had come. He thought of her cubs that would be born without food. He thought of how she had diligently tracked him and his flock for days without rest. He thought of her bravery, of her pain, and of the hunger and danger that drove her to his flock.
It was then that the good shepherd realized an important truth: as much as he loved his sheep and cared for them, they did not truly belong to him any more than the wolves that hunted them. For they were both free beings of the world, and he had simply been charged with their stewardship. He understood that he could no more use their bodies for his own gain than he could allow the wolves to use his body for theirs.
After realizing this truth, the hatred in his heart which had burned so fiercely was replaced by a sudden rush of sympathy. He wiped the tears from his face, for he at last understood what needed to be done. Taking a sharp knife from his pocket, he calmly approached the sickly ram. Kneeling before it, he ran his hands through its coarse, woolly coat one last time. He then put the blade to the ram’s throat, closed his eyes, and whispered a final farewell.
As the dead ram lay bleeding on the ground, the wolves, guided by the alpha female, began to silently move in on the corpse. Sensing the danger, the shepherd quickly moved out of the way, taking his flock with him into the surrounding hills, the lamb held safely in his arms.
But as he turned to look back one last time on the sacrifice he had made at Nature’s altar, the only thing he could see was a large pair of yellow orbs that seemed to pierce deep into his soul. As they gleamed and flashed in the moonlight while he made his escape, he imagined that perhaps this was her way of saying, “Thank you.”