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Shep’s Last Day

by Phillip Donnelly

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Or maybe it was just the worst of times. Such were the thoughts of Shep, the sheep turned sheep-dog as he sat on the hill and half-heartedly watched over his flock mowing the grass.

Today was Shep’s last day and he was glad of it. He’d seen things a sheep shouldn’t see, things other sheep wouldn’t believe: the wool factories of the town of Orion; the farmer’s kitchen bathed in strange, sickly dark smells; the chicken-pen prisons, score on score of high-rise cells. He’d seen too much and could wag his artificial tail no longer.

‘I want out’ he had told the farmer straight, one fitful faithful day, as the sun was setting over the far hill. ‘I’m not a sheep dog, I’m a sheep!’ he continued, surprised at his own forthrightness in the presence of a human, the undisputed masters of all four-legged creatures.

‘So, you want to transfer to another farm, eh?’ the farmer asked, chewing a blade of grass and looking beyond Shep, staring into the setting sun that not even he could control.

‘No, I want to become a sheep again. I’m not cut out for corralling; I’m pent up with all the penning; I want to eat grass again and chew the cud, of an evening.’

There was a long pause then, and the farmer cocked his head, pursed his lips and ruminated. He played possible futures in his mind, the way humans do, and spoke again. ‘I can’t say I’m not disappointed, Shep. We took you from the pen, raised you as one of our own sheep-dogs, trained you in the art of sheep mastery, and this is how you repay us.

‘How’s this going to look to the other sheep, Shep? And all the other animals? What’s Mickey Mouse, the rat-catcher rodent, going to say? And what about the worm who turned wormer? The sheep’s bottoms have never been so free of parasites, I tell you.’

Shep sighed then and shook his head. ‘But it’s just not me, Mr. Farmer. I’m a sheep, not a sheep dog. I don’t like to order sheep around. I can’t stand all the whistling.’

‘Are you suggesting we let sheep run their own affairs? Do you think sheep could eat grass by themselves?!’

The question was rhetorical, but Shep answered it nonetheless, albeit hesitantly. ‘Yes. Lambs are born free, but everywhere sheep are enchained: penned in pens, up and down the dale.’

‘Pah! We do it for their own good. We’re bringing out the best in them. If we didn’t control them — I mean, look after ’em — they’d be mangy in a month. ’Tis the natural order, Shep. A farm needs masters and servants. What I can’t understand is why you want to be a servant again! ’Taint natural.’

‘I don’t want to be a servant. I want to be a sheep.’

‘But what’ll the other sheep think, Shep? They know you as a sheep dog, not as a sheep. How are they going to take to you, living among them, like you was one of them?’

‘I am one of them!’

‘You were one of them. Now, you’ve got the scent of sheep dog on you, m’boy; and there ain’t sheep dip enough in all the heavens to wash it clean.’

‘Then I’ll go somewhere else, somewhere they don’t know me. I’ll go to S-5.’

‘S-5, is it? Well, maybe it’s for the best. Perhaps S-5 is the best place for you. I’ll be sorry to see you go, though, Shep. I had high hopes for you, I did. I was even going to ask the Farmers’ Gazette to write up a piece on you. I was going to hold you up as a model to other farmers. They said I was mad to try turning a sheep into a sheep dog, and it happens they were right, I guess. But such is life. I’ll get on the phone to S-5 in the morning. No point in putting it off.’

He sighed once more and walked away, shaking his head. Shep was left alone with his thoughts and the setting sun, wondering if he had made the right decision.

In the morning, he was sure he had. There was right and there was wrong, and a sheep had to do the right thing. With a little pain and a great deal of effort, he managed to twist his head backwards and tear off the glued-on black and white tail that had been his badge of office.

With this done, he sat on his backside to free his two front hooves, almost like a human, and placing his hooves together, he yanked off the false canine ears that had always itched so. Then he bathed in sheep dip, and with some furious scrubbing, he removed the collie markings from his wool. He was sheep again.

Drying at noon, in the dark shade of a spreading chestnut tree, he sat by the farm gate, as the farmer had told him to, and waited for the S-5 van to arrive. For the first time since he had been plucked from the pen, he felt the fresh air of a clean conscience fill up his lungs. He was coming up for air, and the air tasted good, and it dwelt within him.

He bleated with happiness and promised himself he would never bark again.

In the distance, coming closer at a speed Shep could not understand, a moving metal box on wheels approached. The Farmer had told him this would be the S-5 van and that it would bring him to the place where sheep-dogs never go, the place where orders stop, the place where there is no darkness.

The van slowed beside him and Shep looked at the symbols on the side of the van. He looked and saw but did not understand, not being able to read, but there was something about the doom-laden scent of the van that troubled him.

Nevertheless, he hopped inside nimbly enough, and bleated a welcome to the driver, who ignored him. The driver locked the van door behind Shep and sped off, bringing up a cloud of dust that obscured the view of the farm that had been Shep’s only home.

The driver spoke into a contraption of some kind that allowed him to communicate with humans who were not in the van. ‘Where’s the drop-off point, governor?’ the driver asked.

‘Slaughterhouse 5,’ a bodiless voice replied.

Copyright © 2011 by Phillip Donnelly

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