Once upon a time there was a flock of sheep. There were a hundred sheep, lovely, white and woolly. They lived out on the hills and at night, they came together in a nice pen where they kept each other warm and caught up on the sheepy gossip. They were very proud of themselves, because it had taken time for them to grow into a flock of that size. At night, in their pen, they used to reminisce about the history of the flock, the good times and the hard times. What adventures they had as a young flock! And sometimes they would talk about the shepherd who used to guide them and protect them. Now they were such a big flock and had such a grand pen, they didn’t see so much of the shepherd. They could manage on their own. Let him go and look after other sheep who were more dependant.
One evening, they gathered in the pen, chatting in groups and sharing the stories of the day’s doings. Then someone noticed that Freddy sheep was missing. They counted and recounted and their consternation grew. Freddy was definitely not there.
“What shall we do?” they asked each other. Sarah sheep suggested going out to look for him. He could be stuck behind a hedge or lost his way. But it was cold and dark outside, and no one wanted to leave the security of the pen. Then someone remembered that the shepherd used to find the lost sheep. And that comforted them, because it meant they didn’t have to do anything, so they settled down and went to sleep. And the 99 sheep soon forgot their friend Freddy.
Some time later, two sheep went missing. Lillian lamb and Ronald the ram were nowhere to be seen. There was a nudge here and a wink there, but no one said very much. Sarah wondered whether they ought to go and find them and bring them back, but it was difficult to know what to say. And the 97 sheep soon forgot Lillian and Ronald.
I am sorry to say, the disappearances didn’t stop. Mark thought he could find sweeter grass in the next meadow. Daisy acquired a taste for flowers, and had to go further and further afield to satisfy her longings. Bryan got tired of the communal life in the pen, and Gertrude lost her patience with the gossip and backbiting. For it has to be said, the flock was changing subtly with each new disappearance. The sheep were becoming suspicious and cranky. Their numbers were dropping. There were 90 sheep, then 85, then 80, and so it went on. Nobody mentioned it, but everyone knew.
It kept Sarah awake at night, and she worried and worried. Maybe they should go and find the shepherd and tell him. But David said, what was the problem. What they had now was quality, not quantity. The sheep of the pen were those who wanted to be here. They were better off without the missing mutton. And they had a bit more room to move around. But Sarah noticed also that the lambs weren’t staying. As soon as they could manage on their own, they were off to distant pastures. They said they didn’t want to stay with such a bunch of old fuddy-sheep. Sarah was worried, too, that they hadn’t seen the shepherd in ever such a long time.
The 80 sheep soon forgot about the other 20 sheep and all those lambs. Sometimes they could see other sheep, even wild sheep, feral sheep, in other pastures, on other hills. Sometimes they could hear them from the other side of the boundary wall. These were scary sheep. They were not like us. They kept different hours and liked loud music. Their lives were chaotic; their relationships disorganised. They were not nice. So the flock stuck more and more together, making sure they got to the pen well before it got dark. They devised a doorway to protect them at night, so that no sheep could get in.
There was a bad winter. Jimmy and Moira got trapped in the snow and were never seen again. Sheep flu struck the flock and no one knew where it came from. That carried off Blanche and Alba and Cream. Meanwhile, Rosie and Posey just got old. It was sad, but they had led a full life. There were 70 sheep and then 60, the numbers dropping all the time. It was a sad day when they reached the 50 mark. They were half the flock they used to be. And in no time at all, there were 30. They clung to their old ways and tried to keep cheerful. But in reality, it was very gloomy in the pen.
Sarah couldn’t stand it any more. One evening, as the sheep were returning to the pen, she stayed out. She was too upset to go back and be cheerful with all the others. Left on her own in the field, she wept. She missed her friends and felt all alone. She didn’t know what the future held, as the flock diminished, one by one. She missed the shepherd. She wanted him back to guide them and protect them. She rememberd how much she used to love him. In the silence of the dusk, she heard her own sheepy voice calling out in pain and fear, calling for the shepherd. It shocked her to hear her own voice.
There was silence. Sarah stayed there, just listening to the silence, stunned by the realisation of her need for the shepherd.
And then through the silence, she heard someone calling her name, softly at first, but as she became more attuned to the voice, she could hear it more clearly.
She looked round, and there he was! It was the shepherd! Despite her arthritic knees, she ran like a young lamb, running straight into his arms. It was such a joyful reunion.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“I was nearby. All the time,” he said. “Waiting for you to want me. I went to find Freddy. And I was there for all the others. But the flock kept me out because they thought they didn’t need me any more. And they weren’t following me; they were remaining in the security of the pen. You were such a beautiful flock, and I had hoped that you would go out into the fields to make friends with the wild sheep, but you turned away from them. I had hoped that you would follow me to help find the lost sheep, but instead, you stayed safe. Following me means taking risks. Following me means trying to be like me.”
“Where is Freddy?” asked Sarah.
“Come and see”, said the shepherd. And Sarah trotted beside him over the hill to another field with beautiful pasture and a lovely pen. And there were so many sheep there, all different breeds, wild sheep and domesticated sheep, so many that she couldn’t count them. And there was her beloved Freddy. And it was so good to see him.
Back in the flock, the 29 sheep huddled together, ignoring one more missing sheep.