Pilgrimage of the Black Shepherd – Jack Barry
The dew had settled on the grass. Fog, dense, is the pressed cheek of the sky flush against the earth. The heavy water in the air fills the lungs. There are shapes in the mist, the great swelling figures cast shadows as they are born from the water, traverse the dewdrop grass, and dissolve again into the primordial mass. Lying still for a long time, lakes form on the skin, a film that thins and deepens over the rolling dips and hills of the body. The water presses down heavy, it becomes harder to lift yourself.
It takes a long time for him to blink his eyes, the droplets clinging to and sealing his lashes, and a longer time for him to realise that he is lying down in the wet grass. His body is denser than the fog, cuts through it as his torso rises, a black pillar. He looks around, his face is a smudge, blurred by the water droplets which refract and dissect the shapes they conceal. His head turns left and then right slowly. There is nothing to see. The land is flat and featureless. The air is white and the grass is a dark, glossy, almost black, green. He stands up. Tries to brush the water from his brown tweed jacket and trousers but as quickly as it is removed it is replaced. The air is far too wet, it is as though he is underwater. He begins to walk, merely picking a direction and hoping. There must be, somewhere on this vast moor, a road, and near a road a house, and in a house: civilisation.
I want to find a human being, he thinks, I want to get on with things again. I want the hustle and bustle, I want the farmers market, the bright orange carrots and the red apples and the green peppers. I want the smell of the dogs, and the horses, and the sheep in the pens waiting to be sold. I want the feel of paper and the smooth shape of the pen. I want to drink beer, and black ale, and rest my elbows on dark wood table-tops.
He walks for a long time in the fog. The grass folds over and under his feet and when he looks back he can see the imprints of his shoes. If he were to turn around, he could get lost hunting his own footsteps through the gloom. He stops and stands still. He has been counting in his mind, trying to create the sensation of days. There is no sunrise and no sunset in the endless dim white-light of the fog.
It is easy to become accustomed to the deceitful shapes in the vapour, the strange upright figures that allude to company but reveal themselves in the wafting of wind to be as sure and solid as water. He has run several times to cling to the clouds, hopeful and disappointed, left with wide open arms, empty and wet.
Oh, how I long for change! He thinks, What I would give for some variety, even to the very mist itself.
Disillusioned by the fog it deceives him again, and it takes him a long time to realise that the dark shapes in the cloud are moving and solid.
He runs to them and reaching them stops and recoils in terror.
From beneath a swath of black material, that falls in folds and arches, a hand is protruding and in this hand is a great black shepherd’s crook. The figure clothed in black comes to a stop when it catches sight of him, intruding upon the shepherd from the mist, and seems to stare- surprised perhaps to see an unfamiliar figure in the monotonous fog.
Despite his freezing, the shepherd’s flock continues on, they pass him and then, realising that they no longer follow him, mill around him in a group. They are people. People of all ethnicities and ages and race and sexes, their only associating trait the black lengths of cloth tied over their eyes and their existence in the mist.
This unexpected Visitor, this man in tweed, thinks to turn from the shepherd and his sinister flock and flee back into the fog but the desire for company, the familiar solid body of a human being that does not slip apart or fade at a touch, stops his feet on the wet grass.
What are you doing out here, alone in the fog? The spectral black shepherd says.
The Visitor pauses and gapes at it; the heavy hanging cloth suspended over an indefinite shape. He can see no mouth and yet, now that it has spoken to him, addressed him like a man, it comes to him that his fear is born of surprise and that this figure in the fog is no beast at all but a man cleverly attired to protect himself from the cold touch of the water on his skin. Yet the silent milling crowd still disturbs him.
‘I’m lost.’ He replies, unsure of any better reason to give.
Ah, says the black shepherd, I see. Understandable, many get lost here in the fog. The land here is endless and flat, without obstruction or protrusion or defining feature. You can walk forever in circles in the mist and not know.
‘Well,’ he replies, ‘I don’t want to do that.’
No, no, very wise. I don’t suppose, and I am aware that I must have frightened you appearing as I have from the fog, that you might wish to accompany me on my journey across the moor? I am familiar with this land and know it well and never get lost here, no matter the fog or the light, or the faceless earth.
He pauses, unsure. The shepherds offer is generous and perhaps the only one he will get,
‘I won’t have to wear a blindfold of course?’
No, the shepherd laughs, Of course not! You may walk as freely as you like. I do have one request, however- no, no, nothing threatening- I merely wish for some company and conversation. You see my flock, although they follow me, are fast asleep and it is very unusual for me to receive visitors on my lonely pilgrimage.
They walk together through the fog. Where the shepherd’s crook touches the sky, a gentle breeze seems to clear the clouds ahead and dry the air,
‘What sort of questions may I ask you?’ The Visitor asks,
Anything you wish, The shepherd replies.
‘Where is it that you’re heading to?’
I am taking these people to paradise. You may join them if you so choose.
‘On who you are.’
What an interesting caveat, says the shepherd, Well, suppose we pass the time by you guessing who I am. Oh, I should warn you, we are now halfway on our journey and the second half is not quite like the first. Watch your step coming up.
The shepherd comes to a halt. The flock continue walking, he beckons them forward with his crook. The first go ahead and, stepping over the edge into air, parts the fog and disappears down into nothingness. The hundred blindfolded figures follow afterwards, ambling sightlessly to the edge of the cliff and tipping over-
‘My God! Stop them!’ The Visitor cries.
The shepherd watches them in silence, his arm held out, beckoning, beckoning,
‘Stop them! Stop them! They’re dying!’
Do not be concerned with them, the shepherd says, Do you have an idea of my identity?
‘You’re Death. You’re Death surely? If you’re not the Reaper then why are you sending these people over the cliff and to their demise?’
These people are not dying and I am not Death. Death is but my sheepdog who leads my flock back to me when they stray.
‘If they are not dying then where are they going?’
‘Paradise. Paradise? You expect me to truly believe that? If you are sending them to Paradise then why do you have to blindfold them? You blindfold them and make them sleep and, in their sleep, deceive them with words of Paradise, and then you send them to their death. What you are doing is Evil. You must be the Devil!’
I am not the Devil. They sleep so that they may not suffer. To look over the cliff is to be afraid, to be blinded soothes them and saves them their bravery. It is very hard to be brave, many cannot achieve it.
‘You assert then that what you say of Paradise is true?’
‘Then if you say that Paradise is beyond that cliff and you blindfold your flock merely to save them the suffering of fear on their journey, then you must be Christ.’
The herdsman falls silent and seems to smile,
I am not Christ.
‘If you are not Christ and you are not the Devil, then what are you?’
The black shepherd bends at the waist and looks down over the edge of the cliff,
Why do you think that the world is divided simply between good, evil, and apathy? You cannot attach to me the mechanical and when you cannot attach to me the mechanical you attach to me the divine. Why can I not simply be, he held out his hands, the shepherd?
‘Show me your face.’
No. My face would get wet, and you shouldn’t like it.
The Visitor did not like this answer but he could not deny its logic. He wiped the water from his eyes with the back of his tweed sleeve and leant over the edge of the cliff,
‘I cannot guess who you are if you give me no clues.’
It seems, said the black shepherd, that our time for guessing is up. If you truly wish to know, you are welcome, of course, to go over the cliff.
The Visitor pushed his wet cold hands into the pockets of his jacket and paced back and forward to the ledge, paused and then bent over it. The open maw of earth and sky gaped endlessly. He stood up and looked back into the echoing abyss of the grey fog moor. Ahead of him is the drop, behind him the monotonous mists.
The black-clothed shepherd watched him in silence, hooded head turning slowly to follow him as he paced. They stared out together into the past. Back, without direction, to the indented grass, the hunched outline of his body, the winding wet footprints. Mist and fog and cloud; the grey endless day, the grey endless night. And at their backs, the maw whistled as the wind blew up the cliff-face. Perhaps there blew the winds of Paradise.
‘Well,’ The Visitor said, ‘it was nice to meet you. Good luck on your journey.’
His steps crunched over the crooked backs of the grass- how easily his sole fitted back into the indentation of his boot! The heavy wet mist opened its arms. The black shepherd stood on the cliff-side and watched him as he faded into shadow,
And good luck, he replied, On yours.