"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."
Virgil sang the song tunelessly as he watched over the sheep. His mother, a shepherd before him, taught him the song in his youth as a reminder of his mission. She told him- "Never forget Virgil- never forget the 23rd Song. When it is bleakest, when all hope seems lost- sing this song." His mother- nor Virgil for that matter- had no idea it was actually the 23rd Psalm, not Song. Nor did they know it was from what people once called the Old Testament of a holy book known as the Bible. And since we are on the topic of things Virgil didn't know, he did not know what a 'book' was either.
No one did. Not the other shepherds. And not the sheep.
Certainly not the wolves.
As if on cue, they began to howl- a sound that would be mournful if the creatures that made the sound were capable of feeling human emotion. But then, was Virgil even capable of that anymore?
Virgil had been born into a world ravaged by (climate change/pandemic/nuclear war?) something long, long ago. Whatever it was, it had affected humankind like nothing before. It truly and irrevocably changed them.
Within one generation removed from the Calamity- that’s what the shepherds called it, anyway- there were not enough capable people to keep a technologically advanced society running. So humankind went back to its roots- hunting and gathering to survive.
But even that return to simplicity came with horrific challenges.
Virgil heard a low growl come from the herd of sheep in front of him. He rose quickly, and his aging and aching joints protested loudly. A few sheep turned to look at him, seeing his reassuring and familiar face, they went back to grazing the apple orchard they had stopped in, taking copious gulps of water from the fresh stream that ran down the middle of it.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.”
His voice- not a quality one by any standards- was soothing in its own way to the sheep. But it carried a growl of its own that struck fear into the heart of the wolves.
But it did not strike fast enough this time.
Virgil saw a sheep go down about ten feet from him, and he propelled himself forward with all his strength. His gray and dust-covered robe flared out behind him as he raised his staff and swung it in a wide arc. The sheep cleared out from around the attack site, and fortunately, the victim was laid flat on the ground. The crook caught the wolf in the neck with a force that instantly snapped its neck. It fell over, twitching as the last nerves fired off a warning just instants too late.
Yvette, another shepherd overseeing this flock, ran up and surveyed the scene. “Another wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she said, her voice sad.
Virgil leaned down to the injured sheep and asked in his deep baritone voice, “Did he get you good?”
The sheep responded, “No, ShepVirg, save me good.” The sheep, which was, in fact, a human ravaged by the after-effects of the Calamity, stood up and limped off.
Virgil watched him walk off and wondered what the simple-minded and innocent little sheep could have done in the world before this. A world that made the giant buildings in the long-abandoned cities. Could the sheep have made those buildings? Could he have moved those giant metal boxes that rusted on round metal disks? Could he have been a healer that made the other sheep well again?
“Third time this week,” Yvette offered. She was younger than Virgil. Well, they all were these days. In fact, Virgil had trained them all in this herd. When a sheep was born that exhibited higher-level abilities, they were taken in as a shepherd trainee. The tutelage started young, partly because the sheep’s intellect was so low and thus incapable of caring for an enterprising and intelligent child. But partly because those children were fodder for the wolves in a far more horrific way that simply targets of violence.
Virgil kicked over the wolf and looked into a mostly human face. But years of living like a savage and knawing on bones and rocks had damaged his teeth. His hair was long and unkempt because wolves did not find hygiene a necessary skill. No, they found only hunting and killing worthy skills.
This particular wolf wore the simple clothing made from remnant cloths the shepherds found and repurposed as shirts and pants for the sheep. It was covering the wolves’ regular wear- dried and leathered flesh of their victims.
See, the wolves were once sheep. The intelligent ones that were selected to be shepherds. But along the way, they were captured, and their training twisted in this horrific mirror of humanity.
But some chose to flee to the wolves. “This one was one of ours. James, I think he was named,” Virgil intoned. “That means…”
Yvette met his eyes. She knew what it meant.
That he had come for them.
“We need to get to the mountain pass before nightfall,” she said, panic creeping into her voice. “Can we make it?”
Virgil looked to the mountains and saw storms building quickly. The path was long and arduous- that was clear from sight alone. Unless…
“The valley. Its the only way,” he said ominously.
“Virgil, that’s where they will have us cornered. Even if we are vigilant, they will overwhelm us,” Yvette countered, genuine fear seeping into her voice and words.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Virgil sang. Yvette gave him a curious look, but she was used to Virgil’s singing of that old song. “It is the only way. He will have planned for either path we take. So speed is of the essence. And the limitations of the valley trail for us are also limitations for them.”
Yvette thought for a moment, then conceded. “Alright. I’ll gather the others. We set out when I return.”
This trail was well known to Virgil and all the shepherds. For generations, the sheep had been lead up into the mountains during the summers, then down out of the mountains in the winters. The Calamity had apparently also wrecked the planet, as the summers became too scaldingly hot to live in the low lands, and the winters too bitter harsh to dwell in the high lands. But summer in the mountains and winter on the plains were near perfect. And so, the shepherds had moved the sheep each season. And there were only two now, but Virgil knew no other way of life.
Virgil looked at the sheep- so blissfully unaware of the danger all around them. They trusted him and his kind with a child-like faith that, on more than one occasion, had led to their near extinction.
The leader of the wolves had once successfully infiltrated the flock. But instead of giving in to his hunger and bloodlust like the now-deceased foot soldier, he planned. He took one of the shepherd trainees named Matthias and slowly corrupted him- but left him in place. That wolf in sheep’s clothing was able to lead more than half the flock astray. A loss of that magnitude would have ended the herd within a generation, but Virgil and the other shepherds had arrived in time to save most of them.
But not all.
The wolves’ leader fell in the battle, but the corrupted one escaped with the pack.
Both the loss of the sheep and the loss of the shepherd were the most significant failures Virgil ever experienced. They weighed on him now, in the moment he was about to plunge into more than they had in many years.
The sheep were rounded up and began to move compliantly toward the valley. Only a few cast fearful glances at the wall of stone rising on either side of them. But the rest simply smiled at their guides and went on.
Others might wonder why men and women would devote their lives to moving these simple-minded people around from green fields to freshwater. But not Virgil. His mother had taught him that all life was to be valued, even the life that seemed to have little to offer. The sheep had not chosen to be born broken, but nonetheless they were. And now, they needed to be cared for. Protected. And yes, loved.
And it was love that set them apart from the wolves. More than their bucolic and quiet nature, more than their preference for fruits and vegetables over flesh of all kinds- including that of humans. The wolves loved only themselves. Not even each other- only themselves. Sure, they hunted in a pack, but that just a question of survival. They could- and had- turned on each other when the moment deemed it right.
That was why Virgil felt the weight of his failure with Matthias so heavily. Not that Matthias ran to the wolves, but that Matthias chose selfishness over love. And Virgil, though vastly more intelligent than the sheep he guarded, was unable to fathom that some people are just broken so severely that they cannot be repaired.
The first attack came as Virgil, bringing up the rear of the procession, crossed under the stone valley walls’ shadow. Two wolves dropped down silently behind him, and he would not have seen them if not for the ripple of panic that began to move through the sheep in front of him. Virgil had been a shepherd long enough to know the sheep’s tics and twitches were often the best sign of danger. And so he looked up and around, and just in time saw the first wolf lunge at him. He fanned his staff and caught it in the jaw. A few jagged teeth were seen flying through the air. The second wolf had used this attack as cover, and the scrawny young boy slashed at Virgil with his long, clawlike fingernails. They tore into the robes Virgil wore, but not Virgil. He brought the staff down on the back of the wolf’s head, and it fell motionless onto the rocky path.
“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,” Virgil sang. The toothless wolf ran back up the path it had come down. A commotion broke out further up the procession, and Virgil turned to see four more wolves leaping into the flock. One seemed to stop mid-flight and flip, as Yvette’s staff caught its midsection. An arrow felled another, and Virgil knew that was the work of Samuel, the next oldest shepherd. Samuel loved to show off his skills with the bow whenever he could, and this time, Virgil was thankful.
The skirmish was ended almost as fast as Virgil’s when the two remaining wolves ran screeching back up the valley’s walls. Something began nagging at the back of Virgil’s mind. These attacks, the wolves were giving up too easily. But he could not place the reason for his concern.
That reason became apparent when he heard Yvette yell, “Go left- Go left! The way is blocked!”
Virgil’s heart sank. There were two paths in the valley; one was a relatively broad mountain path- the way that was blocked. The other was across a rickety old footbridge to rose thousands of feet above the cavern floor. It was definitely passable, but the sheep were skittish around it. The small attacks had guaranteed that they would not only be nervous, but outright terrified. They would only cross if they knew it was safe. And they would only know it was safe if their most trusted guide went first.
Virgil knew that was him.
But that meant that a less experienced shepherd would guard the rear. And that is where he would know to hit.
There was no choice. Virgil would have to cross the bridge and watch as the wolves tore into his beloved flock. This was not just about wolves and sheep- this was about him striking Virgil.
Virgil passed the blocked path and saw that the impasse was a large log. Something that could easily be removed if they had time. But they did not.
When Virgil rounded the corner and saw the flock halted and fidgety at the edge of the cavern, he bellowed, “Heed me! I must lead us across the bridge, but the wolves are coming up behind us. ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.’” The words calmed the sheep just a little, enough for Virgil to pass through.
He walked out onto the bridge and looked back. Sure enough, the dark and dusty cloud rose up behind the flock as the wolves advanced. Virgil could see the hunger in their eyes, a longing that in the world lost to the Calamity might have been called bloodlust or greed. But now, in this new world, it was just terror. Terror at these humans that were no different from the shepherds, except they chose to give in to their base instinct and selfish desires. Virgil wished he could say that the Calamity had changed them to these wicket things just like it had changed the sheep into the simple beings they were. But he knew that was not true. In many ways, the sheep’s feebleness made them better than men like the wolves; men like the shepherds even.
And that was why Virgil did what he did next.
He reached out to the lead sheep, a docile being but the closest thing to a leader amongst the sheep. “Can you follow me?”
The sheep shook its head violently, his eyes wide and fearful, his mouth too paralyzed to form even simple words.
Virgil placed a hand on his shoulder, “It is okay; I will show you that you have nothing to fear.” Virgil gently put one arm around the sheep’s shoulders and another under his legs. He lifted him and began to walk across the swaying and creaking bridge. He offered words of calm and sang, “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.” The sheep’s shaking ceased; he looked up to Virgil with eyes of gratitude. “Think you can do it now? Walk to the other side and wait for us?” The sheep nodded timidly at first, then more vehemently. Virgil sat him down, and the sheep cautiously made his way across. Virgil had no doubt there were no wolves on the other side. Because the wolves lacked one thing the shepherds had in abundance- the shepherds believed the sheep were capable of more than they knew.
The sheep began to follow the lead sheep, and Virgil passed between them, joining the other shepherds. “When the sheep have all crossed, follow them. Leave me to deal with the wolves. And Him.”
Virgil pointed his staff at the wolf leader. Older, larger, but still the same intelligent and wicked eyes of the young Matthias stared back.
Samuel fired a few warning volleys into the swarming horde, and three wolves fell out. But still they advanced. “Fall back across the bridge!” Virgil shouted. And the gathering storm clouds finally began to rumble and crack under the force of the lightning it had been holding back. Giant drops of cold rain began to pelt the shepherds as they looked at Virgil, seeing his intent to fight alone. Yvette began to protest, but Virgil cut her off. “Look at them. They are beginning to find their strength again. They don’t need my strong hand to lead them anymore. They need your compassion, Yvette.” And Virgil turned to face Matthias and the pack.
Yvette turned to the shepherds and shouted, “You heard him- fall back!”
Reluctantly, they began to retreat.
A few wolves lunged at Virgil, and he deflected them with ease. Matthias’ face was split with a nasty, wicked sneer as he growled, “Tear the old man apart, boys!” Six more charged forward.
Virgil turned, and seeing his fellow shepherds were across and moving the sheep away, and he ran after them.
“See the coward run! Wolves, HUNT!” And Matthias charged forward.
Virgil reached the bridge center and turned back. Matthias had advanced to the front of the pack, a mad glare in his eyes and spittle flying from his ravenous mouth. Unlike the unarmed wolves, he carried a short blade that he drew back and swiped at Virgil. Virgil parried and blocked every blow but never made an offensive move. Virgil’s focus never left Matthias’ eyes, but in his periphery, he watched the advancing pack. He took a few steps back, and Matthias advanced again- in a maddened frenzy. “Stop backing up and face me, old man!” he snarled.
Virgil stopped, and opened his arms. Matthias hesitated, then stabbed Virgil’s chest. Virgil let a small groan escape his throat. Then his eyes met Matthias’ once again. “Forgive my failure, all those years ago, my son. ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.’” Virgil then drew the blade from his own chest, then quickly and deftly cut the ropes that held the bridge up. There was a snap, then another, and the bridge, the wolves, Matthias, and Virgil plummeted to the valley below.
Yvette turned to her flock, speechless. Tears dripped as she finally sang, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
Chad Lehrmann lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in College Station, Texas, where he teaches High School Psychology, Sociology, and Debate.