Sheep

by Robyn Ritchie

Hayden crouched on all fours in the pasture, his small face red and crumbling. He looked down at the green below; the soft grass beneath his hands and shoes. Something pushed behind his eyes but he fought it because, like Page always said, only women cry. And Hayden certainly wasn’t a woman.

But, to be fair, he wasn’t a cow either.

“Now, fat cow, take me to market!” Page cried, perched atop Hayden’s arched back like a lazy cat. Hayden looked back over his shoulder, his arms and legs shaking under the older boy’s weight. Page glanced down at him, a twig in his hand that he brandished. “Don’t give me such a look. You’re my dumb beast; you have to do what I say. Get going!” He swatted Hayden’s rear with the twig.

“P-Page, why do I have to be the cow again? Isn’t it your t-”

“Cows don’t talk! Get going!”

Hayden gave a shuddering sigh. He turned back to the ground and put one hand out, then his foot. Page kicked his legs out passively on either side and his dirt-smudged toes tugged Hayden’s brown hair. In the distance, like a ringing in his head, Hayden could hear the shouts of other children and the call of Mr. Larson as he directed his cattle out into the pasture.

Mr. Larson’s cows were the fattest around and they gave milk that was honey. His barn was on the other side of town and he walked his stock through the speckled streets of West End like a daily parade.

They sat in their warm barn in the night and sometimes, when nightmares barred Hayden from sleep, he would watch as Page jumped out of their bedroom window to join his friends in the street. They skulked through the bushes, under the streetlights that lined the lanes; they were shadows out of the corner of the eye. They went to Mr. Larson’s barn and suckled the cows’ teats, giggling to each other, stumbling out like fat fleas.

Hayden thought about the milk dripping down Page’s chin and stumbled on an anthill. He fell face-first into the small mound of red ants and yelped, jumping to his feet and throwing Page off.

“Aw, Hayden, you ass! Look what you did!” Page groaned, wiping the dirt from his knees.

Hayden brushed his hair frantically, shaking about. “They’re biting me, Page!”

“I don’t care. Get back down, I’m not done riding you,” Page said and his hand settled on Hayden’s shoulder, steadying him. Hayden sighed and looked at the ruddy fingers twisting his shirt sleeve.

And like buildings rising on the hill, three figures appeared, shadowed against the bright sky. They were like giants in the distance, those voices Hayden heard earlier. As they looked down onto the pasture, Page’s hand was suddenly gone and raised in greeting.

“Page,” one of them called. “What’re you doing? Come on!”

“Yeah, okay!”

Hayden watched as Page turned away from him. He said, “Go home, cow, mom’s waiting for you.”

“Can’t… can’t I come, Page?” Hayden whispered, his fingers tangling in each other. “I’ll be quiet.”

“Come for what? You should stay with your friends.”

“Friends?”

Page smirked and pointed over Hayden’s head. The boy looked back as Mr. Larson and his cattle flooded the greenery with brown and white and black. The cows were larger than any Hayden had ever seen and every time they moved passed him, it seemed they grew bigger. When he looked back, his brother had joined the figures on the hills and he was a giant too.

***

Night boiled in West End summers. Hayden sat in his bed shirtless, back pressed against the wall for any coolness to touch him. Half-lidded eyes watched Page walk into the room, closing the door behind him. He might not have known Hayden was there in the shadows; little lurker, Page sometimes called him. But Hayden made a small noise, like a calf on the plain.

Page took off his shirt and threw it to the floor. He pulled on brown boots and laced them, hopping from foot to foot over to the window that acted as a divider in the room. He opened the window and it was like opening an oven door.

“Where’re you going?” Hayden asked, feigning innocence well for someone who had never known guilt.

“Out.”

“Page, tomorrow, can you be the cow?”

Page laughed, a dry and brittle sound. “No.” He hoisted himself onto the window sill and straddled it. He looked back as Hayden slipped to the wooden floor boards and came to the window. His eyes were red, rubbed.

“If you don’t be the cow, I’ll tell Mom where you go.” Hayden pursed his lips. “I’ll tell her you and your friends steal milk from Mr. Larson.”

“We don’t do that,” Page snapped, voice split. “You nasty liar!”

“I’ll tell.”

Page examined the pinched face before him and glared in the half-light. He slipped over the sill and stood on the awning over the front door. Hayden was always amazed at how he didn’t flinch or slip and stood like a boy on air. But he put his awe away, in a drawer for later.

“Fine,” Page said. “I’ll be the cow tomorrow. Maybe it’s best anyway. You’re no cow, you’re a woman. Even cows don’t cry.” And he dropped to the ground, in the bushes, like a cat on all fours. He was off and Hayden wanted to know what Page was talking about. He wasn’t crying. He wasn’t crying. He felt a wetness at his cheeks but he still wasn’t crying.

***

First light came through the window and Hayden jumped from his bed almost all the way to Page’s bed. The older boy slept like a flayed chicken with his boxers askew and Hayden touched his shoulder.

Page flopped over. He grumbled something and Hayden laughed.

“Time to get up,” he said, “it’s time to go out and play! Come on, before Mr. Larson gets out there!”

“Fraggle…”

“Huh?”

Page looked over his shoulder through bleary eyes. “Meet me down there. I’ve got to…”

“To what?”

“Meet me down there. Five minutes.” He put his head under the pillow.

Hayden eyed his sleeping form carefully but obeyed. He slipped into his shorts and t-shirt and threw his shoes on as he ran downstairs, through the kitchen, calling good-bye to his mother who made biscuits. He ran down the main street and out of the mounds of small houses until he met the road’s merge with the pasture. The morning was lighter and smoother than the heat of the night, more of a simmer. He felt the breeze in his cotton clothes and through his hair.

As he turned to survey the wide plain, there was a shout, unlike that of other children. It was deep and he realized that he was not alone. Yards away were the fat cows that he was sure his brother had visited in the night and Mr. Larson at their head, wrapped up in large brown overalls. He was a cow himself. Standing before him was a young man whose face Hayden could not place. He was thin and taller than Page, almost standing eye-to-eye with Mr. Larson. And behind this young stranger was a gaggle of swaying sheep with fleeces like clouds torn from the sky.

Hayden wandered closer to the two, hands held behind his back, eyes on the blond-haired stranger. As Hayden approached, he could make out a freckled face and blue eyes. His face was easy and bright like the sky.

Mr. Larson’s face was a plump cherry as spittle flew from his mouth. He cried out, “You can’t just set up camp here; this grass is for my cattle! Who the hell are you anyway? Do you live here? This village isn’t used to squatters. You’d better move your sheep.”

“This pasture’s pretty big,” said the stranger and he flipped a rogue lock of hair from his eyes. “Can’t we both use it?”

“No!”

“Why?”

Mr. Larson sputtered. Hayden had not seen him so riled since the last town meeting where he accused some mysterious person of violating his stock. He looked then as if no one in the room could be trusted and Mom had since taken to calling him obsessed, a man who was nothing without his beautiful stock.

“Why don’t my sheep stay on this side,” the stranger drew a line with his big toe, “and your cows on that side. They don’t look like they’d mind much.”

“My cows like that side.”

“Then you take that side and I’ll take-”

“No sides! Just leave! If you’re not out of here in five minutes, I’ll call the sheriff. Good day to you.” He turned on a heel and led his cows away.

Hayden and the stranger and the sheep stayed behind. He felt the grass blow over his ankles and looked at the sheep beside him, each a cloud hovering just above the earth. He thought back and could not remember having touched a sheep. Not in his whole life. He caught a glimpse of the stranger’s stare.

“S-Sorry,” Hayden said and took a step back. He glanced at the ground. “About Mr. Larson. He’s obsessed.”

“I can tell.” The stranger smiled and it was something rare, something Hayden had not seen before. “It’s all right, this grass is really rich. It’s obviously done his cows some good. Have you tasted their milk?”

“Yeah… it’s good. Really, really good.”

He laughed. “That good, huh? I’ll have to try it sometime.”

Hayden didn’t see how that was going to happen, unless he happened to join the older boys’ nightly forays into the barn.

“You know,” Hayden said as he gazed at a sheep’s glossy fleece. “Mr. Larson leaves these fields at sunset. No one’s here then.”

“Ah. Thanks for the tip.” He winked. “I might have to come back later.” As he turned, his sheep with him like an obedient line of children, he said, “Travis.”

“Huh?”

“My name’s Travis.”

“Oh… I’m Hayden.”

“See you around, Hayden,” he said and they walked off of the pasture into the forest that surrounded the clearing and town. He was going, going, gone.

“Who was that freak?”

Hayden looked to his side to find Page standing there, hair mussed, face soggy from sleep. He held a hand up to block the sun and watched the remains of the sheep go off into the woods.

“Travis,” said Hayden, smiling. “He’s got a bunch of fluffy sheep.”

Page scoffed and waved the statement away. “Sheep are for women.”

Hayden frowned. “Why is it sheep are for women? Why is it crying is for women? Men can cry and men can like sheep.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, really.”

“Hey, Page!”

Both boys paused and looked up to the hills where the figures of giants descended into the valley. Page took a step away from Hayden as they approached and they slapped hands, jostled each other like stray dogs in a pack. They stood at even heights, high above Hayden and growing, as if they were gods and could walk the span of the world in three footsteps.

“We’re going to go swimming in the river,” said one of the giants, “want to come?”

“Yeah, let’s go,” Page said and didn’t take a step before Hayden caught his wrist. Page looked back at the boy with a searing glare, joined by the giants.

“Page, you said you’d… be the cow today,” Hayden said, blushing under the heat of their stares. He slowly released his grip. “Remember?” he whispered.

“Be the cow?” a giant laughed. “What does that mean? What do you guys do down here anyway?”

“Nothing,” Page snapped, his face just as red. It was silent for a moment and both brothers stared at their feet, the trees, the sky, as if something would provide an answer. Page finally shook his head. “Mom makes me play with him because he doesn’t have any friends. I’m sick of it.”

“Mom doesn’t make us play The Cow Game,” Hayden cried. “You came up with that! You did, Page, you said it would be fun if you could get on top-”

The slap echoed in the day and was followed by a loud sob. Hayden fell to his knees, hand on his red cheek, tears bubbling at the corners of his eyes. He shrank under Page’s shouts that he was a filthy liar, a stupid kid, a stupid sheep. His friends, the giants, stood around like stone idols and left when Page left.

***

Night covered all the plains and the town and against the black sky, fireflies lit up and buzzed around like little lanterns. Hayden sat on a large rock jutting out of the pasture, knees pulled up to his chest. He pretended he was stranded on a rock in the middle of the ocean, without food or supplies. He thought he might die of thirst. As he looked down onto the waves of blowing grass, he fought the temptation to reach down and taste it.

Kicking his shoes off, he dipped his toes into the sea and leaned back on his hands. Fireflies were attracted to his hair and he swatted half-heartedly.

“Hayden! Fancy meeting you here!”

Hayden turned to find Travis crossing the ocean, the grassy fields parting in the wake of him and his flock. They trailed after him, solemn and sweet. He approached the rock, like a ship in the night, a rescue mission completed. Hayden looked at him through soft eyes and waved.

“Travis, you came back,” he said and watched as the sheep spread around the rock on which Travis sat beside him. He leaned back on his elbows and gave Hayden one of his smiles.

“You sure are out here late. I thought kids were all tucked in at this hour.”

“I’m not that young.”

“How old are you?”

“Ten,” he said with some pride. He shrugged. “My brother stays out at night all the time and no one bothers him about it. I can be here if I want.” He paused and glanced over. “I’m not bothering you, am I?”

“Never.” Travis smoothed his hair back as if he had to look good. “I am a roving shepherd. No one to talk to but sheep and they don’t really listen anyway. I’m happy to have someone to… converse with. And you seem nice.”

Hayden giggled.

“I’d like to meet more nice people like you,” Travis said.

“You’d better get away from this town then.” Hayden swatted another firefly. He furrowed his brow and watched the sheep mosey by. “There aren’t any more nice people here. They’re all jerks.”

“Really? Are they all like that friendly Mr. Larson?”

He laughed, humorless. “Sorta. You haven’t met my brother and his friends. They’re real terrors. They steal from Mr. Larson, and not only that, my brother, Page, he… he. He makes up these games for us to play here in the pasture and then he never lets me be on top, he’s always the one, and I feel…”

Travis turned to him. “On top? What does that mean?”

Hayden tugged on the collar of his shirt, felt a drop of sweat run down the curve of his neck. “It’s called the Cow Game. And I’m always Page’s cow, taking him to market. He gets on my back and makes me walk around in the grass on my hands and knees.” He raised a hand to Travis and in the firefly-light, there were scrapes and skin rubbed raw, identical to his knees. “Today, he was supposed to let me ride him but then his friends came and he hit me. I’m going to tell Mom that he’s been sneaking out at night. And that he hit me.”

He looked back at Travis and the man’s smile had lowered and spread into a secretive smirk as if something was hidden.

“A cow doesn’t suit you, Hayden,” he said.

“Why?”

Travis’s fingers curled in Hayden’s russet curls and the fireflies lit in his hair like blinking barrettes. Travis laughed and tugged on the curls, running his fingers through them as one would a sheep. Hayden’s eyes glowed under the light and haze and he looked into Travis’s eternal gaze as if there was something to be found deep inside.

“I want to give you something,” Travis said and his voice was hoarse, strained. He cleared his throat and whistled. A sheep floated over, standing before them at the edge of the rock. Travis patted its head. “Take this one home with you.”

Hayden’s eyes rounded. “You’re giving me a whole sheep?”

The man laughed. “Yes, it’s whole. And it’s on loan. If you take good care of it for a while, you can have it.”

“Wow.”

“His name is Riley.”

Hayden giggled again. “You give them names?”

“Everything has a name. You’ll take good care of Riley, won’t you?”

“Yes!”

“Watch him. Sheep are creatures with minds of their own, despite what people think.”

“I will,” Hayden said and patted the sheep’s soft curls. They were softer than his own. “You must get great blankets and clothes from theses, huh? They’re beautiful.”

“They’re truly wonders.” Travis groaned as he slid down the face of the rock. He took Hayden under the arms and hoisted him onto the sheep’s back. It made a noise of slight rebuke and then quieted. “Now you’re on top,” he said and cleared his throat again. “How’s it feel?”

“Nice, for a change!”

They smiled at each other and Travis smacked the sheep’s rear. It started off towards the town and Travis called, “Water him at the river on the outskirts of town!”

“All right!”

And he was gone.

***

“Oh my God, what is that? Page, you get down here!”

Page had been gone since dawn. Hayden had watched him slip from the window sill after coming home in the late night. He wondered how Page got enough sleep with all of his escapades. Hayden answered his mother’s call in his brother’s place and found her in their front yard, gaping at Riley who was tied to the white picket fence. He chomped on the purple azaleas and dandelions.

She looked over at him, still in her robe and slippers. “Hayden, tell your brother to get down here and explain this monster!”

“He’s not a monster, he’s Riley. And Page isn’t here right now.”

“Where in the world is he?”

Hayden shrugged.

“Well, what is this Riley doing in our yard? There aren’t even any sheep around here!”

Hayden laughed. “He’s mine, Mom. He’s on loan from Travis.”

She blinked. “Yours?” Moving a lock of limp blond hair behind an ear, she moved closer. “And who is Travis? Why is he loaning you sheep? What have you been doing?”

Hayden let out another squeal as if he were being tickled. His mother had not paid this much attention to him since he was little and it felt like the sun was on only him. “Travis is a roving shepherd visiting in town. He let me borrow his sheep because he’s my friend.”

“You take that sheep back to the shepherd right now,” she said, voice tight. “Don’t you remember not to talk to strangers? Have you been alone with him?”

“N-No,” he said, thinking how all of the sheep had surrounded them.

“Find your brother and take this sheep back.” She went inside and left the two of them alone.

Hayden pushed back the feeling behind his eyes. He untied Riley and led him down the street, out of town. They headed past the town hall, past the bakery, towards the river over which stood Mr. Larson’s red barn, tall and wide like the pride of the town.

“What an eyesore,” Hayden said to Riley as they approached the river, its rippling like music in the air. “I think they should give Travis stables to keep you guys here. What do you think?”

Riley sighed.

“I bet it sucks being a roving sheep. Huh?”

He looked at the water and let out a strange sound that startled Hayden. He looked at Riley and patted him. The sheep turned away and continued to stare into the water.

“Don’t just look, drink!”

Riley didn’t move and Hayden patted his head again. “Do you miss Travis? I guess my mom probably scared you, going off like that. It’s okay. Don’t be sad.” As he stroked the lustrous curls again, Riley looked up at him and in that gaze, something inside Hayden dropped, like a vase shattering on the floor. He felt tears come suddenly to his eyes and could not explain them. “Huh?” he murmured, wiping at his face. “What’s the matter with me?”

Riley shook his head, low and sweeping, and placed his muzzle in Hayden’s hand.

Splashing broke them apart from each other, a loud tremble of laughter and shouts that came from upriver. They turned to find four boys half-naked dancing and shoving down the stream towards them. They disrupted the quiet of the morning and fish darted out of the way of their flying feet. Page was among them, the eye of the hurricane, and as he twirled, his gaze fell on Hayden and the sheep, standing on the bank.

“Hey, look who it is!”

Hayden reddened immediately and for some reason was struck with the image of his brother on top of him, a hand in his hair.

The giants slowed to a stop and waded a few feet to the pair. One of them said, “Where’d you get that thing, huh?”

“Nowhere,” Hayden said. He looked down at Riley who had still not had a drink. “Page, Mom is looking for you.”

“She can wait,” he said and was dripping, his chest heaving and his blood rushing. He approached the sheep and Hayden smelled the musk on him from sweat and exertion. “This from that guy in the field yesterday?”

“Uh huh.”

He laughed and touched the curls himself. “Feels nice,” he mumbled. “We could make a good coat!”

“It’s summer,” Hayden protested.

One of the giants laughed. “We could make blankets and sell them in the winter!”

The others nodded in agreement as if this was a good idea. Hayden stood in front of the sheep and even then prepared to be slapped again. But a voice boomed over Page’s words and they all looked across the stream at Mr. Larson who had waddled from his barn to shake his fist at them.

“What’re you kids doing here?” he shouted across the river. “Go away! This water is for my cows!”

Page rolled his eyes. “You don’t own this river. Why don’t you go away?”

Mr. Larson huffed and ignored the boy. Something caught his gaze, white and fluffy. And as Riley looked up at the man, Mr. Larson’s face reddened as it did on the pasture the day before and as it did long ago in the town meeting and it was once again as if someone had affronted his precious cows.

“Where in heavens did you get that sheep? Does it belong to that shepherd?”

Hayden rolled his eyes. “Who else would it belong to?” he grumbled.

Mr. Larson did not hear him and continued to shout. “I thought I told that good-for-nothing to leave! He’s been feeding his stupid sheep on my grass, hasn’t he? Drinking my water? I can see it already, look how its coat glows! I should slit its throat to teach him a lesson!”

Hayden cried out, “What are you saying? He hasn’t done anything! They’re beautiful on their own, without your stupid grass and water!”

“Be quiet! What would your mother say if she knew you were receiving gifts from filthy shepherds?”

“I don’t care what she’d say,” he shouted. “I won’t let you hurt-”

Riley stepped off of the bank and into the water. The sheep walked in between the giants and across the river to the other side until he was on dry land again and stood at Mr. Larson’s side, listless.

“Riley,” Hayden screamed. He stepped into the water and was caught by Page. He tugged and screamed as if someone was going to cut his own throat. “Let me go! Don’t touch Riley, please! He hasn’t done anything!”

“Stop acting crazy, Hayden, it’s a sheep. The shepherd must not have wanted it if he gave it to you.”

“It’s wanted!” Hayden called the sheep’s name again but it stayed where it was and Hayden could not go forward. When the pocketknife emerged from Mr. Larson’s pocket, Hayden went limp and blood spilled onto the dewy grass. Page let him go and Hayden wandered backwards from the riverbank, eyebrows raised into his bangs. He shook his head, low and sweeping, and broke out into a sprint.

***

He hid under the same rock until sunset, when the sky was smeared with the blood of Riley and the purple of azaleas. A while ago, he heard Page and the giants calling out for him, their voices forced by some unseen hand. Maybe his mother’s. They left soon and Hayden shivered, holding himself even in the heat.

On the darkening plain, fireflies rose up to light a path to Hayden. And Travis also rose up, his flock of sheep in a line behind him. He appeared smiling and Hayden turned to look up at him, his face red and blotched, mouth caving in.

“Travis,” he sobbed.

“There’ve been enough tears spilled over little sheep,” Travis said and worked his hands under Hayden’s arms. He hoisted him onto the rock and they were face-to-face. “I know it’s sad. But one day, they are forgotten.”

Hayden barely heard a word. He grasped Travis’s hand with his trembling fingers. “I’m so sorry… you leant him to me and look what happened… I couldn’t do a thing. I hate this place. I hate it. I hate Mr. Larson, Page, the giants, my mom. I can’t stand it. They don’t care at all, not about sheep and not about me.”

Fireflies stuck in Hayden’s hair, lighting his watery face.

“T-Travis, do you think… do you think I could come with you?”

Travis stood out against the black, like a firefly. “I tend to lose a sheep in every town I visit. That’s how it is, being a roving shepherd. Sometimes you need replacements.”

“I’ll be your replacement.”

Travis put a hand in Hayden’s hair and took hold of the curls, scraping his fingernails lightly against the boy’s scalp. The fireflies left his hair and the flock watched as points of light enveloped the shepherd and the boy. They touched skin and skin, locks of blond and fleece of white.

***

The roving shepherd left town before morning. There were shouts far-off, people calling for a little boy. He left by the pasture, around the town, and towards the river. A line of clouds followed behind him, and it was his perfect day even in night, it was his sea of wonders in a desert. He could roam the world with such wonders on his heel.

The river came up, a strand of shimmer. He turned and they followed him and they moved into the forest, leaving West End behind.

As the sheep walked along side of the river, some of them looked down into the water and for a moment were startled by the reflection. Little boys gazed out of the water, little boys with silken curls.

The End