|Jan/Feb 2017 Poetry
© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman
Herding Sheep with Bill
There was no contradicting the calendar of his superstitions—
The feast of some saint or other the sheep had to be herded off the mountain,
Culled and counted, dipped and doctored with shots for blackleg.
Wary of the ambitions of the young rams he'd sired late in life
And of their schemes to get him to sign over the land to them,
He was resolved to give no one reason to think he'd outlived his use:
He'd oversee it all himself, even if it killed him.
Defying wife and daughters, sons and doctor's orders,
He climbed the path behind the house in his tweed coat and his fedora.
A step ahead of most of us, he shamed us all with his uncanny vigor,
Pushing himself up the slope with a blackthorn cane,
His ice-blue eyes fierce with the fury of his determination.
He was a quiet, gentle man in his chair in the corner of the kitchen,
Sipping his tea from the saucer or a glass of Smithwick's,
Or filling his pipe with shavings from a plug of Mick McQuaid,
But that morning on the mountaintop, he meant to leave no doubt
He was still boss on the place; he shouted orders at us
And berated us with a coy disdain for our ineptitude as shepherds.
His sons bore the brunt of the abuse, the old man venting, perhaps,
His righteous anger at the heresy of cows they'd propagated
On the lowlands of the farm, more or less, against his will.
Half-wild by then from the freedom of their summer grazing
Among the furze and the heather, the white-faced Cheviots,
Elusive as the clouds streaming over the Wicklow peaks, ran us
And the young dogs ragged with their anarchic dodging and darting.
He could barely restrain his exasperated delight at our stupidity
As he watched bands of rebels, half a dozen or so, here and there,
Strike off in every direction but the way we wanted them to go.
When we'd finally gotten the sheep trooping in a flock
Down toward the pens in the valley, he waved us to come back
Up the hill to where he stood next to a furze-floored gully.
A sheep man all his life in the lonely hills, he knew
The ovine mind better than he knew the minds of men.
He had a druidic knowledge of all their tricks.
Something of a boy's mischief was still left in him,
And he must have thought it'd be good craic to put on a little show
That would give a playful slap to the face of our ignorance.
He tossed a stone into the bushes, and a leash of ewes
Leapt out of the ditch like doves fluttering out of a magician's hat.
His eyes laughed at our perplexed surprise, and he smiled to himself
To know he'd trumped our brash youth with the power of his wisdom.