They say I'm old, that I should give up my flock,
stay back with the women in the warm.
They say the cold is bad for me, and hiking
over hills to find a lost sheep, sitting up
all night to nurse a lamb are young men's jobs.
When I tell my story, I see glances and disbelief.
Yet none would dare deny my flock's
the best kept in the region, my memory
still as sharp as winter wind. It was a night
much like this. We huddled round the fire,
and passed a cup for warmth. I was youngest.
Now the rest are gone, so when I die
there'll be no one to remember.
Each of us heard a voice that gave commands.
(Afterwards, we couldn't recall
what words were said, but all agreed
we had been instructed to go somewhere,
for a reason we didn't understand.)
While it spoke, winter seemed
to withdraw, and it was spring
(though still cold, dark, and wind blowing bitterly).
When the voice stopped, we didn't like to catch
our neighbor's eye: each thought
perhaps he should keep this to himself.
But there was a burst of light, that blinded us
as sunlight does when you
come out of a dark cave into the morning.
We had no doubt then, packed up our things,
and went, without much talking,
to where we had been directed.
At length, we stood, and saw. Just for a moment
it occurred to me that it was me that had been chosen
out of the whole world. Me, to stand here
and be a witness. Not kings, or lords or the village mayor,
but me. A warmth crept up like an August breeze,
or a woolen coat, or more like long thin fingers
trying to curl round me and drag me away.
Then it was gone, and I knew my thought
had been wrong, despicable. That is why
I'll tend my sheep, welcome the bitterest nights,
tell my story to anyone with half an ear,
and one day I will have atoned.
Peter Howard (1957-)
Peter Howard is a telecommunications systems design consultant who writes poetry in his spare time, or possibly a poet who is consulted on telecommunications systems design. Either way, it's a unique combination. His web site, Low Probability of Racoons, is well worth a visit, as it contains a lot of his other poems, as well as a great collection of links to other poets and poetry resources on the web.