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The Shepherd

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I wrote this story for a local competition, which was seeking submissions with the opening line: “Hidden under the rock” and after a few false starts finally found an interesting location for my rock.

Hidden under the rock in the middle of the small stage, the two cookies went unnoticed on the morning of the performance.
Billy was going to be a shepherd in the nativity play. He had wanted to be a king and wear a golden crown until he found out that the kings had to ride camels, and the camels were going to be played by pairs of children sewn into a brown suit with a hump. Billy did not want to be riding a brown suit with two children inside, hump or no hump, so he settled for being a shepherd. Not that he had much choice – Mrs Wilson chose the parts but Billy liked to think that he had made his own decision.
The girls all wanted to be the angel and some cried when they were told they had to be sheep instead.
“I don’t want to be a stupid sheep,” Millie wailed, “I want to wear wings and fly above the stable like Charlotte.”
The other ten little girls sniffled and nodded their heads in agreement. Billy thought they were all sissies and deserved to be sheep but when he discovered that they would not listen to him he became quite angry.
“I’m the shepherd,” he said, stamping his foot and thumping his crook on the wooden floor, “and I say where you’re to go.”
He tried to herd them around the gym but Mrs Wilson told them all to be quiet as she was rehearsing with Joseph and Mary so Billy left the sheep sitting in a corner playing ‘house’ and went outside. The other boys, on a break from being palm trees, had started a soccer game in the playground and were not interested in scene setting.
What he needed was something authentic, to make the field realistic, he decided; one rock was not enough. It was not as if anybody would believe it anyway, with Charlotte dangling from a rope above the stable roof, waving her arms around as if she were swimming, the angel wings flapping over her face. Billy needed something to bring the scene alive. He needed a real sheep.
His Uncle Joe had a farm with sheep on it but it was too far to send a sheep from Montana. He could enlist the help of his dog, but people would laugh at a barking sheep. He needed to get out in the country and find a real sheep so the following afternoon, as his father was leaving to deliver some wood, Billy climbed into the back of the truck, clutching a packet of cookies.
“I’m coming along for a ride, Dad,” Billy said, “I like fresh air.”
His father looked puzzled, but accepted a cookie and set off.
They stopped at a gas station, with several cars but no sheep, and then at a small house with no sheep but a very large dog. At the third house, an old rancher at the edge of a field, Billy spotted a pair of llamas which looked like sheep only with longer necks. Billy decided to borrow one.
While his father and the man talked about the deliveries Billy stuffed two cookies into his mouth, several into his pockets and with another two in his hands he went round the back to look at the llamas.
They were very big. There was no way one of those llamas was going to get into the back of his dad’s truck. Billy crept slowly towards the nearest llama holding his hand out but the llama turned its nose up at the proffered cookies and flattened its ears against its head.
“Oh, oh,” thought Billy, “flat ears are bad news.”
He jumped backwards just as a shower of spit shot out in his direction and landed in a pile of wood shavings. A moment later he felt a nose nuzzling into the cookies in his hand. Sitting up he found himself staring into the eyes of a goat who was now trying to eat his shoe laces.
“Hey, sheep and goats go together, don’t they?” Billy thought to himself and he stood up slowly, brushing the wood shavings off his clothes. He held out another cookie and the goat was quite happy to follow him round the shed to the truck while the llamas looked on, wrinkling their noses. Billy wondered how the goat would get up into the back but as soon as he climbed in with the cookie the goat hopped up and followed him so he made a bed with some old tarpaulins and covered the goat up with his sweater.
The goat had been happy enough to stay overnight in the garage, surrounded by old shoes and boots and Billy had crept downstairs before breakfast, liberated the goat along with another packet of cookies and sneaked both into the school via the broken door near the library, then hidden the goat.
All morning at school the children complained about the smell in the coat cupboard. All morning Billy explained that he had been out with his father and had trodden in some nasty stuff which was still on his boots and that he was sorry but at least he had taken off the boots and not walked around the classroom in them. In the afternoon the children went to change into their nativity play outfits.
“Look at my wings, aren’t they cool and glittery?” asked Charlotte, which set the sheep off sniffling again. The camels became tangled up because they could not see out of the costume, the trees were still kicking the soccer ball around outside and one of the kings had lost his crown but Billy was very excited. He had a surprise planned. He was going to be a real shepherd.
The audience gathered in the gym, whispering and pointing at the large bushes made from newspaper positioned by the curtains while the actors took turns creeping onto the small stage in an attempt to spot their parents among the crowd. Then the lights dimmed and a loud drum roll reverberated around the gym.
“Shh, now, we’re about to begin,” said Mrs Wilson in a loud whisper which carried to the end of the hall as a row of spotlights shone onto the stage.
The sheep all clustered around the rock, pushing and shoving as they each tried to stand in the front, blinking and shielding their eyes from the bright lights, while behind them the human palm trees waved gently in the breeze, until their arms grew tired and one of them sat down. A voice from behind the stable called, “Moo!”
The school did not have a cow costume, nor was there enough space in the stable for a cow so Mrs Wilson had said the sound of a cow mooing would be enough to give an atmosphere. The smell coming from the coat cupboard was also giving an atmosphere.
“There is no room at the inn,” said a little boy stepping forward.
“Not yet!” came a voice from the side.
Mary and Joseph appeared from behind a curtain. Joseph was trying to hold Mary’s hand but she needed both hands to hold the large pillow under her coat.
“Is there room at the inn?” asked Joseph. The inn keeper said nothing so Joseph nudged him and whispered loudly, “I said, ‘is there room at the inn?’”
“I already said my line.”
“Oh. OK then. Where can we go? My wife has a baby,” said Joseph, poking Mary’s stomach, causing the pillow to fall out of Mary’s coat; both Mary and Joseph bent down, picked up the pillow and stuffed it back into the coat.
“You can go to the stable,” said the inn keeper and pointed to the stable, which was really a large box to the side of the stage. Mary and Joseph crawled into the stable and sat down on the pillow. The innkeeper waved to the audience and the Moo-ing became louder.
Mrs Wilson tuned the stage lights down and switched on the large plastic star that hung on the wall above the stable. This was the signal for the shepherd to round up the sheep and Billy decided that it was time the goat was brought on, while Mrs Wilson was busy making her long introductory speech.
Poking some of the sheep with his crook, which elicited a few whispered “ows” Billy hurried off stage and opened the coat cupboard. He found the goat lying on a pile of jackets, chewing happily on a leather boot, surrounded by a pile of currant-like blobs.
“Come on,” said Billy, “time to get on stage.”
But the goat was not moving.
“And the SHEPHERDS,” came Mrs Wilson’s voice, getting louder, “were in the field. The SHEPHERDS were watching their sheep.” Her voice dropped to a stage whisper, “where’s Billy?”
“Baa!” said some of the sheep, “baa!”
“And then the SHEPHERDS saw the angel,” said Mrs Wilson.
The goat still would not move so Billy pulled out a cookie and threw it onto the stage. The goat struggled to its feet and followed.
On stage the angel hovered in the air, supposedly flying but really standing on top of the gym equipment.
“I bring good news,” she said and flapped her wings over her face.
The goat had discovered the news too and took a big bite out of one of the paper bushes. The little boy in the palm tree costume next to it gave a loud yelp and moved hurriedly away, while Mrs Wilson gesticulated for him to stand still.
“Don’t move!” she hissed, “you’re a tree!”
From the other side of the stage the two double camels staggered onto the field scattering the sheep. The kings followed, on foot.
“I am of royal,” said the first king, walking to the edge of the stage and facing the audience, “bearing and bearing.” He turned to face the stable and said, “gifts,” then he thrust out a bright green box and Mary and Joseph both stood up to take it, bumping their heads on the roof of the stable.
The goat, which had finished eating the bush, began nuzzling the rock and head butting Billy.
“The Shepherd,” said Mrs Wilson, who was fumbling with her script and had not yet seen the goat, “was watching over the sheep.”
“Baa! Baa!” sniffled the sheep, shuffling backwards, away from the goat.
“Moo!” said the voice from behind the stable.
“Hurrah!” said the angel.
“Here’s the gold,” said the second king, holding out a bag of yellow marbles and looking around for somebody to give it to. He took a step backwards and fell over one of the camels who was sitting on the rock. The bag burst open spilling marbles all across the stage. The goat, which had been sniffing at the rock under the camel, bounded upwards and landed on the stable which collapsed on top of Mary and Joseph.
The two halves of the other camel, trying to avoid the rolling marbles, pulled in opposite directions and became two half camels while the third king dropped his gift which rolled around on the floor. Billy tugged at the goat again but it had begun chewing on the pillow and was not inclined to move.
“Moo!” said the voice from behind the stable.
“Ouch!” said the sheep, as they tripped over themselves and the marbles.
“Ally-Mooh-ya” mumbled the angel whose wings totally covered her face, “and everybody began to sing.”
This was the signal for the audience to join in singing a carol but Mrs Wilson did not cue the music teacher at the piano because she was standing face to face with the goat.
“Sing!” hissed the angel.
“Moo!” cried the voice, “Meeh!” bleated the goat and with faltering squeaks the sheep started singing.
“The First Nowell…”
The audience, who did know the words, sang lustily and the inn keeper came back on stage to bow alongside the three kings. The half camels held hands and the sheep all jostled forwards while the trees waved their arms and Mary and Joseph struggled out of the collapsed stable.
“I’m a real shepherd!” said Billy, as the goat chewed on the pillow and deposited a pile of currants at his feet.
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