Extract 3

Sheep Counting

A village near Masnaguine, 1204.

In the scrubby hills of the Montagne Noire, where tough, spiny plants spill down from the rocky plateau to the plain of the Aude, I tended my father’s sheep. I say his, but he owned few, the rest he looked after for other villagers in exchange for goods. With the first mild days of spring, I drove the sheep and goats out from their winter fields and up the tracks to the hills, where we stayed together all summer. I learned to pluck the thick winter wool, to pull reluctant lambs from their mothers’ wombs and to milk the ewes to make the hard little cheeses we stored for winter. My father came with me the first few years, until I knew what I was doing, and could be trusted to be left alone with the beasts. Well, not really alone, my good dog Gardoun stayed with me, and there were other boys and men shepherding in other parts of the valley. Some stayed together at nights in a wooden cabane, where they could bake bread and make the cheeses. I slept on my own in a small wicker cortal below a tree which kept most of the rain off. From our separate meadows we would shout to one another, our thin voices carrying for leagues. If anyone had an accident, or needed help, we came together, but otherwise we stayed apart, each with our own charges. Every few weeks I would run the long path down to the village, to fetch provisions from home – flour and oil, salt, wine, dried sausage, maybe a piece of ham if there was any in our domus that week – but I was always back among my charges by evening. I had been doing this since my tenth summer, so I was accustomed to the life. I was not unhappy.

My little sister Béatrice accompanied me later, when Father decreed she was old enough to be of use. Mother had enough help around the house and in the fields, with our older sister Alazaïs. There were others born, but all had died at birthing or in infancy. I liked my flock. Mostly they were well-behaved, but there was always one who led the rest astray. These wilful ones were hobbled by tying a log to a rope around their necks, so they had to drag a heavy weight around with them all day. It stopped them moving so far away from the rest, but it did not stop them trying. Our valley was steep-sided, almost a natural corral. We had stone pens into which we drove the flock early in the year if we had late snows or violent storms, or if the hill wolves sounded hungry. It was easier to look after them all if they were herded together where they couldn’t jump out. I have never been harmed by wolves, but I have feared for my flock at times. The wolves mainly stayed distant from my evening fires. If I saw them in daytime they would move away from Gardoun, and from me and my staff. I was a good shepherd. Besides, in summer there was always enough for my charges to eat. If I had seen a bear I would have run away, but they were rare in these hills. I believe that further south, in the wetter mountains of Aragon, they are quite common. They feed well on the berries which foison in their season, all over the thorny bushes. Here we have but bitter little black fruits, dry, sparse and aromatic, although the goats seem fond of them. I have drifted away from my narrative, with this talk of wolves and bears and berries, but they are natural preoccupations of a shepherd’s vigil, so I pray you forgive me.

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About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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2 Responses to Extract 3

  1. Marion says:

    Really enjoying these extracts, Colin. They’re making me miss the South of France!!

  2. sunnydunny says:

    Thanks Marion. It’s a beautiful area.

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