Herding Sheep

by Jennifer Westbrook


We picked up Robert last because he lived closest to the highway, my friend following a white car to the small house at the end of the cul-de-sac, the one with a few toys left in the driveway. Robert’s mother was already outside on the lawn, and when she saw us, she waved. She was the only mother to do this of the six boys we collected on Saturday. When Robert got in the car, my friend introduced me, said I would be helping out for the day, and I asked if he was excited to go to a sheep farm because it seemed it could not be possible. He said, “Yes,” and he seemed earnest enough.

When we pulled over for directions and breakfast, the other boys went inside to get donuts, but Robert said he had not had an appetite for a week. When we were alone, he wanted to know things: how long I had been in Tulsa and how old I was. He said he was in 10th grade and didn’t really have a good time at school, and I told him that 10th grade was my least favorite year also. “It is the age you have the most secrets,” I said, and he only nodded. I asked him how long he had been a part of this group of boys and what exactly the group was. The best I could make out was that these boys were probably somewhat troubled and were being mentored by a friend of a friend, a young man who spent his spare time trying to teach the boys about holy things or tending to one garden or another. I heard the boys referred to as “disciples,” and I smiled because these young men live on the north side of Tulsa and wear earrings and are very concerned with the way their hair looks, and I could not imagine one of them saying anything like, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Except for Robert: I could almost imagine something like that coming from him.

When we arrived at Shepherd’s Cross there was a sign that said, “Blessed coming in,” and I joked that the other side of the sign would say, “Blessed going out,” and it did. For all its quirkiness, the farm was beautiful and idyllic enough. Past the wooden fence were green hills and a small pond with sheep roaming freely. The tall grass and the trees beyond made the place seem more a picture of a Scottish highland than anything one would see in Oklahoma, though one is quickly reminded you are here based on the Christian ideology spread quite heavily on every inch of the place. Next to a red barn and the pasture was a white farmhouse with a biblical garden and a peacock walking proudly in the picnic area. There was also a llama grazing, and for a place so full of purpose I was never told why.

We were there to see sheep being shorn, and a woman in front of the barn told us that we had better hurry because the line for the shearing room was filling up quickly. Instead we went upstairs where we could see demonstrations of the various ways a sheep’s wool can be useful. We also taste-tested lamb. The boys liked the taste, said it was the same as beef, although and one of the youngest boys, LaTrelle, complained that it was still with him about an hour later. A woman sitting at a spinning wheel watched us closely. Robert always seemed to be out of view, always alone, looking at something odd in a corner somewhere or in another room entirely.

In the waiting area the boys looked out one window and seemed unnecessarily nervous as though we were the next group in line to ride a rollercoaster. A little girl started crying because she assumed the sheep were being hurt on the other side of the door. Her father assured her that this was not the case, that they were being shaved because it was summer and they were hot, and I held up my toothpick from the taste test and made an obvious joke to one of the boys next to me. I was on little sleep, and waiting to watch a sheep get shorn with a group of young, black disciples felt like it belonged to a dream I might have rather than something I would actually choose to do.

The woman at the front of the room spoke about the farm on a microphone, explaining that it was her farm, that she had started it 20 years ago. She referred to herself as a “shepherdess” many times, often explaining that we must be quiet in the shearing room because sheep only know their shepherd’s voice. The Christian understanding of this was not lost on her, she made this very clear.

“We are His sheep, and a voice of a stranger we will not follow,” she said.

In the shearing room, we sat facing the back pasture. The grown sheep were on one side of the room and their young calves on the other, bleating helplessly and scaring the children. A recording of the shepherdess’s voice began, and we watched as one young man caught a sheep by the neck with a staff-hook and brought it to the middle of the room, center stage.

“Sheep are the only animal to sit willingly for the shepherd,” the recording explained.

The man took the sheep, which was obviously nervous and trying to free herself, and sat her upright, swaying her body until she went completely limp. There was something trancelike about this. The sheep let him move her limbs about, rolling her over on her sides and shaving her, and somehow this magic worked on me as well, for I fell asleep twice. When I woke fully, people were clapping because the sheep was rid of her coat and would now survive the summer.

I asked Robert as we walked to the garden if the experience was everything he had dreamed it would be. He said, “Yes,” and I could feel my sarcasm being lost on him. He asked if I liked it, and I said yes, only I was very tired. He seemed anxious that I should have enjoyed myself, and one of the other boys remarked that he thought he might like to work on a farm someday. An airplane flew overhead, and Robert said it was one thing he wanted to do in life, “ride in a plane.”

The garden at Shepherd’s Cross was well-kept and simple. One boy sat on a porch swing that hung from a tree, and the rest of us roamed, somewhat disorderly, about the place. I went to the back fence and tried to imagine what it would be like to live there, to walk on the pasture and into the woods for maybe hours a day. The boys walked to the vegetable garden and the small strawberry patch, and their mentor asked them questions about what they had learned. He asked about how to hear the voice of God, and the boys kept pointing out a large strawberry on the ground or making jokes about having one of the boys get his head shorn also. Robert was on the other side of the yard petting a cat.

On the drive home Robert asked if we could listen to one of the songs I’d played for them earlier. “Her voice is very persuasive to me,” he said. If I had been his teacher, he would have been my favorite student. I imagine that he would never speak in class but would always be listening, maybe while drawing strange, sad pictures of birds. He would probably even linger in the classroom when the other students left just to get noticed. He told us about a nightmare he had the night before, how he was lost in the woods and ended up on a boat with his mentor. “It wasn’t really a nightmare,” he said, “only I was scared a little or about to be scared.”

When he was asked how to know if you are hearing God’s voice or the voice of a stranger, he thought for a few seconds and simply stated, “I guess I would just ask Him if it was His,” and looked down at his hands. I followed his eyes and commented on how perfect his nails were, and he smiled and said that he had never heard that before.

Robert was the last to be dropped off, and when we asked what his plans were for the rest of the day, he said that he was going to go to his father’s house. As he stepped out of the car, I couldn’t help but tell him that I would see him soon though we both knew I probably wouldn’t. He walked inside quickly, waving from the doorway but not really looking at anyone.

Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 22. Nov. 15, 2012.