A Shepherd’s Tale by Tony Ashenden

A tribal man standing on rocky slopes with a sheep draped around his shoulders

Consider, discuss, decide as you must. A boy     

of nine I was, given to play? Yes-              

but impatient to grow. A minder of sheep

and goat, not quite a shepherd, you understand.

Arab Jewish Samaritans, lowborn we were    

under Roman rule in the land of Moses.

Tent dwellers; nomadic in the Way of the Sea                      

we moved our flocks from pasture to fold                

over plain, hill slope, through mountain pass.                                   

Self-sufficient, our mixed blood had no ties 

in towns and we were shunned in cities.                    

At that time there was much disquiet,     

camel borne travellers would hail us                         

seeking safe passage to Damascus                             

anxious for news, telling of homes destroyed           

of livestock lost. Herod by the sea of salt                  

in hope of cure, still covetous of power.                               

Riots and Roman soldiers everywhere.    

It was the hottest time of year -too hot.                    

My father the elder shepherd of our band                 

decreed we leave the plain of Armageddon              

skirt the Galilean hills and drive                                

to Mount Carmel and fold there in cool caves                       

the pasture good, the Kishon river close.  

Unusual for time of year it rained unexpectedly.                  

Wet and freshened I explored cave and gully            

gaping at rock paintings, sling shooting                    

hawk foolish enough to target our flock.                   

When night fell there was talk about events  

on the highway, riots in Sepphoris.      

Mahmud was our Rabbi, a Samaritan                        

Who taught us boys by rote from a scroll.                 

He would disappear for days on end,                        

reappear warning of wolves, thieves in hiding,         

bringing herbs, fruits, figs, salt preserved fish,                     

feet, hands, and body bruised and bleeding.  

But not this time -from the tomb of Rachel               

he had seen columns of soldiers, pillars of smoke,   

people fleeing carnage, a forest of crosses.               

He arrived much distressed. Nearby, he said,

there is a camel camp of Persian men,

star diviners, here for some special event.         

So deep the dreamless sleep I slept, when roused   

I complained of being woken. My father’s               

command to dress was brusque and impatient.         

Mother soothingly said be quick no time to rest.                              

Sheep and goat were want to break the folds

and strange lights had appeared in the heavens.    

Girding mantle, grasping staff, sling, and pipe          

I joined the men grouped around a fireside   

where Mahmud, repeated yet again                           

to disbelieving ears, of a vision given           

in prayer, how an angel of the lord appeared            

announcing birth of a messiah to all men.       

How he had run to the Kishon River                         

to impart this news to the Persian men,                     

and they, exclaiming in response said this                

was the proof, the final proof they sought.                

And without delay broke camp and headed east.      

The river shining phosphorus in the night.    

Did I hear a voice as we knelt in prayer?                   

For when Mahmud said follow me, I knew               

the angel would want us shepherds go!         

Find the birthplace, give tribute to the child.            

More in fear I think, of unearthly things,                  

Claiming protection of the women folk,       

some herders stayed with the folded flock.   

For me this was adventure, side by side                    

my father leading with Mahmud we trod                  

the Magi’s tracks. An uphill beaten track                              

Nazorean’s often trod beyond Bethlehem                 

to Elijah’s tomb. In silent awe we came

to where the light was strongest; there halted           

by a well-dressed Jew, then let pass. Mahmud          

having yet again spoken of his vision.                       

We entered a cave, two donkeys tethered                 

looked at us curiously –and there                              

in a lamp lit area no bigger than a tent   

a babe in swaddling clothes lay in the arms              

of a woman and before them, three Magi.                 

Also, an Arab woman, an older sage-like                  

Jew and a fearsome looking man whose smile          

belied his looks. The air perfumed –a scent              

so strong my head whirled with feelings.  

We knelt on the hard stone in a presence                  

of many persons unseen; God’s angels                      

I know them now to be. We presented                      

lamb and kid –the best of the litters                          

we had, and in turn were given sweet wine.                          

Yet I was not allowed, and she, seeing this   

beckoned me to drink from a leather gourd              

that hung from the cradle bed, a sweet                      

warming juice. I drank gazing as I did upon             

the new-born baby’s face. Then not asked                

but sure of rightness I began to play my                                

shepherd’s pipe. With eyes closed he smiled,

as if somehow, he had heard me play before.           

The tune was new to me and full of majesty,                        

my fingers moving my brain asleep                           

I lost all sense of time, only just aware                     

of his mother’s happy face; the attention                  

of all that were in that holy place.         

As dawn began to show we took our leave.               

My father with pride made much of my tune.                       

There was curious talk about the older man,             

was he her husband? Why birth in a cave?                

They were not poor, and the Magi had                      

given gold! There had been talk of Herod,   

more so the riots and of Rome’s steel hand.             

Yet for all this talk as we returned, the paths            

aglow, I sensed my nomadic life would never                                  

be the same again. We had gained in status  

been received as equals –us lowborn             

shepherds; and feted at a godlike event!                    

Yet despite this, seeds of doubt took root.    

The holy book lost its magic -I questioned               

why Jews and Gentiles warred, sacrificial lambs,     

the militancy of God. Instead, I dreamed of union                            

in remembrance of the child, believing

he would one day share our daily bread

forever hopeful that our souls might wed.   

Consider, discuss, decide as you must                       

the burden of proof is a human need.                        

My shepherd’s tale, straightforwardly said               

is to you a plea -that in the body’s Keep                   

your soul should no longer groan and weep              

but celebrate the Love that is Heavens Bread.

-TONY ASHENDEN

Tony is a seasoned traveller; a computer analyst, seaman, shaman, and a complementary alternative therapist. He is a writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. In his own words – Life is real only then when I am. Please visit his blog Mine Quick Voice of Aquarius to read more of his work.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Terveen Gill says:

    Tony’s beautiful and vivid depiction of a shepherd journeying to pay his respects to the holy infant is surreal and weaved with magnificent detailing. The scenes are alive with settings and characters as well as the moods of a child travelling with his parents. The ending is the hammer that drives the nail into the hard wood of the conscious mind. Is belief and faith bound by justification and proofs? Or is there more to life and death than holy books and their teachings and wisdoms. Treat the body as a temple and worship the mind and heart, the soul will surely find its salvation.
    Congratulations Tony!

    Like

    1. Hi Turveen, what can I say? You have summed up the poem beautifully and got to the heart of why it was written. I’d love to meet you but India is a bit out of my reach!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Terveen Gill says:

        Thank you, Tony. Maybe, someday.

        Like

  2. There are, still, the, nomadic people, only that being nomads, is not a way of life which they choose, but because the world is, way too, intolerant, of, people who aren’t, similar, to a certain, race or group of, people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said! Nomadic peoples are often wiser by reason of their difference than we give them credit. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. jonicaggiano says:

    How beautifully written. The detail and imagery of the visit to see the birth of Jesus brought tears to my eyes. I believe one day we will all break bread together but not in this earthly land. Congratulations on your publication and thank you. Blessings to you and your family. Joni

    Liked by 1 person

    1. sadly I think you are right -it’s the next world awareness -here the ego rules. thankyou for your appreciation of my writing.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. jonicaggiano says:

        My pleasure truly a detailed yet beautiful painting on the shepherds. I loved it.

        Like

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