My CV’s the entry of ‘an experienced shepherd’ under skills is a popular destination for the skimming eye. I have made such an entry as it helps me stand out from all the city mice and because a shepherd is much like a project manager, a team player, and a workplace’s scrum master.
Two years back, in the mountainous north of Pakistan, I volunteered to help shepherd the village livestock to the lofty pastures. Along with me were two experienced shepherds who knew the way that went through the mountains and over the glaciers.
Of all the livestock, one creature caught my eye—the BNW Ram!
The others told me to stay away from this ram, and I did, for I did not want to get knocked off a cliff.
At dawn, after a strenuous eight-hour hike, we arrived at the pasture which spread for miles and was harbored by peaks on one side and a cliff on the other. A stream also flowed along its length, at the end of which was the livestock enclosure and our place of stay—a single room made of rock and mud that had no windows.
I woke up near sundown after a much-needed rest and had a few snacks before I left the shelter.
I carried a small bag with me and caught up to the others near a tall boulder, where they scanned the nearby mountains through their binoculars; they were in search of the rare mountain goat—Markhor—that sometimes crossed the surrounding cliffs.
They left me behind after a while and headed back for the shelter to have their delayed lunch.
“Keep these and try your luck if you want to,” the eldest said as he gave me his binoculars.
“Thanks, this and the book will keep me busy for the while,” I said holding out my Cloudspotter guide by Gavin Pretor.
“It looks like an interesting book, but one cannot read here, especially with these fudgers running around. I used to bring a book or two with me but now I have given up on it,” he said, “best of luck!” He added with a wink as he turned around and left.
I made my way on to the boulder with my binoculars and the book. From there one could look over the livestock and enjoy the panoramic view of the peaks at the same time.
However, they forgot to tell me to be patient while I scanned for the Markhor and that it may take hours to spot one.
I scanned the cliffs for a few minutes but it felt like an hour, so I put the binoculars away. The livestock hadn’t spread much across the field, but I still found it hard to do a head count. It took me multiple tries to get it right —the number was 60. Perfect!
A rustle from below caught my attention, just as I sat down—it was that BNW Ram. Wide-eyed, I saw the ground stimulate and become a contrast to the dull monotone before.
‘How is it doing that?’ I thought, bowled over at the spectacle despite the knowledge about it beforehand.
‘Pst,’ I regretted as soon as blurted out the sound.
The ram jerked his head up in menace as if to say, “pst once more and I will ram you against this very boulder.” The stare bore into me for some time until I looked away. I decided to stay and observe from my safe haven, at least while the ram was nearby.
The head shepherd had told me that it is just above one and a half year old; however, its body was the size of a full-grown ram, and its horns had grown thicker and longer than an ordinary ram.
‘Give it some more time and it might resemble a Marco Polo sheep,’ I thought.
From above one could fully appreciate the light and dark that split its back, face and even the horns. It was a walking-breathing art-exhibit.
The ram grazed its way to the foot of the boulder, and before it can vanish under the protruded edge, I got on my knees and moved ahead. By mistake, I knocked my book off of the boulder too and watched it flutter its wings, desperate to dodge the ram below. It struck the ram on the forehead and bounced on to the grass field— yes, it was the hardcover edition!
I lied low on the boulder and sneaked glances below. The ram, irked, shook its head repeatedly and looked around for the source of the disturbance. I would have gotten completely out of view had the dance of shades on and around the ram, not amplified; Its dark side matted into the color of burned wood while the light side shone as if to dazzle me blind.
‘Shoot, it saw me!’ I thought as for an instant it glared towards my direction as if to say,
‘ I knew it! It was you.’
‘It’s just a ram! I am just being foolish, what’s the worst it can do?’ I said to myself as I stood up. The ram had its eyes fixed towards my direction and stood farther away as it pawed the ground.
‘How in the hell did it get this sturdy in an instant,’ I regretted my decision as I saw it stand taller than before, with its protruded chest and it’s mane puffed. The surrounding that went pale with the ram, caught fire again and deep down I felt proud to cause it. Then the ram circled the boulder multiple times in order to find a possible route and stood up front again when it failed to.
‘Sorry, that was unintentional. trust me it was,’ I pleaded with the ram to abate his rage. but it stayed vexed and seemed to wait for me to come down.
I rummaged my bag to find the salt rock that sheep love and when I could not find it I jerked the bag around in frustration and threw it towards the direction of the Ram, which was least impressed.
Maybe I was trying to rescue the traditional manliness under the pretext of ‘mustering up the courage’.
The ram then walked to the bag, stuck its nose into it and gradually its whole face and remained there with little to no movement; with it the intensity of light on the rams fur became mellow.
Finally some movement! The ram tossed the bag into the air and out popped a rock salt with a cape.
The ram licked the rock salt and forgot all about me, or so I thought, for when my feet touched the ground the ram’s beaming gaze met mine, ‘Baaa,’ it gave out as if to say apology accepted.
I walked passed a much calmer ram and saw his fur pulsate with light: the light towards the dark side was eclipsed while the shadows towards the light side were illuminated.
I did not wait for my fellow shepherds to arrive and started ahead as it was about time to herd the livestock back to their enclosure.
The half-moon shone between the peaks, as the dark seeped in. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a light shine even brighter and heard a familiar ‘BAA,’ from the same direction.
It was the ram transformed into a Himalayan Lighthouse; it had adopted an upright pose and bleated with his head cocked up towards one of the mountain faces. Its body would adopt the darkness of a charcoal once and that of a significant light next.
I turned around and carefully approached the luminous ram as it throbbed. ‘It must have seen something on the mountain,’ i thought as I looked through the binoculars on to the dark face of the mountain, and saw the Markhors in an instant. Only a blind person could miss a Markhor herd that big!
Markhors, from younger to the older ones, moved across a rock face that looked to me as a vertical fall. The herd steadily climbed the mountain and were almost at the top; however, the old ones which I could recognize due to their long horns, halted at every step of the way and looked towards a common direction. I panned my binoculars towards that direction and saw the rarest of the animals—the Snow Leopard.
The retreating leopard moved in opposite direction to the Markhors. It looked greyer in color and shorter in height, contrary to how I saw it in pictures and videos. Also, it did not jump around but rather slithered over and under the spaces —with its prominent long-bushy tail as support—and finally went out of my view behind the mountain.
The last of the herd of Markhors stood as a silhouette against the sky, and they too vanished behind the mountain. The heard kept its number, many thanks to the lighthouse that was now back to being a ram with a salt tooth.