A Shepherd Boy — A Short Story by Ghulam Mohammad Khan
January 28, 2022
Ghulam Mohammad Khan presents a short story in which a shepherd goes through his daily routine of taking his sheep to “a dozen deep and wide verdant folds of a mountain” for the habitual grazing. However, a series of untimely events disrupts the protagonist’s peace in a secluded pastoral world and plunges him into the depth of uncertainty, paranoia, and fear. The setting of the story is elusive and unspecified, adding greater emphasis to the tense and escalating action narrated in the first person. Due to explicit use of language in certain parts, reader discretion is advised.

You can simply call me a shepherd. About a dozen deep and wide verdant folds of a mountain in the North, I grazed my flock peacefully until recently when I was blindfolded, gagged and handcuffed by an armed gang of men in uniform. Hurriedly, they dragged me some hundred paces before throwing me like a loaded gunny sack into their truck. At once, the truck picked up speed and drove past the bumpy hilly terrains. The bleating of the sheep slowly dissolved into the background noise.

With a kick right on the back side right below my neck, one of the armed men threatened me and ordered me not no move or groan. A thick cloth wrapped tightly about my mouth prevented me from talking. Their boots smelled of tar and dust. Due to the small ditches in the road, the truck made a grating sound rising to an ugly crescendo as my tied-up body went up and down on its hard iron base.

While they talked to one another in an alien language, I began to think about my flock. Unlike cattle, a flock of sheep doesn’t return home on its own. I feared the flock would be scattered all over the place, making it an easy prey for a pack of hungry wolves in search for food at the approach of dark. The farther they drove me away from my flock, the worse my fears grew.

It would have been two hours or more. The ditches in the road and the hoarse groan of the truck never stopped to add more torment to my already jittered body. Before they dragged me into that truck, it was late afternoon and the sun shone brightly. Like a broad umbrella, the blue sky silently covered the tall mountains with a few conifers raised towards the skyline on the farthest precipice. As usual, when the sun disappeared behind the mountains and darkness slowly started to devour the blue out of the deep sky, I would sound my trademark whistle to gather my flock and drive it home. But under the present circumstances, that was becoming a fond and comforting memory while the truck groaned on down a mountain road.

I could feel it slowing down about a curve in the winding road and then picking up speed again. The ditches were gone. Suddenly, I could hear the thunder and the gusts of wind jingle the suspended iron chains of the truck. Blindfolded as I was, that sound became more pronounced. During early summers, the weather in the Valley is as unpredictable as the current predicament I was ravelled in. And yet, all I could think of was how sorry I felt for my flock.

Barely ten minutes later, the sound of hail pelting the roof of the truck reached my ears abruptly. As it was descending on the mountain road, harsh wind and hailstorm compounded on the truck with such force that it briefly whirled in the air, and then catapulted suddenly, landing upside down with a loud thud. With the powerful impact felt in its confines, everybody in the truck started to howl and groan and sob and plead for help. By miracle, I was not injured in that state of sudden agitation, except for a little cut on my right shoulder where it hurt and perhaps also bled. 

I had been hauled under one of the seats, giving me added safety that was not necessarily intended by my abductors. I could hear people begin to swarm around the truck, in great part due to the sudden halt in traffic that this accident had caused. While evacuating my kidnappers from the busted-up vehicle, some gentle hands dragged me out and inquired about my well-being. In no time I was left completely drenched in the torrential downpour. Before the kind hands could remove the piece of cloth around my eyes and the gag from my mouth, one of them commanded in an injured tone, “Leave that bloody terrorist in there! Don’t bring him out!”

Someone grabbed my arm firmly and pulled me a few paces from the spot, and threatened me while nudging the barrel of his gun about my right armpit to make sure I stood unmoved. In the relentless rain with a taste of chilly wind, I stood frozen thinking about my flock and this unfounded accusation of being called a “terrorist”. The bleating of my young ewes and lambs tore through the deserted wasteland of my mind. In my entire life I had never ventured outside my village and those mountains where I grazed my flock—except on a couple of occasions when I contracted typhoid fever and my old father took me to a hospital in the main town. So how could he call me a “terrorist”? Basic common sense failed to help me figure out an answer to such an unfounded question.

Meanwhile the rest of those rescued from the truck groaned frantically. Someone talked over the phone about the accident informing someone else about what had taken place. In less than half an hour, a few trucks with deafening police sirens, outdoing the sound of the relentless rain, reached the spot. From the accent and the promptness in their tone, I recognized them at once as local policemen. Those who had sequestered me were put into police trucks and probably shifted to the nearby hospital. The one whose gun barrel still stuck under my armpit handed me over to the police officer, “We apprehended this motherfucker up in the mountains trying to sneak into across the bloody border for training. Give him a sound thrashing in your cell. And once the boys are back, we will visit your station for some important details”.

By midnight the cloth from my eyes and the gag from my mouth were removed. I found myself in a candle-lit dungeon that smelled of smoke and mice. The dim candlelight cast a jaundiced shadow over the silent stone walls. The officer sat down in front of me in a wooden chair with a cold, numb expression on his face. After a long probing gaze, the officer broke the silence inundating the room, “Who are you and why do you want to go across the border?” I had no answer to this. I broke down. My sobs slowly morphed into cries. “Shut up and tell me who you are?”, he shouted as he threw himself up on to his legs to stand tall before me in a flash.

“I am a shepherd. I come from a poor hamlet from the North, up in the mountains where I have been grazing my flock for the last seventeen years. I only know that they pounced on me in a second, covered my face and tied my hands on my back before throwing me into their truck. It was about late afternoon today while I grazed my flock. And Baba is old, but capable enough to walk up to the mountains and bring the flock back. If you ask for him, he will clarify everything. It was only after the accident in that truck that I came to know that for them I was a terrorist”.

“Well, I will send my team to your village tomorrow. I will let you know who you are and if the flock you have just mentioned exists in reality, I will bring its news too”, the officer said after a brief thought. Then he turned and walked away. The sound of his footfalls in the corridor echoed in the dungeon. He appeared to be very kind to me but firm in his interrogation. He didn’t beat me as I expected, nor did he allow any of his men to do such a thing.

Shortly, a plate of boiled rice smeared all over with steaming hot potato soup was given to me. I ate in haste as I had remained hungry since breakfast. Someone, meanwhile, inquired about my address, the name of my parents and those of the village heads and recorded it all in their small pocket diary as I heard them dictate the names and details to someone else in a coarse authoritarian tone.

I was left there in the cold stony dungeon the way people leave the dead alone in the grave, one by one, after the funeral rites have been completed. On my left, towards the corner on the small windowsill, the candle gasped for breath. Its flame danced frantically and then suddenly snuffed out, leaving me there interred in that prison-grave. Except for my exasperated breathing and the slowly crawling and warbling sounds of beetles and crickets, everything else gave the macabre feeling of a silent grave.

Scared and agitated, I crawled from the darkness to reach the wooden pallet beneath the small prison window. Stepping onto it, courtesy of my tall wiry stature, I was able to match the height of the window and see through the metal bars. It was dark and cold, but the sky was clear. The dim light of the stars made the uneven rim of a mountain visible in the distance. Some radiating lights could be seen scattered across the mountain. The hail and rain were reduced to a mere memory now. The mountain reminded me of my flock. I feared half of my flock would be stolen by the local shepherds and half massacred by the hungry wolves or the mountain lions.

After two of longest days in my life that draw upon my memory like a blank, I was finally removed from the dungeon and taken directly to the officer’s cabin. I was asked to sit and without wasting anybody’s time in superfluous talk, the officer ordered vehemently, “You can go home now. And on your way back, you won’t tell anybody that you were kidnapped or locked up in police custody or anything of the sort. Otherwise, we will find out and we will come find you. And from now onwards, you should know your limits and refrain from wandering farther into the mountains with your flock”.

Three months later, everything was as if nothing at all had happened. Except three little ewes lost to the wolves on that fateful day, the rest of my flock was fine. I still put my flock to graze but not too far and deep into the mountains. When I and my flock hadn’t returned that day, my father had sent some neighbourhood boys to look for me and they had returned without me, bringing back with them the flock with three missing little ewes. They kept on looking for me for the entirety of the next day and gave up at nightfall after filing a missing person’s report in the local police station. A local seer had assured my mother that I would return in a couple of days and on my own. And only for saying this, my mother had offered him a young lamb.

We frequently talked about the generous police officer, particularly in the late evening conversations when we would get together for dinner. We owed my life to his generosity. During one such dinner conversation, Baba said to me, “First the accident of the military truck and then the generosity of this officer saved your life. We are indebted to his kindness forever. From our side, I think, we should do something to show our gratitude. You know, we are having a great harvest this year. The maize produce has been great and so has the walnut. And if God wills, tomorrow morning you will pack a full basket of nuts and a full sack of maize and deliver it to the officer. Don’t forget to carry it to police station directly and don’t stop anywhere else. When you get to the station, first go and ask for the officer and when you find him, show him our gratitude with this offering”.

The officer was happy to see me. He gladly accepted my father’s present. With his heavy left arm on my meek shoulders, he walked me out of his cabin into the lawn. He asked me to sit in a chair opposite to his and started instantly, “Do you know what a fake encounter is?”

“No, I have only heard about the usual encounters”, I retorted with a little more courage in my voice, knowing that I had gained his confidence.

“Well, all encounters are not real. Some are fake. And in all fake encounters, no real terrorists are killed. Therefore, to stage a fake one, poor chaps like you are picked up from several places. And not every innocent chump is lucky like you. Some are never found, some never return, some are buried in undisclosed locations and disappeared without a trace”.

The officer’s revelation sent chills down my spine. A deluge of fear broke through my mind leaving in its trail a series of questions that appeared all at once in a frenzy—should I graze my flock everyday in that wilderness? Should I stop myself, my siblings, my cousins and relatives and neighbours and everybody from venturing out after the fall of darkness? Where would my elderly parents hide me if they barged into our home at nightfall? How should those who live far away and do not know what happened with me protect themselves from such things?

With all these questions rushing through my nervous mind, I could only ask him a few to maintain a bit of composure. “Will they come again to kidnap me? Will they kill me in a fake encounter?”, I asked with a nervous and worrisome tone breaking my fake composure.

“Well, I don’t know. Ours is actually a very strange place. Here you don’t have any identity. You never know when you will change from a shepherd into a terrorist and from a terrorist into a martyr. A couple of days after I set you free, their men came with a plan to take you back. I had to argue like an advocate to prove you were not a terrorist. Anyway, all you need to do is to take the best care of yourself and the people who are close to you. For the rest, there is no safety here. This is a doomed place, for all of us”.

My life was never the same after meeting that officer for that second time. If I hadn’t shown up at the police station with an offering of gifts, I could have found refuge in ignorance. But at that brief meeting, my life became utter disorder. With such knowledge, the mind weighs on the body and both make their weight felt on the heart and soul with indescribable force. “Depression”, they call it in the city with all those fancy people, and their fancy vocabulary. In such a state, all that occupied my mind now were all sorts of wild speculations about my death and disappearance. Many times, I would forget my flock without forgetting to turn around over a hundred times a day to look at the dusty road in the distance in the fear of an approaching camouflage green truck.

Eating my packed lunch leaning against the cushion of a washed-out boulder on the margin of an ever-flowing brook never was the same again. The mountains appeared to me as a dead mass, the majestic deodars and conifers in the distance looked listless and melancholic. The daises, dandelions, the purple prairie clovers, the liatris, the poppy mallow and the red hyssop looked dull and woebegone. When the heart is sore and the mind is drowned by fear, all of nature in as much of its majesty and wonder wears sorrow and gloom as its shroud.

Now my life has become nothing but a slow passage into deterioration. A part of me has died since then and the other part remains stretched thin between the fear and the paranoia of being taken away from my flock, never to return home again.

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About the Contributor

<a href="https://www.inversejournal.com/author/ghulam-mohammad-khan/" target="_self">Ghulam Mohammad Khan</a>

Ghulam Mohammad Khan

Ghulam Mohammad Khan was born and raised in Sonawari (Bandipora), an outlying town located on the wide shores of the beautiful Wullar Lake. Ghulam Mohammad believes that literature is the most original and enduring repository of human memory. He loves the inherent intricacies of language and the endless possibilities of meaning. In his writing, he mainly focuses on mini-narratives, local practices and small-scale events that could otherwise be lost forever to the oblivion of untold histories. Ghulam Mohammad considers his hometown, faith and family to be most important to him. He writes for a few local magazines and newspapers. His short story collection titled The Cankered Rose is his first major forthcoming work.