Walking with shepherds (a poem)

[I wrote this a few days ago, to remind myself of the week I spent living outdoors with a group of shepherds in Sălaj at the start of April 2012.]

Walking with shepherds

They fling themselves full length on the cold ground
Reaching for ciggies, mobile phones, a handkerchief;
Chuckling at the chance to rest,
Five, ten minutes max, then up and off again,
Sheep won’t wait, and if you once let them drift
You’re done.
And will be in for a bollocking.

Sheep converse with each other between
Staccato snippings and delicate guzzling of spiky herbs,
All there is at this time of year,
Their jaws move like electric motors in spurts,
Heads jerking in rhythm
Fleeces shivering on spindly legs,
The not-stupid, herd mentality perfectly explicable
To other sheep.

Later, Andrei leans on his bâta, chin on hands,
Which are as brown as chill-roasted chestnuts,
Taking time out to show you spring flowers:
Yellow-petalled mistletoe with white berries bundled together like untidy nests in comatose trees, and
the singular, poisonous-looking Monk’s Orchid
that pokes its bent stem up through
Last autumn’s leaves; white against the buff-pink mulch –
whose pungent smell would be like breakfast
if you had had any – and whose speckled leaves
scream, “I am different”, in the morning fog.

Spring transhumance.  The first day out after lambing.
An April morning somewhere in Sălaj, a county slotted in between the Carpathian eyries of western Transylvania, like a forgotten moment in the
grand scheme.  A lapse of memory, that let the invaders in – Celts and Free Dacians who threatened the Roman limes of old Porolissum.

We walk ten, twenty miles – it seems like a hundred –
before nightfall dopes the flock,
and it settles down, this wool-clad hydra, in its temporary parking place,
By woods and sluggish ditches, by open fields of fresh grain shoots
signalling spring in the dazed aftermath of winter,
On rough and tumble mountains worthy of the name;
And 1500 pairs of eyes twinkle in your LED headlight, denying you sleep.

Shepherds do not sleep on transhumance; you are an exception except when it comes to daybreak, when laggards will be left behind.

On the fifth night, shriven by cold, you wake at 2, in the pouring rain.
Wolves are about, the guard dogs paroxysmal.
You stay by the camp fire, which is like an island of safety
In an ocean of fear.

A grey shape moved up the grey hillside, eons away, but
Only 50 feet from you.
And there are shouting and barking and flashlights criss-crossing the sky
like anti-aircraft, while, quiet as gossamer
The predator gets its prey.

You see nothing of this; and the shepherds don’t realise their loss till daybreak.  A lamb sacrificed before Easter.

For elevenses, you eat pork fat grilled on a stick, with hunks of dry white bread
and mauve onions.  “No salt, please.”

The journey unfolds in your head like a saga, and you are proud like a hero,
Though to them, it’s all a day’s work, on bad pay – they say –
and good jokes, of which you are sometimes the butt; nothing too racy though, because you are a guest, and must keep your distance.

But it is enough to make you feel more than welcome, like
One of the boys,
wearing the T-shirt –
if there was one.

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