Friday 2 December 2022

While Shepherds Watched - Christmas 1917 by Penny Dale, well-brewed tea with milk and plenty of sugar

The dog growled, staring at the corner of the sheep fold. The shepherd peered through the driving rain, trying to see what was worrying Bob.

‘There’s nothing there. Leave it. We’ll be going home soon.’ Cyril added the last bit without any conviction. The lambing was not going well, too many stillbirths and weak lambs unable or unwilling to suckle. Cyril kept talking to his dog. ‘I’ll have to go and see Squire West in the morning. He needs to know the situation.’ It would be another blow to the man: in the last few months the farmer had lost two sons fighting on the Western Front. Two fine young men; Cyril had known them all their lives.  What a waste, and here he was trying to deal with a disastrous lambing in bad weather. He thought he could feel sleet in the driving rain; snow was the last thing he wanted.

            Briefly the wind abated, and from the village below the sheep field he heard church bells. He’d promised Ellen that he’d go to the midnight service with her this year.  She knew he would never make it and he knew he wouldn’t make the effort. Even without all the difficulties he was having with the sheep, Cyril was reluctant to go to church. He could never admit that he thought the whole thing about a loving god was rubbish. Everyone else he knew went along with it, and a humble shepherd was certainly not going to risk his livelihood and what respect he had by questioning the great and the good who believed in, and followed, God’s word.

            Cyril carried yet another orphaned lamb into his hut. In a normal year he might have two or three motherless lambs in the box of straw he kept for the purpose. But this year he’d already had more than a dozen, and many of these had died. He rubbed straw over the little body he was carrying, trying to encourage it. Again he thought of the villagers in the church. Was God having a night off? If he’d called shepherds to go to the stable in Bethlehem, surely he could have some compassion for him and his flock tonight?

            But he had too much to do to worry about such matters. Outside the hut, snow was starting to fall and the wind had picked up again. He could see Bob nosing about in the far corner of the fold. What was bothering the dog?

            At first Cyril thought he was dreaming: there on the other side of the pen was a boy with his hand on Bob’s head. That in itself was unusual; he was a one man dog and very suspicious of strangers. Cyril called out ‘Who are you, what’re you doing here?’

            The boy walked towards him. He was dressed in what looked like a multi-coloured sheet, no boots or coat, nothing to keep out the atrocious weather. Yet the lad was smiling, walking calmly through the muddy fold with Bob trotting along beside him.

            ‘What are you doing here?’ Cyril repeated his question, but realised that even asking it was pointless.  He guessed the boy was about eight years old; it was a job to tell in the dark.  As if in answer to Cyril’s question the wind abated and the snow stopped. The flock became calm; the ewes were calling to their lambs who in turn seemed to be bonding readily with their mothers. Cyril went into his hut and returned with the orphan lamb.  He handed it to the boy who rubbed it all over until it started to wriggle, then he carried it over to a ewe with one lamb. The boy picked up that lamb and held it close to the orphan, intertwining the two wriggling bodies. To the shepherd’s amazement the ewe didn’t object when the boy put both lambs back beside her. Cyril was sure the lad winked at him before turning to assist with another delivery.


‘Well blessed if I know who that was.’ Back home, washed and with clean clothes, the events of the previous night seemed a long way away. ‘Could’ve been one of them gypsies that are camped up on Long Hill; they can turn their hand to most animals.’ He recalled that years ago a ram had charged his dog and broken its leg. He thought he’d have to get the gamekeeper to shoot the dog, but on his way to find him he met a gypsy who splinted the broken leg. The dog always limped, but recovered well enough to work.

 Ellen was serving up a fine Christmas dinner of rabbit pie, boiled potatoes, mashed swede and winter kale. ‘Happen it was a miracle.’ She knew her husband’s view of Christmas but having heard the story she was convinced that divine intervention was at work. She put another piece of pie on Cyril’s plate. ‘I’ll take some of the spare meat and gravy out to Bob; he deserves it.’ She hurried out into the freezing yard, leaving her husband to clean his plate with a slice of bread.

He thought about his conversation this morning with Squire West. He’d been worried that the farmer would hold him responsible for the heavy losses sustained by the flock, but he’d found his employer in a sanguine frame of mind. ‘I’ve lost my two boys’ he’d explained. 'Losing a few sheep doesn’t come close.’ Cyril felt obliged to tell him about the mysterious appearance and disappearance of the strange boy. His employer had scratched his head and muttered ‘That was no gypsy boy. They don’t know anything about sheep. All they care about is horses. No I reckon it was a miracle; you had a visitation from the Christ child.’ The farmer crossed himself and pressed a one pound note into the shepherd’s hand. ‘Compliments of the season to you.’ Cyril had walked home in a daze. Who had he seen on the hillside last night?


Ellen came back in. ‘Would you like a cup of tea? My brother and his family will be round soon. I said we could have some of that cake I made and play some games before you go to check on the sheep.  Not if you’re too tired though.’

‘Cup of tea would be nice, and of course I’ll join in with the games for a bit before I go back up the hill.  Why not see if Granny Billings would like to come round? The more the merrier.’

Cyril poured his tea into the saucer and slurped up the dark brown liquid, adding an extra teaspoon of sugar to the cup.

‘I know, mebbe we could sing some carols. We could start off with While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night.’


That night on the icy hillside Cyril looked for the boy among the flock of contented ewes and healthy lambs. A thousand stars glittered in the frosty sky. In the shadow of his oil lamp he fancied he saw the boy winking at him. He shook himself and whistled for Bob to go home.


About the author

 Penny writes short stories, flash fiction and poetry. She has been published in print and online. She is the reviews editor for SOUTH poetry magazine. 
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