“Concord, Socks, Prince, Dolly, Lady, Raven. Raven!” a boy hollered, “Oh, where is that creature! When I find her she’s gonna get it from me.” He curses under his breath and prepares to wake up the rest of his flock of sheep with his wooden cane.
“Wake up Dolly, we need to find Raven. She’s gone missing again.”
The boy hears no reply from Dolly, but he knows that once the rest of his flock are awake she would follow.
He grabs a leather and brass cow bell that lays abandoned on the wilting grass with the letters A V E etched into it. Years on the open road had faded Raven’s glistening bell and reduced its shine to a dim bronze color. He had traded that same cowbell with a farmer for some of his own goods he collected from his sheep such as wool, milk, and cream.
He often tied the bell around Raven’s neck to keep track of the infamous Houdini of his herd, but most times she always managed to get away from his sight. He brings the half rusted bell to his face and turns his focus to his bedraggled appearance which is reflected from the bell’s dull copper metal. It had been a long time since he had the luxury of using a mirror.
The boy looks at the bell again. His hair, which had been a mop of handsome long brown locks, was now interwoven with streaks of blonde highlights due to the exposure of too much sun. He turns his focus to his almond shaped, rich dark brown eyes.
Those eyes were the only features of himself that remained the same since becoming a wandering shepherd three years ago. The hard work he underwent each day never changed those dark eyes or his crooked smile no matter how drab the landscape around him grew.
Working as a shepherd was much harder than he ever imagined and his poor decision making which led him to the career path had left a heavy toll on him. A tall gangly boy stood looking back at the reflection. For the first time, he noticed how much he’d changed since leaving his family. This haunting mirrored image of himself was a ghost of the happy boy he once was.
He polishes the bell with his sun bleached t-shirt which soon causes the letters A V E N to appear almost as if by magic. Dropping the bell to his side, he wipes his eyes to clear them of sleep while he watches the sun begin its ascent into the dark sky.
His baggy dark blue sweatpants fly behind him as the wind begins to pick up. A quarter of his most obedient sheep, including Prince and Concord, stand next to him to take in the morning’s beauty. The first few rays of the sun timidly enter the world as the boy’s entire body grows warm at the comforting and gentle touch of the sun’s warmth.
The welcoming rays remind him of his mama whom he hadn’t seen since he was fourteen. At the thought of her, he doesn’t cry. All memories of her had long ago been cried out. Even if he tried to weep, he knew that it would not last long. His eyes were as dry as the present drought Peru was stuck in this year.
A burst of warm colors rise above the horizon line, growing brighter and brighter each second as more of the sun’s rays begin to scare away the darkness of the night. The golden sun slowly wakes itself up from its deep slumber like a bear does after hibernating during winter. With a final stretch, the sun reaches its post in the blue sky.
After the sun’s dazzling performance, the boy looks back at his herd and sees that the majority of them are still fast asleep. He coaxes them again with his cane and words and gives them some more time to prepare for the day.
While waiting, he looks at the bell for a second time. This time he takes notice of his weatherbeaten clothing. A patched baseball hat is perched on top of his head. The faded navy blue and white colors have the intertwined letters, N and Y, to form the logo of his favorite baseball team: the Yankees.
It had been his father’s dream for his family to move to the States where there was freedom and better paying jobs for people like them. His grandfather was lucky enough to immigrate there and become an American citizen. He was also trying to do the same for his son’s family.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out but whenever he visited Peru he brought a present for the boy from the States. The last time they were together, almost three years ago, his grandfather had given him a baseball hat and introduced a game called ‘baseball’ to his grandson who fell in love with the sport at first sight.
Years ago, the cap was brand new and colorful, but now the hat was so old and frayed that it was just a mere memory of his grandfather rather than a functioning object. The baseball cap served its purpose very poorly which left the boy with the distinguishable tanned skin that proved that he was a Peruvian native.
He places Raven’s cowbell inside his pocket and wanders over to his flock with his herding stick. The purpose of the cane was to support him when he walked over rough terrain and to keep his herd in check and for them to remember who’s boss.
The boy has a firm grip on the cane and feels many uneven grooves beneath his rough fingertips. He had an idea when he first started out as a shepherd that he would mark how many days it would take to earn enough money to save his family barn from being sold to a more wealthy company. He used his trusty pocket knife to perform this task.
Each night while sitting on the earth’s ground around a fire, he’d use a pocket knife to hack away a bit of wood on his cane to count the days he’d been away from home. So far, there were 1,095 cuts into the wood.
The business and the farm had probably been torn down by then to build a hotel, or something to that effect, but who was he to judge when he hadn't been back to his hometown, Lima, for three years. He’d hoped to earn enough money from keeping a herd of sheep to save his family’s farm.
The thought of traveling from town to town, no parental supervision, sleeping under the stars each night, earning his own money all by himself all seemed heaven-like in the eyes of a youth. Plus, a shepherd was the only paying job a boy his age could earn besides mucking out stalls and who would rather do that?
At long last, his herd and himself are ready to embark on their mission to find Raven. He gathers his small backpack off a nearby rock and takes out an apple, a rare treat he had to trade almost half of his milk supply to a baker in one of towns, to munch along the way.
He didn't normally spend much money for his food, much less for special treats, but this day marked two special occasions. His seventeenth birthday and the third anniversary since he had left his family.
While walking through the dry and withered plants with his herd, a few sheep begin to wander off in different directions. When the boy catches sight of this crime he uses his trusty cane to gather them.
The boy was a very gentle shepherd and never used his cane to incite violence, but instead used it as a tool to guide the sheep along. Some fearful tales of violent shepherds had reached the boy’s ears through town gossip, but he never let it interfere with the way in which he handled his own flock. His philosophy was that violence was never the answer.
The boy listened for any signs of Raven while the sheep picked at the limited green scattered across the valley. The drought had made it much more difficult for everyone.
Walking along the hot valleys made him very thankful for the sandals his fathers had given him before leaving home. He couldn’t forget his papa as easily as his mama, though. Memories of his papa danced through the boy’s head like buzzing horse flies, leaving him no peace.
The soles of the sandals were still intact but only because he had paid for blacksmiths at different towns to mend them, which cost a pretty penny and a lot of hard bargaining. Those sandals were the only piece of his father that he had left, well, that is except for Raven.
Before leaving, his papa had given him a small energetic sheep that he had named Raven because she had wool the color of a raven. The ewe’s wool was soft and smelled earthy. That playful ewe pulled at the twine rope that hung loosely around her neck, beckoning to be released. One thing’s sure, that black sheep hasn’t changed a bit since leaving the farm.
Biting through the juicy flesh of the apple makes the boy now dread the warm heat emitting from the sun. He’s grateful for the small amount of shade the baseball cap gives him, even though it isn't much. He continues to take small and delicate bites of the delectable apple, trying to savor the sweetness for as long as possible.
The boy’s halfway through his apple when he hears a bleating voice say,
You can’t catch me!
And it’s sounding from the forest. In towns he's traveled to in the past, rumors were told about that same forest. It was said that whoever entered it, never returned. Some stories talked about an evil sorceress who controlled animals to do her bidding while more reasonable accounts of the tale told listeners about vicious beasts such as bears, wolves, and mountain lions.
The boy never dared to test which tale told the truth, but he had no choice but to enter and try and save his father’s precious gift to him no matter the cost.
The faster he ran the clearer he could hear Raven’s taunting turn into cries of urgency. Fallen tree branches and roots scraped his ankles and thighs, but he had no choice but to continue running forward and away from the sorceress or beast, whichever one it was, who might be stalking him.
His heart was pounding, his legs ached, his clothes were soaked through with sweat, his legs were on fire, he was thirsty and hungry, but he needed to keep going. Even though nature was completely against him he needed to save Raven, or die trying.
The more he ran, the more tired he became. Each inhale felt agonizing, but he couldn’t stop. The apple must have fallen out of his hand while he was running because it was no longer with him, but his grip on his wooden cane remained firm.
He placed one foot in front of the other until, at long last, he entered a large clearing in the forest. He stopped to regain part of his breath and take in the view. Fewer vines were spread overheard so that more sunlight filtered into the glade. It was very rocky and not much green grew in the clearing which was most likely because of the drought.
There was a small puddle of liquid in a corner and he noticed that a rock was hovering over the puddle. For some reason, the rock had gray fur and it was growling. The boy’s eyes focused harder on the furry rock until he saw a recognizable creature cowering in front of the furry rock. Every moment that passed a huge sleek gray wolf the size of a small boulder closed in on his ewe.
Without thinking, the boy regained his senses and began to shout at the wolf while throwing stones at its head. At once, the wolf turned around from its prey with its beetle black eyes full of nothing less than pure hatred.
“Easy boy, easy,” the boy whispered, trembling like a leaf.
The boy’s eyes grew the size of apricot pits as the wolf crawled forward and bent its haunches, preparing to pounce on the boy. Using the only weapon he had, the boy slowly raised his cane to hit the wolf on its head but the animal was too smart for that. The wolf launched itself forward at the boy with a dangerous growl in its throat and bit the cane in two clean halves.
Now defenseless the boy had nothing else to do but make his last prayers. Just before the wolf made his pounce, the creature began to whimper like a child and retreat back into the forest without leaving a scratch on the boy or Raven.
Without daring to see if the wolf would come back, the boy tied a rope around Raven. Raven was usually pretty stubborn when it came to following him but, in this case, both of them hightailed it out of the forest without looking back.
“Raven...never ever...do that again. Understand?” The boy said in his most threatening voice. He was clutching his knees in an attempt to regain his breath and when Raven didn’t answer he looked up to watch her sprint off toward a tall figure in the middle of his flock. A stranger was tending his sheep, which was supposed to be his job.
“Get back here!” He hisses to Raven. Ignorant of the command, Raven continues to sprint toward the stranger with more pep in her step. The boy rolls his eyes and gives chase to the infamous Houdini.
Raven is scaling the crest of a tall hill, the boy a close second, when he realises two things: he is already on top of the hill and that he’s standing right behind the stranger. The stranger, a girl, is kneeling and stoking his sheep as if they were her own.
His herd doesn’t even notice his presence, they are so absorbed in the girl. When Raven arrives at their gathering, she sticks her face in the girl’s lap, expecting some treatment as well. She laughs and fulfills Raven's wish. Mouth gaping wide at the girl’s impertinence to take care of his sheep, it gives the boy time to study her appearance.
The girl’s wearing a t-shirt identical to his and a colorful skirt stitched in with intricate needlework. The pattern covering the skirt tells a story that is unfamiliar to the boy and it has something to do with the sun, the moon, a large greyhound, and a girl. Looking back at the girl before him, he sees no resemblance at all between the skirt girl and the stranger.
After discerning the girl’s appearance, the boy feels like it’s time for him to interrupt the little gathering.
“Get away from my herd.”
The girl jumps and fearfully turns around with her hands up. Once she realizes that she’s in no danger whatsoever she laughs and waves at the boy. She smiles and begins to speak in a foreign tongue to the boy.
He can understand bits of words every now and then, but she’s speaking too fast. The boy stares at the girl with fear, knowing that this is proof enough that she’s the sorceress from all the stories he’s heard. He takes out his pocket knife from his pocket and wields it like a sword.
“You’re trying to put some voodoo spell on me with your crazy language, but I know who you are sorceress. You’re trying to brainwash my sheep. If you’re gonna eat me or do something else, I better warn you that it won’t be easy!” The boy’s words obviously don’t leave much of any imprint on the girl because she starts laughing again.
After a few minutes of uncontrollable giggling on the girl’s part she says,
“No, no, no! First things first, I’m not putting a spell on you, and I’m certainly not going to eat you, that would be just gross.”
“Well then, what are you if you say you aren’t a sorceress?”
“I never said that I wasn’t.”
Awkward silence and then the boy says something unexpected.
“Do you want a snack?”
“Well, I kinda need to go back home,” she says awkwardly, “But we’ll meet again Raphael, I promise.”
“Ok, but I have something to give you something before you go.” Raphael turns his back to the girl to take out two small bananas, another special treat for his birthday, from his backpack to give to the girl.
“Wait, how did you know my name?” Raphael asks. He turns around with the bananas in hand but the mysterious girl is gone.
He sighs, picks up a long stick to use as a makeshift herding cane, and drives his flock back together again. He grabs his backpack off the ground and prepares to continue his trek to the nearest village.
Raphael steals one last glance at the forest before walking down into the valley and sees a rustle of leaves at the border of the forest. He’s too far to see exactly what caused the shrubbery to move like that, but he could’ve sworn that he saw a girl standing next to the same wolf that almost killed him.
The girl waves and he waves back, but the wolf remains as still as a statue with its amber eyes glowing with an unreadable expression before turning around to follow the Sorceress of the Forest.