Shepherd in the City – A short story

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Akram was sitting under a tree in the pasture near to the camps. He was counting the stars, which looked like diamonds twinkling in the darkness. Every night, Akram enjoyed making different shapes out of them: As a child, one of his favourite pastimes had been to sit outside at night with his grandfather, where together they enjoyed describing the different shapes that each constellation made. These memories were now the essence of his life, and it was one reason he liked this area of pastureland so much; it provided the perfect gateway to those precious childhood memories.

He was a shepherd boy, and would spend his day taking care of a herd of sheep and goats in the pasture. When night fell, he only had one thing to entertain himself, to talk to the stars and create his images.  Afterwards, he would move back to the camps late at night and rest, before starting the same routine the next day.  In fact his life revolved around an endless cycle of traveling between the pasture and a small shabby camp house with a thatched roof, but that had only been his routine for two years. Before that, he had been living in a small village in Afghanistan with his family.

He was just ten, when he had been labeled as an immigrant, and forced to travel across the border of Afghanistan to the adjoining country of Pakistan, leaving behind a wonderful childhood in the dust of political turmoil deeply rooted in the soil of his country of birth, making it more barren day by day.

“Come back you stray souls,” Akram shouted, punctuating his words by waving his stick towards the herd.

After settling down in the valley, he had adjusted to his new life by accepting the title of shepherd, something that he had never thought of doing before his forced immigration. It was his job to lead the herd to pasture and let them graze randomly on the lush green patches. Once the herd was settled, and busy grazing, he would sit down under his favourite tree and rest his head on the tree trunk and watch over the herd.  He would often daydream of his beautiful village in Afghanistan: he missed the giant, dry mountains that stood erect like soldiers, as if they were guarding the village.  Sometimes he had flashbacks of sandstorms that used to whirl around the village, leaving behind a thick sandy layer all over the houses and even on his face.

Sometimes, he imagined losing himself in those whirling sands, and reaching another world, free of misery, pain, and cruelty.

In this way he passed his time, keeping his memories alive by simply recalling them again and again, refusing to let them fade. Usually, his chain of thoughts broke when some goats or sheep started bleating, then he hurled his cane stick in the air to distract them from their quarrels with each other. He had trained his herd, using his stick like the conductor of an orchestra.

From time to time, he would take his herd to a more remote valley, because it reminded him of his village in Afghanistan.  He had found a small forest full of wild fruit trees, berries, and flowers, it was like a mystical place from another world, but he tried to keep his herd away from the forest as he knew the sheep and goats would ruin the beauty of it like a hungry beast.  As time went by he became more and more possessive of this place, and never told anyone in the camps about it.

With such a solitary life, he had developed the habit of talking to his goats and sheep. He liked to share his feelings with them, cracking jokes, recalling some past memories, and describing his forest to them secretively. He never felt that these animals were dumb, and he always experienced a sense of relief when he shared something with them, as they were his true companion. Sometimes, just for fun he manically started bleating like them as if he knew their language too, he loved it when one would raise its head and look at him, as if agreeing with what he was saying.

He never felt truly comfortable staying in the camps and tried to spend as little time there as possible. Sometimes, he spent whole days in the camp house, just for a change. Another reason for his reclusiveness was having no friends or peers in the camps with whom he could talk to or play with.

One day he returned to the camp a bit earlier than usual, and to his surprise there were some vehicles parked outside.  He couldn’t understand it, and he rushed towards the area where one of his maternal uncles lived. Akram asked him about these vehicles, and why they were here. His uncle told him that they were from a welfare organization who had come to collect data about the immigrants. After listening to this, a wave of fear ran through his body.  He had heard stories about these welfare organizations from the elderly people of the camps, and he fled to his pasture: the only place he could hide. He was in such a panic that he ran straight into a tall man near the camps. He had a small beard and a kindly face, and when he caught Akram’s eye he simply smiled. Strangely, Akram felt a very deep connection with this person, and it transformed him from a state of panic and confusion to a state of calm.

He ended up sitting under a tree, near to the camps, with the man he learned was called Shams.  Shams asked Akram a few questions about his village in Afghanistan, his exodus, and his present life, and Akram started telling him, and it was like he couldn’t stop, so lost in his story that he couldn’t feel the tears that were rolling down his cheeks. He was weeping without being aware of it.

Shams asked him about the pasture that was his whole world now, and Akram passionately told him about it, and then realised he badly wanted to share its beauty with someone. Shams was intrigued about the pasture and asked Akram to show it to him. Slowly and steadily, they wandered towards the pasture.  It was not far from the village, but, it took them an hour to reach it, as they were both deep in conversation. In a short time they had established a very profound connection with each other.

Once they reached the pasture, Shams was astonished to see such lush green grass, with the beautiful valley spread out below, and the light fluffy clouds above, surrounded by high mountains seemingly touching the sky. Shams felt totally numb, and closed his eyes for a while, as if he were under the spell of the place. Akram showed him the place where he spent most of his time, his favourite tree.  It was a thick and shadowy fig tree, that was also known as a wisdom tree. They both sat under the tree in companionable silence, listening to the whisper of the wind, and the melodious sounds of birds chirping around.

Meditating, Shams was experiencing something deep and profound. After a minute or two, he suddenly stood up and asked Akram to take him back to the camps. He felt so disturbed that he didn’t utter a word on their way back.  After finishing his work, Shams was ready to leave. He offered to take Akram with him to the city for a few days, but Akram was reluctant to leave.  He had never been to a city, but he promised him to go with him next time.

Days passed by and Akram started spending most of his time in the pasture under his wisdom tree.  Like Shams, he tried to meditate and he felt serene and calm after that. He had had an extraordinary experience, and sometimes he felt as if nature had its own subtle language that was only understood by free souls.  He felt he had experienced and enjoyed nature like this;

The caress of a cool breeze touching me deeply,

The rhythmic movement of leaves like dancing fairies,

The melodious song of droplets when it’s raining,

The rustling of grass blades, and fragrance of daisies.

After two months, Shams returned to see Akram again, and he saw the changes in him.  He had grown into a mature young man, and he shared some of the profound thoughts he’d had on the meaning of life with Shams, things that Shams wouldn’t normally expect to hear from a teenager. He was thoroughly inspired by these thoughts and concepts, and he spent a few hours listening to him, just nodding his head. That evening, Shams told Akram that he was going to take him to the city and Akram had no choice but to fulfill his promise. Half heartedly Akram agreed, and decided to go with him at once. On the way Akram felt his heart was thumping fast, as if something unusual was about to happen. He remained silent throughout the journey, deep in thought.

When they were close to the border of the city, he closed his eyes for a few seconds in order to avoid the sight.  “It is a totally new world.” Akram muttered as they entered the city.

“For you, it is definitely a new world, but for us it’s quite old.” Shams replied with a light smile.

Akram gazed at the huge skyscrapers and vehicles: he felt he was an alien in this place. Fascinated, he asked a few questions about the traffic lights, all the different vehicles, the huge buildings etc.  unexpectedly he found he was thoroughly enjoying this new experience.

Suddenly the brazen sound of a horn scared him, and he couldn’t help himself, he suddenly screamed, and then started coughing because of the traffic fumes and other air pollution.  He felt a sudden disappointment as the dark side of this magical city started to affect him.

After an hours drive, they reached a big house.  It had all possible facilities and luxuries. Once inside the house, it took Akram half an hour to grasp the first look of everything. He wasn’t in a state to absorb everything as he couldn’t decipher many of the abstract and antique things surrounding him.

It made him feel restless and disturbed, and these feelings remained throughout his stay.

Luckily, there was a small patch of lawn near the gate, when Shams first saw it he was rather surprised, as he hadn’t seen it before. but it seemed to sparkle to Akram’s eyes, and he tried to spend most of his time on this patch of grass, where he reminisced about his past life, especially the pasture and the herd that he had left behind in the custody of an old villager.

After a week, Shams noticed the glint of desperation in Akram’s. He took him to the backyard of his house where there was a separate room. Shams unlocked it and together they entered.  It was an old room, and dim, there were lots of things inside, arranged immaculately. For a moment, Akram couldn’t understand it all, but then a smile broke onto his face when he noticed some articles quite familiar to him. There was a stick, a bundle of ropes, some neck collars with small bells, and some old pictures of a pasture hanging on the wall. Shams could see a sudden change in his expression from nervous and worried, to excited and elated. For a minute or two, Akram stared at the pictures without even blinking, as if he was lost in them.

In a few of the pictures, he could see a boy of his own age standing next to a flock of sheep. He could relate these pictures with his own life and felt curious about them.

He looked at Shams and asked, “Where is this place, and who is this boy?”

Shams replied, “There is another story like yours. Do you want to listen to it?”

Akram nodded eagerly, and they both sat on a couple of old style wooden chairs. Shams remained silent for a moment as if he was searching for the words to tell this story. After a minute or two, he started the story like this:

“Years ago this pasture was near a valley on the Pak-Afghan border where immigrants took refuge after years of turmoil in Afghanistan.  The boy was part of the exodus that left Afghanistan, chased by pain and misery. He was only ten when he migrated from his country, leaving behind his house, close friends, and his village. He spent his life as a shepherd for a year as it was the only way of living in that valley.

One day, a team of people from a welfare organization came to conduct a survey on immigrants. There was a senior team leader who was thoroughly inspired by this boy and his work. He offered to adopt the boy, and his offer was accepted. The team leader brought him to the city and provided him with every comfort that one could imagine at his age.  He had not children of his own, and so being the only kid the shepherd boy gained the full attention of every member of the house. He was brought up in an ideal environment and got the best education. After completing his studies, he started his own welfare organization for the children who were being deprived of the basic facilities, and with the help of international welfare organizations he began carrying out his work, full of passion and devotion.  He tirelessly explored every single area to find refugees and to provide them with better living facilities.

Akram was listening to this story intensely and couldn’t fail to notice the many similarities between this story and his life. After telling the story, Shams showed him all the things that he had kept for so many years. After going through them, Akram curiously asked, “Where is this boy now?” It was such an abrupt question that Shams couldn’t answer.  He felt moisture in his eyes but he tried to hold back his tears and changed the topic. After some time looking through more photographs, they returned to the house, preoccupied with memories that were so similar.

The next day Akram insisted on going back to the camps, and Shams accepted on one condition that Akram would start his education soon. Akram had never seen a school, not even in his village in Afghanistan, but after listening to the story yesterday he felt motivated to go, but in the next moment, he thought of the pasture that had been his whole world and feeling torn he went to his room to get some sleep. Next morning, he shared his fears with Shams, the he felt he would lose his place, especially the pasture because of this education, and he didn’t want that at all. To his surprise, Shams shared his secret, he was going to build a school in the camps so that all the children could enjoy the natural environment and continue their work. Akram was so delighted on hearing this he started dreaming new dreams.

In the evening, Shams took him back to the camps, but this time they were both excited and full of hope.  Akram rushed towards the pasture and he started shouting out his joy. The place always left him feeling rejuvenated and full of life, so he spent that night in the pasture under the sky full of stars. He was actually obsessed with every part of the place and greeted the stars as he would long lost friends.

Within a month Shams had laid the foundation of a small school in that area, and with the help of a team of volunteers he invited Akram to take part.  Akram enthusiastically participated as a volunteer and in a month’s time they had built a double storey wooden house with four rooms. Akram was the first student enrolled in the school, but there were many refugees who joined him afterwards, most of them were shepherds too. It was the first school to be built in that area and Shams felt a sense of pride and satisfaction while looking at the building. Two teachers were hired and he promised to join them from time to time.

After a while, Shams was in the village to see to some administration matters for the school, and Akram decided to take him to his secret place – the forest.   The place  that he considered to be heaven on earth. Without disclosing his secret, Akram led Shams there, but it seemed as if this wonderous place wasn’t a revelation for Shams. He just smiled his usual smile, and then shouted loudly,  “Déjà vu (I have experienced it)”.  This time it was Shams who surprised Akram as he held Akram’s hand firmly and rushed along the meandering path that lead to the other side of the forest, opening up into another adjoining valley, that Akram had never seen. For a moment Akram thought he was back in his own valley, but then he saw it was only similar to his own, in that it had the same kind of houses, people, and cattle, but the layout was different. Shams took him to a small house at the head of the valley and explained to him that it was the house where he had spent his childhood as an immigrant, and where he had worked as a proud shepherd. He told him that the pictures and the story were actually his own.

In the evening as they were both sitting on a mound near the forest, Shams asked Akram, “Would you like to become a shepherd in a city like me?” With a tender smile, Akram replied, “Yes! but this time, this place will be that city.”

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