This is a short story that has some roots in myth and some roots in my own interpretation.
The Shepherd and his Hound
It is cold despite the promise of summer. The trees loom far off, as if waiting for the moment to take their land back, and bow to the wind that rushes across the dale. Leaves are thrown to the air. Birds take to wing.
The sheep watch the summer’s affair with dumb interest. Grass is masticated in their lazy jaws. Dirt is caught in their summer coat. A shepherd walks up near them with a dog trotting dutifully at his heel, tongue lolling and eyes bright with happiness. The shepherd leans near one of the sheep that had wandered out some, presses his fingers to its head, and it looks at him with a soft, wizened expression. He taps it on the side and it lopes towards the rest of the flock. Soft impressions on the grass are left in its wake.
The shepherd looks towards the waiting forest. No eyes flash at him like his mother used to say; no wolf to steal his flock or fleet footed foreigner to swindle him. His hound walks in step with him, just beside him, and keeps his calves warm as they herd the docile sheep back to the pens for the night.
The Sun is getting low. The wind is getting stronger. The birds are but a murmur; a voice for the trees that can only speak in storms.
Eyes watch him from the forest.
She likes to say that she did it on a whim, but that’s hardly how it happened. No, she planned this well.
The next time the sheep strays, it wanders closer to the forest. The shepherd is wary as he stalks closer. His eyes rove the bright green foliage for anything that speaks of something inhuman. Only the birds stare back at him with black eyes. His hound begins to bound ahead, the warm weather infusing his joints with energy, and he bounces away towards the stray sheep. He nips as the ankles; the sheep lifts its head from the tall grasses and begins wandering back the way it came.
Smiling, the shepherd closes the distance to his hound and bends down to pet him.
The summer breeze plays across the vernal haven, ruffling the shepherd’s long, russet locks into his face. He stands up to pull them away from his face, to catch them up in a piece of string at the nape of his neck. It’s when he stands that he sees it. The girl at the edge of the forest glowing like a pale star and a smile somehow traveling the distance of several yards to punch him as strongly in the gut as if she had kissed him.
Then she disappears like the ghost she had been. The shepherd looks to his hound to see if it had stirred, but it’s on its back, shaking in the grass in canine ecstasy. It pauses in its wriggling to watch its keeper with sun-warmed eyes, its pink tongue lolling to the side. “I suppose it was nothing,” the shepherd admits and begins heading back towards the flock that had not been stirred as well.
Perhaps he hadn’t eaten in awhile. Perhaps it was a girl from town–he, after all, hadn’t seen very many people from town. Living in the fields for most seasons out of the years leaves him far removed.
But when he notices, later that night as he’s pulling his hair free so he can sleep, that there is a piece of heather woven into the string he had tied his hair back with, he feels the punch in his gut again. He also feels the warm breeze from earlier that day touch his cheek.
Sleep is mournfully slow in coming that night. He tosses and turns. His hound attempts to sleep next to him, to provide rudimentary comfort, but the shepherd pushes the animal away. It’s too hot for him to be so close. The hound settles at the foot of the bed, yipping once in awhile in its slumber.
The shepherd finally falls asleep, gripping the piece of heather so tightly in his hand that it leaves imprints.
The next day, the shepherd sits on the field closer to the enchanted forest. He lulls in and
out of sleep while watching his hound laboriously skirt the sheep so that none escape. The sheep appear whiter today, like soft clouds simply drifting over the wildflower dotted grass. The sun also burns brighter today. He can feel it in his bones a summer storm is coming soon. The wind is a constant whisper against his cheek.
The heat gets to him at midday. He divests himself of his shirt and mops his brow with the course, red material. For a moment he has the horrible feeling he’s sweating blood, but rubbing his fingers across his brow dispels the unfounded fear. At a quarter past midday, a sheep breaks from the flock. The shepherd watches it with the attention he normally reserves for hunting quail. The hound somehow misses this sheep’s absence, continuing its tireless rounds.
This sheep continues slowly towards the forest. It passes the shepherd within feet of h
im and he gets the distinct feeling that if he reached out, there would be no sheep to touch. Just like there was no girl yesterday, this sheep is another delusion of his heat-baked mind. But as the sheep settles just at the forest’s edge, coat brushing a sprawling bramble, the shepherd’s hound barks loudly. It comes racing up the slight incline.
The shepherd steadies the hound as it tries to pass him, commanding him to stay. It gives its owner a puzzled expression but settles on its haunches with little hesitation. The shepherd walks up to the sheep. His eyes search the forest for the girl of yesterday, but nothing appears even as he stands just behind his sheep. Unhappy at his own idiocy in believing he had seen a fey, he drops his gaze to the sheep to tap it back towards the flock.
Then he sees in his hand a delicate bluebell flower and something cold and foreign runs through him. He glances up to see her and her smile punches him the same as before, but just a little harder and just a little meaner. When he wakes up, he’s no longer in the dale with his sheep and his hound.
For she had planned it. Not well, she’ll admit after the fact and while drawing lazy patterns on the shepherd’s chest as he lays in her bed. But she had planned to take this man to fairyland and, well, it worked, hadn’t it?
She smiles and kisses him; an eternal summer breeze brushing over the newly-made lovers.
In celtic mythos, bluebells mean death since they’re considered highly enchanted by faeries/fey/sidhe (pronounced shee). While I misused it, a little, I have an excuse! Maybe if he disappears, they assume him dead and thus the bluebell gets its meaning.
The use of heather was made up by me.