They came in their thousands: frightened, exhausted sheep from the south, fleeing from a fire that raged and burned and blackened the lands they’d grazed. Landowners had their their own flocks, and worried about whether their own fields could support more, but the more compassionate among them opened their gates and let them in. They saw the fear in the sheep’s eyes, heard their pathetic bleats, and would not turn away. They were repulsed by the cruelty of the shepherd who had abandoned them, who had set the torch to their fields, who did not want them any more.
And so the southern sheep surged into the northern fields, and grazed, and many of them added their wool to the shearing that year. They grazed mostly apart from the northern sheep on their new pastures. The northern sheep did not seem to mind losing a few acres too much. There was plenty of room.
The new ones kept coming, and coming. And they had lambs, more than the northern sheep did, and the fields became dotted with southern sheep. The shepherds looked on and shrugged.
“Why not?” they asked. The wool became blended, even if many of the southern sheep resisted the shearing, and many more were never even herded in from the fields.
There were problems, here and there. The southern sheep refused to eat the grain that the shepherds put out for them during winter snows. They bleated loudly when the northern sheep ate that grain, the grain they’d always eaten, and so the shepherds changed the feed. The southern sheep began butting heads with northern sheep where they drank from the stream, their old stream long visited, until now. These were problems, but fairly minor ones.
The real problem was hidden, at first. A few, just a few, of the sheep from the south carried a pathogen inside them, a dangerous one that sought to replicate into every sheep dotting the pastures. It caused its hosts to butt heads harder and angrier against other sheep, both northern and southern, and grow fangs and demand ground of the pasture that would not be shared. The infected sheep staked out their positions and bit and snarled at outsiders, and sometimes when they bit, the infection spread, and even some northern sheep began biting against those they had grazed with for years.
The land became divided even within the shepherds’ fenced holdings, and sheep began dying. The shepherds tried to protect their sheep, both northern and southern, but the bloodshed continued. The shepherds carefully studied their flocks for signs of infection, but appearances were deceiving, and many healthy sheep were culled, with much waste and suffering borne of helpless fear. The southern sheep suffered most from the culling, because the infection had come with them. All too often, the infected ones escaped detection until it was too late.
Despite all efforts by the shepherds, the plague spread across the pastures. The violence grew worse and worse. The sheep, especially the southern ones, were herded ever more harshly from place to place under the shepherds’ increasingly angry and watchful eyes.
Meanwhile, in a sheltered green enclave of the pasture, a small, select group of the northern sheep nibbled on some fine clover and talked 1 among themselves about those who were complaining. These problems were not due to any infections, they sniffed. And even if they were, the shepherds had brought the so-called “infections” here by interfering with the evil shepherd’s pastures in the south. And the culling! Good gracious, they muttered, culling any infected sheep is the same as hating all southern sheep. Besides all that, they assured each other, the old feed hadn’t been that good, anyhow.
Yes, these are quite remarkable sheep. It’s a parable, remember. ↩