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Counting Sheep

By Valerie Robinson

The first animal approached the fence and sailed over to the manner born.

Phil breathed out. It was going to plan. If he managed to keep this up for another twenty or thirty more sheep, he’d be sure to feel that delicious heaviness start to creep up over his limbs which always came before he dozed off.

Ah, sleep! Blissful sleep!

Mostly, he was snoring seconds after he’d switched off the light. But, sometimes, no matter what he tried, the night crept on until dawn found him pink-eyed and still wide-awake.

He feared this was going to be one of those nights, despite his best efforts to the contrary. He’d settled himself down fine, duvet up to his nose, body curled in the foetal position, but instead of sliding into the land of Nod he stared into the dark, hour after hour. When he switched on his bedside clock it said 3:30 a.m. The very worst time of night not to be sleeping. Everything always seemed bleaker then.

His usual routine proved useless. Trying to empty his mind sent his thoughts into frenetic overdrive, while progressive stretching and relaxing of his muscles gave him mild cramp in his left leg. Only one thing for it now: one tried and tested method. He had to count sheep. Though, to be honest, he was a little reluctant to go down that particular path. Nothing to get concerned about, just a few difficulties in controlling his imagination quite as he wanted.

Still, needs must as the devil drives.

As his eyelids fluttered to a close, he made his breathing slower and more regular. Then in his mind’s eye he conjured up the first of the sheep. She was small, fluffy and, as it turned out, obedient. At his word of command, she leapt the fence effortlessly before ambling off.

The second sheep, which looked exactly like the first, did the same.

And the next.

There was an almost imperceptible pause, which really should have alerted him to what was coming, before the fourth stepped up and eyed the fence.

This one was not a clone of the others. It was much bigger, for a start, and not newly-washed-white. Instead, it was a dirty grey with long, matted wool hanging down its back and over its eyes, one of which was slightly crossed. It didn’t look happy to be there. Nor did it look the accommodating type.

As he stared at it, a feeling of unease gripped him. He didn’t like the look of this sheep at all. But it was worth a go, he felt. So, still concentrating on his breathing, he mentally manoeuvred the creature into place ready to jump.

‘Off you go, then,’ he thought.

The sheep stood stock still. Then it sent a thought back to Phil, as clear as a bell.

‘No. Don’t want to,’ it told him. ‘You can jump it yourself if you’re that keen. I’m staying here and that’s final. Over and out.’

It tossed its head, giving a whinnying bleat that sounded suspiciously like laughter.

Phil’s eyes opened wide on the thick darkness of his bedroom, but he forced them shut again and back to the field. A throb of anger made him clench both fists. Rebellion, eh? Well, he’d soon show it who was boss.

‘Get on with it! Now!’ he commanded, putting as much steel into his voice as he could.

But it just dropped its head and chewed at the grass until it spotted a patch it liked better and wandered off, ignoring both the fence and the command. Phil had never seen an animal put so much defiance in the way it walked.

He turned onto his other side and punched the pillow. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened while he counted sheep, but usually not this bad. At a loss for what to do, he shrugged his shoulders then gave number four up as a bad job and brought another sheep forwards. It was important he stayed calm and kept his focus on the main goal: sleep.

Better luck this time.

Fortunately this one was as compliant as the first three had been, and as physically identical, though a little on the small side. She trotted up, placing herself obediently in the correct position.

‘Jump!’ Phil thought.

To be fair, she tried her best. She even stepped back a bit so she could get a run up at it. But it was no use. She jumped as high as she could but failed to make it all the way over. With a sickening whack she landed half way, her front legs dangling on one side of the fence, her hind legs on the other. Bleating pitifully, she began to rock backwards and forwards in a vain attempt to free herself.

‘Damn it,’ thought Phil.

He’d have to help her. He tried mentally pushing but that made the situation worse. The sheep’s face displayed a pitiful mixture of anxiety and discomfort that went straight to his heart.

He sighed. Seeing an animal suffer was unbearable. Perhaps a bribe would give her the impetus she needed. He summoned up a particularly juicy patch of grass only a little further on into the next field. It was in her direct line of sight and he saw her lick her lips. Her struggles increased.

Nothing.

The sheep stayed stuck, her cries growing louder and more frantic. Apart from the inconvenience to the sheep, splayed as she was on the fence, it was clear he had absolutely no chance of sleep with all that racket going on. He had to come up with another way to help her get over.

After turning the problem to and fro until his brain ached with the effort, he lighted on a plan. It was risky, sure, but he had to try otherwise the poor animal would have to stay where she was, probably forever. Since the carrot (grass) had failed, he had to use the stick. A stick frightening enough to dislodge any stuck sheep. And there was only one thing that fitted the bill.

What he needed was a wolf. A big, bad wolf.

He was loath to go ahead and create such a beast, since it would give the poor little sheep the most terrible shock, but what other choice did he have? One whiff of a wolf should scare her enough to rock herself forwards until she was free.

He cast his mind back to a pack of wolves he’d seen in a zoo once, years ago when he was a child: long-legged animals with sharp muzzles and pointed ears. His memory of them was a bit hazy; he’d have to embellish, otherwise the one he imagined might not be scary enough to do the job. So he made his wolf bigger than those he’d seen, the shoulders more powerful, and, as a final touch, gave it a wet, red tongue that lolled out from between its fangs.

He looked it over. Yep, that should do it. It was essence of wolf. He was really rather proud of it. Carefully, he placed it in the field and made it creep stealthily up behind the stranded sheep, its body tense.

Closer, closer.

In a moment of inspiration, he made it snarl. He surprised himself with how successful that was: a low, hungry sound that seemed to be dragged up from its lean belly.

The sheep froze, still balanced precariously. Phil saw her blink once then panic hit. With a convulsive heave, she threw herself forwards until she landed, thud, in the next field, the wolf snapping at her hindquarters as she went.

‘Phew!’ thought Phil. ‘Just in time.’

With a blood-curdling howl of fury at its failure, the wolf turned its head towards Phil, its yellow eyes blazing, then it, too, jumped the fence. In a heartbeat it had torn the sheep to pieces, devoured the choicest parts, and was licking its chops to savour every last morsel of the poor helpless creature it had eaten.

Phil watched, rigid with horror. He had never intended it to come to this. All he’d wanted was for the sheep to get over the fence and, instead, he’d been forced to witness nothing short of animal carnage. Moreover, to make matters worse, he was a life-long vegetarian with a deep-seated abhorrence of violence.

It was worse than Watership Down.

By now, the wolf was up on its legs again, looking with menace around the field. The three sheep that had gone over the fence earlier were huddled in the far corner, clearly as appalled as Phil at this unforeseen turn of events. The wolf spotted them at once and began to edge towards them, shoulders hunched, evil intent in every line of its long, powerful body.

He was going to eat them, too.

Phil thrashed around under the duvet. It was all his fault! What could he do to prevent more slaughter? He had to come up with an idea before it was too late.

He tried making the wolf vanish by imagining it was no longer there. After a great deal of concentration, it went slightly wavy around the edges so that it looked as if it might fade away completely in time. But he couldn’t keep his attention focussed long enough. It came back, even more solid than before, and Phil could have sworn he saw it grin.

Screwing up his forehead with the effort, he managed to slow the wolf down a bit by reducing the size of its paws. It was sort of tiptoeing now like a ballet dancer on point but he couldn’t stop it completely. It was still moving forwards. There were only minutes left before the green grass of the field would once more be stained red with the gore of the innocent.

Could he conjure up a farmer with a shotgun? No, that wouldn’t work. By the time he’d thought through all the details needed to make the farmer seem real, such as muddy wellington boots, weather-beaten face, flat tweed cap etc etc, the foul deed would be accomplished. And he’d have to create a gun as well. And the right calibre bullets.

While he thrashed about for inspiration, beads of sweat breaking out on his upper lip, his attention was caught by the sheep that had stayed in the first field: the big, grey one with matted wool and a rebellious disposition. The one that had refused to jump earlier. It had wandered back over to the fence and was watching the unfolding events with interest.

In a flash Phil knew what to do.

Ignoring the advancing wolf and its terrified prey, he gave his full attention to the grey sheep. Concentrating as hard as he could, he made it grow. And grow. Then he gave it a pair of razor-sharp horns. As an afterthought, he threw in claws and a couple of tusks.

Nearly twenty feet high from hoof to head, and half of that across, it looked frightening enough to give Richard Attenborough nightmares.

‘Jump, blast you,’ Phil whispered, his fingers crossed.

‘No chance,’ it thought back, snickering. ‘I’ll do it my way, mate.’

It was right. It didn’t need to jump. It simply lifted each of its legs a little and stepped across.

Once on the other side it pawed the ground, throwing up divots of turf before setting off across the field. As it went, it made a peculiar noise that Phil guessed probably had something to do with the trunk he’d added by accident when he attached the tusks. And, for something that big, it had an impressive turn of speed.

The expression on the wolf’s face when it looked over its shoulder and saw its worst nightmare pounding towards it was remarkable, though it lasted only a minute before the horns swept the predator up as if it were made of pure air instead of muscle. When it landed, it a managed a single, strangled howl despite the force of the impact knocking almost all the breath out of it. Muttering what sounded like oaths, it turned tail and fled the field, defeated.

Phil didn’t bother watching to see where it went.

Enjoying its victory, the huge, grey sheep swaggered around until it spotted the particularly lush patch of grass created earlier and wandered over to graze. Phil groaned with relief and let it feed as much as it wanted. It would need a great deal more grass now it was the size of a bus.

He opened his eyes.

The clock said 3:45.

Only fifteen minutes had passed since he’d looked at it last. How was that possible? It felt like he’d been battling with sheep and wolves for an entire night. His whole body ached with exhaustion. Enough was enough. His eyelids drooped, closed and he rolled over. With no effort on his part at all, sleep claimed him as her own until the alarm clock woke him at eight.

That morning he made a detour to the health shop on his way to work and bought some valerian. High strength, with grade one hops, just to make sure. It hadn’t been a night any sane man would care to repeat if he could take measures to avoid it.

But, still, despite the promise of dreamless rest awaiting him in the form of the tablets snug in his pocket, a snarl, a snicker and a strange, elephant-like trumpeting echoed in his ears all day. At the same time, something dog-like and sinister lurked just out of direct sight on his left side, while on the margin of the other, he kept catching a glimpse of a grey shape. It was very similar to a woolly mammoth, he thought.

And when night came.........  

Judges comments

''An original, perfect bedtime story.''

Della Galton

Winning stories 2011

1st prize - The Bed Lucy Made, And She Lies In It

2nd prize - Body

3rd prize - Sinking

3rd prize - Valerian

Highly commended

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