Brother of Sheep

Wolfgang Machreich
Brother of Sheep
If Norbert’s hiking boots had known where they were being led to, they would have wished themselves into a pair of flip-flops. I understand the boots completely. The worn-off soles, the worn-out form, the worn-through leather. They stand in front of the wood stove and dry out for the early shift. I am sitting beside them and feel just as worn-through, worn-off and worn-out as they are and dread the next day, its steepness, its descent. Happy hour for the boots; lynch time for myself.
Evening meal for the shepherd; last meal for me. What am I doing here? How did I ever get here in this eagle’s nest that calls itself a shepherd’s cabin?
Money is strewn upon the streets just for the taking, they say. Nonsense. Money is up in the mountains: this shepherd has something, said the publishing director, he’s living an exceptional story that is compelling. Shepherd life is a deceleration, is humbling, is pure, is pleasing. This book will come out huge: Brother of Sheep – a super title that will sell big. Go up there, take a look, and make something out of it!
Advance? Immediately, solid amount, too. After delivery of the manuscript another instalment, just as much. Travel expenses? Extra, no messing around. Think big, write big.
Convinced, I said that I’ll bring him the shepherd, that I’m already gone, already on my way up.
On the way, I had my first inkling that the research might not be so easy. I had to park my car somewhere called Inner-Somewhere at 1,580 meters above sea level. I have only been this high up for skiing, at the most to indulge myself with a middle station cappuccino. At Inner-Somewhere there wasn’t even an espresso. Inner-Somewhere was a gate, a closed gate.
“Hiking is the ghost-writer’s desire,” goes the song, right? Ha! A job is a job, I tell myself as I pull on my new Tex-Skin-Fit-Membrane suit – so expensive that I will include it on my expense list! – and head off. Forest road, beautiful. Hiking trail, ok. Mountain goat path, what? “Mountain climbing is Norbert’s daily chore,” I later wrote into my notebook sitting at the cabin table. “Whoever wishes to visit him must be surefooted and able to climb high and steep. Edelweiss, in tufts, show that you are on the right way. Although ‘way’ is somewhat exaggerated, rather a path, a little trail, a foot-track, a trace. The shepherd's hut nests higher than the 'Star of the Alps', just as shepherd's work is far removed from mountain idylls and Heidi clichés.”
Unfortunately. I like idylls, I like clichés. I don't like the steepness, the roughness, the real thing. I wanted to call the shepherd to come down, to help me, even better, from above to tell me down here all about it: I would then decorate it, blow it up, edit it appropriately ... But there was no mobile phone reception. Wanted to turn around, wanted to go to the car, treat myself to a cappuccino, forget the steep part, not care about the real thing – then I remembered the head of the publishing house, the advance payment, the second bank transfer... Then I climbed on, cursing my way up, trembling from fear upwards. I have to watch Norbert at work. My professional pride came forward; I have to put myself in the shepherd's shoes. To become his writer, I have to be his ghost.
That is why I am here, crouching next to the oven, drying next to the mountain boots. If they were only flip-flops, I like it so much on the beach. “We are shepherds,” would be the headline of my friends from the boulevard. Ha, ha! I know my colleagues, all of whom are desk activists; they wouldn't have a chance up here: without W-Lan, without air conditioning, without delivery pizza... By the way, pizza would be something now. Norbert has cooked spaghetti, garnished it with cucumbers, eats it with pesto. Endearing, but the Alm-Pasta doesn’t even come close to an XL-Americana. Muesli is served for breakfast. With fresh currants. Those had been brought up to him by a hiker. Norbert beamed, I stood there, he was really happy about the cup of berries. Endearing yes, but nothing against fresh croissants, oven warm. And with the coffee, I fear, it will remain either camping powder or granny-filter version.
George Clooney have mercy on me! Only the sheep are fattened. Up here the world is upside down. Up here everything revolves around the animal. Up here the sheep are king. In his book I will draw Norbert as a lanky mountain man. As a hermit I will depict him. The shepherd's hut his hermitage. The sheep-care his vocation. That is compelling; there the publishing house manager really did have a nose for a good story. Every autumn Norbert comes back emaciated into the valley, I will write. That flows easily; renunciation is in. But only physically, I write, mentally the shepherd resembles his sheep after the alpine summer, he climbs down into the valley with a fat soul cushion and thick soul fur. That drives, pure deceleration, total loneliness, radical simplicity, the publishing director will cheer. If only I were already down below...
Going down – I don't even want to think about it. Why did he have to tell me about the sheep that fell the day before: “When you watch the sheep stumble, when it flies down the slope, getting faster and faster, then you see yourself, then you see what would happen if...” I didn't see it either, but I still can't get the picture out of my head.
I will ask Norbert to accompany me down, that he leads the way, even better, that he ties me to a rope. He will do that for me, I am not unsympathetic to him. I am just a typical city dweller, he said to me when I asked him where I could take a shower. He didn't mean that angrily, rather amused, rather surprised, how I could even come up with such an idea. I did not say anything, but I find it neither funny nor surprising, and my friends from the boulevard will agree with me, as will the head of the publishing house, that after a day bathing in my own sweat on steep slopes I have a right to ask for a washing facility. After all, they exist up here in their most original form: Water basin, spring water, curd soap. It is endearing though to spend one day so primitive; tomorrow at this time I will be in the hotel. In a good one, four-plus stars, which has to be included after all the exertions, the renunciation, after this adventure camp, which has to be included on the expense account. If only it were tomorrow and I were already down. I am still sitting next to the stove, next to the mountain boots. If only there were flip-flops, I like it so much where it is flat, where there is a shower, pizza service, W-Lan...
A second can of beer is opened, an exception because there is a visitor. Up here you have to take good care of yourself; there is nobody here to help you out, so explains Norbert his abstinence rule to me. Reminds me of monastic life, this Alm chastisement. Never been to a monastery, but this is how I imagine holy poverty. Without thinking about the descent, I continue to write my notes: When he talks about his work above, Norbert is often called a drop-out. “Not true,” says he, “On the mountain pasture, that’s where I come to life ...” That pulls. The head of the publishing house will be satisfied. I bring him the shepherd. Even if I understand much better the shoes that would rather be flip-flops.

Translation by Shan Wardell
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