Shepherd Song

by Alys Thorpe

dear lord, forgive me that I did not come

down from my fields at midnight's bell

to worship at your stall, but at the time

a matchless ewe, too young, too early, to her labour came

and I knelt in the snow, my hands all crusted and unclean

to stretch out to your singing host. I laid

my weathered cheek instead in laboured, shivering fleece,

held by her trusting, shuddering eye, until

her perfect son was born into my rough loving palm.

Too weak and tired she, I had to help her

clean him of birth's blood,

then from the frost I wrapped them both inside my worsted coat,

and slept beside them till they smelled the dawn,

and your sweet carillon below

proclaimed the Christmas morn.

one way or another, though I did intend

to find my way down to the wooden stall

to hear a sermon as I heard the young voiced choir from my hill,

the moment never came, always a wandering beast

with waterlogged fleece, foolhearted, needing rescue, or a hoof

to be pared a little and made clean, a little wound, sometimes a maggot

or a tic, a tare – I do not know, a little medicine, a little special food,

some extra warmth, some balm, some liniment,

some silence in the soul, one way and another all

the sermons I have heard, have been

warnings of thunder, and the song of sunset and of dawn,

the spike of frost, the kindliness of earth, the thoughtless

rumours of the distant cruelties of men.

and now too late I know, thoughts that were always

somewhat turned your way, inform me that

your path I'll not now take, down to the wooded

church I mean, and past its paint peeled gate.

I've left a note for when the master passes by,

praying that in my shroud he'll lay a hank of wool with me,

that when your angels meet me at your door they'll know

that I meant well, and always longed to come

to worship with clean choirs and shining eyes,

but that it was for me, as ever is for you,

though worship lovely is, and cleanly, wholesome,

sweet, the sheep must always take first place.

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