Fiction by Thomas Pia

Shepherds of the Sky
            By Thomas Pia

Loose twists of cloud snaked through the pass ahead of us. They hung low to the ground and wisps would occasionally tear away on the jagged rock face and dangle there, billowy grey flags, marking our ascent. I was significantly under dressed for the trip, in shorts and a t-shirt, while the other tourists sharing the back seat with me had sensibly swaddled themselves up in jumpers and thick knotted scarves. One of our guides had also opted for shorts, but judging from the thick covering of hair woven across his bulging calves, I doubted if the cold was having much of an impact on him.

His fellow guide, our driver, seemed to permanently embody a shiver, his shoulders squeezed up tight by his ears, fingers drumming a quick staccato on the wheel as he eased us over rocky outcrops and into increasingly narrower bends. The tarmac road had ceased to exist a few miles back and the route we now followed was often barely distinguishable from the scrubby mountainside. I huddled myself lower in the back seat and snuck a little further under the corner of the blanket which enveloped the couple sitting next to me.

They were on a tour of South Africa for their sixth wedding anniversary and having checked off the big 5, surfing and shark diving, they’d decided to round off their trip with a visit to Lesotho. My own decision had been a lot more last minute. I’d got chatting to a boisterous Afrikaaner sitting next to me at the rugby and after enduring a boring game , made tolerable by the bucket sized two litre pitchers of beer he’d insisted on buying us, he’d offered to drive me out to Sani Pass some weekend and set me up on a day tour to the “mountain kingdom”.

I’d shot him a text a few weeks later, when the approaching weekend was filled with all the promise of another dull rugby match, and he’d promptly responded, arranging to pick me up at 4AM on the Saturday, just as dawn was weakly spilling out onto the highways. On the drive he’d expounded on the “rugged beauty” of the pass and assured me that in a few hours, when the sun had fully risen, scatterings of impala would emerge, grazing their way across the foothills and the sun worshipping ice-rats would scamper out of their burrows and perch up on their back legs, paws clasped before them in thankful prayer. However the sun had not come out, impala were nowhere to be seen and the mountainside appeared so lifeless it was hard to imagine anything could survive on the slate faced cliffs hemming us in.

Every so often the guide in the shorts would try to inject a little life into our party with a brief geography lesson, but his enthusiastic gesturing at the various rock formations on either side, was wasted on us, as we struggled to hear anything he said over the clattering cough of the jeep engine choking through gear changes. He persisted anyway, and as the terrain levelled out to a steady series of small jolts, we caught the end of a short history of the Bushmen who used to live in the obscured valleys down below us, and had left behind a series of cave drawings illustrating their impala hunts and rituals.

“...evidence of traditional ceremonies, with really intense dancing in this sort of crouching position...”

He got half way out of his seat and poking his bum up in the air jutted his chin dangerously close to the juddering floor, the bristles of his beard scraping over it as we bucked over a ridge.

“...for hours on end, in this meditative, trance-like state. Real tests of endurance...”

The driver, who’d stayed silent most of the ascent, apart from an earlier comment on the new tarmac roads turning into death traps when they iced over, interrupted.

“Why don’t you tell them about their unique genetics, Deon?”

We looked to Deon.

“Well, they were quite short, by modern standards, around four feet we think, from looking at remains – skeletons, that kind of thing...”

“Yeh, but you’re missing the funniest bit, Deon - the ass on these guys! Huuuuge...can you imagine them hunting, on these little legs, with that ass wobbling along behind them?”

He momentarily took his hands off the wheel to mime a set of jiggling buttocks in the air, barking out a laugh, at the image he’d just conjured up for us. Deon looked like he’d heard it before and gazed intently out of the window, his fingers clasping and unclasping in his lap, letting us fall back into an uneasy silence.

We stopped on a plateau a little further up, and disembarked to peer down through the clouds at the scraps of valley and ravine that were visible. I lobbed a couple of stones out over the edge and they were quickly swallowed up leaving no trace of an echo. Deon had found a loose branch and was tracing a diagram in the rubble for the couple; our driver had disappeared somewhere around the corner muttering something about “needing a piss”. Five minutes later he reappeared with two new figures sloping along behind him.

Long cloaks made from a felt-like material hung around their shoulders and on their heads they wore wide conical hats on top of western-style ear muffs. The three of them headed for Deon and I followed, half expecting the two men to dissolve back into whispering mist, rustling ancestors of the bushmen. But they showed no sign of dissipating under Deon’s firm back slaps and he explained to us that they were, in fact, shepherds. This was a rite of passage, Deon told us, for young Lesotho men, as they made the transition to manhood. And looking closer, I realised that the faces which poked out of the cloud coloured cloaks, despite their pinched and bony appearance, belonged to teenagers.

“These boys get sent up here to watch the flocks. It’s an incredibly tough and lonely life and, I’ll tell you straight, if they don’t move lower down promptly, when the snows come, they’ll get trapped up here and starve to death.”

Neither of the young men seemed to follow this, as they smiled and nodded at us throughout Deon’s speech. The couple had started shifting from foot to foot and looked like they were ready to get back to their blanket in the backseat, but Deon stood waiting for some sort of response.

“Mm that certainly sounds like a very...ah...punishing experience,” the husband eventually offered.

“So very, very hard,” his wife added. “I really can’t imagine living all alone up here.”

We continued to stand there, huddled in a little circle. Neither Deon nor the shepherds seemed in any hurry to move on. Deon had begun to describe the dung walled huts they lived in, circular in shape so that they were better able to conserve what little heat could be generated from brush collected on the mountainside.

“It’s also cos they’re afraid of corners, isn’t that right, Deon?”

The driver, standing slightly outside our group, had lit up a frail looking cigarette, and taking a puff, he withdrew it from his lips and pointed towards the shepherds.

“They think evil spirits hide in them, so a cornerless house will keep the demons out.”

Deon made no comment, while the shepherds’ eyes followed the path of the cigarette with interest.

“Kom ons gaan. The engines getting cold and I don’t fancy stalling us, half way over some boulder.”

The couple began to make half-wave type gestures. Correctly interpreting that we were about to leave, the shepherd closest to Deon tugged on his sleeve and tipped the brim of his hat back to allow Deon to duck under, so he could whisper something in his ear.

“They’ve got something they’d like to show you, if that’s alright?”

Digging in amongst the folds of his cloak he withdrew a bundle of fur and presented it up to us for our inspection. It seemed to tremble, although I wasn’t entirely sure if this was due to the shaking hands of the shepherd, excited to see our response. Then as he loosened his grip a little, an ear flopped loose and a beady eye peeked out at us over his thumb.

“Oh, poor little thing! Where on earth did they find a rabbit?

Deon’s stick perked up and started tracing in the air.

“Very simplistic traps. They’ll mostly just catch ice-rats if they’re lucky, but this is a good find – you can imagine how scarce protein is up here. In fact...”

“You mean they’re going to eat it?”

The wife, who’d reached out an index finger to stroke the furry bundle, produced her wallet from her back pocket and started rummaging through the contents.

“Can’t we buy it from them? It’s clearly suffering, probably in tremendous shock. Ask them how much they want for it.”

Deon seemed unwilling to convey her message, but as she began waving notes of different denomination in front of the confused shepherd he cut in, “I don’t think they’ll want to sell it. You see money isn’t much good to them up here, not many seven-elevens tucked away in the mountainside.”

She wouldn’t back down and as the shepherd began to tuck the rabbit back into his cloak, she called out after her husband, who had been edging back towards the jeep from the moment the debate with Deon had begun. He gave her a quick shrug in response, and folded his arms tight across his chest, mimicking my shivering posture.

“There’s not much we can do if they won’t take cash. Let’s just get back in the jeep. And what’ll we do with it anyway? If we set it loose in this state, it’ll probably just freeze to death.”

In the end our driver stepped in and managed to negotiate a deal - he exchanged five cigarettes, three to the holder of the rabbit and two to his companion, for the rabbit’s freedom and it was nestled into the backseat with us, wrapped up in the loose corner of blanket that I’d had my eye on. There was some talk of taking it to a vet when we got back to the lodge at the foot of the mountain, but in the meantime it would have to ride up the mountain with us.

If it hadn’t been for the pulsing patch of fur indicating a heartbeat and the tremors which repeatedly ran the length of its body, it could’ve passed for a soft toy. The eyes had a glassy sheen, unblinkingly focused on some far away point none of the rest of us could see. Traumatised or in a trance? I tried to imagine what it must have felt, plucked from the sharp edged rocks, then suddenly submerged in the soft burrow of the shepherd’s cloak.

They hadn’t seemed too upset to part with their catch; perhaps a warren ran through that cloak with three or four more furry prizes tucked away for future dinners. Or they simply trusted that their ancestors would provide for them. And in a way they did, since, when we returned from our stop-off at the “highest pub in Africa”, the blanket lay empty and we could only assume that the whispering clouds had lured our passenger out of the unfamiliar warmth and back onto the mountainside.

- Thomas Pia has been awarded certificates of merit in the following literary competitions: The Pushkin Prize, The National Galleries Creative Writing Prize, and the Foyle Young Poet’s Prize. He was born in Edinburgh, studied Chemistry at Imperial College London for two years, and then spent the following 2 years volunteering in South Africa before returning to Scotland to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow, where he is currently enrolled on the Politics Honours programme. 

Copyright©2020 by Thomas Pia. All Rights Reserved.