I found myself face to face with a sheep. I was looking through the slats in a long wooden fence when a breeze lifted up my jacket and blew air against my back. I wasn’t sure how I got here, but I knew I was in New Zealand.
"Bah," said the sheep.
He looked at me with calm, dead eyes.
"Hello," I said.
"How are you?" said the sheep.
I was surprised by his question. I wasn’t prepared to talk about myself.
"Lonely," I said.
The sheep kept looking at me, perfectly expressionless.
"Wait,” I said. “You can talk?”
"Yes," said the sheep. “I can talk.”
I was confused by this, but at that moment, a little boy walked up to the fence. He extended his hand through the fence and opened a fist that revealed feed. The sheep shuffled over and began licking the feed out of the boy’s hand. The boy giggled.
Not wanting to be rude, I walked away. I turned around and noticed I was standing in a pasture: a brilliant green expanse that extended to the horizon in every direction.
I looked back and saw the sheep and boy still playing the feeding game. Eventually, the boy's mom walked over to him and guided him away. I returned to the fence.
"Why didn't you talk to the boy?" I said.
"He didn't want to talk," said the sheep.
That seemed reasonable. Dreams have a strange logic to them. One time I fought a rat king in a ballroom. Another time I wandered through a many-roomed mansion. Inevitably, I’d wake up and tell my wife what happened. I’d lightly tap her on the arm and begin to tell her the story. She’d listen sleepily, and then tell me to go back to bed, but I never could. Instead, I’d replay the dream in the theater of my mind. I’d think about that world I lived in without her, which felt slightly lonelier yet slightly more magical.
But now, she was gone, wasn’t she?
"Why don't you hop over the fence?" said the sheep.
I did. I hopped over the fence and stood next to the sheep. His head was at my waist.
"I could use a trim," said the sheep. "Would you mind shearing me? There are shears in the shed."
I didn’t know how to shear sheep, but I figured that this was one of those moments where I needed to “go with the flow,” as my wife often said. She was excellent at being patient.
“Sure,” I said, and I waited for the sheep to move. He walked slowly, and I matched his pace. The shed was about 100 yards away with nothing in between. And he was right. His fleece was shaggy, but I thought it’d be rude to point that out.
“Can I ask you how we’re talking?” I said.
The sheep stopped. He kept looking forward at the shed.
"You wanted guidance from the personification of a sheep, so here I am," said the sheep.
He continued. “Dreams are wish fulfillment. Your mind creates what its desires. In your case, I presume you were like the boy back there and you trust me. Or, more to the point, you trust sheep.
He started walking again. I thought about it and no positive sheep memory came to mind, but that seemed reasonable given that I was dreaming. And it seemed like a lot to ask my dreaming mind to dig further into its subconscious. I was even surprised by my ability to reflect on that, so I made the choice to continue following the sheep’s lead and accept his plainspoken wisdom.
When we reached the shed, I walked inside. A pair of shears leaned against a bale of straw. I grabbed the shears and walked back to the sheep who stood silently. I felt close to this sheep who I barely knew. I felt like I could tell him anything. He reminded me of my barber who had recently passed away. I’d gone to him every Wednesday for a trim, and he was an incredibly patient listener. Once he said, ‘I love my life: I cut hair, I have a great family, and we go on vacation once a year. That’s all I need.’ From him, I learned to be satisfied with simplicity. I liked woodworking and I loved my wife. I didn’t need more than that.
I started by shearing the side of the sheep’s belly. I worried about cutting him, but he didn’t wince or make a noise. He seemed to trust me as I worked the shears towards his hind legs and the wool began to peel back in a collection big enough for a winter coat. His clean-shaven belly was pale pink and, as I kept shearing around his sides, I could see the outline of a much thinner sheep.
“This feels amazing,” said the sheep. “You’re a natural.”
If he was humoring me, it was working. I was consumed with the task of shearing the sheep, and I felt joyful as I removed the rest of his fleece. I thought about how my barber would be proud of me. My wife, too, if she were still around to listen to my dreams.
“I feel like a lamb again,” he said, and we both laughed.
"Come, let's walk over to the jumping fence," said the sheep. “I want to show it to you.”
Past the shed was a hill. We walked slowly up the hill and then at top, looked down at a crowd of people staring at sheep jumping over a short fence. There, sheep leapt over the fence in a never-ending succession. They hopped over, disappeared, and then re-appeared at the end of the line.
In the crowd I saw an elderly woman with beehive hair and narrow glasses counting out loud. A large man in a trucker hat scanned the sheep with his eyes. Some children were eating popcorn as they watched intently and hugged their parents’ legs.
“This is why most people come to us,” said the sheep. “They desire sleep, so they stare at us until they vanish.”
He was right. After a few moments, the elderly woman disappeared. The man, too.
“They’re barely real,” he said. “Go ahead, throw a rock at them.”
I picked up a rock and launched it at the people. It missed them, but hit a sheep instead.
“Don’t worry about it,” said the sheep. “They’re like zombies.”
"Yes," I said. I was still operating under the “obey the sheep” policy.
"But you're one of a smaller group of people who come to me for guidance,” he said.
He spoke into my waist. “Describe your loneliness.”
I looked down at him. His face indicated nothing. I couldn’t determine his motives, because he was, after all, a sheep. And while I told no one about what happened with my wife, not my parents, not my co-workers, not even my barber, I opened up to the sheep.
"My wife left me for another man,” I said. “She told me while I was making a chair for her in the basement. She called me on the phone as I was sanding the legs and told me vague details about what happened. I cradled the phone between my shoulder and ear. I grabbed the legs of the chair as she spoke and my increasingly tight grip caused the legs to split off. I told her there was a problem and let the phone fall off my shoulder. It smashed on the ground. Then I smashed the chair into many pieces. I went to my local bar to get drunk. I stumbled home after closing, and smashed our living room furniture before I passed out on the floor."
"You have so much anger," said the sheep. "Why do you think that is?"
"300!" said the collection of people.
"Don't worry," said the sheep. "They get excited by groups of 100. Go on."
"A therapist told me that it’s because I’m a child of divorce,” I said. “That I display adolescent behaviors when confronted with disappointment. That I’m essentially stunted. As a kid I slammed doors. Now I drink and break furniture.”
"Hmm," said the sheep. “Why are you disappointed?”
“I only want to love one person,” I said. “I love my wife. I love waking up next to her. I don’t know what to say. I’m getting angry talking this.”
Suddenly there was a loud crack. I looked down at the fence and a black sheep lay on the ground, bleating loudly. The sheep and me walked down the hill and over to the fence.
"Fuck!" said the injured sheep. “Fuck!”
The injured sheep writhed in pain.
“That fucking fence!” said the injured sheep. “I went on a long hike, because I had to work some shit out. And I had a little bit of the bottle. Not too much! Not too much! But I saw everyone jumping and I thought, ‘Sure, I can do this. I can do this.’ But that fucking fence! Did somebody move that thing? I'm injured, man!"
The injured sheep kept bleating as other sheep kept jumping, unfazed. People kept counting too, unblinking, and only watching the fence. They were catatonic, unaffected by the crisis. The injured sheep smelled like booze.
Wait, can I smell in a dream?
“Steady,” said my guiding sheep. “Steady. We’ll call for help.”
"No way,” said the injured sheep. “You guys have to help me. Those jerks aren't going to do shit.”
“You, man,” he said, directed at me. “Pick me up. I think there's some gauze in the shed."
My guiding sheep quietly approved. I lifted the injured sheep over my head and carried him on my shoulder like I’d seen ranchers do in movies. It wasn’t difficult until we got up to the hill where I needed to keep repositioning him.
"OK, man. I get it. You're strong,” he said. “Just get me back to the fucking shed."
When we got back to the top of the hill, the shed was gone. All I saw was pasture.
“The fuck’s going on?” said the injured sheep.
I said nothing. My guiding sheep said nothing. The injured sheep raged.
“I’m sick of this place!” he said. “You have nuts counting, sad men moping, and sheep trying to get from fence to shed without this fucking dream maze constantly changing.”
“It’s like that in real life, too” I said.
“It’s exhausting,” said the injured sheep.
Clouds began to form. A tree appeared below us. It had deep red leaves that exuded quiet strength and beauty. Its branches extended in a dome-like shape.
“That looks nice,” said the injured sheep. “Walk me over there.”
We walked over to it. I lay the injured sheep under the shade.
“I’m going to nap,” said the injured sheep. “It’s been a long day. I need rest.”
“That’s a good idea,” said my guiding sheep.
I felt tired, too. I sat down with my back against the grainy tree trunk and closed my eyes. It felt good to be back in New Zealand, but I worried about my wife. Was she OK? Was she worried about me? Was she still fucking that guy?
“You should sleep, too,” said my guiding sheep. “Let go of your anger.”
“I’m trying,” I said, focusing on the darkness rather than sheep.
“Give up control,” said the guiding sheep.
The tree rustled. The injured sheep breathed heavily. Gradually, the world changed around me.