My dad reads this sweet story to us every year on Christmas Eve. It has become one of my favorite stories at Christmas time and I will always cherish the tradition. This story is the inspiration behind my song “The Little Shepherd Boy.”
The Little Shepherd
A very Special Christmas Story
As Retold by Don J. Black
The little boy sat quite alone on the hilltop, his shepherd’s crook across his knees, his small square lunch basket beside him. He made an odd distorted shadow in the white light of the moon, for even the shawl that his mother had woven of the lamb’s wool could not hide the ugly hump that lay (a burden much too heavy for so young a lad to bear) between his shoulders.
Far below him, dotting the hillside with irregular shadows, were the sheep. The majority of them slept but a few wandered aimlessly up and down the slope. The little boy, however, was not watching the flock. His head was thrown back, and his wide eyes were fixed on the sky. There was an intensity in his gaze and a strange wistful smile on his lips.
The smile reflected thoughts of, “Perhaps it will happen again, perhaps though a third of a century has gone by. Perhaps I shall be privileged to see the great star and hear the angel voices as my father did.”
The moon riding high in the heavens, went under a black cloud. For a moment the world was dark. The little boy sighed and lowered his eyes. “Though it is the time of the anniversary,” he breathed, “there will be no star this night. Neither will the angels sing….”
The time of Anniversary. How often the little boy had listened to the story of the miracle that had taken place so long ago! The little boy’s father had been a little boy then—he had been the youngest of the shepherds on that glorious occasion when an angel anthem sounded across the world and a star shone over the tranquil town of Bethlehem. The little boy’s father had followed that star; with other shepherds he had come to the stable of the inn. Crowding through the narrow doorway, he had seen a woman with a baby in her arms.
“But,” his father would say, “She was no ordinary woman! There was something in her face that made one think of….lighted candle. And there was a tenderness in her smile that the very cattle felt, for they drew near unto her, and seemed to even kneel. It was not completely her beauty—altho’ beauty she did possess! It was a shine from within.”
“And the baby…what of the baby?” the little boy would say.
The father’s hand habitually touched his small son’s shoulder at this point—touched it and drew away as if the brief contact caused him anguish, the hump, high and distorted, was so obvious.
“The baby,” he said, and his voice grew hushed, “was as unlike other infants as his mother was different from other women. Scarce an hour old when first I glimpsed him, there was a sense of wisdom on his brow, and his tiny, up curled hands seemed so tender, yet even to hold power. I found myself kneeling as the cattle knelt, and there was moisture upon my face; and though I was lad tall for my age, I was not ashamed.
Alone on the hillside, the little boy could almost hear the sound of his father’s voice in the stillness. His father’s voice telling the story of the marvelous infant and of the Wise Men who had come to visit, following also, the path of the star. They had come bearing gifts, the fame of which traveled through all the land. Often the little boy had heard of the gold and frankincense and myrrh; often he had shivered at the tale of the king who had ordered death to all the infants. Often he had thrilled to the danger and excitement of a worried young mother and her sober husband who stolen away into the land of Egypt with her child.
“Many of us thought that the child had been captured and slain by Herod,” the little boy’s father invariably finished, “until a decade passed and we heard rumors of a youth who bore his name, and lectured in a Temple at Jerusalem to a group of learned doctors. A few years ago we heard that this same youth, now grown older, had organized group of men, that with them, he was journeying from place to place, preaching, teaching, and aiding the needy. And, (here the little boy’s father had a habit of lowering his voice and glancing seriously around the room) “there are some who say he has become a Messiah, and that he does more than just help the cause of the common people. There are some who say that he performs wonderful deeds, healing the sick, and the blind, and the lepers—even raising the dead.”
Once at this point the little boy interrupted, “O I would that I might meet him. I would that he might take the hump from my back and make me strong and straight like other children.”
With a loving finger laid against her son’s lips, the little boy’s mother caused silence. “What must be, must be,” she told him. “You were born that way, my son. It is better,” looking at her husband, “that we change the subject! There might be listening near.”
It was growing cold on the hillside. The child drew the shawl closer about his tired body and wished that he were not a shepherd. Shepherds led a lonely life—they did not fit into the bright places of the world. Rooms gaily lighted at eventide were of ease; they were not for shepherds. But what else could a crippled boy do? What else than tend sheep?
Yawning wearily, the little boy looked up at the sky. From the position of the moon he judged it to be about middle night; it would still a long while before sunrise, still hours before someone would come to take his place and he could limp home. And yet middle night had its good too! For at that time he could break his fast and partake of the lunch that his mother had packed so neatly into a basket.
As he reached for the basket, and opened it slowly, the little boy was wondering what had been prepared for him tonight by his mother. He found that there was a flask of goat’s milk, and nearly a loaf of crusty, dark bread, and some yellow cheese; that there were dried figs, sugary with their own sweetness. And, wrapped separately, he came upon a real treat—a cake made of eggs and sifted flour with lemon in it—and raisins!
He had expected the bread and the cheese and the milk. Even the figs he had expected. But the cake was a surprise, the sort of surprise that happened seldom to break the monotony of watching his father’s sheep. His eyes gleamed as he surveyed it, and some of the sadness went out of them. Carefully he set the basket down and spread on the ground beside him the square of linen in which his mother had folded the lunch. Carefully, he laid out the flask of milk, the bread, the cheese, but not the cake, which he left tucked away in the depths of the basket. He left it there so he might not be tempted to eat it first!
“It is so good to be hungry,” he said aloud. “Yes, and to have food.”
Suddenly, from somewhere just behind him a voice spoke. It was not a loud voice and yet it seemed to carry beyond the hillside. “Indeed, yes,” said a voice. “It is good to be hungry and to have food and to…”
Startled, for he thought he was quite alone with his thoughts and the drowsing sheep, the little boy glanced back across his crooked shoulder. He saw a man standing upon the brow of the hill, silhouetted against the moonlit sky. Ordinarily he would have been afraid, for there were often cruel robbers in the middle of the night. But somehow the sight of this man, who was tall and muscular, failed to frighten him. He did not know why he instinctively completed the man’s unfinished sentence.
“And to share it,” he murmured. “You are a stranger, sir?” the man came closer to the child and stood looking down on him. “No, not a stranger,” he said slowly, “never a stranger. As it happens, my journey started not far from this very place—started years before you my lad saw the light. I am by way of completing a circle.”
Altho’ he couldn’t imagine what the man meant, the boy made swift response.
“I was about to eat my lunch,” pointing at the square of linen on which he had arranged the food from his basket. “One grows so hungry on the hillside. I am a shepherd, sir. I tend my father’s flock, and each night my mother packs for me a simple meal. Will you be seated and break bread with me? Perhaps,” the boy hesitated shyly, “you will talk with me as we eat? It grows lonely on the dark hillside—I long at times for companionship.”
The man continued to peer down from his impressive height. His eyes held a warm glow; it was as if a candle burned somewhere behind them, the little boy thought. He recalled words that his father had spoken when he described a woman in a stable. He felt so comforted by the man’s glance that he smiled up into the kindly face, and the man spoke again.
“It is a strange coincidence,” he said, “the fact that you are a shepherd, for I also tend my father’s flock! And I also…” his face shone a luminous smile, “have often grown lonely waiting for the gates of dawn to open. Are you sure,” (the man began to gracefully seat himself upon the ground) “that you have sufficient nourishment for two? I should not like to deprive you of anything.”
Gazing, fascinated, into the man’s face, the little boy replied: “But yes! I have a large flask of goat’s milk, and some yellow cheese and nearly a loaf of bread, and ten figs. And,” –for a second he hesitated— “that’s a great plenty,” he finished. He did not mention the cake, still wrapped in the basket. For a cake—cake made of sifted flour and eggs and lemon and raisins was indeed a rare delicacy. And it was not a very big cake.
The man bent forward to retie the thong of his sandal. The little boy saw that the sandal was covered in dust. He tried to keep his eyes from glancing toward his lunch basket as he tore the crusty brown bread into fragments.
“Perhaps your feet are aching,” he asked as he placed the fragments in the center of the linen cloth. “This hill is hard to climb. I am close to being spent when I reach the summit of it, but I must need sit high so that I can watch all the sheep.”
The man said slowly, “I have climbed steeper hills than this my lad, and know that there are steeper hills to be. My feet do not ache. How long,” abruptly changing the subject, “have you been crippled?”
Had the inquiry come from an ordinary person, the little boy would have resented such a display of curiosity. But for this man, the question seemed a natural one, to be answered naturally.
“Why,” he said, “I have never been without a hump between my shoulders. I hate it, but,” as he began to quote his mother, “what must be must be! Still,” (his childish face a trifle un childish) “it is hard to go through life looking like one of the camels that the Wise Men rode when they came from the East with their caravans.”
The man interrupted, “What, lad? You know of the Wise Men from the East? How does it happen that you should mention them to me on this night? It is very curious!” the man began to partake of a piece of the crusty dark bread.
Laughing softly, the little boy answered, “I suppose the Wise Men are in my mind because this is the time of anniversary, and I have been thinking of the baby that was born in stable. I was hoping—before you arrived—that once again the great star might shine and that the angels might sing. I have in fact been watching the sky rather than the sheep.”
The man asked another swift question. “What do you know about these holy things about the star and the song? You are so very young!”
The little boy exclaimed, “All Bethlehem heard about the star, and the infant who lay in the manger because there was no room at the inn. I know perhaps more than the others, for my father, a child then, was one of the shepherds who saw the light from the heavens and heard the angel music. Will you,” (the little boy had taken the flask of goat’s milk in his hands) “will you share with me this cup, sir? For perhaps you thirst.”
The man took the flask from the lad’s small hands. His fingers were powerful, and yet as gentle as a woman’s. He said, “I will share this cup with you lad, for I do thirst.”
Then he watched the man drink deeply. The little boy thought, “It must be tiring to tramp from place to place.”
He said on impulse, as the stranger set down the flask, “Will you tell me sir, of some of the towns in which you have stayed?”
The man answered, “One town is very much like another, laid with poverty and pain rubbing elbows against wealth, with greed taking toll all too often of humanity. With health on one side and illness on the other. With so few gracious deeds that one can do to help the sore distressed.” His face was adverted, “and a lifetime in which to them so desperately short!”
In a low tone the little boy said, “Sometimes when I was a tot, I hoped that my life might be short, but already I am ten years old. How old sir, are you? I feel older than my years…”
The man’s voice was muted as he replied, “I am more times your age lad; but I, too, feel older than my years.”
“You shouldn’t,” the boy exclaimed, “because you’re so strong. When is your time of birth sir? I was born when it was spring,” the boy concluded.
The man smiled his beautiful, luminous smile. “It’s odd that you should ask, dear lad, for this is my day of birth. You, quite unknowingly, are giving me an anniversary feast—and never has a feast been more welcomed. I was weary and forlorn when I came upon you.”
“Weary and forlorn!” the little boy queried. “Haven’t you any people of your own? People with whom you can be happy with on the day of your birth? When my birthday arrives, mother prepares a real feast for me, and gives me gifts. This shawl I wear, have you noted it? She wove it for my last birthday. The year before, she pressed a sheaf of bright flowers into wax. And once when I was smaller, she made wondrous sweet meats of honey and grain.”
The man reached over and rested his hand on the little boy’s knee. “I fear,” he said, “that I have grown too old and large for birthday gifts. Furthermore, my loved ones are not near enough just now to celebrate with me. But maybe, who knows, there will be a gift for me at my journey’s end.”
The little boy’s knee felt a tingle under the pressure of the friendly hand. He asked, “When sir shall you come to your journey’s end?”
The man did not meet the child’s gaze, but solemnly replied, “Perhaps very soon!”
The little boy looked worried. He said, “You don’t look happy about it. Don’t you want to come to the end of your travels? Don’t you want to reach home and see what gift they have in store for you?”
The man hesitated ever so slightly. “Yes,” he said at last, “I want to reach home. But the gift, it may be too beautiful to bear; or too heavy for me to carry. I suppose,” (His face looked drawn in the white moonlight) “I should be getting on. You have made this birthday very wonderful my lad.”
Peeping down at the white cloth with its remnants of bread and cheese, the little boy thought, “There seems to be as much as ever. He couldn’t have liked it.” Slantwise he contemplated the man’s face, and suddenly he was swept with a burning sense of shame. The boy cried out, one word tumbling over the other, “You did not enjoy your food sir! You have not had a true birthday feast. That is because I have been selfish and mean!” In a confessing tone, the boy continued, “ I have a cake in my basket; a cake I was saving to eat alone, after you left. It is a cake of sifted flour and eggs and lemon and raisins, and I love cake! But now,” the little boy’s voice quivered, “I would not enjoy it if I ate it all alone. Sir, I desire to give the cake to you—as my birthday gift to you. Perhaps you will eat it later, when the chill of early
morning has set in and you are on the road.”
The man did not speak. His eyes were like stars now, instead of candles, as he watched his small host lift the cake from the basket and display its rich goodness. It was only when the lad extended it toward him that he broke into speech.
“Ah, my lad,” he said, “You have sustained me with your bread, and we have drunk deep from the same cup. And now, we will share this cake, which shall be, through your bounty, my birthday cake. We will apportion it equally, and we will eat of it together, you and me. And as I walk alone along the road, I shall remember a little lad’s generosity.”
Gravely, as if he were handling something infinitely precious, the man took the rich cake into his fingers. Carefully he divided it so the two sections were equal, and said, “Bless unto us this food, my Father,” and the little boy was startled, for there was no one else upon the hillside. Then the man continued, “This is the cake of life, lad. Enjoy it to the last crumb.” So he and the little boy thought that he had never tasted such good food. It was as if the cake’s richness were verily, the richness of life! As he licked the last crumbs from his fingers, he felt as if he was gathering force and vigor and purpose. In his mind, for no reason at all, he saw a picture of himself, big and handsome and brave, striding down the road with his weakness, the ugly hump, cast from him.
“It’s like a vision,” he said aloud. But when the man asked, “What do you mean, lad?” the boy hung his head and was unable to answer.
Indeed, the little boy was silent so long that the man’s hand came to rest lightly upon his shoulder— lightly, but oh so firmly! There was something in the touch that made tears hang on the little boy’s eyelashes.
“Oh,” he cried, “do not leave me, sir! We could be such friends you and me. Come with me to my home and dwell with my family. My mother will bake many cakes for you, and my father will share with you of his plenty. And I, you can have my bed, and my waxed flowers, and even this fringed shawl that I wear. Oh do not journey on sir! Stay with me, here in… Bethlehem.”
The man spoke, his voice like a great bell tolling over hill and valley. “I must go on. I must be about my father’s business. But I shall never leave you my lad. Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world!”
Bowing his head in his hands, covering his misted eyes, the little boy was aware of the man’s firm fingers traveling up from his shoulder until they touched his hair. But now he couldn’t speak, for a pulse drummed in his throat. When he raised his head, the man was gone, and the hillside empty, save for the shadows of the sheep, which were asleep.
The little boy sobbed once, sharply, with a sense of loss and then struggled to his feet. Only, he didn’t have to struggle really, for there was a curious lightness about his body, and a feeling of freshness and peace—a peace that transcended the pain of parting. But it was not until he pulled his fringed lamb’s wool shawl tighter across his back, that he realized how straight he was standing, and how straight he would now always stand.