Self-Portrait on the Mountain
Mark Neely

Once there was a man like me, a shepherd in those bewildering years after the wars when the days seemed nameless. On one of these he sat down and leaned his back against a rock as the last rim of light rested for a moment above the mountains. The sheep went off without him. They were hungry and in no mood to stop. The shepherd watched the beetles shuffling in the bare dirt around his feet like children planning a battle. He hardly noticed the barking of the dogs, tuned as he was to the bugs at his feet and later the circling of stars.
The dogs spent a long night running between the shepherd and the sheep who kept a downhill course. Neither instinct nor experience prepared the dogs for this. They had always been commands the man flung at the herd but now they were commanders and had difficulty making up their own advice. The sheep flowed down toward the valley until they looked like white leaves in a wide lazy river. The dogs circled the messy herd several times then started running back uphill toward the shepherd.
He wasn't dead. Not even dying. When the dogs were close he told them not to worry, the sheep would go on just fine without them. Even better, since no one would be sheering them or marching them along. But the dogs could only do what they had done. They ran until their legs fell asleep beneath them, their voices fading like retreating drums.

Mark Neely has had work in Diagram, Juked, Indiana Review, Boulevard and others. A collection of poetry, Four of a Kind, is forthcoming from Concrete Wolf.

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Detail of photo on main page courtesy of trialsanderrors.

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