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'Guide' by Pierrick Martinez
Jonah Arkwright had loved the moors all his life. He had farmed sheep on the uplands since he was a youth, taking over the smallholding from his father when the old man became too feeble to struggle on. Through the seasons he cared for his flock, setting out each morning with a faithful sheepdog at his heels and two more running ahead.
Unlike other farmers he never worried about ravens attacking his flock. He knew they only resorted to that through hunger and so, like his father before him, he put out food daily for the birds. A pair of ravens, probably about sixty years old, appeared each day at the feeding station and Jonah took that as a sign that all was well. On the rare occasions that the birds absented themselves he knew there was a reason and always it was because of a problem with the sheep. Once he had found a pregnant ewe tumbled into a ditch and unable to extricate herself. The ravens were standing sentry over her. The next day Jonah made sure they had extra rations – the fat from the ham and some fruit as well as the bread they so enjoyed. Another time the ravens had alerted him to a lamb abandoned by its mother. Jonah respected the ravens and they repaid him well.
Now he too had grown old and his son was taking on more of the work. The flock had multiplied and Alfred was a caring shepherd, having learnt from his father how to manage the tough moorland sheep. Jonah still went out with his remaining elderly dog every day, leaning on his crook as he negotiated the steep pathways.
The weather on the moors was often capricious; a fine sunny morning would give way to a sudden thick mist coming down from the tops. Jonah was out one day when the fog descended but Alfred was not unduly concerned when his father did not return for his midday meal. As the afternoon wore on he was surprised to see the ravens. They had fed handsomely that morning and did not usually return until the next day but now they were flying round and calling agitatedly. Eliza, Alfred’s wife, said, ‘They’re telling us something. Look how they fly towards us and then away, as if they want us to follow them.’
She fetched her shawl and a lantern and Alfred whistled the rest of the dogs to him and together they set off up the hill. The wind was screaming in their ears and although the fog had fled, the daylight was waning. One false step on the rough ground could lead to a broken ankle or worse. The ravens circled them, calling all the time, then flying a short distance away and back. Eventually they landed on a tussock of rough grass, bobbing their heads and cawing softly, gently. As they reached the spot Alfred and Eliza saw Jonah lying on the ground, his crook by his side, his old dog stretched out beside him. They were both dead.
The little church was packed on the day of Jonah’s funeral. He had been well-liked by his neighbours. The sun shone brightly and a warm breeze blew through the trees as the cortege approached the grave, the freshly turned earth smelling rich and wholesome.
After the coffin had been committed to the ground and the burial service was over the mourners turned to leave and each one of them noticed the two ravens on the roof of the church. As they watched, the great birds bowed and then took off to soar gracefully through the blue sky back to the moors.