By Daniel Groves

Once there was a young man who loved old books. Bertavious Bookman, more commonly called Bertie, spent most of his time with books—searching for them, buying them, restoring them, and talking about them with anyone who would listen. He would spend hours locked within the panels of his library, reading all the books he could. He read so much that he could recite the stories from memory. Bertie loved books so much that he made his living selling the books in his store, and many people came to him for his expertise.

One day, during his usual walk through town, Bertie discovered a large book sale. As he carefully combed through the titles, looking for more of his favorite stories to add to his vast collection, he came across a large wooden crate filled with books so old that the covers were fragile and worn. The antique books were various shades of brown and black, bound in dusty leather, the stitching frayed, and the pages yellow and crusty. He had to have them, so he turned to the man in charge of the sale.

“How much for this whole crate?” asked Bertie.

The man looked at Bertie, then at the crate, and his eyes grew wide and astonished.

“You’re interested in that crate?” he countered.

“Indeed!” cried Bertie, his excitement seeping through.

The man waved a hand in the air. “Take them.”

“Oh, sir, I couldn’t—”

“Really,” said the man more firmly. “I insist.” Bertie seemed to sense relief in the man’s tone.

“Well, if you say so.” Bertie shrugged, picked up the crate, and ran as fast as he could all the way home.

When he finally burst through his library’s door, he quickly placed the crate on the floor and stood up tall, huffing to catch his breath.

Boy, this is just perfect, Bertie thought to himself.

After gathering his senses, he thrust open the crate’s lid.

Oh, how beautiful.

Bertie slowly picked up the book on top of the pile. He looked all over, but couldn’t find the title, so he set it aside and picked up another. No title could be found on that one either.

That’s strange, thought Bertie with a confused look twisting his face.

As he retrieved the books from the crate, the pile on his floor grew larger. Bertie couldn’t believe there were so many books with no titles. Then he reached for the last book.

The Helpful Shepherd,” Bertie read aloud. “That’s interesting. I’ve never heard of this story before.”

Bertie carried the book kindly to his examination table, placed it gently beneath his light and magnifying glass, and cautiously opened the binding. The crisp, ancient pages popped and crackled, like a campfire just getting started. He turned to the first page, looking for the author’s name, but it only repeated what the faded cover displayed.

“How bizarre,” Bertie said disbelievingly. “How can there be no credited author? Who published this book?”

He looked through the front and back pages, but no other notes could be found. There was simply the title page and the story.

“Well, let’s see what this story is about,” he said, though nobody heard. He took the book in his hands, turned to the first page, and began reading.

Once upon a time, there was a handsome, young shepherd, tending his sheep in the pasture by the Telling Tree…

Bertie had no more than read aloud the first sentence when his library began to shake. The books on the shelves rattled, the floor beneath Bertie’s feet quaked, and all Bertie’s belongings began to bounce, conducting the world’s fastest waltz. Bertie looked down at the book and saw it start to glow, followed quickly by a bright light emanating from the center. The light grew larger and larger before it overtook the entire room, sending rays as bright as the sun shooting out the windows. Finally, a whip-like crack split the air and the book crashed to the floor, closing itself for good measure.

Bertie had closed his eyes to shield them from the blinding light. When he opened them, he found himself lying on the ground surrounded by numerous thin trees. The trees stood tall and resolute, hanging high, seemingly standing guard over the area. The ground beneath Bertie was warm and lush; brown and green hues rushed from the grass and plants, eager to reach Bertie’s eyes. A gentle breeze waved by, carrying pointy leaves across the space, wafting a sweet vanilla scent into Bertie’s nose. It reminded Bertie of the delicious cookies made at the town’s bakery.

Despite Bertie’s enjoyment of his new environment, he was confused.

Where am I?

A faint noise tickled Bertie’s ears. He stood still and silent, concentrating to hear what it was and from where it came. At last, he looked in the direction he believed to be the origin and noticed that the trees ended, overtaken by a grassy pasture.

As he walked toward the pasture, the noise grew louder, and Bertie realized the sound was the bleating of sheep. When he emerged from the trees, he saw a small flock, perhaps twenty strong, gathered beneath a tall, wide, and withered tree. The trunk of this tree was massive and it was taller than the rest, but the bark was tired and grey, like it had lost its luster and had grown sad.

Still confused, Bertie approached the sheep. He looked around and saw no other people. The sun beat down from the sky with warm yellow rays.

Upon nearing the flock, Bertie realized that the bleating was not the normal sound of sheep he had heard before. They were talking and Bertie could understand what they were saying.

“No, no, it has to be Samson,” one sheep was saying.

“That cannot be true!” cried another in response. “Puff’s is clearly the best!”

“Indeed not!” said another, nearly shouting. “Lumen is obviously the winner!”

Bertie looked around, confused by all the commotion. He felt he had walked into a business of flies.

“Hello,” Bertie said, as he could think of nothing else to say.

Abruptly, the cackling stopped and all eyes turned to the newcomer. The sheep studied Bertie a moment; those nearest to him backed away slowly.

“Intruder!” one sheep shouted suddenly.

“Intruder!” the rest chimed in. “Intruder! Intruder!”

“What? No, no,” said Bertie whilst holding up his hands in surrender. “I’m just confused.”

“Intruder! Intruder!”

“Can you tell me what’s going on?”

“Intruder! Intruder!” The chorus only grew in strength.

“No, I promise I’m not an intruder. Where am I?”

The berating continued mercilessly. Bertie’s mind went blank, unable to comprehend.


The refrain ended immediately.

“It would appear we have a new situation,” said the sheep, the largest of the bunch. “You are a human.”

“Yes?” said Bertie. “And you can talk.”

“But of course.”

“I’m just very confused.” Bertie’s eyes were pleading with the sheep to understand.

The big sheep’s eyes narrowed. “What are you called, human?”

Bertie shifted his weight uncomfortably. He had not expected an interrogation at the behest of a sheep. “My name is Bertie.”

“Bertie!” cried a lamb.

“Shhh,” spat its mother. “Samson is talking.”

Bertie looked back at Samson, who had a wide grin spreading above his chin. He raised himself up on his hind legs, almost leveling him with Bertie. “And why, pray tell, are you here?”

“Uhhh, well, I, uh…”

“Speak!” commanded Samson.

“I don’t know exactly. I just opened a book and then I was here.”

Samson raised one eyebrow at the response. “Mhmmmm.”

“Honestly,” continued Bertie. “I don’t even know where we are. This is all very weird to me.”

Samson chewed on a thought for a moment, then nodded his head tautly.

“I am Samson. This is our pasture,” he said, referring to the group. “And this is our tree.”

Bertie raised his eyes upward and Samson’s mention. The tree was quite imposing up close, despite its lack of life.

“Your timing, Bertie, may actually prove quite beneficial to our cause.”

Bertie returned his sight to Samson. “Your cause?”

“Yes. Your arrival interrupted our debate.”

Bertie tilted his head sideways like a bewildered dog.

“We were in the process of choosing whose wool is the best,” finished Samson.

“My apologies for the disruption.”

Samson waved him off with a single hoof. “Worry not, Bertie! I have just decided that you are, in fact, just what we needed.”

The tall tree shook itself violently, as if drying itself like an animal, and the sudden shake startled Bertie. It stopped as quickly as it had begun.

Samson laughed. “Fear not, Bertie. For the Telling Tree is neither friend nor foe. It simply reveals the level of happiness in the pasture.”

“Interesting…” was all Bertie could muster.

“Unfortunately, it has been dead for some time now. There is always a substantial bit of bickering preceding the great debate.”

“What’s the great debate?”

“That’s what we call the process where we choose whose wool is best.”

“I see.”

“And because you’re here, you’re going to help!”

“Samson, no!” cut in another sheep.

“Ah, Puff speaks,” replied Samson. Puff looked around nervously, then back at Samson. “Well go on then. What say you, Puff?”

“Well,” Puff spoke softly. Her voice was light and airy, but it gained strength. “Well, we always decide this on our own.”

“A valid point!”

“This is tradition, Samson. We must not break tradition.”

“And why can we not?” cut in another sheep.

“Yes, Lumen. What say you?” asked Samson, egging her on.

Lumen spoke swiftly and coherently. “As sheep, it’s important for us to change and grow, improving things from one generation to the next, leaving something good behind for the next sheep, and remembering that our group is always stronger than any one sheep alone. Despite our tradition,” she said while shooting a sarcastic look at Puff, “we have been given an opportunity to experiment with our process.”

“Excellent!” commented Samson. “Really well said, Lumen.”

Samson turned back to Bertie, who had been shocked silent. “Bertie, you seem like an intelligent chap, kind, able to string together multiple thoughts, and, most importantly, impartial. What say you to playing judge to our contest?”

The flock turned their gaze to Bertie, who was taken aback. “You…you want me to choose? Decide whose wool is best?”

Samson looked about the group, who all nodded in agreement. The lone exception was Puff, who stood by glaring at the sky.

“We shall give it a go!” exclaimed Samson excitedly. “What a stroke of luck for you to arrive here! Good man! And at just the right moment!”

Bertie’s shoulders, which had been bunched below his neck, relaxed. He felt more accepted and gracious for having been given what he realized was a monumental responsibility.

“Well, alright then,” he said, shrugging. “I’ll do my best.”

“Splendid!” said Samson, casting a toothy smile. He unknowingly had some grass stuck between his teeth, which made Bertie giggle.

Samson approached Bertie and nudged him toward the front of the group. The Telling Tree’s bark turned a little darker brown, a little healthier.

“How often do you have this debate?” asked Bertie.

“This is our yearly contest,” responded Samson. “The winner becomes the leader of our group for the following year, but that’s not what we prize the most.”

“What is that?”

“The ba-a-agging rights!” cried the lamb.

“Oh my,” said Bertie, rolling his eyes and chuckling.

“Yes indeed!” said Samson happily. “Whoever’s wool is determined to be the best earns ba-a-agging rights for the entire year.”

“You must’ve won last year?”

“Right you are, Bertie!”

“Your confidence gives it away.”

“Well, only the best wool can have ba-a-agging rights, and mine is the best!”

“Not for much longer!” cried Puff as ferociously as her sweet voice would allow.

“I’ll have something to say about that!” said Lumen, standing on her hind legs and pointing confidently toward the sky.

Bertie reached the front of the group. “How do I choose?”

“Any way you wish!” cried Samson. “It’s up to you.”

Bertie put a hand to his chin, stroking it gingerly as he thought.

“Have you all decided that Samson, Puff, and Lumen are the top three?”

“Yes!” the sheep choir bleated in unison.

“Ok.” Bertie looked at each Samson, Puff, and Lumen individually, thinking hard. “Well, I have to say, this is a very difficult decision.”

“Pick one! Pick one!” shouted the lamb, barely able to contain itself.

“Samson,” Bertie began, but a loud cheer from the crowd cut him off. He held up a towering hand to silence them. “Samson,” he continued, “is clearly the strongest physically. He is built like an ox, which is saying something for a sheep, and his wool reflects that.”

The flock awed together at the compliment. The Telling Tree grew a little sunnier and stood up straighter.

“Puff is the prettiest of the bunch, with her well-manicured wool that is simultaneously fluffy, bright, and strong. It’s clear she works hard to maintain her sweet, pillowy image.”

Puff blushed as much as she could. The Telling Tree’s branches raised up higher.

“And Lumen is the smartest, as I can tell from how she speaks. It’s as if she were born to be a public speaker!”

“My greatest strength!” cried Lumen. The Telling Tree sprouted leaves that had not yet unfolded.

Bertie stroked his chin again, then held up a finger, showing he had an idea. A thought of his books had crossed his mind.

“Let me tell you something,” he said quietly. The flock tightened, listening carefully. “Where I come from, we tell many stories and we write them down in books. I have read many of these books and know all the stories by heart.”

The flock audibly ooo’ed together.

“The books are all different. They are written by different people, have different stories, and look different on the outside.”

Bertie paused.

“And!?” cried the lamb.

Bertie smiled. “And, I’ve learned a lot from these books. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that no matter what they look like or who wrote them, they’re all wonderful in their own way.”

The flock ahh’ed together.

“So, I cannot pick just one winner of this contest. I choose all three as winners, as you are each wonderful in your own way!”

The sheep looked at each other, considering the words. Then, all at once, a loud cheer sprang forth.

“What a grand idea!” shouted Samson above the noise. “That is wonderful, Bertie! Ba-a-agging rights for all! We are all wonderful. We all have value!”

Bertie smiled wide and clapped his hands. The Telling Tree exploded to life, producing big, green leaves, it’s bark a lively brown.

“Thank you, Bertie,” said Samson warmly. “You will always have friends here amongst our flock.”

Bertie closed his eyes and took in the happiness. When he opened his eyes again, he was back in his library, and he was happy at the thought of his new friends.

Daniel Groves is a writer from Ohio whose work appears in Roi Faineant PressThe Minison ProjectHearth & Coffin Literary MagazineErato Magazine, and BUBBLE Magazine. He won the Massillon Public Library Poetry Contest in 2022.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s