Note from Lana - This "situation" happened several months ago, but Chris has not had too much time to write. Please enjoy his much anticipated "Holy Sheep" story. It is long, but you will get sucked into his deep, thought provoking writing style.
“In this episode, a question that haunted Charles Darwin: if natural selection boils down to survival of the fittest, how do you explain why one creature might stick its neck out for another? The standard view of evolution is that living things are shaped by cold-hearted competition, and there is no doubt that today's plants and animals carry the genetic legacy of ancestors who fought fiercely to survive and reproduce. But in this hour, we wonder whether there might also be logic behind sharing, niceness, kindness ... or even, self-sacrifice. Is altruism an aberration, or just an elaborate guise for sneaky self-interest? Do we really live in a selfish, dog-eat-dog world? Or has evolution carved out a hidden code that rewards genuine cooperation?”
(a.k.a THE COMMUTE PT.2)
No sooner was the question asked, that the screech of tires and the subsequent thud followed. The podcast “The Good Show” led by Jad Abumrad and Robert Kruwlich of WNYC’s Radiolab abruptly concluded with only the introduction having graced my ears, and its medium, my iPad, lying atop the floorboard beneath the passenger seat, headphones murmuring, and the story continuing. For me, a new, more personal story was being written, one not too different than the one that haunted Charles Darwin, one that is instead hauntingly similar.
When I returned to my car after the day’s work, darkness had already descended; and with it, an eerie fog. Unlike the billowy fog experienced in the morning commute, this night fog was whispery, seeming to hang loosely like a spider’s old web; and the mellow yellow glow from the moon caught trapped within it. Winter was coming to Serbia, and with her cold breath, silence fell over the nightscape. Consequently, the bellow of the diesel engine seemed disproportionately harsh amidst this cool stillness. I readied my iPad with a podcast, fit the headphones into my ears, and pressed PLAY.
“In this episode…” As I drove through the town of Senta, the moon-illuminated fog had begun to descend lower to the ground, and slithered through alleyways and around trees like some golden serpent; its hazy tentacles licking the surface of my car when I passed through. “… shaped by cold-hearted competition.” I had seen no other car, nor hitchhiker, even after I exited the city limits. Senta, now in my rear-view, offered interruption for the imposing fog, its network of buildings diffusing its power. Up ahead, however, only flatness. No low-lying hills, no buildings, not even a car. The fog evolved from the loosely flowing web to a firmly interlaced fabric, blanketing this new landscape of uniformity. “…or even, self-sacrifice.” The moon was now imprisoned by the fog, its light shared by no one. Black. Everywhere black. No street lamps. No city lights. No stars. No moon. I switched from my low beams to high. The impenetrable fog belligerently repelled the light back into my eyes. I quickly undid the action. Consequently, I lowered my speed as well, and leaned forward, focusing hard on the challenge ahead. It was then I saw what appeared to be blurry man, or a ghost amidst this backdrop of gray and black. It was waving its arms overhead, signaling me. I slowed further. “Do we really live in a dog-eat-…” HOLY SHEEP! " . . . world."
By the time I saw them, it was too late. If there was one camouflage perfect to conceal a flock of two hundred sheep, it would be this densely woven blanket of fog that I now just broke through. Researchers say that, in intense situations like this, time doesn’t actually slow, but instead people perceive time to slow because their senses are heightened, and thus we record more information. After the fact, when we play it back, it seems unfeasible to capture so much information in matter of seconds. Such is the case here.
The sea of sheep flowed perpendicular to the road and crossed it. On one end stood the ghostly shepherd, helpless to save the followers he had led into perceived annihilation. I swerved to the left, into the other lane. The flock not only swallowed the road, but the shoulders and land on either side as well. My evasive action was futile. I locked eyes with them as their eyes locked on the booming headlights. The hot white beam illuminated their hollow eyes, reflecting back four hundred suspended eerie yellow celestial spheres in an ocean of black, stars burning bright before a collective supernova.
In the final millisecond, the sheep blotted out my headlights, creating a very brief spell of absolute darkness, followed by the deafening thuds. The car bounced left, right, up and down as it reacted to the several impacts, and then creaked to a stop amidst a symphony of “baa baas.” Upon collision, the car was moving at a much slower speed, but the bumper still exploded into a shower of splintered plastic. Debris peppered the herd, their bulky wool coats acting as armor. Other pieces lay scattered amidst the road, my license plate included.
I sat in a state of shock, my brain unable to process the events, unable to act until I saw the shepherd approach my passenger window. He was signaling me to back up. Of course! While the front half of my car did respond violently to the impact, I had not felt the rear tires react to the sheep beneath my car, so they must remain there. Slowly moving in reverse, surprisingly, three sheep staggered upon shaky legs and stumbled to the field adjacent the road. One final sheep needed assistance, his rear leg bloodied. The shepherd helped him upright, and on his other three legs, he too limped to the safety of the road’s shoulder. I followed suit, and moved my car off the road and into the company of the shepherd and his bruised and battered followers.
Wary of the predicament now a reality for me, I left the car running. The rhythm of the engine seemed to mimic that of the adrenaline pumping through my veins. I rolled down my driver-side window when the shepherd approached. In Serbian, he angrily asked why I was unable to see the flock. It is obvious, isn’t it? This shepherd attempts to lead a couple hundred sheep across a highway in complete darkness, blanketed by a dense fog, alone and without any warning signs. This man, or his sheep for that matter, wore no reflective vests, no flashlight in hand, or headlamp atop head.
I replied, in Serbian, “Sorry, I don’t understand the Serbian language.” On the contrary, I did understand pieces, those in context, just not the whole picture. I wanted him to know I would not be able to discuss the present matter using his native tongue. The shepherd, puzzled, responded again in Serbian for he knew nothing else, “You don’t understand?” “No,” I replied. He then appeared even more frustrated and raised his voice further. He had realized that he could not communicate with me, and nor could I communicate with him. Incoherent loud noises seemed to be his solution to this problem. It appeared, at this point, he wanted me to turn off the car, and get out. “Eh, I don’t think so,” I mumbled to myself. The shepherd’s composure was rapidly declining so I figured I better hold tight. Then, I saw it; the side mirror showed my license plate lying atop a collage of bumper shards and mutilated wool in the road. Certainly, I was worried about the shepherd’s lack of calm, but I couldn’t leave without the license plate. So I turned off the car, stepped out into the lion’s den.
With my back to the idle shepherd, I walked to the center of the road where the plate rested. The fog had settled in deeper, hugging the road, silencing the night. Even the sheep, minutes after the accident, lay quiet, perhaps observing in full earnest the man perceived responsible for their misery. Their black eyes penetrated deep and a chill set it. I reached down and picked up the plate, and its abrasive scarred edge cut my finger. As the red blood formed at the surface of the wound, so did the shepherd from the shadows wielding a wooden staff above his head. The shepherd carried the stick heavy, his body not in the form it may have been many years ago. The enraged passion in his face, however, showed young and vibrant. He swung the staff at me, but it fell short as I retreated backwards. I recalled the sharp edge of the license plate, my eyes instinctively drawn to his exposed neck. I hesitated. “…survival of the fittest...cold-hearted competition…self-interest…or genuine cooperation…kindness.” In my indecision, the unraveled shepherd seized the moment, grabbed my jacket, and began punching deep into my chest. The blows connected softly contributing no pain. Perhaps it was the layers of clothing, or the now child-like strength of the aging man, or the fight-or-flight adrenaline the burned inside me, but I only felt anger and no pain. I grabbed his arm to remove it from me, and his eyes widened. In them, I saw a mad man, a wildling, a man more animal than the ones he leads. His next bark was louder, his next swing more deranged, his bite more rabid. I stopped him once more, stepped back, looked again deep into those feral eyes, and yelled, “STOP!”
Tonight, the survival of the fittest would not be measured by physical strength, but intellect and logic, for I am not only interested in surviving this night, but the days to come. If I countered the shepherd’s attacks with those of my own, then the story would no longer read of a car accident with animals, but instead an American assaulting an old and feeble Serbian man in the dark at his home. Surely, even a simple shove to provide me the opportunity to escape would result in a full-blown fictional story of battery, my mug on every local Serbian newspaper. I suppose sometimes both self-interest and genuine cooperation work together to ensure survival. The decision was made; I did not have another choice. I could not fight back, but instead, I had to award his attacks with kindness and cooperation.
The word “stop” is universal in both Serbian and English, and its meaning was clearly received by the shepherd. As a result, he momentarily stopped his attacks, but still held the staff above his head, his face unchanged. I exited the highway, once more towards the shoulder, and stood about a few meters from my car. The shepherd followed me, yelling something more in Serbian. I caught one word in particular from his perceived ramblings, and replied, “Yes, police,” in Serbian. I was not certain a police presence would benefit this situation, since most do not speak English, but perhaps with the shepherd pacified, I would have opportunity to call upon a colleague to come and translate for me. I expected the shepherd himself to call the police, but he did not do so. Instead, he grabbed me by the arm and attempted to force me towards the residence that sat thirty meters or so from the road. In these conditions, the house appeared derelict, the ghostly fog whispering an uneasy welcome. I resisted and pulled my arm again from his grasp, which brought his staff down upon me once more. I easily evaded, and irritatingly demanded he stop for now the second time. In Serbian, I told him that I would remain here. The shepherd, unconvinced, grabbed me yet again and still, I denied his encroachment. At this point, I figured he carried no cell phone, and needed a stationary phone located in the residence to call the police. He did not trust I would remain on-site if he left me where I stood. I, therefore, pulled out my cell phone, and pointed at it. “What is the number,” I said, obviously regarding the police. He did not grant me with a response, but instead moved on me again.
This thought of turning the other cheek only works as long as the attacks are limited to two. After repeated assaults, I had no other cheek to provide him, and instead my mind began reverting back to violence. There is a limit to how much I could take, and it was clear the shepherd was not going to be cooperative despite the kindness I allowed him. I viewed the staff readied above his head, and how it shook unsteadily. I remembered his failed swings from before, their foolish direction and weak intensity. I then envisioned I would teach him how to hold the staff, how to swing it with purpose, how to hit its mark. Having nearly twenty years experience with a baseball bat, I would need only one swing. My eyes moved from the wooden staff to his head, focused on his temple lightly covered by some unkempt hair. Grab the staff, and swing. One and done. I go home.
Then, as if from some divine providence, my cut finger throbbed, and the license plate in my hand became palpable again, diverting my thoughts away from the violent. All of this, his aggressive behavior, the attacks, the intensity in his eyes that I mistook for blood lust was instead only that of fear. He, too, was fighting to survive. Without the license plate, what proof would he have that the sheep were hit by a car. He was only a scared shepherd, a small pawn on this massive farm. He feared the owner, he feared for his job, for his family. I gave him the license plate.
The shepherd’s stick lowered, and he readily received it. I, then, pushed a button on my Blackberry, illuminating the back light, and pretended to call someone, or as the shepherd presumed, the police. Seemingly content with this course of action, he turned his back to me and began to walk towards the injured sheep. I held the phone to my ear and mumbled into the receiver; the words even more unintelligible the further he distanced himself from me. I contemplated actually calling a colleague of mine for help, but despite the brief respite, I was worried there would not be another chance to leave without further violence.
He stood over the injured sheep, their baa baas acting as the reassurance he needed. Everything was going to be alright, he presumably thought. His guard was down. My eyes remained fixed on him as I slid the phone back into my pocket and calculated my next move. He was probably ten steps from me, and I ten steps from the car. If I run, I could be in the car before he notices, and pulling away before he could act. I imagined it was possible he could be at the car before it started moving, but not in enough time to prevent escape. Ok. Ready…set…oh no! I paused as his head turned around to focus on me again, but only long enough for him to realize what was about to happen. I sprinted hard for the driver side door, opened it, and leaped in. The shepherd was in pursuit, with approximately eight steps until he reached the car. Keys into the ignition, six steps. Turnover of the engine, three steps. Stupid diesel. Car into gear, 1 step. As I slammed on the accelerator, I felt him on the back of the car, banging feverishly. The car jumped into motion, surely spewing dirt and grass behind. The shepherd desperately pursued the escaping car on foot, before giving up and heaving his wooden staff at me. Finally, it made contact, but with the rear window, and then fell back to the road, clamoring wood to concrete until it went still. In the rear view was the shepherd, a blurred ghost caught in a whispery grey web of angst and despair, his shouts fading with each accelerated second. Moments later, he was gone, consumed by the darkness he surfaced from a half hour before, and with him a story to tell, and a license plate as proof.
On the drive home, I sat at first in silence, only the repetitive hum of my wrecked bumper dragging atop concrete acting as soundtrack to my thoughts of reflection. My breathing remained heavy, but the sense of escape did wonders to streamline my anxiety. I then called a colleague, and informed her of the incident and the loss of the license plate. We made plans to go with the company’s lawyers to the police station the next morning, file a report, and retrieve the plate.
When I arrived home, Lana greeted me with a new painting she had just finished. My apprehension still had the best of me, and I failed to show interest in her accomplishment. She noticed, and I began to tell her of my distressing commute home. Her reaction was, well, not what I expected. After sharing that I had run into several sheep with my car, she fell into a fit of laughter, but was followed up by deep concern as the story continued. In future retellings, I have had similar responses, and perhaps you the reader now can relate as well. In truth, I can’t deny it. It is a comedy up until the time the shepherd entered the scene. Then, it becomes a tragedy, starring me as I struggled to answer Darwin’s question first hand. Instinctively, my initial thoughts spoke to fighting fire with fire, to survive by physically out besting my opponent; but to what end. I was the fittest this evening, but I accomplished it without physical presence, but instead by showing kindness, desperately seeking cooperation; a better end, and therefore proving the standard view of evolution as too narrow. In the end, the shepherd kept his job, the sheep survived, and I was returned my license plate. Without doubt, there a code that rewards genuine cooperation and kindness. In Serbian, the code reads, “Љубав побеђује” (Love Wins).