Not-man Kidnaps a Sheep

Jennifer Jeanne McArdle

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Younger Dog begged me for assistance, his delicious brown eyes welling.

“You are herder, not hunter. The sheep is lost. Rescuing her is not worth your time.” I elongated my neck for emphasis.

Younger Dog pawed the ground. “The dogs are losing respect from the flock because we could not protect their matriarch. The humans will get rid of us if we cannot control the sheep.”

I ran my beak over a long wing-feather. “The humans would never get rid of you.” Only dogs, of all the animals living with the humans, had the luxury of true, human love.

Still, I did not want the humans to lose all their sheep to some terrible creature.

Last night, I’d heard the something scratching the side of the barn. The door had swung open, the wails of the sheep scared me so I screamed, too. The humans did not get outside in time, but the dogs said that the creature had carried the sheep east, into the woods. In the morning, the songbirds told us they heard from the bats that the mysterious creature lived somewhere in the canyons, past the woods.

“Are you sure the sheep still lives and this isn’t a fool’s errand?

Younger Dog sat and cocked his head to the side, the afternoon light sparkling on his beautiful speckled coat. I would miss Straight Horn, the lost sheep. She often scratched her back against the metal mesh surrounding my mew and we’d chat together, about the weather, the humans, the dogs, our lambs and chicks. She could never understand the pain of my losing my mate some years ago – sheep don’t love one at a time, like hawks. Yet, she was wise – somehow still spared from human appetite, although her wool and milk were becoming sparse and her lambs smaller each year.

“Whether she lives or not, it must die. I will not lose more sheep to this monster.”

For all their usual goofiness, dogs had a vicious side. A dog might suddenly massacre a bunch of small animals for sport, boredom, or spite. I shook the dark thoughts out of my tail feathers. “We’ll go early next morning. At sunrise.”

Younger Dog groaned. “The longer we wait, the more the creature’s and Straight Horn’s scents will dissipate.”

“The sun is setting soon. Hawks do not travel when they cannot see.”

Younger Dog whined but did not argue.

At dawn, just as light crept over the grassy hills, Younger Dog appeared, staring up at me. He moved the latch holding the door of the mew in place and then pulled it open. My feathers were still damp, dewy, but he was too antsy to keep waiting while I preened.

The canyons east of here were confusing, maze-like, populated by coyotes, bears, goats, and other animals. I would fly above Younger Dog but swoop down to warn him of any danger while he focused on following the scents. Older Dog had to stay and watch the rest of the flock. Not that he was the type to ever do something this drastic to help another animal.

While flying over the woods, I kept track of Younger Dog as he weaved through the pine trees. Where the ground was soft, some footsteps left by a running, two-legged creature remained visible. I missed flying and hunting with my mate.

We arrived at the canyons, a nearly barren network of mountains, plateaus, caves, and winding pathways. The stone was just beginning to glow with deep oranges, yellows, and reds under the morning sunlight. Below me, Younger dog was a tiny, multicolored beast, sniffing and then dashing forward.

As I circled him, despite my best efforts I got lost in thought, thinking of how Straight Horn the sheep was pregnant and about to give birth. I remembered my own chicks, now grown and living with other human families. Now that my mate was gone, the lambs were my chicks. Thus I only noticed a large beige predator hiding behind the tree, watching Younger Dog, almost too late to warn him.

The lion blended into the colors of the canyon; she’d be invisible for dogs, but I saw her back legs and spine twitching, her chest expanding, the breath leaving her nose as mist. Younger Dog was only as tall as Man’s knee. By himself, he was no match for a mountain lion. Likely, neither was I. But we had each other. So I dove, beak first, toward the cat, screaming a warning to Younger Dog.

I dodged the big cat’s paw but landed on my belly and not my feet. I got up and puffed my feathers out. The cat backed up while still staring at me, but his ears turned toward the dog.

“We are not here to fight you,” Younger Dog whimpered. “You know the scars we’ll leave aren’t worth the quality of the meat beneath our skin.”

“Where’s your Man?” the lion hissed.

“He’s not with us. You are not the monster we’re after. This time.”

The cat’s lips closed and claws retracted, just a little. “You’re here for the Not-Man,” he almost purred.

“The what?” Younger Dog answered.

The cat turned to face the dog. “The thing you’re smelling now. The Not-Man has been stinking up my territory for some months now. He scares the prey from here and teases me by hiding delicious animals in his cave.”

I was able to jump up to the branch of a nearby tree. Why was Younger Dog talking to this beast? Cats could not be trusted. What made dogs special, especially this dog, was that they wanted to make friends with every cretin in the animal kingdom.

“Let’s help each other.” Younger Dog wagged his tail slightly and lowered the hair standing on his back. “We don’t have to fight. We attack the Not-Man together.”

The cat continued to bare his teeth, but the dog’s fur still flattened. “I don’t hunt in packs, like you two. I ambush. However, I can tell you where he lives. He is not so large, but he is clever and usually knows when I am coming, so I have not been able to rid these canyons of him. Yet.

“Keep walking up the hill, to the boulder with two cacti on either side of it. You’ll see a crevice in the stone wall, big enough for you to squeeze through, but too small for me. The Not-Man sleeps in there.”

The dog’s tail wagged slightly.

“What are you waiting for?” The cat whipped his own tail. “You’re lucky I’m letting you live, so get going.”

“There’s two of us and one of you!” I squawked.

“She’s right. We have to go.” Younger Dog dashed up the hill. I gave a last look to the cat before jumping from the tree branch and back into flight.

Orbit-sml ><


We reached the boulder described by the cat.

“I see the crevice over there,” said Slow Hawk. “I can’t follow you into the dark. Are you sure you want to go in?”

“Yes! You can wait for us here.”

“I won’t stay too long,” Slow Hawk warned. “But if you do get Straight Horn back, someone will have to watch out for that cat.”

I jiggled my head and then lifted my nose – from the crevice, the scent of the Not-Man was strong, and just barely, I could smell…Straight Horn, and other sheep? goats? chickens? I whined as I stifled my fear before I squeezed my head and wide shoulders through the crevice and into the cave.

The twittering of bats felt like tiny pine needles pricking the insides of my ears. Bats were difficult to talk to unless they were calm enough to speak one at a time. They were likely annoyed at my trespassing and would need time to calm before they’d be helpful to me.

More smells. Savory, earthy, mushrooms, salty stone, the animal smells, the Not-Man – who did smell somewhat like a sweating human, but the stink was sharper, biting. There was a sticky sweetness in the air, as sweet as the candies Boy sometimes gave me for doing tricks. I blinked. Something like vines covered the floor and wound around the spikes jutting from the floor and the ceiling. I could hear slow liquid, not water but something else, dripping from the ceiling to the floor. Ball-like things bloomed on the vines. They glowed, not like stars, but like summer fireflies.

Feet scraped against the stone floor. I jumped just in time when the Not-Man lunged at me. His giant claw clacked loudly against a rock as the wind from our movements shook the glowing balls. Small things resembling tufts of fur burst from the balls into the air.

The Not-Man turned to face me as he took big breaths, his body expanding and shrinking. He was human-shaped, about the same height as Woman, but hunched low. His eyes were too big on his head, his nose totally flat, and the claw on his left hand resembled the claws of the crabs Woman brought back from the market, while his right hand was spindly and delicate, like a human’s.

I lunged for the arm attached to the claw and bit down, hard. His skin was tough, but I pulled back with my hind legs and clenched hard, my teeth finally breaking through. All my muscles working together, swinging my head back and forth, tearing his flesh. His blood, spiced and hot, filled my mouth. He screamed like a great cow. With his weak right hand, he scratched, but I would not release.

He pulled back, dragging me with him, little pebbles scraping against my paws. More blood filled my mouth, my throat. I sucked air through my nose, the ultra-sweet perfumes filling my brain.

A great thud landed on the top of my head. Something hard. Pain filled my whole face, a numbness from my toes. Again something bashed my head. The agony was too much, my jaw weakened, and the Not-Man pulled himself free. I was blind and deaf for a few seconds, but then I saw his body shuddering as he forced air in and out his lungs, smelled blood leaking from the wound on the arm hanging limp at his side. I readied myself to lunge a second time, this time for his face or neck.

“Wait, dooog,” he rasped. I froze. I did not expect the Not-Man to be able to speak to me. “I g-guess you here for ewe I tooook the othzerrr NIGHT.” He did not speak the way most animals did. He was straining to make himself understood. “Weeee don’t naad tow fightt-t. I wOll tak-k you to yourrr preciousss sssheep.”

I whimpered and backed away from Not-Man, the pain in my head enormous – but I could ignore that for now, because I imagined Boy and Woman praising me for getting Straight Horn back home.

Orbit-sml ><


I thought I’d seen everything worth tasting or fearing before the Not-Man carried me in his arms, through the forest, the canyons, and into the cave. My face and legs were scraped with little cuts from stray branches and from squeezing me through the crevice. My wool was a mess, uncomfortable, matted, heavy – not good for my old knees.

The mushroom vines offered a soft enough bed. The lamb growing inside me moved often, so she still lived. The animals already living in the cave regarded my arrival with little interest. The bats continued their shrill gossip and daily complaints. The chickens considered me for only a few moments before they went back to chasing cave bugs. The would-be proud goats looked up from their naps before returning to sleep. Goats always called sheep their dull cousins. Yet, here they looked lazy. Bored.

There was an adolescent male sheep already here, the only one excited by my arrival, but disappointed I was with lamb.

“Calm down, Restless One,” I scolded him, “I have bigger horns than you do. You’re not old enough to mate.”

“Not-Man promised I’d have a family,” he’d snorted. “A flock.”

I was sleeping when I felt Younger Dog’s nose on my cheek. I bleated awake, my too big belly causing me to roll awkwardly before I could figure out exactly what was going on. I could just see Not-Man some feet from me, and the goats, Restless One, and the chickens watching us without moving. Younger Dog was too close for me to see him, but I felt his breath on my cheek and smelled him, that distinct predator-but-friend scent.

“Thisss dooog hiz caame to—”

“Huh?” I asked, not fully understanding the Not-Man. I heard him groan.

“The d-dog wantsss to take YOU home,” he communicated again. Trying to understand his animal voice felt like trying to catch a flea hiding in my wool. “I w-will let YOU maaake choice…” he paused for a few moments “…S-Straight Hoof?”

“Straight Horn,” I corrected, gritting my teeth.

“Do you waaant to Go back to your HUmans, who m-milk you, EAT you,’’ he took a deep breath, “l-leave you outside all day, who SELL your babiessss away?” His whole body tremored with the effort, making sure my aged sheep brain understood him: “I might d-drink some of your BLOOD, but I-I’m building my own f-flock. Your LAMB will s-stay h-here with YOU. You have softtt beddinggg. You have s-so much tasteee fooood. Why s-stress your w-walking th–past the canYON and the woodsss to the HUman lair? What-what do the HUmans offer their PREY that I wouldn’t-n’t?”

Younger Dog whined. I managed to stand up. The sweet stink of the cave rumbled my stomachs. The Not-Man did have a point. I did not look forward to the journey back, pregnant and old, to the humans’ home.

“Slow Hawk waits for us.” Younger Dog nudged me with his snout. “The humans are your family.”

“The humans use me for the things my body produces.” I sighed. “The Not-Man, the humans. My lamb won’t be born into true freedom no matter what I choose.”

“At least, with the humans, your lamb will get to grow up in the sunshine. You want her to stay in this dank place forever?” Younger Dog sat and stared at me, waiting for my response.

I thought about the humans back at the home. Boy wore a jacket woven from my own wool. They were monsters: I’d seen Boy and Older Dog break chicken necks, heard Man kill sheep. They all ate the meat. But Boy often rubbed my belly and fell asleep on my back. Woman fed me carrots. Younger Dog saved me from a coyote last month.

They were monsters. And not.

Whatever they were, I’d always be a sheep. My lamb growing inside me would be a sheep. We could be dependent on humans to feed us and sheer us, or the Not-Man in his cave.

I could smell that Younger Dog had a serious injury. He had come a long way to find me, the silly little beast. Most animals would never be so brave.

“I will go with you,” I told Younger Dog, “if you promise to challenge Older Dog for dominance. Sheep languish without a strong leader.”

Younger Dog backed up, so I could see him. He barked agreement to my terms. Restless One, listening to our conversation, huffed with annoyance, seemingly unimpressed. Well, I couldn’t please everyone.

“Also, if I die on the walk back, rip my lamb from my belly and bring her home,” I told Younger Dog and ambled toward the exit of this chamber of the cave.

“You CHOOSE go back to the HUmans?” the Not-Man shouted at me.

“I’m leaving with Younger Dog.” I stomped and shook my head at him, then turned to my young rescuer. “Lead the way. Isn’t that your job, hound?”

Younger Dog’s tail wagged back and forth, not too quickly.

Orbit-sml ><


The Not-Man who moved into our cave had a habit of chatting aloud to us, although we didn’t always understand what he said. Because of the weird mushrooms he grew, the cave was bright all the time. We did not need to use our bat sounds to find our way around the cave anymore because we always had light, but this made sleeping difficult. He pretended to not understand our complaints about the glow.

Not-Man claimed it was not easy for him to live with humans. They did not want him. We pitied him because he lived alone with no colony. He kidnapped big animals and brought them to our cave, out of loneliness, we guessed. However, he did not groom us, himself, or his animal friends, or supply interesting gossip, so perhaps the humans felt he was poor company. We could not be sure because we do not know human customs well.

We asked the songbirds, who said that humans did groom, in pools of water, like they did. As far as we know, Not-Man did not bathe.

Bats love novel information. But none of us knew where the Not-Man came from. Some of us thought he was once a human but became twisted somehow. Others thought he was once an animal and became twisted somehow. Maybe he was a mushroom that learned to talk and walk. Maybe he wasn’t as lonely as we thought he was because the glowing mushrooms were actually his family.

After the dog had come and led the pregnant ewe from our cave, Not-Man poured a glowing liquid on his injured arm and healed it. Then he drank his different glowing liquid, and his body swelled with power. I had never seen him drink so much at once. He was so angry, stomping around and destroying his mushrooms, when normally he took great care and attention not to knock them over.

“Thiis eveNING, they RAYjoyssss retuuurrrrn of losssettt ssssheep,” the Not-Man said to us, but maybe he was just talking to himself or to the mushrooms. “WHEN humanzz and their aNImals sssleep, I come to their ffflock. I not carRY them home becausssse they do NOT dessserve my giffftsss. They do not deserve me. I will DRINK the blooood of the flock and the dooog. The HUMANZZ will have NOTHING but CARcasssesssss.”

We didn’t like when the Not-Man talked about humans because our colony had purposely moved to this cave, far from humans. We didn’t need human smoke, fire, and trouble. We shook our wings and were quieter than usual, a nervous feeling crackling in the air around us.

When the sun was sinking, our flock exited the cave through the crevice. I flew out, following my brothers and sisters, but I was curious about the Not-Man, about where his temper would lead him. I landed near the crevice and watched. He moved one of the boulders that made the cave exit narrow, a feat he could only do after he drank some of his liquid, and exited the cave. Drool leaked from his big mouth. Even in the evening light, the sun nearly gone and the light reflection of the moon on the purple sky, I could see that his eyes looked clouded and strange. Low, angry noises shook his chest and his muscles vibrated, buzzed almost, while his heart thundered in his chest.

My attention was drawn, suddenly, to a new sound: claws scraping against rock, the intake of deep breath, the woosh of a large body moving swiftly through the air. A lion leapt onto the Not-Man, surprising him from behind. I heard the crunch of the lion’s large teeth on the bones of his neck, the split-second cry of hurt before his throat was crushed.

In the past, the Not-Man had always been careful and he looked for signs of the cat before he left his cave. His strange liquid and his rage must have made him stupid.

I chittered, calling for the others, who scolded me as they swooped around the scene of the lion devouring Not-Man.

“We didn’t want to see this. We eat bugs, not the corpses of big animals,” they protested, but they didn’t fly away. “You’re so morbid, Nosy Whispers! Poor lonely thing, he was. Probably better off dead than alive and suffering.”

“With him gone, we can ask the goats to eat the mushrooms,” I offered. “We’ll sleep in peace again.” The others thought that was a good idea.

It was a shame that the Not-Man died with no one to mourn him – a sad fate for even the grumpiest of bats. I perched, thinking of Not-Man, how having him in the cave helped me feel grateful for my brothers and sisters. But our stomachs grumble when left unfilled by moths and mosquitoes, and bats are not philosophical, so I did not idle for long. I took flight and joined the others, hoping the smell of his blood might fade by the time we returned.


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Jennifer Jeanne McArdle

Author image of Jennifer Jeanne McArdle Jennifer Jeanne McArdle lives in New York with her fiance and an agent of chaos (a spotted dog) and works in animal conservation. Previously she’s taught ESL in South Korea and Indonesia and worked for and with nonprofits in the US and Asia. Her story The Mules was a Brave New Weird 2022 award winner. You can find her on Bluesky, Instagram, Twitter, and her website.

© Jennifer Jeanne McArdle 2024 All Rights Reserved.

The title picture was created using a Creative Commons image by Dziana Hasanbekava - many thanks!

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