Counting Sheep

📅 Published on September 13, 2020

“Counting Sheep”

Written by Mike Jesus Langer
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 9.40/10. From 5 votes.
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If you’re counting sheep to help you sleep, don’t look them in the eye,
For some will give you dreams to keep, and some will make you die.”

The idea of counting sheep stretches back to a simpler time in our history. A time before all those pesky notifications and breaking news updates would spring us out of bed in the middle of the night to look at a screen – a time when shepherds counting their flock before taking a nap in the shadow of some tree was a relatable situation.

Historians disagree as to where the term actually came from; some say it is a recent expression originating from the New Zealand colonists, others invoke Medieval British sheep herders whilst some point at verses in dusty tomes of Islamic fairy tales.

They’re all wrong.

The original expression comes from the Goral people of the Tatra Mountains, although the Austro-Hungarian approach to the people as a lesser culture has pushed the truth from libraries into word of mouth.

What has also been conveniently removed from anthropology papers is the original form of the expression. The idea of counting sheep to help ease the mind originally came in a rhyme. The only place where the true form of the old advice still survives is in the mouths of direct descendants to the Goral culture.

If you’re counting sheep to help you sleep, don’t look them in the eye,
For some will give you dreams to keep, and some will make you die.”

My grandma’s shaking, leathery hands pressed against my forehead again. I was wrapped in four different blankets and a frigid wave of hot ice was traveling up and down my body, but her words cut through my fever.

“Why do you say that, Grandma?” I said, my chin safely tucked beneath the blistering blankets.

“It’s just something my grandma said to me and her grandma said to her and her grandma said to her – a little bit of advice passed down the family tree.”

She caressed my forehead, doing her best to keep the tremors in her hands at bay. Her nails were packed with dirt from the potato fields but as she touched me I could smell the remnants of last night’s finger paints. The loving woman had stayed up all night making sure my sudden sickness wasn’t serious.

“But why shouldn’t I look the sheep in the eye, grandma? The sheep the neighbors have are good animals.”

“Oh, Zlatko, yes, the neighbor’s sheep are good animals, but the sheep you count before you sleep, the sheep in your dreams, they’re different. Some of those sheep are also good, they will bring you a good night’s rest but the others…” She paused, considering her next words carefully, “The other sheep are bad.”

“What do the bad sheep do?”

“Something you won’t have to think about for a long, long time.”

A long, long time later my older cousins and I were taking swigs from a hip flask in the icy parking lot of a cemetery. Whenever the emotions would bubble up enough to wet our eyes we’d just turn around and take a long, thoughtful puff of our cigarettes and gaze out into the row of tombstones, pretending that we were having some deep thought about the nature of our own mortality.

But we weren’t. We were all just thinking about how freshly packed dirt was now covering the box in which our grandmother was sleeping.

No big change in life comes easy, but keeping my shit together during the funeral was a herculean task. Not only was the woman who had nurtured my artistic spirit and encouraged me to do what makes me happy dead, but my mother had taken it upon herself to drag me around the funeral and insist that I show every guest the mural I had drawn in my grandmother’s honor. Out by her casket was a picture of her smiling; full of life. On my cracked iPhone was a misshapen Chernobyl reject that vaguely resembled my grandmother.

“Oh that’s so beautiful,” they would say, “You should hang up the painting somewhere!”

“It’s actually digital,” I’d mumble.


“Yeah. I think we’ll hang it up in the living room.”

As a cherry on top of my awkward social sundae, my suit pants were a couple of sizes too small. The buttons that held them up constantly reminded me that my body had grown since middle-school graduation.

My grandma was dead, my artistic pursuits were confusing to everyone around me and every deep breath I took threatened to get me pantsed during a funeral.

Yet I still took those deep breaths. The whole day I was trying to not think about how hard the loss stung, how impossible her absence felt, how she would never see me actually get good at drawing. The whole day I was trying not to think about how my grandma had met the bad sheep.

With the help of whiskey and some self-control I almost made it through the whole funeral without crying. But then, as we stood in that cold parking lot, a bright neon jogger cut through our group of dark suits. She had a hairy bobtail on a leash.

The dog looked like some horribly misshapen evil sheep.

The bad sheep.

I took a deep breath to steady myself but the buttons on my pants didn’t like that.

I lost my grip.

The wind was sharp in the Slovakian November. I stood in the parking lot of a cemetery, surrounded by my older cousins, weeping like a baby with the pants of my undersized suit around my ankles.

More time passed. I moved to Prague and bargained my fascination with folklore and history into a job in the tourist industry. The work was both rewarding and exhausting; every day I got to ramble about the soul of the Czechoslovakian nation to a willing audience who paid me well for the service, but the crowds were large enough to require every tidbit of knowledge that I had to be delivered from the depths of my diaphragm.

The work drained me. Crashing into my bed after a six-hour tour I always felt like a boxer who just went through a full twelve rounds. Sure, my opponent was grinning and cheering me on throughout the match and there was a wad of bills in my jeans to assure me that I had won the fight, but that didn’t lessen my internal bruising.

I’d lie on my back, trying to nurse myself back to health with honey-loaded tea and breathing exercises that an opera singer who dropped by my tour once suggested. In those moments of afternoon recovery, sleep would tug at my soul, telling me that peace could be found in its woolen embrace, assuring me that the physical strain of yelling information at crowds would be easier to bear with a good eight hours of rest.

But whenever I could I would resist its pull.

“That’s beautiful, zlatko,” she would say whenever I would show her the messy finger-paintings or jagged sketches that my childish mind would produce, “promise me that as long as drawing brings you joy, as long as creating things makes you happy, you’ll keep on doing it. Life can be hard, zlatko, life can be very hard, but what you hold in your hands can help you escape. Promise me you’ll never let go.”

“I promise grandma.”

Even on the most exhausting of days, when all my muscles groaned and taking even a single step would make me worry for my knees, I’d get up and pick up my Wacom tablet and draw. Some days the art would flow onto the screen with the ease of a straight-forward prophecy being fulfilled and some days my fingers would be glued to the CTRL and Z keys, undoing the sloppy line-work that I was too tired to do properly, but every day I drew. I was holding on to that thing that made me happy, fulfilling my promise to an old woman who was both resting in the ground and watching me from the sky.

Luckily for me, the masses of tourists that come visit the Hundred-Spired city come in bursts. The summer crowd starts thickening around May and swells up until September before taking a quick breather, grabbing a jacket and coming back for the Christmas markets. Working all season round while trying to prop up an artistic pursuit was a draining task, but luckily for me, the emptiness of the October and November months provided me with some space for respite.

Every year, on September 30th, I’d give one last tour to the crowds of excited foreigners, and then I would hop on a train to take me back to Slovakia, to take me back to the old cottage in the Goral Tatras where I had spent my formative years as an artist. Two months in the quiet countryside would help me recharge. Going from making eye-contact with five hundred people a week to only seeing the glossy eyes of sheep and maybe the occasional tired pensioner would let me regenerate my social batteries for the winter.

My stays in the old cottage also allowed me to focus on my art. Whenever I was out in the mountains I was completely alone without any semblance of the Internet or phone signal to distract me. Every day would be spent scratching out drawings on my Wacom and if the flow of inspiration ever started to trickle I would go outside and clear my mind with whatever repairs the cottage required.

For half a decade I lived in my set regime. During the summers I would stand in front of crowds, chronicling the history of the Mother of All Cities, and in the offseason I would sit in the woods sketching out artwork, occasionally taking a break to repair a fence torn town by overzealous livestock. Work in the tourist industry was draining, but it kept me financially secure enough to pursue my real passion. My life had taken on a predictable, calming shape, but then, in a series of newscasts delivered by nervous facemask wearing reporters, it all fell apart.

In January of 2020, I busied myself trying to figure out how to explain what the Holy Roman Empire was to American tourists through a quippy three-minute segment on the tour, by March of 2020 I didn’t know if I would ever see another American again. A global pandemic, the likes of which have not been seen for a hundred years washed through the world.

The people dressed in panda costumes that catered to Chinese visitors disappeared from the old town, the streets hushed down with the lack of British stag parties, the tourist-trap restaurants that advertised authentic Czech cuisine erased their chalkboards and put up pleading messages about having really good food for really reasonable prices. My livelihood died in a series of rattling coughs and complaints about the lack of medical supplies.

When the Nazis took a chunk out of the country in 1938, my grandmother’s family buried sacks of flour and canned goods in the backyard.  After the war, they dug them up. When the Soviets installed a puppet communist regime that saw the people of Czechoslovakia as disposable numbers they buried their emergency supplies once more. People who lived through tyranny and disaster raised me, the idea of a rainy day fund had been chiseled into my head since birth.

I had enough money stashed away from tour-guiding to tide me over for a couple of months, the stimulus packages from the government could stretch that money into a year. With my old routine buried beneath a steadily rising global infection count and the tapestry of the world bristling at the seams with chaos, I locked myself in my apartment and drew.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, but I scarcely remember any specific moment from the three months when the European side of the pandemic went through its roughest trials. I just remember drawing a lot, posting my art online, and then getting back to drawing with a healthy helping of anxiety from whatever news story I had managed to catch a glimpse of while I was trudging through my social media.

I never had to think about counting sheep; my mind was so wired that I was either drawing or panicking about the possibility of total economic collapse. When I would wake up in the late afternoon it was usually with my laptop warming my chest and a stylus still in my hand. With thoughts of my grandmother’s kind, supporting eyes looking down at me from the fields in the sky I would make a cup of coffee, chow down on some biscuits and get back to drawing.

By the time June rolled around the pandemic had been contained. People were back on the streets, mandatory facemasks were contained to the subway, and going out to the bar for a couple of drinks felt less like playing Russian roulette with a six-chamber and more like playing Russian roulette with a rotary machinegun. Life was starting to get back to normal, but one thing was for certain, the tourist industry would stay in the ground for at least another year.

Scattered thoughts of my financial future replaced the worries about a global collapse, and even though the problems that I was facing shrunk down to a manageable, personal size, they squeezed at my chest with the same anxious force that they always did. One morning I woke up to a series of messages that provided a possible solution.

“Hey! Do you take commissions?”

“Hello, saw your art on a friend’s feed. Do you take commissions?”

“How much for you to draw a picture of my ex?”

“Love your art, do you draw horses?”

“Sup? Do you do NSFW commissions?”

Someone had shared my art with someone who shared it with someone else who shared it with someone with enough social media clout to give me a momentary burst of fame. The number of followers that I had spent five years working for quadrupled overnight. I refreshed my feed a dozen times, waiting for that number to drop, waiting for whatever glitch in the system to resolve itself and send that number back down to where it belonged.

But it didn’t.

50,000 followers and growing.

More commission messages came in, some with suggested prices attached. I did some quick math in my head and immediately had a panic attack. This wasn’t tour-guiding money, but it was rent and food money. If I played my cards right I could make a living as an artist.

I googled the COVID guidelines for Slovakia, dug up my facemask and booked a train. Difficult decisions were always better weighed in the solitude of the mountain air.

I would be drawing every day, putting the stylus to the pad was what got me out of bed in the morning, but accepting money, accepting the responsibility to draw something specific, that was a whole different ballgame. What if I got up one morning and didn’t feel inspired? What if as soon as I accepted money for a commission the muses went on strike? What if I stopped enjoying drawing?

Committing to commissions was a decision I wanted to sleep on, but sleep wouldn’t come. I was wired the whole night before the trip, spent every moment of darkness tossing and turning in my bed trying to make sense of what was going through my head. The confusion bouncing around my skull didn’t leave with the rising sun, but every ounce of energy that I had did. I chugged a couple of cups of coffee with the hopes of falling asleep on the train.

I didn’t.

As heavy as my eyes felt, as weak as every muscle in my body was, sleep just wouldn’t come. I sat in that rustling train with my face pressed against the cold glass, watching glimpses of sheep herds eating away at the grassy hills of Slovakia.

Somewhere out there were shepherds, napping in the shade of trees after counting their flock one last time. I tried to join them in the land of sleep, but my bloodshot eyes refused to close.

I was the only one in the family who had bothered to visit the creaky cottage, and it showed. As soon as I started a fire in the furnace the wooden walls of the house went flush with life.

Seventy-eight flies. I had hoped that keeping track of my kills would take my mind off of my social media presence but instead, I just found myself wondering whether I should take a picture of the pile of bug corpses for my Instagram. For a second I almost did, that pile of insects looked so absurd in the foreground of the landscape paintings that my grandmother liked to keep around, but then I shelved the idea.

Among those 50,000 people, there would surely be someone who would take offense to a corpse pile, regardless of the species, and if I was going to pursue digital art full-time I needed as many people on my side as possible.

Outside, thunder rumbled and the gentle pitter-patter of rain started to play on the tin roof. All the lights were off, if it wasn’t for the faint orange glow of the crackling fire I would have been in pitch darkness. I closed my eyes to sleep.

Five minutes later I got up for a glass of water.

A raccoon-eyed man who looked like he should be on suicide watch stared back at me from the mirror. To the right of him was a beautiful landscape painting of a tranquil valley, to the left of him was that same valley, lit up with a momentary thunderbolt before descending back into complete darkness. I tried to figure out why the sudden burst of attention towards my art was making me so stressed, why my mind was so busy looking for problems, but in my exhausted state, no rationale came.

I resorted to pressing my forehead against the reflection, hoping to gain some insight that way.

I didn’t.

But I did gain something else.

As the mirror jolted under my tired skull something came loose behind it.

A joint.

A joint that sixteen-year-old me stashed away during one of my wild summers and hoped to eventually get back to. A decade later I appreciated my inborn tendency to conserve my resources. Being a grandchild of someone who lived through two totalitarian states pays off.

I cracked open the bathroom window. The valley outside was flickering in the darkness under the light of a growing storm. I lit up.

The rough smoke of the ancient joint rattled my lungs, but it eased my mind. My worries went from cryptic bouts of anxiety to abstract questions about what it means to be an artist in the 21st century to a low, calming murmur of marijuana-induced psycho-babble. I crashed down on my bed and breathed a sigh of relief.

I was a cartoon, sitting, poorly drawn, in one of the photogenic landscape paintings that adorned the walls of the cottage. In front of me, there was a herd of sloppily sketched sheep, begging to be counted.

If you’re counting sheep to help you sleep, don’t look them in the eye,
For some will give you dreams to keep, and some will make you die.”

A bolt of lightning startled me back into my flesh body. Outside, the storm had grown strong enough to underscore just how powerful nature is. The walls of the cottage groaned under the valley wind, the tin roof was caught in a perpetual barrage of wet force. There was a good chance I would wake up to floods.

I didn’t mind. I was stoned.

The storm outside just became a backdrop to bigger problems – namely, my cottonmouth. Sure, somewhere in the back of my head I was still taking apart my artistic anguish, but my body was so tired and baked that only the most pressing of physical discomforts made it onto my to-do list.

A taste of metal and dry sewage loitered on my tongue. I knew I had to wash it out, but my body was completely numb with exhaustion. The ten-step walk towards the bathroom seemed like too much of a journey. I resigned myself to watching the colors that flowed in from the window behind my head.

The faint, blue lights bounced around the walls like spotlights searching for escaped convicts. I presumed they were simply the by-products of the storm raging outside that my stoned mind had given sentience to, but as the strength of the thunderclaps soothed, as the wind died down, as the rain turned into the dripping of excess gutter water, the lights remained.

The tin roof groaned.

Someone, or something, was hiding behind my window.

I was out in the middle of nowhere, in pitch darkness, and something heavy was standing on my roof. A tightness manifested in my throat, my breathing became shallow, panic started to brew in my veins. But I quickly pushed it away.

The source of the mysterious lights went into the same pile of anxieties as my commission conundrum. I wasn’t going to investigate anything and I wasn’t going to make any plans. Those were tomorrow-worries. The main task at hand was to get a glass of water and pass out. I would be wiser tomorrow.

I crawled out of bed to make my way towards the bathroom, but as soon as the wooden floor creaked under my weight the lights shifted. I froze.

Whatever was standing on my roof moved as well. The roof groaned under its shifting weight. The blue lights painted my silhouette on the walls of the cottage. Whatever was outside was looking straight at me.

A block of ice traveling down my spine insisted that I don’t turn around. I didn’t argue with it. I just hoped that whatever I was seeing was a byproduct of sleep deprivation or moldy weed.

But what was outside was not the result of lack of sleep and old weed doesn’t cause hallucinations.

Half a dozen fist-sized searchlights observed me as I shuffled my way to the bathroom. Each weak, shaking step I took was answered by another dark groan from the roof.

Whatever was out there was massive.

I stopped in the doorway, cutting off any line of sight with whatever was outside. I kept my eyes straight ahead, pointed at the mirror. The house went dark. Frustrated stomps sounded off outside as the creature searched for a way to see me.

For what felt like an eternity I stood in the pitch darkness, but then the mirror flared up with an external shine.

The creature was standing outside of the bathroom window, looking for me.

In the mirror, I saw a reflection of the beast. On top of its head was a mass of slitted eyeballs that sent those blue searchlights crawling through the room. The window rhythmically fogged as the monster breathed from its horrible snout. The eyes bounced around the bathroom trying to track me down, and just as I started noticing the wet clumps of wool hanging from the creature’s face – they found me.


All six eyes stared at me from the reflection in the mirror. It was as if they reached out and grabbed something at the depth of my core. Somehow, those shining eyeballs were seeping every ounce of strength in me. Suddenly sleep didn’t seem impossible, in fact, it became a certainty. The mammoth beast that was on my roof was sending an undeniable lullaby through my shaking body.

Her voice cut through like a sharp slap:

If you’re counting sheep to help you sleep, don’t look them in the eye,
For some will give you dreams to keep, and some will make you die.”

I reeled back in terror, slamming against the wall. In my jittery state the hit sent me, and a painting, tumbling down to the floor.

The bad sheep dashed over to the other window and stared down at me almost instantly. My body was drenched in that horrible blue light.

It wanted me to look up, it wanted to siphon every bit of life that I had in me. The bad sheep wanted me to make eye contact.

I grabbed ahold of the painting and stared at the landscape. The whole scene was hued in blue, but it was still the same painting of the Magura valley that I had admired as a child. It was an old painting, something my grandmother had drawn before her hands started to shake, but the scene she had painted seemed more real than anything else in that room.

If I just fell asleep on my own, if I didn’t let the bad sheep’s eyes drag me into the land of dreams, I would be fine.

I imagined I was there; sitting on the grass, poorly drawn in the backdrop of exquisite brushwork. I was looking out at those white clouds grazing in the meadow. How many sheep were there?

I closed my eyes, pulling closer into the abstract world of imagination. This infuriated the bad sheep outside.


One sheep, two sheep, three sheep…


Four sheep, five sheep, six sheep…


Seven sheep…

Nothing would have made me happier than if I woke up on the floor of my bathroom and realized I had some sort of a mental breakdown. A momentary lapse in sanity would be much easier to explain than a giant demon sheep, but alas, one look at my roof assured me that as maddening as last night was, it was all real.

Thick hoof prints covered the roof.

The bad sheep was not a figment of my imagination.

I stood at my window for the best part of an hour, trying to make sense of the world I had woken up into. The worries about the commissions merged together with the terror of the mysterious creature that had visited me.

If I didn’t do something proactive soon, I would have an actual mental breakdown.

I made my way up the nearest hill with my phone at my hip. Whatever problems I was having there was one that was straightforward to solve: the roof.

After sweating up the incline for a good fifteen minutes I was rewarded with a bar of signal. After a couple more minutes I had enough of a connection with the outside world to google roofing companies.

Yet as soon as I connected to the Internet another flurry of notifications came in.

“Are you doing commissions?”

“That ex drawing, will you?”

“Line work on a comic. Paid. Interested?”

“Will you draw me a picture?”

I thought back to my grandmother’s paintings and wondered how much self-doubt she had. Could I ever make anything so beautiful that it would ward off a demonic entity? Was opening commissions a step towards growing as an artist?

I pushed the thought aside. I’d figure it out eventually, it wasn’t the right step to make unless I was one hundred percent comfortable with putting myself on the spot. I’d draw a bit more, just for me, and as soon as I would be ready I would take the next step.

I googled roof damage price estimates and my outlook quickly changed.

Someone had to pay for the roof to get fixed.




As I sat on that grassy hill, going through my social media, ticking the necessary boxes and making zany announcements, I wasn’t comfortable or confident. My mind kept on composing infuriated e-mails from disappointed customers and the beginnings of a drawing block were starting to form beneath my fingers.

But the excitement slowly crept in. I was taking a big step towards something that I had always wanted to do. The years of clutching a stylus without an audience were starting to pay off.

The phone suddenly felt small in my hands. The grass swayed in the calm summer wind, valleys of fields and forests stretched out in front of me like rumpled silk. I was in the middle of one of her paintings.

I clicked on the last account.


Rating: 9.40/10. From 5 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Mike Jesus Langer
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Mike Jesus Langer

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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