Original story in Chinese by Prof. Lee Chack-fan; retold by Raymond Lam
In Old Scotland, from a century long past…
“That shall teach you to steal sheep from Mister Dunn again, scummy ingrates!” bellowed three burly men. They grabbed William and Christopher and threw them out of the sweltering blacksmith’s. The brothers wailed in pain, writhing on the ground and clutching their heads as the immiserated crowd around them jeered and shouted insults at them. On their foreheads were branded two red-hot letters. “ST.”
“Sheep thieves! Sheep thieves!”
“You got some gall to take animals that belong to the laird of the land! Get your pitiful screeching faces outta our village, sheep thieves, and don’t come back!”
Christopher faded in and out of consciousness. He and William had made a wretched mistake. The two brothers were born into poverty and destined to work the land in bonded servitude like their father and their father before him. In desperation, they had broken into the vast estate of the laird Dunn, the wealthiest landowner in the entire region. They had jumped over a paddock on Dunn’s extensive farm, which stretched for acres upon acres with no end in sight. Surely he wouldn’t notice the theft of two measly sheep? It would have made a world of difference to Christopher and William’s starving family.
Alas, Dunn’s groundskeeper noticed. And Dunn was an unforgiving laird. Better that a sheep feed him for a night’s feast with fellow gentlemen, than to feed a common family for a whole month. No one in the village dared to stand up to Dunn, and despite their poverty the villagers were desperate enough to at least appear to Dunn’s enforcers that they were loyal and happy to fight for the crumbs from his table, so that they might be rewarded or at least not be harmed like William and Christopher.
Now the brothers’ shame would live forever on their faces. They were sheep thieves, and that was all that they’d ever be.
Later that night in a hay-stacked hovel on the outskirts of the village, William was cradling his face, his forehead still sizzling in agonizing pain from the brand that had just marked him out to be a criminal. Christopher had broken down and fled, screaming at the unfairness of the world. William was in too much pain to stop him and feared that his dear brother was lost forever. But as his aching skull finally cooled somewhat, and he could feel the fresh, crisp eventide air kissing and comforting his flesh, his thoughts cleared and he felt much more mindful of what had happened.
“I can hate Dunn,” he growled to himself, gritting his teeth. “But the stars and sky denied me his property. I can’t fight the heavens.” Tears rolled down his face. He could let revenge consume him. He could, somehow, amass great power and wealth, raise a private army, and pillage Dunn’s estate and even topple Dunn. He could even become a laird himself, the most honoured of all Scottish gentlemen.
But for what? How would it take away the shame?
Or, perhaps, he could start all over again. Even though this terrible brand, “ST,” would stay with him for the rest of his life. Yes, to regain his dignity was the only way forward. And winning back dignity meant repentance, remorse. His tears had dried as he sat up from his haystack, smiling for the first time in days.
It wasn’t easy, heading back to village and offering to make amends to anyone who didn’t spit in his face or punch him in the gut. At first, only a few let him do menial tasks – carry these baskets of fruit, or fix this leaking rooftop. No one initially trusted him around livestock. But then, as he continued to selflessly perform his unpaid jobs, he was allowed to care for chickens and dogs, before, to everyone’s surprise, one of the farmers even let him look after his sheep and horses. He never asked for a penny. He took all sorts of odd jobs, from sunrise to sundown, even helping to clean cottages and help midwives deliver infants.
At first, the villagers looked at William in puzzlement and distrust. Then, after a couple of years of getting used to his help, their faces relaxed. In a decade or so, they broke into delighted smiles whenever they saw him. After tirelessly making amends for many years, he was being invited to the tavern to cook food for guests. Music and dance surrounded him, and soon after he was dancing with the villagers. The entire village seemed brighter and kinder, even braver. Even Dunn found that he could no longer bully people to get his way. He had to ask nicely.
It was more than thirty years later when an English noblewoman, Julie Bedford, came to the Dunn estate. Dunn had passed away a long time ago. After visiting his kin and grandchildren, Lady Bedford went to have a swig of beer at the village tavern. As she walked in, she noticed a wrinkled old man, gnarled and frail, yet surrounded by adoring adults and children alike. His eyes were full of joy and his smile radiant as he conversed with the people who fought for his attention. His calloused hands, weathered and swollen from decades of manual labour, clapped to the singing in the tavern.
On his forehead were two faded letters, made by a fearsome brand many years ago: “ST.”
“Sir,” Bedford asked the bartender, who poured her a drink, “I pray thee tell me, why does that old fellow have the letters S and T seared on his forehead? Was he a sinner or knave of some sort?”
“Oh, Saint Will?” barked the bartender, laughing. “Nothin’ less than the most beloved elder of the whole village!”
She blinked in surprise. “Saint?”
“Well, maybe. Maybe not. It was such a long time ago, so no one remembers. But you know wha’? No one cares. We all think it ST stands for Saint! Such is the good and blessed man he is, and we love and cherish him.”
Lady Bedford looked back at the old man, who seemed to have tears of happiness rolling down his wrinkled cheeks. She briefly wondered what might have happened in the distant past. But perhaps she didn’t need to know. She smiled, getting up from her stool and walking over to Saint Will. And so began another friendly conversation, and this sheep thief had time for all the people in the world.