Recently, Jane Alexander, another spiritual warrior, had a blog-post sparking a dialogue that brought up the theme of goats, in the widest sense 🙂 and it reminded me of an episode with goats. So I dug up my notes and wrote a Short Story. Here the first part, one or two more to come … enjoy.
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Friends warned me – goats are trouble, they’re stubborn, they gobble up everything in reach and reach everything, fences are useless – to no avail, my brain cells were committed. The image of a she-goat had acquired deep saturation in my heart and was fixed. At the time, none of our group who had rented the old house was keen on gardening. We were surrounded by weed-smothered acres. I envisaged the jungle cleared and converted into snow-white milk and cheese. A deeper image chimed, of the orphan Heidi sent to live with her grandfather in an alpine hut where she met Peter and his goats. The story had left an indelible impression; especially how the healing of Heidi, Peter and the wholesome milk of his goats worked on Clara, a paralysed girl. Sediments of memory that push up times’ layers and seep into new situations often justify my otherwise irrational actions.
The local farmer told me of a place where they kept goats. ‘A rarity these days,’ he said. I got up at dawn, bemoaning the grey sky. Ellie was awake, eager to join me, a curious act of will for someone who tended to apathy. I had not planned on company, but could hardly refuse since she had already prepared coffee in a Thermos, good strong coffee. We raided the fridge for provisions and folded into my old estate. The destination was a smallholding in a Bavarian hamlet, an hour’s drive away. Ellie was silent. She liked to daydream. When she talked, it was about what she noticed in her immediate vicinity. ‘See the pretty flower box up on that window? It’s tilting and might fall on someone’s head.’ Or, commenting on a woman who offered directions, ‘She squeaks like a mouse in a trap.’ Her observations tended to ripple the air with uncanny prognostic qualities that made me shiver.
The overgrown dwelling nestled like the green-speckled cap of a giant mushroom in the slope of a hill. Across the black earth in the yard waddled flocks of white geese. I parked the car, which made a couple of birds chase their goslings under the branches of an elm that served as roof for a medley of neglected farming tools and scrap wood. An enchanted world in which a silver-haired woman stood motionless among her goose sentinels. ‘Is she aware of us?’ I wondered.
‘She wouldn’t miss a worm stirring in her yard,’ Ellie said. Her impression mirrored mine, of the ageless crone being rooted to her environment as through fungal filaments. Stepping from the car was like agitating the boundary to another universe. There was a bout of nervous honking, and a gander hissed as I walked up to the woman. Her kind eyes twinkled, animating a leathery face inscribed with immeasurable knowledge of the elements. She told the tale of her last goat, in slow detail, giving it shape with her bony hands, as if I was a neighbour passing by who deserved the latest instalment.
Back in the car, I took a last glance and wished I had my camera. The woman stood as before, on the same spot. Ellie was humming.
‘What’re you humming?’ I asked.
‘Some tune, can’t recall – this place, you know, could be spirited away any moment.’
‘Good luck then that she gave me another lead,’ I said, ‘a place not far from here.’
The farmer ten miles down the road looked us up and down. Not an inch of ironed cloth on us, my mirror-embroidered vest, the charms dangling from Ellie’s neck – hippies – I heard him judge. ‘Goats, gosh, they’re a luxury. I sell you sheep, less hassle.’
‘Sheep are sheep,’ I said, bluntly. He carefully gauged my sanity and shook his head. The thoughts of a simple soul can be read in capital letters, not flattering, but always enlightening. I made small talk to navigate through our discord.
Eventually he offered a hint. ‘There’s a farm I used to do business with, in the mountains, near the Austrian border.’
This search was going to be a longer than anticipated. We stopped at a river for a picnic. ‘It’s not going to be straightforward, is it?’ Ellie said. ‘I hope we don’t get lost … exciting really’, she added, as if to undo her fretfulness. I never tried to persuade her of anything.
She was a strange one, Ellie, a cautious spectator, longing for others to take charge, which got her into trouble when someone she considered a friend laced her birthday cake with psychedelics. She lost coherence and was sectioned. When our small community heard about her plight, we got her released from the institution and took her in. The trauma had shaken Ellie, but opened her mind, though she swayed from moments of brightness to moments of despair.
‘We can sleep in the car,’ I said. ‘There’re blankets in the hatch.’ Determined, I drove on – into the unknown. Another 30 miles, and my Estate laboured up the steep serpentines of a gorge. The sky drew dark curtains and it began to rain.
Close to our next destination, flashes of lighting zigzagged among the cliffs. The narrow road became a roaring stream. Ellie clasped the crystals she wore for protection round her neck. I could smell her fear and tried to be brave for both of us. ‘I’ll stop at the next layby.’ To my relief, a cluster of farm buildings came into view. Sheep huddled for shelter under a copse.
‘No goats!’ Ellie said. She had a habit of stating the obvious.
‘Goats hate rain,’ I assured her. ‘They’ll be under cover on a day like this.’ Once we reached the farmhouse it poured rivers. I parked and turned off the engine. The mass of water pressing against the windshield was impenetrable, and it didn’t look as if the downpour was about to stop. ‘Let’s run for the porch,’ I said.
… a link to part two is at the top of this page …
Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of men of old; seek goats. Basho
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The illustration, Goat and Vine, is by A. Rackham