Henry the goat had been many kinds of goat, but mostly he’d been a lonely goat. Such was the culmination of a life largely spent by himself, with only the denizens of the field for constant companionship. He’d belonged to a young family freshly moved from the suburbs to the country, eager to cultivate a rustic aesthetic. Life was largely spent in the long sloping lawn between the house and the pond, tied to any number of things in any number of places. One day it might be behind the garage, then next to a stake set near the road, and then to the mulberry tree.
During the first several months after being taken from his brothers and sisters, Henry transitioned happily into being the only goat in his new family. He roamed untethered, with just a little red collar around his neck. Sometimes he’d look at his reflection in the shiny hubcap of the family’s big blue truck. The red contrasted his chestnut fur and he knew he was a handsome kid.
Under the warm sun of that first summer, the family’s three children and he ran around the white country house, playing hide and seek. From time to time he would pause to taste the roses, which he found angered the mother. The big shaggy sheepdog would grumble when Henry came around during naptime, but otherwise they got along just fine.
There were so many things moving in the green expanses of the property, Henry barely managed to investigate them all: the butterflies flitting about, the birds swooping above the grass, the frogs in the creek, the turtles in the pond. He soon forgot about his brothers and sisters corralled in the dirt paddocks of the farm where he was born. This was his home now and the children were his sister and brothers.
Sometimes he’d get so excited he’d bleat and bounce around for no reason other than electric joy. When jumping up on the cars became unacceptable, he put his talents to use by climbing the stacks of split wood up onto the roof of the garage. From this vantage point, he could observe what the cats and the dog were doing. Among the rows of 5,000 young pine trees planted in the back fields, Henry would sometimes catch glimpses of deer and fox. In the evenings, he watched the horses grazing in the fields across the road, wondering why they never climbed the big red barns they lived in.
In the fall, the kids would come down to his shack and visit while waiting for the school bus. Henry was bigger now and stayed on a line, usually fixed to his shack. After the kids left the mother might visit, bringing scraps from the kitchen or baskets of garden produce deemed unfit for the table. Sometimes she’d lead him up to eat the grass around the garden fence, although he was more interested in the raspberry and blackberry boughs that hung over its white planks.
As the temperatures dropped, Henry’s coat grew thick and when he saw his reflection it’d become quite regal. The grass turned tea brown and the leaves fell, leaving the trees naked and cold. The New Year came and the snow around his straw-filled shack became stippled with black pellets. Henry would have appreciated being able to poop and pee farther away from the door of his home and felt the first twinges of jealousy. The other animals could run as they pleased during the day, and then join the family at night in the big warm house. At times he would spend hours staring at the bleak white and gray landscape, and at the smoke that curled from the stone chimney on the backside of the house.
The children seldom visited and the mother came only to leave him fresh water and food pellets. When the father’s car rolled home after the sun had set, Henry would bleat a greeting to him, but rarely received a response. His first winter with the family was lonely and at times he was certain nobody loved him. Had someone come to see him at night they would have known that when forlorn, goats are apt to cry.
But nobody came.
Mid-March the following year all that remained of the snow were thin sheets of slush punctured by pale yellow sprouts. The daylight lengthened and Henry grew hot in his coat. At times it felt itchy to wear so much fur. But it soon started to shed in clumps and by April he was comfortable again, waking everyday to the salutations of the birds and drifting off to an evening chorus of peeping frogs.
The family came to visit more frequently, which delighted the goat. A pain atop his head announced incoming horns and he would look at his reflection everyday to check their progress. By summer they’d grown longer than the father’s hand. A strong sense of goatishness possessed him and more than ever he wanted to run about, to climb on things and bleat. One day he broke his old line and was found by the mother stripping the lower boughs of the mulberry tree by the pond. She laughed and when she tried to pull him back to his shack he suddenly grew cross and rammed her with his shiny new horns.
The next day the father put a new red collar around Henry’s neck. Attached was a new chain, much longer than the previous. He was pleased to find it afforded him access to nearly the entire yard, from the driveway down to the pond, from the creek behind his shack all the way across the yard, almost to the dirt road. The grass there was tall and thick, albeit dusty from intermittent cars. Most importantly, he could get up on the garage without anybody having to come and move his line. It was further than he’d been able to move in a long time and he was happy.
Using his horns had brought him this new freedom, Henry reckoned, and he decided right there to use them when it suited him. He was a goat after all.
His horns renewed his popularity with the kids. The oldest boy would bring his friends down to meet Henry and they’d play games pushing the goat by the horns. Henry was just as heavy as the boys and with two extra legs gave them a good push back. They would laugh which made Henry bleat and afterwards they’d pick the sweet grass out of his reach and feed him while they stroked his long flappy ears. The younger sister and brother would visit as well. When Henry tried to play push with them they’d shriek and circle quickly to pull his tail. He’d bleat and spin about and it was a fun game for everyone. Many evenings Henry would lay with his legs folded beneath him, tired and content under the mulberry tree, listening to the peepers as the yard lit with 10,000 dancing fireflies.
One Sunday the eldest boy came to visit and immediately ran back up to the garage. He returned with his father and the boy held Henry’s horns while the father looked at the goat’s neck and muttered. They came back a short time later with a large needle and iodine and some towels. Henry thought maybe they’d come to play so he gave a little push. To his surprise they pushed him back and didn’t stop until he was down on the ground. Together they kept him pinned as he squirmed. The father tied his legs while the son held his head against the ground. Then he stuck the needle in the egg-sized lump on the side of Henry’s neck to drain it. The boy worried when the goat panicked, struggling to stand, but within a few minutes the job was done. When they untied Henry, he escaped to hide behind the shack, sore and confused.
The father came a few days later to check on him, but had other things to do and didn’t stay long.
Sometimes the cats would slink about, looking for the mice that lived under the floorboards. They never ventured inside, however, for there was a big blacksnake that slept in the corner of a rafter. She scared the goat at first, but he soon became used to her long black body above him. During the day she would stretch out along the beams, hissing quietly. Henry would bleat a hello once in a while and the snake would hiss her reply. For that he was glad and decided living with a snake was better than living alone. Sometimes the snake would be gone in the early morning, but she returned most afternoons. Henry admired other climbing animals, like the snake and the cats. He’d never seen the dog climb anything except the steps up onto the porch, which wasn’t even a challenge. And only he went up on the garage roof. He knew if one liked to climb, it was better to be a goat.
The eldest boy came down every other week with a wheelbarrow and pitchfork to remove the dirty straw, which he hauled up to the mother’s garden to add to the compost pile. The first several nights after getting fresh straw were always so nice. Henry would nuzzle his nose deep down and inhale its sweetness. One day as the boy was finishing, Henry surprised him with a game of push. When the goat’s horn cut his thigh the boy cursed and shook his fist and limped up to the house.
That weekend, the boy returned with his father and they bound the base of each horn tightly with wire. For the following week Henry had terrible headaches. He bleated until the sister came down and gave him a tablet of children’s aspirin hidden in a handful of onion grass. The children felt sorry for Henry. They came down to pet him and whisper about his horns, which made him wonder. But when he checked his reflection it was unchanged. After a few weeks however, something began to feel loose.
More time passed until one day Henry went to take a drink from the creek and saw that his right horn was crooked. When he shook his head about it moved. Like a child with a loose tooth, he was both fascinated and frightened and so he shook harder. Suddenly there was a splash as the horn fell off his head into the water. Terrified, Henry bleated until the two younger children came down. The youngest picked up the fallen horn, inspected it and then pet the spot on his head from where it had fallen. The sister pushed lightly on his remaining horn, causing it to shift. Henry bleated and they rubbed him behind his ears until he calmed.
He’d been so proud of his horns and now only one remained. He decided to avoid the creek if he could. But the truck hubcaps and his water bowl all showed the same thing, and everytime he looked his left horn leaned more and more. On one rainy day, a wasp flew into Henry’s shack and startled him. His remaining horn clipped the doorframe as he ran out. It fell into the mud and he stood wet and miserable looking at it before walking down to sit under the mulberry tree.
Although he felt wretched, the loss of his horns turned out to be anything but tragic. All of the family, by ones or twos or threes, would circulate by to say hi. The younger kids visited nearly every morning before catching the bus again. Now that Henry’s stumps were healed games of push grew more frequent. The kids would crouch, ball their fists and lock their elbows to advance on the goat. Henry would meet them at a few paces with his head lowered, sometimes to take them both or just one at a time. They were heavier than before and Henry sometimes slid back against four fists. But he could always win at singles pushing, which was crown enough for the big Nubian.
After a rain, the father would take him out to the big black walnut tree where a tree house was under construction. Henry mowed around the piles of wood while the father nailed away; around the mother’s garden while she weeded; around the garage that was his observation deck. And around his own shack, of course. He ate and ate and became so heavy that one day he found he could no longer climb up on top of the garage.
This was devastating for early autumn was his favorite time to be up there. School started for the kids, which meant no more lazy afternoon games of push. The big yellow bus would pick up the children at the same time everyday, but instead of coming first to talk to Henry they would dash out of the house just as it crested the hill. The older boy caught rides from friends, and then eventually got his own car.
No one seemed to mind when Henry stopped bleating good morning.
Again the earth went afire in oranges and reds before burning low into brown, yellow and black. Again the world went white and grey. Holes where boards had come loose permitted winds that sometimes carried gusts of snow, which caused him to shiver despite his winter coat. For days Henry would lay in the back corner aligned with the door, moving only to stretch his legs or walk outside to relieve himself. After one particularly heavy snow, the kids tunneled down from the house and dug out around the shack. Henry watched as they went about their work, wondering if they might want to play push. But they were soon gone and no one visited, not even the cats.
Throughout a wet spring and hot dry summer Henry took up residence under the mulberry tree. He was sick of his shack, having outgrown what meager comfort it provided. The water in his pail was refreshed daily, but nobody stayed for any meaningful amount of time. The berries and leaves of the low hanging branches fed him well enough. Heaped upon itself, the canopy draped in a wide shady circumference that was his domain. Occasionally the cats would enter to scale the interior labyrinth and stalk the birds, but otherwise no one came.
Behind the tree the pond buzzed and splashed incessantly with microcosmic movement. At times Henry would bleat at the cars that roared over the gravel, sending up tails of dust. Or at the horses across the road, when they would run and whinny in their wide-open fields.
That winter Henry refused to return to his shack, even though the father repaired the loose boards and the door. That and a lining of fresh straw failed to entice him indoors. Snow as it did, Henry opted to remain among the broken branches that cracked and fell under winter’s weight. His coat had grown so thick he looked wild, brutish as his ancestors once were. In January it snowed so much Henry had to stay behind the snowdrift that formed around the trunk. He couldn’t have returned to his shack had he wanted to. Instead of clearing a path back to it, the eldest brother and his father dug a snow cave for the goat, bracing it with fallen branches.
There he stayed through two more storms followed by a spring that declared itself in a sudden, persistent radiance. All at once the walls of the gnarled snow globe he’d inhabited dissolved. Above him a thousand dead arms, hands and fingers slowly flexed, leaking green life from their cracks. Great tufts of his fur snagged on the piles of fallen branches and formed a kind of nest. Henry sighed as he did every spring, more deeply each year. This spring the sighing replaced any bleating he might once have had the heart for. He’d lost it now, abandoned slowly from the beginning and quickly at the end.
To move at all became a mission in which the goat could find no spirit to sponsor. After a time he rolled over on his side and closed his eyes. How long he stayed like that he never knew. When a low rumbling woke him he found four figures standing over him, cutting shadows in the light. They rolled him onto a canvas tarp and, after a great deal of effort, put him in the back of the blue truck, its hubcaps rusted over long ago. He made no effort to move, but continued to lay there as a ribbon of blue sky banked by treetops and power lines flowed by.
When the truck stopped again, the cab doors swung open and the tailgate slammed down. They grasped him by his hooves and pulled him to the edge, clumsily bringing him to the ground.
The nipple of a water bottle was pushed between his teeth and sugar water rushed over his tongue, pushing his cheeks out. His throat flexed in automatic response, drinking until it ceased to come. Arms slid under his belly and turned him over to rest atop his legs.
He blinked and took in his surroundings. A sea of green rolled out beneath him, dotted with the ebony and ivory mosaics of milk cows. Off to the left was an old forest that swept up an opposite hill. Two mossy creeks connected farther downhill at the intersection of a third hill. It was the widest swath of land Henry had ever stood in.
There was no mulberry tree, nor any shack. A large barn with a slanting roof stood diagonally behind him. It was home to the sheep, pigs and a big sheepdog named Herrick. Next to that was a stable that housed two miniature Italian donkeys, Ramona and Filipe, who became Henry’s brother and sister. Everyday a white haired woman in a light blue plaid shirt would pour Henry fresh water and in the winter he stayed with the others in the barn.
The old goat spent the remainder of his life there, walking the fields and woods, sometimes with the donkeys and sometimes alone. He found it near impossible to stand one spring and knew it would be his last. He tottered down to the corner of the forest by the confluence of the creeks and stood looking at himself for a long time in a pool. The red-collared kid he had once been peered back and bleated goodbye. Henry lay down in a bed of bluebells and closed his eyes. A breeze swept over his coat, more silver than brown. He took a final breathe of the sweet moldy world about him, sighed a final time and was no more.
That is the story of Henry the lonely goat.