“How to Call a Goat”
“Don’t go near those goats.” Dee wraps a sandwich in newspaper and fills a metal canister with water from the steaming pot of purified on the stove. She tosses me a scarf, long and silky red. “Tie it around your neck.”
“This is a ladies’ scarf.” Its tails tickle my neck like a girlish braid. My hair was long once, to my shoulders. I was known for that hair in my college days. Girls would stroke it, truly, tell me never to cut it.
Jiggles wags a finger at me. “You look like an old French woman.”
I pick at a scab on my shaved head, feel the tickle of oozing blood.
“If you see one, cover your mouth and nose.” Dee is the oldest, our de facto leader, utterly totalitarian. I taught her that word, but she taught me all sorts of things I didn’t learn in college, like when to pick a fight and how to call a goat. In those first few weeks, the goats were terrified of me, except for Gertie. She never needed to be called, always waiting for me to come out shaking the can of grain the way Dee taught me.
“You look like Gerard Depardieu dressed as a woman.”
“Shut up, Jiggles.” I give him a quick thump to the nose and he squeals in pain. There’s blood, swearing, threats. He still thinks of himself as a big guy, despite how he’s shrunk, but he doesn’t come at me.
Dee suppresses a smile, kisses my forehead, a mother’s kiss, hugs me, her stubbled hair irritating my cheek. I fight the urge to slide my hand under her thinning t-shirt, feel the smooth dip of her back, the stretch and hook of her bra.
The sun is a shaming spotlight. I can feel them watching as I shoulder the knapsack of jewelry Dee made from seedpods and nails, old circuits and braces brackets. I speak college, so of course I’m the one to make this trip to the quad, swarming with anthropology and art majors. I dropped out my junior year after a field trip to the farm for my Locavorism class. Dee broke me from the crowd of note-scribbling students, got me drunk on homemade hooch, told me they took care of one another like a family. And the goats, they were so cute, the cheese so fresh and popular at farmers’ markets. We only sacrificed one a month. Some of us wept, but not Dee. She was the one who burned the blade over the fire, who told us to stop our blathering, just string it up already. When it was Gertie’s turn, a farm favorite, the others finally stood up to Dee, told her no more, and she said we would pay, all of us—sacrifice was essential to the well-workings of our farm.
We still call it the farm even though our goats are shadowed heaps under dark clouds of flies, a quick vicious sickness leveling our flock.
Those first days, the startling bloodshot eyes, mouths foaming, they sagged and heaved and cried, and I cried. God, it was terrible. Dee shouted at me to go inside as she held Fern like a baby, hooves clacking when she buckled in pain. I shut myself in the back bedroom, listening to the others as they whispered and packed, until the house was silent, until finally Dee came. She sat on the edge of my sleeping pad. “They’re all gone. You can come out now.” She didn’t say I told you so; she didn’t gloat. Only Jiggles and I had stayed, and it hardly made sense to hold it against us.
There are no more student tours, no more stands at the farmers’ markets. Since the phone’s been shut off, I haven’t been able to get ahold of any of our contacts—vendors, professors, parents. I keep thinking that someone will come, offer us help. I know Dee will tell them no thanks, buzz off, we’ve got it under control, but they’ll see in my eyes that she’s lying.
I weave a pattern through the heaps toward the main road, trying to ignore the strain in my shoulder, the dull throb in my joints. My chest shudders out a cough and I wipe my chin with the scarf, still carrying Dee’s smell. I can see parts of her from that first visit—the ribbed pink scar on her brown kneecap, the cloak of blue hair that once reached the small of her back, the braces she removed with pliers behind the farmhouse. But the whole of her—that’s gone now, along with her hair. It gets me thinking about that old Bible story, Samson and Delilah, which I’d analyzed the hell out of in my History of Consciousness course. Delilah the prostitute is enticed with promises of wealth if she can determine the source of Samson’s unnatural strength, and Samson, who is in love, goes back again and again even though he knows she’s betrayed him. Unbelievable! Eventually, and I remember this line, his soul is vexed unto death, and he tells Delilah the truth, and the men who lie in wait take Samson’s hair, blind him, make him perform for sport. Of course, he has the last laugh, bringing down the house with his strength, killing them all, himself too, though self-sacrifice seemed inevitable in those days. And Delilah, the Bible never bothered to say what happened to her.
When I finally reach the bus stop, I drop my jangling pack to the cement, rub out my shoulder. I take a sip of water, unpleasantly hot, and unwrap the sandwich, peanut butter, wolfing it down in four bites. I wipe my fingers on my jeans and dig into the pack, pull out a pair of earrings Dee made from fishing lures, fingering her feathery offering.
I hear the rumble of the bus, see the cloud of dust coursing toward me on the road. The pack shouldered, I turn on a smile, lift a hand to wave at the driver. He guns it, the bus groaning off down the road in a curl of blonde dust.
“Hey!” I shout. But the only one to hear me is Gertie, standing on the other side of the road. Her black coat hangs from her bone frame like a stretched-out sock, her eyes finding me through the frenzy.
As she comes at me, I fumble for the red scarf, gone now. I picture it fluttering across the dry valley floor, snagging on the ceanothus that never fails to thrive, finding a makeshift home. I know I should run, but instead, I drop to one knee, open my arms.
She clatters across the road, knees knocking in her jittery, lilting happiness. A car is coming, racing down the highway. It’s one of those penis cars, hornet yellow. I wave my arms wildly. “Stop!” I yell, Gertie in the middle of the road. The asshole doesn’t even slow or swerve, laying on the horn as he whooshes past. I cringe my eyes shut, palm my ears. When I work up the courage to look, Gertie is gone. There’s no blood in the road, no sign of her at all.
“Where’d you go, girl?” I call, trudging the yellow pressed dirt, no can of grain to shake. I consider going back to the farm for it, but Dee has high hopes for me. That’s what she said, high hopes! I don’t want to disappoint. It’s too far to walk, but I start toward town, believing someone will stop for me.
Standing under the busted streetlight, I count the seconds to break the quiet, tap-tapping the curb with my toe. I try not to look at the house, turning my back to its stillness. It’s just like the others, pink stucco two-stories with orange tile roofs, only it must have been one of the first foreclosures because the flower bushes look like ancient fossils, the lawn gray and brittle, long dead. There’s no sign of the family that lived here, no stray ball in the lawn or oil stain on the driveway. The house looks like it’s never been lived in, like it’s always been alone.
I try to imagine the neighborhood from above, miles up into the stratosphere, the boundaries between lots blurring so that it looks like a giant maze, for giant rats. And really that’s what it’s become, empty bank-owned homes invaded by animals and teenagers. I lost my virginity in a house like this, to Billy Tardis, the best looking boy in school. He’d come straight from wrestling practice, still damp from the shower, smelling like Irish Spring. His friends sprawled on the bare floor, throwing back Natural Ice, music playing on somebody’s phone, a sad strangled sound in the empty room. Billy kept trying to make out with me, his friends silently gaping, so I suggested we go upstairs, you know, for privacy, and they all chuckled, and I thought, okay, so it’s going to be like that, and I said, “You know, somewhere less gang rape-y,” giving them my most menacing smile, perfected in the bathroom mirror. Someone barked out a high-pitched nervous laugh, and Billy took my hand gamely, pulling me to my feet, and we were arm and arm up the stairs.
After he’d had the gall to ask another girl to Homecoming, one of Dad’s boys disappeared Billy’s precious VW bus. No one ever found it, but everyone knows what happened. Now during passing period, when we used to snuggle in the lockers, he walks right past me like I’m invisible.
Glass crunches underfoot and I spin around. Even in the dark I recognize that porcupine hair, those filthy silver dance slippers. I flip Dad’s fancy digital camera to automatic and hand it to Kat.
By the way she turns it over in her hands, I can tell she’s impressed. “Is it true your dad has a diamond tooth?”
“My father suffers no fools, and neither do I.” I have to be tough; that’s what Dad says anyway. You can’t have friends and power. I wonder what Mom would say. She left before my third birthday. Dad tells me she loved me very much, but she loved glass more. For the longest time I thought he meant fine wine glasses and champagne flutes like the kind he busts out after a big score, but now I know better.
We scale the fence, squeeze through the doggy door. With Dad’s ultra-watt flashlight, I explore the great room, no furniture save a table covered in dust and a chair with a round clean spot where someone’s recently sat.
“Do you see that?” Kat breathes into my neck.
“Someone’s been here.”
“Maybe it was the ghost.”
I blind Kat with the flashlight’s beam. “You’re not that dumb, are you?”
“And you’re some sort of ghost expert?”
“Just take the pictures.”
Last week, my custom-painted mauve Mercedes got keyed, and when I shook down the parking lot stoners, they fingered Kat.
I drove straight to her trailer. Through the screen door, I saw her mom, wide as the ocean, sprawled on the couch watching Oprah. She couldn’t even stand, calling for me to come on in.
I followed the angry music to Kat’s room, threw open the door.
“No one comes to my place,” she said, all puffy and standing up.
I scanned the room—the sleeping bag she obviously slept in, her crumpled-clothes-covered floor, the legion of ants marching into the closet. “I can see why.”
Considering who my dad is, most kids would have begged, cried, but she just stood there like, go ahead, do your worst, and I knew it: I want you to be my friend.
I shine the flashlight onto a spider curled dead in the kitchen sink.
Kat’s voice booms in the quiet. “If there’s no ghost, why’s it abandoned?”
“It wasn’t abandoned, dummy. It was foreclosed.”
“Why’d you want to come here if you don’t believe in ghosts?”
At school, all the kids were talking about this house, swearing it was haunted. Dad taught me only babies and bullshit artists live with fear—you have to cut it out like cancer, and that’s exactly what I told them. They didn’t like that, kept taunting me to prove it. So just before fifth period, I roped Kat into meeting me at midnight.
I poke her with the flashlight, point to the stairs. “You first.”
We climb to the second floor, the long hallway lined with doors to bathrooms, closets, bedrooms, all closed, just like the one Billy chased me down. It was a bedroom, I guess, where we went, Billy and me, though it was hard to tell without the furniture. Could have been a study, a gym, a meditation chamber. No way to know, not that I was thinking about that then, lying on the floor, Billy hard pressed against me. When it happened, the pain so terrible I saw white, he banged on the floor to give his boys an update, and I could hear their hooting and stomping. God, I hollered. A good show, that’s what I was going to give them, making all kinds of noises, gorilla noises, monkey noises, well, maybe not as bad as that, but primal sounding, only I wasn’t moving or doing anything really, except taking it. There wasn’t much to after, a hustle home in Billy’s VW bus, a promise of a call, a kiss. The last part had been nice enough to make me smile even as Dad grilled me from his armchair throne, and later, buried in my covers, grinning into the sheets.
From behind one of the doors comes the muffled sound of movement. Kat leans into me. “What was that?”
“I didn’t hear anything.” I shrug her off so she won’t feel me shaking and lead the way down the hall.
“There it is again.”
I want to tell her she’s being stupid, this whole thing, how fucking dumb! But I hear it too—something shifting on the other side of that door. I take Kat’s hand in mine.
The door swings open, black shadows on me, pushing and punching and kicking. Kat’s hand is gone, wrenched free of mine. The shadows laugh when I call for Dad, drag me back when I try to steal down the stairs.
When they stop, I watch the wall where the flashlight shines, the shadows shrinking away. I’m not surprised to see the smiling penis I drew on the side of Billy’s sneaker as they pass. I wonder what it’s like, beating up someone you once claimed to love, abandoning her to a house identical to the one you held her in.
One of them dips down to disappear Dad’s camera. Another whispers, “This is for forcing me to be your friend,” and pain sprays through my head like high-pressure hose water.
I wake to the flip-flap of the doggy door, darkness—the flashlight must have died—and I know it, sick in my stomach, they’ve come back to finish the job. I think of Dad, the way his diamond tooth gleams, always finding the light. He’d flown to LA for the implant after some guy sucker-punched him at the supermarket. I’d thought it was the coolest until I saw how it made the others hate us even more.
I feel it on my face—damp heat, sandpaper-rough—and try to scream, but all that comes out is a weak animal whine. Through the black, I find a body soft with fur, two ears, a bony tail.
“Do you live here?” I ask the cat, but it just goes on cleaning my face. I wonder if it’s been abandoned or if it decided to stay behind. What does it matter? It’s here now.
Once the cat’s satisfied my face is clean, it nuzzles into my aching side and stills, the house silent save the soft low thrum of its sleep-breathing. I curl around it, sharing its warmth, and wait for the light to bring me back from this forgotten place, knowing no one is coming for me.
“The Redwoods Retreat House”
I am the living room now, Selma the kitchen, Rose the bathroom. What was once a house is now splintered boards and dust clouds and somewhere a gas leak. We should be writing this down, but our laptops have been claimed by the topple. Poet. Novelist. Short fiction writer. If Rodney hadn’t been making one of his prescription painkiller deliveries to the townies downriver, we’d have a memoirist too.
Three weeks ago the Redwoods Retreat House was impregnated with four strangers, us, the lucky winners of the writing colony’s fellowships in our respective genres. It felt very Real World at first, though there were no cameras save the ones we’d brought. We took off into the trees, seventeen acres, all for us! And we took pictures—not of ourselves, but of plump banana slugs and fern tips curling like seahorses, spider webs dripping dew. You could pack a computer full of screensavers with our snapshots, familiar close-ups of a place already combed for beauty.
At night, we drank. Even Rose the novelist came out of her room long enough to down two glasses of Malbec. Teeth purple, voices hushed, we talked, about ourselves and our work and why we were here. It felt a lot like the Real World and I kept grazing the room with my eyes for a hidden camera, unable to relax and confess like the rest.
Rodney was always warning us women not to wander off. He was from Cleveland and seemed to think we needed protection. Maybe that’s why I took his smooth city hand and led him past the clucking chicken coop, off the path, to the mossy spot I’d scouted days before. I wanted to prove to him that these woods were mine; that if anyone needed protection it was him.
How he managed to find local suppliers and build a clientele in only a few weeks was beyond me. It came so easily to him, just as writing did, and sex. I could tell he wasn’t attracted to me, but he was an obliging lover. When we were done, he wrote a letter to his boyfriend. Every day Rodney wrote one letter in his epistolary memoir, to his mother or the IRS or the man who stole his virginity. He’s got hundreds, supposedly, and I wonder if sleeping with me was just something he did for new material. Maybe I’ll get my own letter someday.
It was a little rustic, sure, with the plants that grew out of the crown molding, the rust orange stove, the limited power. The house ran on a generator we had to refuel constantly. I couldn’t believe how much fuel we ran through, just the four of us and our laptops. Mostly it was Rose the novelist, who wrote ten hours a day, wired on coffee and something she got from Rodney. She would never tell us much about her project, only that it was a literary mystery with touches of magical realism, à la Murakami. She actually said that, à la Murakami, and I tipped a cup of mildly warm tea into her lap. I should’ve been kinder. Rose ate something bad last night and took up residence in the bathroom where she retched and rested on the pink rug the color of her name. She never made a sound, not when the earth shook the house down, when I could barely hear Selma’s shrieks over my own.
The generator has gone out. I can feel it, the power juiced from our world, the house creaking and collapsing around us—at any moment it could come down. Selma moans from the kitchen. She’d been making sandwiches with the leftover turkey, trying to use it up before it turned. Selma wrote centos, lines threaded together from the ancient pile of National Geographics and porn we found in the tool shed out back, along with the licked clean bones of a field mouse. A cat lives here, we’ve been told, but we’ve never seen it.
I was in the living room, wasting fuel on an ancient Looney Tunes VHS I’d found in the player, Jerry crushing Tom’s toe bones with a hammer, playing them like an old timey piano. I should be writing, I told myself, but I hadn’t, not since we arrived.
I’d won the fellowship with my story about feral children living in a cave on the far side of Catalina Island. I’d lifted the idea loosely from memory, the Senior trip I’d taken with my girlfriends, getting drunk on Zima, making out with a local boy, handsome save his unibrow. He’d taken me to the top of the island, left me passed out in a field of buffalo. I woke in the night—alone, shivering, missing a shoe, no idea how to get to my hotel, my friends, who should have been scared shitless by my absence but were too wasted to notice. I’d had to sleep up there in the stars, terrified of being buffalo trampled, my heart glutted with blood.
In the morning, I’d hobbled to the hotel barefoot, draping my sweatshirt over my head like a veil. A man zoomed past me on a golf cart, singing under his breath, I’m too sexy for my body, too sexy for my body—and I’d been certain it was the end of something, the story already spinning in my head.
It spins still, even as a helicopter traces the sky, spotlight searching the ground. I can hear Selma calling, screaming really, but I know they can’t hear her over the whir of rotor blades. Then the house is soaked in spotlight, just for a flicker, and I squeeze my eyes shut, listen to Selma’s prayers, not murmurs but shouts, to God, the chopper, already gone.
The house sighs dust clouds, claiming us—Selma the moaning, Rose the silent, me the watchful, the one who waits. Rodney’s letters are with us too, in the box under the bed. Never once did he let us read them, but now we don’t have to, bound to us in the topple as they are. I know exactly what they say—I love you, I’m sorry, I miss you, take care.
I blink up through the wrecked roof, the night sky pocked with pearly stars—never has it shown itself so clearly.