The Girl and The Goat
The clouds part to reveal a land of stark contrast- lush green grass growing up and around and through jagged white stone terrain, reminding me that gentle patience and persistence can cajole things to live and thrive in places where growth seems impossible.
I smell the smoke of the bonfire before I see it. It carries the scent of cedar and sweat, and I know that the men in the Village have spent the morning tearing apart one of the vessels they deemed ready for retirement- this was an important part of the ceremony. The men believe that burning an old boat will bless a new one with safety and success.
And then, there’s the goat. It’s me and her in a small enclosure, her home since she was born last spring. She was chosen then by the Elder, and I’ve been tending to her every day. I don’t think I was supposed to name her, but I did. Einherjar, because she fights alone.
In my right hand, I hold a dagger fashioned from bone. It’s not my knife, that is to say, I don’t own it. It belongs to the Village and is used exclusively for this ceremony. My hand shakes. I turn around and see all of the people I know watching silently. Their mouths move, and I’m reminded of my curse. I only know what I’m supposed to do because I’ve seen this every year for the last fifteen years- of course I don’t remember the years before I was five or six, but I’m sure it’s been this way long before I was here to remember it.
Last year’s sacrifice plays in my mind… the chosen one, the girl who killed the goat- before she entered the enclosure her face contorted and her mouth opened wide and from the sense of vibrations in the air I believe she cried to the heavens. She approached the goat confidently and in one fluid motion slashed its neck. The animal fell lifeless in a bed of hay, and the girl turned around, holding the knife in the air as if this act was somehow victorious. Everyone in the onlooking crowd raised a fist in response, and the vibrations from them bellowing in unison reverberated through my head. The Elder retrieved the goat and walked in a circle around the bonfire, his lips moving as the blood from the animal drained into the earth. When he finished this part of the ceremony, two of the villagers helped the Elder run a wooden stake through the carcass and hoist it into the bonfire. Everyone stood around the fire, lips moving in the same way, chanting... when this was done, we would feast.
It made me nauseous then, as it did every year before. Before this morning, it didn’t occur to me that I’d ever be handed the knife. I could tell that the world was different for them, that they opened their mouths and something came out, which allowed anyone in their presence to in turn use their mouths to communicate. I once tried to use my mouth, and from the way the faces around me twisted up around the corners of the eyes, I understood that this mouth-moving didn’t work for me. I felt ridicule, embarrassment.
Something about being handed the knife made me feel normal. Accepted.
Yet here I was, face to face with the animal I was supposed to kill. My silent world became still and small as my eyes connected with the goat’s. Her pupils were wide and square and she begged me not to do the thing I’d come here to do. I felt her to my core- her fear and helplessness, and her plea.
The smoke from the fire wafted toward me, sticking in my throat and conjuring water in my eyes. I knew this was a defining moment, that the smoke would in some small way camoflouge my choice. I opened the gate at the back of the enclosure, dropped the knife, and willed the goat to run with me.
In my mind, my throat brought forth a command to the goat- “Go, just go!” And she heard me, for she took off toward the highest point on the island.
I turned to face my family. Their faces showed bewilderment, astonishment… an array of emotions I couldn’t quite identify. Understanding that I’d somehow managed to let down the entire village, I broke into tears and crumpled to the ground.
The footsteps of a man pounded the earth near me. I looked up to see my father over me, his mouth moving and the vibrations from his emotions showering over me like cold sleet and rain. He was pointing toward the mountain, toward the goat, his face red. My mother appeared beside him, getting his attention and willing him away from me. I stayed there for some time, my head buried in my arms on the ground, breathing in the grass and dirt. When I finally felt like I’d been left alone, I rose. There wouldn’t be a way to live in this failure, as the best I could tell. The goat was a sacrifice meant to appease the gods and assure the success of the fishing and farming season that would begin tomorrow. If the village starved, it would be my fault. I let the goat go.
Without thinking it through much more, I headed down to the shore. Last summer I swam out as far as I could, and it didn’t feel too far away- that land in the distance. It was winter now, but maybe I could make it. It felt like my only choice, to try. I looked back at the direction I’d come from and caught sight of the goat- she was perched on the top of the highest point on the island, a cliff that no man could make it to. She was safe, and she looked at me as if to tell me goodbye. No one from the village followed me, no one seemed to notice my absence. I turned around, faced the water, and dove in.