Apr 4, 2016
September evening in the garden. Sunlight has begun the slow tilt to darkness that seems to soften the air, creating a filtered glow that makes me think rose-colored glasses. I hear the jungle cry of pileated woodpeckers beyond the fence. Look up to see two of them, natty black and white with punk red hairdos garish as David Bowie’s. They follow each other from the grand old apple tree on the ridge, the one I call Grandmother, to a hawthorn, a black cherry, and then away and down toward the valley. Chickens mill about in the driveway between the garden enclosure and their coop, homing in on the roost, though dusk is at least an hour off.
I’m thinking about salad for dinner. Baby greens, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, orange bell pepper. Plus a fresh boiled egg. Maybe two. I stand to stretch my lower back. I’ve been weeding a particularly overgrown raised bed of radishes and carrots. My hands are absolutely filthy. “Clean dirt,” I say aloud. This never fails to amuse me. Other people don’t seem to get it. I used to wear gloves. This summer I just haven’t seen the point.
I kneel again to resume plucking blades of grass and clumps of sheep sorrel, purslane and Queen Anne’s lace from among the fern-like carrot fronds. There’s no reason not to be at ease, yet I’m just not there. I haven’t been there this entire season. I’ve physically worked harder than ever before, in search of an exhaustion that might serve as a proxy for ease. But exhaustion is a one-dimensional stand-in for true peace of mind, a cardboard companion if there ever was one. Exhausting oneself is a bit like getting drunk: first you can’t feel, next you can’t think. Then, theoretically at least, you don’t care. Then there’s tomorrow. Nothing accrues, except the nagging sense that you’re forgetting how to feel.
The pick-up truck pulls nearly even with me before I hear tires on gravel. A little girl sitting in the passenger seat waves once and says “Hey.” Ally. I stand and say “Hey” back, wipe my hands on the butt of my jeans. Walk toward the garden gate. Why are they here? Then Dwayne’s affable voice from the dimness of the driver’s seat: “I’ve got your goat!” Indeed, he did.
We’d agreed to this transaction the previous fall. He’d breed two goats, a mother and daughter that I’d offered to take from a mutual friend, and then bring them to me after the kids were weaned. “About September, I reckon.” Sounded great to me. I’d always wanted goats. A year would certainly give me time to prepare. And we had prepared, a little. We owned a goat shed. I’d read a book titled: “How to Raise Goats.” That was it.
Before I make it to the truck, he’s let her out of the modified plastic water tank he uses as a goat transport vessel. Miss Clyde. An Alpine beauty about six years of age. She’s been dehorned, or so I’ll find out later. One of the many erroneous ideas I had about goats was that only males have horns. She’s generally tan, with a white belly and a white patch between her ears, a dark stripe down her spine and dark hair on her ears, around her eyes, nose and beard. I can see her hip bones and count her ribs.
“She’s thin.” Dwayne says. “That’s why I thought to bring her on up. I put her kids onto another doe.“ He told me Dora, Clyde’s daughter, hadn’t weaned yet. He’d bring her up soon. “They like company.”
I feel Clyde’s soft lips on my palm. Our dog Buddy saunters by and she lowers her head and lunges as if to butt him.
“You can see she has a bag on her.” A bag large enough to rub against her back legs. “You should go ahead and milk her tonight. Give it to the chickens if you can’t use it.”
Dwayne settles in to talk about this and that. A raconteur undiscouraged by an audience of one. Ally pets chickens until it’s dark enough that they’ve all gone to roost. She turns to petting Clyde. I smile at Ally as I stroke Clyde’s neck and nod, uh-huhing as I listen to Dwayne. Buddy’s presence bothers her, clearly. But other than that, Clyde seems perfectly content just being with us. It’s going to be fine. I’m lulled into a fat and happy sweet spot as the light continues to fade.
Ally kisses Clyde’s nose. “Bye Clyde.” I watch Dwayne get in the truck. “Gotta go!” What? Wait! I grip Clyde’s collar. “See you soon!” Dwayne’s pick-up trails a blooming plume of dust. All of a sudden, Abracadabra, we’re alone. We stand in the almost-gone sunlight, Clyde and I. She lets out a deep bleat, the first sound she’s made and as sorrowful a sound as I’ve ever heard. Then she breaks free of my grip and takes off after the truck. Buddy follows, prancing gleefully, as if he can’t believe his good fortune. A new playmate! For more than a couple heartbeats, I merely stand watching them head up the drive.
Then I snap out of it; grab a bungee cord out of the barn. It’s the first thing I see that might be used as a lead. I run after them, not sure which animal to leash. Not at all sure if Clyde might be determined to follow Dwayne all the way down the Old Pike to Bartow. What do I know about goats? Thanks to Buddy’s playful pestering, Clyde slows her pace enough that I’m able to get around in front of her. I slip the bungee through the ring on the old nylon dog collar around her neck. “Miss Clyde. It’s ok. It’s really ok.” She let’s loose another mournful bellow, turning her head back and forth to keep her eyes on Buddy, who continues to run ecstatic circles around us. We’re about 50 yards from the barn. Several of the little solar lights placed here and there along the ridge are beginning to glow. Not just the chickens, the songbirds have now gone to bed. Our odd party of three on the gravel drive makes the only sounds.
That’s when I feel something I haven’t felt in awhile: the excitement and anxiety of an unexpected challenge. This isn’t a crisis, exactly, but it is a situation that requires me to deliver. I can’t just throw up my hands and walk away. More to the point: I don’t want to.
“Buddy! Stop it! No! Sit!” Bless his heart, he does. He looks up at me with a classic canine expression: Yes, mistress, what now?
I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. “We’re going to walk to the barn.” Buddy stands and begins milling about, minus the bouncy, hobby horse energy. Clyde still eyes him warily. “Come on, girlfriend. Let’s go.” I pull on her collar gently. She doesn’t budge. I push on her rump and she takes a step. “Good girl!” She responds with another basso profundo bleat. “Well, this is going to take awhile.” And it does. Eventually I realize that if I raise my leg and push against her rump with my inner thigh, she’ll take several steps. Buddy grows so bored of the process that he goes ahead to lie down and wait.
More than 30 minutes later, we make it to the barn. I lead Clyde into one part of it, and put Buddy in another. I grab a bucket, run over to the nearby Grandmother tree and pick about a dozen apples. The apples seem to improve Clyde’s opinion of me. By the time she’s eaten them all, she makes a sound that I’ll come to know as happy talk.
“I’ll be right back!” During the process of getting her this far, I realized I could connect Clyde to the goat shed by appropriating a long cable tie-out used in the past to keep our dog, Cosmo, in-check. I attach the cable to one leg of the shed, fill a bucket with water, place it inside, and snatch a few more apples. She willingly follows me from barn to shed, where I hook her to the cable as I feed her a final apple. Then I laugh aloud, tears in my eyes. “We did it, girlfriend! Miss Clyde, we did it!”
Feel this, Dawn. I do.
Milking; however, will have to wait until morning. There is no way I’m prepared to deal with that.
I scratch Clyde under her chin, pat her bony flank, and head to the house. Salad and YouTube. The fact is, I’ve never milked anything in my life. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve never milked a four-legged creature. My own “milking,” as I’ll never forget, didn’t go particularly well, at least not at first. Though breastfeeding is touted as the most natural thing in the world, it didn’t come naturally to me. With no small sense of apprehension, I set a couple eggs to boil and open the lid on my laptop.
If there is one thing the “How to Milk a Goat” videos have in common, beyond detailed descriptions of the proper placement of fingers on the teat, it is this command: Just relax and milk the goat! Don’t over think it. Just do it! Within this oh-so cheerful directive I can’t help but hear a La Leche League counselor at the other end of a tearful phone call more than 20 years ago: Just relax and feed your baby! I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I find such aphorisms lacking. But, not unlike 20 years prior, I’m determined to succeed. Determined, you’ll note, is pretty close to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from relaxed.
So it is that the next morning, armed with a mason jar, a warm wet towel, and several apples, I endeavor to milk Miss Clyde. Need I tell you, dear reader, that it doesn’t go well?
The fact that, over the course of the next three weeks, Clyde comes to welcome our girl-time says much more about her character than it does mine. By October, she sees me coming with bucket and towel and runs to her milking spot ahead of me. Her happy talk and grumbling tummy are sounds that greet my arrival. As her trust in me grows, she lets down her milk more quickly. By the time I get myself situated cross-legged on the floor of the shed and put my hands to her teats, I feel her milk flowing even as I sense the relaxation within her body. I rest my forehead against her no longer bony flank. She turns her head to remove my hat and nuzzle my ear. I breathe the earthy-sweet aroma of goat-ness and straw. Once Dora comes to live with us, she often lays down beside me as I milk her mom, for whom I think of myself as a surrogate kid. We’re in a lovely, life-affirming feedback loop. Something no YouTube video or La Leche League pep talk can make believable for me. I guess, all said and done, I have to figure it out for myself.
As the season advances and the snow falls, I come to think of the goat shed as a manger. Quiet thrives in the manger. Not silence, but quietude. The sounds of the goats ruminating, digesting, bleating, breathing are the sounds of life itself. Within such quietude, I feel life at a lower frequency. A deep rumble, constant beneath all the high-pitched bang and clang. I imagine the manger as both the place one Judean child was born, and a place I am re-born and born again. And I get it, more than I ever have, why this particular place is such a potent, pregnant symbol.
Yes, indeed, I got my goat. And she got me.