A droll yet touching scene
(From Giles Goat-Boy. I was reading over some favorite bits and felt like sharing this one.)
Also I made friends that spring with restlessness. When all goatdom and its keeper were asleep I prowled the pasture, spooking deer and flushing woodcocks from their rest; or I would hang my chin over the fence and stare down the Road that led to the Barns Where Humans Slept — and which Max told me it was death for goats to walk upon. In the daytime, when we all went out to browse, I took to slipping from the herd and wandering by myself through the great black willows along the creek, or up in the rise of nibbled hemlocks where the woods began.
From these latter, one bright April morning, a flash of light came. Looking more closely I spied a movement in the scrub perhaps two hundred meters from where we grazed. In all likelihood it was a deer, and the flash some tin or bit of glass he’d turned with his hoof; just possibly it was a human student, escaped into our pasture. In any case my curiosity was pricked; I teased Redfearn’s Tommy into chasing me that way. Dear Tom was a strapping fellow then; it was his last month to run with us before being penned up for stud. But he still loved a romp, and while there was no way to tell him my intentions, I knew that once he saw the intruder we’d have great sport running it back into the bush.
“Ho, Tom!” I urged. Midway between herd and hemlocks I saw the flash again; so must have Tommy, for he drew up short, bobbed his head — and galloped back, pretending not to hear the gibes I sent after him. I looked around for Max; he had not come out with us that day. I went on alone. For prudence’s sake I came up noisily, to give the creature warning. I rather expected to find nothing but dung and hoofprints by the time I got there: Instead, just behind the first tree, I found the cream-haired weeper. She stood uncertainly a dozen yards off, wearing green this time and clutching a leathern bag against her belly; it was her eyeglasses, I observed, that had flashed in the sun.
I pawed the brown needles and threatened with my forehead.
“Look here, I brought you something good.” As before, she drew a square white handful from her bag. I felt no anger, but a grand discomfiture; I ought to have gone back with Tommy. I feigned a charge just to send her off to her own pasture, but she only waggled her offering at me.
“Come, dear, don’t be, afraid. It’s a peanut-butter sandwich.”
I bounded at her with a snarl — but faltered just before her. Quite clearly she would suffer my attack if need be. Was she so fearless, or merely stupid? Now she dared to toss the white food at my feet and come up to me with hands extended. I ignored the bribe (which however had a most sharp fragrance): what arrested me was that her eyes already brimmed with that water so familiar lately to my own. She knelt and patted my curls; her human odors filled my nostrils; I forgot even to growl.
“There, he’s a friendly Bill, he is.” How different her voice was from dear Max’s, and her manner of touching. I shivered under it; made nervous water when she stroked my barrel. “Sure he wouldn’t hurt his friend,” she went on. “Do you know how much I hoped you’d see me? And wasn’t I afraid of that brute you play with! Good Billy, gentle Billy, that’s a Billy. Here, you just try this, Dr. Spielman won’t mind. . .”
She held the sandwich to my lips. I chewed a corner off it and drooled at its outlandish savor. The woman wiped my chin with a scented white cloth and clucked about the dirt on me. I gobbled up the rest of the sandwich.
“Wasn’t that fine? Tomorrow I’ll give you another one. And milk, if you want, and some more things you never had before. What do you say, Billy?”
It was a civil question, plainly put and plainly requiring a yes or no, but my new friend seemed astonished when I said “Ja ja, dot’s OK.”
“Oh, my gracious, you can talk, can’t you!” She flung her arms about my neck; I thought myself threatened and wrenched back with a snort. But the woman was weeping, and unused though I was to such behavior, I understood that it was not in anger she hugged me to her woven coat. It was such a hug Max hugged me the day I had learned to cry — but rockinger, more croonish — and I wept in rhythm with her, a sweeter thing than doing it alone.
We tarried for the queerest forenoon of my life. Having discovered that I could speak, she plied me with questions: Did Max beat me? Wasn’t I wretched in that stinking barn? Was I being taught to read and write? Had I no friends at all besides the goats? Half of what she said I couldn’t grasp; even when the words were familiar I sometimes failed to understand the question. What did it signify, for example, to ask whether anything was being done for my legs? They had always been as they were — wiry and tough, with fine horny pads at the joints; not so supple as Tommy’s, but far usefuller than Max’s. Why ought anything to be done for my legs, any more than for hers? Again, to illustrate what reading was she took from her bag a white book, which mistaking for another sandwich, I tried to snatch from her.
“No, now,” she mildly chid, “that’s just paper, you know. Poor thing, you never had bedtime stories, did you? Let’s sit down, I’ll read you something. . .”
I pretended to be listening; then as she seated herself I ripped a leaf from the book and sprang away to eat it.
“Oh dear!” she cried merrily. “So that’s how it is! Well you needn’t grab, young man, it’s not a bit mannerly. You march yourself back and say ‘Please,’ and you shall have all you like.” In earnest of her pledge she tore a page out herself and offered it me. “Now, that does for the title-page and endpapers, doesn’t it! We mustn’t eat the others till we’ve read them.” She chattered on, and all I understood was the gentle good humor of her tone. We wept again, I do not know why — indeed, we wept repeatedly throughout that griefless day. In the end I laid my head in her lap as she read to me, and toyed with the silver watch she wore on a lanyard round her neck. Why was I not with the herd, and what would Max think?
Unlike much of what I heard that morning, the story was splendidly clear and gripping: it involved three excellent brothers who desired to cross a stream and feast upon cabbages, but were opposed in their innocent design by a typical human visitor called Troll. This Troll, understand, had no desire to eat the cabbages himself, nor from what I gathered was the bridge his private pen; even had it been, his intent was not the honorable one of guarding his privacy. Ah no: I was aghast to hear from my friend’s calm lips that the brute meant to kill those beautiful heroes and eat their flesh. My gorge rose at the thought; I could scarcely chew the page on which such evil was. The woman saw my agitation, patted my neck and insisted that it was “just a story” — as if that excused Troll’s wickedness, or would save Wee Willie! Only her assurance that the brothers would triumph staunched my tears and dissuaded me from calling Max to their rescue — for though I could not see the Misters Gruff, they were there in the words that sounded off the page, as real and clear to me as Redfearn’s Tommy. What resourcefulness the youngest of them showed in turning Troll’s blood-lust to their advantage: the story named no breeds, but I was sure in my heart that this initial Gruff (to my mind, the real hero) was of the same species as myself. I hung on the tale’s unfolding, I wanted it never to end, and yet trembled with concern for the second brother, lest he not have caught the gambit of the first. “Tell him wait for der biggest brudder yet!” I counseled — yet durst I hope even Troll could be gulled thus again? At the appearance of Great William Gruff I forgot to eat, and when I saw justice done (albeit bloodily) and that worthiest of families cross to their reward, I embraced my newfound friend about her middle.
Never was such a wonder as this story! Its passion drained me, yet I was bleating for more when Max’s shophar hooted in the distance.
“What’s that? Must you go?” She returned the precious volume to her bag. There’d be another tale tomorrow; she knew a host of them. And more peanut-butter.
“Bye-bye, now,” she called. I scampered back to her, mistaking her meaning; the pull of the shophar against my movement brought tears to my eyes. Ah, was that it? Auf wiedersehen, then, till tomorrow. . . the herd was almost to the barn already.
“Bye-bye! Bye-bye!” I galloped tearfully through the fields. At the first of the stud-pens I paused to say respectfully bye-bye to Brickett Ranunculus, an Anglo-Nubian who but that he was polled had been my image of Great William.
Then I ran inside and threw my arms around Max, forking down hay.
“I love you, Max!”
“You gone crazy, boy?” Max put by his pitchfork. “Where you been again off from the herd, and don’t tell nobody?” His tone was stern, but not angry; my odd behavior, however upsetting, no longer surprised him. With all my heart I longed to tell Max of my adventure — especially the miracle called story, which couldn’t be shared with Redfearn’s Tom. Yet I fought down that urge, and in fact said not a word about the peanut-butter sandwich, the field of cabbages, or my appointment for the morrow, all which wonders were to pitch me sleepless through the night. Some intuition warned verboten; taking my cue from that soul of invention, Wee Willie Gruff, I said bye-bye to fourteen years of perfect candor — and dissembled with Max Spielman.