Tablet Original Fiction: A tale of sin and redemption

Anne Roiphe
March 29, 2018
© Kevin Horan
Kevin Horan, Ben No.1, 2014.© Kevin Horan
© Kevin Horan
Kevin Horan, Ben No.1, 2014.© Kevin Horan

There were two goats tethered to a tree on the slope leading to the temple. The people had come from their farms, from their villages, from the countryside, from the city. They were gathered with their families waiting for the sound of the shofar, for the end of the day of atonement when they would pack up their baskets, carry sleeping children on their shoulders and begin the year, the year that would soon arrive, a year in which once again their sins would repeat themselves, with new ones added in.

The goats were both white-haired with whiskers of black and tufts of black along their spines, over their haunches, and above their hooves. Their mouths closed over pink gums and teeth still white and slightly protruding. Their underbellies were taut with white hairs scattered here and there. Their ears were peaked and moved easily forward and back, listening without listening to the songs coming from the inner sanctum, the cries of babies and the babble of human voices that covered the approach to the temple itself. The goats inhaled the smoke from the small fire pits nearby.

What can an animal know of time? Did the goats sense that as each minute passed their lives were shortened, the wind on the back, the sun heating the ground, the taste of grain, the sweet smell of grass and weed, mole and dog, would disappear? Can a goat imagine the end of itself? Hopefully not. Hopefully as the chants in the inner temple went on and on the goats had only goat thoughts of odors and the sounds of insects and the needs of the body, things that come in and things that go out. Sometimes there is sleep, and sometimes there is being, goat-being.

And also the other goat. The two had been born at the same time and knew no world without the other, the sound of the other, its bleat, its wool, its warmth on cold nights, its body always near, the sound of its hooves when they were moved from place to place. Even a goat knows it is better to be two rather than one, a fact of life that needs no explanation but is like the air and the rain, and the grass underfoot, the way it is and so must always be.

The priests approached. They stood beside the goats. One was separated from his brother. There was a knife. It flashed in the last of the day’s sunlight. The goat’s throat opened, and blood splashed down on the grass, and the goat sank forward on his legs, and blood turned the ground red and the grass red, and the blood spattered upon the priests’ robes. It was as it should be. Maybe quick, maybe death came before pain.

Watching the priests was a man with a bald head and a fringe of hair circling his head which he held at a slightly cocked angle to his neck. He was not a priest. His robe was simple. His sandals worn thin with use. He watched as the priests picked up the other goat and pushed him down into the blood of his brother so that his fur was stained. The goat was afraid, and in his fear, he soiled the ground. The priests went on chanting. The goat rose to his feet and tried to get away, but a rope held him tightly in place.

A crowd of people pushed forward to see the remaining goat. Many of the men in the crowd had sticks in their hands. Soon the priest who held the rope that constrained the goat cut the rope and the goat bolted forward, where was he going, anywhere, anyway. The man in the crowd with the bald head fringed with long hair stayed near the goat as he ran toward the woods ahead. The crowd was cheering and shouting and throwing small stones at the goat. Some waved their sticks and when the goat turned to go back the men with sticks hit him and drove him forward.

What can a goat understand of this? A goat will only know to run, to try to escape the crowd of men, the voices, the sticks the rocks. Deeper and deeper into the forest he went and alongside him came the bald-headed man. He had no stick in his hand. He went with the goat forwards, and down over the rocks, and into the woods, the long woods, thick with pine and dirt and darkness. The goat was afraid of the darkness, but when he turned up the slope he could hear the voices of the men with sticks, he could hear their shouts. He could hear their calls to each other.

Come, said Elijah to the goat. I’m here with you. Wait, said the goat. I’m tired. We need to go now, said Elijah. Who are you? said the goat. Your friend, said Elijah.

The goat moved forward until he was so tired he couldn’t move anymore. He lay down, and Elijah sat down next to him. He stroked the goat’s head. He cleaned the goat’s fur with leaves that were floating in a nearby stream. The smell of blood is gone, said Elijah. Go to sleep, he told the goat, and the goat slept a long time.

While the goat was dreaming of blood and knives, a wolf appeared from under a bramble and tangle of fallen tree limbs and branches broken in a recent storm. The wolf looked at the goat. He bared his teeth. No said Elijah, not this goat. The wolf stopped and looked at Elijah. He bared his teeth. I see a deer, said Elijah, behind the tree. He pointed down toward the valley, far down the mountainside. The wolf turned, ears forward, tail straight back, toward the rocks below.

When the goat woke, it was dark. Above the trees, the stars were floating in their constellations. The moon was full but the tall trees blocked its light and in the dark, the goat whimpered. He rose to his feet and wandered back and forth. His brother was gone. What is time to a goat? What is gone to a goat? Perhaps just the smell and the feel of the other’s body, of the familiar heartbeat, the nuzzling of another mouth near the grain. What it meant to the goat was a long shiver, a sense that all was lost. The man beside him put his hands on the goats’ head. Don’t fear the dark, he said. I’m here with you.

The goat whimpered and shivered some more. You are in the woods, said Elijah. I am with you. My name is Elijah and I will stay with you a while. And the goat moved next to the man and rubbed his fur against the wool robe the man had wrapped around himself. It would get colder as the night wore on. It would be a long night. Be near me, said the goat. I am, said Elijah.

And there was a low growl from behind the trees and the goat who had once seen wolves attack the straggler in the flock even as the shepherd threw a rock at its head, let out a bleat, a bleat that sounded not unlike the dashes and dots of the Shofar that he had heard as he was running into the woods. But the sounds that the goat made had no pattern, no power to reach the doors of heaven, The goat made goat sounds that might once have brought his goat mother to his side but now echoed aimlessly above his head. The wolf is back, said the goat. I know, said Elijah.

We are going to move, said Elijah and he pushed the goat in front of him and the pair made their way forward deeper into the woods. The goat now recognized the size, the shape, the smell of Elijah and he moved forward in the dark, stumbling over the thick roots of high trees, kicking up dirt and ant hills, and stepping on crickets and worms that crawled under the leaves and Elijah led the goat toward the deepest part of the woods where the rocks were covered in moss and the branches formed a roof overhead and the animals of the woods sometimes paused to maul and devour their prey.

A goat can’t think, why, what, what did I do to make them so angry with me? A goat can’t imagine the heavy load of sins he was carrying on his back. But his heart can beat fast, and he knows fear and wonder.

He knows the surprise of the morning sun and the evening light and the smells of his flock and the quenching of his thirst in the brook and the feel of purple thistles and wildflowers as they brush past his legs. The goat knew in the dark to stay close to Elijah, the man who had appeared suddenly and sung to him as they moved down from the mountaintop, deeper and deeper into the darkness.

Elijah said to the goat when the goat stumbled and lay down, you’re carrying the sins of the people away from the city, away from the villages, away from those who lied, who swore, who stole, who were selfish, who ignored the cries of the poor or turned their backs on their own children and dishonored their wives. The goat said, I don’t understand. You are taking away their evil thoughts and their bad deeds, said Elijah, but what could this mean to a goat, though it meant everything to the howling mob at the mountaintop? I don’t understand, said the goat. I know, said Elijah.

Elijah sat down at the base of a tree and the goat came and put his head in Elijah’s lap. Elijah was not sorry that the goat had no idea of good and evil, not in the world and not in himself. He envied the goat his innocence. In a nearby tree, an owl hooted. Deeper into the forest there was a roar of an animal, a jackal perhaps. I promise you, said Elijah to the goat, I will not leave you tonight.

Why, thought Elijah, would God want the slaughter of an innocent animal? Did God actually eat? Why, thought Elijah, would God ask Abraham for the death of his only son? In the dark of the forest with the goat beside him Elijah thought of God, God the cruel, God the devouring, God the creator who drowned his creation, who brought flood and famine and disease, who punished even before the crime was committed. God, thought Elijah, is the Great Murderer. In a forest, late at night when the moon can hardly be seen between the thick branches above, when the warm body of the goat pressed against his legs, Elijah thought less of God than was proper. But there is no need to be proper in the dark wood.

Above the trees, the wind was blowing. It was coming out of the west and the leaves rustled frantically and the current in the brook beat at the rocks that stood alongside the moving waters. The fish went down to the bottom as far as they could go. The birds took shelter against the trunks of the trees and the goat felt fear again. Elijah found shelter behind a fallen bush and the goat smelled the damp of the earth. The wind picked up strength and the goat pushed against Elijah’s legs until he put his arms around the goat and held him against his chest as the wind whipped about. On the temple mount, the priests were pleased that the storm had come after the day had ended and all had gone as it should and as they believed it would go until the end of time.

And so the night passed, the floor of the forest was dark with the waters that had fallen out of the sky, been shaken from the leaves of the trees, had risen from the fullness of the river that flowed downward from the Mountaintop toward the distant sea.

It was the day after the goat had lost his brother and the goat was already beginning to forget that once he woke to the smell and the warm fur of the other, and once he was not a singular goat but a part of the flock. Once he had not known the man who was now by his side. Now, he did. This was not a puzzle for the goat. It was simply the way it was. Perhaps it is better to be a goat than to be a man.

The pair made their way through the tangle of branches. The wind had blown down saplings and leaves scattered everywhere and the rocks that protruded out of the dirt were large and there was no path, no route, just a struggle forward. Elijah sang and the goat walked. His whiskers were still stained with small drops of the blood of his brother, and his body carried the smell of his brother.

No longer could they hear the rock-throwing men, the stick-waving men at the mount. There was a chirping of insects, the calling of birds, and the darkness and the smell of moss and dung and the buzzing of insects in an out of the ears of the Elijah and his goat.

They reached a ravine that led to a rivulet of running water far below and a sharp drop downward. The goat stopped. Elijah heard the wings of a large bird and looked up. An owl sat on the branch. What have you got? the owl asked Elijah. The scapegoat, answered Elijah, he’s carrying the sins of the people away from the city, away from the farms, away from the sinners. That little goat? said the owl. Ha, said the owl. Don’t the people know that one day they will be the goats carried away into the unknown and that others will beat them with sticks and welcome them with knives and they themselves will carry the sins of the people? Ha, said the owl, the stupidity!

They’re doing the best they can. said Elijah. Ha, said the owl. They don’t know what is going to happen, the dolts. How can they know? said Elijah. Their future is a secret because it hasn’t come yet. They don’t know much more than this poor goat. But I know, said the owl and then he repeated himself. I know. Soon the whole nation will be the scapegoat for their own sins, they will be driven away from their home and in the new places they go, they will see what it means to be beaten, to pay for the sins of others. Ha, said the owl, they will see.

He saw a small rodent behind the bush near the goat and with a swoop of his large wings and a quick opening of his claws he picked it up and returned to his branch with his prey. You want some? he asked Elijah. No thank you, Elijah said. You? asked the owl of the goat. The goat did not answer. Suit yourself, said the owl.

What are you going to do with that goat, said the owl. Stay with him, said Elijah. How nice you are, said the owl, a romantic, a sentimental teary fool who will amuse the children once a year, what a joke you are, you can’t prevent the people from turning into goats sent into the wilderness and you can’t even save this one goat. Can I have a piece when you are done? asked the owl. You take what you can, said Elijah. I will, said the owl. A little big for me, but I’ll get a small part, maybe a liver. I don’t like that owl, said the goat. I know, said Elijah.

A mist fell from the sky over the trees, drifted down toward the brown earth, covered fallen branches, bare logs, wet the wings of insects, made the goat stumble forward. Elijah made himself a staff and pushed ahead slowly. There was no path, there was no direction but up and down and Elijah and his companion were going down. The goat was afraid and between each step he paused. Elijah picked him and brought him across the stones or over the tree limb and across the hole that was in their way. The goat’ fur was wet. A half circle of spider web hung from his haunches. From a distance there came an angry call from a jackal on the hunt. The goat quivered. He understood the sound the way a child understands a hand raised to slap an upturned face. Don’t worry, said Elijah.

The goat could smell Elijah even when the mist was so thick he couldn’t see him. Elijah could hear the goat breathing behind him. They made their way to the edge of a gorge, a sharp drop of rocks that led down to the slender stream of water below. The day had reached its mid-point. Elijah picked some berries from a bush and sat down to eat them. The goat nibbled at some grass and lay at Elijah’s feet. The sun was breaking through the clouds and suddenly rays of light drifted down through the branches of the trees and there was a golden color around the gorge and a pale light rested on leaf and bush, on the sap stained pine needles, on the dark still drying earth. Sparrows and starlings took flight and rose above the treetops.

It may as well be here, Elijah thought. He sat on the high rock above the running water and he called to the goat, who came to his side. I can’t take you any further, he said. He rubbed the goat’s ears. Elijah put his face into the goat’s neck. He took a deep breath. The goat was not afraid as long as Elijah’s hand was on him. The goat had forgotten his brother and the shepherd and the fields of his home. After all, he was just a goat.

For a long time, Elijah didn’t move. The goat was still, waiting for Elijah to rise and continue along the way. The goat didn’t ask where they were going, or why they were going, or what lay ahead. He was just a goat selected at random, a perfect goat, no scars, no sores, no runny eyes, a perfect goat.

Elijah knew there would be other forests, other trenches, the sounds of guns at the backs of the people, other bodies fallen in the dirt one on top of another. Elijah tried not to know the things he knew about forests and dirt and limbs. And he picked the goat up in his arms. The goat was large enough so that it was hard to hold him, his legs thrashing in the air, and he held the goat out over the rocks and sang him a song that quieted the animal who rested in his arms and then with his eyes shut, Elijah moved to the edge of the ravine and dropped the goat, who fell flailing his legs as if they could turn into wings down to the river below onto the stones in that narrow river, onto the wet rocks that caused small rapids to rush forward, foam, and roar and all. Elijah saw the blood of the goat as it spilled into the running water and disappeared downstream. He saw the body of the goat half in the water and half on a rock slipping now down toward the current that would carry the body away.

The owl flew low overhead. He was headed straight down toward the goat’s body, his beak opened, his claws ready. A little bit of liver is all I want, he said to Elijah as he passed him by.

Elijah thought to himself, I kept him company. I eased his fear, I let him lean on me. I carried him. It was better than his being alone in this wood and dying with sharp teeth in his flank, or claws in his belly, or a snake around his throat. He died quickly. You don’t say Kaddish for a goat, but there was a tenderness in Elijah that was itself a Kaddish that was both praise of the Lord and criticism of his ways.

There will be another goat next year, said Elijah to himself so he wouldn’t lament beyond what was reasonable for the little goat whose life had been shortened so the people could feel pure.

And then Elijah disappeared.

Anne Roiphe is a novelist and a journalist.