When I was a child in Texas, my parents raised goats, which prowled the fencerows all day looking for weak spots, and escaped to forage poison ivy encroaching on the yard or graze idly in the neighbors’ sorghum fields. Occasionally we came home from town to find the goats had shouldered open the backdoor and climbed onto the kitchen table, where they stood at leisure, eating anything tasty within reach. Our neighbors disliked us, not only because we were Jews, leftists, and outsiders in innumerable and unnamed other ways, but also because of the regular damage our goats did to their fields. One neighbor whose land abutted ours, though he himself lived in an iridescent yellow house on the edge of town, drove up our long rutted driveway one day after a goat escape and climbed out of his pickup with a shotgun. He strode toward the goat barn with his 12-gauge beneath his arm, and at age 3, invariably naked and grubby, I clung to his leg pleading until his heart softened. Our family—including the goats and my mother, who opposed the chemicals he sprayed on his soybean fields that wafted down the hill toward us—was a constant thorn in his side, and he liked to let us know how he felt about it. Once as my father and one of his long-haired friends from out of town were idling down the rutted road with beer cans cracked, probably sharing a joint, they came upon this neighbor standing by his truck at the roadside taking a piss, and as they passed he waggled his dick at them in acknowledgement.
The goats got out often, and oftener after my brother was born and my mother’s days held less time for mending fences. They climbed the bodark trees and capered on the rooftop of their own barn. They gnawed the tender bark off freshly planted pear trees and ate the garden to the ground. Farming takes constant labor, always more than you have to give, and it bends human time back to the cycles of animals and of the season. With two young children in the house, gone were the winters my mother woke at dawn to build fires beneath the water troughs turned to ice. Gone was her vigilance fixing fences. Still, when the weather was cold we raised orphaned newborn kid goats in a box by the kitchen wood stove and bottle-fed them as they grew sure-footed and capricious. In the autumn we plotted barbecues to thin the small herd of extra males. This was a ritual that marked the season, familiar and routine, and it often meant a party. In those years my father’s friends drove up from Dallas in their secondhand RVs and rust-rimmed Camaros packed with cases of beer to sit around the fire pit in the backyard. Not long after this we’d be reduced to cooking our meals outdoors over an open fire when the stove gave out, but at that point a cookout was a celebration, the ritual centerpiece of which was butchering a young billy goat to barbecue.
The life of an animal is contained in its blood, and so it’s against Jewish law to kill an animal in a way that prevents its blood from properly draining in death. Also, it’s difficult to kill an animal that’s still skittish in its youth, and more so if you’d rather not kill it at all. But its slaughter will feed your family for weeks in slim years, so rather than slitting the throat in precisely the prescribed way, my father would trudge to the goat pen for one of the young males, his .22 loaded and leaning against a tree. He’d lead it back to the butchering frame by the fire pit and shoot it in the back of the head just below the horns, as Jewish law implicitly forbids, then cut its throat in one unhesitating motion with a freshly sharpened knife, as the law demands.
This was the push and pull between religious dictum and the limitations of rural practice. Then, as the law demands, he’d let its blood drain onto the dirt before hoisting it to hang by its back legs to skin and gut. Next, a methodical pattern to the way the hide, slit along the belly, peels off to expose the muscles beneath; how the intestines, once they’ve been cut away from the anal canal and the stomach slit gently open, spill out neatly into a tub on the ground. How the flies alight immediately. Into the tub went the organs we didn’t eat, the spleen and lungs and kidneys, the four stomachs. With arms deep inside the body of an animal, one of my parents would yell for a clean bowl and I would run indoors to the dim kitchen, the light change spangling the room with darkness until my eyes adjusted, for a dish to hold the liver until it was cooked. Hung taut, the animal with its entrails removed smelled rich and fresh, as a butcher’s shop with its ripening blood-scent never can. I discovered I could stick my head inside the cavity of its rib cage and play percussion on its skinned sides, immersed in the undersea echo of its body all around me.
My father’s friends who came to our cookouts were mechanics and minor drug runners; all, without exception, were gentle and attentive with me. I remember them sitting in the unused dining room with their hands in their laps as I played “Happy Birthday” on my Casio keyboard, and one who lived nearby sometimes took me out for ice cream in the sleek green Jaguar XKE he’d bought to pick up women, he hoped. The cookout that most sticks in my memory took place during one of my godfather’s visits. Everyone was readying to kill a goat, the kitchen table cleared and sanitized, clean enamel trays laid out for cutting up meat we wouldn’t cook that night, the freezer emptied to store it. Behind the house by the butchering frame which was older than any of us, my parents debated which kid goat to kill, and—they were young, still-skittish creatures that often eluded capture—if that one couldn’t be caught, which other. I was keeping my ear out from under the pecan tree I climbed to survey all I knew. (Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! I would have said if I’d known enough to then.) When I heard my father coming back from the goat pen I took off to watch. I was just rounding the corner of the house when my godfather, hurrying the other way, caught me up and held his hand over my eyes as I struggled to get free. I heard the gun’s report, and it was a miserable sound: I’d wanted so badly to see the goat killed; my godfather, born in a refugee camp in Austria just after the Holocaust, to avoid knowing of a death entirely, and to protect me from it, too.
Why did I want to watch the goat being killed? I don’t know, I can’t remember, but somehow in my mind, almost 30 years removed, it was the magical centerpiece of the day. Deprived of that moment, how could I frame the ritual that came before and after? But that seems arbitrary, a contrived explanation that, now grown, I’ve assembled in hindsight. Perhaps I wanted to see it out of pure cussedness, more indignant at being prevented than anything else. It may’ve meant nothing in particular—but I knew enough to understand that killing was a charged moment for the adults around me. Every dairyman and subsistence farmer knows the importance of culling the non-breeding males while they’re still young. Goats are born in the spring, they nurse and are weaned, and soon if they’re not thinned from the herd, the males crowd the water trough, chase the females, and mate with their own mothers. They were costly to feed and, more than that, culling fed our family when we might’ve been hungry otherwise. Even so, it wasn’t an event my parents looked forward to; death is difficult to stomach if you’ve grown up in the city, but on a farm, it’s no secret that every living thing must live off something else. We kill and eat the animals we care for, and have for millennia.
One spring on the eve of Passover around this time, a black goat escaped her pen and wandered to the front yard where all the flowers were in bloom. Clusters of purple irises were blossoming, and daffodils sprang up in neat rows where they’d been planted by my mother’s great-aunts, who’d spent their entire lives in our house and died before I was born. It was a beautiful day, and no one was watching as the goat mouthed the narcissus blooms that covered the yard, then ambled to her pen and slipped back inside. Daffodils, especially their leaves and stems, contain a toxin called lycorine that can be deadly to children and animals, but when my parents found her she was still alive, and the front yard was an unbroken tangle of verdance where an hour before it had been constellated with clusters of yellow flowers. I remember my father trying to force motor oil down her throat to induce vomiting. Why motor oil? Perhaps because we didn’t have castor oil. Perhaps because no one knew what else to do. She was too weak to vomit by then, and in any case lycorine itself is emetic, and the only care for daffodil poisoning is palliative.
It was too late—it may have been too late all along—but my father was angry in the terrifying way I understood his anger as a child, yelling at everyone and nothing as if the goat going limp in his arms as he massaged the oil down her throat was his fault, as if that fault could be dispersed among the rest of us, or into the air. It was springtime, just before Passover, before the long meal with its four ceremonial cups of wine and blessings recited in a language brought back from the dead that none of us could pick actual meaning from. My brother was an infant and I was still the youngest child able to ask the four questions: Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-lelot? Why is this night different from all other nights, I asked. Soon after in the Seder you get up and open the door to let in the Prophet Elijah, for whom a place is always set and a cup of wine always poured. Standing in the doorway of our warm, safe house with the small breaths of moths’ wings against my face, the known world under its shroud of night was an eerie, impenetrable landscape full of villains of folktale and rural legend concealed in the shapes of trees, vehicles, farm implements silhouetted by nighttime into something more sinister.
Later, clearing the table at the end of the meal, I’ll find Elijah’s wineglass emptied, and realize a miracle has occurred. As a child, the meanings one assembles from the unknown sometimes remain truths long after the stories that underpin them are eroded. Thus for a dozen years, I’ll go on believing that Elijah the Prophet visited our house that night and consumed his glass of wine. Five or six thousand more years have passed since my ancestors marked the lintels of their houses with the blood of a firstborn kid goat, feasted on it, then fled in the darkness. Asleep on the dining room’s bay window daybed, my father snores magnificently, in celebration, drunk on the wine of a prophet.
Miriam Bird Greenberg is an NEA Literature Fellow and the author of In the Volcano’s Mouth.