It was well known that the goat men lived in the mountains. At least that's what James, my brother, told me. Brother? Technically we were not blood related—or related at all, really—we just lived in the same foster home. Anyway, he said that's where my parents were: in the mountains. That they dropped me off at the doorstep of Mr. and Mrs. Sweeny—or, as they preferred to be called, Mom and Dad—so that they could pursue their goal of breeding the goat men: the half goat, half men who worked in the mountains. (Kind of like an unfortunate centaur when you think about it. Do they think about it?) But no one believed me, and James couldn't be wrong. He'd just turned eighteen and Mr. and Mrs.—I mean, Mom and Dad—said that he was an adult now and couldn't live here anymore. He was on his own in the world. (They wouldn't kick him out of the house if he wasn't an adult, would they?) He cried last week, but crying was nothing new at the house. They wouldn't have made good goat herders. (Or maybe I just didn't make a good animal). I heard them lots of times at night talking about us as if we were a unit. Not we. They. Because if they talked about me—when they talked about me—they used the words: "unique" and "different". They should have just used the words said at school: "freak" and "weirdo".
That's why I stood out in the field with a large camping backpack after school, even though it had begun to rain. (The rain was really cold, but I guess rain in late March would be cold). It was so cold that my breath fogged up my glasses as I stared off into the mountains and back at the map I was holding, as I tried to ascertain the best breeding grounds for goat people. My plan was going well already. It was easy to sneak the camping pack in. Nobody noticed. Except for a couple of the bullies. They noticed. (It was my fault. I made it too easy for them to push me over and kick me around on the ground. Those supplies are heavy and the backpack towered over me). Good thing Claire wasn't there. I wouldn't want her to see me lying on the ground like a turtle flipped on its back. But if she had been there I would have knocked the shit out of them. At night sometimes I dreamt how I would beat them. Dodge. Uppercut to the face. Don't stop hitting till they got the message. (But I was already in enough trouble, and it was easier to take a hit and not say or do anything.)
But anyway, I told her I'd wait at the fields in the part where the normal soccer-slash-football field ends and the tall brush grass begins. She wrote that she would come after clarinet practice; her last letter to me was tucked in my coat pocket, while the others were packed away in a Ziploc bag in the bottom of my bag. (I hoped she brought an extra pair of socks, even if they are girly; mine got wet.)
He liked my clarinet. Or at least I think he did. Maybe he just liked hanging around the music room since it was quiet most of the time and removed from the rest of the school. Tucked away in its own corner, it felt like a remote refuge only temporarily trespassed upon by a practicing student. I know that's why I liked it. It felt like my secret realm away from the world, where I could tap into my magic power: the power to enchant anyone with my music. (Maybe I accidentally enchanted him. That would have made him my first.) Maybe he recognized its remoteness: that it was a place temporarily removed from the rest of the world, a place that was something like our own, at least until other students came to practice. People liked to pick on him a lot. Because he was short, had thick glasses, and when he talked, he talked funny. (He didn't have a speech impediment or anything; he just talked about things people don't normally talk about. Like goat people.) Though that might have been the reason why he kept to himself and wrote and drew more than he talked. (Maybe he was a self-declared pariah and the music room just happened to fit his needs). The first time he ever said anything to me was through a paper airplane that had a drawing of a clarinet and the words: "Hi. You really must like that song. It's definitely grown on me." He had been coming to the room for a solid week, listening to me play my song as he drew in his notepad. (He must have heard me play that same song at least twenty times. I didn't even think it was that good.) It was the first time I noticed him, or rather he noticed me. It wasn't until his third letter that I learned his name, when he signed it "Sincerely Edwin" at the bottom.
The letters were how we talked. He said that serious things should be put down in writing, so I guess he considered me a "serious" thing. It was also his way of showing me his talent: drawing. (He drew more than anything else at school). His words always seemed purposefully crafted and were perspective on small things: "I agree. Aqua is a much more suiting color for you. It accents your eyes nicely," or "I think you are too hard on yourself. Your music has an enchanting subtly about it, like a fresh picked apple in spring," or "You look sad today. Maybe I'm wrong. But something inside tells me you're sad. I drew you this hoping it would make you feel better."
He told me the tale of the goat men and how his real parents—not the people he lived with, Mr. and Mrs. "Mom and Dad"—had raised and bred the goat men, the half goat, half men that worked in the mountains. I had heard something about the goat men in the mountains before. But these goat men weren't half goat, half men. They were goats that simply acted like men. They ran their own stores, grew and traded their own food, raised and taught their own kids, and even learned how to talk like people. These were the goat men I knew.
Whenever my mind wandered, which was a lot at school, and home, and night, I found myself stepping into the strange town filled with goat people as they did their goat people things. Being as noticeable as a fly on the wall, I imagined sitting in the middle of their public square, taking out my clarinet and playing a melody. Maybe I would draw them closer like a magical pied piper. Or maybe they would continue to meander, living as pseudo-men and pseudo-women, unfazed by the introduction of clarinet music adding to their already strange goat people lives. It felt like a world where Edwin and I could explore together, and maybe it was a world where he and I could belong.
Maybe that's why I liked Edwin.
We could live in a community of pariahs.
Edwin was standing in the field where he promised he would be. Even though it was pouring rain, he stood still, only moving his eyes from the mountain range to me. The rain became so thick that the only thing that I caught was a subtle smile that grew across his face as I walked towards him.
(Good thing I brought a big enough umbrella for both of us. And my rain boots.)
When she walked up to me I smiled and said hello in the most confident voice I could muster. (I preferred being able to write to her. It gave me time to test out words and pick the best combination to describe what I wanted to capture in the moment. I think hello was a good start, though.) I directed her to the map, which had gotten saturated in the downpour causing the ink to streak as I traced out the path we would be taking: we would follow the river until we reached the gravel path, take the gravel path until we reached the dirt road, and walk up the dirt road until we found the goat men. I quickly folded the map hoping the dye would not continue to streak and mix together like a fresh watercolor picture hung too early. The residual dye stained my fingers, as I tried to wipe it off my pants to no avail. She stood close to me as her umbrella sheltered us, and her neck smelled like apples. (She was a little taller than me. Maybe an inch or three.) I didn't really know what to say as we walked, with her being so close and her aroma so mesmerizing, words felt stuck in my throat. (Or maybe that was just my heart making its journey upward and out).
We walked mostly in silence, but a pleasant silence, or at least not an awkward silence. (I hoped). I remembered watching a movie where the main character stated that when people could "shut the hell up" and not fill the air with mindless chatter, that was when they knew they had a serious bond. That they could "shut the hell up" and just enjoy each other's company. (Of course that was paraphrasing Pulp Fiction, a movie that Mr. and Mrs.— I mean "Mom and Dad"— used to watch when they made their funny smelling cigarettes. Once they found me, watching them, watching it, and "Mom and Dad" hit me with the remote until the channels started to change on the screen. Sometimes if I push hard enough I can still see the outlines of the pause button on my skin.) So I didn't feel awkward as we neared the gravel path, but instead happy, as I listened only to the rain and the growing sound of the rapids.
And good thing we hadn't talked, because had we been talking and absorbed in mindless chatter we would have kept walking, ignoring the growing roar of the rapids, until it was too late. Where the gravel path should have been, rushing brown water had replaced it. What used to look like a bank of gravel with wildflowers—or at least when I drew it, I imagined there where wildflowers—now looked like coursing coffee and cream decimating anything in its sights. The water had risen so much that it threatened to engulf the trees. The path would have been clear cut and easy, but now I didn't know what to do.
But I didn't want to seem indecisive in front of Claire, or worse not know what I was doing. So I told her to stay there for a moment as I surveyed the sight, taking a rough topology of the grounds and judging the viability of the currents for traveling. (Really all I mustered up was a "stay there". But that version sounded a lot better.) I wanted to avoid the forest as much as possible. It looked thorny, dense, and dark; who knew what savage creatures lingered in its depths.
The current was the only way. Even though the roar grew more deafening and threatening as Claire and I approached it, there wasn't another way. I stretched my hand out motioning for her to stop as I took a few steps ahead of her. If a river monster were to spring out and gobble someone into its belly, it would be better if it was me than her. (Again another thing I wished I could have said out loud to her.) I crouched down to give the look of deep concentration, but really I felt scared; what if a creature was lurking, waiting for me to dip my foot in? I shook my head and, taking a leap of faith, lowered my body into the current.
Good thing Claire had ignored my hand and walked besides me, because if she hadn't I surely would have been swallowed up. Like a monster, the river tried to eat me whole, taking my legs in one gulp. It was Claire that grabbed my pack and helped drag me onto the ground as I hoisted myself shakily up.
All that it had managed to claim were my shoes and socks, leaving me barefoot. (At least I didn't have to worry about wet socks anymore.)
The forest was magical. (I didn't know why Edwin wanted to travel through the river). Even in the early spring, a thick canopy of freshly budded leaves seemed to not only shield us from the rain, but also reach down and warmly embrace us, as it guided us along its path. Although we didn't need the umbrella, Edwin remained close to me; his light breathing along with the muffled pitter-patter of rain were the only sounds that were able to penetrate our private, dark space. My senses felt freshly opened as they picked up the subtle hints of sweet flowers mixed with the rich earthiness of bark and soil. Even the rain sticking to Edwin's clothes had a scent that I didn't notice before, something that both felt fresh but had traveled a long way to reach us. It felt as if I had discovered another secret nook within the world that Edwin and I could claim as our own. (Maybe after we reached the goat men we could visit this area again and spend a whole afternoon exploring.) I felt opened to the world in a new sensual way, as if some inner magic power unlocked itself, giving me a teasing taste of discovering something important about myself and the world around me. Filled with an indescribable rush, I reached down to touch Edwin's hand, hoping that what I felt at that moment could be conveyed by touch, because I couldn't put it well enough into words. But its wet, trembling touch surprised me and I quickly retreated my hand. It was as if a scrambling shock was sent through my system, mixing my feelings to the point where they felt incoherent again. And as if slipping through my fingers and returning back into the depths, I felt as if I was back at square one.
When we reached the end of the forest, it had changed to night, and I could feel my stomach growl. Edwin said that it would be a good time to set up camp; he figured that we were probably half way, or more like two-thirds of the way done with our journey. He placed his backpack down and pulled out a tarp along with tied up metal rods. He must have heard my stomach, because he pulled out a Ziploc bag of trail mix and a granola bar, and insisted I rested and ate while he worked. (He talked sincerely, but also with something that wanted to sound like bravado, which felt very unlike him.) I think he realized this too, because as soon as he finished he went straight to building the tent, working in a muttered silence as if arguing with himself on how to build our shelter. He looked as if he was struggling as he tried to keep the rods in place weaving them through the tarp. I wanted to help him, but I think he wanted to show me that he could take care of it all. That he could take care of me. (But I could have easily helped. My parents and I went camping every summer.)
I didn't want to hurt his pride.
I should have brought the instructions. It looked easy enough on the box, though. Every time I'd try to set up one end of the tent, the other end would spring up as a rod recoiled into the air. It was an unending, frustrating process, like the guy who had to move the boulder up the mountain, just to have it pushed down to the bottom and repeat the process forever. It made me wonder what James was doing now, if he was facing the same problems of trying to set up a tent that wouldn't stay in place. (Was this how it was going to be once I turned eighteen?)
All the while I felt as if watchful eyes from the depths of the night were still following me. As if behind every corner a new, more sinister creature was lurking, waiting for the right moment to snatch Claire and me up. I had already left my scent and my mark in too many places: the river, the forest, and now this path. Any time longer could be dangerous, so I hurried us into the tent, shielding us from the outside. I didn't remember it being so narrow. (It was probably because I had two poles left that I couldn't figure out where to put.) But it was a good thing I had those poles because the top of tent began to sag as the rain continued to beat down. We laid down and stared at the water pooling up above us. (I didn't realize the ground, even when muddy, felt that hard and uncomfortable. Maybe I should have also brought a sleeping bag or even a blanket, or an extra pair of clothes.) I felt something churning inside of me, welling up inside of me. Feeling anxious in the silence and trying to forget about the numbing feeling growing in my feet, I turned to Claire and asked her if she could play me a song. How strange it must have been for the creatures beyond to listen to her play. (Maybe if we were lucky enough it would scare them off). But to me, it was soothing, and at least for that moment nothing churned or welled up inside of me anymore.
Eventually, she stopped playing and asked if I had brought any more food. I hadn't. I had meant to, but I was in a rush for the bus in the morning and taking too much food might have made me look suspicious. (Or cause an argument about how I couldn't be greedy with limited food supplies). I told her I would find us food, although I didn't know exactly what I was looking for.
My feet still felt numb and cold when I stood up and exited the tent. Between the rain and the darkness it was nearly impossible to see anything ahead. My heart began thudding loudly again, this time feeling as if it was fluttering in my stomach and not caught in my throat as I neared the edge of the forest. It was as if walking into a trap.
There was the same muffled eerie silence. I tried to focus my ears and catch any faint movements in the darkness, but all I could hear was echoing beat of my heart. With my eyes I could make out the outlines of a hanging branch, and grabbing it with both hands, I pulled until it snapped off. The sounds seemed to thunder and echo throughout the area, deafening any sounds. (I thought maybe I had heard the wings of a flapping bird or perhaps the pitter-patter of the paws of a running animal). I feared that I had given up my location and had created an opening for whatever lurked. It was like when we played Cowboys and Indians at home. It was always James and the others who were cowboys chasing after me, the lone Indian, the last of the Mohicans. No matter how dark or how buried of a place I hid, their beady eyes always acted as a guiding light as they honed in on me upturning tables, beds, and clothes piles pulling me out of hiding. Even here in the forest their eyes were still watching me. Like the strange, murderous eyes of a creature or a cowboy, two yellow eyes focused in on me. Something inside of me cracked, and I felt whatever it was that had been welling up inside of me overflow and pour out. It was the same feeling I had felt when James had caught me and wrestled me into submission while the others kids beat me with sharpened sticks. "Savage, we got your weapons," they said. "You killed our friends. Now we'll kill you." The words "savage" and "kill" echoed in my mind as I swung the stick at the yellow eyed creature, like I did when I finally wrestled out of James' hold and pounced on Derek, a boy who was two years older than me. I kept swinging even when the animal shrieked and even when Derek cried out in pain as I whacked him across the eyes and started beating his face with my hands. Blood spurted out, covering my hands as I continued pounding the fur. Tears bled down Derek's face as James hoisted me off and called "bastard and bitch" to help.
"Bastard and bitch" said that I was "troubled and violent". The psychiatrist agreed: "troubled and violent" but "fixable". What they really meant was "crazy and savage" and "druggable". (I was a bad animal and Indian after all; maybe even part goat). I sat in the mud and rubbed my hands in it trying to wash away the blood. Did I take my medicine today? Did I remember to bring it with me? Where did the creature go? It wasn't in front of me anymore. Did it limp away? Or maybe it was reduced to nothing. What would I say anything to Claire? I wouldn't. There was nothing to say.
But I felt better and felt cleansed as I stood up.
I survived. I made it out alive.
The rain had stopped when I exited the forest. Claire was waiting outside the tent. Perhaps she had heard the noise in the forest and got worried about me. I think she said something as I approached her, but I don't know what. I wasn't focused on her words. I was focused on the apple scent that floated off her neck and seemed to swirl around her face. I slide my hands on my pants as I walked up to her, making sure any residue was washed clean (although too many things had already dyed my fingers to tell one color from another), and then cupping my hands on her face I leaned forward on the balls of my feet feeling a twinge of pain.
I kissed her.
And then she kissed me.
The kiss stirred something inside of me. I wrapped my arms around him, and we stood in place kissing for a while, exploring different ways that we had seen on TV or how some of our classmates did it when they thought they were alone in their own secret spaces. We breathed heavily, both excited and nervous, and we laughed when we finally looked at each other unsure of what to say or how to feel. What could we do after all? That night we sat in the tent and talked about our future together in the goat town. How we could find lodging and learn how to be a part of its life. We could teach the goat people about the arts: about music and art. Maybe he could sell his drawings and I could play and teach them music, I said. He said that he wanted to be a herder like his parents. He said that he would be a good herder. I agreed. Caught up in the excitement, I didn't realize how much Edwin had changed. He was more assertive and more talkative. His eyes glimmered with a bright sheen and there was an underlying energy in his voice that wasn't there before, like a rushing current that had appeared out of nowhere. (Maybe he had felt something similar in the forest too and was now just unlocking it. Or maybe he had always been under a magic spell and it was now broken.) Eventually it did get quiet as we held each other in the tent; the pole in the center made it slightly uncomfortable preventing either of us from sleeping. Looking down at his arm where my hand was, I could have sworn I saw something that looked like the outlines of a pause button. I gently pressed it hoping that it would work, just for a little while longer.
It came with a rumble that might have been mistaken for thunder if we were asleep. But it grew louder and shook the ground as it neared. (Thunder didn't have the sound of breaking trees or the panicked squawks of animal accompanying it). I grabbed Edwin by the hand and pulled him out of the tent. He shouted about needing something out of his bag. But I held onto his hand and kept running towards the forest, and finding the biggest tree possible we braced against it. Like a tidal wave from the mountains, rock and mud came raging down toppling trees like dominos, gobbling up everything in its path. (It was by sheer dumb luck that we had gotten far enough from its range.)
It came and went in what felt like less than a minute, but we just stood still, not knowing what to say or do, as our hearts thudded violently against our chests and our breathing grew shallow and cold. It was Edwin who surveyed the area first. (I didn't want to leave the safety of the tree, but he kept insisting on finding his bag). I followed him, watching him stand on top of the rubble as the morning sun came over the horizon. Covered in mud, he looked down staring at the dispositional area that had completely blocked the flow of the river. He was silent, but the kind of silent that felt as if he were mourning over something irretrievably lost. He only looked at me then back at the mountain, before he resumed his hike to find the goat people.
We climbed over rocks. We climbed over broken trees and dead animals. We climbed in silence and with every step we took the seriousness of the situation sank in. I would not be playing my clarinet anymore. That was swallowed up. I would not be going to high school or college. There probably weren't any in the goat town. I would never see my parents again. They probably thought I was a runaway or worse a dead girl caught in a mudslide with a troubled boy. It will all be okay, said Edwin, once we find the goat men it will all be okay. But what if it wasn't? And as if it were its own mudslide, the same rush I had felt from the forest swept my body electrifying and re-circuiting my senses. With each sense exposed it was like opening my eyes for the first time to the world around me. And as I blinked into the fresh morning light and took in what felt like my first breaths, I looked around and saw that there nothing was waiting for us.
We rested once we caught sight of the mountain path. (Edwin pointed at his map with great delight, trying to revel in the moment, but all I could see were streaks of blue dye). We sat in the mud and on top of broken logs. Covered in mud, had a helicopter been searching for us they would not have given us a second thought, passing us off as dead animals or oddly shaped debris. Edwin sat rubbing his feet as he painfully tried to move them back and forth. (The parts that weren't covered in mud looked purple, maybe frost bitten). Although he was ready to finish the last part of the journey, I just wanted to turn back. My stomach hurt, and I felt nauseated. I asked if we could wait a little longer, that maybe a search team was looking for us, maybe a helicopter would come down to report the mudslide and that it could give us a lift.
He shook his head. The only way was to walk. He winced as he stood on his feet again covering them with mud. I wanted to offer him something to warm his feet, but anything I had to offer was carried away and lost in the pile of mud.
I asked him if his feet were okay.
Just cold he said.
It would all be okay once I found the goat men.
That was what I had been telling myself ever since James told me where my parents were. It was why I was able to endure the bullies, the Cowboys, the remote wounds; because I knew out in the mountains tucked away in some town were the goat people, my mom and dad, waiting for me to join them. (Maybe that's why they hated me, because I had a mom and a dad who were waiting for me, who loved me, and whom I was going to be with again.)
And I had Claire. Claire understood. Claire cared. That's why I wanted her to join me. I wanted to show mom and dad that it was alright that they abandoned me, that it was okay that they never came back for me, that it was okay that they were goat people—that I was a goat person. Because Claire accepted us. That's why I continued to endure even with cold feet, even after surviving the mudslide, even after losing the letters. The letters. It was stupid to leave them in the bag. I should have kept them in my pocket like Claire's last one, even though that one got ruined too. (Maybe I shouldn't have brought them at all.) That didn't matter, though. Because we were almost there. Because mom and dad would be waiting for us with open arms and ask us about how our day went, and cook us a homemade meal even giving us seconds if we wanted, and let us lay on our own nice comfy beds as they told us their tales of being goat people. They would tell us they loved us, that we would never have to make such a dangerous journey again, that we would never be alone again. That the four of us would be a family.
It would all be okay once we found the goat men.
When we reached the goat town it was smaller than I had imagined. It wasn't even a town, just a lone log cabin with an open corral of goats adjacent to it. A dog lazily laid by its entrance as if acting as a warden. It didn't even bother to lift its head up or bark at us, probably because we weren't goats. Edwin stopped and stared at the goats while he fidgeted with his arm, tapping it methodically. He sat down and started rubbing his feet as if noticing for the first time that his feet were a deep shade of purple. (His fingers looked the same color but that could have been from the dye). He asked me if I could knock on the door for him as he made himself look presentable; he wanted to look like everything was fine and easy for when the goat people—mom and dad—came out to see him.
A man with a gray beard opened the door before I even knocked. Judging from his looks, he must have been in his seventies or something because he was stooped over and used a cane, far too old to be one of Edwin's parents. I told him the reality of the situation. That I, and my friend by the goats, had wandered into the forest. That the mudslide had claimed everything but what we had on. That my friend had severe frostbite. That we were hungry and tired and needed to go home. The man leaned in and squinted at my face. He said he recognized me from the news. That I was reported missing since last night. That my parents cried on the news pleading for someone to find me. That a rescue team was deployed last night. That they found a broken clarinet sticking out from the mud and a volume of letters scattered in the woods. (It was the letters that led them to the dispositional area of the mudslide). That a helicopter had just taken off this morning to do an area search for me. Before I could ask about Edwin, the old man turned around and said that he would call the police and let them know that I was okay. With any luck, the helicopter would be en route. I asked him if there were any other goat herders in the mountain. He said no.
When I exited the cabin, I could hear the sound of helicopter blades beyond the ridge. The rescue crew was probably only minutes away; maybe they had just received the call from the old goat herder. Edwin was still sitting massaging his feet and flapping his clothes to shed the dirt that had crusted over. He waved to me as I approached him, trying to figure out what exactly I should say. (Maybe the truth). And as if reading my mind, a goat exited the corral and walked towards me, blocking the path between Edwin and me. Its beady black eyes stared into mine as it licked its lips looking as if ready to say something profound. The helicopter had just passed the ridge and was hovering above us as the goat opened its mouth.
Brandon T. Madden
has recently been published in various undergraduate, graduate, and professional journals including The Red Cedar Review, S/tick, the River and South Review, Flyover Country Review, Sediments Literary Arts Journal, Gravel Literary Journal, Empty Sinks Publishing
and Write Time and Write Place
. In addition to fiction writing, he has also published academic and political theory papers in journals including The Transnational. In 2011, he published his first novel, V.S.A.
He hopes to one day become a competent writer.