Goats

Goats

October 03, 2022

 

 

 

Goats

by Jason Pfister

 

 

Eli watched the goats from the European-style balcony of the second-floor duplex. There were at least twenty of them, hooves ticking on the cobblestones, throats baying in mournful staccato as they snaked uncertainly below. He assumed the appearance had something to do with the storm the night before. He and Charlize had slept through most of it, but he remembered waking in the night, half in a dream, and being disturbed by the howling wind and the force with which the rain was pelting the window above their bed. 

“If we had not opened that second bottle after dinner,” Charlize confessed, “I’m sure I would have woken Mrs. Holloway and asked her if we shouldn’t go hide in the basement.”

“You would have done no such thing,” said Eli. “You would have made me do it, and we both would have looked like idiots.”

This made Charlize laugh. 

“True enough,” she said. “And goodness, Mrs. Holloway would have really thought us city folk then, don’t you think? I’m sure she’d have loved to see us terrified of a little rain.” 

Eli agreed. The old woman had seemed unable to hide her displeasure when Charlize told her they lived in Manhattan. 

“I could never live in a big city like that. Too noisy,” she’d grumbled. 

Funny how people who didn’t live in cities were always going on about how they could never live in one, Eli thought. A bizarre sort of pride in their disinterest in culture, art, music, and delicious food. 

“You could though,” Eli always wanted to say. “You could live there and maybe you should if you’re so ignorant as to imagine there’s nothing of value in such places.”  

Charlize joined him on the balcony now, phone in hand. She’d spent the morning in bed and was still only wearing a pair of pink ankle socks and panties. She pointed her phone and began recording the goats, speaking in the same cheery, semi–news anchor sounding voice that she always used whenever she made videos. 

“We are here on the island and it seems the goats received word we were coming and have put together a little a parade…”

Eli frowned as he listened, eying the dark windows of the buildings that lined the opposite side. 

“Look at them go… Hello there, little ones! We are honored!”

“Shouldn’t you put something on?” Eli said, motioning to her bare breasts. 

In response, Charlize huffed, and while still recording, she turned the phone on Eli with a rebellious sneer. 

“Free the nipple,” she said, and then, lifting her arms in the air and thrusting her chest forward over the balcony, she yelled. “Free the nipple!” 



The restaurant was Greek and they ate outside in a pebble garden against a wall of vined trellises. They ordered the grilled feta with toasted sesame seeds and honey and a delicious olive tapenade that they spread over warm rosemary dinner rolls, the bread emitting gasps of steam when punctured with a knife. For the main dish, Eli had the Florentine and Charlize got the French toast, which she took only a few bites of before declaring she was full. 

“Get it wrapped up,” Eli suggested. 

“And what? Eat leftovers on vacation?” 

There was a fence but the street was still visible, and they watched two teenage boys corner one of the escaped goats against a garage door. The tallest lad was tasked with trying to loop a rope around the animal’s neck, while the other, stockier boy, clapped his hands and moved to block the goat’s escape whenever it attempted a stunted charge. After a short drama, the goat was successfully lassoed, and then both the teens led the thing—bleating and thrashing—away down the street and out of sight. 

“What do you think they do with them?” Charlize asked, a far-off look in her eye as the goat’s cries grew weaker. 

“I’m not sure,” said Eli. 

“Do you think they slaughter them?” 

“Maybe,” said Eli.

“Oh, I hope not,” said Charlize.

Eli had noticed the couple eyeing them during their meal, but he hadn’t given it much thought. The man looked to be in his late fifties: salt and pepper hair receding at the temples, a soft, grizzled double chin. He wore a white blazer, while his wife—who looked to be around the same age—wore a beige, billowy summer dress, and thick, expensive-looking sunglasses that were black and flared at the tips. Her skin, Eli couldn’t help but notice, was waxy in the way that usually betrayed some history of youth-affirming surgery, though—luckily for her—she did not appear to have acquired the swollen plastic look in her lips that plagued so many of her ilk.

“They eat some of them,” the man said loudly. “We came for Easter one year, and there had to be at least a dozen being roasted on outdoor spits all across the island.” 

Charlize grimaced and lifted a hand to her forehead. 

“You shouldn’t have told me,” she said with a groan. “The poor dears…”

“It’s because the island is mostly Greek,” said the man. “I usually don’t care much for goat meat myself, too gamey, but the Greeks can’t get enough.” 

“Yes, I’ve heard that,” said Charlize.  

The man nodded with gusto. 

“My wife and I, we come here every year. Sometimes two, three times in a season. We just love it. We live about six hours north but the locals all know us by name. Just ask around about Ron and Judy, they’ll tell you. We’ve been vacationing here since the early nineties. It’s almost like a second home, really. We’ve brought our friends, our kids, grandkids, cousins, you name it. We really just can’t get enough of the place. Have you been to the botanical garden yet? Or the art museum? Where are you all from? Did you travel far to get here, or are you locals, like us? Ha ha. How long will you be staying for?”

At this point, the man’s wife reached and placed a hand on her husband’s forearm.

“You’ll have to forgive him,” she said. “I’m afraid he’s developed a little crush. We saw you this morning, you understand, on your balcony. Ron was quite impressed.”

“Now, Judy…” said Ron, frowning before lifting what looked to be a gin and tonic and sipping generously from the black straw. “Don’t embarrass the girl. I was just being friendly.”

“Oh,” said Judy, addressing Charlize. “I hope you didn’t take it that way, sweetheart. I think it’s wonderful actually, being so comfortable in your own body. When I was your age, I was the same way. I used to go sunbathing at the nude beaches on the Amalfi coast. Have you ever been?”

“No, I hear it’s beautiful though,” said Charlize, her smile was cordial, and she did not seem the least bit embarrassed. 

“Oh, it is,” said Judy. “You absolutely must make it a priority. You haven’t really been in the ocean if you haven’t been in it naked. So freeing. It’s almost spiritual.”

“I can imagine it would be,” said Charlize. 



They were on the bike path that ran parallel to the bay and the grayish, flat stretch of pebbly beach. Ahead of them, the coastline curved and then was interrupted by a wall of windswept trees, beyond which a rustic hotel balcony was only just visible.  

“We’ll have to get dinner with them now,” said Eli. 

Charlize seemed to not hear.  

The bikes were rentals, cheap and teal colored. There were no gears and Eli thought his tires could use some air. Pedaling seemed more difficult than it should be and, on hills, he was having trouble keeping up.

“I told them we’d think about it,” Charlize said. 

“What excuse could we possibly give?” said Eli. “We’ve got three days left with them here.”

On their right, a green pickup approached, coming up the road from behind. As it passed, Eli recognized the two boys whom he had watched wrangle the goat earlier. They were seated across from one another on the lip of the truck bed, grinning happily and laughing whenever they jostled over a pothole or section of uneven pavement. 

“They’re still on the lookout,” said Eli. “Wonder how many are left…”

The truck disappeared around the bend and then a particularly fierce gust of wind forced Charlize to stop her bike and pause to readjust her ponytail. With one hand, she choked her reddish curls with her thumb and forefinger, pointing her chin upward, while her other hand performed the delicate act of untangling and then widening the mouth of her scrunchie.  

“I thought Judy and Ron were nice,” she said, easing the hair through the band and then twisting and pulling it back. “Anyway, it might be fun to pretend we’re adults, don’t you think?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” 

This time Charlize didn’t answer but instead turned and looked out over the bay. In the distance there was a helicopter inching above the black water. A buzzing speck, like a fly caught in a vat of blueberry cream.  



The bar was empty, and though they weren’t hungry, they ordered steamed clams to pair with the chilled glasses of Chardonnay. 

“So you’re sulking now?” said Eli. 

Charlize poked a tiny silver fork at the flesh of her plated mollusk. Her legs were crossed and the heel of her white sneaker was tapping against the wooden rung of her stool. Tap, tap, tap.  

“Aren’t we on vacation? Shouldn’t we try to have a nice time?” said Eli. 

“You never want to talk about it,” said Charlize. 

“That’s not true. I just don’t want to talk about it while we’re on vacation.”

“Or when you’re working.”

“Or when I’m working, yes.”

“Or when you’re tired.”

“Look, Charlize, can we just…”

“Or if it’s too early. Or if it’s the weekend. Or a weekday.”

“Charlize…”

She was gone when he returned from the restroom. 

He sat down and ordered a cocktail, searching the vacant tables and the view of the ocean and the balcony through the sliding glass doors. 

“Did you see where she went?” Eli asked, once his drink was in front of him. 

The bartender was tall and pudgy, with clean, hairless cheeks and neatly cropped black hair. 

“Through the side door,” he said, motioning with an elbow. 

“Outside?” said Eli. “She left? Did it seem like she was coming back?”

The bartender shrugged, and Eli rose, gulping his drink and fingering his wallet out of the pocket in his shorts.

“You have kids?” Eli asked. 



Both bikes were still where they had left them and so he guessed that she had walked down to the beach. He made his way along the craggy path that cut between the dunes and then emerged out onto the waterfront, pebbles crunching under his sneakers and the air smelling briny and like the sea. To his left, the beach was flat and deserted, but if he looked right, he saw the land rise up into a jagged cliff face, silhouetted so that it appeared like the bow of a gigantic ship, calcified in the bright sky. The shoreline below the cliff looked difficult to navigate, spotted with black boulders and driftwood, and Eli guessed that Charlize had not walked that way—or to the beach at all, since there was no sign of her—and so he began retreating back toward the hotel, grumbling to himself about her flair for the dramatic. 

He stopped when he heard the bleating of the goat though, and waited, listening until the call came again, just to be sure he hadn’t misheard. That would have gotten Charlize’s attention too, he thought, and so now he redoubled his steps, setting off back down the hill and then turning on the beach in the direction of the cliff and haggard shoreline that wrapped like a horseshoe around the escarpment. 

As he picked his way against the jutted rock wall, he was forced to use the flat edges of the submerged boulders and the spines of bleached tree trunks to keep his shoes from the tide. It was a difficult balancing act, to be sure, and he became so absorbed in toeing from branch, to rock, to branch, that he did not immediately realize when he cleared the corner of the cliff and began moving into a small, sheltered cove. 

“Bahhh!”

The shriek surprised him enough that he lost his balance and abruptly slipped, elbows first, down into the shallow water. Cursing, he sat up and then found the goat watching him, a petulant look in its black eyes, and its mouth full and chewing on the woman’s wet hair. Eli blinked, unable to believe what he was seeing, and then, after he had no choice but to confirm it real, there was a panicked instant where he was sure the naked body was Charlize’s. 

There was a schooner behind her though and a web of blue veins on her bare arms and legs that meant she must have been lying there for some time.

The storm, he realized, she must have been caught… A shipwreck.

He got up and made his way, sloshing out onto the beach, ignoring the goat’s bleating protest and its eventual skittish dance backward towards the shadow of the overturned vessel. There was a faint smell, and he held his arm over his nose and mouth while he bent to examine the corpse. He could not bring himself to touch the skin with his bare hand, and so he fished a twig out of a nearby puddle and then used it to gingerly thread back a plastered knot of hair that obscured her face. 

He was not prepared—  

Wide milky eyes, staring into nothing, and her mouth wide too and filled not just with her tongue but with swollen intestines, regurgitated in the death throe, a desperate attempt by her body to expel the salt water. 

He choked, reeling, dropped his stick and began pedaling backward. When he was far enough, he lifted his hands over his head and breathed deeply, a cold sweat on his neck and forehead and the world growing closer around him. He noted the sparks that flitted over his vision while continuing to breathe, focusing only on the line of spindly trees that looked down on him solemnly from the height of the cliff above. 

The goat bayed, and he sensed it moving off but ignored it. Then, behind him, he heard what sounded like a cough. When he turned, he found there was now a man leaning against the side of the schooner, watching him. The man was thin, sinewy, with balding blondish hair and a leathery, workmanlike face. He wore no shoes and his frayed jeans were cut off at the kneecaps. He grinned a toothy grin at Eli, adjusting the shoulder of his sweat-stained, whitish tank top while tapping a flat knuckle against the hull. 

“Must have got caught in the storm. Rich folk, thinking the rules don’t apply to them,” said the stranger.

Eli gave an uneasy nod. 

“You see that copter earlier?” the man asked. “This is what they was looking for. Hard to see anything in this cove from above though.”

The man now stepped off from the schooner and moved with his eyes fixed on the dead girl. 

“Shame about her, isn’t it? Pretty thing like that. Bet she had more than a few more pony rides left in her, wouldn’t you say?” He grinned stupidly, but when he saw the look of horror on Eli’s face, he seemed embarrassed and shook his head. 

“Only a joke,” said the man. “I don’t mean no disrespect to the dead, I just mean that it’s a shame is all, that she was cut down in her prime like she was.”

An uncomfortable silence settled between them, during which time the goat meandered over towards the corpse, sniffing and thinking perhaps to return to nibbling on the woman’s hair. 

“Shoo!” Eli cried. “Shoo! Get away!” 

The goat bleated and leapt back. 

“Ah, the beast can’t do no harm,” said the man. “It’s just curious is all.”

“It was eating her hair,” said Eli, trying not to sound too hysterical.

“Was it?” said the man. “Well, it would leave the flesh alone, is what I mean…”

Again, there was an uncomfortable silence, after which Eli started walking back in the direction of the pointed cliff.

“Where are you going?”

“The police,” said Eli. 

“Don’t worry about that just yet. Come on back here, there’s something I need to show you.”

Eli hesitated. He was unsure what the protocol was in such situations. Perhaps the man, a local, had seen this kind of thing before and knew better than Eli on how it should be handled.  

“What is it?” Eli asked.

“Why don’t you come on over here and you can see for yourself,” said the man, already moving around the side of the schooner. 

Eli looked uncertainly at the goat and the goat looked uncertainly at him. 

“Come on,” said the man.

It was difficult climbing into the cabin from the vertical deck. The wood was slippery and there was only a thin blue rope to aid Eli in his ascent. He could smell the stench of death even before reaching the opening, and he had to pause, gripping the lip of the splintered doorframe while he pulled the neck of his shirt up over his nose. 

When at last he took a deep breath and let himself inside, he paused again, seated on the wall of the small stairwell. In the cave-like darkness, he could hear the man moving through the water below.

“Don’t be shy now,” the man called. 

Eli remained where he was but did peek out a bit further, blinking and attempting to orient himself to his surroundings. There was a porthole in the ceiling, through which a sunbeam speared the murky seawater, spotlighting an array of floating cookware and the corner of a waterlogged mattress. The walls around the porthole were curved and reinforced by a series of white planks that striped the inside of the hull, eerily reminding Eli of a ribcage. He could see the man now, standing at the back of the cabin, waiting, and he could see also, to the right of the staircase—tangled in what looked to be a cotton hammock—the bloated shoulders and half-submerged head of another man, who was clearly dead.

Eli groaned, turning his face away.

“You’ll get used to the smell in a minute,” said the man. “But the body isn’t what I need you for. Why don’t you come and take a look?”

“I’m not going down there,” said Eli. 

“You’ll have to,” said the man. “Can’t get it out on my own.”

His back was to Eli now, and he was struggling to lift something up out of the water. 

“What is it?” Eli asked. 

“Come down and see for yourself.”

“I won’t. Tell me, or else I’m leaving.”

The man groaned with effort or frustration, before he let whatever he was attempting to lift up drop to the bottom of the flooded boat with a thud. 

“It’s a safe,” said the man, wiping his hands on his t-shirt. “We have to hurry though, before the tide goes out… We have to move quickly.”

“What?” said Eli, though he had heard exactly what the man had said. 

“It’s a safe,” the man repeated. “I can’t get it out alone, too heavy, but if you help me, we can tie life preservers to it, and then I’ll swim it out to the other side of the shore where I can pick it up with my truck.”

Despite himself, Eli felt like laughing. 

“You want to loot the boat?” 

“Why not?” said the man, stepping forward so that the tip of his balding head seemed to catch fire in the light. “We’re the first to find it, aren’t we? You think the police wouldn’t have the same idea? All they’d have to say, if anyone asked, is that it must have sunk in the ocean. Who could dispute it?”

“I’m not a thief,” said Eli. 

“Neither am I,” said the man, stepping even closer now, so that his whole head was burning and his ear was pink and Eli could see the dark veins through the skin. “This isn’t the same as stealing, is it? They’re dead and won’t be missing whatever is here…”

The water sloshed against the walls of the boat.  

“Don’t you see?” said the man. “It’s a gift. They’ll never know. These people were rich, can’t you see? It probably wouldn’t mean much to them even if they were alive. And they were arrogant too, going out there in that storm like they did. It’s god’s will that we happened on it before anyone else. This was meant for us! Isn’t that obvious?”

The man’s head was full of flames. He waited on Eli to reply.

“I won’t be a part of it,” said Eli, and he began turning in order to crawl back out. 

“Wait!” the man called. “You don’t trust me… I can understand that. After all, we are strangers. So here then! Here is something else! I will give you this for your trouble, if only you just help me. Look, I’ll give you this!”

Eli knew he shouldn’t turn and that, of course, he would not help, no matter what it was that the man was offering. He could feel his breath hot on his chest, with the collar still pulled up, and he could feel the neck of his shirt tugging and slightly irritating his nose. 

“It is probably worth more than what is in the chest all by itself,” said the man. “But I will give it to you if you help me carry the safe out. Please!”

I should go and not look back, Eli thought. But still he remained, crouched in the slanted stairwell, breathing. 

“Please,” said the man. “Oh please! At least look and see what it is! At least just look and see!”



As he moved up the hill, Eli spotted Charlize on the hotel balcony. She was smoking a cigarette and gazing off down the shoreline that was spotted now with joggers and a family of four walking a golden retriever on a leash. She did not see him, her gaze fixed, elbows on the painted railing, and as he moved closer, he found himself struck by how beautiful she looked in that moment. Her brow was lowered and serious, and her neck was smooth like driftwood, curving elegantly and showing the length of the muscle and tendon beneath. 

He stopped a moment to admire her, smelling the salt air and feeling the breeze travel and press against his back and then move up and tug at the banded curls of Charlize’s ponytail and the black frill of her Parisian-style skirt. 

How long had it been since he had appreciated her like this? He wondered. And as he did, he felt a pang of sadness in the realization that he could not recall the length of time and was forced to admit that, over the years, he had somehow learned to take her beauty for granted. 

As he was thinking this, she sensed his presence, and her green eyes flashed. They looked at one another then, but it was a while longer before he would continue up the hill and climb the wooden staircase to the balcony where she waited.    



“My god!” cried Judy, clutching Charlize’s ringed hand in the candlelight. “It’s beautiful!”

“This happened just today?” asked Ron, leaning in his chair and squinting at the diamond over his wife’s shoulder.

“Yesterday,” said Charlize. “We’d been fighting, and I feel so silly because I was really angry with him and then he just…”

“We must order champagne!” cried Judy. “This is so exciting. Waiter! Oh waiter!”

“We’re so honored to be able to share this with you both,” said Ron. “This is a moment you will remember for the rest of your lives!”

He turned to Eli, grinning. 

“Come with me,” he said, motioning as he pushed his chair back and stood up. “Let the girls chat, I have something for you.”

The restaurant was on the beach on the western side of the island, which meant the sand was softer and the water wasn’t quite as calm. Eli could hear the waves rolling and breaking nearby, but there was no moon and the lights of the restaurant behind them made it difficult to navigate the darkness. 

“They’re Cuban,” said Ron, lighting Eli’s cigar with a silver Zippo. “Got them from work.”

“What kind of work?” Eli asked. 

“Textiles,” said Ron. “We do business with factories all over South America. You?”

“Real estate,” said Eli. “Her father owns a business in the city.”

“You work for her father then, huh? Was that before or after?” 

“After,” said Eli. “I was waiting tables before.”

They puffed in silence. Eli could taste the bitterness of the tobacco on his tongue and began to feel the delicious calm of the nicotine coursing through his bloodstream. 

“She had a miscarriage,” said Eli. “A few months back. I was relieved, if I’m being honest… But Charlize, she…” 

Ron nodded, exhaling a grey plume. 

“I understand,” he said. 

Eli spat onto the beach. 

“I hope you’re not offended,” said Ron, “but that morning, when I saw her on the balcony, your wife or… you’re soon to be wife, it stirred something in me, a dream, a terrible dream that I almost couldn’t escape from.”

“Oh?” said Eli. 

“I heard the siren’s call,” said Ron. “Like in Odysseus, have you ever read Odysseus?”

The Odyssey,” said Eli. “In college.”

“Well, whatever it’s called, it was just like that, it really was, like a song drifting into me from some kind of dreamworld, a mystical realm. When I saw her that morning... I wanted to be young again. I wanted to be free, I wanted to fall in love, to feel something… to not have to think about what it would cost. I wanted to just… just…”

Ron puckered his lips and exhaled a smoke ring, smiling. 

“You see, all of this…” he said gesturing vaguely back toward the restaurant. “This world, it all works because of transactions. You get me? It’s built on paying, and giving, and taking, and weighing what is worth what and to who.”

“Hmm,” said Eli.

“But for a brief moment, that morning… I remembered something else. That something else exists beyond all that bullshit, beyond that pencil pushing, numbers, and spreadsheet bullshit…” said Ron. “It’s huge and I used to feel it so close to me, so real inside me that I almost couldn’t stand it, I almost couldn’t bear to keep it down because it was always calling to me, always whispering to me to follow it. And I was so sure I’d always have it there with me. I always was so sure…”

Ron paused, and now that Eli’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he could see there was a group of children running down by the beach and kicking a soccer ball. He could hear them laughing, and he thought he recognized the two teenager wranglers in the crowd. Though he couldn’t be certain. 

“I don’t know how it happened exactly…” said Ron. “But over time, I lost it somehow. I don’t know how I did, but I lost it without even realizing…”

The waves crashed in the darkness and Eli’s stomach was feeling a little queasy now from smoking.

“Don’t ever let that happen to you,” Ron said, his voice gentle all of a sudden, the orange eye of the cigar flaring. “You remember that, okay? Don’t ever let that happen to you…”



“I ordered the ravioli appetizer for the table,” said Judy, handing Ron and Eli glasses of champagne as they moved to sit. “It’s what the waiter recommended and us girls were starving.”

In the dim light of the restaurant, her skin looked silky and smooth and not at all like work had been done. You could clearly see how beautiful she must have been in her youth. 

“To the happy couple!” said Judy, raising her glass. 

“Here, here!”

The ravioli was cooked in a brown butter sauce, with candied walnuts and shaved truffle. It was wonderful, both sweet and savory, the softness of the pasta pairing excellently with the walnut crunch and the tender herby sweetness of the filling. After the first bite, Eli and Charlize looked at one another and laughed. 

“It’s delicious,” said Charlize. “What’s in the center? I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything quite like it.”

“Oh,” said Judy, lifting her napkin as she chewed and seeming embarrassed. “I thought you knew.”

“Knew what?” asked Charlize. 

“Goat, sweetheart,” said Judy. “It’s goat meat. I’m sorry, I hope that’s okay.”

 

 

 

 

 

_______________  

Portrait of Jason Pfister

Jason Pfister is an MFA candidate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. You can find more of his recent fiction in Uncharted Magazine and The Eunoia Review.

 

 



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