Naomi Zhenmei Gage: Strange Pastures

Once upon a time, a man swallowed a goat. 

The man was very large and the goat was small enough to sit on a seed of grass, so tiny that individual organs and miniscule details could not be detected. Viewed by the naked eye, he was only a dash of white. 

The man was not what one would describe as a diligent chewer. The goat passed through his mouth relatively unharmed, loaded on a morsel of pork floss with his eyes half-open and his fetlocks tucked under its chin. The motion was horrible and dangerous, and several times the goat was very nearly done for: once, when he was separated from his raft of minced pork and landed on the precipice of a yellowing molar, another time when the enormous purple tongue with its textural protuberances swabbed him and ran him along the flesh of the mouth. The little goat was too young and too good-natured to believe in death, but for many years afterwards the mouth took a phantasmagoric quality in his mind, always rearing up in the darkness with its ghoulish image of tongue and teeth moving with enormous strength in the rhythmic gyration of mastication. He passed down the esophagus in one go, surprised by the sudden rushing darkness, the mesmeric and strange choreography of peristalsis, the thick ribbed tissue surrounding his fragile seedlike body. From his goat-mouth there issued a faint bleat, which found its way out of the man’s mouth somehow, worrying him. 

The goat washed up in the man’s stomach, which was where he made his home for quite some time. The acid, which was forever dissolving the insides of the man’s stomach tissue so it constantly had to be replaced, did not bother him. In many ways it was the perfect growing environment for the young goat. Undigested food was always showering down, where it was slimmed and refined by the clarifying influence of hydrochloric acid. The goat took his first steps on a particularly persistent mound of congee, which drifted in the gastric juice like a dissolving island. By the time the acid had eaten up the rice to his hooves, he had learned to jump. 

His days were regular and cloistered, the climate determined by the man’s three meals: the usual shower of congee and egg for breakfast, the sharp fragments of scallion hotcake that pelted from the esophagus at noon, the heavy rippling mass of food that tumbled down at dinner. He lived his days in perpetual shadow, swimming in antenatal haze, aware of nothing but the warmth of the sloshing gastric juice and the sultry gushes of dissolving food and the smells of the man’s body: the separate sourness of the acid, the strange peppery aroma that bloomed right before a morsel of food deliquesced completely. Sometimes he would sing and clop around, but, unlearned as he was, his songs were difficult to the ear, based not on lyrical format or preconceived musical notes but the disquieting tempo only he intimately understood, the pulse and throb of his host’s body. He did not know anything else, but when he pondered the matter he thought it would have been nice to have a companion, someone to harmonize with, someone to swim around in the dark with him. 

When he had reached his third or fourth year, he began to grow. The onset of size was sudden and rapid. His appetite grew swollen, and he began to eat everything that came into the man’s stomach with ravenous hunger, which had the welcome and cyclical effect of increasing the man’s hunger and causing more food to shower down. He grew to the size of a pea, and then the size of a dessert spoon. Soon he was causing the man some discomfort, and although the goat was not aware of this exactly he knew that he had somehow disrupted the reliable pattern that he had existed in for so long, and was sorry for it. But he could not stop himself from growing any more than he could stop the man from eating, and soon he was the size of a light-bulb, then the size of a human heart. Now, when he sang his songs and clomped around on his islands, he was always ramming into the walls of the stomach, which caused the man unbearable pain and resulted in a fist jamming sharply against him. It was then that he decided the situation was unbearable, and that he would have to escape. 

He had first learned of the possibility during his second year of life within the man’s stomach. During lunch-hour, the whole instrument of the stomach had given a sudden and unplanned shudder. The goat, struggling to pull his hoofs from a glutinous mass of sticky rice, looked around in alarm. The sensation had never been experienced before. The stomach gave another horrible convulsion, and then a process which the goat henceforth referred to as the exodus began. The rice, the egg, all of it coalesced into a rolicking tide which churned upwards heedless of gravity, propelled by some alien and frightening force. The little goat, bleating in panic, clung to a promontory of stomach tissue, and in this way managed to avoid being swept away, but he never forgot the desolate feeling of familiarity being eradicated, the intimate terrain of past – the landmarks and playgrounds floating in the acid, the fragments of plum which he knew would have remained for at least another week, the sheet of nori slowly dissolving into black murk, the fibrous and playful forest of bean sprouts – destroyed in a matter of minutes. 

The next exodus was only a matter of time. Once the goat had resolved to take advantage of it and claim his freedom, time narrowed to a series of finite points, characterized only by the differences in flavor. Every rumbling had him tensed in equal amounts of fear and exhilaration. He tried to sing and clomp as he had done so blissfully in the past, but found he could not; the songs had lost their rhythm because he had fallen out of the tempo of the body. The things that had once entranced him – jumping from island to island on one hoof, the restful up-down motion of the stomach when the man was sleeping, the gustatory anticipation that came when awaiting the onset of lunch – lost their charm; he became a shadow of his former self, grimly awaiting some unknown and uncertain future. 

At last the day arrived, precipitated by a succulent serving of mussels. The goat felt the rumble, smelled the brine, and looked up in alarm. He was not ready, he thought wildly, looking around at the darkness, the crepuscular textures and the piquant fizz of acid against the keratin of his hooves, but there was no time, he was going. He rushed up the esophagus and tensed in apprehension of the mouth, but the mouth was nothing, the mouth he could not even see because of all the light, which blinded him and shocked him, so that he was not even aware when he came flying out of the body at last and landed in a shuddering heap, slimy with the morass of primordial effluvium. 

The cold was the first thing he noticed after the light, the rush of absolute and ruthless chill. The merciless air against his slimed fur and in his mouth, when he opened it, fresh and astounding. He had not comprehended the reality of a world completely separate from the man, removed from his routines and reassuring rhythms. How he longed for the silty languorous dark of the stomach, the amniotic motion of the gastric sea and the perpetual warmth; how he regretted the decision. He could see nothing but white with his burned-out eyes, so it seemed to the young goat at first that there was nothing at all in this new world, no objects and no shadows. He wept there in the white cold, at first while lying still, but later while getting to his hooves and moving forward weakly, in some unknown direction. 

The goat had barely begun to mull over the new reality he had been presented with when the tip of a cane prodded him sharply; he glanced up but could not see with his blasted eyes the proper form and designation of the creature currently lambasting him, only a looming shape that seemed to swallow light. The goat moved with the prodding, shuffling and clipping his hooves against the spiny grass, moving blindly and faster than he ever had in his life. In this way he was herded, unrealizing. His ears pricked with the sound of activity – shuffling hooves, low bleating whines – and his nostrils with the reminiscent smell of yellowing alfalfa and neat shining piles of droppings, a smell that he realized later had haunted him for the whole of his life because it had come from his own skin. 

He was herded to the middle of this roiling, frothing group of kin; the cane receded and was gone, although he never stopped tensing in readiness for its sharp, cold nudge. He was surrounded on every side by skins like his. The heaving sides prowed with the long confident bones of ruminant ribcage, the short tails and flicking tails and slitted eyes. But different. Not scabbed over with drying gastric fluid, not stumbling over their own hooves, and far larger besides. The little goat came to their knobbed knees and no farther. 

In time, the little goat came to like the farm. There was alfalfa hay whenever he might wish it, heaped and fluffed in hearty green-streaked bales by the barred fences, and plenty of goats like him. There was no variation, it was true, and he missed the things the man ate: fat dumplings jammed with chives and meat, wild rice and brown rice and white rice, wok-tossed bok choy with garlic, cubes of silken tofu in broth. There was no nori at the farm, no congee, no mung beans. Only alfalfa, prasine and fibrous, with a taste like grass but edged with something darker and rather adult, the barest undertone of musk. 

There was nothing to do on the farm but eat. They ate, they ate, they ate all day long, hunched over with their heads sloped between their shoulders, chewing at stubby tufts of grass and munching at squashy strands of prickling alfalfa. At the edges of the known world there were fences: tall, barred fences, topped with a festoonment of arcing barbed wire. He could, if he rotated his head upwards with his body reared up on his hind legs, barely make out something beyond that, the suggestion of stranger pastures.

Once a week, the fences were opened, and humans came streaming through to perform various tasks. Some came with pitchforks. They fluffed and teased the alfalfa, separating strand from dwindling strand to give the appearance of more mass, a trick that some of the goat’s compatriots sadly fell for. Some came with wheelbarrows, heaped with sturdy bales of bedding. Others came with halters, and these the little goat feared. 

Their selections were arbitrary, or so it seemed. One tap on a goat’s shoulder and he was doomed; the halter was looped around his tensed neck, and he was led away, unresisting, to a murky fate. Once, a human ran a hand along the goat’s back and said, approvingly: what a lovely skin, just look at that color. That hand and its owner featured prominently in the goat’s nightmares, merged unsettlingly with the mouth, the teeth, so it all become an unrecognizable and horrifying morass of shadow-hands puppeted by shadow-people with glistening mouths, the tongues lolling redly. 

Annually, the females were released into the pastures. The leadup to that time was always uncomfortable, pheromones clogging the air with their troubling and arousing odors. Estrus. It began in September, and when he thought of that time there were always a series of images which fell into each other like a row of opening doors: the sonorous buzz of flies, the flick of short tails, the slits of another male’s yellow eyes staring baldly into his, an itch all over his skin, the crackle of dry lightning. 

Initially he had been discomfited, he had not understood. Later, when the females were released through the fence doors and streamed through in a sea of shining backs and fluorescent-tagged ears, he did. The first year, he chose – or found – a doe with limpid, burnished eyes and short, glossy horns. Goats did not usually have names, but she confided in him with a whisper that once she had been called Fala. 

Fala was beautiful and vigorous. She, like him, had not always lived on the farm. Once, she had been a pet goat, and she dimly remembered scenes from her past life: an infant human with chubby wrists, a birthday cake with seven candles, ribbons of spiraling pink and purple tied around her horns. He told her about his life in the stomach, and she did not believe him. Fed on a steady diet of alfalfa, the goat had grown to a reasonable size; he would no longer fit in the man’s mouth, and the thought both saddened and gratified him. 

Later, when the females had been taken away, he dreamed about her, and the children he knew grew in her womb- twins, he thought, although there was no way he could have known. Instead of the mouth he dreamed of Fala and her glistening eyes, the warm wet bundles emerging from her with their heads between their fetlocks, their eyes shut and blind to the world, their fur slimed with amniotic fluids. 

The image connected with something profound inside of him. In his mind there was Fala licking the scum and natal fluids off of the two kids with her rough and loving tongue; he shuddered with the phantom sensation. He never saw Fala again. There were other does, one creamy white with rosy pink eyelids, another glittering ebon with irises the color of brown sugar. He loved and lost them all, and came to know the swinging of the fence doors as well as he had once known the rumble of the man’s belly and the sudden rush of food in the airless dark.

As the years passed by, the goat’s friends and companions disappeared, each led away with a halter around his neck. There was nothing he could do. The routines of the farm had accustomed them to it, so that there was no alarm when members of their own were snatched away, no sudden shock and terror. Only slow dread, which was present always and everywhere, smogging the flock so thickly that, at times, the air could not be seen through. He became aware of a process occurring inside of himself, a gradual withdrawal or decoupling. He stopped nosing at the fences when the humans approached; he lost interest in alfalfa and could not bring himself to ingest it. There was a feeling in his chest like a thread pulled to its limits: taut, stretched out, causing pain as he breathed in and out. 

He formulated his plan with no real skill or ingenuity. Every day for a month, he systematically pawed at the ground by the eastern fence border with his front hooves, hollowing out a cavity. Initially, it was shallow, about the depth of a dinner plate, and he had to keep hurriedly pushing the dirt back in when the humans came to inspect. By the last week, it was the depth of a bathtub, and after a month he thought that escape was not only possible but probable. 

Late one evening he lowered himself into his self-created cavity and curled up there for what felt like hours, his nose pressed against the dirt with its trailing roots and mysterious white organisms, smelling the soil with avid and immobile interest. He noted the brocade of lacy pale mycorrhizal fungi and arbuscular bulbs, the grubs nosing their way blindly through the rich crumbling dark. Gradually he lost all sense of time and space. The dirt seemed to be breathing, closing and opening in a release-compression pattern similar to peristalsis. He was small as a raisin again, singing in the breathless soupy dark, a child again, an infant, unborn. 

At last he uncurled his sore limbs. It was dark now, he could hear the rustling sounds of his flock breathing, the short guttural clop of somnambulism. He nudged at the dirt on the other side of the cavity, and began pawing upwards. He worked steadily and fiercely the whole night, until he had pushed his snout through the other side. The smell of outside air – there was a night wind blowing, salty and brumous, clear of the pheromone fog and numbing haze of the flock – revitalized him. He dug with renewed vigor and broke through just short of daybreak. The sky was thundery gray edged with pink, a hesitant color, the veil of night readying itself to be whisked away. He wheeled around on his hooves and stared through the fence for one violent, agonized, loving moment, and then took briskly to the east. 

The goat roamed the wilds of the farm for what seemed to him like hours, although admittedly the capric sense of time was not very good. He observed things he had not noticed as a child, when he had come tumbling into the new world: how richly the grass grew when freed from hundreds of greedy goat mouths, the wheeling thrushes and other passerine birds that flew at strange angles through the thunderous sky, the sable cypress trees, cultivated into conical form with the color and appearance of crow-feathers, black against the pale sky. Eventually the cypress trees grew denser, and seemed to border some artificially imposed path. Sounds filtered through: humans laughing, high-pitched machine noises, hands clapping, metal clinking. 

The goat grew wary, but found he could not turn back. It seemed to him that the entirety of his life had been a precursor to this moment; the fabric of the world bent around it. All paths led here; in order to continue to exist, he had to pass through. 

The moment accrued a golden stillness, and he felt that he was an insect suspended in honey, watching shades of amber shift and pass before his eyes, unable to move or take action. Then he shook himself and moved forward along the line of the tree-rimmed path. As he walked forward, the sounds of humans grew louder and pitched higher. They grated on his ears, but he pressed onwards. At the end of the path, there was a house ringed in black cypress, the walls clapped with stratifications of white stucco and topped with a red clay roof. There was a picnic table with a checkered oilcloth covering, and string lights pinned to the cypress, and a frothing mass of humans, some slender and some plump, all with pale skins and dark fur, chittering, chattering, laughing. The food on the picnic tables: rice in a glory of color, wild black and saffron yellow, spring rolls browned at the edges according to the heat of the pan, wooden kebab sticks speared with roasted meat that filled him with a strange horror of which he did not know the origin. 

They were not noticing him, they were occupied amongst themselves. They were all talking over each other, excited voices changing pitch, vying for attention. They were all trying to tell a story. He could make no sense of their babble, but somehow the whole discomposed drama was part of the story, too, enriching it. He had a sense of how the story would live on in this way, accumulating layers like smells caught in the pages of a book that were released when leaved idly through. Every time they told the story they would think of this moment, the laughter and joy caught and tangled in their mouths, the string lights, the disorder and exuberance. He caught snatches of it: and he said – don’t you remember – who’s telling this story? Yes, he thought. Who? He moved forward, feeling suddenly too old for his bones. 

As he crossed the path into the yard the world seemed to sharpen into a higher resolution. A high whining noise and a feeling of compression between his two flattened ears indicated to the goat that there were greater forces, forces beyond his comprehension, which converged at this point and suppressed all the little motions and sounds of life that continued on beyond: the minute flapping of laundry in the wind, wildflowers swaying, tinny sounds of forks on plates. The smell of magnolia flowers and stinky tofu streamed into his nostrils. 

All of it felt familiar, blisteringly familiar. The goat thought for a moment that he had been here before and that time had, improbably, gotten into some sort of tangle, but dismissed the idea. It was the smells and the textures around him, dense and unsettlingly intimate, abrading him with sense memory. The sounds and voices were his childhood ghosts filtering dimly through a haze of years, heard through the open throat, the dark thick enough to cut with a knife. He could not pinpoint the exact moment of realization, but understood it nonetheless.

The man was eating saffron rice and his wrists were exposed by the cuffs of his shirt. The man had dark straight hair, smooth to the sides of his scalp, and thin parabolic eyebrows. He had thin shoulders, very wide, with an exaggerated clavicle exposed by a stretched collar. He was reaching for his water, idly swilling it, and the goat knew that habit, knew the sound of water rushing over the gums and tongue and teeth in a whirling gyre. Not only was everything about the man disorientingly intimate but all the things around him, his family’s voices and the food he ate, even the whistling of wind through cypress, were answers to sacred mysteries that haunted the goat even before memory was possible. 

The man was sitting in the center of all the laughing talk but he was quiet, saying nothing, not even smiling. Nevertheless the flow of chatter bent around him, a stream forked by an immovable obstacle. Every so often he would signal to someone standing on the side and say something in a low voice. There was a weapon at his belt. All this and many other things led the goat to understand that the man was in a position of command, possibly even the highest position. 

As most answers did, this one filled him with a daze so overpowering he nearly fell to his knees. He had thought he had escaped, he remembered. The horrible ordeal of the mouth and the expulsion, the unsolved questions which tormented him into his midlife. He had not wondered about the man because it had not occurred to him, or because he had been afraid. And now here he was, half-hidden by the cypress, staring wildly at the man who had been his home, his mother, his birth deity, unmoored by the realization that he had never escaped and it had been foolish to think he was capable of it. 

The bales of alfalfa, the humans that disembarked from their rolling vehicles and strolled through the pastures with various implements, the cypress trees, all of it had been the man’s orchestration, another world with the man as master. He had been the essence of every part of the goat’s world, the saturated matter that made up every thing. In all the goat’s lives the man had been the single common denominator and there he sat, unbothered, the sun one long white gleam on his shining black hair. The goat, staring, was filled with a love so fierce it materialized as hatred. He lowered his head. 

The goat came charging out of the cypress as a white blur, his horns pointed with unerring accuracy. Later the humans would marvel over it, how the horns never swerved and seemed to have a single target which they were drawn to like the needle of a compass. For now they were alarmed and amused, some laughing at the incongruity of the image, others crying out in fear. The goat heard none of it. He leapt over the table in a single arc and, shaking with devotion and despair, drove his horns into the man’s chest. 

The man roared in agony. His hand came thudding onto the goat’s head, gripping the base of his horns; the other went to his belt and drew the weapon. It was a rusted axe, the handle painted chipping red. The axe head gleamed through the brown brocade of rust intermittently, a dark and tarnished steel. This, he drove into the goat’s skull. A single blow was enough to shatter the goat’s skull, the sharp edge of the axe nudging into his brain matter. 

The man exhaled a gusty breath and drew the axe from the goat’s head, wet with fresh cerebral fluid. He gazed at the goat’s body for one long moment: sprawled over the table, slitted yellow eyes rolled up into its head, one hoof in his plate of saffron rice. Its horns were still piercing his shirt; they drew blood when he moved. His face was inscrutable. 

Dinner tonight, he said at last, setting his axe on the table with a solid thunk. Is anyone in the mood for goat? 

The end.

FROM GAGE: My mother immigrated from Taiwan when she was about my age. From a very young age, I’ve been interested in the language and culture that my mother and my grandmother are so fluent in. I’ve visited Taiwan many times. There is so much about Taiwan to love: the incredible variety of the 7/11 merchandise, boba tea, the night markets, the stinky tofu, the mountains.”

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