The goat's head protruded from the mountain wall, the granite encircling its neck. Its body, if it had any at all, was trapped inside the rock.
Eljay leaned a ladder against the cliff. After he had climbed about thirty feet, the goat's horizontal pupils came into view. It looked at Eljay with weary eyes. There were no more questions in those eyes. Its grey hair was ragged and thinning.
The goat had lost the ability, or the will, to open its mouth for nourishment. Therefore Eljay pushed a stout twig up one of its nostrils. When he did this, the goat's eyes looked less weary. Eljay could sense that it was in pain. But like a rusty trap, its mouth opened little by little.
A gourd hung around Eljay's neck. He tilted the gourd to the goat's mouth. The animal drank as much as it could, coughing when the flow was too strong. Most of the water ran down its beard.
Did the water pass into a body? Or into the cliff? Many times Eljay had probed the area where the goat's neck met the rock, searching for a dividing point between flesh and stone, but he had found none. Its coarse hair seemed to merge into the cliff seamlessly.
Perhaps he was missing something. The goat always seemed refreshed by the water he gave it, implying the presence of a body behind the rock. Had the animal wandered into a cave, and, seeking sunlight and air, thrust its head into a small vent in the mountainside? What other explanation could there be? But something told Eljay this was not true. The goat, he knew, would die very soon.
Eljay had much to regret. There had been fires. He had ruined crops and caused famine. When a friend was maimed, he had become disoriented in the forest, and alerted others too late. Exile was a just punishment, he thought, for his mistakes. No one wanted him to suffer. To secure him against privation, the townspeople had loaded a sturdy wooden cart with enough supplies to last a year. This cart had given him endless trouble, but he could not have survived without it.
Since late summer, Eljay had lived in a shack on the summit of the mountain. He had not intended, as he passed through unknown lands, to stop and live on this mountain. He had intended to accomplish nothing but distance all the years of his life. But one day, as he lowered the cart-handles and sat with his back to the wall of a cliff, thinking over the past, he saw the head of a goat above him protruding from the rock.
At first he could not believe his eyes. He climbed a tree to get a better look. When the goat noticed Eljay, his feet wedged high up in the fork of a trunk, it snorted and spat at him. Many times he was pelted with saliva. The animal swung its head back and forth until it panted from fatigue.
Eljay found it impossible to leave. Here was something that altered the known patterns of the world. Here, too, was an opportunity for him to change his ways. He would become the goat's benefactor and companion. The animal was, after all, solitary like him. And despite the absence of people in these lands, someone was bound to pass by the mountain at some point. Whoever it was would marvel at what he had found and inevitably ask him to come away with them to some faraway town.
For two weeks he built a ladder, which required all his ingenuity. Though it turned out to be more durable than the shack he had built, it was still barely adequate. The frame, forty feet high, listed as he ascended it for the first time, scraping against the cliff. A rung cracked under his foot.
By slow degrees, the goat began to desire Eljay's presence. In the afternoons, if he had not visited it or brought it food, it yowled, sending echoes across the valley. When autumn came, though, the animal suddenly stopped eating. It dipped its face into his palm but would keep its mouth shut. The fat beneath its fur dwindled. It would only drink water when forced. Eljay could not discover the reason for this change. He wondered how the goat had survived before he found it. He despaired because he wanted someone to see, before the animal died, that it relied upon him.
The signs of winter were beginning to show. Leaves floated in the air. The cliff, like a frozen waterfall, dropped vertically from the sky.
Eljay gripped a hammer in his hand. He could waste no more time. The creeks had flowed with slush that morning. Frost had collected in the goat's fur. No matter what he did, its mouth would not open anymore. The twig had no effect. A white crust had formed over the animal's lips.
The only option left to him was to try to free the goat from its prison in the rock. He dreaded the act. What if the mountain were indeed part of its flesh? Would extricating the animal from the rock cause it pain, or perhaps end its life? But he could waste no more time.
The hammerhead came down upon the granite and sparked. The goat's head lunged forward. Grains of mica split from the rock, whizzing past. The goat twisted its head toward Eljay, trembling. Its pupils sprang into dilation. If only it could open its mouth. For the second time the iron rebounded. What looked like urine leaked from the goat's nostrils.
Eljay went at it until his arm was numb and smoke issued from the cliff. But he had made no progress. The rock would not fracture like the stones he had found decaying in the woods. The cliff was impenetrable. He dropped the hammer. He looked down at the goat, which hung its head, unconscious.
A bearded man stood on the summit of a neighboring mountain. In a gloved hand he held the carcass of a squirrel. The trap, which would not be set again until next year, diminished in the distance as the man walked along the ridge-line. He had cut a path along this ridge long ago.
The wind blew over him as he descended the mountain, carrying the scent of smoke. He stood still for a moment and scanned the landscape. Beyond the trees he detected movement on the summit of a mountain to the northwest. In his two decades of trapping in this region, he had never encountered another soul.
If this were someone pursuing game, he wanted to meet them. The cliff of the mountain was not climbable so he aimed for its sloping side. The summit, he guessed, could not be more than an hour's journey.
As the man approached the mountain's base, the sky grayed. The clouds were hardly visible when he passed the last trees and the bald summit opened before him like a meadow. He spotted Eljay sitting beside a wood-pile which had lost its flame. Behind him was a shack of interwoven branches.
The man called a greeting. Eljay leapt to his feet. If there had been woods close by, he would have fled to them. He feared that this man would somehow do him harm. Then he remembered what he had been wanting all this time. He tried to calm himself by thinking of the goat.
The stranger came forward. He wore an outfit made of deerskins sewn together. His beard was like a board lifted from the dirt. He was dark-skinned and had alert blue eyes. He said that his name was Olmsted.
"Are you trapping hereabout?"
"No, I'm not trapping,"
Something about the man's manner put him at ease. It was abrupt but not hostile.
Olmsted asked what he was doing in these mountains—he had never met anyone here before.
Eljay could not speak about his exile to the stranger. He did not want the man to scorn him. For a moment he hesitated. But as he met Olmsted's gaze, he recovered enough to say: "I left home in search of a marvel. I found one here, on this mountain. If you're willing, I'll take you to see it."
Olmsted disliked this strange, evasive talk. Something was not right with Eljay. He was old-looking yet his voice was that of a man of thirty. The rags he wore stank of mildew and perspiration.
"Tell me what you mean by marvel,"
Olmsted said. "I've got a hundred traps to check before the snow arrives. I thought to meet someone of information up here. Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered."
Eljay was on the verge of tears.
"There's a goat,"
he said. "I've been taking care of it since the summer. What you won't believe is that it's wedged into the cliff down there. It looks as if it's grown out of the rock. I know that's not what's happened,"
he added nervously, seeing that Olmsted's beard twitched, as if the man had bitten his lip in anger. "The thing is, something's wrong with the animal and I don't know what to do. I don't understand any of it. I need help or advice or anything you can give."
Olmsted was interested. A goat in this region, hundreds of miles from any town? Before he turned to trapping, he had kept a flock of goats. But they, like all the animals in the west, had died from the pox or dysentery. He had not seen a goat in years.
The man considered his options. The ridges in the west were darkening. Journeying back to his cabin at this hour was not worth the trouble. A goat pelt would get him a set of metal traps in town, at the very least.
Olmsted said. "We'll leave first thing tomorrow."
He sat down and started kindling the fire Eljay had abandoned.
Dawn revealed the bones of a squirrel in the fire-pit. The two men crawled out of the shack. Both were shivering. Olmsted started a fire to ward off the cold.
"Why didn't you take more time building that thing?"
Olmsted asked, looking at the shack. He was almost in awe of its inadequacy.
"I didn't know any other way,"
After eating a breakfast of mast, they followed a well-worn path down the mountain. Eventually they reached flat ground where the cliff rose, curving out of sight. Forty feet above them the goat's head hung from the rock. Its eyes were overgrown with lichen but its nostrils sniffed the air.
Olmsted heard a noise and looked up. He stood there, gripping his beard as if it were blown by a wind. "That's not possible,"
he said. He turned to Eljay and gave him a hard look. He had expected the goat to be at the cliff's base. Eljay withdrew the ladder from the leaves and leaned it against the mountain. He was flushed with anticipation. "I can't tell you what's happened,"
The man spat on the ground and wasted no time. Hand over hand, he began the ascent. He knew that Eljay had built the ladder so he took extra care. The goat, sensing the approach of a stranger, bucked with a whine in its throat. At one point it knocked its head against the ladder, which tipped precariously. "Damn you,"
Olmsted cried as the ladder righted. When he reached the goat he seized its horns. The animal blasted air through its nostrils, but could not move anymore.
"Hold the ladder for me,"
he called down to Eljay.
Olmsted kept one hand on the goat's left horn and hooked his free arm around its neck. He pulled and strained until a rim of blood emerged on the rock around the animal's neck.
Eljay did everything in his power to stay quiet while Olmsted attempted to free the goat. His thoughts were in a fury of protestation. This was not the scenario he had imagined. If the man would not praise him for the discovery, he could at least be gentle with the animal Eljay had grown to regard as part of himself. Such a man, he thought, could never sympathize with his troubles.
After deciding that the goat was indeed anchored into the cliff, Olmsted continued to explore the animal with his hands. He pinched its withered pelt and shook his head. He pressed his ear to its neck, listening for a heartbeat. When a few minutes had passed, he rapped the granite with his knuckles.
"What can we do to help it?"
Eljay called, his eyes glancing up the cliff. Olmsted stood against a sky of slow-moving clouds, inspecting the goat's horns. For some time the man did not reply.
"Not a thing,"
he said at last. "It doesn't have long to live. I've seen this disease before–must be the kidneys. But we'll get it out of the cliff, one way or another. I've got to understand how this happened."
"I've designed a thousand traps in my day,"
Olmsted said. He talked while sawing a pine tree. "But that mountain's the best trap I've ever seen. Whether it's natural or someone carved a hole in it, I can't say. But the way the rock pinches down on that animal's neck, snaring it, but not suffocating it—I could've never imagined such a thing. There's no doubt there's a body behind the rock. It's just a matter of getting to it the right way."
Olmsted and Eljay were building a lean-to in the forest, a few yards from the cliff. The man would not spend another night among the disorder and exposure of Eljay's mountaintop home. He disliked Eljay less now that his story had proven true. He insisted that they remain in each other's company while they dealt with the goat.
That night the two sat talking over a fire.
"Don't you think there's a possibility,"
Eljay said, "that once the goat's out of the rock, it might recover and live?"
Olmsted said, "keeping that animal alive all this time, giving it water it doesn't want—it would've been better to leave it be. The only question is how it got up there in the first place."
"There must be something we can do,"
Eljay said in an unsteady voice. "It's the only thing I've ever taken charge of. I can't let it die."
Olmsted looked at Eljay through the smoke. "It's not for you to decide,"
With the fire still burning, and his eyes closed, Olmsted came up with a plan. Back at his trapping cabin—one of many spread over five hundred miles—he had a number of tools which were more suitable than the ones Eljay had used: a chisel, a rope, a bellows, a mallet, and a set of buckets. Tomorrow he would go to his cabin and return with them. Alive or not, he would get the animal out of the rock in two days, no less.
From afar, five points of flame could be seen on the cliff. They formed a pentagon in the night. Earlier, Olmsted had bored holes into the rock, an inch from the animal's neck. He had filled the holes with charcoal. By standing atop the ladder, and working a bellows, he kept the embers burning. His object was to heat the stone surrounding the goat's neck until it scorched. At the critical moment, which was close at hand, Eljay would send up buckets of cold water by way of a pulley system Olmsted had devised. After the cliff was doused with enough water, the rock would fracture. This would either loosen the mountain's hold on the goat or, with luck, free it completely.
As he pumped the bellows at the ladder's top, Olmsted noticed Eljay was missing. He wiped his perspiring face. He cursed and looked at the goat, whose agony was so deep it was silent.
Eljay came back into the atmosphere of light carrying a bundle of blankets.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Olmsted yelled. He gave a few pumps at the bellows. "Don't you move from those buckets again. The rock's hot as a furnace. I'll be ready any time now."
He paused. "What are you spreading out those blankets for?"
"I don't want it falling to its death when the rock breaks up,"
"That won't do any good,"
Olmsted yelled down to him. "If it falls forty feet, blankets won't save it."
Eljay distrusted the man's judgment, but could not resist the will of one set on the goat's release. He stopped trying to guess where the animal might fall and threw the blankets into the woods.
In rapid succession, the buckets, whose contents slushed with ice, were delivered up to Olmsted. The man discharged the water against the cliff, splashing the goat's neck. The rock encasing the animal began to splinter.
Eljay, who was attaching the last bucket to a hook, paused. Through the smoke, he saw legs descending the ladder. "Is it alive?"
Olmsted reached the ground before answering.
"It's already fallen,"
he said. "It was too smoky to see where it fell or what it looked like."
Both men started searching the base of the cliff. Eljay searched more frantically.
The smoke cleared. Starlight dimly illuminated the forest's edge. Eljay perceived something move in front of him. There, he saw the goat's head and neck, attached to a bulky fragment of rock. No body extended past this rock. The animal was digging its nose into the leaves, trying to pull itself forward. But it was either too weak, or the rock was too heavy. Eljay ran up to the animal and gathered its head in his hands. He could see no wounds except for a cavity in its forehead where a horn once stood. Lichen had been torn from one of its eyes. The eye, suffused with blood, ticked over Eljay a few times before rotating and becoming glazed. "Why did I listen to that man? I should've put those blankets down. I know you better than anyone."
These are the things Eljay said into the goat's ear.
Olmsted hovered over Eljay and the goat. The man had a look of wonder and disgust on his face. He seemed to be struggling for words. "Malformed,"
Olmsted said finally. He walked back to the ladder, climbed up, and looked into the hole in the mountain where the goat had been. By the grey light of dawn, Olmsted saw that no body could have ever existed inside it. The concavity was less than a foot deep.
Eljay had not moved, his mouth pressed to the goat's ear. He did not notice Olmsted return.
"It'll smell soon,"
the man said, almost softly. "There's nothing to do but burn it."
Eljay shook his head. Olmsted hardly existed for him now.
The man had never heard someone talk to a dead goat like that. He gave a last look at the spot where the goat's neck and the granite merged. It was a mistake, some afterbirth that had taken hold. In his long journeys, he had come across things which were not, perhaps, so different. After retrieving the pulley, and gathering his tools, Olmsted set off for his trapping cabin. Neither he nor Eljay had anything to say to each other. There was no reason for them to meet again.
Eljay woke in the afternoon. A bird was perched atop the goat's head, tearing at its hair. He flung his arm at the bird, which flew up to a branch and stayed there, eyeing the scene. He guarded the goat's remains for the rest of the day. The next morning dozens of birds amassed in the trees. They seemed eager for his departure.
He realized that he could not dig a grave at the foot of the mountain. Other animals roamed the vicinity. Wolves or foxes might excavate in the night. He worked up his nerve and took the goat under its stiff jaws. He began dragging it, along with the granite block, across the forest. There was a creek a mile away. It was not until dusk, though, that he reached it. The labor was difficult. He often stopped to weep.
The creek was frozen all the way down to the sand. Three days earlier Eljay had had to cut the ice with a handsaw and melt it over a fire to fill the buckets for Olmsted. The handsaw, which was his own, still lay beside the creek. Before long he had carved out a square large enough to inter the goat.
It took some adjustment to get the goat and its conjoined rock into the grave. With his heart beating fast, he bent the animal's neck to fit a corner in the ice. He saw that the cube he had cut from the creek could not be reinserted. So he melted half of the ice in a pot over a fire.
In the twilight Eljay poured the tepid water over the goat's head until it was submerged and the water leveled out with the frozen surface. The water did not take long to freeze. No animal that he knew of could burrow into this creek. The goat was safe until spring. The ice would preserve it.
The snows came, but fell less than usual. The winter, however, was relentlessly cold. Many times Eljay almost froze to death. His shack could have been sealed with materials from the forest, but he gave himself up to chance.
Slowly the season passed. One day, Eljay woke sweaty and restless. Sunlight bore down on his shack. "The hell,"
he thought. He crawled outside. The sky was blue and cloudless to the farthest mountains. The snow in the shade of the trees was melting. Streams of water curved down the slope of the granite. Above him, the sun seemed fixed. He thought of nothing but the pleasure of the light. For some time he stood there until, looking at the meltwater, an image of the goat in the creek came to his mind. His body jerked. He ran for the path which led down the mountain.
Eljay came to a stop, his chest heaving. A strong flow of water passed between the remnants of ice along the banks. He rushed into the water and located the block of granite. Using all his strength, he hauled it into the air and shored it. The worst had happened. The current had done its work. A circle, dense with multicolored tissue, marked where the goat's neck once joined with the rock. The force of the water had torn it away. For days Eljay searched the creek. Miles downstream, he waded out of the rapids, and returned hopeless to the mountain.
What was there to be gained? Where was he to go? The mountain had become merely an upthrust of dirt and stone. Such a creature as the goat, akin to nothing, could never be found again.
In the heat of the summer, Eljay revisited memories until his face looked older than before. But as the leaves changed color, it became clear that his supply of food would not last much longer. There was no choice but for him to depart. The urgency of his situation turned his mind to the present. He dismantled the shack and the wooden cart the townspeople had given him. It looked as if he had never lived on the mountain. He gathered a few things in a pack and left the cliff behind him.
A month later Eljay walked under the falling leaves. He was far to the north of the mountain. He doubted even Olmsted had ventured into this region.
In a pond he caught a speckled trout. He found a hillside overgrown with wild leeks. Though it tasted bitter, he ate the bark from trees. He moved on with no destination in mind.
A herd of deer appeared from the east and changed direction, keeping pace with him. It was during the rut. Bucks rubbed their antlers against trees. Does squatted and lifted their tails to urinate. Eljay, by some intuition, drifted into their procession. They surrounded him on every side.
For the first time in years, his thoughts flowed without obstruction. The past, he realized, was only a frame of mind. He imagined Olmsted, and all the townspeople who had wronged him, gathered on the banks of a distant river. Tears filled their eyes as the goat's decayed head rose from the water. Its mouth opened, as if to speak to them. Its jawbone caught the sunlight. Eljay could not resist laughing.
Originally, I wrote this story in verse. The death of my cat three years ago was on my mind a lot—as were animal trappers in the Taiga, Gilles Deleuze's concept of "deterritorialization," and the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, which I love.