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The Goatherd

I wrote this character sketch as a writing exercise, in response to the prompt: “This is a map to where I live.” The quotations are from Shakespeare—I forget which play—and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”

"My, my, ain’t you an old ghoul! Why, you are just about the ugliest goat I ever seen!" I could hear Jerry talking to his charges in exaggerated hick dialect as I approached the barn he was mucking out. "Really, the whole pack of you is just a bunch of wall-eyed, crooked-jawed mutts--amazin’ anybody with good sense would feed you lot even to keep brush eat down!"

As I rounded the jamb of the big door, Jerry looked up. "Hi, Mr. Farnham," he said with a flicker of his eye on mine, then his eye scooted away to the other side of the barn, furtive and shy.

"Hello, Jerry, got a proposition for you." He stopped his work and leaned on his manure fork, a confused look playing across his face. Again the eye tagged mine, retreated.

Jeremy Bascombe had been at Sweetwater two years, engaged in—as he put it—"workin’ the goats." He was a hard and conscientious worker, and something of a wizard with the goats. They seemed more settled, more content, when he was around. There was a palpable herd-bond between them. He talked to them constantly as he worked, insulting them in creative, wildly exaggerated ways, in a sort of crooning incantation.

I had no idea where he hailed from—he had just showed up one day after a hot-head had walked away from the goat barn in a snit and left Sweetwater without even demanding his pay. I didn’t like to take new people without references, but we were in a jam, with a lot of work to do, so decided to give him a try. And from that day, had never had to worry about cleanliness and order in the goat barn. He mucked out every day without being told, a job most guys did their best to shirk. He was especially good with the kids: Gave them their feedings from the ten-nipple milk buckets; administered vaccinations; and burned off horn buds and castrated bucklings with such a gentle and soothing hand that the new kids never seemed traumatized. I never saw him put a kid down without giving it a kiss on the lips. "There," he’d say, "it’s no wonder nobody loves a scoundrel like you, but—what the heck?"

He avoided conversation with the other employees. He was not unfriendly, just not inclined to talk. And though his eye was always dodging away shyly, always on the retreat, it was clear that it missed no smallest detail. It was also clear he was not an uneducated bumpkin. I one day saw him passing Charlie and Jose, trying to unload a tightly-laced load of pruned grape vines and apple branches from a pickup. They were sweating and struggling—Charlie fuming and cursing, Jose placid—but managing to yank out only a single snarled branch at a time. "Oh what a tangled web we weave," sang out Jerry without breaking stride, "When first we practice to deceive!" Charlie glared after him, muttering, while Jose, comprehending nothing, beamed his usual broad-faced smile.

There was magic in the hand he laid on an ailing animal. A few weeks earlier there had been a young doeling who was down with an illness we weren’t able to diagnose, scouring badly and off her feed. Good care of the animals is fundamental at Sweetwater, but we aren’t sentimentalists; and Julie had decided to cull the wretched little thing. But Jerry had insisted that she give him a chance with her, and Julie reluctantly agreed. That evening when I passed a stall in the silent barn, the sun warming the interior just before slipping out of sight, I unexpectedly heard Jerry’s voice. He was sitting in a stall on a hay bale with the sick doeling in his lap, crooning quietly to her, "Why, you are just the prettiest little thing! Must be awfully hard on you, stuck with all these lowlife mutts. But don’t you worry about it, sweetie. You know: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air!" He must have stayed right there the whole night: When I passed that stall first thing next morning, the doeling was up on shaky legs, drinking a bit of milk from the bottle Jerry held out for her. Two days later she was kicking up her heels out on the pasture with the other kids, and nobody could tell which one she was. No one except Jerry, who would point to her without hesitation, "Oh yeah, that’s Louise." But you had to look where he was pointing—all female goats were "Louise" to Jerry; all males, "Leroy."

Some of the staff claimed Jerry had a drinking problem, but you couldn’t prove it by me. Oh, he did show up a time or two kind of green around the gills, but he was never once absent or even late, and he always did the work of two men. However, I did go over to his little cabin in the woods by the river one Sunday to deliver an urgent message—he didn’t have a phone. He dragged open the door with great effort, then clung to its edge with one clenched hand, his body slumped soddenly to one side. He stood in his socks, his shirt tail out, his hair greasy and dishevelled. As usual, his eyes met mine in a flicker, bloodshot and squinting, then he looked down and to the side, seemingly bent by a wind of pain beyond bearing.

"Jerry?" I asked, shocked at the wreckage before me. "Hey, man, you need me to help?"

There was a long pause, then a ragged breath, the merest shake of his head. After a long uncertain moment, I gave my message and left, wondering if he had even registered what I had to say. It was days later that I learned he had indeed acted on the message.

Next day Jerry arrived at work on time and put in a full and strenuous day. It was, however, the only time I ever saw him come in unshaven.

I remembered that day now as I stood before this shy, kindly man, yearning to decipher that glimpse of unimaginable pain, to see him just once place his finger on the map of the world and say, "This is where I live."

I had just come from a conference with Julie, the head of the dairy operation. Delbert Haskins had given notice, and we were going to have to move someone new into the milking room. When I suggested Jerry, Julie gave me a skeptical look.

"Well, Julie," I said, a little impatiently, "the man isn’t stupid."

"Of course he isn’t stupid!" she replied, with as much exasperation of her own as her basic civility would permit. "He’s very smart, and he’s very capable. But Jerry’s just—Jerry’s—" Finally she gave up, lifted hands palm-up in a gesture of resignation: "You’re the boss—your call."

"Jerry," I said now, "don’t know if you’d heard, but Delbert’s leaving us. Going into the Army. We’ll need someone new in the milking room. I was saying to Julie that you’d be just the man—"

His eyes came full on mine, desperate with alarm, then slid away toward the straw at our feet. "Oh, Mr. Farnham," he croaked, "I couldn’t do that! If something were to go wrong— All those machines— With milk, you have to be sure everything’s just so—" His voice ground to a halt in his throat, though his lips continued trying desperately to shape the words, to explain the great impossiblity of it all. I thought I caught the gleam of tears at the edge of his averted eye. His hands trembled, gripping the fork handle and twisting tightly in opposite directions.

I grasped his shoulder, felt him rigid with tension under my hand. I could have been gentling a young colt terrified at the approach of a thunderstorm.

"Or maybe, Jerry," I said reassuringly, "maybe you’d rather just keep on working the goats. We really need somebody good with the goats."

His face eased, brightened, the threatened storm having passed off to one side. "Yes, Mr, Farnham," he said, "that’ll be just right. I’ll keep on workin’ the goats. You need somebody good with the goats."

I gave his shoulder a final squeeze. He turned to his task again, nudging a large doe aside with a knee, a faint scent of ammonia rising as he forked at the litter. I paused just outside the door, troubled, listening intently, then smiled with relief as I heard Jerry shout accusingly at one of the does, "Why just look at you, Louise! Damn ’f you ain’t just about ugly as a bag o’ hammers!"