by William Logan
off the coast of Africa
They were not hard to tame, the feral goats.
That rocky mount was hardly an island at all—
I doubt all London is much larger—
and soon the goats and I grew used to our lot.
I had my favorites, or a string of favorites,
because of course the beasts would die,
or break a foreleg, or grow ill-tempered;
and there is nothing like a goat for temper.
But then the kids were so entertaining.
Mary was my darling, dearest Mary.
I would tease her with a parsnip,
or what I named a parsnip—
I’m still not sure what the warty thing was called.
Many was the evening I took her by the fire,
when I had combed for driftwood,
some splinter of spar washed up or, once, two hatches
I used to floor my “house” until the air grew chill.
Mary was my wife those two long years!
She started to cough one afternoon,
and by morning she was dead.
Oh, how I mourned! I cut my arms
with my dull knife. I cut and cut and let them bleed.
At first I had been neat as a little maid,
for what is a man when he cannot mind himself?
For my business, I squatted behind a mottled dune,
which I came to call the Dune of Sorrows;
but it’s so hard to keep yourself beyond six months—
to keep yourself, I mean, with no one about
to appreciate the daily despair it takes,
not even my precious Mary, whose habits
were slatternly as some girl from Bridewell—
I would find her turds in my bed, like love tokens.
I lamed her so she could not stray,
though I was not her only husband, I knew.
Later I lived with Mary’s daughter for a time.
She was silky and affectionate,
but I felt a brute. Who could have known
that a grieving man who shat where he stood
would have some compunction
about incest with his goats? And yet he did.
I restored my harem after that. I refused
to take a single wife again, for what use
is the Protestant’s marriage when his God
can murder the beloved out of a whim?
The goat is a most forgiving Christian—
if you slaughter his mate, if you butcher her
within his sight and roast her over a blazing fire,
why, the next dawn he forgives you!
And yet I felt ashamed. And yet I ate.
I was lord of the cotton tree and palm.
The goats owed fealty to me,
for was I not Alexander the First, Alexander the Good?
Had I not conquered those lands within a week;
and did I not hold the sacred crown,
carved of pimento wood?
A sailor is but a sailor; a king is king forever,
or a little longer, should his subjects be goats.
I clothed myself in my own linens;
but those I owned, those I had drawn from my cabin,
were rags within two seasons.
When my breeches fell away, I dreamed
I was attacked by a native with a spear,
a spear that proved a long iron-nail.
I owned such a nail! And the nail
was soon my needle, and the needle my seamstress,
and my cloth my beloved goats.
When I wanted a new knife, I made the beastly thing
from barrel hoops, for a man may be a blacksmith
if he heats well and hammers hard.
I kept a stolen hammer in my trunk.
What little food I had, I made a banquet—
wild turnips and cabbages decorated
my trencher, seasoned by the pepper berry.
I learned to savor the fish, and fish I caught—
aye, chimney sweepers and old wives,
more fish than the moon could claim.
For meat, there were my dear subjects,
brought to refinement by the salt I dried
from my acres of ocean, my infinite water-fields.
I was a lord of water. Aye, and my realms
bestowed on me the ten-pound crawfish.
I named each a King William and ate him up.
I never learned to love the taste of rat,
though I knew a mate who believed it
more glorious than English beef
if hung a few days and let grow gamy as mutton.
The bead-eyed beasts used to set upon me
of a night, gnawing at my feet, like cannibals.
I worried the matter for weeks, until I saw
the glow of eyes beyond my spindrift fire. Cats!
More cats than Dick Whittington knew!
I trained my Praetorian Guard, who labored
for rat, rat raw, rat on the run—
and not once in those long years
did they raise a claw against me.
Nay, I taught my Praetorians to dance!
My other enemies were sea lions, fierce
as those land lions that fright the Afric native.
Mine were fat and made of fat,
stumping along the beach like old sailors.
They tried to crush me like a cake,
not that I possessed a cake.
If I shot one brute, the others would break
into a chorus of such lamentation
I began to fear for my sanity.
When they abandoned that poor soul
to whatever sandy heaven is known to beasts,
I’d have to go and dig out the ball,
for of powder I had a fair supply;
yet lead was more valuable than gold.
Their delicate oil fatted my lamps; but the meat,
if you could call it meat, was sweet and vile.
I read the Bible, for I had not the pen to write
what I might rather read. The Bible
is a hard mistress, and the Bible cannot forgive.
Each day I tore a page to wipe my passage,
beginning with Ecclesiastes.
In short, I converted. I became bishop
of the island congregation of Our Lady of Goats.
The faithful joined in a most liberal fellowship.
I gave communion with a broken bowl and wafers of turnip.
Aye, we believed in Abraham and sacrifice!
We ate whatever appealed to us. We loved
whoever appealed to us. And our God,
our God of Goats, was kind, for he blessed us
with many children. Their bleats
used to keep me awake, beyond the fussing
susurrus of the waves. He was a tolerant God,
the God of Goats, Who never bequeathed us
stone tablets with His laws.
(What is that jest Captain Rogers tells?
Ah, that Moses was the careless man
who broke all ten of the Commandments at once.)
If He had laws, we did not know them.
If He had laws, He did not punish us.
We were to be fruitful and multiply.
And so we were fruitful, and so we multiplied.
I almost was convinced our little daughter
was mine. I knew it could not be so,
though she did favor me about the beard.
When the Duke’s sailors rowed ashore,
they were convinced I was a goat,
with my goaty hat and goaty beard—
aye, and my goaty head and my goaty eyes.
I was goatishly clad, and my religion was goatish,
down to my goat-bone tools.
One of my knives—I called him the Chopper—
can yet be seen at the Goldenhead, Buckingham Gate,
now pinched with rust, alas.
My frock coat began as the goats’, my smallclothes
began as the goats’, and whatever was the goats’
was mine—and whatever was mine was the goats’.
All this I could have told the English tars
(I should have said I was gouty,
not goaty); yet, when I made to speak,
all that emerged were squeaks and grunts,
bleats and awful cries. When I had a word,
often I had but half the word, the front or the back,
it hardly mattered. I was reduced
to the cannibal’s gesture! The barbarian’s index finger!
I should like to be thought a Natural Philosopher,
for I made any number of Surprizing Discoveries—
if only I remembered what they were!
I should have to study myself and scribble it all down.
Of but one thing am I certain, that my goats
thought themselves great controversialists;
and under a pimento tree
we held long philosophic dialogues—
but in whose tongue? The goats’, or mine,
or some hideous freak of both? My horned opponents
were of the Epicurean School—nay, the Rebuttal School!
At last my English returned, and yet what has returned
is never the same. Often now,
when I am rocked in the arms of Morpheus,
I am consoled, not by my dairy maid from Fife,
nor by the Plymouth harridan I chanced to marry,
but by Mary, little Mary, whose eyes were blue,
the blue of the Pacific.