Milla van der Have
A few weeks before my 13th birthday, my mother had the last of her cooking frenzies.There had been jam-mania, homemade ice cream, sweet Moroccan flavored lemons and kroketten, a kind of crunchy fried ragout, the recipe for which she got from an old Dutch neighbor back in Adelaide. Sometimes she locked herself in the kitchen to make enough kroketten to feed a small Dutch town. My father didn’t like her cooking frenzies. I thought she cooked because she missed Australia, much like when she started humming Waltzin’ Matilda or when she drove out west to make me breathe in the Pacific, the only real ocean in her book. We lived in Compromise, Oregon in a big house on the outskirts of town. Our garden spilled out into the wild, the hills and if you went further, you reached a nature park. I was never allowed there. Sometimes I thought my parents preferred if I didn’t go outside at all.
No one knew what set off the goat cheese episode. More and more varieties of cheeses clogged our lives, our daily bread. I hardly noticed her busying about with cloths and milk and whatnot, because I was too busy noticing the new girl across our street, Julie, who even though she was my age, already she moved like silk rippling. There was every reason to believe this cycle of goat cheese would soon come to its natural end. My mom had a limited attention span. She worked to master something and then forgot about it. She said it was because of the stars when she was born, this restiveness. A few more days of cheese and it should be done. But then on my 12th birthday, at the crack of dawn, my mother took me outside to where a pink-ribboned goat feasted on the abandoned vegetables. She was white, with a yellowish hue, a dirty look that drew me to her. She was supposed to be my birthday present and though we both knew it was the best present ever, we also knew it wasn’t just for me.
So, what about a name?’ my mom asked, as she started preparing my birthday cake. My dad sat glumly at our kitchen table, a crudely wrapped box in front of him and grunted. I chose a name he ought to like: Habakkuk. I once read it in one of the books he had stuffed away in his drawer, but he only looked at me in that way of his and then went to work. Which was his way of being unhappy and I felt I had witnessed a meaningful battle in a war I didn’t know was occurring.
Habakkuk and I immediately liked each other. So much so my father started referring to me as ‘Laurie and that damn goat’. I was a quirky kid, in need of a friend. Habakkuk was, all the more, remarkable. Goats dream of few things: food (they’re not picky either) and maybe, if things work out, some offspring. But somehow, with Habakkuk a higher force was at work and often she abandoned a perfectly tasteful bite of cardboard just to follow me around. When I went out, she bleated me goodbye. Most of the time, she was waiting for my return and if not, she’d come running down the hills as soon as she spotted my arrival.
Mid-October Julie came over to our garden to tell me I was weird and to ask if she could pet my goat. Habakkuk, of course, complied.
‘What’s his name?’ she asked
‘She’s a girl. She’s called Habakkuk.’
‘Habakkuk? What kind of weird name is that?’
I stared at her shoes, saying nothing.
‘Where did you get him?’
‘Her. My mom got her for my birthday. But she uses her milk to make cheese.’
‘Your mom’s weird too.’
‘I guess.’ My color rose. I didn’t like it when other people pointed that out. I liked them to ignore it.
‘I like her,’ said Julie, looking at me. ‘See you around some time.’
Only after she was long gone did I dare breath out.
One goat should have been enough, but then my mother thought of selling the goat cheese. My father said there were rules and regulations for that sort of thing and not just anyone could sell cheese because they felt like it, but my mom shrugged off his objections, went out to town and returned with a package deal of goats. Now, instead of one goat working on my dad’s nerves, there were five and they really applied themselves. Again, I got to name them and to keep with the path chosen, I called them Hosea, Obadiah, Nimah and Joel.
My dad wasn’t impressed, still. ‘Goats don’t get names,’ he grunted from behind his paper. ‘Also, goats don’t get to live in a backyard. At least, not in a normal house.’ After that, he would settle on the couch and turn up the game, as if watching a football match would transform things to how they should have been.
Julie came by more often. At first, she came over for the goats, who seemed to have the same mysterious attraction on her, but gradually her attention shifted to me.
‘You’re not from around here,’ she said.
‘I guess not.’ I didn’t like to be reminded of where I came from. Even though I was only 2 when we left, my memories of Maine were dark.
‘Me neither. I was born in California.’ Julie’s voice hardly changed, but I could tell things were different for her. She was missing a place she came from, a place she thought of as home.
‘So why did you name them after prophets?’
She was the only one who commented on their names. Underneath her self-assurance, her brazenness, underneath everything that made her picture-perfect and popular, she was like me.
‘It’s sort of funny. You can call the whole bunch of them the Minor Prophets.’
Then, someone she knew drove by and she turned away so fast it was like she was never even here, with me.
In those lost days after Christmas, my dad started working on his first fence. It was Sunday, a day of rest for most of us. My dad was hauling wood, hacking, sowing and sweating, even though it was cold enough that the goats huddled. The fence was supposed to protect his roses and of course I had to help. Laying out the pattern, handing him hammer and nails, thinking up solutions for problems he encountered. As always, he wanted to change me into someone I wasn’t. Someone who knew how to work with her hands.
I knew it was better to keep busy; I’d stay warm and my dad would stay cheerful, but my thoughts drifted off all the time. To the Minor Prophets, who glared at me reproachfully. And to Julie, whose snugly lit house lighted up the December sky.
‘Laurie, do you want to learn how to build a fence or what?’
I wanted to give my honest answer, that no, I didn’t. But I knew at this moment he needed a lie more than anything.
Over time, more goats found their way to our herd. We didn’t know where they came from, just that they seemed to enjoy being around humans. My dad tried to chase them off, but they kept coming back. Finally my mom decided that clearly they were meant to be with us and that was that. I christened them like the others and they officially joined the Minor Prophets, who now ranked nine. My mom said she’d find a use for them, no worries.
She set up shop in a room we hardly used, cleared out the cobwebs and the few reminders of the days my dad thought to make this his dark room. She hung shelves and carefully stacked every cheese in its allotted place. She placed a sign by the road that said Claire Richards. Cheeses. ‘Best to keep it simple,’ she said.
Against my dad’s predictions, customers came, reluctant at first, but gradually, they shed off the shy. My mom even had to turn up production, which then turned up my parents arguments. I wasn’t really supposed to listen, but with all the yelling I couldn’t help picking up on things: how my dad thought the goats ruined our life, how dad disliked my mother working, how my dad worked too hard and all the time.
‘We never see you around here.’
‘If I’m here Laurie can’t get away from me fast enough.’
‘Oh Dan, she’s a 12-year old girl. It’s only natural for her to avoid her parents.’
‘So that thing with the goats, that’s natural? Why can’t she be into horses like any normal girl her age?’
‘Normal? You want things to be normal?’
‘It would be nice, for a change!’
‘Fuck you, Dan!’
Then there would be crying or a door slamming and that was usually when I called Julie. If I was lucky, she’d take me and the goats for a walk. I never cried with Julie. Sad people brought her down. Instead, we talked about bands or boys. She told me about her brothers, who were annoying, and how glad I should be there was no one bugging me. I couldn’t believe Julie was jealous of me. I would trade my life for hers in a heartbeat. She said we could be sisters: a breathy promise, a kiss on the cheek.
By now, the end of March, Habakkuk gave birth to the final goat, a young buck I called Malachi and there was Jonah and Haggai, two stray goats, who felt right at home with the prophets and now Malachi completed their number. My dad’s roses were no match against their combined forces. The few things they deemed inedible, they destroyed for good measure. Habakkuk, female lead and queen of goats, told the rest of them where to feed, when to sleep; Second in command, Haggai, a strong, willful buck who’d fight anyone and anything even remotely challenging. Obadiah was a climber of trees. When she first disappeared from sight, I lost my mind, but soon I learned to look up, to spot her among the leaves. And Zephaniah, our old maid, liked to quietly ruminate, as if she were waiting for something but didn’t yet know what.
We would walk for hours, but it never seemed long enough. Out at the hills everything was different, even Julie. She was bold, keen. She seemed enlightened and so did I. We were out of world’s reach, the closest thing to freedom we would ever know. When we returned, finally, the sun was etched upon our faces like a landmark.
My dad made light but underneath he brooded. It was there when he gathered his appliances. It was in the way his mouth was set, in how it never lighted up at the corners. ‘I traveled the outback,’ he told me. ‘You know what that is? A hot, blistering hell. And then I faced old McKintyre.’ That was my mom’s dad, the granddad I never got to see. ‘He would give a crocodile a run for his money and I brought your mom here against his wishes. Seriously, those goats have nothing on me.’ Most of all, it was there when he ordered me to help him build stronger fences.
Not that I was any help. I handed him the wrong tools. I dropped things. I tripped on the wire. It wasn’t my fault. Julie and a bunch of kids were supposed to go out for a pick-nick and they might just ask me along. Whenever I looked over my shoulder, he scraped his throat. If I sauntered off, he found something for me to get, to hold, to throw out. And if he saw me rushing something, which he hated, he pulled it apart and made me do it again. I hammered away in a hurry, slammed my own thumb. I cursed something ugly and threw away the hammer.
‘Never throw with the tools,’ my dad barked. ‘Now pick it up.’
‘I’m done,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’
‘Too bad. Get your hammer and get moving!’
‘I mean it, dad. I’m done building. And I’m done doing boy-stuff.’
‘Well, you don’t like girl-stuff either. Like wear a skirt.’
‘Bite me!’ I said.
‘Laurie Richards, pick up your hammer and get to work.’
I looked at my dad, with his tools, his truths and his self-righteousness and there was this coldness in me. ‘If you want a son so much, why don’t you go and make one?’
‘We can’t. You were our best shot.’
Anything can break if you push at it hard enough and my parents had been pushing for some time now By summer my dad’s fences, the few that were left standing, were ready to melt. He spent most of his time watching sports. Julie was busy with her other friends and parents. My goats and I roamed to the hills. They knew exactly where they were, who they were. With every step, they blended in more with the territory. Me, I faced stranger grounds. I stood out. This frightened me, in an exciting kind of way, like when I jumped off the high dive and afterward felt light all over.
My 13th birthday I was up in my room, staring at the phone, trying to decide if I wanted to call Julie to ask her if she was coming to my party.
The fight started out a slow mope. Or maybe none of us paid enough attention like when you pump too much air into tires.
‘Kids are coming, Claire. We can’t have these goats running around the house.’
‘Because people will think!’
‘That’s all you care about? What will people think! What will they think of your Australian cheese making wife? What will they think of your daughter?’
And then there was a goat, Haggai probably, butting him in the knees, full force. Whatever he wanted to say was lost in a howl of pain. ‘This is craziness!’ he cried. ‘Do something!’
My mom fumbled the ends of her apron. ‘What do you want from me, Dan?’
‘Get rid of the goats,’ my dad said.
‘You can’t be serious. Laurie loves them.’
‘Either the goats go or I go.’
Then I flew down the stairs, ran past her, past him, past everything. ‘Not Habakkuk!’ I cried. ‘Not Malachi!’ Not Obadiah. Not Zephaniah with her wisdom of ages. Not any of them. I wanted to throw myself at dad, hold him, hit him, but he was too far-gone, marching in that strong, unrelenting pace of his until he was just a shade, rapidly dissolving into hot air.
I went to Julie’s house, which was plainer than I imagined. There was a lawn and a car, on which I saw dents. If I waited long enough, there would be fights as well. But there was no time to see what shape their unhappiness would take. And we walked for hours, the goats following. No matter how much we dragged something drove us forward.
When we reached the hill, rocky and desolate, there was only one certainty. The goats wouldn’t come back. I could feel it resonating deep within them. As soon as we entered, they quickened. Some of them eyed the rocks, eager to climb them. The others attacked tufts of grass.
‘At least they’ll feel at home here,’ said Julie
‘How am I gonna do this?’ I said.
Julie’s hand was on my arm, giving a gentle pull. ‘Best to do it fast,’ she said. ‘Come on. Let’s go home.’
I didn’t want to. But because Julie was holding my hand, I went anyhow. I glanced back to where the Minor Prophets stood out against the rocks, specks of grey and white.