A Parabola Bestiary: Goat, by Joseph Cary

Photo by Caleb Woods

Bestiaries were traditionally works of observation and natural history. Ancient and widespread, their way of observing allowed room for elements of theology, symbolism, and moralizing that strike our modern ear as wildly unscientific. The animals in these old works were not seen in isolation, but in relation to the human sphere. They carried messages and lessons, and had a rightful place in a greater order.

Our own day has brought more detailed facts about animals and a less secure context for the new information. As we learn more about them, can the animals still teach us? We asked our contributors to listen to an animal which has always interested them. Their responses testify to the many levels of relationship which still endure. For the rest of the essays, click here

–The Editors

Goat must be distinguished from its cousin sheep but is by no means so simple a matter as Our Lord imagines in St. Matthew, where the grand division of righteous and unrighteous on the Judgment Day is likened to a shepherd separating his sheep from his goats, these to the right, those to the left. Every shepherd knows it is the essence of the goat not to stay in place.

Caper is Latin for goat and caper is what they do, caper a capriccio. Tether them and their minds still wander, capricious­ly. Will they act like sheep on Judgment Day? I think not. They will not be penned to the left or right. They will not wait to be judged. They will caper into their kingdom. And out again.

Even in Bethlehem they are a bother, which is why so few nativity scenes include them among the livestock. Goats lack decorum and a sense of scale, fail to see that some things are sacred. Giotto, peasant’s son and profound student of the farmyard, always depicts manger goats in the act of looking elsewhere. Christ is born and now what? In the little Met nativity a goat is looking right out of the frame at Giotto and me and you.

Things that will not stay put are a nuisance. They disturb the peace and seem malicious. O’Grady’s goat, tipper of soup and eater of shirts, is saddled with all the devilment on Shanty Row. Our nanny Bicquette leaned for hours against the fenceposts I had planted so diligently in Sakrete until the wire mesh they were meant to support was as horizontal as a hammock. It was a battle of wits and I lost. Time and again she would surpass her confines and be nibbling at the delicacy of the hour: the tomato vine, the chokecherry tree, the paperback I had laid down when I rose in my wrath to chase her. To hell with you I said, and really meant it. There are no goats in the Peaceable Kingdom.

Caper is Latin for goat and also for underarm odor; goats are an offense to our nostrils and often for sexual reasons. Thus goatish men are horny and satyrical; goats will do it anywhere with anyone and anything. Incontinently they caper, leaping on the mountains, skipping on the hills, jigging in the valleys, sweaty and promiscuous. Pliny says that diamonds dissolve in their hot blood; Lyouns be pride, Foxes be fraude, Cotes be stynke of lechery. All beasts are no doubt shameless by our standards, but goats are the most shameless of all.

Rather than safely graze like sheep, goats browse. This is to say that they love the buds and new shoots of shrubs and trees, forbidden things. Unlike sheep, goats are not content with their lot or level and will often be found trespassing casually upright on their hind legs, heads lost in a cloud of blossom or laundry. The eyes of goats, pupils dark horizontal slots in yellow-green irises, arc especially designed to sec around corners into greener pastures.

Goats are nosy and inquisitive, and this is how you can catch them. Walk away and they may follow. Pretend to be tying your shoelace. I caught Bicquette by mopping my brow with my handkerchief, which she then tried to eat (she did not stay for long). Goats can no more hold a grudge than they can hold a loyalty or preserve a decency. They live, without respect or honor, in the quick of the present. How can they be judged?

You can’t count on them, they are a great trouble; in fact to value the living goat you must value the trouble he is. Otherwise, good shepherd, you may farm them for milk or meat or skin or the powdered horn which makes a perfect aphrodisiac. Or you may name him Azazel and try to pack him off into the wilderness with all your sins upon his cruddy shoulders. To hell with him.

The trouble with the Peaceable Kingdom is that it makes me sleepy. The low bleat of the domestic ruminant is an excellent soporific…lamb lies with the lazy lion, the cow’s in the corn…Under the haycock I dream of goats.

(Caper, billy, my devil. Bestir me. Come, my botheration: blow your horn.)♦

From Parabola Volume 8, No. 2, “Animals,”Summer 1983. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing