The veterinarian passed his hand over the goat’s belly as he listened to her chest with his stethoscope. Through the dark slit of her pupil, she quietly seemed to assess him. The other goat in the stall rustled among the hay, wary at the presence of the tall man in his dark green coveralls.
Dmitri studied the vet’s face for a reaction.
It was mid-September 1946. If the streak of infertility running through the herd continued, he’d have to sell another few acres. The farm couldn’t sustain the loss of land much longer.
The vet stood up and hung his stethoscope around his neck. Deep creases lined his forehead and the corners of his mouth. “I don’t have an explanation,” he said. “Tests have ruled out possible infectious causes and they’ve been dewormed regularly. The only thing left to consider is their nutrition.”
Dmitri glanced outside the stall window, where a carpet of brown grass stretched toward the treeline. On the Ozark Plateau of southeastern Kansas, rain was usually plentiful. A shallow layer of soil overlaid the rock, making the land impossible to farm, but provided adequate grazing for the hardy stock Dmitri’s family had bred for generations: Nubian and Spanish goats.
In a normal year, lush fescue grasses dominated the fields. This year, the drought had persisted longer than anyone had anticipated. Farms were suffering. With most of the men gone to war, he was hard-pressed to manage the labor involved. Help was scarce, as was the money to pay for it.
He pursed his lips and stared at the small brown goat chewing her cud, a year old and prime breeding age. “I can’t afford to feed them much longer.”
“You aren’t the only one.”
The vet sounded sympathetic, but pity wouldn’t feed Dmitri’s goats or round their bellies with kids. Outside the barn, the back door of the farmhouse squeaked open and slammed shut. His grandmother, Zosime, hobbled out onto the porch in a dark dress, feet scuffling against the worn wood.
Her gnarled wooden walking stick hit the boards in a rhythmic thud. With milky-white, unseeing eyes, she gazed blankly at the open door toward the barn, then turned her attention to the far horizon. She raised a hand to the darkening skies, her arthritic fingers curled sideways.
A gust of wind lifted several gray strands of her hair aloft. “She’s coming!” she screeched, gripping the low-hanging wooden charm at her neck and raising it high. “Save us, O daughter of Pan!”
Zosime rarely left the safety of the house. If she took another step, she’d stumble off the side of the porch. Dmitri mumbled a quick apology to the vet and dashed toward the house, only briefly stopping to consider how the glaring morning sun had disappeared behind a thick layer of clouds.
His grandma and her ravings.
If she kept up her babble about the gods of their homeland, she’d completely isolate them from whatever standing they had left in the community. Folklore and black magic, that’s all it was.
He bounded onto the porch and scuttled Zosime indoors. To his dismay, the vet followed behind.
Dmitri’s grandmother struggled in his arms, clobbering him away with her walking stick, spewing Greek curses. “Don’t touch me!” she squawked, spittle flying from her lips. “You never listen. Never. You are more blind than me.”
She grappled for the wooden charm at her neck, caught it between crooked fingers, and shook it mid-air. Frustration animated the wrinkles beside her dull white eyes. “She’s coming,” she hissed. “Iambe is near. I can feel her.”
A shingle hit the ground outside the open door, kicking up a cloud of dust. Dmitri paused to glance at it. The shingle wasn’t one of theirs.
Not a good sign.
From somewhere above the barn, a blackbird cackled.
“Talk to her, Dmitri. Tell Iambe you are ready to listen. It’s time you believe.”
His gaze darted to the doctor, waiting patiently by the door. The doctor clearly felt obligated to help, yet anxious to leave. Dmitri twitched a nervous smile. “She gets like this sometimes,” he said. “I can handle it.”
“Handle what, paidi mou?” his grandmother croaked.
The vet eyed the sky, the gathering clouds. “I should get going, unless you need my help with the goats.”
“Who is he to tell you what is wrong with the goats?” With her walking stick, Zosime took a swipe at the vet, who dodged out of her way. “Only she can help us now.”
“We’ll be fine,” Dmitri said. “Thank you for coming.”
The engine of the vet’s truck sputtered to life and the tires crunched down the gravel driveway toward the road.
“Whatever he told you about the goats isn’t true,” Zosime said.
For the next several minutes, Dmitri stood by the open door and examined the ashen skies, heavy clouds the deep purple of a bruise. Rain. The first heavy drops hit the ground, but something inside him quailed. He should have rejoiced, but his heart hammered inside his ears, erratic, flighty. Like a rabbit’s.
“You see, Grandma. It’s raining,” he said, his voice hollow.
Sheets of water fell from the sky, pummeling the dry pasture and sending the goats wheeling in every direction inside the fence.
“The rain won’t save us,” she said. “Only Iambe can. Pray, paidi mou. You must pray.”
He crossed the room to where she stood and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Stop telling me what to do, okay? I’ve done my best, despite the drought. Just because I can’t control the forces of nature doesn’t mean I should pray to whatever gods you think exist to change the way the world works. Listen,” he said, jabbing a finger toward the door even though Zosime couldn’t see it, “it’s raining. Everything balances out, if we’re patient enough to wait.”
Zosime clucked her tongue and yanked on the wooden charm, rubbing her thumb over the worn, carved surface. “Foolish boy. You’ll be the death of us all.”
Outside, the goats bleated.
Dmitri moved to the door and peered out into the torrential rain. The pasture gate, popping its latch, swung on its hinges and, in single file, the goats raced through the gap, kicking up mud with their hooves and splattering it on their coats.
“The goats. They’ve broken out. Stay here, Zosime,” he directed. “I’ll get them back in the barn.”
A wail rose from deep in his grandmother’s throat. “Do you hear them?”
Dmitri paused, fearful for the goats but wanting to ensure Zosime wouldn’t take it into her crazy head to follow him or try to help. “It’s the goats. They’re afraid of the storm.”
“No,” she said, hands trembling, her milk-white eyes raised to the ceiling, a smile playing at her lips. “It’s her. Iambe. She is playing her flutes. How close she must be…listen.”
She shuffled across the kitchen, lips stretched across her gums in a tremulous smile.
“I can’t. I don’t have time for this,” Dmitri said. He slammed the door behind him. If he didn’t hurry, half the herd would be gone before he knew it, lost to the treacherous brambles lining the ravines of the Ozarks.
Within seconds, he was drenched. He slipped in the mud churned up by the deluge, struggling to recover his balance.
He lifted his gaze to the horizon, and his neck prickled. The sky was a sickly green and appeared to pulsate. No, pulsate wasn’t right. At the storm’s edge, a thick band of clouds had started to rotate. A pointed funnel emerged from underneath the clouds, gaining speed as it approached the ground below.
All thought of the goats slipping past him, one after the other – black, brown, and white – evaporated in the crystalline second of that awareness.
The spinning funnel kissed the soil and the roaring began.
The earth shook beneath Dimtri’s feet; a howl like the bellow of a freight train barreling down a steep track flooded his mind and set his teeth to chattering.
He whipped around to face the house, gritting his teeth, torn between fear for his grandmother inside and the impending disaster about to strike the herd. Less than half remained in the pasture, a long line of the others winding away toward the scrub-covered foothills of the Ozarks to the south.
What is wrong with them?
Instinct should have driven them ahead of the storm, to the north, in the direction of the road. Instead, they ran at a right angle to the storm, skimming its leading edge in order to flee to the mountains.
Not one of them bleated or cried out. As calm as if they were being herded into the barn for the night, they trotted past him in an orderly line.
Zosime’s conviction was a myth. The fanciful beliefs of a woman tied to the animistic roots of her country’s superstitions. No goddess of the wood beckoned the animals to safety; they were running of their own accord, albeit by a strange route.
Dmitri shook his head and dashed back inside. He yelled for his grandmother and discovered her seated at the kitchen table, facing the window. Those blind eyes stared past him unseeing, yet knowing, through the glass rattling in the frame.
Metal pans clattered against the wall as the roaring grew louder.
“What are you doing here?” He grabbed her by the hand, pulling her along the hallway to a trap door that led to the cellar. “There’s a tornado coming.”
He yanked open the door and assisted her down the stairs to the damp space below. Wooden shelves lined the walls, weighted down by a season’s worth of canned fruits and pickled vegetables. Dim light filtered through slats from the floor above. “Stay here until I come back for you,” he said, breathless. “Don’t move.”
Zosime moaned something unintelligible, but Dmitri didn’t stop to listen. He hurried to the corner and grabbed a handful of woolen blankets.
After arranging a thick blanket around Zosime’s shoulders, he told her his plan. “I forgot to close the gate to the pasture. I’ll take cover in the barn.”
His grandmother sobbed and tugged at her necklace. “Take this, paidi mou. Please, for the love of an old woman, listen to your grandmama and pray to her. Pray to Iambe. She will listen. She is here, she knows.”
He covered her shaking hand with his own, forcing her eyes toward his. “I’ll be fine,” he assured her with a courage he didn’t feel. “I have to save what goats I can. Once this is over, I’ll come find you.”
Dmitri ignored her cries as he clambered up the stairs, closed the trap door, fled the house, and headed out into the lashing rain. Where it traced a sinuous line on the ground across the field, the great funnel kicked up a cloud of debris. He felt its roar echo inside his chest as he gripped the pasture gate and wrenched it closed, his boots nearly submerged in the thick, sucking mud.
He stumbled backward, elated at his success.
Until the first goat hopped the fence.
It arced over the wooden posts as gracefully as a gazelle. That…couldn’t be. The fence was too high. The goat should never have been able to jump it. Yet they did, every last one of the remaining goats, following their predecessors as they flicked up their tails, banners of white and gold amid the raging storm.
Dmitri cursed, watching the last goat disappear into the distance. A loose piece of debris whistled past his cheek, grazing his skin. He sprinted for the barn, closing the door behind him. From the stall in the corner, the two doelings stared at him, the whites of their eyes showing. In the panic, he’d nearly forgotten about them.
He lifted the trap door to the cellar, hurried the goats down the stairs, then closed and bolted the door. The low-ceilinged space smelled of dampness. While the storm raged, he clung to the doelings. They trembled against him as the wood groaned and the ground above them shook. Dust fell through cracks in the floorboards, tickling his nostrils.
Dmitri didn’t think to pray. Instead, he squeezed his eyes shut and clutched the goats tighter until the roaring stopped.
When the last of the wind died down, a preternatural silence followed. The goats wriggled free of his grasp and trotted to the bottom of the stairs, circling each other and bleating. Dmitri brushed off his knees and crept toward the staircase.
Pale light shone through the cracks of the cellar door. Above them, the wooden barn walls creaked. He swallowed, hard.
“C’mon, girls,” he said. “Let’s go.”
They followed him upstairs, pausing as he opened the trap door. One corner of the roof had been torn off, but otherwise the barn had survived, intact. Dmitri returned the two goats to the stall and latched the gate.
He approached the barn door and heaved it open. A ragged sigh escaped his lips. Before him, the farmhouse lay in ruins, the brick chimney the sole survivor amidst the wreckage of clapboard siding and ragged shingles.
His heart leapt and he charged ahead, his boots slipping on the thick mud. He picked his way through the debris, lightfooted as one of the goats. At a knot of twisted plumbing, he dug, struggling to lift pieces of siding, shoving them sideways.
He caught a glimpse of the trap door’s rope handle and heaved upward on it, carefully picking his way downstairs, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness. “Grandma? I know you’re here. Please, make a sound so I can hear you.”
Shaking, Dmitri crawled on his hands and knees toward the far corner and squinted.
By the discarded woolen blanket, he noticed a small shadow. He reached for the leather cord and pulled it toward him. The wooden carving, its surface worn smooth by the touch of Zosime’s thumb.
He pressed it to his lips and closed his eyes. “Zosime, please. I cannot lose you. By all you consider holy, give me a sign you’re alive. Tell me where you are.”
After slipping the cord around his neck, he clutched the pendant.
From a distance, the sound of the pipes was unfamiliar. Haunting, yet beautiful. The melody prickled his flesh. Dmitri clambered out from amid the wreckage and listened.
Borne on winds from the south, the music came from the Ozarks. He glanced at the pendant, then out into the distance, where the hills bordered the sky. A trail of hoofprints stippled the mud, the path the goats had woven during their escape.
If Zosime was anywhere, he would find her at the music’s source. Though he’d never staked his hope in her religion or its icons, Dmitri was sure of this. His grandmother was alive.
He followed the course the goats had taken, winding past the southernmost boundary of the farm and high into the foothills, past the scrublands and deep into the forest. The leaves of the white oak rustled, and underneath his boots, the empty shells of hickory nuts crunched.
An hour later, he reached a clearing in the trees. In the midst of the waving grasses, his grandmother danced, twirling a colorful scarf in her grasp as she swung around on her heels in a lively circle.
Zosime is dancing?
A strange woman with sun-darkened skin and long, black hair that hung to her waist held a set of wooden pipes in her hands. She moved them across her lips, producing the most beautiful notes he’d ever heard. She danced alongside Zosime, kicking out and spinning on her goat-like legs, the entire herd surrounding them, swaying in thrall to the music.
Dmitri crept closer, out from under the protection of the trees. Zosime caught his eye and ran toward him, arms outstretched.
“Ay, paidi mou!” she said, placing her hands on his cheeks, her fingertips warm. Her step had a youthful vigor to it he had not witnessed in ages, but it was her eyes that fascinated him.
No longer milky-white, he stared into their blue depths. Their seeing depths.
Zosime had seen him. She was no longer blind. He lifted his gaze to the woman with the pipes, playing for all the world as if this was the only thing she was meant to do. Her wild, brush-like hair swept around her face as she gyrated and twisted, playing the goats a frolicsome melody.
“Efharisto,” he said. “Thank you.”
Iambe stopped piping long enough to consider him. Her large, almond eyes blinked once before a slow grin stretched across her face and she pressed the pipes to her lips again.
Dmitri was entranced. The music transported him to a land where there was no more drought, no more hunger, no more fear for their livelihood, or disease for the goats. He allowed himself to get carried away, dancing and singing alongside Zosime and the herd until he was too tired to take another step. He collapsed under a tree at the forest’s edge and drifted into a dreamless sleep.
When he woke, sunlight filtered through the muslin curtains at the window. He sat up. A patchwork quilt lay across his legs and his boots rested on the braided rug by the bureau. He stared at the room, gaping at the ceiling overhead.
Before he could think to question his sanity, his hand brushed the pendant nestled against his chest. He held up the wooden figurine, ran his finger along the delicately carved face, the flutes Iambe played.
The music rippled through him all over again.
Dmitri called for his grandmother, running in search of her throughout the house, then outside, until breathless, he discovered her in the barn.
Zosime sat on a stool beside one of the goats. She lifted her blue gaze to him, hand pressed to the side of the goat’s belly. “Paidi mou,” she whispered, her mouth quivering.
“What?” he asked.
“They’re all pregnant,” she said. “Every last one of them.”
Dmitri approached the goat and felt her belly, the warm, full udder underneath. He laid his head against her back and breathed deeply of her scent. When she bleated in response, it was to the same melody created by the pipes of a goddess.
The flutes of Iambe.
A Jersey girl at heart, when Lisa’s not writing, she’s usually listening to hard rock, bouldering, or sipping amaretto sours. She has recently been published in The Chamber Magazine, Noctivagant Press, Aphelion, The Write Launch, and Liquid Imagination, and has upcoming publications in Carmina Magazine, Bards & Sages, and Overtly Lit. Before she started writing novels, she earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine from Tufts University. Find out more about her at https://lisa.voorhe.es or http://facebook.com/lisavoorheesauthor. Interested in becoming a patron? Find out more about how to support her creative work and receive bonus material at http://www.patreon.com/lisavoorhees.
photo by Johannes Havn (via pexels)