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Wednesday
Nov062013

Mrs. Larsen's Goats

You can listen to a live reading of "Mrs. Larsen's Goats" here.

"Mrs. Larsen's Goats," a short story from my collection The Lucky Ones, was published in the winter 2014 issue of Calliope and nomiated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize.

Calliope describes itself as "the official publication of the Writers' Special Interest Group (SIG) of American Mensa, Ltd. It is published four times a year with a circulation that spans six countries and nearly every state in the USA. Calliope on the Web is an online extension of printed Calliope."

Mrs. Larsen's Goats

Mrs. Larsen died of a mysterious sickness when I was eight years old.  The grownups wouldn’t tell me how, so I imagined being in her bedroom when she left: I stood beside her where she lay in her four-poster and looked out the second story window at Lake Superior shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. She

whispered to me, “Good bye, little angel,” and closed her eyes. Her ghost slipped out of her mouth, like a swallow from its nest. I opened the window to free her and she flitted out, up and up, higher and higher until I couldn’t tell the difference between the blue of her nightgown and the bare April sky of heaven.

When she died, Mrs. Larsen was the same age as my mother, twenty-eight-years years old. They had not only been neighbors, but good friends, too. When my mother needed to run errands into Two Harbors, Mrs. Larsen watched watch me and my little sister, Silvie. Mrs. Larsen wore a size ten like my mother and traded shoes with her for weddings and funerals. A beautiful pile of blond hair sculpted into rosettes sat on the top of her head. She looked like a fashion model. I wanted to be beautiful and childless.

 

After Mrs. Larsen died, my mother spent hours at their house every day helping Mr. Larsen with the cooking and the cleaning. He worked as a well-driller along the North Shore and my mother said he’d never washed his own underwear and that he didn’t know how to cook anything but toast and scrambled eggs.

I didn’t know Mr. Larsen very well, but I loved his wife’s goats. As a gift the year before, Mr. Larsen had built a shed with a doggy door and had given her eight miniature goats. He encircled it all with a low electric fence. They often scrambled to the top of the shed and stood on its ridgeline like Santa’s eight tiny reindeer. Since Mrs. Larsen had died, every now and then Mr. Larsen gave me and my sister each a small pail of feed and let us into the pen. It was the only time my sister and I played together without fighting. Sylvie and I imagined we were herders in Nepal or circus-animal trainers in Florida—like in the pictures I’d seen in National Geographic. 

On the days when my mother was away scrubbing Mr. Larsen’s tub, washing his sheets, or cooking tuna casserole, I pinched my little sister—unlike the angel Mrs. Larsen thought I was. I ran away from her and hid under the cellar stairs where she was too afraid to look. I crushed bloody raspberries against my cheeks and told her the bogeyman got me, but that he liked fat little girls even more, so she’d be next. Every once in a while, I tormented her until she howled like a tom cat, so loud I feared my mother would hear us from Mr. Larsen’s house and punish me.

 

My father spent weeks at a time driving an 18-wheeler. While he crossed the plains of North Dakota, my mother cooked supper for Mr. Larsen at his house. I ignored Silvie as best I could, until she wouldn’t stop begging to go see the goats.  We traipsed over to Mr. Larsen’s house, rapped on his door, and asked to feed Henrietta and the rest of Mrs. Larsen’s goats.

Silvie wanted a goat for a pet of her own, in particular the smallest one with one brown eye and one grey eye named Henrietta. She played with the goat like a doll, talking to it like a baby. She loved all those goats, and though they were bossy at times, they were sweet things who loved a tummy rub and would follow her anywhere as long as she had a few pellets of rabbit chow in her hand.

“Silvie—don’t,” I shouted as she lifted the gate’s latch with Henrietta nibbling at her fingers. “You can’t take her out.”

“Henwietta wants to go swimming,” she said in her lispy voice. Silvie had just begun summer swimming lessons for four and five-year-olds at the high school pool. She’d practiced holding her breath underwater that first day, and although she could barely do it, everything Silvie played now had to do with swimming.

 

I’d caught her in her naughtiness and she bolted away from me with Henrietta trotting behind her. She ran down Mr. Larsen’s hill toward the bay. I dropped my feed bucket, pushed the other goats back, and latched the gate. Before I caught up to her, Silvie’d made it to the end of the lawn where the grass gave way to a shelf of bedrock at the water’s edge. “Hold it right there, little missy,” I said, and escorted the two fugitives back to the pen.

To keep her from fussing, I told Silvie that George, another goat, was sick and asked her if she wanted to be the doctor. She liked that idea and played the goat-healer, pushing George onto his side and pressing her ear to his grimy chest to hear his heartbeat. I took the roll of toilet paper from Mr. Larsen’s bathroom and gave it to Silvie. As she struggled to keep him from eating it, she proceeded to wrap the goat’s injured limbs with the pretend bandages.

In no time my sister used the remains of the roll, and bits and pieces of it lay strewn along the ground and caught in the electric wire. The other goats curiously picked at it with their snail-gray tongues. I went to search for a second roll of toilet paper. When I’d gotten the first roll, my mother and Mr. Larsen had stood side-by-side at the kitchen sink peeling potatoes and laughing. They’d hardly noticed when I passed through the kitchen. This time, however, the house was dead quiet. Peels littered the sink and the countertop, and a pot of water filled with potatoes simmered on the stove.

 

Since I’d already taken the toilet paper from the bathroom, I checked the closet across the hall. Inside the closet hung chiffon church dresses of dusty rose and powder blue, a black taffeta evening gown, house dresses in cotton calico prints, and blouses and skirts and slacks and scarves and camisoles and brassieres and girdles and silky transparent nighties. I reached into the folds of the clothing, letting the smooth fabrics slip between my fingers. When my fingers touched a sachet of potpourri tied to a hanger in the middle, a thick, sweet scent of dead roses released.

My mother’s closet was nothing like this. She hid her underthings inside her dresser drawers. The beauty of it all caught in my throat and I stood, entranced—when the commotion of goats bleating outside the bathroom window reminded me why I’d opened the closet in the first place. There on a low shelf beside dozens of pumps and sandals, lay boxes of soap bars and a four-pack of toilet paper. I hesitated and listened. Still no voices in the kitchen. I grabbed the whole package and ran back outside.

 

The gate hung open and the goats clustered in and around Mr. Larsen’s flower garden, trampling the lupines and biting off the buds of the columbine. In the instant that I scanned the yard, the house, the garage, the woods to the back and the expanse of lawn fronting the lake, a child’s scream wailed from the bay. When I got to the edge of the shoreline, Silvie stood several feet out on the shelf of stone. The water splashed up to her belly.

Her face reddened in frustration. “Swim!” she cried. “Come. On. Swim!”

She pushed a goat with its lolling head under the water only to have the waves hurl the corpse back at her. I waded out into the icy lake to my sister, balancing on the slippery, pocked rock. I had hardly a moment to realize my fright—or amazement at how Silvie and the goat had gotten there in the first place. I reached for the collar of her shirt. She looked up.

“Henwietta won’t swim,” she told me through chattering teeth. “I teached her to hold her breath, but now she won’t swim.”

Her eyes set on what I still held clenched in my arm and her face transformed from a scrunched rotten apple to a golden peach. “More toilet paper!”

 

We left Henrietta to bang against the rocks and I carried my sister on my hip back past the foraging goats and into Mr. Larsen’s house as she squeezed the toilet paper to her chest. By this time, her new-found optimism had turned to crying that had turned to hiccups.

“Shush,” I told her and kicked off my soaked shoes. I set her down on the toilet seat, stripped her of her wet clothes, and wrapped a towel around her shivering body.  Mr. Larsen would be sad about Henrietta and furious about the other goats in his garden. Mother would blame me for Silvie’s naughtiness and Father would take the belt to me.

“Are you mad?” Silvie asked, as if hoping she’d mistaken the tone of my voice—that we weren’t in big trouble. “Henwietta wouldn’t swim. She was supposed to swim.” She began to cry again. “I want Mama.” 

“Shut up,” I told Silvie, but it only made her cry louder, so I put my hand over her mouth and—she bit me.

“I’m telling!” I said. “I’m telling Mom how you let the goats out and how they ruined Mr. Larsen’s flowers, and how you made

Henrietta—”

I couldn’t say it. I ran out of the bathroom and through the kitchen, the living room and the den. Empty. I ran upstairs. There were three doors.

 

I pushed the first door open and found a room with a sewing machine and filled with patterns and fabric scraps, shirts missing collars and skirts with ragged, unhemmed edges. A half-crocheted yellow, pink, and blue afghan lay unraveled on the floor. I pushed the second door open: a lacy bassinette. Piles of crisp, clean diapers, undershirts, sleepers, hats, socks, even a pair of tiny white leather shoes. A mobile made of little sheep—or maybe they were goats—dangled over a crib. I stood with my hands drawn to my chest, oblivious to the swelling bruise in the shape of teeth upon my palm.

 

I backed out of the nursery and stood at the last door. A rustling came from behind it, like when the goats pushed their heads beneath the base of their empty trough to snag stray bits of corn with their tongues.

“Mama?” I whispered, my hand hovering at the door’s knob. The rustling stopped. “Mama?”

Silvie’s sobs echoed up the staircase.

“What’s the matter?” a voice murmured from behind the door.  It sounded just like Mrs. Larsen. “Take care of your sister. Go on, be an angel.”

It was Mrs. Larsen.

My heart jerked through the ends of my fingers and I took my hand away.  I stumbled back downstairs and ran into the bathroom.

“I want Mama,” Silvie cried, pulling the corners of the towel to her chin.

“Shhh!”  I grabbed one of her hands. “Come on.”  I left Silvie’s wet clothes and our shoes behind as I pulled her through the kitchen where the potatoes had boiled over onto the stovetop. “Hurry up.” We fled out the back door.

“I want Mama. I want Mama,” Silvie chanted as I pulled her through the emptied goat yard.

“We’ll wait here for Mama,” I told her when we got to the back stoop. My knees trembled. I let go of Silvie’s hand, scrambled to the top step and sat on the cold concrete. “Come here,” I beckoned her with my arms out.

She tugged at the corners of the towel around her shoulders again, climbed one step and stopped. She frowned at me. “I. Want. Mama.”

I pushed the hair from her eyes, and kissed her forehead. “Come on. Right here,” I patted my thighs. “Be my little goat.” She climbed up, curled herself into my lap, and I smelled the lake rising from her hair. 

 

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