“Look, it’s coming out in a plastic bag!”
Julie, my wide-eyed daughter of three, points and absorbs the wonder of a goat being born in a protective placenta. Her eyes widen farther as two more “plastic-wrapped” kids emerge from Lily, the laboring mother.
The triplets struggle on wobbly legs as Lily, who is lame, pulls the “plastic” away. She rasp-cleans their kinky hair with her tongue, and nudges them with mother love.
“Looks like we’ve got two boys and a girl,” Julie’s dad, Alan, announces after a cursory examination.
“I’m going to call the girl Lizzie,” Julie screeches and claps her hands. “And Benji’s the boy,” she adds with equal gusto.
The third nameless goat is bigger than the others and assumes the immediate position of leader–butting his smaller siblings aside for the first meal. Since Julie has exhausted her name bank, I offer “Frisky” as a name for the bossy goat.
We had moved from a city of fifty thousand to the peace and calm of a Minnesota farm so that Alan, a university professor, could devote a year to writing. He also wanted our two children–eight-year-old Mark and Julie—to experience farm life as had experienced that life as a child.
In addition to the three new goats and their mother, we acquired Festus, a castrated male, known as a wether. His sole purpose in life was that of a companion to the others. Since he had no other mission, he soon learned to be naughty. If the water bucket was tipped, we knew Festus had been at work. If I was butted from behind while doing barn chores, I would turn to find Festus with head downcast aiming for a second jab at my rear.
A flock of chickens warmed the southwest corner of the barn, ruled by a cocky rooster who kept all the hens in line. They were our egg supply. Lily, the mamma goat, became our milk wagon.
Sam and Pepper, two cross-bred border collie/Norwegian elk hounds guarded our farm house. Outside dogs, they wintered in a bale house, but patrolled for stray squirrels and errant snakes on summer days. A muzzle full of quills also tattled their venture into porcupine territory.
Each winter morning, I bundled Julie into her teal snowsuit, boots, and pulled a scarlet stocking cap over her blond pony tails. Alan would grab a bucket, while Julie latched onto his free hand. Together, flanked by Sam and Pepper, they tromped a snow trail to the barn. Sheltered inside, they fed the chickens, let Festus loose for his mischievous romp, milked Lily, bottle fed Lizzie, Benji, and Frisky.
We gossiped about our goat “folks” when Alan and Julie returned to the house.
“What devilish thing did Festus do today?” I’d ask.
“Did Lily tip the bucket before you finished milking her?”
“Did Benji chew Julie’s boot laces again?”
And so winter passed.
Summer took us away from the farm more often, but Julie perpetuated her play with her friends, Lizzie, Benji, and Frisky. Taller now, the goats tried to pull barrettes from her hair. They teased and played tag with her through open areas of yellow clover. Her pale hair blew in the wind as the trio of pearly goats ran with her.
Her closeness to the animals was evident in her night-time prayers: “God bless Daddy, Mommy, Mark, Lily, Festus, Lizzie, Benji, Frisky, Sam, Pepper, all the chickens (and sometimes her dead moth collection). Come-in” (her version of Amen).
Our year at the farm ended too soon. We had to move back to town and the livelihood that sustained us. Our attachment to the animals, however, remained a worry. The dogs, now dubbed our “squirrel patrol,” wouldn’t survive chained in our back yard after roaming many acres. Where would they find cows to torment? And skunks to tease?
We couldn’t sustain a flock of chickens in our back-yard tool shed no matter how good their eggs tasted. Imagine our urban neighbors waking up to the raucous cock-a-doodle-do of the bossy rooster.
And the goats. Lame Lily was old and unattractive as she chewed her cud, bobbing her white beard up and down in rhythm. No matter that she gave several quarts of rich milk daily. Festus, the troublemaker, would have been goat meat long ago if we hadn’t rescued him from the dairy goat farm. The babies–Lizzie, Benji, and Frisky—were an extension of Julie’s world. In jest, we toyed with the idea of moving them into our town garage. In saner moments, we knew that was impossible.
Three weeks before our move to town, Alan made hard decisions. The dogs came with the farm. They would remain to guard for new renters, who also agreed to keep the chickens. But goats were beyond the extent of their generosity.
“I read in the paper that there’s an auction ring in town,” Alan said one morning.
“What’s an auction ring?” Julie questioned as she stirred goat milk around with her Cheerios cereal.
“That’s a place where you sell your animals,” Alan explained.
“Sell Lizzie, ‘n’ Benji, ‘n’ Frisky?” Cheerios dribbled into Julie’s lap as she asked. “You can’t sell them; they’re mine.” Her lower lip seemed to grow beyond its limits.
Again, we explained our necessary move back to town. We assured her that other people would buy the goats and be nice to them.
Julie didn’t eat the rest of her cereal.
Our moods matched the rain on the Saturday that we loaded our goats into a trailer for the ride to the auction ring. Julie and I left Alan and Mark to unload the goats while we found seats in the bleachers.
Cows sold, horses sold, exotic birds sold. Finally, the auctioneer prodded four confused white goats into the auction arena.
“Oh, look at the pretty goats,” I told Julie.
Then I realized that the “pretty goats” were Lily, who ran around the arena, limping and chewing her cud, and her three startled babies: Lizzie, Benji, and Frisky.
Julie grabbed me around the waist and buried her head in my arm. I told her that the goats would be fine; that nice people would love them, but I wanted to hide my head, too.
We were as silent as our empty trailer on our trip back to the farm. Julie, however, kept asking if the new people would brush the triplets, give Lily her oats, and if unruly Festus, who sold last, would be okay. Again, we reassured her and promised her a kitty when we moved back to town.
I couldn’t tell her that the main reason people buy goats is for goat meat.