by Ash Baker

by Ash Baker

GoatSkin

by Jay Merrill

Tom has never thought what a goat-soul would be like. But now he knows, though maybe not in words.  There’s this skip to it, an ever moving soul if ever there was one. Sitting anywhere at all is out—forget it.  Of course, he’s sitting in this train. He wants to skip but can’t yet. He will though, when he gets to the rocks and the open spaces. Tom looks out, see’s his own reflection in the window, the two bright dots of his close-together little eyes shiny like buttons, his white hair with a bit of a wave to it.  A bearded fellow, strange that. He stares, trying to get used to the way he is.

At Stromness Tom stops at the first B&B they come to. Stone wall cladding, wet macs in the hall. The landlady makes cocoa and wants his life history. He strokes his imaginary beard, sagelike, fixes her with those bright black close-together eyes of his. Kathy, the daughter, a spongy looking girl, seems to go for him when  her ma’s in the kitchen doing seconds with the bitty cocoa he, to be honest could live without. Kathy brushes past his chair with a giggling wink. The girl seems to be bursting out of her minidress, he gets the feeling of stuffing coming out of a sofa where the seams are split. But if she goes for him, why not let her have him?  He giggle-winks back. The two other guests snooze. Then her mum’s back with the mugs and they all sip cocoa together, the two snoozers being woken up for the fun. There’s a gas fire on which hisses and a jelloid orange flame which flickers. Place is a horror story of course, but it’s an adventure. He’d like to go out, walk round the harbour a bit.  Kathy’ll come too. To show him around, she says to her mother, loud, three times, as though the mother’s deaf or daft.

Then they’re off out swishing their cagouls, going up so many twisting alleys he doesn’t know where he is. Not that he knew to start with. At last they come to the harbour wall. Kathy’s leading him along in the half dark, she’s keen. Knows a place he bets and he’s not wrong.  Down by the kirkyard she’s got him to this sort of niche in the wall with a bit of wood in front, got her trousers off in one. There’s no talk, no chat, that kind of thing, it’s all wetness and vaginal spray, she open as an armchair which he falls right into. A straight bonk, goatstyle; it’s over in ten. Then it’s back the way they’d come. The scramble out, the wall, harbour and winding lanes, in the morning he never sees her. Gone to her school cleaning job, the landlady says. Tom at breakfast in the room with the glutinous orange fire, the curtains, everything more dingy now in the light of day. He sits by the window, tries to pull the curtain back. But  this isn’t easy with the row of china dogs and shepherdesses guarding the sill. The landlady’s putting a bowl of porridge in front of him. He jabs in his spoon, and the porridge swirls like an island in its small milk sea.

Later, climbing Binkie’s Brae, Tom finds he can’t just enjoy the view. He hops from rock to rock, finds he has to keep on moving.  Comes night and it’s the same story. Here’s Kathy, trousers off in a flash, all wet and weightedness, skin taut over plump body as though to burst, one prick and….. the stuffing coming out of her like spilt foam, noisily, no end to it, through her cracks and crevices, spending her coinage, not so he. She’s off to bed but he’s awake and wandering. In the morning he’s drowsily at the breakfast table feeling wrecked, sight of the Dresden shepherdesses  more than he can take. He crunches burnt fried bread miserably, the corners hurt his teeth. No sign of Kathy. He’d like to say goodbye because this is the day he’s moving on, but can’t see any sign of her. It’s too bad, he has to get out. He finds somewhere he can hire a bike and some camping gear.

The day turns lighter then darker, clouds going from mauve to purple, a bruised and battered sky. Wait of the world for rain. It will come, the tension’s building in every branch and leaf. Tom, cycling on this lonely road on which only two cars pass him. Wind’s in his face all the way, feels fresh and biting. He tastes the salt in it. Then he’s turning off the road, to put up his tent in a sheltered hollow from where he can listen to the shake and howl of the wind. He finds the perfect spot, tent pegs going easily into the ground, all’s well. Yet here he is, restless and fretful. Small things get to him, like stubbing his toe on a stone, seeing ants under this fly sheet, not being able to find his shoes because they’d slipped down into this dip, cry of the kittiwakes and curlews.

He mutters and swears away to himself through the whole night, hardly sleeping,  when he wakes he’s irascible, tired.  Unzipping the tent flysheet he finds it’s a sparkling morning, hardly any of the punishing wind.  He wants to enjoy this day –  a Tom-like wish he’s in hope of slipping past his Goat-Self cunningly. No use though, the Goat sees it quickly, catches it on one horn like a rat he’s in combat with, dashes it down.

There’s a twitch in Tom’s cheek. He’s in too much of a state to enjoy the morning, and things move from bad to worse. He gobbles down the remainder of what’s left in his rucksack, couple of oranges, half a mouldy pear, a chocolate bar in a wrapper. Tom-as-Tom notices some strange behaviour here. First the mould on the pear doesn’t bother him and he swallows it down with the same greed but lack of pleasure as everything else. Then there’s the chocolate-wrapper. He can’t be bothered to open it and it sort of goes down with the rest, Tom-as-Goat thinking nothing of it.

Soon he’s on the move. Can’t lounge about in the tent all day, can he, what’s to do there anyway? The idea of relaxing is already meaningless to him now. Out there in the fresh morning, sound of the peewits and razorbills, sight of the distant hills of Hoy glowing purple in the rising sun.  Should have been a pleasure to him but same story as with everything else. He just keeps doing things without knowing why and when he’s half way through one thing he’s already leaping towards the next. He’s entered a new empty zone in which you just keep going for the sake of it. Nervous energy oozes out of him in bags.

The bike tyres squelch on the wet road, and he’s off somewhere, anywhere, doesn’t really matter where. Like the mould on the pear and the wrapper on the chocolate it’s all the same to him.  Disappointingly, he half thinks, because why had he come here, all this way, to be impervious to everything. But the Goat answers back with its irritable functionality, You have to be bloody somewhere.

His Goat-self is already bored by the silence, absence of anything happening – or anything he chooses to see. Nature! He’s already had a bellyful of it. They head towards Kirkwall to stock up on supplies, having already eaten what they’d brought with them. Amazing, Tom thinks. Must be the air making him hungry like this.

At Kirkwall the goat mentality is in the ascendant. Just outside the supermarket where he’s gone for supplies is a full-to-overflowing rubbish bin. Tom’s at the bin in one, hunting for scraps, tossing up filthy bits of this and that without flinching, swallowing down a rotten looking pork pie and a bundle of damp newspaper. Suddenly he doesn’t care about social morés or the taboo of dirt, or the disgust of the gathering crowd, he’s almost taken over by the Goat’s way of seeing. Here and there when his ungoatlike aspect pops up he’s horrified and ashamed.

A couple of kids have joined the crowd to throw stones at him.  It’s a bad experience, the worst. The Goat in him doesn’t care about making itself conspicuous either, it doesn’t think that far, or wonder about the consequences. He eats a half squashed tomato, staring back at the crowd in a cantankerous manner. More kids, more stones. One catches Tom on the arm heavily, one on the side of his chin.

He’s gotta get away, even the Goat realises this by now. He runs towards his bike.  The kids are still with him, he’s a sight they can’t walk away from, an idea they need to keep going over.  Who is he?  What is he?  And probably he himself would be the very last one able to tell them.

He’s an alien of some kind, if they provoke him they’ll find out more. Who the hell is he?  Another question, another stone, mottled for uncertainty. More kids now, many whispers to the newcomers about what had happened at the bins. Tom hears yukyuk noises, expressive of disgust.  He, Tomlike at this moment, sensitive to his self image, cringes, wishing himself invisible. His bike is surrounded by the kids.

“Let me through,” he says crabbily, sure the kids will take notice of him—he would have when he was a kid if he’d heard a voice with such a crabby tone. But these kids aren’t so easily intimidated. An unexpected stone cuts into his leg, just at the back of the knee. Hurts badly this time, the stone is sharp, thrown at a slicing angle. Tom yelps, the throwers staring at him without any sign of leaving.  Tom lurches forward knocking a couple of them sideways, makes a great grab at the bike, gets it, runs forward with it, pushing through the wall of kids. They all roar out together. He knows a war cry when he hears one and is up and away, no stopping him. Not that they don’t try.  All the rest of the way down Albert Street they’re right there with him, puffing and screaming just behind, catching the side of his bike, making the wheels wobble, making him go faster. Laid Street and he thinks he has them finished, only he’s held up by traffic once or twice and the kids gain on him. He manages to dodge them in the throng, and they attract some negative comment from passers-by which slows them down again. With still one or two pursuers Tom makes for Finstown. His Goat persona is in an uncompromising mood, wanting to wait behind this low bridge so he can spike the kids on his horns and toss their pierced bodies over into the fast flowing burn. Tom hopes it won’t come to that.  He doesn’t want murder on his hands on top of everything else.

I’m trying to keep a low profile, he yells out, but he stops by the bridge all the same. No more followers though so the thing solves itself. He cycles on for a while to make sure there’s no other company then sets up camp near the slope of Cuween Hill protected from the wind. Heating up water in his camping kettle, he almost feels like singing.  But it doesn’t quite happen, there’s a deep rumbling sensation inside him, he goes hot and cold. Waves of nausea, and he keels over in the grass. Can’t close his eyes and yet can’t keep his eyes open. Rocking dark, a funfair big-dipper without the fun only the screaming.  Rising sickness, he rolls over and over. Big agony now, it seems to rival death. Ohhh. He’s tight in a clenched foetal ball while the Goat looks on, detached. Or so it seems to Tom in his writhing misery. And then he’s hotly wetly sick. It comes out of him in streams, souring the grass, his head is violent with aching pain. The Goat is not him. This thought gives Tom comfort. The Goat is a scavenger of filth. He sees it looking at him with its dark button eyes, that habitual frown. When he closes his eyes, it’s the roller coaster again but not on the big dive, just one of the minor hillocks. Still, bad enough, his head feels soft as a peach. Take out the stone, the hole is where his mind is.  Not functioning. He thinks of a hole between the two halves of his head, he himself is hiding in there, lonely and without a friend.  He gives a wail of self pity as he rolls across the ground, pushing out of his mind the thought of that squashy tomato, that mouldy pear. Yet he sees them staring at him between his blinks of pain. At last Tom falls into sleep, letting out  his treacherous sick breath into the grasses. Tom waking suddenly, nervously, twitchingly. Has to get up and away from here.  The goat-self is nimble with feet that seem incapable of faltering, but Tom as Tom is slipping down into sorrow.  He’s at an all time low, his whole frame is sore and aching but he gets himself together, mounts the bike. Tom, hungry now, but also saying to himself he could never eat again. The idea of food is too much for him to take.  He steers towards Gurness Broch.

Crouching down by the remains of some !st Century hut he makes himself coffee and manages to drink it, feeling better afterwards. He enjoys the moment of sitting there, the steam from the coffee warming his face.  This is what his time here is supposed to be like.  He thinks of Iron Age man, tries to get a sense of the past, but can’t quite get there – the Goat won’t let him.  It’s too restless to let such things happen.  The Goat-eyes dart and darken. Let’s go! And true, sun’s fading down to a gold-pink glow.

Bright light day. Tom, the perfect picture of a camper, frying his bacon on the camping stove. If it wasn’t for the Goat in him even he could enjoy this moment, in spite of everything. He wants to be carefree but he isn’t.  The Goat won’t stop fretting.  Tom wants to yell out, Life’s too short, but the Goat is impervious to anything he can say. He can’t stop hopping from rock to rock.  Is the bacon burning, is the pan about to catch fire, is the wind putting the flame out, is he too near the ditch, is he too far from the ditch?  Endless stream of worry.  The Goat’s state of mind.  One tiny anxiety linked to the next forming a chain which rattles around his head, spoiling the charm of the morning.  He moves the bacon about with the spatula.  Is it sticking, is it burning?  And mentally he keeps on with the incessant hopping.  Distantly he hears voices, and the Goat in him frowns and draws in his eyes to two pinpricks.  Hikers.  What the hell are they doing here?  the Goat wants to know.

Hiking? Tom wants to say but having a sense of humour is a thing of the past. He fries an egg in the side of the pan. The egg breaks, Tom’s pissed off. The egg sticks, gets mixed up with the piled up bacon rashers. Where is the tea?  Why should the Goat care? The Goat has no aesthetic sense, and as for food it will swallow down anything in no particular order. The reality is, the Goat doesn’t care as such about the things it’s annoyed about. Irritation is just its way of being. Tom feels drained, doesn’t know how he’ll keep on going.  If only he could dump the Goat and be himself. But no, the thought is too scary. He leaps back into Goat-disguise mode. For though Tom now hates the Goat the Goat is still home to him, or he is home to the Goat, whichever.  It’s a two-way thing, they are part of one another. Tom drinks his mug of tea, stares out across the ditch to the standing stones but even though it’s daylight they make him shiver.  He’ll have to pack up and get away.

Back in Stromness and he’s in two minds about whether he should book the ferry right away—the Tom par—or whether he should go looking for the cushiony Kathy to sink his horns in—the Goat.

And then there you go, he sees Kathy on Alfred Street coming out of the breadshop.  She wheels towards him like a sofa on its castors, her hands weighed down by bulging bags. The Goat’s up to her at once and sniffing round her lipstick, but it turns out she’s more than a little riled by the way Tom had run off without saying goodbye.

Tom hates the Goat but they’re still a team. He can blame the Goat for all his sins and trust it to chuck the memory away. A useful ally in the denial of the unpalatable, while allowing all the excess to happen. Tom doesn’t have to be responsible any more, he can bung everything unacceptable onto the Goat.

Shut up, the Goat tells Tom and Kathy, the both of them together. As for him, he’s off to the ferry. He’s had it with country living. Take it or leave it, the Goat says to the pair of them. Kathy, of course, leaves it, Tom takes it, he’s up and after the Goat in three. What else can he do? Kathy screams out an obscenity in his wake which he passes over to the Goat to deal with.  The Goat spits the sound of her voice to the wind.

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About Jay Merrill

Jay Merrill has been published in a wide number of literary magazines in the UK and USA, including Stand Magazine, the London Magazine, Mslexia, Night Train, Prophecy, and Snow Monkey. Winner of the Salt Short Story Prize for “As Birds Fly,” she has published two novels, Astral Bodies, nominated for the International Frank O’Connor award, and God of the Pigeons.

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