fallen leaves clog the drainage ditch, creating a skinny pond along the
road, a creek that’s forgotten where it came from or where it’s
supposed to go. Reeds call the place home, and duckweed and algae. Nameless
foamy scum has a chance to settle in and relax during the first warm days
after the torrents of winter, and a few iris, about to unfurl purple banners
along the banks.
And frog eggs. Great clusters of them, like transparent grapes, cling
to tangles of waterlogged twigs. If the stars weren’t nearly as
large as we think they are, if they were made of some transparent stuff,
they mighty huddle together like this in the cold night sky, for warmth,
for comfort. If they were perfect globes made of clear jelly, each with
its own little black heart. One of the hearts is wiggling.
“Look. It’s about to be born.”
“It tickles,” she says.
Puzzled, I turn around. She’s made a cocoon of her hands. She opens
it, revealing a bundle of peach light, a butterfly. It has folded its
wings and seems to be sleeping. The hands cradling the butterfly are Chinese,
and perhaps the winged insect is dreaming of jade valleys, rice paddies,
an arched bridge on the road to Shanghai.
“Butterfly or moth?” she asks.
Probably a butterfly. Moths are mostly nocturnal. And they spread out
their wings when they land. Butterflies fold them up, like a pair of hands
clasped together in prayer. The antennae are different.
My explanation is interrupted by the noisy snuffle of a goat peering at
us through the chicken wire of a nearby fence.
Yang? she says, uncertain, nodding in the nanny’s direction.
The Chinese syllable she utters isn’t the yang that means
disaster or sample or to look up. It’s in the second, rising, tone,
and can mean beetle or melt or ocean or pretend, but in this particular
case, it means sheep. Of course, it also means goat. Written out, the
word has two little horns at the top to remind us. The goat blinks, as
though she’s as confused as I am by the ideogrammatic language invented
by the inhabitants of Cathay. Don’t worry about it, I want to tell
her, all you have to do is grow hair, lick the labels off tin cans and
let your udders fill with milk.
But, I can almost hear the goat sniffing in protest, how could anybody
possibly confuse us with those stupid, baa-baa, wooly sheep?
What can I do but shrug? The truth is, for more than a billion of the
earth’s talking animals, there’s no difference between the
genus Capra and the genus Ovis. Proof of this disturbing
fact is scotch-taped to the side of my refrigerator, in the form of a
free calendar from a Chinatown grocery. This happens to be the Year of
the Yang, and standing beside the horned character proclaiming which beast
will be top dog for the next so many moons is a horned creature with the
features of both a goat and a sheep.
After lovers share juices, they
often share stories about life before they met. Some of the stories are
heard but once. They may melt away in the telling, or be too trivial or
too painful to tell again. Others seem to hover in the silence that frequently
ensues after most of the stories have already been told, waiting for a
word to bring them forth again, the whisper of a hand on naked skin. They’re
like the buds of leaves on a maple branch, inaudibly muttering something
about the coming spring. One such story is the tale of the necklace I
bought for my goat Blue Horns. It’s the favorite of the woman holding
the butterfly, and it passes between us, unspoken, as I reassure her that
yes, yang will indeed do for the creature now scratching an itch
against the fence.
Actually, it wasn’t a necklace. It was only a collar, a plain leather
collar I used to keep her staked out among the mastic trees on a scrubby
hillside above a defunct monastery on a Greek island. She was stubborn
and greedy, so greedy she butted the blue paint clean off the metal barrels
of grain we kept in the stable. That’s how she got her name, Blue
Catching her always involved
a goat dance, a mad scramble around the pole where she was tethered. Milking
her took two people, one to hold her in a hammerlock and one to squeeze
her teats. A tricky goat, she would wait till the pail was full to kick
it over. Or at the very last second, just as the last jet of milk squirted
into the pail, there would be a cannonade of steaming nanny berries plopping
into the white froth.
The other goats were in awe of her. They let Blue Horns eat first, drink
first, lead the way up the hill. They gave her first crack at the greenest
clover. When the billy came for springtime frolic, it was Blue Horns butting
and bullying her way to the front of the line, then playing coy, making
sure the billy sweated for his little spasm of pleasure.
One night she apparently did nothing but worry her collar millimeter by
millimeter into her mouth, until she could chew through the leather. In
the morning she was loose in the garden, gobbling down the most tender
vegetables, the baby butter lettuce and tender pea shoots, the tips of
tomato plants, nibbling away just enough so they would never grow back.
I have a cousin sort of like thatat wedding banquets she always
makes a beeline for the hors d’oeuvre table and picks over the canapés
to find the most scrumptious, the showpieces the caterer has no intention
Before I made the trip to buy a replacement at the agricultural supply
store in the island’s main harbor, I looked up the word for collar
in a dictionary. It was difficult, polysyllabic and pebbly, like many
Greek words. Natives can be rather fussy about foreigners mangling their
tongue, and I practiced saying “collar” the whole five miles
through the olive groves and tangerine orchards along the paths to town.
“I would like to buy a collar for my goat,” I proudly announced
to the clerk at the counter, certain that my pronunciation was perfect.
He burst into laughter. An old fellow sharpening a scythe at the back
of the store looked up. The clerk waved him over.
“I would like to buy a collar for my goat,” I repeated.
Both of them began laughing uncontrollably, so hard they gasped for air.
When their wheezes and guffaws finally subsided, the clerk ran next door
to the barber shop to fetch the barber and a customer, still draped in
a white sheet, with shaving cream on his cheeks. Perhaps one of them had
spent time in Chicago or Sydney? I repeated my request, this time in English.
They appeared bewildered, so I tried out my Greek again.
The harmony of their hoots was exquisite. They could’ve been a famous
barbershop quartet rehearsing a laughing aria in a Gay Nineties musical.
“You must,” said the old man with the scythe, sobbing out
the words, choking with laughter, “really love your goat.”
That much simple Greek I could
understand. And somehow I did manage to make my wishes understood well
enough to be sold a goat collar, at what I was quite sure was an inflated
price. But months passed before I was able to fathom the reason for the
gales of laughter, before I learned that my dictionary was hopelessly
outdated, a relic of a pedantic quest to return Greek to its linguistic
roots and make it pure. The word I had chosen for “collar”
actually means necklace, the special kind of diamond-studded, stunning
neckpieces worn by queens and empresses.
I nod towards the goat and mention that it is, after all, her year. Yang
will do just fine. This woman who has come all the way from the land of
pandas to share my nights smiles and moves her hands apart. The peach-colored
captive awakes and flits away, heading east in the late morning sun. Yellow
flowers just beyond the fence of the goat pasture await the butterfly’s
This petite woman who now knows my stories stands on tiptoe to brush my
lips with hers. She brought me a butterfly. Or was it the butterfly that
brought me her?
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