We caught a goat.
The Chinese man stands with his head thrust through the open door of my caravan. In his hand, a smartphone with translation software running. Staring out from the screen, strings of Chinese characters that sadly mean nothing to me, despite my heritage. Beneath the oblique letters, the program’s best attempt at a translation into English: We caught a goat.
I look at the man, a puzzled expression creased across my face. He beckons me to follow him out of the caravan. Technically I’m on a break, but it’s hard to explain that to someone who only understands one English word. Okay, I say, and I nod my head for emphasis.
The gravel path crunches beneath our feet as we walk through the zoo, stopping at the prep room to collect some ropes. At the last minute, we double back to collect our sheepdog, then it’s up to the top of the hill that overlooks the property. The man repeatedly makes a gesture towards me, as if he’s drawing a diagonal line in the air with the palm of his hand. I have no idea what it means.
In the field on the hill is a solitary goat. We enter and close the gate behind us. The man lets Bella off her lead and she tears towards the terrified ram. Ah! I think. We catch a goat! And we do. Eventually. It takes more than a few attempts, because every time we corner the ram, he lowers his head and charges, and it’s all we can do to scramble out of the way of his horns. Eventually, using a combination of rope and snarling dog, we pin him to the ground and wrap a makeshift harness around his neck. The man drags the goat back to the zoo, while I do my best to restrain Bella, who snaps at my hands with barely controlled aggression.
Eventually the goat is back in the main paddock with his friends, but it seems we’re not done. We tie the goat to a post and the man sharpens an already-sharp knife. He makes that movement again, that sideways swipe in the air. He motions for me to grab both the ram’s horns, and I think to myself (because I’m very, very slow): Oh, we’re going to cut his horns off. I’ve seen plenty of rams with stumps on their heads, so this makes sense to me, although in the back of my head, I’m not quite sure how a knife is going to cut through bone that thick.
Of course, dear reader, you worked it out long ago. This Chinese man – my manager’s father, who arrived on a plane from China just a week ago – he’s not drawing lines in the air. He’s slicing the air. He steadies himself, the knife in his hand, and he slices through the goat’s neck.
Blood sprays vertically and horizontally at the same time, and the animal bucks in my hands. Until this exact moment, it has honestly not even occurred to me that we’re going to slaughter the animal. All I want to do is release my grip and sit down in shock. Instead, I continue to grasp the horns as the goat frantically tries to wrench himself free. One thing’s clear: he’s not dead. The Chinese man tuts in frustration and plunges the knife further into the animal’s neck. More blood gushes and the horns continue to pull, digging into my hands as I stare in disbelief every way except down.
Directly above me, the sky is a mixing tray of different clouds, grey and white on solid blue. I watch for movement, but they seem very still indeed. Eventually that stillness seeps down to our field and I look at the ram. His head rests sideways on the dark red grass and his eye is faced in my direction. I know he’s dead, but it’s as if he’s looking at me.
Then he blinks. Just one, silent blink. There’s a sadness in his final gaze. The terror of being chased is gone, as is the pain of dying. Now there is only resignation – the acceptance of defeat. Am I projecting my own unhappiness into his last expression? Probably. Do I believe that animals have souls? Not really. Though perhaps I believe it with a little less certainty now.
It’s not even the first goat corpse I’ve seen today. Just this morning, I saw one in the industrial bin – apparently it died in the night. This one is different though. This one is dead because of me, and I was the last living thing he saw. I watched the transition between life and death. Maybe life and death are two sides of a coin, but maybe they’re opposite ends of a spectrum. There are degrees of life, one might argue. Diseases – cancer, say, or dementia – take life from you, not all at once, but a degree at a time.
In the aftermath of killing the goat, what occurs to me is that there are also degrees of death. At the moment of death, he gains a certain humanity; his expression is soulful and alive. Within seconds, that expression fades and he’s an animal again. Then he’s torn apart by the knife.
At first, it’s too difficult to watch, because this is an animal we’re cutting into pieces, but after a while, the sensation fades. That’s not an animal, that’s a fur rug we’re slicing away. Look, beneath the rug is meat: I recognise the cuts, which segments will be tender, which parts most flavoursome. I might buy pieces of this in styrofoam packaging from the fridge at the back of the store.
There are moments of disgust: the warm, bubbly fat raises bile at the back of my throat, as do the faeces that ooze from the ripped intestines. This is the next stage of death then, a revulsion at just how dead this thing is. How it’s nothing but flesh and waste, nothing but stench that will only worsen as it rots.
We fill a bucket with the meat. Now it’s simply something we eat. In this act of consumption, the goat will cease to be physically anything at all. Its annihilation is almost – but not quite – complete. There are still traces of it on my person: blood on my trousers, the lingering smell of fat on my thrice-washed hands. Detergent will see to these last vestiges of existence.
What detergent can’t scrub away is the look. The look that goat gave me as he began his long death. Desolation – and something else. Bemusement perhaps, an utter lack of comprehension at the beginning of his end. There’s an odd intuition inside of me that wants to remember that look. Here’s a line see, and on the far left there’s total life – whatever that may be – while over there on the far right is total death. The midpoint is the transition, and the goat has passed from the left to the right. But see, he’s still on the line. Simply through the act of memory, I can hold that goat back – just as I did with my hands at the moment of his death – and stop him from sliding to the end of his end.
I tell my manager that I helped her father cut up a goat.
Oh yeah, she says off-handedly. He had to look it up on YouTube. He wasn’t really sure how to do it.
I laugh a weirdly hollow laugh, and tell her that I didn’t know what he was going to do.
I thought he wrote it down, she says.
It just said ‘We caught a goat.’
Oh no, she explains. We kill a goat.
Yeah, I reply. I get that now.