An Urban Farm Tale
I didn’t know how to milk goats, but it didn’t worry me. I could google it.
The irises I planted the year before stood tall and proud and happy, stretching their lavender petals and violet middles upwards towards the sun. Thick trails of deep almost-black ivy and purple lantana trailed at the base of the irises, along with a $5.99 bare-root rose-bush I had rescued from the Walmart clearance bin years earlier. Today the rose bush was almost as tall as me, and it stretched its prickly branches upwards from the tangled gathering. The tiny rosebuds provided a contrasting burst of red that Maggie-the-goat annihilated each time she found an opportunity. Or, to be more specific, when her gate was left open.
The whole mishmash was held captive with thick and sturdy railroad ties that had been half-submerged in dirt for decades, long before Mickey and I ever moved into the farmhouse. The gnarled ties were the children’s prized balance beam, even with the skinny strips of splintered blades that erupted through their bare skin as they walked across from one end to the other, their shoes kicked off, forgotten and scattered across the yard.
The irises were Maggie’s favorite, second only to the rose buds. The year Nichole learned to walk, spring came early, and Maggie escaped twice before May was over. Each time, she sauntered out the gate to the railroad ties and was absent just long enough to deadhead every rose bud within reach, leaving the long and prickly stems sad and drooping. It took about a week and a half for the bush to generate replacements, with a little help from the California sunshine and the garden hose. Then, a new sprinkling of haphazard blood-red recruits would reach up towards the sky like their long-deceased brothers and sisters.
That year, the flowers bloomed all through May and June, and busy thumb-sized hummingbirds flitted back and forth from blossom to blossom. Even the one chicken who sat on her eggs — Henny the Rhode Island Red — took to nesting in a forgotten corner of ivy, hidden away from little fingers. And with the warmth of the spring, and the purples and pinks and yellows and greens, the children would burst forth, leaving the screen door to slam against its dented wooden frame. Or on little Nichole, as she toddled behind, diaper sagging.
The goat pen comprised one-half of one-half of the acre that surrounded our house. The week before Maggie arrived, I told Mickey that my friend needed a home for Maggie the Nubian and her goat-twins, Melanie and Snowball. Yes, I agreed with him, it was short notice, but the goats were absolutely free — no strings attached. And we had a big yard after all, zoned for agriculture. and the only livestock we owned were a handful of chickens, Mr.Goose and his mate, Lucy, and a lop named Charlie Wilson. It was meant to be.
So without hesitation, I volunteered.
The day before my friend arrived with the trio, Mickey picked up a twenty-dollar bundle of wire fencing from Home Depot in Modesto. With this and a forgotten stack of redwood-fence planks piled in the corner of our yard, Mickey put together a goat pen and a shed.
While Mickey worked, I crouched beside him, passing him the wire clippers and the u-nails and hammer, pausing to help the the kids hold the posts firm until Mickey circled back and stretched the fencing tight. With the heels of my Birkenstocks sinking into the dirt, I thought about tomorrow’s schedule and the twice-a-day milking that would add fresh Nubian goat milk to our diet. I didn’t know how to milk goats, but it didn’t worry me. I could google it.
“And we’re doing this why?” Mickey would stop from time-to-time and ask.
“So we can milk Maggie.” I would answer.
“I don’t like goat milk.” Then Mickey would wipe the sweat from his brow, or take a sip from his Pepsi Big Gulp.
A couple of minutes later he would pause and raise his eyebrows. “What about the goat babies?”
“Melanie and Snowball? I read somewhere that goat meat tastes good. My friend usually has the boy butchered.”
I didn’t believe the words even as they spilled from my mouth.
At this point, one of the children would protest: “We can’t kill Snowball!” “Poor Snowball!” “We can’t eat Snowball!”
Mickey would sigh, or mumble to himself, or to the children and me that “nobody kills a goat named Snowball — they just don’t.”
On this point, Mickey was right.
It took a couple of days, but we settled into a working routine. Alfalfa was delivered by Jamestown Feed, and the trio was fed one flake in the morning and one flake at night. These were my friend’s instructions, put in place to curb the goats’ natural tendency to eat themselves into a stomachache. It was a personality trait that even Google confirmed as correct. We also purchased goat pellets at the Sonora Walmart three miles away and fed these to Maggie and the twins twice a day. Unless money was tight. Then we reached for the cracked corn on the bottom shelf. And during the tight-money cracked corn days, Maggie was grumpy, and it didn’t take much for her to exploit the two-inch opening when the children forgot to latch the gate. Then she would nudge the wire with her nose and meander down to the garden. Oddly, during Maggie’s minutes of freedom, Melanie and Snowball always stood on the goat hill, waiting and watching with round watery-brown eyes, blinking thoughtfully.
But Mr. Goose would always flap his wings and honk.
The children had been good about latching the gate shut for the first ten days in June and the 11th day started out well, too. Maggie, Snowball, and Melanie were behaving just like all Nubian goats should: eating and drinking and taking turns standing on the hill.
Circling around them, back and forth, the chickens poked their sharp beaks into the dirt, scratching one clawed toe after another, digging seeds, worms, and insects. And not to be forgotten, Lucy-the-Goose basked in the sunshine, her feathers outstretched and her long neck curled into her wing. Mr. Goose puffed out his chest and stood tall.
I turned away from the window, back to the stove where the simmering tomatoes had just started to boil. It was then I heard the cry — Mom, hurry!
I dashed through the door, eyes scanning ahead.
Anna met me half way. “Mr. Goose bit Nicole!” She pointed in front of her, eyes wide. Nichole, in a diaper and t-shirt, was at the fence, holding her hand and crying.
“Ow! Ow!” Streams of saline forged a path down her dirt-smeared cheeks.
Standing beside Nichole, twice her height, Katrina narrowed her eyes and scowled into the goat pen. “Go Away Mr. Goose!” Katrina held her arms around Mr. Charlie Wilson, her lop bunny, whose legs dangled and nose twitched.
But Mr. Goose continued to flap his wings, shrieking.
“Mom, I saw the whole thing.” Katrina turned towards me. “It’s Mr. Goose’s fault. He’s m-e-a-n, Mom…” She stretched out the word “mean,” elongating each vowel. Her brow furrowed, stern and pragmatic with five-year old reasoning.
Nichole nodded her chin up and down, inhaling, then choking, then sobbing, her right hand tightly pressed to her chest. I knelt beside her, wrapping my arms around her little body.
Anna moved in and placed a hand on sister’s shoulder. “Nichole, do you want to play with us? We’re playing house with the bunnies. Does that sound like fun?”
Nichole gazed up through shiny wet lashes.
“Here, you can hold Charlie Wilson.” Katrina held out the rabbit to her and Charlie Wilson kicked his legs in protest.
Nichole’s eyes widened, little blue saucers stunned into momentary blankness.
Before I could answer, or intercept furry and wiggling twelve-pound Charlie, Anna stepped forward. “No, Charlie Wilson’s not nice either. I’ll hold him. Okay, Nichole?”
Nichole watched her sister, quietly sucking on her fingers. She nodded, then removed one finger, then another and another and a smile spread across the length of her cheeks.
In Anna’s arms, Charlie Wilson relaxed, but his eyes continued to squint steadily, and his nose twitched.
I glanced towards the goat-pen; Maggie and her twins were still quietly watching us from their hill. Beside them, in the dusty flatlands between hill and fence, Mr. Goose continued to protest the invasion of little fingers into his territory.
I turned towards the girls, lost in thought and now burdened with a problem bigger than Maggie the escaping goat. I reflected on my options: give Mr. Goose to my friend and her family (who might eat him) or return him back to the farm where we bought him. I contemplated all this as the girls scampered back to the house. Nichole followed close behind her big sisters, her fingers forgotten and her diaper sagging even lower as she marched — three hurried little steps to one of theirs. Charlie Wilson’s furry black and white back legs hung by Anna’s side and bounced in time with the girls’ rhythm.
I watched until the back door slammed shut.
We kept Mr. Goose for three more weeks. And for three more weeks I heard the cry from the kitchen and ran across the yard to find my toddler holding her hand and Mr. Goose flapping his wings on the other side of the wire. After the seventh day of that last week in June, it was too much. I just couldn’t take it anymore.
So, Mickey scooped up Mr. Goose and sat him down in the passenger seat of his Mazda Miata and drove him back to the farmer down the road that we knew simply as “The Duck Man.” Back from whence he came.
Since Mr. Goose never returned, Lucy Goose befriended Maggie. Together they stood on the top of the goat hill and watched the children and the goat-kids play. And in the end, the goat named Snowball was never butchered.
But that’s the beginning of another story
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