Caprine Heartburn

~ H. L. Fullerton

Douglas Papago has been married to his wife Lizzie for seven years and is thinking of either leaving her or killing himself. Except Lizzie can’t afford the mortgage on their condo without him. And he loves her. He does.

He simply wishes she wouldn’t jump in the shower the second she wakes when she knows he has to leave first. He’s asked her to wait and she always says the same thing, “I thought I’d be out before your alarm went off.” But she never is. Which is why he’s the one to discover the goat.

Douglas shuffles down the hall towards the kitchen and coffee. He’s so intent on getting his caffeine fix, still grumbling about the shower and how he’s going to be late, he almost doesn’t see it. But the goat bleats a friendly hello and Doug raises a hand in acknowledgment, then stops—hand in a sort of half-wave—turns and sees it.

Standing pride of place on their sisal rug is a small goat. He hopes it’s some funny looking dog Lizzie adopted. Sun glints off its golden coat, giving it salon-perfect highlights. Wide ears, no horns, smallish—roughly the size of a springer spaniel—it somehow strikes him as an adult goat. It has that aura of wisdom that comes with age. It’s been around the mountain, knows a thing or two.

He rubs his eyes.

Still there. He feels fuzzy, like falling or dreaming. He really hopes he’s dreaming. He knows he’s not.

It bleats again. A little longer greeting this time, maybe Good morning, Douglas. How’s it going?

He scans the room. It looks like his living room. Everything else in it is his: TV, leather sofa, occasional chairs (yeah, he didn’t know what they were till he was married either), black and white architectural prints on café au lait walls. And a goat. He smells it now, realizes he’s smelled that funky unwashed animal scent since he woke. He just couldn’t place the barnyard perfume until he saw the animal that went with it.

He looks at the goat. The goat looks at him. The minute the shower shuts off, he yells for his wife. Thinking, That’s it. She’s lost her fucking mind. He knows she wants a kid, has talked nothing but babies since they bought this place and jesus christ now they have a goat? “Lizzie!

“I thought I’d finish before you got up.” She pads towards him in nothing but a towel, water droplets still clinging to her skin. “Sorry. I’ll dry off in the . . . ” Her voice trails off as she catches sight of the goat. “What’s—Why’s—Is that a goat? Douglas?” She clutches the towel to her and inches behind him.

“It’s not yours?”

“Why would I get a goat?”

“I don’t know,” he says, still certain she’s somehow responsible. “Who else would it belong to?”

“You?”

Me? Why would I want a goat?”

The goat makes a meh sound and they stop arguing, stare at it.

“Do something,” Lizzie whispers.

Douglas looks at her, then the goat. “I’m going to shower.”

“Douglas! You can’t leave a goat in our living room. What if—what if it eats the couch or . . . or . . . or uses the rug”—she lowers her voice so she doesn’t offend the inquisitive goat—“as its toilet.

“What do you want me to do, Lizzie? I’m in my pajamas. I’ll . . . take it outside or something when I’m dressed. But first, I’m showering.”

“What should I do?”

“I don’t know. Get ready for work. Make it breakfast. Whatever you want.” Douglas spins and heads for the open bathroom. It isn’t until he’s in the shower, shampoo dripping into his eyes, that he worries leaving Lizzie alone with the goat wasn’t a smart move. What if she decides to name it?

 

The goat is lapping from one of their red and black donburi bowls when he returns cleaned and dressed.

“I gave it some milk. Do you think that’s okay?” Lizzie’s fingers knot. She’s wearing her green scrubs, hair twisted back into a loop. “It seems to like it, but I don’t know if pasteurized skim milk is good for goat stomachs.”

Douglas doesn’t say anything. He’s trying to figure out how to get rid of the thing. Preferably without touching it. He also plans to accidentally smash the bowl it’s using on their granite countertop as soon as Lizzie’s back is turned. No way he’s eating from the same dish a goat licked, dishwasher sanitize cycle or no. “Do you have a scarf I can use?”

“You’re going to strangle it? In our home?”

“No! I’m going to make a leash and take it outside. Let it wander back to wherever it came from.”

Lizzie disappears to rummage through her closet. He checks his watch and wonders how long it takes to coax a goat out of a house.

“One you don’t like,” he calls. “In case it gets chewed.” So far the goat hasn’t ruined any of their stuff, but Douglas is certain goats will eat anything, even tin cans, given the chance. Whether that’s true or something he saw on a cartoon he isn’t sure.

Lizzie returns with a plaid cashmere scarf and hands it to him. “Not too tight,” she warns as Douglas approaches the goat. The goat ignores him. He notices it has a white blaze between its bumblebee eyes—black stripes of pupil across sunflower-colored irises. Something buzzes in his head.

“Nice goat,” he says. “Good goat. No biting.” Doug crouches and wraps his cashmere leash around the goat’s neck. He stands. Tugs on the scarf.

The goat doesn’t budge.

Douglas tugs more forcefully and the goat kicks the donburi bowl, breaking it and spraying milk onto Douglas’ trousers. “Christ, let’s go.” He grabs the collar’s knot and drags at the goat.

It bleats, then picks up its feet and clops after Douglas.  Lizzie scurries ahead of them into the dining room towards the sliding glass doors that open onto their postage-stamp patio. Outside air hits the goat’s muzzle and it digs in, refusing to exit the Papago house.

Douglas—too pissed to worry about getting bit or kicked—wraps his arm around its middle, gags at the smell and hefts the goat over the threshold. He sets his bundle on the cement patio and checks to see if any of his neighbors are watching from their windows. No one is.

Lizzie slides the door almost closed so neither he nor the animal can get back in. “Hurry,” she whispers.

Douglas tries to slide the scarf over the goat’s head, but it’s knotted good and tight. He throws the tail end of the scarf over the goat’s back. The green and blue stripes set off the gold of the goat’s fur. Douglas half-suspects Lizzie chose the scarf for that very reason. 

He pushes at the goat’s backside until it trundles off their patio and into the common grassy area. Then he hurries back inside. He’s going to have to change. He smells like a barnyard and just-turned milk. His hands feel dusty and greasy from handling the goat.

Lizzie bites her lip. “Do you think she’ll be okay?”

“It’ll be fine.”

“Did we do the right thing?”

Douglas takes her arm. Last thing they need is for some busybody to call the condo association. Report them for having livestock. “Of course, we did. You fed it. It’s outside where it belongs. What else could we do?”

Lizzie shakes free of him. “You smell, Douglas. Like—”

“Goat. Yeah, I know.”

“No.” Lizzie shakes her head slowly. “Like lavender and camphor.”

“Must be from your scarf. I’ll wash.” He looks at the red-gold strands covering his slate suit. “And change.” He does. When he returns, finally ready to head into the kitchen and get that mug of coffee, he sees Lizzie surrounded by their living room drapes, sneaking peeks into the backyard.

He sighs, gets the coffee. Toasts some bread. Asks Lizzie if she wants any.

She doesn’t answer.

“Lizzie?” He’s careful to keep the exasperation out of his voice. He isn’t keeping a goat, but neither does he want to fight about it. “Should I make you some toast?” He sticks in another slice of multi-grain and takes his two jam-covered pieces to the dining room table. “I put some toast on for you,” he tells her when she glances his way.

“The Masons are staring at her.”

Douglas does not want this to be their—his—problem.

“She looks so lost. I think she misses us.”

Douglas wills Lizzie away from the window. He can feel her want. Needy, greedy feeling. It pulls at him. He shoves more toast into his mouth. Lizzie flinches when the toaster pops. As if he’d just shot her goat. Then she spies his toast.

“Was that mine?”

He nods and she leaves the window, thank you thank you, to smear yogurt on her fresh-popped toast. She joins him at the table and they crunch in silence. Until the crying starts.

Douglas talks loudly about the weather, traffic, what they should have for dinner, anything to drown out the goat bleats which holy jesus sound like a baby lost in the wilderness. He maintains desperate eye contact so neither he nor Lizzie look outside. Lizzie’s hand tightens around her toast. Crumbs rain onto her placemat.

Douglas breaks. “It’s just hungry. There’s plenty of grass right there at its feet. There’s nothing we can—” He looks. A collection of neighbors circle the goat. Mrs. Mason—wearing a ratty blue bathrobe over pink pajamas—is crouched next to the goat, making soothing motions on its side, but the mewling doesn’t stop.

Douglas.

“Okay.” He stands, takes a deep breath. “We’ll check on it. But don’t tell any of them it was in our house.” Lizzie looks so relieved Douglas feels like an ass. Holding hands, they step out into the sunshine and cross the lawn.

“What’s going on?” Douglas says as they near. He’s proud at how normal he sounds. Not guilty at all.

The guy who lives three doors down turns. “Someone left their kid in our yard. You believe that?”

“Should we call someone?” Lizzie says.

“Marjorie went to call CPS.”

Huh? Douglas thinks he must be mixing up his acronyms. “CPS?”

“Child Protective Services.” The guy shakes his head. “What kind of person does a thing like this?”

Mrs. Mason coos, “Who would abandon a sweet baby like you? Poor thing isn’t even dressed properly.”

Douglas and Lizzie share a What-the-hell? look. Douglas tilts his head and murmurs in her ear, “You see a goat, right?” She nods.

Mrs. Mason scoops up the goat and cradles it in her arms. Its legs pinwheel at the sky; it tosses its head. Mrs. Mason chucks the goat under the chin. Everyone crowds around Mrs. Mason to admire a baby that is really a goat.

Douglas gasps and chokes on his own saliva. “What’s happening?” he says to Lizzie, but she’s staring too hard to answer.

“Lizzie,” Ann Crenshaw says. “Don’t you have a scarf like this?”

“I lent it to my friend Jennifer. You don’t suppose . . . ” Lizzie moves closer. Neighbors shuffle out of her way. Mrs. Mason presents the goat to Lizzie like something out of The Lion King.

Lizzie picks up the trailing scarf (which is still knotted around the baby/goat’s neck although no one seems bothered by that) and says, “Omigod! This is mine. Here’s the lipstick stain I couldn’t get out.”

What is Lizzie doing? Douglas’s stomach doesn’t like this turn of events.

“Should I stop Marjorie?”

Please. I’m sure Jennifer didn’t mean to . . . I didn’t even know she was . . . Let me take the baby. Douglas and I will sort everything out.”

Mrs. Mason hands the goat to Lizzie who cuddles the nasty smelling thing. Marjorie’s husband calls and asks if she got a hold of CPS yet. She hasn’t so he tells her to hang up, some flaky friend of Lizzie’s is the mother and the Papagos are going to take of everything. Marjorie offers to bring over some diapers.

Douglas is freaking out. This is not how this was supposed to go. What is wrong with these people? Can’t they tell a goat from a baby and why is Lizzie playing along?

“Doug, honey, you’re going to be late. Why don’t you head to work and I’ll call you later? Let you know what happens.”

Douglas would like nothing more than to leave, but he doesn’t like Lizzie’s suggestion at all. He can tell she’s trying to convince herself the goat is a baby. Yet she’s holding it the way a shepherd would, much different than how Mrs. Mason—who thought she was holding a real child—did. Because Lizzie knows damn well it isn’t a baby.

Mrs. Mason adjusts Lizzie’s arms, which must look awkward to her, and says, “You have to be careful of their heads at this age. Like that. Much better. You’ll get the hang of it, dear. So sad about your friend.” She rubs her finger along the goat’s snout and smiles down at the little bundle of joy.

“Lizzie. Honey. You have to work, too. People can’t just keep babies”—Douglas stumbles over this word—“they find in their backyard. And it may not be Jennifer’s. I’m sure it isn’t. Let’s call the police and let them handle it.”

Everyone stares at Douglas as if he suggested throwing the baby into a wood chipper.

“I’ll call in sick. The hospital will understand.”

Douglas understands they can’t have this argument in front of people or he’s going to end up looking like a dick. And he’d probably call a goat a goat which will only get his neighbors to call emergency services on him. They’ll think he’s nuts. Ironic, as they’re the ones hallucinating. But even if they’re right and he and Lizzie are wrong, he’s not raising a goat/baby. Douglas jerks his head at his wife and goes to work, thinking, She’s lost her fucking mind and Maybe I have a brain tumor and Goddamn goat baby.

 

She named the goat Tracy. It’s wearing a diaper and some kind of scarf sarong. Douglas considers driving Lizzie to the hospital for a psych eval. Or calling the cops and have them come confiscate the baby. Let them foster a goat; what does he care. But he worries Lizzie might claim it’s their child and then what would he do? Claim she’s lying? Say it isn’t his? Tell them it’s a goat in baby’s clothing? He’d end up in the back of the squad car. And Lizzie knows everyone at the hospital. They’re her colleagues. He is so royally fucked.

“I made lemon chicken, your favorite.” She places the platter on the table.

“Lizzie, we can’t keep the goat. We know it’s not a real baby even if no one else does.”

“Her name’s Tracy.”

“We can’t keep her.” Tracy gambols over to him and butts her head against his leg. Douglas smells talcum powder and manure.

“I turned the second bedroom into a nursery.”

The second bedroom was his home office. The harder Douglas tries to hold onto his patience, the more it wriggles away from him. He’s going to end up yelling and Lizzie will cry and the neighbors will hear and think, Poor woman, when they should be thinking, Poor guy, his wife wants him to raise a goat and send it to college. He flings his briefcase onto a consul table and storms into their bedroom, firmly shutting but not slamming the door behind him.

He refuses to come out and when Lizzie joins him in bed and tries to talk about how the goat is a blessing, a good luck charm, an omen of conception, he rolls away from her and pretends to be asleep. He breathes through his mouth to avoid the funky unwashed scent and prays for a brain tumor. Maybe when I wake, the goat will have disappeared as magically as it appeared. Please, please let it leave.

 

In the morning, Douglas doesn’t bother insisting Tracy is a goat or that Lizzie doesn’t need to hire a babysitter for an animal that’s perfectly capable of looking after itself.

“Doesn’t the hospital have day care? Maybe you should take Tracy there.”

Lizzie looks at him strangely as if she’s not sure she can trust his change of heart. “She’ll be more comfortable here. It’s her home.”

Douglas translates this to mean that Lizzie isn’t sure the baby magic will work outside their condo development and isn’t willing to chance it. He doesn’t really care. He’s worried this is his life from now on. From this day forward . . . Tracy clip clops into the kitchen like a tapdancing bride. Was he going to have to raise a goat? He was, wasn’t he?

“I’m leaving,” he says and escapes to work, bile coating the back of his throat.

 

Lizzie and Tracy are cuddled on the sofa, watching television when Douglas returns that evening. Tracy’s head is in Lizzie’s lap and Lizzie is stroking Tracy. Douglas focuses on the goat, tries to see a baby or a blessing or anything but goat, but goat is all he sees, all he smells.

“There’s chicken in the fridge,” Lizzie says, not looking at him.

Douglas eats, then joins them, his family—oh christ, this is his family—in the living room. But not on the sofa. He stands off to the side and stares. The goat turns its head and bleats at him. Gets up off the sofa and comes over.

“You can keep the goat. But no diapers. No dressing it like a baby. No buying a crib. No more babysitters. It’s not a baby, Lizzie. It’s a full grown goat and you have to treat it like one.” Douglas is as surprised as Lizzie to hear these words come out of his mouth. He adds, “And if it, she, isn’t here one morning, that’s it. No more goats.” And he really, really wants it—Tracy—to disappear.

Lizzie jumps up from the couch, all smiles and joy. She throws her arms around him and he puts his around her and can feel her whole body vibrating with happiness.

“The goat is going to bring us a baby. I just feel it. A beautiful little girl and we’ll name her Tracy, too.”

They were not naming a child after a goat, but Douglas wasn’t going to argue. Lizzie wasn’t pregnant; she might never be.

Tracy gives him an approving look and Douglas locks eyes with it and notices the delicate slip of skin surrounding its blonde eyes is not pinkish but burnished gold. It is a beautiful goat and its eyes— For a moment, his head feels expansive, like it’s floating. This, he thinks, is what encountering the divine must be like. Meaning seems to be everywhere and for a moment he transcends his mundane life. Douglas drops to his knees—which puts him eye-level with Tracy—and says, “I love you.”

The goat walks away, no nod of head, no understanding look, no acknowledging bleat. Douglas feels foolish and rises. Lizzie caresses his face. “I’m ovulating,” she says and takes his hand and pulls him into the bedroom.

Weeks go by and the goat is always there in the morning and Lizzie still isn’t pregnant and Douglas is getting used to their condo smelling like a petting zoo. The scent is almost comforting. Especially with Lizzie growing more and more upset about not conceiving.

Once again, Douglas thinks of leaving Lizzie, but is afraid Tracy will follow him. And Tracy seems Lizzie’s only consolation so he stays and thinks back fondly to the days when his wife hogged the shower. Now he has to deal with neighbors commenting on how big the baby’s getting, but the goat is the same size it always was and Douglas ends up flubbing these conversations and Lizzie gets mad at him for that, too.

“You need to be more fatherly to Tracy,” she’ll say. “She can sense your dislike. Douglas, this is never going to work if you don’t try harder. Don’t you want a baby?”

Douglas isn’t sure he does. He can’t handle raising a goat baby which requires almost no care. Every time Lizzie brings up the subject, he has to stop himself from telling her goodbye.

Then Lizzie leaves their bedroom door open and Tracy wanders in while they’re having sex.

“Let her stay,” Lizzie urges. Her hands stop him from leaving the bed.

“No.”

“I’ve thought about this, Douglas, and I think we haven’t conceived because we shut Tracy out. If she’s in the room with us, it’ll work.”

“No. I’m not— No.” He breaks into a cold sweat, imagining it. A goat watching him— No.

But Lizzie gets increasingly upset and insistent until Douglas grits his teeth, closes his eyes and lets the goat watch.

Lizzie still doesn’t feel pregnant.

 

The smell wakes Douglas. Lizzie’s side of the bed is empty. He listens for the shower, but all is quiet. His stomach sours at the meaty scent perfuming their bedroom. 

He throws back the covers and gets up. The scent is vaguely familiar—What the hell is it? His foggy morning mind can’t place it. He thinks of long ago Easters at his grandmother’s house and although those should be fond memories, recalling them now scare him.

With trip-trap-trepidation, Douglas opens the bedroom door. The smell is stronger, gamier. He gags, cups his hand over his mouth and that helps. But the cloying stench sticks to his tongue. 

The living room is empty—no Tracy. But Douglas doesn’t feel relieved. His anxiety ratchets up a few notches. More when he sees Lizzie at the dining table. She is gnawing on a bone. Her face and hands are covered in what looks like barbeque sauce—and grease.

His stomach roils.

Her stomach is distended. She has pushed her chair back from the table and is leaning at an awkward angle over it. Gnawing, gnawing. The bone cracks and she slurps the marrow.

Douglas knows what the smell is, what his wife’s done. He almost makes it to the kitchen sink, but the sight of the roasting pan, the heat from the still-warm oven . . .  He vomits into his hands, all over the floor.

His head buzzes. He can’t think. He heaves again.

Lizzie is still eating.

He crawls to the bathroom and showers, but he can’t get clean, can’t get rid of the smell. Fucking christ, the smell.

 

Lizzie tries to explain. She sits on the bed and Douglas wants to push her off, but she looks nine months pregnant and he doesn’t want to hurt her. He won’t let her get under the covers. He won’t come out. He buries his face in the pillows and tries to remember what fresh smells like.

“We were going about it all wrong. We had the baby. We were given a baby, but we didn’t see it as a baby. But if I carry the baby, birth the baby, it will be a real baby. Just like we always wanted.”

Douglas squeezes his eyes shut. His wife has stuffed her stomach full of goat and expects a baby to grow in her uterus. Let this be a nightmare. Let it be a tumor. Let it end.

Lizzie strokes his hair. Pets him.

He twists, sits up, grabs her hand to make her stop.

She captures his hands, shushes him. She lifts her nightgown and places his hand on her stretched-to-bursting skin. “She’s kicking. Can you feel her?”

He can. He also sees shapes form against Lizzie’s skin. A goat’s face presses out. Douglas watches its jaw move, hears its bleat in his head. Free me. He snatches back his hand. He scoots away and tumbles off the bed.

“Don’t worry, baby. Daddy will come around.” Lizzie rubs her tummy in soothing circles. “He’ll love you bunches.”

Douglas retreats to the kitchen. He’s here for the whiskey they keep under the sink, but his gaze catches on the carving knives. He never had the strength to leave before. He wonders if he has it now. Someone needs to be free—him, Tracy, Lizzie—but he isn’t sure who should go. He starts to cry.

He loves Lizzie. He just wishes she hadn’t eaten the magic fucking goat baby. He wipes his eyes and picks up the cleaver she left on the counter. He can do this. He can. He tightens his grip; as his heart burns, he tells himself: It’s what any good father would do.

 

H. L. Fullerton writes fiction—mostly speculative, occasionally about being haunted—which can be found in more than 50 anthologies and magazines including Mysterion, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and Lackington’s, and is the author of the somewhat haunting novella: The Boy Who Was Mistaken for a Fairy King. 

You may follow them on Twitter at @ByHLFullerton

 [ issue 2 : spring 2021 ]