Twice a day I walk a three-mile course on a country road that banks the art colony where I am staying and where Joe, one of the writers, practices letting go of anger. Usually people like that are on fire but not Joe. Most days I feel okay if I don't blow up a building or cause specific pain.
Along the blacktop grow bushes and trees. A patch of magenta pea blossoms, a rose of sharon volunteer. I am in rural Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the air is still and it seldom rains. Sleepy houses are set back from the road, and people sometimes sit out on front lawns and wave. I say hello. I wear black and carry an umbrella against the sun. Dogs sniff around. Some people here are afraid of the dogs. Me, I like them.
A wooden church is propped on a hill, and a little further along a herd of goats with pensive faces gambol or stare out. Cows graze in a farmer's field and beyond is a pond, and when you take in the scene as the road sweeps up, you see rolling hills in the background and puffy clouds above, and the vista suggests a bit of English countryside. It's a little like a Constable, and it makes me happy.
One day I pass a goat who maahhs. It sounds like he is saying hello. I maahh back. He maahhs again, only this time the note rises up at the end, and it sounds like he is saying don't leave me. That is something I would say to a stranger, and I return his maahh, walking fast, but then I turn and see his head is stuck in a fence. He's locked himself in by his horns. I go to him through grass and brambles. He's standing with his head turned to the side.
No car passes now, but often as I walk a car or truck will stop and the driver will ask if I am all right, as if I'm limping instead or something. Sometimes the driver is a man, sometimes a woman. I am walking alone, a woman on a road. That's all it takes.
Joe has a white goatee and kind eyes that look out from rimless specs. He says there is a text in the I Ching called "releasing the goat." It means your stubbornness. I hold the goat's head, and he stops crying. His face is white with black markings, and two horns sweep back from his forehead. The horns are extensions of bone, and they feel strong and hard, and I don't think I have ever before touched a goat's horns, and I realize I have wanted to be close to these animals since I first saw them, and I wonder what it would be like to have horns growing out of my head to butt at things, and then I remember that's what some people think Jews already have. The goat's fur is soft and at the same time a little bristly, like the coat of a Jack Russell terrier. The wire fence confines him on four sides, and I can't understand how he could have pushed his head through. I tug at the wires, but the geometry doesn't permit escape. What was he looking for? Maybe a place without a fence.
According to Joe, the phrase "to get your goat" derives from the practice of calming a skittish race horse by placing a goat in its stall for company. Competitors wishing to spook the horse would steal the goat, thus "get your goat." The way to detach from anger, Joe says, is to recognize it as a moment and move on. On the road, I practice this between encounters with people in cars.
The road is not well lit after dusk, so I carry a flashlight, and when I see headlights or hear tires whirring, I step off to the side. Sometimes, drivers lean out the window and say, "Be careful." People stop and say, "You shouldn't walk on the road at night." Their heads are bent at the angle they use to speak to children or others they think will have difficulty comprehending, or people on whom they want to impress their understandings. In Arizona where I carry an umbrella under blazing skies, middle-aged men shout out, "It's not raining." I used to say to them, "You are welcome to my melanomas." Now I go up and ask how their erections are going. When they look affronted, I say, "Yeah, well, nobody likes rude remarks flying at them."
I reach through the wires and try to position the goat's body closer, but his feet are planted. His eyes are black, the lids melting. I feel love for this animal. I work on the fence until there's a little more room to maneuver. I love the fence for allowing me contact with the goat.
In some traditions, the goat is a sexy satyr whose horns the devil has borrowed, in other lore he's surefooted and represents escape from guilty feelings. I grasp one of the goat's horns and ease it out of the cage. To release the other, I have to press his neck hard against the bottom wire, and he doesn't squirm or bleat. I want my memory of the road to be about the goat, but the drivers are swimming in the love, and I can't pluck them out like peas from fried rice. At last the goat is free. He looks at me for a moment or maybe he doesn't. Maybe he has already kicked away the fence as he runs up the hill to join his mates. I sniff my hands, and they are sweet and sour, and I do not know if this is the smell of pleasure or pain.