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Goat

Each morning, before her father and brothers head out to the vineyard, Tirzah slips away to her family’s small pasture. Her home in the Judean hills is just a two-day journey from the Holy City of Jerusalem. With her she takes a wooden stick that her older brother scraped smooth for her, using a dagger he stole off of Ami the Drunkard’s bulging waist. In her worn undergarments, she carries a tiny, empty vial that her brother also gave her. He says that it washed up on the shores of the Great Sea, a long journey from their town, Be’er Shemesh. She imagines it traveled from Egypt.

Gnarled hills spotted with sheep frame the pasture where Tirzah visits the goat — the big goat to whom the family has been feeding all of the weeds from the gardens, and grass enough for a quarter flock.

“He’ll be too fat to make the walk to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles!” her brother predicts.

“You’ll be too fat to make it as well, if you don’t start helping out more with harvesting,” their father Abinoam replies, ruffling his son’s hair.

The carob trees begin to reek like three-day-old milk, a sign that the New Year is approaching. That means it will soon be the Feast of Tabernacles, when the Abinoam-son-of-Othniel family will travel to Jerusalem. Already, the family is preparing. Tirzah helps her mother press grapes for wine.

The animal is simply referred to as Goat — the family has only one this year. “And what if he gets blemished?” The question won’t leave Abinoam. It won’t leave anyone, even the children who do not understand it. One cannot sacrifice a blemished animal.

On the third day after the Sabbath, Tirzah picks stray pieces of straw from her hair as she gets out of bed and washes her hands from sleep’s death in the customary way. She runs along the path toward the pasture, a fog of dust rising around her bare feet. Careful not to get splinters, she climbs over the fence. At the sound of her jumping down, Goat lifts his horns from his breakfast of sharp Judean grasses and trots toward her. She puts her eyebrows up against his so that her chin rests on his muzzle. As he nips her playfully, she giggles at the feel of his prickly beard. The girl then dips her stick into her empty vial, brings the tip to the goat’s front left calf, and writes: I yelled at mother. The words burn invisible on the animal’s rough hair.

The fourth day after the Sabbath, Tirzah rises as the sun climbs up from the direction of Jerusalem. Today she writes on Goat’s neck: I stole a fig from the Canaanite merchant.

Later, as she returns home from the well, past her father whispering his afternoon prayers in the field, she thinks about the question: “What if he gets blemished?” It confuses her. Distracted, she doesn’t notice the water splashing out of her bucket. Nor does she notice the condescending looks passing women give her for her profligacy — in Canaan water is as precious as emerald.

That night, sitting outside on a sheep wool blanket, Tirzah and her father look up at the waning moon. Without shifting her gaze, she asks him, “Why does a little blemish matter so much to such a big god?”

Lifting her up in his arms, he replies, “Don’t stare at the moon, my little desert flower. It’s idol worship.”

The fifth day after the Sabbath, on her way to the pasture, Tirzah picks an olive branch for Goat. She knows he likes to chew the wood. Once he chewed the width of two hands through an olive tree and would have kept going if Abinoam hadn’t coated it with horseradish juice. Tirzah plucks off the olives and packs them in her pocket to soak later in lemon water and spices. Reaching the fence, she waves to a solitary shepherd standing guard above the horizon. After climbing over, Tirzah rubs Goat’s spine and he gargles in pleasure, but grows silent when she tenderly sketches her letters along the jutting bone. I said Yahweh’s name in vain. Tirzah brushes the flies from his ear and whispers into it, “I was praying for you.” While Goat grinds his teeth on the twisting branch, she braids his beard over and over, trying to get all the coarse hairs perfectly in place.

The sixth day after the Sabbath, even before her family begins preparations for the approaching Day of Rest, Tirzah writes on Goat’s thigh: I built a figure — a head — out of wet earth. She bends down to put her stick back in her belt, crouching for a moment below Goat’s belly. He suddenly lifts his leg and kicks at Tirzah, just missing her face.

Startled, she punches his bloated stomach, and despite her small size, she shoves him onto the crisp grass. Tirzah continues punching him, yelling, “You sinful beast! You’re nothing but sins. You’ll burn on the altar!” Her voice falters as she clasps the goat, her little arms not making it around his body, her nose breathing in his fur that smells like warm baked oats. “I’m sorry, oh Goat, I’m sorry. You’re going up to the Holy One Blessed Be He, in a sacred beam of smoke. You are my letter to Yahweh.” She repeats the words over and over; the words that her father taught her, the words with which her mother soothed her after the first time Tirzah noticed that the family goat hadn’t come back from the Temple in Jerusalem. She holds onto Goat until she falls asleep. When the sun stands directly over the pasture, cooking the earth, Abinoam comes to get milk for lunch and sees his sleeping daughter. He tries to pull her off, but Tirzah, half awake, will not let go.

One moon later in Jerusalem, the priests drag Goat toward the altar. As he burns, Tirzah’s letters turn to smoke, visible in the air for a moment, then invisible as the smoke ascends toward the gaping sun.

Alisha Kaplan won the Lenore Marshall 2011 Barnard Poetry Prize, was shortlisted for the W.B. Yeats Society of New York 2012 Poetry Competition, and Glimmer Train’s 2012 Short Story Award for New Writers. A native of Toronto, she lives in Brooklyn.