Blesok no. 30, January-February, 2003
The Time of the Goats
excerpt from the novel
Goat District was in agonies awaiting the death sentence on the goats. The streets were empty, the children sad, the goats hidden in the cellars. Fear reigned, as if before a war. The people laid in provisions – not much, but something to see them through hard times.
Without the goats we were certain to go hungry. When it became known that the Party was preparing special measures against the goats, there was a fear among the people that old, nearly forgotten quarrels would break out.
Fear settled on the lives of us children. Even though amongst the poor families fear entered through one door and left through the other, we were still terrified in advance that someone could take them from us, could kill our goats. So fear made a long stay with everyone who had goats. For days we didn't take them to pasture. The last drops of milk were squeezed from them. The town swiftly became deserted, its former white bustle vanished. The long wait began.
'Census, census, census!' was called one morning through Goat District and through the town.
The news reached our house too.
'What kind of census now, for goodness' sake. Didn't they take the census last autumn?' my mother said to herself out loud, putting her knitting down beside her on the balcony. She was sitting beside my father, who was leafing through an old book. He slowly put down his book, took off his glasses and before he could reply to my mother's words, my Party-member brother hurried out onto the balcony calling from a distance, 'Census, a census of all the goats, order of the highest Party authorities. It's got to be organised right away.'
My father was considered a pretty well-informed person. He listened almost all night to local and foreign broadcasts, western and eastern stations. Sometimes he would listen until early morning while he gathered together his own version of the truth. He was a calm man, he didn't easily allow himself to be taken in by enthusiasm, by optimism. He was so well-informed that he could never be an optimist. Only the ill-informed are optimists, he often used to say. He had no one, apart from Changa and the household, to share his thoughts with. It was as if the words from the radio compensated for this. He often commented on important news out loud, as if he was having a conversation with the absent speakers.
My father, as a newcomer to the town, without friends or relatives – if you don't count the goats, those other bodies in the household who lived so closely with us that they had become a part of it – bearing mind my brother the Party member, didn't think it very wise for us to get involved with the politics of the old inhabitants, because even if we were in the right over something, it would be difficult for them to believe in us. And when my elder brother went into politics, there was my father as his main advisor cooling his enthusiasm, his radical ideas, his headlong reactions, his illusions.
My brother's news of the census brought all the family out onto the balcony.
'A census of the goats,' my mother was the first to break the silence. 'It'll lead to no good!'
'They want to know how many goats we have for the knife!' said another of my elder brothers.
Once we'd heard about this census of the goats, we younger ones were constantly on the verge of tears. My father did not say anything for the time, but the calm glance shining from his blue eyes soothed us, even though death was already knocking on the doors of Goat District.
We were seized by all sorts of ideas, of forebodings. The goats were a part of our lives.
Never in these Balkan lands had the people been so bound up with animals. The people's and the goats' instinct for self-preservation was united into a single, sturdy strength that could not be destroyed.
In other times my father, referring to ancient volumes gathered from all over the Balkans and from other countries, conveyed to us that virtually all the peoples of the Balkans owed their lives to the goat. He once said to Changa that if a history of the goat in the Balkans were written, it would be one of the best histories of the Balkan peoples…
In Goat District the news of the census of goats was exchanged, spread and grew. Nobody knew quite what kind of census was involved. But one morning it was made clear, when the census commission began to visit the houses where there were goats. And when the census began, there settled on Goat District the silence of the grave, like a never-ending funeral.
My mother was already up by dawn.
She had her routine, developed over the years. In the garden she was first greeted by the new flowers on her plants, or the shining colour of a newly ripened fruit, and then by the three goats.
Ther census commission discovered my mother as she was watering the flowers in the garden from the well. She quickly led them to the balcony. We children were awake, not having slept for hours. My mother first served the officials with mulberry preserve and cool water. Then my father appeared from his study. They greeted each other. We children joined them, coming up from the goats, thinking we had hidden them well and had left them sufficient fodder.
The commission was composed of three members. It wasn't difficult to work out who was the chief – it was usually the one who wore a leather coat and, quite rightly, had a moustache. People with leather coats and moustaches were generally from the police, from the administration or from the Party. The law and justice were theirs. One word from them could change the entire life of a family. Our frightened childish eyes were directed towards the man in the long black leather coat with the long moustaches which gave him a severe expression, even when a thin smile came to his face. To free himself from the stares we children had nailed to him and to lower the tension he turned to us first with an unnatural mildness:
'Why are you so frightened, kids? A census, an ordinary census. Instead of people – goats. What is there to be frightened about? The state wants to know what resources it has.'
These unexpected words from the chief of the commission lessened our agony. My youngest brother, wiping his tears, was first to ask him:
'Mister, you arent going to kill our goats, are you?'
'Of course not, son, we don't kill goats.'
'You're not going to take them away with you?'
'No, no, we're just going to carry out a little census!' the chief finished, and glanced at the second member of the commission. The latter quickly took several variously coloured census forms and a large yellow ledger from his leather bag. We could easily recognise the same papers from the earlier census of the household, and that helped to calm us.
My mother served the members of the commission again, and the chief sipped a little of the spirits distilled from mulberries.
My father looked thoughtfully out of the large balcony window; it was a look that seemed to carry him away with the current of the river. Such moments of feeling had always gripped him since the migrations of his youth. But now it was difficult to get out of this Balkan cage; one could only move into another cage, and that would be pretty much the same as this. He could foresee the coming events, while we were still under the influence of a few comforting words.
The silence was broken by the severe voice of the second member of the commission.
'And now let us familiarise ourselves with the census. There is the main book – it is recognised by its yellow cover – and there are census forms for each of the goats.'
Calmed by the words of the chief, the severe voice of the second member of the commission now reduced us to fear again.
My father calmly awaited the words of the census clerk, who advised him that accurate details must be given; if this were not the case, he would be answerable according to the law… At these words we children were completely overcome by terror. We hid ourselves in our mother's arms. The chief saw this, and interrupted his subordinate.
'In this household they know the law very well. Go on to the questions.'
This calmed us down again, but now my father assumed an anxious expression. The census official seemed to be at something of a loss. The chief said:
'Start over again with the questions, there's a great deal of work to get through, there are a great many goats in Goat District.'
'A trouble shared's a trouble halved,' my mother murmured quietly, almost to herself, but in those seconds we children absorbed the silence, and we understood what she had in mind.
The clerk put on his glasses and in a loud voice put the first question:
'Name of the household?'
My father, instead of answering the question, asked:
'What household do you mean?'
The chief came down on his subordinate at once:
Watch it! Don't be silly, those forms are for censusing people, not goats! How many times do I have to tell you?'
My father turned to hide his face. Only we children were able to see him smile. We thought things were taking a good turn.
The clerklooked at his paper in embarrasment. It was impossible to sort out the papers left over from the last census of people, which were meant to be adapted for the goat census. His confusion was only increased by the stern gaze of his boss. Finally he took a hold on himself and asked my father:
'How many goats do you have?'
'Name and surname, father's name?'
Everyone laughed. Even we children laughed. One of us said:
'Our goats only have first names!'
The chief couldn't contain himself:
'Of course goats only have one name. This is what happens when they give you a team of illiterates!'
Furiously, the chief went on with the questions, without looking at the questionnaire, because he certainly wasn't literate himself. Anyway, he was there as chief of the commision, not to read and write. But he knew all the questions off by heart because they'd been repeated so often, so he carried on as if he was reading:
'Names of the goats?'
'Blanche, Stalinette and Uglymug,' replied my father.
The clerk wrote down the names, spelling out loud “B-l-a-n-c-h, S-t-a-l– ,” but the chief interrupted him to throw back at my father:
'What's this! Stalinette then Uglymug, I don't understand.'
My mother broke in at this point:
'Blanche, she came to us like a gift from the gods, so that our days would be clear and bright forever; Stalinette came to us just when I gave birth to my last-born – I'd already lost several children. When we bought the third, she was a real beauty and we called her Uglymug to save Stalinette from the evil eye. We wanted Uglymug to protect Stalinette, and we wanted Stalinette to protect the children.'
The chief looked at my mother, nonplussed. He didn't know how to go on with the questionnaire.
'My good people, this household is in total confusion. Whoever heard of a nanny-goat having the name of the great saviour of the people! If it had been a billy-goat, now… No, no, not even a billy-goat, what am I thinking of… Now you've got a picture of Stalin in the house. Stalin is our brother, whatever happens. There are rumours… Stalin freed us all. His name is a holy name for us all!'
'And for us the goats are holy!' broke in my mother.
'I understand, I understand, but still a goat's a goat!'
There was a new wave of silence. A new wave of fear. We were afraid now that my father would say something insulting about Stalin. Such a thing had been known to happen. Even when my brother had suggested calling our goat Stalinette there had been a danger of it. Now there was a danger that the census would lead not only the goats but the whole family to its doom. The chief consulted with the third official, who had been silent up till then, then went on:
'Using the name Stalinette for a goat can be interpreted in different ways. The lists go to the higher authorities, the federal authorities. Many heads could fall because of one ordinary name. Give it another name, and we'll all be happy. Let's call her… let's call her… whatever you like, as long as it's not Stalinette.'
We couldn't forget the day when my Party-member brother suggested that we should call the goat Stalinette and my father only unwillingly agreed, remaining faithful to his resolve to be free of the names of military commanders and world figures and freedom-fighters and to find names from among flowers, from nature. We looked at my Party-member brother, who had been wanting to speak all along, and now finally broke in:
'For us Stalin means freedom. Write Frieda instead of Stalinette!'
The chief beamed with satisfaction, and said:
'Son, you'll go a long way if you join the Party!'
'I'm already a member,' my brother proudly replied.
Now thoroughly delighted, the chief held out the form to his subordinate.
'Write Frieda and take care not to get the questions muddled again.'
'Sex?' asked the clerk.
'Female, of course!' the chief broke in again.
'But it might be male!' he replied, finally saying something in his own defence.
'The nanny-goats visit the billy-goats when we go to see Changa the goatherd, across the wooden bridge,' said one of us younger brothers. The clerk fell back into his earlier embarassment. The chief gave him a fierce look and told him to go on.
This time it was my father who smiled. We children were shaking with laughter. My Party-member brother, encouraged by the earlier approval of the chief, was the first to speak:
'Balkan,' wrote down the clerk.
'Goats don't have nationalities! Goats have breeding. Ask about the breed!' advised the chief in a whisper.
'The nationality isn't important. What breed are they?'
'Fair-haired Angora,' replied my father.
With furrowed brow, the clerk asked:
The chief flamed up again:
'They've got no faith, goats, you donkey!'
My mother murmured:
'They have, goats have got faith, sometimes more than people.'
'Age of the goats?' the questions went on.
'Colour of skin, any identifying marks?'
'Blanche is pure white, Stalinette – or rather, Frieda – is white with a brown throat, and Uglymug is white with black spots.'
The clerk had finished the questionnaire.
'Finished at last!' said the finally satisfied chief, once he had taken a last glass of spirits, but as they left he added:
'It would have gone faster if we hadn't had such illiterates in our ranks… '
Translated from the Macedonian by Margaret Reid
From the novel The Time of the Goats