By Nadia Bulkin
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It had been raining for five days. The Gunawan estate, riddled with wool and dung, was rank. Its position on a hill had saved the mountain villa from the floods wracking West Java, but the moon orchids were drowning and the Mercedes was sinking in the mud. Twenty-some feral goats watched the driveway roll down the slope. Then they started to bleat, because a little human figure was slogging up the hill.
Ina Krisniati was covered in mud by the time she conquered the hill, but by then she was no longer feeling her aches. She had walked two miles, in rising waters and darkness. The small and the weak – frogs, stones, flowering weeds – had succumbed. And Kris had nearly given up too, halfway up the hill. She’d nearly decided to go home to Cililin and marry some fisherman on Saguling Lake. But her grandfather had fought in the war, partaken in the 1946 Sea of Fire – Kris came from strong stock. The goats followed her as she fought her way to the house. They watched with sad, beady eyes as she rinsed her hands in rain and wiped her flip-flops on the mat. When she rang the doorbell, they resumed bleating.
A woman came to the door. She was, to Kris’s surprise, not a maid. She had bags under her eyes, but she was dressed like a soap star. Behind her, the house was glowing with spun glass and gold. The warung-keeper in Bandung who told her about the job did say that the Gunawans were born lucky. The woman cleared her throat.
Kris mustered a smile and bent her head. “Asalaam ‘Alaykum,” she said.
It took the woman half a minute to answer in kind. “Wa ‘Alaykum as-Salaam,” she muttered. “Are you the new babysitter?”
“Ya Allah.” Mrs. Gunawan rolled her eyes and stepped back from the door. “What a mess. Don’t move.” She threw towels at her until she stopped dripping. “You know you’re late. And you’ll have to wash those, of course.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. The bus I was on broke down. Then I took a wrong turn, back on Tunjukmanis….”
Mrs. Gunawan rolled her eyes. “Right. Well, you’re here to watch the children and they’re already in bed. I expect you to watch them constantly. My husband took off, my son fell off a horse last week, and….” She took a deep breath and flexed her jeweled fingers. “You have experience with childcare, yes?”
“Four little brothers and sisters. It’s been tough for my parents, my father was ill….”
Mrs. Gunawan gave her a long look. “Don’t even think about sneaking a little extra. I’ll make you regret it.”
“You didn’t touch the goats, did you? The ones roaming around?”
They had seemed to want her to. They’d been nudging her, blocking her path, making needful little grunts. “No, ma’am.”
“Good. Don’t. Only the children and I can touch them. Oh!” She cocked her chin up and pointed. Whispers trickled from the second floor. Soon, little footsteps came down the staircase, and little heads popped out of the shadows. “There they are. Number one and number two.”
The children looked like a pair of big-eyed malu-malu. Two of those shy little primates had once climbed into a power switch center on Saguling Lake and fried themselves as well as the hydroelectric plant. Kris smiled at the children. They did not smile back.
Mrs. Gunawan made no introductions. “Take them to bed,” she said, with a flip of her wrist.
The bedroom was so cold that Kris thought there had to be some kind of draft. She checked the windows in vain while the children sat side by side on the bed, eating chocolate goo out of plastic tubes. On the wall, over their heads, hung a protective charm made of wild goat hair.
“I guess it’s just cold in here.” Kris plastered on a smile and walked back to the children. The little girl was the older of the two. She looked like her mother, especially when she had her chin up so she could look down her nose. The little boy was cradling his arm, which was wrapped in a cast and a sling. “I’m Kris. I’m going to watch you from now on, okay?”
“I’m Putri,” said the little girl. “This is Agus. And you’re not going to be watching us, because we already have someone who does that.” She poked her little brother in the shoulder. “Don’t we.”
He nodded vigorously, but only after a pause, and when he looked at his petrified arm he frowned.
“Really? And who’s that?”
“The Goat-Nurse. She’s taken care of us since we were born.” She sniffed. “We’ve never had a babysitter.”
“Well, that’s fine if the Goat-Nurse wants to watch you too. But your mother wanted someone to come and make sure that you don’t hurt yourself falling off horses anymore.” She smiled at Agus, who made a quivering attempt to smile back.
“We can’t trust people from outside the family,” Putri said. “The Goat-Nurse says so.”
Kris had wondered such a rich family had no servants. “Well, you don’t need to worry about me.” She wiped the chocolate off their mouths, the little malu-malu. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
* * *
In the daytime, the children showed off the family’s goat herd. These were not the feral goats that roamed the estate and the wild woods beyond – these were fat, gentle livestock, happy to spend their lives in a backyard enclosure before being sold off to butcheries. They passively chewed their grass while the children sat on their backs and braided their white wool. The goat-keeper, Tono, spent most of his time lounging under trees and staring off at Mount Tangkuban Perahu.
“Don’t they want more space?” Kris asked him.
Tono shook his head, cracking his knuckles. He’d been digging out the sunken Mercedes. “They’re scared of the wild goats. The ones that eat up all the grass.”
One such wild goat – thin but fearless, with a pair of odd, gangly legs – was roaming in the bushes outside the idyll of the enclosure. It looked at Kris and there was something not-quite-right about its face.
“Those goats will charge you,” said Tono. “But mine are a lot nicer. They know they have it good. You don’t even need a stick to corral them.”
He had given his herding stick to Putri to play with and she lorded it over the animals like a kingpin. Now and then, she’d bop them on the head for eating flowers or urinating, though it had no effect on their behavior. “I’m the Goat-Princess!” she declared, and her brother saluted her like soldiers saluted the General during parades, like the General saluted the flag.
Tono smiled at Kris, then bit down gently on his cigarette.
Putri refused to surrender the stick when it was time for afternoon prayer, so Tono let her keep it. Only when the Gunawans sat down to dinner did Mrs. Gunawan tell her the stick could not rest at the table. It fell on Kris to put it away.
The upstairs hall light had burned out. There was a window fifty feet away, but a rainstorm had rendered the moon useless. Kris crept down the hall, trying to remember how many doors away Putri’s bedroom was. All the door knobs were cold. Oily. The walls felt coated with a wax that smelled of soil and sweat and corpses. When Kris tossed the herding stick onto the floor of Putri’s room, it rolled back toward her in affection. The Goat-Nurse, she thought.
It had to be a ghost. Maybe she’d been a babysitter like Kris, some hundred years ago. Maybe she’d been Dutch. A prison nurse. Someone cruel. And maybe something horrible had happened to her, something that earned her such a nasty name. Maybe she lost her legs in an accident. Maybe they had to sew on a pair of goat legs as rudimentary prosthetics….
From the end of the hallway came a clop clop. Kris looked to her right into the dark. Clop clop again, but closer. Back at home, she’d been able to pick a human shape out of a moonless night if she gave her eyes enough time. So far, the hallway was a mess of undefined clumps, but they’d straighten out. They’d clear up.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she said, but the days when she didn’t fear the dark were gone.
Her eyes adjusted and she saw something standing at the wall. It had a face, of a sort. A long neck. Below that was something like a body in a smock, and then – livestock legs. Bristled. Filthy. Complete with cloven goat hoofs. Then the entire shape shuddered and the facades of skin melted back like a drawn veil. Beneath it, darkness came a-crawling.
Kris fell all over the tiles, unable to feel her legs. Some distant part of her reptilian brain realized that she had been shaking for the past five minutes. She tried to stand – no, her legs were leaden. No more clop clop now, just a rush of overboiled air. She glanced up once and saw a curled blackness filling the hallway, floor to ceiling, like smoke but thicker, heavier, almost woolen. Kris slapped her hands over her eyes.
Maybe you should lose your legs.
Maybe I should have them.
“Kris!” It was like being pulled from drowning. “What are you doing up there?”
Was there a safer world? The monstrous breathing had pulled back from her neck. She looked up through her fingers and the hallway was bare. Just curios lined with velvet. She shoved her numb feet beneath her body and staggered downstairs.
“I hope you weren’t in my jewelry….”
The expression on Kris’s face must have cut Mrs. Gunawan off.
“The hall light’s burned out,” Kris said, but she could not hear her own voice. Light bulbs were part of a surface world that was no longer relevant. Light bulbs and dinner plates and chandeliers. From some distant plateau, Mrs. Gunawan told her to tell Tono in the morning – but Mrs. Gunawan was a blur. So was the room. Only the children were in focus, with their bullet eyes and their heart-shaped mouths.
* * *
Dark things swirled on the periphery of the flashlight’s ray. These things made a pretense of hiding, but it was purely symbolic, part of a great game they were all playing. Kris saw them and so did the children. Agus even traced their movements with his finger, as if they were watching a wayang performance.
“I don’t think she likes you,” Putri said, pulling her sheets up to her chin. “You should be careful.”
“I thought all she did was take care of you.”
“Yes, of us, and our goats. But she gets mad easy. Do you know where my daddy is?”
Kris shrugged. She assumed he was off cavorting in Bangkok or Bali. Possibly skulking in a Jakarta lounge popping shabu, but she doubted it.
“He had a fight with mama about the Goat-Nurse. Then he walked into the forest. The Goat-Nurse says he’s dead. She says he got eaten by a tiger.”
Kris swallowed. She thought she heard a clop clop.
“She has power, Kris.” With a sigh, Putri closed her eyes. “You have to be respectful.”
Kris went next door. She didn’t knock and would never knock on a door in this house again, not when the Goat-Nurse lurked in the walls. The little shape under the sheets jolted awake.
“I’m sorry,” Kris whispered, quickly closing the door and kneeling by the bed. “I need to ask you something, okay? It’s very important.”
Agus chewed his cotton top-sheet.
“Did the Goat-Nurse break your arm?” Silence. “Gus…you need to tell me.”
“I really did fall off the horse. He got all scared and went up on his back legs. I fell into the ditch. But the Goat-Nurse didn’t catch me. Mama says she’s supposed to make sure I never get hurt.” After another pause: “Are horses scared of goats?”
The children’s mother was smashing peanuts on the sofa when Kris rushed this information to her. Mrs. Gunawan raised her eyebrow. “Why do you think I brought you here?” she said flatly. “The damn Goat stopped looking after them. I don’t know why, but…it is what it is.”
Kris carefully perched on the edge of another chair. She didn’t want to encroach, but Mrs. Gunawan was slouched over, looking breakable.
“The night he left, my husband told me the Goat took one of his brothers. Little brother, long time ago. And I told him – I thought this thing worked for your family – and he started,” she flailed her hands, “throwing plates.”
“Ma’am…have you considered asking an imam to come?”
Mrs. Gunawan wiped her eyes and laughed. “She’s not a jinn. God knows that would have made it easier. Imam get rid of toyol all the time, don’t they?”
Yes, they did – Kris had seen it done, at a sideshow. A morose man brought the imam a glass jar, large enough to hold a baby, and said the toyol inside had gotten so out of hand – attacking small animals, biting people – that he couldn’t use it to run errands anymore. The imam proceeded to pray over the jar, slap its lid, and scold the baby-jinn for bad behavior. Then he gave the jar back to the morose man and told him to bury it in the woods and let the spirit be at peace, for God’s sake.
“You thought it was a toyol?”
“She made the crops grow! She gave us those fat goats in the shed! It was a drought the year they found her. Or she found them, I don’t know.” Mrs. Gunawan crushed a peanut shell. “My husband said the goats just came to the door one day. The wild ones, you know, the ones you shouldn’t touch. They just came to the door, April 1962. Like God had sent them.”
* * *
A few days later, Tono was caught taking money out of Mrs. Gunawan’s purse. She drove him to the front stoop. First, he made excuses – she owed him last month’s payment, the money fell out and he was putting it back – and then he tried to return the five-hundred thousand rupiah with a gap-toothed smile.
Mrs. Gunawan grabbed Tono by the wrist. He looked startled. “Keep it,” she said. “And here. Something else to remember us by.” She thrust a thick tuft of goat wool into his hand.
The wool was far too coarse to have been shorn from the sweet, docile goats in the enclosure. Tono made a horrified croak. He tried to drop the feral wool, but it clung to him; he tried to rub it off like pollen, but it spread. “Please!” he cried. “I’m sorry!”
She pointed, but it didn’t matter anyway. Even if he huddled on the doorstep, he’d still be marked for death. So, Tono went off down the hill, sobbing. His threadbare shirt glowed white under the moon.
“You’ll kill him,” Kris said. “And you’ll destroy Bandung.”
Mrs. Gunawan slammed the door and bolted it. “But maybe she’ll get a taste for other people.” The blood-strained whites of her eyes were nearly unbearable to look at. She had been beautiful, once. “You don’t want to die, right?”
Kris shook her head. The windows went dark and the electricity blinked as something large slipped over the roof, momentarily drowning the house in a deep, digestive rumble. Mrs. Gunawan clenched her jaw so hard her chin shook. Kris cowered.
Then it passed. The walls settled as if exhaling. The water heater and refrigerator hummed, but all else was calm.
“Maybe you should leave,” said Kris. “Before it comes back.”
Mrs. Gunawan shook her head violently. “She is out there. We are safer here.”
People had started screaming down below. Kris put her head in her hands. Trees broke and roofs collapsed, but they were only punctuations against the steady roar of the Goat in bloom.
“It’s just like the Tasikmalaya earthquake,” Mrs. Gunawan said melodically. “That’s all. Just another earthquake, just another mudslide…just another volcano, ripping open…”
A gurgling cry arose from the staircase, where Agus stood with his hands clapped over his ears. His mother was catatonic, so Kris hurried to shush him.
“She’s out killing,” he whined. “I hate the noise she makes.” As if the Goat heard him, a gut-wrenching aerial moan burst out from the city. It must have carried all the way to the crater of Tangkuban Perahu. The docile goats, crowded near the walls of the house for protection, were bleating plaintively.
* * *
They didn’t see the Goat-Nurse for another two months. Those were not a happy two months, although they were bloodless. Bandung authorities had passed off the Goat’s attack as a violent mid-season tropical storm. Twenty-one had died, but they’d been impaled on branches, crushed under roof beams. The only casualty who’d been consumed was Tono, whose head fell out of the sky and onto the front porch the day after.
The children were quiet, nervous. Kris counted the days and held her breath, waiting for a hoofstep or a grunt. And in her dreams, she would lie in the goat shed, watching an endless herd of feral goats come trampling out of the stalls. Their wool would blanket her. They would nuzzle her and bare their teeth and smile.
“She isn’t far,” Putri said at breakfast. Kris couldn’t tell if she was pleased.
That evening Mrs. Gunawan had a visitor: her father-in-law, accompanied by a mute, kowtowed son. He was wearing an old, black button-down suit and centimeter-thick glasses. He took a deep sniff of the air and knew.
“Where is she? Where did she go?”
“Why don’t you ask your son?”
“If you chased her away, you ungrateful bitch….”
“Look, that monster – she – doesn’t belong with us. She hurt my son; look what she did to his arm!”
The elder Mr. Gunawan leaned down and inspected Agus’s cast with a jut of his jaw. He smelled heavily of menthol. He was missing several teeth and Agus stared, unabashed, at the black spots eating away at his gums. The old man hissed at the evidence. “That’s it? That’s all? Do you have any idea what she is?”
“You promised me my kids wouldn’t get hurt!”
“I promised that you’d have grandchildren.” He knotted his lips in disdain. “Same promise that was made to me.”
Yet the old man need not have worried. The Goat came back – on the eve of Jum’at Kliwon, no less, Spirits’ Night. She descended onto the house and draped her many woolly arms over the windows, blocking out the moon. Then she seeped through the roof and drenched the walls with wool-grease and the dirt of twenty cities, the blood of six hundred. The house had always been hers.
Agus and Putri cuddled into the Goat’s familiar warmth. Mrs. Gunawan woke up throwing the sheets back, gasping for air. Kris lay on her stomach like a snake, hoping the Goat would pass her by.
Mrs. Gunawan didn’t get out of bed the next morning. They heard her coughing from the kitchen.
“Where’s Mama?” Agus asked, while Kris tossed the fried rice.
“She’s sick,” said Kris. “We should go down to the market and buy her some jahe.”
“I don’t think we should go anywhere,” said Putri and that was that.
The house felt unbearably quiet – no Tono, no Mrs. Gunawan. Just a hovering stillness that left the children sleepy and Kris scrubbing oil off a coffee table. The spot wouldn’t clean; the streaks kept morphing back into the shape of a goat head. She threw down her sponge. “Let’s go outside.”
“Why are you trying to separate us from her?” Putri asked, yawning.
“Because she is a danger to you!” She hissed this, because she was afraid.
“She would never hurt us, or leave us. Not like Mama and Daddy.”
Kris groaned and helped Agus off the couch. “We are going to go for a walk. You may stay here with your Goat-Nurse, since you like her so much.”
Putri looked disgruntled, almost hurt. In the backyard – they walked and walked, but could never step out from under a great, gray cloud – Agus asked if his sister would be okay.
Kris snorted. “She’ll be fine.”
“Agus! Look at me!”
They looked over their shoulders. Putri had gone up to the second floor balcony and climbed the terracotta shingles until she was standing like a weather vane on the top beam of the roof.
“Ya Allah, Putri! Come down from there!”
“You watch! She’ll save me!”
“No she won’t!”
Putri grinned. Then she bent her knees and jumped, flapping her arms, giving over complete faith. As she dropped past the second floor windows, smog emerged from the house and swarmed her little body. The enormous black cloud slowly drifted her down to a nest of grass. For a second, the cloud seemed to have consumed her; then it dissipated, and left the unhurt child behind.
Putri was still smiling. “You see? She loves me.”
Agus hung back, looking at his own broken arm. Despite weeks of cast-life, the fracture just wouldn’t heal. He began to gnaw at his shirt collar – and Kris was about to tell Putri to be nicer to her brother – when Putri reached her hand out toward him and said, “Never mind. Let’s go see the goats.”
Agus took Putri’s hand after only a second of hesitation and the two children walked solemnly through the grass to their inheritance.
* * *
Kris woke up sluggish. She had overslept, she could tell. How could it still be dark? She looked at her bedside clock, but it had jammed, apparently, at 5 a.m. The goats must have jammed too, because for once, she didn’t hear them mewling through the wall.
She had a flashlight, thank God. She fumbled her way into the main rooms of the house. All the clocks were stopped and all the skies were dark. There was something too velvety about the night, like immense cosmic curtains had closed around the house.
Something was struggling upstairs. A muffled fight, but in a house so silent, Kris heard all. She found Mrs. Gunawan choking in her bed.
Kris rushed over out of occupational instinct – What can I do for you, ma’am? – but once she was leaning over the cursed bed, she froze. Between the rows of perfect teeth, behind the bluish tongue, gobs of black wool were filling Mrs. Gunawan’s throat. Kris clapped her hands to her own mouth as Mrs. Gunawan thrashed.
“I’ll call the doctor,” Kris muttered, but Mrs. Gunawan grabbed her wrist and made a wretched croaking sound, like she was trying to scream through the wool. Her eyes were peeled back so far that even the blood vessels writhed. Kris jerked back. In another second the seizures stopped and Mrs. Gunawan’s eyes rolled backward. Wool poked through her lips. Kris said a little prayer, but there was no peace to be had.
There was a little sound behind her. It was the children, standing shock-still in the doorway. God only knew how long they’d been watching their mother die. They made eye contact with Kris, then bolted.
She chased the little white figures down the hallway. She called them – “Gus! Putri!” – but they had their backs to her. She’d had nightmares like this: running, chasing and then the children would turn around with hissing, kuntilanak faces. Kris caught up to them downstairs and said a little prayer before grabbing their bony shoulders and spinning them around.
But no – they were children. Bitter and breaking, but still apple-cheeked. Kris threw her arms around them, spewing any and all bullshit that would calm them down, but Putri shoved her away.
“We don’t need you! We don’t need Mama!”
“I know you’re sad.” Hoofsteps were running rampant upstairs; doors were slamming. She heard a thump that had to be Mrs. Gunawan’s body being dragged off the bed. “But you need to stay with me, okay, we need to go get help.”
Agus started crying and Putri’s snarl escalated into a scream: “The Goat is our real mother! She is everyone’s real mother!”
Kris bit her bottom lip so hard it drew blood. Then she grabbed hold of Putri’s arm and dragged her out the back door. Agus came running after them, practically howling. They were still trapped behind the night-curtain. The yard was torn up, like someone tried to plow it, and Putri kept jamming her feet into little ruts in the soil. Kris kept yanking her forward.
“Come on! You think that thing is your mother, I want you to see what it does to its children!”
More screams. Kicking. Biting. But when they reached the goat enclosure, all resistance stopped. It was too quiet and it smelled absolutely foul. Wet things squelched under their rubber flip-flops and oozed between their toes.
“Look at what it does!”
Kris turned the flashlight on and immediately choked back vomit. There was a lot of red, a lot of bones. Stubby little horns and milky eyes lay scattered in a sea of lush wool.
Agus shrieked and buried his eyes in his hands. Putri said nothing, but as Kris leaned down to shake sense into her – she had loved these creatures, hadn’t she? Given them names? – tremors began to wrack the child. Putri was crying.
Kris teared up, too, in relief. They were going to run. They were going to run down the hill toward Bandung and it would be all right. They’d go to a mosque or the mayor and the Goat-Nurse would fade into oblivion. She even had a fleeting thought of taking them home to Cililin. They’d be happier there. They could dive for snappers in Saguling Lake, wake up clear and unburdened for the first time in their lives. “Don’t worry,” she said, stroking their hair. Yes, they were going to survive. “Don’t worry.”
“Look! One of them’s still alive!”
Near the shed, a little slip of flesh and bones rose on a pair of shaky stick-legs. It moved inch by inch, in trembling jerks. Under the flashlight’s gaze, it looked fur-covered – it was certainly dripping blood. But those legs were the rods of a puppeteer; that was the shape of Arjuna pressed against the screen, not the god himself.
Kris told her no. She screamed it. She ran after Putri to strain and sideache, but the little girl was damn-near flying toward the shed. Kris pushed her leg muscles harder and they gave, as if they’d been sliced out. She skidded on the grass and landed chin-first in entrails.
The little slip had become elephantine. It was fundamentally shapeless, a lumbering mess of smoke and wool and a hideous desire to consume – and yet, it wore a human face, strapped on like a dancer’s mask. It was the grotesque, plasticized face of the feral goats, of the thing in the upstairs hall. Long and misshapen and false.
Kris scrambled to her feet. The Goat was at treetop-level now. She was swelling, breathing blood and matter. The human mask bent down toward Putri with its eternal, tight-lipped smile, black wool pouring forth behind it. The child was whispering something – some plea with God? The Goat whip-snapped her into the air.
I love you. I love you. I love you most of all.
“Kris, help me!”
“Reach for me, reach for me, reach for me!”
The faith had been ripped from her eyes. The Goat inhaled, exhaled, and swallowed her whole. Putri did not scream; her mind had already emptied out onto her babysitter, who pulled her own hair and clawed her own skin and unremittingly howled.
The Goat departed. She hovered briefly over Agus like a cloud – he peered up into her frothing underbelly as if hoping to see his parents and sister peeking out – but she had long deemed him unworthy of her love. She moved west.
Then came the feral goats, field-destroyers, farmers’ bane, servants of an older god. They ate the blood-red remains of the docile herd with long tough teeth and slurping lips. They licked the goat shed clean. They gnawed off Kris’s legs as she lay face-up in the grass with barely blinking eyes – and then they wandered into the forest, following the scent of the great and ever-wanting Goat.
Agus was left squatting in the grass with his broken arm, begging to be loved.
Nadia Bulkin is half-Javanese and half-Kansan; old Jakarta introduced her to horror, in every sense of the word. Her fiction has appeared in ChiZine, Fantasy Magazine and Strange Horizons. You can visit her at http://nadiabulkin.wordpress.com or at her livejournal, http://intertribal.livejournal.com.