The Winding Roads
Several feet from where Abi sat, a long fat log left the mass of the others and drifted toward the bank. Contrary to the usual pattern, it broke away and moved close.
The goat scooted toward the log, which exploded with a loud slapping noise. Water splashed high as the predator and victim engaged in combat. The river filled with bleating goat and snarling teeth. Gangly legs with useless hooves hung from the malicious clinched jaws. An eerie growl came from the beast.
Heart pounding, Abi scrambled up the bank away from the gaping-mouthed monster with its diabolic scowl. As she backed away, the water reddened with the fresh blood of a half-grown goat, devoured by a crocodile for breakfast.
Melech didn’t grab his bow from where it was attached to his back and pull an arrow from his quiver. “Attacking the beast would have served no purpose. One more . . . beating. . . from Negasi.”
“Maybe not. Papa will say . . . the goat sacrificed itself as an offering to the crocodile god.” Along the bank, Abi darted, circling the panicked herd.
Melech, panting, chased the strays. “Don’t . . . pay attention . . . to him. Don’t . . . believe that.”
“You know I don’t. As his daughter, I cannot change anything that man says. Who cares what he thinks?”
“You’re right, but he’ll still thrash me for losing a goat.”
“If I’d paid attention, I could’ve stopped the crocodile.” Abi soothed her little friends with gentle pats.
The goats fell into their routine and started down the path, Abi following, basket in hand and head lowered.
“Don’t blame yourself.” Melech’s shoulders fell as he caught up with her.
“I should have had my sling in my hands.” Abi chewed a cuticle. She’d failed.
“I’m the one who failed.” Melech shook his head. “I can’t deceive you, Abi. You know me too well. I lost control of myself.” He scrunched his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry.” She placed her hand on his shoulder. “No one has to know you panicked for a second. I would have, too.”
He slung a clinched fist.
“Whatever needs to be remedied we can fix. I mean it. I’ll tell Papa it was my fault, and he’ll beat me too. Maybe he won’t hit you as hard if he punishes both of us.”
“You don’t need to.”
“It’s all right. We can handle it.”
“That’s just it, Abi. You’re going away any day now. Even if you weren’t leaving, I mustn’t expect you to do my work.”
“I don’t do your work. I love to help. That’s all. Right now I have greater concerns than one more beating.” She tugged at Melech’s sleeve. “I’m desperate for your help. Pray hard and fast that Papa won’t make me marry Elan. When my father gets a plan, he moves like fire from a thundery sky.”
Docile after the roundup, the goats trotted along the olive-tree-lined road toward the field of lush grass. For a fleeting moment Abi let her fears slip away. The silvery leaves surrounding her gave a lightness to her spirit. No matter how much she willed to keep the happiness of the day, the appearance of the gnarled olive tree trunks snatched her happiness. Something she couldn’t express in solid thoughts about the ancient trees transported her back into the morning’s anxiety.
As Melech hastened to the front of the herd, she fell behind. “Papa owns everything and everybody.”
Traveling in his brisk walk, Melech would have to strain to hear her talking.
“He makes all the choices.” Abi cried out. “He altered your body. Don’t you hate him?”
Turning his face back toward her, he scowled.
Now that she’d pulled sadness out of him, she continued. “Gold, his son, cattle, goats, the horses and donkeys, his wife, my sisters and me, his slaves. Did you hear me, Melech? I listed all that in the order of importance to Papa.”
Melech, not responding, walked on.
“Property, nothing but property.” Flinging her arms, she shouted.
Melech stopped and turned toward her. The goats skidded to a stop. “Girl, get happy.”
“I’ll try.” She tuned up a song as though nothing were amiss.
Melech joined her, and the goats chimed in with bleats and the ringing of their bells. They paraded until they reached the stopping place in a patch of high grass.
Abi climbed up some rocks until she reached another flat green place. Having laid her basket down, she stretched her arms toward the expanse of the landscape and twirled in joyful song.
Across the countryside, some places were sacred. This was one of them. Adonai had designed its beauty ages before the day Abi connected with it.
“Time to do my work.” As the goats stuffed their bellies, she selected the plants her family could use.
At the end of the morning, she toted her basket down a path to the spot where Melech tended the goats.
“You found plenty of sweet-smelling herbs.” He leaned his head to one side and smiled.
“And greens. My basket is full. See?”
“Let’s head home.”
Papa. Dread burned within.
As they strolled homeward, she filled her chest with air and projected sounds across the green gorge. Did the goats know she sang to drown the frightening voices within her? That Melech made music to soothe his apprehension? The valley echoed their songs back to them.
Down the path a serpentine string of camels progressed through the trail’s sharp curves. Four diminutive horses pulled a cart, several more carried men. Donkeys bent their shoulders under heavy loads. “The end of the rainy season. Men coming to Meroe to see Papa.”
(Herd of Goats, 03-24-14 © Michele Alfieri/IStock)