The Lead Goat Veered Off by Neil Anderson
"All things change, nothing is extinguished. There is nothing in the whole world which is permanent. Everything flows onward; all things are brought into being with a changing nature; the ages themselves glide by in constant movement." ~ Ovid
In the morning we awoke to voices. Many voices. Shouting voices. What was going on? Bells jingled on the hillside above us. Sheep herders? We smelt fire. “This is getting serious,” I said, and peeked through the tent door to see if we were in the midst of a forest fire. On the ridge above us a dull orange blaze crackled disconcertingly through the dry brush; roiling gray smoke cartwheeled into the sky.
Perhaps we were being flushed out? Did hunters use fire to drive out whatever it was that sought refuge in the undergrowth? As if in response to my unspoken question, a multitude of gunshots rang out in quick succession.
“Is it legal to hunt with machine guns?” I asked Sharon, only half-jokingly. Our serene forest retreat had turned into a major hunting ground. More gun blasts. Our Australian friend Nigel was right: There is no perfect camping spot! “Keep your head down,” I warned.
We stayed in our fabric bunker, wary of low-flying projectiles. Dogs barked. Shouting. More shots. Strange calls. I wished I had a tape recorder. No one would believe the peculiar sounds emanating from the woods.
There was another flurry of gunfire. Then silence. A final isolated shot rang out in the crisp morning air, and our surroundings reverted to their former tranquillity. Eyes wide, I threw back the tent fly and emerged cautiously.
A half-dozen hunters, rifles slung casually over their shoulders called out “Ciao!” as they passed on the trail in front of our tent. Two carried small gunny sacks containing lifeless bulges. I had to admit, that was quite the Sunday morning wake-up call.
All was joyously peaceful for fifteen minutes; birds chirped their carefree songs. Then, in a pandemonium of clanging bells, sheep herders began moving their flocks — the cacophony interrupted only by buzzing Fiats, their strung-out engines at full-throttle attempting the mountain pass. Five hundred cc’s was not a lot of power, but it made one dreadful racket. I always expected to see super-chargers flying by at a hundred-plus miles an hour. Instead, a non-whizzing box, powered by a sewing machine motor hammered past the governor, laboriously whined past. (Maybe that was why we had seen so many abandoned cars rotting and rusting in roadside ditches.)
The wind appeared, slipping through the forest, waving pine boughs, and the sky became the colour of an off-air tv channel, threatening rain. Sharon, wary of the inclement weather, wasn’t convinced we should leave our mountain hideaway, but I wanted to hit the road. I knew that laying around all day would give her too much time to think and soon we would be wrestling another bout of homesickness. Her lamentations already sounded in my head: “We could be lying around at home with people we know.”
We got underway, and found we were surrounded by beauty. The vernal equinox was still two months away, but spring had already sprung on Sardinia. The grass had risen and the countryside was awash in fresh colour. Pink and white blossoms festooned fruit trees; bright yellow lemons gleamed in the sunlight; hibiscus, in a riot of red blooms adorned white walls; and softball-sized orange polka-dots lay beneath orange trees like pop-flies in a green mitt. In late afternoon we cycled along Costa Rei beside hundreds of pastel-red cacti buds and the Tyrrhenian Sea with its aqua and cobalt waters intermingling. Serpentara Island lay in its midst, wriggling like some mythical stone Loch Ness monster. Mainland Italy was only about two hundred kilometers due east.
We were ogling the sea view when we rounded a blind corner and came face to face with a herd of goats. We pulled to a stop. The old goat at the head of the herd halted dead in its tracks. Its eyes betrayed a manic gleam; saliva slathered at the corners of its mouth. A dog, near the front of the herd, stormed us — the intruders — and barked furiously; another dog, mid-herd, froze, and looked at us quizzically; the goat herder, still down over the edge of the steep embankment, had yet to make his divine appearance.
Without warning — as if by some secret signal — the wild-eyed goat bolted. He wheeled one hundred eighty degrees, and — the rest of the herd hard on its heels — beat a hasty hell-bent for leather retreat in the direction they had just arrived. Even the middle dog hightailed it with them. Coward. The first dog continued barking at us … so focused it hadn’t even realized its charges had vamoosed.
“Look at ’em go!” I said with alarm, watching them charge down the road away from us, their little white butts like retreating stars in a distant galaxy. “They think they’re bloody race-goats!”
“What’s spookin’ dem cows, Shorty?” Sharon spoofed in a Texan drawl.
Cue the shepherd. With timing that would have given Hollywood justice, the shepherd popped into view. The herder’s bushy eyebrows rose in concern as the stampeding Billy’s thundered towards him. He jumped into the middle of the road, shouted, and flapped his arms like some deranged rooster. From where I stood, I could tell immediately that was the wrong choice.
Just before the herd trampled their faithful master, the lead goat veered off. It scrambled up a steep bank on the opposite side of the road — the remainder of the herd hard on its heels.
“No! No! No!” the goat herder cried. Obviously, it wasn’t exactly the scenario he had foreseen.
He cursed. He whistled. He cursed some more. When the whistling and cursing didn’t bring back his on-their-way-to Timbuktu herd, he chucked rocks at their retreating backsides. Not surprisingly, that attempt also failed to persuade his charges to return.
We pedalled towards the herder, his face downtrodden. Mumbling our condolences, we shrugged our shoulders, and shook our heads. “Silly beasts.” He waved half-heartedly, then tossed another rock in the direction of his dearly departed herd. I could tell he was going to be tardy for supper. -----