Twelve-year old Peter makes his way home from school. Already the evenings are getting shorter. Through flared nostrils he pulls in the scented promise of clear frosty days. The type of day Peter’s father used to welcome. A day that wasn’t so cold and wet, or so unbearably hot that a man working the fields and tending his beasts gave praise to the land, his freedom and his god. Those were sentiments his father had expressed often. Peter can still hear his smoky-brown voice: a voice that rolled across the fields, as much a part of the countryside as the neighing of a stallion or the bellowing of a bull.
He turns off the canal dirt path onto the family farm. Absent from the skies is the aerial acrobatics and the uplifting twittering of the swallows. With bowed head, he trudges through the tractor ruts towards the house.
Before going inside, Peter runs to the barn, his heart thrumming in his ears. What if Alex and the Axe has already been released and has called to the farm? Perhaps he’s come early, while Peter was at school, and has carried out the job? But as he pulls open the large barn door, he catches a glimpse of something white in the loft: Velvet. He calls out to her and tells her he’ll be back soon. This is the first time today that words have fallen from his lips. His voice, to his own ears, sounds like someone else’s. Someone he could despise.
He heads to the house.
While he waits for his dinner, he places his elbows on the table and closes his eyes. Before his mother puts his plate in front of him, he turns his head slightly and sneaks a look at her. She catches his glance. He closes his eyes again. She mutters to herself.
Peter and his mother haven’t spoken to each other since the accident. Well, not since after the funeral - the day when he stopped speaking to everyone.
Back on the days before the funeral, with his dad’s lifeless body in the front room, surrounded by blood-red lilies offset by others as white as pear blossom, Peter’s mom had insisted he come down to greet the callers. Thick with the cloying scent of the flowers, men and women entered the room like cowed dogs. Many of the women were openly crying, their arms held up and extended before hugging his mom.
The men were calmer, less emotional. They stood behind or away from the women. Many were dressed in their work clothes. They spoke together quietly. Their taut faces waiting a glance from Peter’s mother, so they could nod and mumble their condolences.
When he’s finished his dinner, Peter takes his plate and cutlery to the sink, rinses them and puts them in the dishwasher. He then pours himself a glass of milk, and takes a long drink until his head hurts. He finishes it in a gulp. He wonders, as he always does, if his mother will say something this time - before he leaves the house. He hasn’t yet decided if he’ll answer her. But she’s busy loading the washing machine. Peter takes the note he’s carefully written in red ink and slips it under the TV remote control on the coffee table. His mother won’t discover it till six o’clock when she turns on the TV for the Angelus. He then collects his schoolbag and steps out of the room and the house.
In the barn, he clambers up the ladder to the loft. Swinging from his shoulder his green schoolbag. Almost at the top of the ladder, he speaks.
“Hey Velvet, it’s me.”
Velvet is already staring his way when he pokes his head into the loft. Her rectangular pupils regard him diabolically. She’s sitting in a nest of empty plastic fertiliser bags. She bleats her recognition and relaxes.
“Good girl,” Peter says to the goat, and pulls himself into the loft.
Careful not to disturb her, he tentatively works his way past her to a wooden chest. From the chest, he takes an old brown herringbone tweed jacket. A shaft of weak autumn sunshine draws him to the skylight. There he places his schoolbag on the floor and drapes his father’s herringbone jacket over his shoulders like a cape.
He inhales deeply his dad’s vital, manly smell - the smell of protective, capable hands. And with the smell comes fleeting, out-of-focus images: A younger version of his dad holding onto the pygmy blue roan mare as he helps the four-year-old Peter atop its back. Time bends and he’s standing next to his dad in the cab of the tractor as they plough the field before sowing turnips in late spring for the summer harvest. And then it’s early morning in the milking parlour on the first day of the summer holidays: the satisfying splash of cow dung waterfalling onto the concrete floor. But coming into greater focus are images of his dad with other men cutting the hay, while Peter and his friends from neighbouring farms climb on top of the haystacks, and his mom brings tea and sandwiches for the men and lemonade and custard creams for him and the other children.
Velvet bleats. Peter lifts his head from his father’s jacket. The goat’s soulless, horizontal pupils stare at him accusingly. She bleats again, her tongue protruding, and twists her head about.
From his schoolbag, Peter takes out a photo. In the picture his father is half-kneeling in a wheat field in front of a green combine harvester. Dressed in jeans and a red checked shirt, he’s looking to the right of the picture as it’s viewed. And there, standing on the stone wall to his father’s left is Velvet. From the start the goat followed Peter’s dad around like a dog. And she was there too that awful day when the thing happened. She was right next to the overturned Massey Ferguson when the farm hands came running through the fields.
In the days that followed, Peter heard everyone praising the goat for her loyalty. Just like a devoted sheepdog, they said. It would break your heart, he heard one old farm hand say, to hear the bleating of her, and himself stuck under the tractor, and not a thing anyone could have done for him anyway.
But that praise for the goat had recently turned to blame. Secluded halfway up the Scots pine and hidden in dense foliage, Peter had heard the men below discussing the accident while they sat about having their lunch on the hardened earth. Maybe it was the goat itself that had caused the Massey to upend, someone suggested. Sure wasn’t himself the best of drivers - and a whore for safety. And, in truth, how could you trust anything with cloven hooves?
Since the accident, Peter has had time to think over all the possibilities - too much time. Lying awake in the sweat-saturated sheets those hot summer nights reliving over and over that terrible day. An idyllic day to begin with when the sun painted the ripened wheat fields gold. A day when the swallows speared, dipped, rolled and dived through the air like twisted arrows.
Although nobody was close enough to observe what went wrong that day, some suggested Peter’s father failed to reduce his speed on a slope. Or he shifted gear while going uphill. But the conclusion that most settled upon was that he had swerved to avoid the goat while travelling at too great a speed. Peter had heard the farm hands using strange words to discuss the goat’s involvement. A cloven-hoofed temptress, they called Velvet; a pointy-horned devil luring Peter’s father to his death. One of Satan’s minions sent forth to undermine the noble work of God.
Peter had heard a rough voice say that someone ought to take care of the goat. At first he wasn’t sure what they meant. But as he listened further, he realised that they wanted to destroy the animal. This made Peter’s head feel strange. A banging sensation started up behind his eyes. Felt like there was some tiny creature trapped inside his head trying to escape.
The conversation between the men grew louder. The best thing to do was to string the goat up – slow and painful and a way of warning and warding off any other evil entity intent on similar destruction. But, superstitious men that they were, not one of them wanted to take care of what they called this messy business. Only one man was there for the job: Alex the Axe.
Alex the Axe was a worker in the region’s abattoir who had been put away for his unorthodox method of slaughtering livestock. As legendary for his indifference to animal suffering as his heresy, the Axe was due for release in the autumn.
Velvet bleats again.
“Don’t worry,” Peter says to her. “Nobody’s going to hurt you.”
He pushes himself to his feet and goes back to the wooden chest. Rummaging beneath the old clothes he feels on its bottom the cool steel and smooth wood of his father’s .22 semi-automatic rifle. He pulls it free and checks it. It’s on ‘safe’ mode. Flipping the rifle upside down, he presses a small button on the magazine, and then flips the rifle right side up. Out pops the magazine. From the wooden chest he locates the cartridges, loads them and inserts the magazine back in place on the rifle’s underside. A feeling of invincibility surges through him; that same feeling he got the first time his father congratulated him on successfully loading the weapon.
The sound of movement in the lower part of the barn startles him. He works himself from his seated position to one knee. He pulls back the bolt on the rifle, while craning his neck to see through the opening in the loft floor. Nothing. His view is restricted. But he has time. He switches the rifle to ‘fire’ mode, and places the end of the barrel between Velvet’s eyes. It will be messy but instant. And as the weapon is automatic, he won’t need to reload. He too will feel no pain. He squeezes down on the trigger.
“Peter. Peter,” his mother’s voice. “Are you there? I’m sorry love, please.”
Peter’s rationale instructs him to ease off the trigger, but his finger disobeys. The rifle report thunders in his ears, and the recoil knocks him backwards. His head connects with something solid. Velvet, who has already sprung off before the gun is fired, bleats and dashes to safety down to ladder.
Disorientated, dazed and confused, the next thing Peter is aware of is his mother bending over him, her face the face of a tortured angel. She shakes her head and her voice is muted. A hazy conclusion begins to form: He’s dead. So this is what it feels like to be no longer alive. A sense of peace and acceptance washes through him. It feels as though he’s drifting in a raft on a calm sea far out from shore - overhead a cloudless, kingfisher-blue sky, as soundless as deep, unbroken sleep.
But from the shore he hears his name being called, at first faint, but gradually spilling and spreading across the water like the rising of the sun.
His mom, cradling him in her arms where she kneels, repeats that she’s sorry, and that they’ll make it through this. They have to. And she kisses him, on his forehead, his neck, and his cheeks; again and again and again.