The Milk of Human Kindness

Declan couldn’t pass up an opportunity for a bit of generosity, especially if it got him a little something extra.

A goat

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Declan came upon the goat, alone and shivering in goat-fear, in the middle of a stretch of desert the Wainaina nomads called “The Place Where You Got Lost.” The sun had been especially vicious that day as they bumped across the brown desert in the museum’s aging pickup truck. Abdi, his driver, was steering them around a clump of boulders when Declan spotted it.

“Look, a goat,” said Declan.

Abdi brought the truck to a halt and leaned out the window. The white goat stared back at the vehicle and edged closer to the dark boulders, trying to become one with the rocks.

“Yes, it is a goat,” said Abdi.

Declan sensed opportunity. It was an unfamiliar sensation — he was halfway through the year-long Archaeology Abroad fellowship that had brought him here straight out of his Ph.D. program, but these arid badlands had so far failed to yield the kind of discovery that might net him a faculty job back in the States. A goat wouldn’t help his career, of course, but it might be useful in his efforts involving Sarah, a relief worker based nearby. A man could not live by archaeology alone, and companionship here had been as scant as artifacts. Sarah did something with food security. A plan took shape in his mind.

“We take the goat,” he declared.

“But it’s not your goat,” said Abdi.

Declan’s fellowship had come with a researcher appointment at the national museum, and the museum had assigned Abdi to be his driver, which was generally quite the convenience despite occasional differences of opinion. After the miles they had shared, Abdi was probably the person he knew best here, a friend of sorts, so it was better to convince him than to start giving orders.

“The owner is clearly incapable of caring for it,” said Declan. “Letting it run off by itself. In the middle of nowhere.”

“When has taking something that isn’t yours ever ended well? You know what they do to thieves out here.”

“It’ll be dark in an hour or so, then the hyenas will get it. Why let a perfectly good goat go to waste?”

Abdi hesitated, and that was enough to settle it.

The goat gave only a few perfunctory kicks as they secured it in the bed of the pickup truck. Declan took the lack of resistance as a sign that the goat gods approved of his plan.

The sun was flaming down into the horizon when they pulled in to the village of Binyavanga. Several hundred nomads lived there in a collection of huts clustered on the desert plain, where they would stay with their camels, cows, and goats for the remainder of the dry season. Declan was not interested in the nomads, the livestock, or the increasingly anxious bleats coming from the back of the truck. He was looking for Sarah — she should be easy to spot.

Declan stood on the running board of the truck to get a better view. Children collected around him, the braver ones edging closer and touching his jeans. The smell of cattle lingered in the dusky air, and a pair of camels gave him the side-eye. A blonde woman wearing beige cargo pants and a stylish expedition shirt emerged from one of the larger huts.

Declan waved frantically, the dirty white sleeve of his shirt flapping in the air. “Sarah,” he called.

She hesitated, then walked over to the truck. Little swirls of dust kicked up from her steps and danced against the orange sunset.

“Declan! What are you doing here?”

He gestured at the goat, who was tugging at the rope and eyeing the children encircling the truck.

“I brought you a present.”

He had rushed it. He should have started with the usual pleasantries and built up to the goat.

“Okay,” said Sarah. She patted the head of a kid who had attached himself to her leg. “What am I supposed to do with … a goat?”

“I was surveying just north of here and came across this stray goat.” The goat bleated, as if in confirmation. “You said you were based in Binyavanga, doing food security, so I thought of you.” Sarah seemed to not be following. “I figured adding another goat to the village herd, that helps, right? A little more milk for the kids?” He gestured at the handful of children who were still loitering around the truck. They all seemed well-fed, stocky even.

He knew he was making a big deal out of a small goat, but he had really hit it off with Sarah last month. His idiot colleague Gus from the museum had introduced them at the main expat bar in the capital. She was in town to renew her visa, and she had ended up telling him something to the effect of It’s too bad I have to go back to Binyavanga tomorrow. Though at that point they were halfway down the second page of the whiskey tasting menu and Gus was wailing away on an accordion he’d appropriated from the museum archives, so his recollection of the evening suffered from a certain lack of precision.

“This is complicated,” said Sarah. “Something like this has to be done through the village elder, Walid. And now is not a good time to bother him.”

“Oh,” said Declan. “Tribal tensions?”

“No, God, I hope not. My supervisor is coming out for a site visit the day after tomorrow with the Minister of Agriculture. It looks like I’ll finally get approval to implement this whole new grazing program that the Amsterdam office is really excited about. So I don’t want any issues right now.”

Declan kicked the dirt. The last of the kids had wandered off, save for one enterprising boy who had climbed onto the hood of the pickup. Abdi had disappeared into the village, probably in search of tea. It was getting dark. Soon he would have to arrange shelter for the night, either by setting up his tent or, better, wrangling an invitation to join Sarah in her hut.

“I didn’t mean to cause a problem for you,” said Declan. “I was trying to be helpful.”

“You do understand that food security isn’t just about how many goats you have, right? There’s a science to this — rotational grazing, optimizing herd composition, livestock vaccinations. If my new program gets implemented, there should be a consistent surplus.”

This was not going according to plan. Despite his best efforts at staying positive, he was increasingly aware that he was in a village in the middle of nowhere trying to use a goat to chat up a girl he barely knew. The goat gave a long wavering bleat, as if weighing in with his thoughts on the matter. Declan smiled at Sarah. He knew he wasn’t bad looking and felt his roguish smile offered better odds than anything he might say at this point.

Sarah looked at her watch and then up at the darkening sky. “Okay, come on, let’s go,” she said. “We’ll talk to Walid and get this over with.”

Walid’s hut was dark. A cheap battery-powered lantern sat in one corner, but its wattage was so low that it seemed to make the room dimmer. Sarah introduced Declan to Walid, a thin old man wrapped in red-checked flannel. Declan nodded — he didn’t speak the Wainaina language, though he had been meaning to see about taking some lessons. A younger man named Mjanja sat off to one side, shorter and fatter than Walid.

Sarah launched into a little speech in Wainaina, and Declan caught a few mentions of his own name. She finished and Walid seemed to take the matter under advisement. He chewed his lips, his narrow jaw pivoting to and fro, and looked troubled. Then he responded in a quiet voice with a speech of his own. The younger man, Mjanja, leaned back and picked at his nails, and Declan contemplated the sorry state of his own digits, an occupational hazard of archaeology. When the elder finished, Sarah turned to Declan.

“I don’t think he’s happy about the goat,” she said.

“It’s a goat,” said Declan. “What’s there to be unhappy about?”

“It makes it seem like he’s not doing a good job running the village. That he needs to accept a goat. From a stranger. For no reason.”

Declan rubbed his eyes. It was too late to change course. Like it or not, he was committed to his goat gambit, as unpromising as it now seemed. Sarah clearly knew what she was doing, and if he was to have any chance with her, he was going to have to show some competence.

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” said Declan. The word gave him an idea. “Isn’t there someone in the village who has had, you know, some kind of misfortune? And the elder could give them the goat, to make up for it?”

Sarah turned to Walid and spoke to him. The elder seemed pleased by what he heard, though Mjanja rolled his eyes. Walid answered quickly. Declan could tell from his tone that they had hit upon the right way to present it. Sarah smiled and the matter was settled with handshakes all around.

“Good move,” Sarah whispered to him as their little group filed out of the hut to retrieve the goat.

He was in. She would invite him to sleep in her hut, and things would go from there and snap him out of this dry spell, turn his luck here around. After all, his big discovery as a graduate student, the one that let him cruise through his dissertation defense and into this coveted fellowship, had come only after he had gotten together with Daisy. Though of course that had flamed out in spectacular style when she told him, the night before he got on the plane here, that she wasn’t going to come with him after all. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and looked over at Sarah, tried to focus on what he could see of her beauty by the light of the rising moon. There was something regal in the angles of her face, like a profile on an ancient coin, and yet there she was, next to him, bantering easily with the chief and his sidekick in Wainaina, out here in the middle of nowhere with all the confidence in the world. Yes, he could really use some of that.

They reached the pickup truck. No goat. The carnal scenario that had begun to take shape in his mind flickered and vanished. Declan grabbed his flashlight and shone the beam under and around the truck. Still no goat. It was a gone goat.

“Where is it?” asked Sarah.

Walid looked confused and the younger man shuffled his feet. Sarah put her hands on her hips.

“Look, it can’t have gotten very far,” said Declan. “I’ll go find it and be back in a flash.”

Abdi hadn’t returned from his tea break, so Declan hopped in the truck. Goats are herd animals, he reasoned, so it was probably seeking out its fellows in the village, especially now that it was dark. He headed through the village, slowly swerving the truck to play the headlights across the dirt and huts. A cat crouched by a stack of branches, a woman in a doorway covered her eyes, and Declan gripped the wheel tighter. His headlights grabbed a group of men sitting on a log, a confused Abdi among them. Declan waved and drove on. He resisted the urge to give the truck more gas and instead leaned forward to get a better view through the windshield. Nothing.

The goat materialized in his beams, almost under his bumper. He swerved hard to miss it and felt a jolt. Wonderful, he thought, I hit the goat. But the sound was wood cracking and the whoosh of something large falling, followed by the clang of metal against concrete, all decidedly non-goat sounds.

He jumped out of the truck and then reached back inside for his flashlight. It was the open-air market, the only permanent structures for miles. A number of wood poles propped up a large tin roof that shaded a concrete floor about the size of a football field. Or they had propped it up. In missing the goat he had hit one of the poles, snapping it and collapsing the entire structure. The tin roof lay almost flat on the concrete as far as his flashlight beam went, dust rising in the air, a cacophony of voices approaching in gloom. Oh my god, thought Declan, do they really punish people out here by castration?

The children were the first to arrive, jumping and pointing at the collapsed structure. They looked at Declan with big eyes. Then the women came, materializing slowly out of the darkness with babies in their arms, moving cautiously and erupting in chatter when they saw the wreckage. Declan was suddenly jealous of the babies, nursed by their mothers, cared for by grown-ups, not a worry in the world.

He felt something move against his leg. The goat was pressed against him, shivering in apparent recognition of its near-death experience. It looked up at him and bleated. The tone was one of indignation.

Now it seemed as if the whole village had converged on the scene, circling around the truck and the collapsed building, people pointing, some pointing at him. He saw Sarah bearing down on him, and her look told him he was going to have to set up his tent tonight after all. At least the truck seemed to be in good shape.

 

Declan rolled over in his sleeping bag and felt the lumpy earth. He should have been more careful about where he put his tent. But really, he was just grateful that he had managed to extract himself from the scene at the market building. The nomads were less put out by its demise than he expected, but Sarah had been apoplectic. She had unleashed an epic rant about his bad driving and how the collapse of the open-air market had also collapsed the chances of the Minister approving her new grazing program, thus jeopardizing both the Wainaina’s food security and her career prospects. Somehow the goat escaped her wrath, an omission Declan felt was deeply unfair, as it was the wretched beast’s ill-advised wanderings that had started the whole thing.

The goat, though, had been put to good use. In a stroke of what Declan considered his characteristic flair for improvisation, he had ceremoniously presented it to Walid in front of the crowd gathered around the wreckage of the market building. He had convinced Sarah to translate for him, and positioned the three of them in the truck headlights. Quite theatrical, really. The nomads seemed impressed by his speech, and he had tactfully avoided referring to the wreckage, pretending that everyone had assembled for the goat presentation ceremony. Walid was a little shaken, and taken aback by being handed the goat, but his chubby sidekick Mjanja was excited, perhaps at the prospect of goat stew.

Even though the ceremony had been a hit, he would do well to leave first thing in the morning. No need to get bogged down in any talk of damages owed for the building, no need to face Sarah again. He’d hit the road with Abdi at dawn and be back in the capital city for dinner. That was the best thing about this place, about this whole country really, Declan thought. When it stopped being fun, he could leave.

 

Places always looked different in morning light. That seemed especially true as Declan and Abdi stood outside their tents at sunrise. Each hut seemed to have vomited out its contents, with shovels and sleeping mats arranged neatly beside careful stacks of dishes. Women bundled clothing together and shook dust from colorful rugs, the men loaded the camels, and the children got in everyone’s way. One camel carried an impressive collection of pots and pans, all lashed to the beast with rope, creating the impression of an improvised suit of camel armor.

“They are moving,” said Abdi.

Declan nodded. He knew that was how they lived. They would stay in a village for several months and then, all at once, everyone would pack up and relocate — nomads.

Sarah came marching across the sand river separating their tents from the main village. There was something about her gait, something about the tempo of her stride, that telegraphed anger, rage even.

“Jesus, Declan, you see what you did!” said Sarah when she reached them, gesturing back toward the huts. “Now I am just completely ….” She trailed off, sputtering and gesturing.

“I understand you’re angry,” said Declan. “But should we really be all that surprised when nomads prove to be, well, nomadic?”

“You really are a piece of work, Declan. They’re moving to their rainy season village. Does that mean anything to you?” Declan blinked and she continued. “Since it’s the dry season, there won’t be enough water there, or enough for their livestock to eat.”

“Why do you think they are moving?” asked Abdi.

Sarah pointed straight at Declan. “They’re too busy packing to really talk about it, but Mjanja told me. There was a rumor last night that you had stolen that goat. And not only that, it was the prize goat of the leader of their rival tribe. So he is gathering his men for a rescue raid.”

Like the Iliad, thought Declan, but with a goat.

“Mjanja told me they are moving to their rainy season location because it is safer there. They can defend themselves better than they can on this open plain,” said Sarah.

“That goat was miles away from …” Declan began, but Sarah cut him off.

“I don’t want to hear it,” she said. “I’m going back to the capital. Maybe I can stall the Minister and postpone the site visit until I fix this mess. Your mess.” She turned and half-walked, half-ran back to the village.

A hot prickly feeling tripped down Declan’s spine and, though it was a sensation he rarely encountered, he recognized it immediately: guilt. This would not do. He rubbed his hands together and exhaled slowly. Focus. Focus.

“Focus on what?” asked Abdi.

“Oh, nothing,” said Declan. He hadn’t realized he had said anything out loud.

Sarah disappeared into the village as the last of the tools got loaded onto a bucking camel. The nomads were probably eager to get on their way before it got any hotter. That damn goat. But what could he do now? He knew only a few words in Wainaina, certainly not enough to tell people, “Stay in your village, this is all a big mistake, I didn’t steal the goat.” Nor was that a sentiment that lent itself to being expressed in mime. Nor was it necessarily a true sentiment. He quashed the thought almost as soon as it occurred to him — nothing good could come from that line of thinking. He had been trying to help, and wasn’t that the important thing? There was always a chance things could go wrong, but that didn’t mean you shouldn’t try to help, right? The hot feeling in his spine persisted. Declan shook out his shirt, hoping it was a stray fire ant. Daisy was a vegan; maybe she would have appreciated how he saved the goat from the hyenas.

 

The pickup made good time on the hard-packed dirt and they reached the paved road at mid-day, which meant they’d be back in the capital city before nightfall.

“Those people are in a real situation,” said Abdi. He accelerated to pass a lumbering truck, its cargo looming inches from Declan’s window.

“Which people?” asked Declan.

“In the village, Binyavanga. I was talking with some of them. They say the government is about to take away their livestock. It’s a real situation.”

Declan was not, under any circumstances, going to get into a discussion about the Wainaina’s situation. He rolled down his window. The wind was hot and dusty, loud enough to end any conversation. Abdi hated getting dust inside the pickup, but he would just have to deal with it. Declan didn’t want to know about the Wainaina’s situation, didn’t want to think about their situation. It would be more than he could handle. This place was not the kind of place he could live with his emotional guard down, not with the kind of things he might see here. Hell, he couldn’t live that way back home in New York either. Some of the people he saw on the street … Declan caught himself and tried to pick out objects to focus on — a cluster of acacia trees, a truck loaded with sacks of charcoal — the way his mom had taught him to focus on the horizon to keep from getting car-sick.

It wasn’t working. He kept going back to what Sarah had said about the Wainaina maybe not having enough water. His throat was dry but he couldn’t bring himself to reach for his water bottle. The Minister of Culture liked to come by the museum and talk with him about the Wainaina nomads. Maybe he could get her to do something, send some people to convince them to move their village back to the right location. But how would he explain that to the Minister? And what if it just made things worse, like the goat? The pricking sensation returned to his spine, hotter this time. It leached into his stomach, rose up in his throat, hammered at his head. He closed his eyes and stuck his head out the window. The hot wind roared and slapped at him, bits of dust stinging against his forehead. The physical sensation of the moment is all that exists, he told himself. It is all that exists, nothing else.

A hand grabbed his shoulder and he was yanked back inside the cab. Declan opened his eyes to see Abdi releasing his grip on him, then pointing with the same hand to a large truck speeding by them, occupying the space where his head had just been. Declan smiled and shrugged. He was an archaeologist, in a remote country, taking risks. Some paid off, some didn’t, but he was in his element, exploring far-away places and having adventures. He rolled up the window and turned on the stereo, then found his playlist of movie soundtracks. It would be good to be back in the comforts of the capital and the hotel he called home there. He gave Abdi a playful punch in the shoulder. Abdi started to say something but then stopped and shook his head.

After a long shower in his hotel, the desert dust clogging the drain, Declan realized he was famished. On impulse, he decided to go to the fancy steakhouse that catered to expats. It was ridiculously expensive by local standards, but the exchange rate was, as Declan liked to joke, his best friend in the entire country.

The waiter stood by Declan’s table in an ill-fitting tuxedo and watched as he read the menu. Declan knew what he wanted as soon as he saw it. He smiled and pointed it out to the waiter.

The waiter looked around, then asked, “Just for you sir? That dish is usually to share.”

“Yes,” said Declan. “I’m hungry. Bring the goat.”

It was delicious and Declan ate until he was so full he couldn’t think.

Featured image: LOUIS-MICHEL DESERT / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Glad you are still around. We need decent literature in the world. I have a 1901 Saturday Evening Post I found in my house in Alabama hanging on the wall. 🙂
    That edition was highlighting the wonders of steam powered trains & boats!

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