The goat baby was exactly as described: half goat, half baby. Born in the dead of night under a new moon. The labor, as it had been foretold, had been difficult. The vessel split open, bearing the goat baby forward on a river of blood and messy human detritus. The doulas had done their work to the best of their abilities, snipping the cord and sterilizing the wound. Unfortunately for the vessel, attention immediately turned to the newborn.
There was much talk about the expectant father. Was he at the birth? Has he seen his child? Has he marveled at the wonder he had a part in creating? Was he in love with the vessel? Was he sad to have learned of its exile?
The questions went unanswered. A makeshift crib of sticks and dried moss was assembled. The babe looked up expectantly from its nest, its square pupils glancing leftward and rightward. Such a posture would, on any ordinary infant, be a cause for concern. But none thought that of the goat baby. Many believed just the opposite—that in fact it looked preternaturally wise. It was also observed that its sexual organs were disproportionately large. A very auspicious sign, it was all agreed.
A mix of milk and blood was made to nurse it. The goat baby suckled serenely, then hungrily, with powerful rubbery lips. When it had eaten its fill, it paused contentedly before vomiting the contents of its belly all over the forest floor. That was met with rapturous applause followed by a dutiful gathering of the ejection.
When the goat baby cried, it was a horrible sound. A wail that pealed off into sonorous bleats, the cacophony rising high above the eaves of the forest. It was during one particularly awful bout of crying that the goat baby roused a chorus of birds and frogs and insects to join in. A terrifying orchestra of sound that swelled and ebbed with the heaving of the goat baby’s little lungs. All of a sudden, the crying ceased and, with it, the woodland symphony. Only the cold clip of two cloven hooves on frozen dirt reverberated all around. Daddy was home.
The vessel made her way through the Whole Foods 365. It felt odd to be under electric lights again. To wear shoes again. To be walking in a chic Los Angeles grocery store that smelled not of wet peat and morning frost, but the overwhelming chemical perfume of Ajax. Complete sterility had its own sharp odor. Industrial floor cleaner against warm notes of heated espresso. The vessel inspected the people in line at the barista cart at the front of the store, pushing paper cups with paper sleeves to their mouths, looking down at the bluish glow of their phones. Reminders of the citizen’s life she had once participated in. She had had a citizen’s name, too. But as much as the vessel tried, she could not seem to recall it. After she had birthed the child, they had sent her new papers and a driver’s license that christened her “Irene Yang.” Irene Yang, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, November 1, 1996. She repeated it to herself under her breath whenever she buckled herself into her car, when she was stopped at traffic lights, when she ripped parking tickets off her dash and threw them, curled over like clenched fists, into the dirt.
She noticed some furtive stares around the store, glances peeking out from behind leafy stalks of leeks and turnips and bouquets of organic flowers. When she met their gaze, shame quickly averted those prying eyes onward to a pile of shiny finger limes or a mountain of hairy rambutans. The vessel couldn’t blame them. Her once glossy hair wilted, her eyes, once black like a shark’s, now hollow and ringed with shadows. She had once probably been considered attractive by some standards. Now she looked blitzed out, walking in a fog. Anyone would assume she was strung out on god knows what. Just another girl trying to make it in Los Angeles with an undiagnosed psych condition.
In the woods, she had taken comfort in the consistency of the colors in mid-winter: all drab browns and steely greys. Soapstone, sandstone, and slate. The occasional currant jam color of slick coagulated blood against a jagged alabaster rock. It was a shock to be back in a store among commerce and trade again. She had never before noticed how garish the packaging was. Chips Ahoy! blue and cheddar Cheez-It red. Hyper-detailed depictions of the food contained inside, magnifying in fine, anatomical detail the oily pores of each potato chip, the craggy pockmarks of each cookie.
As she ventured down the dairy aisle, squinting from the glare cast off the illuminated bottles, the thought of milk made her breasts ache. A woman’s body is so needy and desperate, she thought. Even with no baby, her body still craved the ghost of one. Longing to nourish that which it had bore. A Google search at the local library had informed her that the pain and need to lactate would pass. She had seen the message boards filled with accounts from so many mothers who had given up their babies for adoption, surrogates, and, saddest of all, the mothers of late term stillborns. But only she had been the mother of a goat baby.
In those moments when her body betrayed her, she thought she could catch the sound of faraway braying, the plaintive wail of a hungry babe, longing for its mother to return. She wondered if it had inherited any traits of hers, as the only thing she had inherited from her mother was the capacity to be disappointed in herself. The vessel absentmindedly picked up a container. “Organic water buffalo milk,” it read. Christ, she thought, how long had she been away? She turned the container around to check the price. $69.99. Fuck. She put it back.
The vessel caught her reflection in the glass pane as she closed the door. How could she look gaunt and bloated at the same time, she wondered. She still had some pregnancy weight clinging to her cheeks. But her complexion was pallid, and her skin sagged like a latex mask that didn’t quite fit. Frankly, she looked like shit. If only her mother could see her now. She had always had something to say about her looks. Too fat. Too thin. Too butch. Too weak. Too much. Never enough.
Despite what was declared on her driver’s license, the vessel had grown up far away from the sleepy postcolonial charms of Portsmouth. She was raised, instead, in the sweltering Florida heat, somewhere between an outlet store for firearms and a long stretch of highway bookended by two Waffle Houses. There is no glamour in being a Florida mom, and the vessel’s mother had been no exception. Any time her mother had away from her job as a case manager for the county social services department she frittered away at the nearby Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The lever of the slot machine was her mother’s phantom limb. She would come home stinking of cigarettes and cheap white wine, the stench of money frivolously spent. The vessel’s father had long gone. Up and left when she was five without so much as a note. Her mother had always brushed off her questions about his exit, muttering something about an “immigration issue.” In the first couple of years after he had gone, the vessel would receive a birthday card in the mail—the generic kind with bunnies and daffodils you see in line at the post office—signed “baba.” Her mother took whatever crisp bills he sent and vanished them into the penny slots the next day. But eventually even those stopped coming.
Her mother filled his absence by coming down hard on the only reminder she had of him, springing on the vessel a series of tests she always managed to fail. There was once when her mother enrolled her into dance lessons for reasons still unknown. A passing whim, maybe. The ballet studio sat in a sticky Tampa mini-mall, sandwiched by a thrift store and a sad Carvel shilling ice cream cakes in the shapes of watermelons and footballs year round. The vessel hated attending the classes. She couldn’t stand the scratchy feeling of tights and the bobby pins straining against her scalp. Sometimes she would excuse herself midway through class just to lock herself in the bathroom and peel off her leotard and tights in one long, human-shaped strip, running her nails over her legs and sending lines of red claw marks across her skin. Even at that young age, she was painfully aware of her sizable paunch, which made her envious of the girls with preadolescent bodies that did their bidding. When she refused to keep going one day, her mother didn’t speak to her for a week. She broke her silence to demand that the vessel return her tutu to the dance store and seek a refund, the sound of loose change and casino tokens rattling in her mother’s purse like teeth in a sack.
After so many similar offenses—her stumpy legs that never grew willowy, her persistently heavy period that came at the most inopportune times, her dropping out of community college—the vessel gave up trying to map the metes and bounds of her mother’s expectations. Even on her deathbed, lungs riddled with a constellation of tumors, a breathing hole nestled between her collarbones, her mother still managed to look deeply disappointed at the vessel that stood before her, an empty girl heavy with unfulfilled promises.
The specter of her mother was never too far away. In the woods, the vessel had met acolytes of the dark lord who keenly reminded her of her mother. They were always chasing some dream whose igniting spark had long been forgotten, or extinguished. The key was to find the deadness in their eyes. Just like her mother, the acolytes never quite seemed to take to her. They looked down on her contemptuously from the vantage of their carved cheekbones. Here comes the vessel, they sneered whenever she was within earshot. It was the name they had given her when she had first come to the woods, shivering and afraid. They had never bothered to learn her true name. No matter that she was carrying the seed of their future master. They cared only for the unborn, not its receptacle.
Something about the powers he conferred was so contradictory. The acolytes were unadorned, bold in their nakedness. Tall and skinny, waiflike things. But despite their slight frames, they possessed untold strength and power. The vessel would sometimes catch flashes out of the corner of her eye: a rippling calf muscle, a bicep that bulged when clenched, razor-sharp teeth gnashing in her direction. When she felt their cruelty rearing, adrenalin pumping, tendons straining, ready to inflict a blow or rip out a lock of her hair with some scalp still attached, the vessel was afraid. The shadowy way in which their anger would manifest—hackles raised and the glint of hellfire in their eyes—tapped a primal instinct in her brain: run, hide.
How strange for the vessel to now find herself in a produce aisle examining an array of organic roots and herbs, the fear that once transformed her human brain into an animal one a distant memory. How odd to see plants in thin plastic boxes, a convention she so readily accepted before now seeming pointless. She hated most the “living herbs” with roots and soil portioned into plastic sleeves with handles, the branches cramped, the condensation blooming onto the cellophane, like a head wrapped in a trash bag. They were cast in such a different light here. Severed from their source, robbed of experiencing evenings thick with frost and mornings shrouded in dew. The chill cast over them from the refrigeration units gave them an alien sheen. It was hard to imagine that plants like these had ever seen the sun dappled through branches on the forest floor.
When the vessel was carrying the goat baby, it had rejected so much that the vessel forgot the taste of food, so constant was the tang of bile at the back of her throat. Taking an innocent bite of forest apple would send the goat baby into a furious rage, delivering kicks that pounded against the lining of her belly and inducing fresh waves of nausea. Much of the vessel’s stomach contents would empty onto the woodland dirt, leaving trails of steam wicking off the frozen vegetation. She felt as if she was being hollowed out. The acolytes took great pleasure in her pain, leaving piles of wormy fruit at the foot of her bed for her to enjoy.
But not all of them had been cruel. There was a lovely old witch who had brewed all manner of poultices for her when her belly was at its most swollen, dark veins running around it like an eyeball bulging from a socket. The witch had no god-given name, but the vessel in her mind had christened her Tabitha, after a childhood doll she once loved and had looked to often for comfort.
It was only Tabitha who could cure the vessel’s ails. A chicken’s throat slit under the full moon. Its blood, bright and viscous as nail lacquer, drained into a ceramic bowl of cooked rice. Steamed over a cauldron until congealed into a dense brick-like cake. The taste was unlike anything the vessel had ever experienced. The tang of metal, the glutinous rice almost meat-like in texture. On certain nights, Tabitha would pour hot oil seasoned with wild red peppers over the cake so that it crackled and fizzed. Those meals were among the vessel’s favorites. On evenings after such suppers, the vessel would find herself singing to the goat baby growing in her belly. Stupid songs that had stayed with her in spite of everything that had happened. Distant jingles for a Florida car dealership, from what seemed like a million years ago.
There was once when Tabitha had made her a stew from sticks and leaves and odd fungi that she had gathered from the woods. It smelled terrible and was a foul color, as dark and opaque as mud. Everything she was raised to be, everything she had been warned about as a child, every fiber of her being told the vessel not to drink it. But when Tabitha brought the cup to her mouth, she imbibed, sending a tingle through her entire body. It tasted rich and medicinal, like iron and vodka. She grabbed the cup out of Tabitha’s hands to finish the rest. So different from the processed, pre-packaged shit she had spent her lifetime consuming.
Before her pregnancy, the vessel had frequently found herself at a Taco Bell drive-thru with a sandy-haired boy named Charlie at the wheel. They were barely teens, bored and starving. As they pulled up, the vessel could smell the old grease wicking off the exhaust pipe that let out at the roof. From the glowing LCD screen menu, they ordered the “naked” chicken chalupas—an unholy creation in which a chicken breast, pounded “milanese” style, was deep fried to the point of folding in on itself, creating the vehicle by which a taco’s innards could be transported to their mouths. They loved them. Had loved them. Especially after a long, deep toke from a shared vape.
The vessel could still remember the ease with which those chalupas could sate her hunger, replacing it almost immediately with an ache of a different sort. They promised each other that they would save one for later, but Charlie always ended up eating the extra. After their feeding frenzy, he would, more often than not, pass out, his head pressed against the window, the pockmarks on his cheeks looking like lunar craters. She would sometimes reach out to put a finger under his nose just to check if he was still breathing; still as a corpse, he slumbered. The sensation of the Florida humidity dampening their now-quieted appetites. Even in the dead of night, under the jaundiced glow of the street lamps in the parking lot, it found them. Choking them slowly like carbon monoxide leaking into a cramped garage.
So different was the vessel’s life in the woods, where the cold dark of evening was crisp and cool. Where the sky seemed boundless, especially under a new moon. Where the nourishment she received was, yes, from Tabitha’s potions, but also from something altogether different. Something she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but that she felt most sharply when she walked at night, barefoot, through the woods alone, guided by nothing but the moonlight filtering through the trees.
Such peace was in stark contrast to the hours leading up to the birth. The baby, it seemed, had tried to claw its way out. Split her open. It was a pain that even Tabitha could not prepare her for. She could hear the sounds of her body straining. That was when the veins on her belly had looked the angriest. She remembered the moment when she felt as if she could not bear it for one more second, when she raised her head toward the sky to scream into the black void. That’s when the goat baby ripped its way out with an awful bleating. The vessel had looked for Tabitha in the crowd, but could not find her. Only the cruel-eyed acolytes who served as her doulas. Mute to the sound of her pleas. When the cord that connected her to the goat baby was finally severed, they left her in the dirt. What little leverage the vessel had was now gone. No longer was the vessel a vessel.
She had only seen such cruelty once before the woods: in the eyes of her master. That night when they had conceived the goat baby. He had come to her in the form of a handsome foreigner. Even now the vessel could not describe his origins: Abyssinian, maybe, in the delicate and slender frame he inhabited. Someone you didn’t see the likes of in Tampa very often. He had wooed her with strawberry margaritas and potato skins at the local Chili’s. When her head was swimming with tequila and artificial sweetener he leaned over and whispered something into her ear that made her fall apart and see the future at the same time. She saw her name in lights, palm trees along a boulevard, her slender waist tied in a red ribbon, her legs spread on the bed presented like a gift before the silhouette of the dark stranger. He came quicker than even chalupa Charlie had when he took her virginity at 16. And when the dark lord rose from the bed to wipe himself off, she caught a glimpse of his eyes and saw it—the cold cruelty that belonged to no man. No mortal.
The handsome foreigner disappeared after that night. But he came back to her in feverish dreams in the form of a monstrous spider sitting in the middle of a shimmering web. Go north, he whispered. Join me in the woods, sweet child. She arrived in New Hampshire six weeks later by way of Greyhound bus, clutching her belly in unbelievable and delirious pain. It took all her will not to scream during the ride. Tabitha was the first to find her. Her touch soothed her belly’s throbbing. The vessel felt glad to have made the trip.
After that, Tabitha became her unofficial caretaker. Whenever the vessel looked upon Tabitha’s saggy neck and single dead eye as she massaged her belly with arthritic hands, she wondered if she had at one point been one of the dark lord’s acolytes. Had she been beautiful once? Why had she stayed? Overwhelmed by curiosity, the vessel followed Tabitha through the woods one night, eventually coming upon a dark little hut in a hollow that the old witch inhabited. From her vantage outside the hut, the vessel’s eyes grew wide as she witnessed Tabitha prepare brew after brew. That night, she learned what became of the sacrifices the acolytes so diligently lured into the woods—unlike herself, who had been summoned at the dark lord’s personal behest. Maybe being a crippled old crone in the dark lord’s shadow was better than being nothing at all. Better to have known power than to be like so many wretched souls who wandered the earth, breathing air, pursuing careers, raising families, knowing nothing.
What a slap in the face to have been cast out after the labor, back from whence she came. Maybe even more gut-wrenching than the labor itself. She had wandered the woods for hours, clutching her lower abdomen, as if to keep the rest of her body from falling out. She must have lost consciousness at some point because, when she came to, she found herself no longer in the woods of New England but bathed in the familiar orange glow of the Tampa parking lot she had frequented so many times before. Only this time, she felt in no mood for a chalupa.
At least she had known it once. And not just known it—felt it. Coursing inside her, digging and gnawing and growing. The dark lord’s own. She had let her body shrivel and die, bow down to the thing growing inside her. Her figure would never be the same again. She had come to terms with that. Instead of vanity, the vessel took small solace in the money that showed up in its many forms. If there was anything the dark lord had plenty of, it was coin. It came in satchels at first on her doorstep. Wrapped in twigs and twine and burlap. Then it would appear in odd places. In her oven. In one of her well-worn shoes. Fished out from the bottom of a clogged drain. He provided. Maybe the dark lord was rewarding her, still. Maybe he was happy with the child they had created and was sending her small prizes. The vessel could not be sure. The terms of their agreement hadn’t been particularly clear.
Whatever the terms, the vessel thought herself to have been well compensated. She moved away from the greasy Taco Bell, from Charlie, from the dank Florida heat. She could not stand it there anymore, the air feeling hot and stale like her mother’s dying breath, the lingering smell of cigarettes. She found a small bungalow in Silver Lake where the nights were seldom humid. She was within walking distance of the Whole Foods 365, where she was also able to afford the produce. Paid in full, everytime, with cash.
The vessel checked out of the store with her week’s groceries in hand, careful not to make eye contact with the cashier. It was always a relief to leave. When she wandered the supermarket, as she often did, she couldn’t help but feel contemptuous of those who shopped there, coyly peeking at her from behind monstera leaves and fronds of fennel. Thin women in yoga pants who, by the vessel’s estimation, would never come close to obtaining the physique of the dark lord’s acolytes. Vainglorious men who bought pre-chopped kale salads and protein shakes. They knew nothing of immortality. Of eternal life. Of the costs and the sacrifices. These pathetic beings who looked at her with pity. They were the pitiable ones. They had lifetimes to needlessly tend to the appearances of their mortal bodies. Have children they could infect with their weaknesses and petty traumas. The vessel, in her broken body, was so much more than that. She being living proof of the ravages of the dark lord’s power.
She wondered, on occasion, why she had not been selected to be an acolyte. Or even kept on as a lesser being in the dark lord’s circle, like Tabitha. Had she not been handsome enough to once tempt him? Certainly something about the vessel must have drawn the dark lord to her on that fateful night. Certainly he must have seen in her something that made him select her to carry out the most sacred of tasks. Had she not been faithful? Drank all the potions? Massaged her belly just so? Bore witness to countless sacrifices, both animal and human, without uttering a word? She looked everywhere for signs and symbols of his call for her to return. Runes carved in trees. The call of a crow. Peculiar smears of pitch on the sidewalk. But the longer she waited without being summoned back to the woods, the more the hope of returning, once fiery and bright, faded.
The vessel walked home and unpacked her things. Into a tall stock pot went the burdock roots, jujubes, a squirt of the water buffalo milk she had gone back for. She mixed in some wild fungi and twigs from her backyard, the closest estimation she could make based on her memory of Tabitha’s last poultice. She used a wooden spoon to stir the brew, which after not a long while became dark and murky. It tasted like iron and vodka. Like the upper dermis of the forest floor. It smelled of home.
She would make these stews. She would grow stronger. Her eye bags would disappear and her skin would regain elasticity. She was still young by mortal standards; her looks would return. When they did, she would lure one of them back to her lonely bungalow: the bagger at checkout, or the barista, or one of the wealthy women in their Lululemon leggings. She had learned the trick from Tabitha—yank back the hair to expose the neck before you make the slit, drain the hot blood into the cauldron, smear the remnants over your open mouth for good measure as you chant the spell.
The vessel had tried many times to recall the exact words. But her memory was now dim. She couldn’t remember her own name, much less the Latin and Aramaic syllables that Tabitha had summoned from deep inside her bones. So the vessel whispered to herself shadowy approximations of the incantation, practicing every day in hopes that the tangled slurry of sounds would allow her, one day, to return.
lives in Los Angeles with her partner Nate. She was born in New Jersey and raised on hoagies, pork roll, and tomato pies. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Eclectica, Hobart, Longleaf Review, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @stfu_stephanie.
Art by Nikolina Lazetic
lunar, untitled no.2
acrylic, oil, ink on paper (modified print)
Nikolina Lazetic was born in Sarajevo and grew up scattered along the Adriatic coast. She holds an MFA from Brown University and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis, for the most part, alongside dogs and her collection of scents and ephemera. Find her on Instagram @silkenclaw.