The wind shrieks its displeasure as it rattles the house, rattles it like a child in the throes of a tantrum, and we, little gnats in this container of brick and mud, tumble from our huddle by the table. The awful shriek reaches a peak of fury, and within it I hear the abominable voices of Eleran’s children.
Ebun buries her face in my breasts, breath hot and moist against my skin. “I’m scared, Mama.”
I’m scared too. I’m scared of the wind and what it means, the dark and what it brings. I’m scared for the last bit of wood in the oven and how quickly it burns, the smoke thick in the air like an oppressive blanket, smothering us and smelling strangely of goat.
We all hear the sound: the frantic scratching of nails (or hooves?) on wood. Ebun stiffens against me, Teju’s eyes grow wide in his skull, and as one we swivel towards the door.
“It’s me. Open quickly!”
Ebun has squirmed out my arms and is bolting for the door before I recognize the voice.
“No! Stop her!” I yell.
Teju dives for Ebun as she races past him, tackling her to the ground in a tangle of limbs and bellows.
“Quickly!” says the voice. “I’ve brought help, like I promised. Open the door, we don’t have much time.”
Ebun is sobbing in the corner. I want to sob too, will give anything to curl up in a ball and join her. But I’m her mother, and what is a mother’s job if not to protect her children, to put on a brave face and make them feel as safe as possible?
I turn to the door, forcing a cheer I’m lacking into my voice. “Hello, Yomi. Are the elders with you?”
“Yes! Now open the door.” More scratches on the wood. Frantic. Mad.
“Use the key, Yomi.”
Silence. Even the wind has quieted somewhat, as though it too were listening in. “What?”
I look up at the charm dangling over the lintel, a small cylindrical bundle dark with dried blood. So long as it’s there, we’re safe. It doesn’t matter how hard the wind rattles the house, how awful those screams sound, the things out there cannot get inaffectation unless I open the door. Unless I invite them in.
“The key,” I gasp, heart thrumming in my ears. “You said never to open the door for anyone—especially anyone who sounds like you. You have a key, Yomi.”
“Oh yes, that’s true!” says the voice. (Is it Yomi? Please let it be Yomi.) “And I’m happy you remember all I’ve told you. But I’ve lost my key—”
A deep, demonic wail drowns out his voice. Ebun screams and buries her head in her laps and Teju rushes over to comfort her. My hand reaches for the bolt. That is Yomi out there and I can’t leave him alone. Yomi is still talking, voice warping into something else, strained from terror, from desperation—or is it all an act, a clever ruse? I never know what they can do, the children of Eleran, but Yomi told me explicitly to never ever open—
The door bulges in its frame and I leap back as Yomi starts screaming. “OPEN THE DOOR! PLEASE! THEY’RE—!”
The thunder of hooves drown out his voice and I can’t tell if it’s the wind still screaming or him.
“Do you think that was Yomi?” Teju asks.
We’re crowded in the upstairs bedroom, that little room the kids shared before Teju decided he was now a man and couldn’t share a room with a girl. He doesn’t look much of a man now, his worried eyes searching mine for answers, for reassurance. How will I tell him that I don’t have the answers? That I also need reassurance? That I wish someone were here to make it all go away. That I wish I hadn’t killed that goat.
“I don’t know,” I say.
Ebun is curled beneath the covers, thumb in mouth as she sleeps off her fright while Teju and I hunch protectively over her. Her baby face is crinkled, as though the terrors of the night have followed into her dreams. And is it me or does her halo of hair seem flatter, shinier? I shake my head, rub my eyes. The wind no longer rocks the house in attack, but the silence is even worse, unnatural. And then there are the boarded-up windows which plunge the house into perpetual darkness, which doesn’t allow us to see outside, see them. The house feels like a coffin.
“That wasn’t Yomi,” Teju says, trying for bravery. For conviction.
We sit there listening to Ebun breathe, watching the lantern grow dim.
I’m in the large barn, tying freshly harvested yam tubers in neat rows for storage. It’s hard work. I’m caked in dirt, and my forearms bear deep bloody grooves where unruly yam stalks scratched me. The things terrified me as a child, the way they grew like the antennae of some chitinous alien creature, purplish and twitching. Now they are nothing more than nuisance to be clipped off the tubers before they are stored away.
Old hinges squeak in protest as the barn swings open, followed by a blast of hot air from the blazing noonday. The cool barn, specially built with adobe and oak to preserve the tubers as long as possible, is being eroded by hot air. I expect to hear the squeak of hinges as the barn door shuts, but it never comes; the doors are left open for the hot afternoon air to rush in. And I know it’s Teju and his ne’er-do-well friends up to some mischief as usual. The hurried scuffle of feet on the wood-shaving covered floor confirms my suspicions, and I take a deep breath to yell at them when I hear the bleat.
I drop what I’m doing and hurry through endless rows of yams towards the sounds—bleating and more hurried scuffle on the wood shavings—turning round the bend to find five munching goats.
The goats, skinny beyond comprehension, have somehow managed to unravel the rope binding a stack of tubers—the fraying end of the rope where they gnawed at it lies limp like a ripped artery. For a moment I stand, grossly stupefied, staring at the animals as they go to town on the tubers, jostling each other around, crunching into the yams, jaws shifting in that weird animal side-to-side way as they masticated.
In all my years in this town I’ve never seen a goat. Oke-Aanu is a town of farmers and potters and carpenters. But no one keeps livestock, not even birds; if you want meat you hop in the truck and travel two hours to Maraba where the mallams try to cheat you out of as much money as they can for one kilo of stale meat. And yet here are five black goats, munching with abandon on my hard-earned harvest. A harvest which is unusually dismal on account of that strange rot.
“Shoo!” I scream, flapping my arms. “Go away! Away!”
It’s as if I’m not there, as though they can’t hear me; the goats continue to feast with abandon. One spares me a look, and in its black eyes I see nothing but contempt.
“Go away!” I yell again, kicking at them. They bleat in protest, moving lethargically, bumping stupidly into each other, dancing around the ruin of yam tubers. But they don’t run for the door, only avoid my flying feet as they continue their feast. The nerve. The disrespect. They’re hideous things, these goats, these intruders, and they infuriate me.
A rake rests on the nearby shelf next to the sea of rusted farm tools. I grab it by the toothy end and swing for the cluster of invaders.
There’s a satisfying crack as the long handle connects with the rump of a goat. It squeals, a sound eerily human in its agony, and bolts for the door.
The goats scatter. Bleating, climbing over each other in their bid to escape the sweeping rake.
“That’s it!” I scream. “Run, you little shits, and don’t come back here.”
I chase them to the barn doors where an old woman stands, resting against a herding stick. A single fading ankara piece drapes across her torso. The goats hide behind her like petulant children, peeking out and bleating in different octaves. It almost feels like they’re telling her exactly what happened, communicating their discontent.
“What’s this?” I pant. The little exercise has me short of breath. “Are these your goats?”
“My children,” she says.
“These are my children.”
The goats circle the woman’s feet, scuffling for the place closest to her, almost like . . . children. And all the while their black eyes never leave me, baleful stares weighing down on me as if to say, you’re in trouble now.
“Well, madam, your—children—broke into my barn and were eating my yams. Shouldn’t you be—I don’t know—watching them?”
I open my mouth in indignation, then close it. Try again. “So you led them here deliberately. To eat my yams?”
The woman stands well away from me, so I only just notice the faint wisps of coarse black hair on her lips and chin. There’s something not quite right about her face. Too angular, perhaps, or too disproportional . . . I can’t place my finger on it.
“My children are many,” she says. “They number in their thousands. They’re always hungry.”
Something about her tone, the words themselves, sends a chill down my spine.
She moves suddenly, brushing past and startling me into immobility. When I regain myself she is already in the barn, disappearing round the corner.
“Hey! You can’t just—”
I hurry after her, growing increasingly flustered with each passing moment, unable to shake the feeling that something is seriously afoot. I find her in the bend where her goats (children) had been violating my hard-earned harvest. And lying like an offering among the mess of half-eaten tubers and wood-filings is a dead goat.
“You killed my child.”
“What? No!” That’s when I see the blood on my hands, thick and clumped with tufts of goat fur on my forearms, my dirty jeans, the old leather of my apron. “Th—this is—”
The strength expires from my arms, and the rake drops to the floor, teeth bloody with the proof of my guilt. How did this happen? “No! I didn’t do this!”
The four black goats cluster around their fallen sibling (where did they come from? I didn’t see them reenter the barn) There’s something organized and unanimal-like about their movement. I want to scream, but something has eaten my voice.
The woman bends and scoops the dead goat into her arms, scoops it as lovingly as a mother with her dead child.
“A goat for a goat,” she says, then turns and walks away, her children scuttling in her wake.
I wake to the sound of screaming. It takes me a moment to reorient, to register the cramped space of the children’s room, the dim lantern, the cords in Teju’s neck as he screams.
I leap off the rocking chair, fall to the floor as my stiff muscles spasm. My eyes water with pain, still I manage to gasp a “What’s wrong?” For one wild moment I’m convinced the house has been breached—Eleran and her thousand young flooding the house. But Teju is looking at the bed, eyes wide with horror and confusion, as he gabbles and points at a sleeping Ebun.
Ebun is curled fetal, chest rising and falling as she sleeps, completely oblivious to the ruckus. She looks the same but for the two spiral mounds poking out of her tangle of hair, black and shiny and—
The blood flows in patterns down the cracked basin drain as I wash my hands. There is so much blood. But where did it all come from? I never killed that goat. I know I chased them, hit them with the handle of the rake. But I didn’t kill that goat.
A soft knock raps on the door as I step out of the kitchen. I hastily wipe my hands on my apron and open the door.
Yomi is standing on my front porch. He’s not much to look at, a plain-looking young man, really. But he has come visiting twice every week ever since my husband passed away. He’s especially good to Ebun, and never fails to delight her with little treats and trinkets whenever he comes calling. Though he’s never explicitly stated it, I know his intentions are to woo me. And while he’s too young for me, lately I’ve been feeling stirrings, catching myself staring longingly at the path that leads to the farmhouse, hoping to see him coming. Feeling an embarrassing teenage flush at the sight of that crooked smile.
He’s not smiling now. He looks like he’s seen a ghost. And just like that, I know he knows what’s happened. “Tell me,” he says.
“There were goats in my barn.”
Yomi winces. “They’re not goats. Did you feed them?”
“She . . . ” My throat clinches with fear. “I chased them away—I . . . one of them, I don’t know how it happened but it—died—”
Yomi’s eyes nearly bulge from his head. “Died?”
“She s—said I killed it. But I didn’t! I swear—”
“Oh no.” Yomi’s shaking his head side to side like a dog trying to get rid of flies. “No no no no no.”
“What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
Yomi massages his neck as if he’s choking, runs a hand through his hair.
“Yomi . . . you’re scaring me.”
“Sorry,” he says. “It’s just you don’t know—”
“No, it’s best I—”
I grab him by the front of his shirt. “Tell me. Please.”
“Alright, alright,” he says, prying my hands from his shirt. “This entire area used to be a rocky desert. The story goes that this town was founded back in the fourteenth century by a family of exiles. From where they were exiled, we don’t know. But they came down from the mountains into this land, starved and near death. The patriarch decided he could not watch his family die, and in desperation called out in the wilderness for help. For three days and nights he called out to anything—anyone—who could help them. And on the third night, something answered.”
“The Goatkeeper,” I whisper. “Eleran.”
“One of its many names.” Yomi shudders. “The patriarch, he pleaded with this being for food for his family. Food for all of them, so that they may never lack, so they may survive out in the desert. Desperate, the gasps of his dying family in his ears, he made a Pact with this being—the first fruits of his harvest in exchange for bountiful harvest. For as long as we dwell in this land, and we left the first fruits of our harvest for Eleran and her children, we would never starve.”
I remember now all the times my husband set out a few tubers of fresh harvest. I never understood why he did it, but I never continued the tradition. And I’ve paid for it . . . with the unusual rot of this year’s harvest, more than half the crops spoiled . . .
Almost as if something had been angry.
“He never told me,” I whisper, wringing my hands. “My husband—why didn’t he tell me?”
“Only the men know of this, and only when they come of age,” says Yomi. “As it’s the patriarch who made the Pact, it’s the burden of the men to hold it through the generations.”
“It’s why you’ve been coming here these past three years,” I say. “Helping with the farm. You’ve been setting out the first fruit.”
“I was assigned to you.” Yomi looks at me through his long lashes. “I’m so sorry. This is all my fault. I should have been here to help with the harvest. I got stuck in the city—”
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” he says, standing. “But I’ll go fetch the elders. They’ll know what to do. In the meantime, gather the children and cover up all the windows. And keep the door locked.”
I’m too petrified to speak. I only nod.
“I’ll need a key for when we come back,” says Yomi. “Whatever you hear—do not open that door, even if it sounds like me. Do you understand?”
I give a shaky nod, handing over a spare key.
He pauses for a moment, then reaches into his pockets and produces a small bundle caked with dried blood. “Hang this over your door. It’ll keep them out.”
Teju backtracks, eyes wide and rolling like a spooked horse’s, then turn and flees from the room. I hear his footfalls pounding down the stairs, but I can’t chase after him. I have eyes only for my daughter, that tiny loveable creature now sprouting horns.
“Mama.” I start, hastily blinking the tears from my eyes when I see Ebun looking at me. Has she been awake all along? “Will you hold me?”
“Of course, my dear, of course.” Silently I slide into the narrow bed. As I pull back the covers, I’m hit by an overpowering wave of animal stink. It stings my eyes and gags my throat but I don’t recoil as Ebun folds into my embrace, as her horns poke me in the ribs.
I can hear Teju raging about downstairs.
“I feel sick,” says Ebun. “Am I going to die?”
“No.” Not if I have anything to say about it. But those are empty words, empty thoughts. I don’t know what to do, and that scares me to death. “Yomi’ll come, and you’ll be fine.” But where is Yomi? An unbidden thought blossoms in my mind: what if that had been Yomi earlier? What if he had really lost his key? What if I left him out there to Eleran and her children?
And yet another thought rises in my mind. Yomi abandoned us. Locked us in the house to save his skin.
“I’m hungry,” says Ebun.
“Of course,” I say, wiping my eyes. “There’s still leftover eko from the morning. I know you like that—”
“No,” says Ebun. “I want yam.”
“Yam?” I will have to go down to the barn to fetch a suitable tuber, peel it, wash it, dice it. “Do you want it boiled or—”
“Raw.” Ebun shifts, stares up at me with hungry goat eyes. “I want it raw.”
That’s when I know I’ve lost her.
The wind starts to rattle the house again, followed by that abominable wail. I can hear hooves like drumbeats over the roof—are there goats on the roof? But they’re not really goats, I know that now. And they’re not really children. They’re something else.
I make my way through the house, the lamp light searing through the dark, casting things into vision. I feel like there are shapes lurking at the edges of the beam, skirting away from the light.
Down the stairs, past the living room, through the narrow corridor that leads to the barn. There are things growing through the house, searing through the cracks in the floorboards and the spaces in the walls, snaking like roots. Purplish and large and twitching—
Yam tendrils. Except I’ve never seen tendrils grow so big, and they’re ripping through the house, tearing it apart.
The barn door has been ripped off its hinges and beyond is a forest of chaos. What before were neat rows of tubers is now a barn-sized tangle of hairy roots and tendrils (tentacles), tubers trapped like insects in the web of their squirming growth.
Swallowing, I reach into the thicket and pluck the nearest tuber. It comes surprisingly easily and I tuck it in my armpit as I hurry back to the bedroom and my transforming daughter.
The living room is a nest of vines. Fat, fiendish things curl across the walls and floor and door which is cracked halfway open.
The yam drops as I start pushing the door, pushing it shut. A gust of chilly air blows through the crack and I see—
I see the Goatkeeper, standing in the field in front of the house, silhouetted against a purple sky of perpetual twilight. She’s not the stooped figure I saw in the barn, but she stands in her true form.
Eight feet tall, dressed in a black dress which snaps about her hooves. Her goat head grows into what should be a woman’s body, but is something else. A mockery. An aberration. And though she’s several feet from me, I know she is looking at me.
As I watch, black spectral wings unfurl like sails behind her to form a canopy over the gathering goats at her feet. The goats, where they were skinny and emaciated when they stole into my barn, are now robust, fur-coats shiny, eyes bright with hunger. They simply stand there. Waiting.
A goat for a goat.
The scream rips through the house, and I jolt, tearing my eyes from the Goatkeeper and her children, staggering through the alien growths as I hurry up the stairs and to the room.
“Teju! What are you doing?”
For one crazy moment I think Teju is defiling his little sister: he’s straddling her as she squirms and writhes in the sheets, the bed rocking with the force of their movement—or the house’s movement? It’s only when I look closely that I see that she’s lying prone on the bed, both arms pinned beneath Teju’s knees, head yanked back by one of her horns (now as long as my forearm) as he tries desperately to saw it off with the crude saw from his father’s toolbox.
“Come help me, Mama!” Teju pauses long enough to look at me with bright, mad eyes. “Hold her. If I can cut it off, she won’t—”
“Stop it, boy! Stop—she’s in pain!”
But Teju has no ear for me, instead grunts with each stroke of the saw. “We—have—to—”
I dive for Teju, but he has always been big. Big boned like his Papa and Grandpa. Lights explode in my eyes as he backhands me, sends me reeling for the rocking chair. My ears ring with the clatter of hooves, the wail of wind, Ebun’s screams of agony which already do not quite sound human.
I sit up, spit out a stream of blood and lose tooth. The saw is already bloody and for a moment I think of the bloody rake. Beads of sweat fly off Teju’s arms as he attends his morbid duty, sawing with the singular commitment of a butcher-mallam in Maraba. I don’t know what has come over him; he’s deaf to my pleas. But that is my daughter there, even if she smells awful, even though I can clearly see that there’s now a fine layer of black fur covering her skin, even though she’s no longer screaming but bleating.
I throw myself a second time at Teju, hanging onto his neck, pleading at him to let his sister go. Eventually he lets go. Let’s go long enough to snarl dog-like at me, long enough to punch me full in the face—
A searing pain washes over me as I come to. My face hurts. It feels shattered, the bone fragments cutting into soft tissue with each errant movement. For a moment I expect to hear Ebun screaming, to wince at the horrible screech of a hacking saw. But the room is silent.
Save for that wet, sucking sound.
I open my eyes and come face to face with Teju. My first instinct is to cower. (When and how have I come to so fear my son?) But he’s not snarling; his face is the same smooth boyish face I know and love. And there is no mad glint in his eyes—there is nothing in his eyes, just the glazed look of a dead stare.
A massive beast is on the bed: a six-legged goat, black fur shining in the wan light, powerful horns twisting out of a shaggy head which is lowered, burrowed deep into the bloody torso of my dead son.
That’s when I scream.
The goat looks up, snout glistening with red, red blood. Its lips peel back to reveal impossible rows of sharp teeth, then it lets lose a long, abominable sound. The sound is echoed back twofold, threefold, tenfold—a thousand guttural bleats blended in demonic harmony. The goat rears on its hind legs and I duck as it leaps over me, the sound of its heavy hooves tearing through the house and out the front door.