I was eleven when I decided to breed my goat Thumbelina after she won Grand Champion at the Fair two years in a row. I badly wanted to become Grand Junction, Colorado, royalty with the dynasty birthed from her loins. So my mom and I took her to a farm in the east side of the valley, past peach trees in early, early spring. When she jumped out of the trailer to meet her mate, she was slick and black with horns that curved back towards her meaty rump.
Mother goats rarely give birth in human company and my mother, a midwife, understood this. So we left her alone until one day in the middle of June we heard bleating and found Thumbelina nursing her two babies and sucking up the slick red veiny mass of her afterbirth. Horrified, I started pulling the pulpy thing out of her mouth until Mom stopped me. “Let her eat it, Cleo, let her eat it! It’s normal.”
As Thumbelina’s babies grew up they became harder to catch. When they were locked into the birthing stall my mom and I had built out of pallets and twine, they couldn’t run very far or fast. In the first two months of their life, I could corner them and pick them up, nuzzling my face into their necks as they frantically yelped for their mother. But I had bottle-fed Thumbelina and she trusted me, so she chewed her hay as I captured her babies and pretended to ignore their bleats. Later, when they were big enough to be let out into the pen, I chased them around our half-acre dry lot, startling chickens into the air in my pursuit.
I wasn’t able to catch them until the middle of July, when they were about four months old and it was time for the fair. We loaded them onto the trailer with the chickens, rabbits, and llamas that I was also planning to show. The chickens got disqualified once because they had lice, the rabbits ran away and were eaten by a dog, and the llamas spit in the faces of teenage boys who tried to feed them cotton candy, so we took them home. But my goats beat everyone and made me a winner. Thumbelina, for the second year in a row, got first and as a prize, I was given a silver belt buckle that covered my whole stomach when I put it on, the words Grand Champion Pygmy Goat Doe so big even the boys who watched me from the sidelines could read it. To my glee, her sons got Grand and Reserve Champion in the breeding buck division. I floated through the fair, pulling behind me my family of winners, feeling as good as the goats that ran and bucked behind me with ribbons around their necks.
My mom was on call during the fair, and her beeper went off on one of our early morning car rides to go feed the goats.
“Shit, shit, shit, Cleo.” She cursed her way through a red light and handed me her cell. “Dial this number!”
I dialed it and handed her the phone. As she pressed the speaker button I sunk into my seat.
“Hi, this is Annie.”
“Hi, this is Crystal.”
I could hear a man’s voice in the background, asking, “Are you calling her yet? This is bad, this is bad,” and then the sound of his barfing. His nervous guttural voice almost mimicked how my billy goat’s bleat would sound once he was grown. “Um, ya, sorry, that’s my boyfriend,” Crystal explained.
“Right Crystal! You’re being treated for bacterial vaginosis right now, correct?”
“Uh, ya. I am. So my boyfriend, like, ate me out this morning, and I told him I had put the medicine up in there already, you know. And that he shouldn’t. But he said he didn’t care and he still ate me out and now he can’t stop throwing up. Is he poisoned?”
By now I was used to this kind of talk, but my eight and five-year-old siblings didn’t know that this call was totally, totally revolting. To teach them I stuck my tongue out and pretended to dry heave onto Mom’s lap. Mom grabbed my blond head with one hand and pulled me upright, not missing a beat in answering Crystal. “Well Crystal, the medicine is quite strong and may have affected him. If he’s still nauseous I’d go into the E.R., but if he’s feeling better he should just drink some water. How’s the infection?”
She swallowed. “It’s fine I guess. I put some more medicine up there just in case you know.” For a moment silent, her boyfriend started retching again.
“All right Crystal sounds good! I hope you feel better! Bye.”
I only heard her stable, matter-of-fact voice when Mom was talking to one of her clients. The rest of the time she used a lot of expletives and called people who got on her nerves “turd-smokers.” In the middle of a thuggishly hot day at the fair we wandered the aisles of ACE Hardware, searching for nails and enjoying the respite of air conditioning until an employee with a fat mustache stopped us with a booming voice, “Excuse me ma’am, you seem like you need some help.” The poor employee caught my mother overtired.
“You know what?” she replied. “We don’t need any help. And I’d rather you just call me bitch.” We didn’t end up buying anything. In those days, I was alternately embarrassed that my mom didn’t care who was around when she talked about infected or dilated vaginas on the sidelines of soccer fields or as she waited for us to get out of school, and proud that she had the courage to do so. In the following days, I longed for one of the judges or boys I showed against to call me ma’am, so I could repeat my mother’s outburst and claim the anger she moved into as mine as well. I didn’t care if the ACE employee deserved my mom’s backlash, and I didn’t care if a judge did either. Now, I don’t need to copy her bristling rage, for I have my own.
Once the fair was over, my mom broke the news that we would have to castrate the babies. “Honey. Those boys are still young, but soon manhood’s gonna get a hold of them and they’re gonna try to breed their mom. They are goats; they don’t know better, and I won’t have deformed, backyard bred little creatures running around.” I resisted. I didn’t want to show wethers, what castrated boy goats are called. Nobody cared if you won with a wether. And, I explained to my mom, it wasn’t even a big deal to win with a doe. I wanted the prestige that came with winning with a meaty, loud, and powerful man-goat. I wanted my baby bucks to keep their balls. Knowing my own stubbornness was no match for my mother’s, I came up with a compromise. The baby who won could keep his balls and the one who got second lost them. “No way, Cleo,” my mom stood firm. “If just one of them has balls it isn’t gonna make their mother any less pregnant.” “Fine,” I answered, “but can’t at least one of ‘em get a vasectomy? If Dad got one, why can’t the goats? Please?” Mom shrugged. “Maybe honey, but I doubt it. Let me talk to the vet.” She talked to the vet and the next week we had an appointment.
The vet happened to be Paige’s dad; Paige had become my best friend at the fair because we both showed pygmy goats. Her mom, and his wife, was the Goat Superintendent, Mia. So if we wanted the vasectomy, we would have to run the idea by her. Technically, showing a buck with a vasectomy in the breeding bucks division was illegal; I couldn’t parade my goat around a show if his big swinging balls couldn’t get a doe pregnant. Mia was a practical, easygoing woman with a tanned face and straight blond hair she kept in a braid, who always seemed to be bouncing a baby on her hip. She shrugged when I asked her if the vasectomy was okay. “Ya sure, it’s just the pygmy division anyways.” In other words, it didn’t matter because I wasn’t going for big money—I was showing a pygmy goat—a pet breed, a hobby farm specialty, nothing important. Still, vasectomies are almost never performed on male animals, for they create useless creatures crazed by a sex drive that also torments the females around them but doesn’t yield anything useful. I didn’t care. I was bound and determined to control a burly, big-balled goat, call him mine, and win with his body.
Part of the absurdity of this pursuit is that I couldn’t even know if I would choose the right goat. When my mom and I cornered the two babies, ready to grab the winner and take him to Paige’s dad, Mom looked up at me, panting from exertion, and asked: “Which one?” I couldn’t tell. So I pointed to the one in the sun and Mom wrestled him into her arms and off we went. He could very well have been the loser. But the envy I felt for the farm kids whose belt buckles glistened with the word BUCK and not DOE was so sharp I was willing to sacrifice castrating the wrong goat for the speed of getting a buck I could show.
These were kids like Paige, my friend, and the only other person who I showed against in the pygmy goat division. Paige starched and ironed her black Levis and white western shirt with pearl snap buttons before every show day. Her white-blond hair was always back in two braids and tamed stiff with hair spray. She ate two hotdogs and a slushy every day before noon and never got any on her clothes. When I was helping her feed her meat goats, I would stand in the doorway to keep them in. Once a thick male boar goat barreled towards me trying to get out and I jumped out of the way. But Paige slammed her body into him like a linebacker and he fell, pinned beneath her. In this moment I thought she was invincible. We went to Paige’s dad not only for the vasectomy, but to get all of our male creatures castrated. He got along with my mom so he’d do them on his farm for cheap.
Once, we took him a rogue male llama that had fallen into our care by accident. One spring, he had somehow escaped from his farm a few miles down the road in the middle of the night and found our two llamas, a mother and a daughter, and promptly jumped in and impregnated both of them. His owner, a man in a cowboy hat, came over the morning after and offered to take him off our hands. “Don’t you folks worry, this won’t happen again, I promise you the moment I take this sonofabitch back to my place I’m going to show him what’s what and shoot ‘im in the head.” My sister and brother started to sob hysterically and my mom replied, “You know what? We can just take him home.” The man relented and gave us his llama for free. So we took all three llamas home, and eventually both mother and daughter gave birth. The daughter had never been weaned, and still nursed her mother when she got anxious. Sometimes I’d look outside and see a strange spider web of llama necks twisted into each other, with each mouth on a different mother’s teat. Within a week of the birth, we found a folded brown body limp on the edge of the pasture. Everyone guessed at the cause of death. Some thought coyotes, others that the mother hadn’t let it nurse, but later we investigated the corpse and found the head and ribs smashed in. That left one culprit, the baby’s father.
So we put him in the trailer and carted him across the valley to Paige’s farm. I’d never seen her dad in the flesh and when he walked out of their door under a sign that read “Goat Milk 4 Sale,” I thought he was the most handsome man I’d ever seen. His clothes were dusty and loose on him, his face tanned and worn looking, turning supple when he smiled at my mom. Our boy llama was humming in frantic bursts and dance-shifting around her. The vet stroked his furry neck and talked to him in an even, low mutter-song as he took a needle the size of a pencil out of his back pocket and slowly, not letting the llama see the shine of it, stuck it in his neck. The llama crumpled into the dirt and the vet took a knife out of his back pocket and sliced open a testicle. All of a sudden there was bright, glistening red.
I knew that balls were the origin of a male animal’s confidence and power because of the way Cappuccino, the wether, and Eddie, the Billy Goat, became two different creatures after the surgery. As Eddie grew he filled his black wire-haired body out like a balloon that was blown until it almost popped. His brother Cap, who got castrated around this time, looked like an unassuming teenage boy stuck in mid-puberty for eternity. I’m not sure if Cap is still alive because I sold him one summer for ten bucks to a boy who flirted with me at the fair. We needed to get rid of him after his brother tried to break his ribs.
Mom was right. About three months after his vasectomy Eddie developed a focused sexual attraction to his mother. When she’d go into heat he would lunge at her backside and bellow a deep guttural groan that rushed from the back of his throat like a boulder, then flick his tongue in and out of his mouth trying to taste her. Thumbelina was still young so she could shoot away from her son and lap the pen until he got exhausted. He would give up on the pursuit suddenly and pant as he began his mating ritual, contorting his body until he could pee in his mouth. Mom and I would observe the chase from the safety of the other side of the fence. Afterwards she would turn to me and state: “You see that Cleo? That’s what men are like. All they want is sex. They’ll drive themselves crazy like this over sex.”
I was afraid of men before my mother told me this, and her declaration didn’t surprise me much. I had already learned about rape in the barnyard from observing my buck, the roosters, the bunnies, and the llamas. There was also the story of Angelica, a girl who went to elementary school with me who became infamous for being stolen right from her front yard by a guy in a pick-up truck when she was twelve years old. He tried to shove her in the backseat like groceries or a box of tools, but she could breathe and talk and bite, and because she wanted to live she bit his ear off and he swerved off the road and she was saved. I had heard, over and over, the local folklore surrounding women gone missing and found dead, always someone my classmates knew, “it was my mother’s best friend,” “my aunt, but a lot removed,” “my dad’s girlfriend.” We huddled around lockers and whispered the stories, teaching each other the precariousness of our lives. Danger felt close and so I was wary of guys in cars, not only because of the stories, but because they could get away so fast and still shout so loud.
My mom coached my middle school track team and when the girls would go on long runs downtown past the stadium guys would lean out of their cars and cackle, “Hey look at all those tiny asses in those tiny shorts, you trying to show off for me, baby?” My mom would warn us. “Don’t look at them girls, don’t look at them.” We would, of course, not because we wanted them to see our asses and our faces, but because we wanted to size up the threats. Finally, when we learned not to look, the guys got pissed. “Who the fuck do you little cunts think you are? Look at me when I’m talking to you.” The worst part of the fear I learned in these moments is that my mother’s presence did not automatically guarantee safety. Even when I grabbed her hand and used her to hide myself I was still so afraid. For she, too, was powerless. She, too, was shouted at and there was nothing we could do.
When my best friend Maeve and I volunteered at a cat sanctuary that was a ten-minute walk from our school, it was my idea to keep our phones dialed to 9-1-1 and in our hands, just in case a man tried to rape us. Neither of us had been assaulted—yet—but I knew my girl body could be chased and mounted and dirtied by someone more powerful than me.
This fear was raked into my body like a universal truth: be careful of men because they’ll help themselves to your body and they know you can do nothing about it. Every time Maeve and I saw a man on that walk, we would whisper a secret defense strategy in case he tried to attack us. The core of the plan was always the same: when he pulls down his pants, bite his balls off.
I left Grand Junction to go to prep school and didn’t come back until the summer after my freshman year of college. My mother had prepared me for womanhood with her own stories. She told me about losing her virginity at fourteen to her twenty-five-year-old coke dealer boyfriend. How the next boyfriend she had at sixteen, even older than her first, “really screwed me up”—but she would never elaborate, as if the story was too much for me to hear or for her to relive. How many times she had been almost-raped. When she lived in Indonesia and men carved holes in her bathroom walls to watch her shower. Her college boyfriend she was engaged to until he left her for a “younger, blonder, prettier thing.”
The education my mother gave me was not meant to scare me. It was honest. I gleaned it from stories of her own suffering and bore witness to it in the barnyard. The ritual of becoming woman, she taught me, leaves many hollowed out. It is often ugly. But you, my dear daughter, this won’t happen to you. If anything I dragged myself here to tell you this so that you do not have to bear it. Wear these stories as protection. Make them yours so you do not have to suffer through them.
Though as a girl I guarded myself fervently, when I left for boarding school I began to treat my mother’s lessons with spite. I had yet to feel her warnings come down in a form that I felt with my own hands, on my own skin. They were floating things, often heard in whispered stories and sometimes there in the shouts of men, nothing that would ever happen to me. And I so badly wanted to get it over with, to know desire and sex, to be the girl who was experienced with men and therefore better than the rest.
I lost my virginity during a hot summer in the middle of a soccer field a few days after I turned sixteen. I wanted to do it, I assured my boyfriend, but the pain was sharp and as I lay there unmoving and felt him thrust again and again and again I left myself until he was done, collapsing on me like a satisfied, dead thing. I immediately knew I never wanted to do it again, as he smiled at me and sighed “Wow, that was great.” I still couldn’t move because I felt a great tearing and was afraid to make it worse. And then I felt an overwhelming guilt, my back stinging from the turf, fear that we would get caught, fear that I was now pregnant, yet I replied, “Yeah, it was.”
I regarded fucking as a duty to the boy who made me laugh, held my hand, called me his girlfriend in front of his friends. But I dreaded it. I needed my mother badly, but I didn’t want her to know I had inflicted on myself exactly what she tried to protect me from. I now intimately knew the way hens shuddered, cowered, were smothered, their backs left like carrion after the rooster was done with them. The way Thumbelina suddenly gave in and stood so her son could take her and she could have some peace. I knew, because I had become just like them.
When I came home I found Thumbelina in ruin. Her deep black coat had become gristly and no longer shone, like copper left outside to rust. She limped with her head stuck rigid out in front of her and slightly twisted, like she had a neurological worm that whispered to her that sideways is right-side up. Her right eye leaked because the sun burned through it and her hip was broken, so she couldn’t run away from her son when she was in heat. But the strangest thing about Thumbelina, taken from me by time and twisted into a goat I didn’t want to claim as mine, was that she didn’t want to run from her son, the one who gave her the limp, the one who tormented her, the one who aged her. Her broken down life was now lived for him. And when he tunneled himself into another doe his mother bleated and hobbled to him. He was still slick and black with two thick horns that curved back towards his meaty rump.
That summer, our housekeeper Pam wanted to kill the broken down doe. The scene played out in my head: my mom and I would call up Alfredo, the man who helps us kill our chickens and turkeys, and we would load Thumbie into the horse trailer and drive out to the Bookcliffs. There the desert is packed clean into hills and is bare like the end of a bone. We would take Thumbelina under a tamarisk and feed her a few Xanax hidden in grain. Wait till her blind eyes sagged and slit her throat. Alfredo would back away and pretend to follow blackbirds with his eyes as my mother and I would stroke her until she bled out. Once she was good and dead we would drive away and leave her carcass under the tree until it was rotted or picked apart. We would return in a year and Mother would collect her skull.
I wanted to tell Pam that if we slit the throat of every woman who had been left broken down by a man, who took her until he was full, the pile of bodies would reach the sky. Thumbelina would be part of the heap, and so would Pam, and my mother, and my grandmothers, and the hens with carcass-backs stripped clean of feathers, and me. I’m thinking of a best friend with a loud laugh and wild fierceness who got a stranger’s dick shoved down her throat in the bathroom of her childhood home. Who is indestructible until someone touches the back of her neck or she tries to string out what happened to her and make sense of it. I’m thinking of another dark-haired friend who got drugged at a frat formal and then deposited without her shoes on the side of a river, her head just inches from the current. I’m thinking of my mother who, at every moment, tries to shape her daughters into something invincible. Her almost rapes that actually were, truly, a real one. How inevitable it actually is, once you cast a girl out into the world. I’m thinking of my sophomore year of college when a guy I loved and trusted would get drunk and thrust himself inside me even as I pleaded, “No, no, no, no.” And when I would go sit in a bathroom stall afterwards with my head between my knees trying to breathe and convince myself it was all in my head before I faced him again, and again, and again. How I would keep letting it happen. I’m thinking of all the moments I look around a room of my friends and say to myself: “It really has been all of them.” I’m thinking of Paige, the girl who could tackle a goat, who at ten years old told me she had a secret and when we sat down in the shavings of the stall whispered: “My daddy has a friend who comes over and takes me into his truck before he leaves and touches me underneath my underwear. He told me I couldn’t tell my mom but I can tell you.” And the list goes on.
Sometimes I live in a rage that is so bright, glistening red it feels like calm. I keep it together because though I feel as trapped as Thumbelina I can still run. And unlike my broken down doe I have places where I can hide. But sometimes the rage seems to rip me from the inside out and I wish I could take a knife to my baby buck’s balls and to any man that gets in my way, so I could laugh, triumphant. “NOW do you see?” I would scream: “You see what it’s like to be taken and your flesh and strength stripped until you are too weak to stand, let alone to open your eyes? NOW do you know what it’s like to be prey?”
And yet, when I go home to my billy goat he saunters up to me, a little timid, until I sit down and look him in the eyes. Then he comes closer and nuzzles his big head with the big horns into my hands, sweetly, searching for affection. Then his mother limps to me, and I scratch her back until she folds herself down into a patch of sun and dozes. She stays there until the billy goat juts his face into her, and then she limps away as fast as she can, but still not fast enough to escape.
Cleo Mueller recently graduated from St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. Her poetry appears in Hinchas de Poesia, Lumina, and Illuminations. Currently, she lives in Idaho and is trying to figure life out