Decay

Gus met us at the gate of the pasture. Cheerfully panting and covered in mud, the miniature border collie hoisted himself up on his back legs and repeatedly grappled the air with his two front paws. “Oo! Oo! He wants to show us something!” Jeremiah said with fake enthusiasm, as if we were on Lassie. As we shut the gate, Gus ran wildly ahead of us toward the back of the pasture and stopped after a moment to make sure we were following him. The wet grass and goat turds only intensified my wish to go back inside, but it was too late; I had committed to this.

As we lagged lazily behind, I felt like a mother with her husband following after their hyperactive toddler in a theme park of ticks and weeds. Jeremiah and I had been dating for over two years, and I was tired. I had just finished my freshman year of college, a year full of inner turmoil concerning what those around me were doing with their lives, and what I was doing with mine. I had seen each couple I knew fall flat on their faces when college rolled around and I was starting to believe maybe there was a reason. Maybe it was wholly unnatural to keep a high school boyfriend into adult life. Maybe that was why I felt like I was missing something.

At the place where Gus had been rolling, there was nothing out of the ordinary. A bundle of sticks and some ash was all that was there, from our bonfire the previous spring. As he studied the ground, I looked hard at Jeremiah’s face; it was the antidote for my uncertainty, usually. I loved his fair complexion contrasting his dark, straight eyebrows and long, bushy lashes. Like George Harrison. With an almond shaped head, his profile was impressively metrical, but it was amazing how I still couldn’t, after all the time I’d known him, decide on the color of his eyes. I remember being in ninth grade and him looking into my eyes for the first time in World History, asking me a question about something. But the ocean after a storm was all I could think of, and I carried a peculiar calm with me that day.

“Claire.”

“Oh, what?” Jer was looking right at me.

“What’s Gus eating over there?”

I looked ahead and saw Gus gnawing delicately at something behind the stalks of weeds. “I dunno, grass,” I guessed.

“No, there’s something white.” Jeremiah crept forward and paused. “It’s a goat.”

Gus delightedly turned to face us, white goat fur peeping out of his jaws and flies buzzing around him.

Ew, Gus, no!” Jeremiah fumbled over the uneven mounds of land and through the grass to him. “He’s got the ear!”

“What?” I picked up a medium-sized stick off the ground and resentfully followed suit. Gus started wagging at the sight of his buddies coming to bask in the glory of his prize. I whacked him with the stick. “Drop it!”

“No, don’t do that!” Jeremiah took the stick from me. “He doesn’t know any better.” He knelt down. “Gus, drop it.”

As Jeremiah scolded the ignorant fluffball, I surveyed the goat. It was one of the smaller white ones, and it was soaking wet from the rain. The rest of the herd was huddled under the line of evergreens. There were roughly twenty of the frail and genetically flawed creatures, so my family and I were used to the occasional death. We had obtained the goats for a tax break on the land, and they multiplied and died like fish. However, I looked at this one’s face, and an eerie sickness crept into my stomach. “Jeremiah…”

He stood up. “What?”

“Gus didn’t eat the ear.”

“What do you mean?” He approached cautiously and peered down. The goat’s eye was gone. Only the pink eyelid slit remained, rimming the black hole into the goat’s head. “Oh,” Jeremiah said flatly. He looked back at Gus, who was now twenty feet away, rolling in a patch of buttercups. “That’s disgusting.”

We stood there in the buzzing of the flies for a few more seconds, when Jeremiah said concretely, “We have to bury it.”

I knew it. I knew he would say that.

“No,” I said. “I really don’t think I can.”

He looked at me squarely. “Claire, we have to.”

I threw my head back. He was right.

A few raindrops padded down as Jeremiah began to search the back fence for a good place to dig a grave, and we decided that we would have to hurry before it really started raining again. I ran wildly back down the way we came and pushed through the pasture gate, Gus following. I grabbed a wheelbarrow and shovel from the shed and raced back up the pasture with them, bumping and clanging. I ruminated on me and Jer. Now that the onslaught of newness was over, the stagnancy of summer had me analyzing our relationship thoroughly. Seeing him only on the weekends had worked fine, considering all other high school couples disintegrating one by one. But I had begun to feel like I was missing out on college life. People around me got into my head and moved things around. My roommates gave me the same pathetic smile every time they saw me packing my weekend bag to go home. My friend across the hall cornered me and asked me why I always left, saying that I should really try staying one weekend. It bothered me because I couldn’t make them understand. The word “boyfriend” has such a childish ring, I didn’t even try. I was almost convinced that breaking up with Jeremiah would quiet the storm in my mind that was brought on by the expectations of others.

Despite the sadness he felt for the creature, he had borne the brunt of the work and the mending so I didn’t have to. And I felt like I would cry out suddenly, standing there with him in the rain.

When I reached the top, Jeremiah was standing next to the goat again.

“Its butt is gone,” he said, and crinkled his nose.

I giggled at the peculiar announcement. “What?”

“Its butt,” he said. “Look at it.”

The goat’s posterior, under the tail, was corroded and decayed. It was now just a gaping hole filled with worms and flies. A long, thin string of what was probably an intestine trailed out behind it. I almost threw up. “Jeremiah, let’s not do this.”

“It’s okay,” he said and tried to laugh a little. “We’ll go dig for a while. Let’s just get it over with.”

We marched up the small incline to where the back fence was and found a nice spot. Jeremiah started digging as I held onto his glasses. The slowly increasing rainfall was making them fog up. He used to not wear glasses, and he was embarrassed the first night he wore them in front of me. He had scratched his contact lens and reluctantly pulled his glasses case from his pocket while we stood in the driveway. It was the night we graduated high school. He was leaving for Marine basic in a week, and I cried. Later that week, the doctors found fractures in his shins stemming from a structural problem in the bones of his feet, and his recruiter called and said they wouldn’t take him anymore. It was because of this jarring holt to his life plan that Jer worked as a cook in a bar full-time during that first semester that I was in school. Of course, my friends thought I was just stupid then, abandoning college weekend life to go hang out with my greasy fry cook boyfriend. I adopted the same mindset too, after a while. Going to a university thirty minutes away from him gave me an air of pretentiousness that I had no right to have, and it left me wondering if he was worthy of my time.

He dug and dug, and every few minutes I would take a turn, but he would soon take over again for the sake of time. The back of his shirt began to leak with sweat, so he took it off and hung it on the fence. “I look like a douche,” he grumbled, as he stabbed the ground. His remaining ensemble included khaki shorts and chunky leather river sandals. I always thought the sandals were hideous, but they were his dads, who died when we were in sixth grade. Sometimes I would make fun of them for being so outdated and worn, and Jeremiah would step gently on my toe with one. He never talked about him, but the sandals told me all I needed to know. Death was a sacred thing to him after that; he wore them every day.

After we reached the dry dirt, which was about three feet down, we peered over to the wheelbarrow and cringed at the white lump in the grass. With a light but steady rainfall cooling us off, we marched over to the dismal scene. Jeremiah, for some reason, handed me the shovel and bid me lift the goat into the wheelbarrow as he held it steady. First, I jabbed the goat with the shovel just to see what it felt like. It felt hard, and cold. I shuddered. Jeremiah disapproved immediately, saying, “Don’t do that, it could pop,” which only made me shudder more.

Pop?” I asked, beginning to laugh and cry at the same time.

“You know what I mean,” he said. “It’s bloated.”

I tried to scoot the shovel under the horrible thing, but I just could not do it. The feel of touching something so heavy and dead made me quake, and I wondered how in the world murderers dispose of dead people and then proceed with their lives like nothing happened. To my relief, Jeremiah came behind and took over. But when he picked the goat up with the shovel, its intestine tail swung around and bugs oozed out of its butt orifice, and its neck twisted grotesquely backwards and blood started pouring out of its empty eye socket, and that’s when I started screaming because who wouldn’t have?

“There’s blood coming out of its eye! THERESBLOODCOMINGOUTOFITSEYE!” I covered my nose with the collar of my shirt and wheezed. Jeremiah was gagging, but he managed to fling the goat into the wheelbarrow through bursts of nervous laughter. I suppose it’s my fault, since I wasn’t holding the wheelbarrow steady, that it toppled over and the goat landed on his sandal clad foot with a crash.

I could have heard Jeremiah’s dry-heave from the house; it was gruff and throaty with a gravelly undertone, much like a bullfrog. He leaped and staggered backwards, staring at the unfortunate scene. A fly zipped into his ghostly white and sweaty face, and he swatted it away without emotion. “Well, fuck,” he said.

“Just forget it,” I implored. I was trying to keep it together but failing miserably. I just wanted to go back inside and take a shower; I wanted to take one hundred showers. I wanted the goat to be gone. I wanted to stop looking at it, to stop smelling it. I wanted it to stop raining on us. I wanted Jeremiah to come back inside with me, for me to be happy with him again.

“Hold it steady and we’ll do it over,” Jeremiah said, itching his fifty mosquito bites.

I was gobsmacked.

I held the barrow steady while he carefully lifted the dreadful thing into it, and we stepped back. It looked especially gruesome now, after taking the fall. The other eye that hadn’t been eaten by Gus was open and staring up at us.

“I’m gonna pull the wheelbarrow behind me,” Jeremiah announced, grabbing the wooden handles from behind with a solemn shake of his head. “I don’t want to look at this anymore.”

Jeremiah wheeled over to the hole in the ground, repeating, “Don’t look, don’t look, dontlookdontlookdontlook,” as he thrusted the top of the wheelbarrow forward and the goat thudded sickly into the earth. It would have been slightly more somber had the goat not landed with its neck twisted the completely wrong way and its bloody eye socket staring up at us bleakly. Jeremiah said with startling misery, “This is sad.”

I looked at him, expecting to see his face twisted into a sarcastic smile, as it often was when he was confronted with seriousness, but it wasn’t. He was staring at the half-buried goat and frowning harshly.

“No,” I said, truly feeling not a shred of sorrow for the disgusting dead creature that reminded me of my relationship. “It’s not.”

“Yes, it is.” Jeremiah looked up. “You know how gross you’re gonna look when you die, Claire? You know how gross I’ll look? That doesn’t mean it’s not going to be sad.” His wounded eyes were piercing me.

“What—what?” I said, confused and slightly distressed. “It’s just that I don’t feel bad about it.”

“But,” he said explicitly as he stopped shoveling, “you’re supposed to feel bad at least for a little while. You don’t have to feel bad for it, but the fact is that it was living and now it’s not, and that’s sad.” He resumed shoveling.

His sensitivity astounded me then. There was silence for a minute. It wasn’t often that Jeremiah got heated. In fact, it hardly ever happened. There were only a few times I could remember him being angry, and in those times, he was simply mute. This was not anger I could tell, but rather a wild concern that I did not care enough, that I didn’t recognize the seriousness of what we were doing.

I recognized that Jeremiah was troubled not only by the death of the goat, but that he detected my indifference toward our relationship in my lack of empathy. Despite the sadness he felt for the creature, he had borne the brunt of the work and the mending, so I didn’t have to. And I felt like I would cry out suddenly, standing there with him in the rain. Remorse swelled in my throat for what I’d permitted myself to lose, and I watched him. I watched him bury my doubt and my worry in the red clay mud and place a mossy stone upon the grave.

Claire Boyer is a senior enrolled in UNC Asheville’s creative writing program. Her work explores the various triumphs and pitfalls of growing up on a farm in Western North Carolina. Claire has lived in Waynesville, NC, for twenty-one years, and finds its history, people, and landscape to be full of stories waiting to be told.