by Eugene Marckx
They tell of a crossroads called Damned-if-you-Do & Damned-if-you-Don’t. But they don’t tell about a boy born there. He was raised by an old man, since the woman who bore the son couldn’t stand it with the man there in Damned-if-you-Do & Damned-if-you-Don’t. She left them both in the dust. The old man wouldn’t allow that it stung. But whatever the boy did — chop wood, carry water — it was not enough. The wood wasn’t stacked high enough. The water tub wasn’t full enough. Then on a bad day some water the boy was carrying spilled on the path from the stream. The old man slipped and fell, and his backside was covered in mud.
“Get that boy! Get that boy!”
The yes-men jumped up. They were sitting around the blacksmith shop — taking in the warmth of the smithy fire. The old man said to bring chains to bind the boy and haul him back to the shop. Then he told them to spread hot coals from the smithy fire out on the ground.
“Drag that boy over the coals. Take your time. It’ll teach him a lesson!”
They rolled the bound-up boy around, and he began to cry out from blisters and burns. Not one of the yes-men would stick up for him. Their eyes were on the old man.
As they were looking up, the boy began changing, swelling up with blisters from the fiery coals. Or was it just from blisters bulging out? Maybe the swelling went back to his beginning? He was swelling up and up until — ping, ping — his chains broke apart. He was a boy no more. He was a giant standing there. He picked up the old man, threw him into the fiery coals, kicked and stomped and dragged him around until his old body was a blackened crisp. Then he let out a roar, a roar that shook the earth, a roar that taught those yes-men a lesson. They learned it right quick and ran off from that blistery giant.
With the mud of Damned-if-you-Do & Damned-if-you-Don’t still between his toes, the boy-giant stomped away from the crossroads. He’d got so big so fast that hunger was driving him. So he stuffed down pretty much anything — a cow, a horse, a few sheep, or goats, dogs, pigs, even chickens. But no beef or chicken bones could ease his hunger. What was he craving? He went roaring after meat, as if meat was all he needed. At night he’d climb into the mountains, break down trees for a bed and fall asleep. Mountain air cooled his blistery temper.
A woman living there in the mountains tended her goats and slept in a cave. She dreamed of having a boy — a boy of her own. She was old, but even as a young woman no man would look at her. There was no hope for that odd face of hers. So she lived away from the stares of the villagers, with her goats in the mountains.
The hungry giant fell upon her goats and stuffed them down, even the young kids. Only the nanny goat and the woman escaped. They hid in the cave. Villagers in the valley heard the giant tramping like an earthquake down the mountainside. They ran away and hid. The giant smelled meat but he couldn’t find any of it. The people had driven their animals into the deep woods. He smashed homes and barns looking for calves and kids, but he only found a tough old rooster that squawked at him and wouldn’t fly off. And swallowing those tail feathers gave him the hiccups. He stomped back to the mountains.
The people came out of the woods. They knew giant would be back in the morning and so they made a plan and started to work under the moonlight. Men dug a deep pit and drove sharp stakes into the bottom. Women cut grasses and wove them into mats. Men and women together covered the pit with wooden slats and mats of grass until the ground looked so green.
Before dawn they herded their animals into a long pen just beyond the mats: horses with the pigs, sheep with the chickens, cows with the geese, and when the sun came up all those animals made a hullaballoo. And the giant smelled breakfast. But was it only meat he was craving? He galumphed into the village. Reaching out for a cow leaping away, he fell into the pit. He was stabbed through the eye, run through the heart, and his belly was ripped wide open.
The people came crowding around the pit. But what they saw down there they almost couldn’t believe. Out of the bloody quivering bulk of the giant, out of that corpse, came a boy struggling, trying to break free, a boy bruised with blisters and scars.
“My son! My son!” cried the goat woman. And her nanny beside her was bleating.
Men turned and stared at her. They looked down again at the strange boy.
“My son! My son!”
They saw the blistery boy and looked back at her, at that old homely face, at the deep hunger in her. These men nodded and climbed down to help the boy up from the bloody pit.
With her shawl the old woman wiped the boy, and other women brought water and gently washed him, whispering to her, “This is not your son. This is a different boy. He may turn again into a monster.”
But she kept saying, “My son, my son.” She led him up to her cave and nursed his bruises, blisters and scars. She fed him from the woodlands and gave him the last milk from her nanny goat. A village Billy goat had made the nanny pregnant and by the time she gave birth to a couple of kids the boy was healed and healthy. He began to chop wood and carry water.
“And now, my son, will you come with me?” The woman taught him ways of foraging: picking nettles in the spring and berries in the fall. Mushrooms were especially nourishing. But he still felt uneasy when she called him her son.
“I am not your son.”
He felt anger simmering in his belly. He was afraid of it, afraid of what would happen. But whenever the woman said my son he felt a deep pain. She was not his mother. He felt she was punishing him.
All of a sudden his face turned red, his eyes grew large, and he roared. “You old woman, you’re as ugly as a tree-root. Don’t call me your son. I am not your son.”
She calmly stood before him and let silence come in. At last she spoke. “You may choose to see yourself as separate. But you are not so alone. These woodlands, they feed you. And who nursed you back to health? I have no one but you. Your scars and bumps are a match for my odd wrinkles. Don’t you see? You are my goat boy.”
He began to feel the weight of her truth. Still in his anger, he caught a glimpse of that crossroads — Damned-if-you-Do & Damned-if-you-Don’t. Calluses on his hands still carried the marks of that hard place. Chains of anger were still binding him. “Who am I?” he whispered.
There’d been a giant, bloated and hungry — who had done away with the old man. Before that there’d been a boy — who could never do enough, never be enough. Here with this old woman he could choose. Didn’t he want to sit and listen to that boy, a boy no one had listened to? He could find out what that boy wanted to have, wanted to be, wanted to do. Or he could simply sit with that boy — who had all kinds of scary feelings inside.
After this he didn’t mind the old woman calling him her son. And her nanny goat’s two kids butted and romped around with him. Little by little he became her goat boy.