“Naming the Goat,” a Serafina Florio short story
Sicily, September 1866
It took us weeks to name the goat. First we argued about whether she needed a name. Couldn’t we just call out to her, “Here, goat!” or, “Here, goaty-goat!” someone asked. No one answered until Vicenzu, the middle son, the one with all the numbers in his head, settled it by saying, “Bad for the soul, not to name the animals. That’s what Father would have said.”
“Sylvia,” someone suggested. A few of us liked the sound of Sylvia, but I know a Sylvia.
“How about Crocifisa?” Renata asked. I shook my head. Who ever heard of a Crocifisa Goat? Concetta? No. Betta? Never! And so on. We argued until we got fed up with arguing. Then Renata wanted to go to Sabatini’s for honey and a boy came to say his mother needed me—which meant Graziella was about to deliver—so no name for the goat that day.
One morning soon after, Carlo came running into the garden followed by the caretaker limping and fanning himself with his hat. “An uprising in town,” he said, coughing. The iron gates clanged shut.
“Too early to close the gates,” I told him. “They stay open until dusk.”
The gardener looked at the ground. He told us of the disgruntled who had gathered that morning in the piazza next to the statue of St. Benedict, the one with the sunken eyes. These men smelled of sweat and sheep and resin from their shops. They railed against crippling taxes, against conscription, against the high price of bread, against you name it.
We closed the gates.
When Vicenzu came home that afternoon, he told us how the mob had marched to the Municipal Building, grabbed the two guards on duty, shoved them down the stairs where more angry clods waited with sharpened blades. When they were through, Vicenzu said their knives dripped with blood. Then they roped the two men to an unsuspecting mule, dragged what was left of them through the town, and dumped their bodies in the public gardens while onlookers stood silent, chewing on straws.
That night I dreamt of stuffing clothes into a basket. The more I stuffed, the more the garments multiplied, ballooned, spilled over the sides onto the floor, dripping red.
Days grew shorter. Life became almost normal again when suddenly Carlo said, “Octavia!”
We stopped, considered. “Perfect,” I said. We clapped. A clean accomplishment, it felt like lemon balm.
But after her christening, Octavia’s milk soured. Carlo led her into the barn. She lay down on the packed earth in a dark corner and wouldn’t come out.
Carlo said it was naming her after Nero’s wife that turned Octavia’s milk. But I say it was the dust caused by the uprising and the stuffing of clothes into a basket.
“Read to her,” I said.
So Renata began A Tale of Two Cities, declaiming in the garden near the entrance to the stable, her finger moving slowly underneath the foreign words.
Soon the goat appeared at the door, her sack swollen with milk.
Serafina’s note. In 1866, the wheat crop failed. Mandatory conscription and high taxes roiled a hungry mob. That fall there were uprisings all over the northern coast of Sicily and cholera claimed hundreds a day. Life limped on.
Picture: iStockphoto, but I call her Octavia.