All the fountains of the great deep burst apart,
and the floodgates of the sky broke open.
FIRST COME THE FIRES, the neglected grid breaking down and sparking the dry fields. Next a week of clouds, so dark, so heavy, like nothing we’ve ever seen. Methuselah’s death has put all the humans in a panic. They miscounted the days; they thought the rains would start later, much later, or perhaps would never come. The future is here; this is that very moment. I run down the streets, looking for my sister, my twin, Azy, who’s broken out of our pen again. Restless Azy, perfect in a way I have never wanted to be. I am always afraid for her.
The humans laugh and point: A goat, a goat! She’s running away! Catch her!
I’m faster than all of them.
In the deep shadows of the ark—that pitchy, longstanding joke, Noah’s great gopher-wood folly—stands a woman dressed as fire, her crown blazing, her skirts full of lights, posed in front of a giant pumpkin stuffed with bones, her two little firefighters beside her in full uniform. It’s our last Halloween, and the neighborhood is full of wild children on sugar highs screaming in the dark playgrounds and men in masks, their hyper-realistic chainsaws revved. Everyone photographs everyone else, for the time when it’s all gone.
Though I find Azy, as I always do, there’s no safety out here: Noah’s children grab us and pull us into their mad project. These are not our humans, not the children we played with, not Sarita who fed us, photographed Azy, put us to bed at night. We will not see Sarita or her children again.
The tigers above, the cows jammed together against heaps of building supplies, baggage, the go-bags with their MREs, flashlights, the ninety-nine-piece first aid kit, documents no one would ever need again (the lines for services, the machines with their numbers now all under water). The family has brought water purifying tablets, copies of house and car keys, Swiss army knives. The stowaway kids brought crunchy snacks in aluminum bags. The kids have their cell phones and chargers, their laptops, their devices. They have never lived without them. They sit next to each other in their lower-deck burrow, pecking away, more frantically as the screens waver and go dark.
They captured the ones they call unclean two by two, the rest of us in sevens: it’s not true that we came on our own. The rain pouring down. Noah walking around talking to himself, talking to God, as if the rest of us couldn’t hear. What he’ll do at sea, what he’ll do on land.
You know why they’re taking so many of us, I say to Azy, sister-without-blemish. It’s not for our survival. As soon as we hit land, Noah’s going to build an altar. He’s not talking about burning barley. I don’t understand how you’ve made it this far without ever getting on nodding terms with reality.
She says, affectionate and a bit contemptuous, Don’t be such a fussbudget, Jael. Smoothing down her glossy golden coat and snowy beard, gazing at me out of her topaz eyes, their dark slits of pupils contracting, her look of mischief. She’s been perfect her whole life. Maybe it’s time to stop. Nothing has ever happened to her; she cannot imagine that anything ever will. So far, this is the very worst. Decade after decade of hammering and the stink of pitch, then the rains, the waters that have lifted us up and tossed us on a new sea.
Noah has 600 years of complaints. More now, of course. Everyone has to be fed. We move through corridors piled to the ceiling with mixed family treasures and refuse, shifting with the waves, debris falling on us as we move through: the humans create new tunnels after every storm, temporary stalls, always changing. The solar panels blink in and out, and Ham can rarely be roused to fix them. The hydroponic gardens produce too slowly. Noah’s children have no respect. (Naamah makes that scratchy noncommittal sound: hmm, hmm.) And what’s more, no matter how many times he explains, no one sorts the garbage properly: compost, save-for-later-uses, and stuff-that-goes-over-the-side.
The sons and their wives argue about chores. Noah moves through the boat, muttering. Naamah rolls her eyes.
Azy says, Lighten up, Noah!
Not that they understand us.
When you have a sister, you are not alone with the puzzlements of earth.
I say to her, We should stay away from the other goats.
Because someone is going to die, is that it? I wish you would think about something else, Jael. We’re all going to die. It’s how we live that counts.
The least perfect thing about you, I say, is the way you lecture me.
She smiles, sly and acknowledging. Our besetting sin, she says. Fortunately, all they hear is bleating.
Noah and his family pretend not to see the children on the boat. Children, teenagers, some tiny, some large and hairy, a wild pack who slide through the debris tunnels or hide in the great room eleven cubits down. Who did they throw overboard to make room? They’ve created their own societies, laws, games, social norms, tiny ostracisms, and a language none of the rest of us speak. Some, the original strikers, came from all over the world to protest: at first, they said that to build the boat was giving in. Now they sit among the phones connected to nothing, the laptops that have gone dead. Glittering cases, stickers for vanished TV shows and teams and schools. At first they tried to use them, raged and moaned at their silence. Later, they began their new traditions.
Twelve days of Marcheshvan, twenty-eight days of Kislev. And then the rains stop. We need a new prayer of gratitude for rising with the seas. But no one can forget the burnt, the drowned. And all flesh that stirred on earth perished—birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth, and all mankind. All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land died. All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.
Left behind: first Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, the Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Micronesia, more and more as the waters rose. Now every bit of it may be gone for good. Thank you, O God, for saving my life, but what about all the mothers, children, animals now underwater and lost? So many have died, what difference does it make, the life of one sister? What if her life makes all the difference to one goat who has no idea how to live without her?
Useless questions, no answers. I will do what I have to, whether or not she consents, whether or not the version of her that survives is one that fits her old dreams of herself.
I love you, but I don’t love your addiction, Naamah says to Ham. I can’t have you using in the main salon.
She doesn’t say anything to Noah but cuts her eyes at him. They spent a hundred and twenty years building this thing, Ham high most of that time. Noah was just a social drinker before the bodies in the water, before thousands of us packed in together for this year that seems longer than all the hundreds that came before or will come after. Before Waila’s loss. The wife he loved—the charming, useless beauty—not the one chosen for the job of keeping everyone alive, fed, getting everyone to shore. He was 600 years old and blameless in his age. Good with gopher wood, good at following orders without question. Bringing aboard all beasts of every kind, all cattle of every kind, all creatures of every kind that creep on the earth, and all birds of every kind, every bird, every winged thing.
And the stowaways. If the adults can keep pretending to themselves and their God not to know they are here, they won’t have to throw them overboard. It’s a big boat. The sons and their wives are busy feeding everyone and heaping the garbage in piles. They don’t have time or will for the hidden teenagers. Just as Azy and I have made ourselves so unpleasant to our five fellow goats that they pretend not to know us. It’s a little lonely, to have only each other. It’s a choice I reconsider sometimes, as if it could be undone. The boat is full of souls sorry for one thing or another. If our regrets had any actual weight, the boat would go under.
Just a few months till we land, and first thing they’ll do, after all we’ve been through, will be to build an altar and burn one of every kind of beast without blemish. Humans. I say to Azy, If we hang around these people, we may not even make it to shore. But let’s be ready. Let me bite you on the leg, honey. Only hard enough to break the flesh, to leave a little scar.
She tosses her head, shrugs, says she wants to go hang with the stowaway kids. She has always loved to be out in the world, seeing and being seen. She had close to a million followers when Sarita turned her into @FreshAzy (#goatsofanarchy #goatsofinstagram #cute #goatlove #farm #goats #goatlife #nature). I will go along to keep her company, to watch her and the stowaway children. Some of us are born spectators.
But a hubbub bursts out—two of the great cats snarling at each other and having to be separated—and a falling pile of rubble distracts me. When I look around, she’s gone.
Azy had a mate, a bad one. He used to bite her where it wouldn’t show. He liked her to be perfect. He encouraged her. He’s underwater now: we are not the breeding goats to carry our species forward. Though if I could bear to get to know the billy goats on this boat, I would do my part and not mind one bit.
The wolves howl in the corridors. The giraffes bend silently under the high ceilings. Some cry out, already giving birth again, still grieving the babies left behind. The daughters of Methuselah seem to be pregnant, and some of the teenagers as well. Ham and Japheth, saying nothing to their family, have begun to make regular visits downstairs, have already begun repeopling the earth.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by lapidation, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased and who exalted? But repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.
So they say, beating their breasts, naming their sins as another year passes.
The children, their screens dark, begin to remember old games. Lieutenant Colonel Hedgehog, where were you at the time the master was murdered?
In what valley do you find wheat and barley, pomegranates and figs, lentils and dates?
Don’t talk about food.
Sorry, sorry. In what valley do you find the most famous river?
What if we hack into Ham’s solar array?
What use are the phones if there’s nothing to connect to?
But maybe there is. What if it’s all a mistake?
Ham needs to fix the wiring. But he’s under decks, drunk again.
Maybe the whole world isn’t drowning, we overhear them saying to each other, those who talk in their cliques: ungulate with ungulate, predator with predator. Maybe Noah thinks the whole world has drowned because he misunderstood God. As they do. God sent down fire to cover up Abel’s slaughter, and they said, Oh, good, this is how God wants us to give thanks: slit the throats of the beasts and burn the bodies. Because sure, that follows.
Maybe it’s a local problem, just the neighborhood gone, maybe much of the world is still alive out there, in places we’ve never been. No more wicked than anyone else, they are ahead of the floods, they are building sea walls and artificial islands, reclaiming land. Maybe we will sail out across the world and discover that it’s not what we think: we denied everything for far too long and then leapt straight to gloom and despair, climbing into this tub and writing off everyone else. But maybe they’re still out there. Maybe we are not the only boat.
Azy and I wander. At first we all stayed in our stalls, but order has broken down. Ham has drunk up too much of the wine, and everyone is angry. The rest of it has to last…how long?
Noah was a spry 600 year old; at 601, he looks as old as Methuselah, limping from his tiger wound, talking in the lecturing, peevish voice he uses for his kids. Believe me, he says, the world won’t mourn you if you don’t return. The first thing I do when we get off this stinking coffin will be to plant a vineyard and get drunker than anyone in the history of the world.
Ham curls up in the heaped corridors, weeping. If it even was God who told you to go on this crazy trip in the first place. Why would God let the little children drown?
Well if you’re going to phrase it like that, Napthath says. Certain decisions were made, one after another. They had consequences. If you think you know the mind of God, you will always be wrong.
My sister and I, tired of these conversations, head into the deepest parts of the boat. The monkeys crap on the stairs, screaming. The hens nestle their newborns and purr. There was a story that the wombs would be shut, but maybe something went wrong or it was only a rumor. The boat has more rumors even than garbage. We are in the mind of God. All of this is the mind of God, everything is God, or maybe it’s the other way around: they say it in their prayers, and even at that moment, they have no idea, their minds already skittering elsewhere.
The stowaway children crept in behind us, among us, hidden and openly.
Where did they come from?
To be at sea is not to know how it will end. To be at sea is to feel maybe this will continue forever—the rocking, wooden walls and ceiling, all of us trapped here together.
The raven snorts and flaps his wings. Naamah says in a low voice, We were supposed to be the good ones.
The raven doesn’t turn around. He says, The first thing you’ll do, and you’ll be congratulating yourselves the whole time, will be to build an altar and burn one of every clean beast and bird.
Azy and I shrink back against the walls within walls, the tunnels of clothes, garbage, unsorted food, refuse.
You counted us, you house us, you feed us, you keep us from killing each other. The raven still hasn’t turned to look at Naamah. Keep us alive all these months. Who knows. And then the minute we set foot on land, you’ll set fire to us.
A pleasing scent to the Lord.
The Lord. Please. You think any of you know what God wants?
Neither of them says anything. Then Naamah puts in, pleading, But the flood. That says something, right?
I nudge Azy’s shoulder and we slip away, my heart beating so fast I can feel it struggling in my chest. You see? I say. Unnecessarily. Her eyes are rolling up, and her own heart is as loud as mine. I don’t even need her permission. She’ll forgive me, sooner or later. I say, You can’t be a perfect being in an imperfect world. She kneels and bows her head. I bend down to her and bite, too softly at first, then harder, taking a mouthful of her salty flesh, the blood running down. The humans have prayers for everything. What is the prayer for this?
The raven has gone out, and we’re waiting. In the night, in the green luminescence of the decay all around us, I watch Azy’s flanks rise and fall with her breathing. That she should be alive, it’s beyond grass, fresh water, ground underfoot, sky and trees overhead. Teeth marks in her flank, healing slowly, leaving a scar.
She wakes and says to me, Remember how Mom used to dance when they brought out the food? How she’d lower her head over it and glare if anyone tried to take it away?
You can’t think about it.
I’ll go mad if I don’t. If this is all there is, the rocking, the dark boat and the tiny slits of light, the clucking and shrieking, the drunken sons playing dice, the splash when someone dies and is thrown overboard.
I lie down against her. She asks, Do you remember when we climbed on her back and jumped off, over and over?
You have to get used to things as they are.
But I have never gotten used to anything, she says. Not one thing. Her perfect face so sad in the dim enduring twilight.
The raven is gone. The dove takes his place, flies out, returns with her olive branch. Soon, soon the rocking will stop. Seeds have taken root in the garbage, growing in the cracks of light that slant down from above decks. The heavy sweetness of roses, rancid surprise of marigolds. Noah searches the animals, looking for perfection. Rare enough, but here and there. A silky cow, pink nostrils, brown and white skin glossy, looking back into his eyes. This one, he says. An emu. An emu? Where did she come from, where has she been this long year, is she going under his knife and up in smoke? This one.
Maybe I should bite you again.
What if he doesn’t see the mark? Isn’t it better to have more damage and to go on living?
Noah is very close. Perfect. Imperfect. Sorting us out.
I lunge for her, take a piece of her ear.
She cries out, pulls away, bleeding again. Then, What if he thinks you’re the perfect one?
I laugh. She jumps towards me and bites my ear, tearing it so the blood pours down. I wrench my knee trying to get away, and sink down, my legs bending under me. The future is here again. It keeps changing. The laws they made, the judges, the knife that will or will not come down on us, the patch of grass that Azy and I might find when the flood waters drain away at last.
We go silent as Noah passes by us, scowls at our bleeding ears; we have doomed one of those goats we’ve been so careful not to know. Their names, their lives, what their year has been like, who will be grieving when the knives go to work, when the smoke rises up to God who is waiting with slow, unimaginable patience for them to understand that there are other gifts than these bitter offerings.
After he passes, I take Azy upstairs where the children play infinite wishes. In the last months, they have run out of questions.
I wish we had a thousand purple butterflies on this boat.
I wish we had a chocolate fountain.
I wish we had portholes.
I wish we didn’t burn the forests.
Not that, says one of the older girls, not too sharply.
Okay, then. I wish buttercups would grow out of all the garbage piles.
Buttercups, whispers my sister. The thought makes her face glow, despite the ragged, bloody ear. As if one of the children were cupping a flower underneath her whiskery chin, as if the future has as many games ahead as those we once played and have already begun to forget.
Sarah Stone is the author or co-author of three books, including Hungry Ghost Theater: A Novel and Deepening Fiction (with Ron Nyren). She teaches online for Stanford Continuing Studies and is a 2020 LABA East Bay Fellow. www.sarahstoneauthor.com
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.