A haunting tune drifted in through the open kitchen window of Jeremiah’s grandfather’s cabin. A song the young man had heard before, though he couldn’t place it. A mournful voice that sang in a language he didn’t understand, one that sent chills creeping up his spine.
Jeremiah put his pen down. He turned toward the open window, and the scent of the warm spring night washed over him, carried by the cool air rolling down from the mountains just past his grandfather’s little farm. He rose from the writing desk, crossed the room and opened the rough wooden door. He stood in the doorway, greeted by silence as his shadow stretched before him. His grandfather’s goats rustled and stirred in the pen, bleating softly as he raised his lantern and walked toward them.
“Who’s out here?” he called.
The goats grew agitated as he approached, certain he was going to feed them or let them out to romp in the meadow. Buttermilk, his favorite goat, danced her way toward him. She pushed rudely past her brothers and sisters, eager for attention.
Jeremiah ignored the little goat and circled the pen, listening for the song. The mountains loomed in the distance, dark and unfamiliar, and the night breeze carried nothing but the scent of early spring.
The next day dawned bright and cool, and Jeremiah swung his legs over his grandfather’s bed, rubbing the soreness out of his back. The old man’s mattress was almost an afterthought, and Jeremiah found himself missing his own memory foam bed, now lying empty an ocean away.
He’d been watching after the old man’s place long enough to get some real writing done, and taking care of his grandfather's goats was pleasant enough.
I’ll call again today, he thought. Check up on him, or try to get a ride down into town and see him.
He opened the wooden door and stood yawning on the porch, eyes closed, enjoying the soft bleating of the goats in their pen. A smell drifted past him on the breeze. Something like old, hot metal. A wrong smell. There was a small rusted bell hanging from a hook on his grandfather’s porch. It hadn’t been there when he went to sleep the night before. Jeremiah looked at it, curious, then tapped it with a fingernail.
The clapper in the bell struck the inside just once, and the bell emitted a deep, unsettling tone. The goats in the pen moved more frantically at the sound, their bleats louder, pushing and shoving past each other in a mad, aimless way.
Jeremiah covered the bell with his hand. The smooth metal was cool to the touch, and he took it down from the hook. He wrapped it in a cloth, then pushed it beneath a chair on the porch. He’d talk to his grandfather about it later.
The goats had quieted down as he approached their pen and opened the gate to let them out to graze. Buttermilk jumped and danced, butting her head against his leg, and generally made a nuisance of herself. “Who’s a good little goatie / butter milky wilky / Will she or won’t she / eat some grass today?” he sang, reaching down and scratching the little black and white goat between her ears. She twitched her tail, bounced up on her hind legs, and nibbled at his pant leg.
Jeremiah had fallen into the habit of singing to his grandfather’s goats. The old man’s cabin was lonely, and it was a long walk into town. He’d met a few of the neighbors, and old Mr. Jansen stopped by to take him into town for supplies once a month or so, but the only friends he’d made in the valley so far were the goats.
The little creatures skipped and danced, tails wagging as they roamed, looking for tasty green shoots for breakfast. Jeremiah stood and warmed himself in the morning sun, the old bell forgotten, then walked back inside to write.
He wrote until late in the evening, stopping only twice. Once to stoke the fire, and once to eat a bowl of cold boiled potatoes from the old man’s ancient refrigerator. His supplies were running low, but Jeremiah didn’t get very hungry when he was writing.
He heard the soft sounds of the little herd through the open window. The night breeze was cool on his neck, and fragrant of grass and dirt. The mountains were just visible, far in the distance, a jagged silhouette against a sky full of stars. More stars than Jeremiah ever saw back home, in the city. He stood in front of the small window, bare feet gripping the smooth wooden planks of his grandfather’s cottage, then shivered and shut the window.
He blew out the candles and curled up in the sagging old bed in the corner, turning on his side with a pillow between his knees. He’d begun sleeping the way he slept as a child, when his mother would bring him out here to spend time with her father and his goats.
His mother was gone now, gone for years, but the old man refused to budge. Until this year. Until now. Jeremiah lay awake in his grandfather’s bed, breathing in the unfamiliar scent of the old man, and sleep was a long time coming.
Hours later, when sleep finally took him, and the real night lay outside, over the little goat farm, something stirred and crept around the pen. It sang, a haunting tune, an old song with no entrance into the cottage.
Jeremiah slept later than usual the following morning, and didn’t rise until the sun came in through the window and fell across his face. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, rubbing the ache out of his back.
There wasn’t much to eat, and he’d have to make a trip into town to stock up.
He puttered around the cottage, called the hospital to check on his grandfather, and then called Mr. Jansen to arrange an early ride into town. The phone rang and rang, clucking in his ear, with no one to pick it up on the other end. Jeremiah replaced the receiver, then went out to graze the goats.
The herd moved in a circle, following each other around and around the inside of the pen. Like a little parade, not the usual general chaotic movements he was used to. Something white and red was tangled in the bushes past the far end of the goat pen.
The metal pail in his hand fell to the ground when Jeremiah moved close enough to see what it was. A goat skin, hanging in strips and tatters, crawling with interested flies. It was tangled in the lower branches of the bush, as if it had been shoved down to keep it out of sight. The goats pushed eachother, and kept moving in their circular parade.
There were no signs of a predator. No tracks around the bushes, or coming from the distant mountain, or around the pen itself. His grandfather’s little herd was only 11 goats, mostly does, and a few castrated bucks. Jeremiah stood in the mud outside of the pen and counted the goats. None were missing. The two white goats in the herd were moving with the others, circling the pen, ears twitching, and nibbling at their brothers and sisters.
The goats moved past him as usual when he opened the pen. Buttermilk jumped and butted against his leg, and he bent down to pat her gently on the head. His eyes never left that bloody skin, carefully draped across the currant bushes, the face watching him with empty eyes.
Jeremiah retrieved the metal pail, and went back inside to find something to clean up the bloody mess. His grandfather’s herd moved down the gentle slope of the little valley they lived in, nibbling on grass and calling softly to each other.
The song returned that night, as Jeremiah drifted, nearly asleep in his grandfather’s bed. It seemed there was more than one singer, a second voice joining in with the first, a two piece harmony that reminded him of being a child. Of being alone and scared at night, worried about something lurking in his closet. Jeremiah curled up in the narrow bed, pulling the pillow over his ears, trying not to hear that nameless, half-remembered song. His eyes drifted to the front door, to the heavy wooden bar he’d secured before going to bed. A precaution. A useful tool for keeping the door shut during heavy winter storms.
Through the pillow, he heard the rise and fall of the mournful tune, as the singers came toward the cottage. The porch groaned beneath the weight of unseen visitors. The little window in the kitchen rattled in the breeze. Metal scraped against metal, as the latch raised the tiniest bit.
The song came to a crescendo, two voices singing and pleading, the latch jumping in its socket, as something pressed against the rough wooden door. Jeremiah sat up in bed, his eyes falling on the old shotgun hanging on the shelf, and then the singing stopped. The latch fell back into place with a click.
Jeremiah crossed to the little kitchen and closed the window. He didn’t dare look outside.
The phone line wasn’t quite dead when Jeremiah picked up the old phone to call about his grandfather the next morning. An angry hissing and snarling sound greeted him when he held the receiver to his ear, interspersed with a metallic scraping. Like the sound of the latch jumping and dancing in the door.
His cell phone was no use. Had been no use since he came to the mountain. Mr. Jansen wouldn’t be back for another two weeks, at the earliest. The walk into town took more than a day, and the mountain path was dangerous at night.
There were two more skins tangled in the bushes outside of the goat pen, black and white fur already covered with flies. The new skins weren’t even summarily hidden, as the first had been. They were placed carefully, facing the cabin, bloody eye sockets watching Jeremiah as he approached the pen.
The goats grew agitated as he came closer, eager to be let out, to romp and play in the meadow.
“Buttermilk,” he called, but his favorite little goat didn’t show. He couldn’t tell which of the goats was Buttermilk, now that they were all tramping around inside the pen. She’d always come when he called and sang before.
He shut the door behind him, blocking out the soft sounds of his grandfather’s goats. The shotgun was old, nearly an antique, but his grandfather had plenty of ammunition. Jeremiah remembered the old man being an avid hunter, in his younger days.
He took it down off the shelf, and loaded it.
Jeremiah sat in his writing chair and cradled his grandfather’s shotgun to his chest. He’d never been comfortable around firearms, but the smooth metal and wood felt comforting. A reminder that he wasn’t entirely alone up on the mountain. He rocked back and forth, and his eyes jumped from the window in the kitchen to the front door. He’d latched the window that afternoon, but the heavy wooden bar leaned against the wall next to the door.
“It may not even come back,” he said, and the sound of his own voice startled him. It was rough with disuse, a dried up whisper that he didn’t recognize.
But he didn’t believe that. Not really. Jeremiah’s hand tightened around the stock of the gun as the breeze outside picked up, and he heard the first, distant notes of that now familiar song. An old language, maybe Greek. Maybe something older than Greek.
He stood and opened the door, lantern held high in his left hand, shotgun clutched in his right. The choir sang in joyous welcome as Jeremiah swept the lantern from left to right, illuminating the pen. The little herd of goats cast strange shadows as they pushed against each other, circling the inside of the pen, stamping and bleating.
The singing came from inside the pen. The harmony swelled and grew as Jeremiah stood on the porch, watching the goats circling the pen. He put the lantern down, then walked forward. He nestled the gun against his shoulder, the way his grandfather had shown him a lifetime ago.
The goats slowed as he approached, then stopped. The entire herd stood in the pen, faces turned toward Jeremiah. His shadow stretched before him, falling in the center of the pen.
One of the goats stood on its hind legs. Its body stretched and groaned, as its horns lengthened and curled down its back, slick with fresh blood. The thing opened its terrible mouth and sang.
The gun slipped from Jeremiah’s hands, as another goat stood, then another, and another. The choir sang and considered the man standing on their mountain, gazing at him with hungry, black eyes.