River withdrew into the corner of the barn and cautiously watched her mother, Lily. A few months earlier, River’s parents had transformed the old backyard shed into a home where a goat could live. The goat was to replace the dog River had always dreamt of owning but her mother prohibited because of her allergies.
“The benefit of owning a goat over a dog,” her mother had said, “is it will give us milk to drink.”
This confused River. She had always thought milk came from cows. Her face had twisted in an awkward stare and her mother had smiled. “All mammals give milk after they have babies,” she’d said.
Her mother had nodded. “And it was fit for human consumption.”
She’d winked and went on to explain that in some countries humans also drank the milk of sheep, yak and other animals.
The day Sunshine arrived, River waited for her mother to milk the new goat. She wanted to see if the stories about drinking goat’s milk were true. But her mother didn’t milk Sunshine. That night River gathered the courage to ask why.
“Sunshine’s owner told me she was three months pregnant,” her mother said. “We have to wait two more months until she gives birth. Then we can milk her.”
So River waited, ticking days off the calendar until sixty had passed. Still, the pregnant Sunshine held tight to her baby. When she told her mother the baby was overdue, Lily’s hand stopped in mid-cut of the potato she was peeling. For a long moment she stared at the vegetable as if it would jump from her hands.
“Maybe she’s not pregnant any more?” said River. When her mother didn’t respond, her mind searched for an answer. She was only ten years old but she had good ears and listened to adults when they talked of such things. “Maybe she lost it. Should I look for it?”
Lily released a low whimper and took a deep breath. Her voice sounded strange to River. “I’m sure the goat will be fine. Now do your homework.”
“It’s all done.” She was about to give more reasons as to why the baby hadn’t arrived, but when her mother turned, she saw a familiar tortured expression and tears welling in her eyes. Her mother looked as if she would scream in pain and it scared River. “But I have to read for ten minutes.”
She quietly left the kitchen. Instead of going to her room, River escaped to the barn to watch Sunshine. The goat was happy to see her and stuck its nose through the fence hoping to get a treat.
Three days later, River woke to Sunshine’s shrieks coming in her bedroom window. She sprinted from her room to the back door where she was in time to see her mother enter the barn. River’s heart raced. Someone or something was hurting her goat. She pulled on her boots and rushed after her mother.
When she entered the barn, the sight before her stopped her cold. Sunshine was on her side, wailing and stretching her body across the hay. A large, wet bubble protruded from beneath her tail. River could see a dark object inside. Lily was kneeling next to the goat, rubbing her belly. The worried expression that shadowed her mother’s face the past few days had been replaced with concern.
“The baby’s coming,” said Lily.
River stepped backwards and found the safety of the corner, grasping her hands behind her back. She couldn’t help; she couldn’t touch the fluid bag slowly emerging from Sunshine. With each wail the goat pushed the baby-filled bubble further out of its body. Finally the goat half stood and the baby slipped onto the soft bedding.
“Great job, Sunshine.” Lily patted the goat. She cast a relieved smile at River and beckoned her closer. “Come see the baby.”
The goat kid worked to break free of the membrane prison. Sunshine leant forward and licked the clear goo. River gagged and turned away.
“This is normal,” said Lily. “I read about it in the goat book.”
Normal or not, River didn’t want to witness the scene. She heard her mother giggle and she looked to see the little goat struggling to stand as Lily used a towel to wipe the afterbirth from its wet hair. It made a high-pitched bleat and flopped to its belly. The goat kid tried again and this time managed to stand straight.
“It’s cute,” squealed River. She relaxed her grip on her hands and was tempted to walk closer. Her mother continued to clean the baby with the towel.
“We are now the proud owner of two wonderful goats,” Lily said.
Sunshine wailed and flopped down on the hay. She gently rolled on her side and paddled her hooves in the air.
“Why is she doing that again?” asked River.
“There must be another baby.”
“Two?” River peered closer at the goat’s tail but she didn’t see a bubble.
For several minutes Sunshine moaned and wailed and struggled to release the second baby. River watched her mother. The worry had returned and it appeared that she held her breath, waiting for something horrible to happen.
The second baby emerged slower than the first. Long moments passed before Lily held the baby securely and gently eased it the rest of the way. There was no movement. Lily quickly wiped the sticky goo from its limp body. In a rush she cleaned the face, opened the mouth and nudged the baby, but it still didn’t move.
River heard her mother mumble as she gently shook the newborn. “Please, please…” she whispered. “Come on….” She held the baby in a standing position but there were no signs of life. Clutching the baby in her arms, she rocked back and forth and moaned.
The first-born kid nuzzled up to Sunshine on wobbly legs. It bleated, calling out to anyone who listened. It scrambled beneath its mother and hid behind her.
River wanted to laugh at the goat kid’s antics but her mother’s grief held her frozen in place. The anguish that painted her face now had also coloured her in the past, leaving River to wonder what had happened to create such deep sorrow.
“Mommy,” whispered River, afraid her mother would become angry or collapse and curl up into the hay sobbing as she had done a few years before. Her father had been there to intervene, to tell River everything would be okay and after a few days he was right. But her father was at work today. River could run and get their neighbour, Mrs. Collins, but she was terrified to leave.
“Will it be okay?” It sounded like someone else’s voice talking to her mother.
Lily shook her head and looked up with tears streaking her cheeks. “No,” she mouthed, releasing more tears. She motioned her daughter closer and River reluctantly obeyed. Her mother gripped the dead baby in one arm and embraced River in the other, sobbing on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” A lump formed in River’s throat and it hurt to talk.
“Because… I couldn’t save it.” Lily held tighter.
“Mommy, it’s not your fault. You can’t keep a life that doesn’t want to stay.” She felt her mother’s hold loosen and she leant far enough away to see her mother’s drawn face.
The first little goat weaved in and out of its mother’s legs and nudged the teats, looking for its first taste of milk. Lily watched the baby and half smiled.
“It’s okay, Mommy.” Lily pulled River close and kissed her cheek. They hugged until River’s arms ached. “What do we do with it?” She caught her breath, afraid she would stir up the pain in her mother’s heart.
Lily sniffed back the moisture in her nose. “We must give it a proper burial. We’ll keep it safe, near to its home, so it can be with its momma.”
River and Lily buried the baby goat beneath the great maple in the backyard. They painted a large, flat stone with flowers and wrote the name Sunny on it. Then they picked a bouquet of flowers and placed it near the stone. Lily gripped River’s hand. They stood together and admired the afternoon light on this special spot. A robin flew near, perched on a branch and sang a sweet song.