by Ace Cornelius

I was puzzled, even before Raiken spoke. The sea was brighter than the cliffs behind. It was no longer early in the morning. Late enough and hot enough on a spring morning: to no longer be sleeping, or if sleeping to feel guilty and uncomfortable about it. Sticky even.

“The goats are going to fly today,” said Raiken. He smiled that smile that made me recognise him. I wondered if he recognised me. I felt like I was in a dream. Maybe he did recognise me. He could have said, “Hello Matt, how is it going? Long time no see.” He could have said many other things but I am sure that he did not. He just cut to the chase.

However, it must be emphasised, I never greeted him, I was thrown by his statement. It was as if it was a statement that was well used, the manner of it being well rehearsed.

So here I am in early middle age, but it is early enough in the morning to think of the beginning of things, to look forward in hope refreshed, but also starting to feel the heat of activity to come.

I suppose the fact that Raiken was there was vaguely calming. How he got there I never found out. I was not even sure how or why I was there, but I am sure it was real. Raiken seemed real enough, even though he was maybe twelve when I saw him last – a black haired boy in a class of blonde or light brown-haired fellows. Well, so it was then, the shock of black hair and the smile. But he still smiled the same way, smiling at everything.

He looked away at the cliff. The radiation from the cliffs was starting to warm the back of my neck, so I turned to them, and looked for the way I came down, an instinctive look to find the path down, to escape if necessary. There was no danger here, but I felt a significant threat, maybe some creature might lurch out of the sea. I took a step back.

“These cliffs are almost high enough to be impressive,” Raiken spoke without smiling, and this was ominous. “I do like that point. I feel that something could gather speed on the flat table top.” This statement seemed to cancel out his earlier concern, and he smiled again, that broad smile. Then he grew serious again. “The goats could gallop there.” He turned again and smiled. It was the smile that had endeared him to his fellow boys and teachers all those years ago. The shock of black hair was gone. Mostly grey, not much of it left. But the smile was still there and it still seemed to work.

“Look now,” he said his smile widening to wonderment.

A goat charged over the edge of the cliff and began to fall casually, its feet splayed out as if to land, but also with the demeanour of an animal being dragged and not wanting to follow. Other goats followed. White, shaggy goats dropping through the air, to certain death at he base of the cliff. I did not want to see the impact, the tumbling in the dust, the blood and broken limbs, and I turned away. I missed the transition, but I looked at Raiken who was looking up, smiling marvellously, and I looked up and the air was filled with circling goats, wings like bats, white leathery wings, that pulled with powerful strokes pulling them into the air. They reached a height and then floated like storks. I was highly excited by this and looked to Raiken for some sort of explanation. But he scowled and looked at me earnestly.

“It’s the conservationists you know” his voice was low, conspiratorial. Then he gestured up at the top of the cliff.

I could see a group dressed in khaki. There was a kind of leader, and he was older, more thickset.He was looking through binoculars. A younger one was holding a rifle in the shoulder firing position.

I was horrified. Raiken muttered to himself. Other than the two I mentioned, there were two women, shorter, their figures accentuated by the thick belt these outdoor types wore. There was another young man as well. One of the girls gestured towards Raiken and myself, and the likely shooter dropped his rifle. The older leader-type raised his binoculars and looked at us, as if to intimidate us, somehow we were in the way of these conservationists. He said something to the group with him and they turned and walked away out of sight. No doubt they jumped in Land Rovers and bumped back to some thatch building to further plot the destruction of these wonderful goats.

The goats had gained height, and I admit to shoot down a flying creature with a rifle would have been difficult. The departure of the conservationists seemed to precipitate some kind of joy in the goats. They wheeled and buzzed each other. They flew about, playing in the sky.

“The goats seem to be safe for now,” said Raiken, but his ever-present smile turned to puzzlement and he walked over towards a path that lead up to the plateau. Like the conservationists, he seemed to have no great explanation for the goats.

I did not seem to have anything to do, so I sat a bit and watched the goats. They were still playing a kind of game in the air, but then one of the goats, a medium sized one, maybe a female, seemed to lose her composure, and the wings trailed uselessly as she began to fall. As she fell further she seemed to become wrapped up in the leather of the wings till she looked like a falling sack, soon to splash down.

I could hear bleating, and it seemed certain the stricken goat would hit the ocean. Billy, the leader, was racing to her aid, his wings furled in a frantic seabird dive, and even at the distance I could hear him bleating loudly. He reached his she goat, and although it seemed way too late she pulled out her wings and gained strength in the wind. A few feet from the ocean, she regained control and the two sped up to safety in formation.

I looked to the cliff to share this vital moment with Raiken, but he was gone.

The two goats landed on the tabletop above the point. The rest of the goats then all headed for the cliff and as they landed they galloped away, leaving a little cloud of dust above the hill.

The whole episode seemed to take place in total silence. Now the slap of a wave on the rock brought me back to the present, the goats and their dust seemed just a dream. And Raiken. Why him, after all these years?

Matt and his girl friend arrived at the gates of the new West Coast Flower Park. It was spring, and the region leading up to where the desert began was ablaze with flowers. He had come with Jasmine, a friend, to admire this wonderful natural spectacle. He was driving her new Jeep. It was a trip designed to try out the new Jeep and to take in some flowers, this fantastic spring display.

The gate guard directed him to a hut where he could get his pass and the key to their overnight accommodation.

Matt was in the reception, where he was asked to fill out a book with all his particulars. He was a little irked. He recognised the woman at the reception to be from the West Coast area, a coloured woman who was of Khoisan ancestry. He was about to say something about the fact that he had gone to great lengths to book on the internet, and that he had paid already. As the woman seemed friendly, Matt looked to her nameplate, which read, “Jane Ayre”.

“Tell me, Jane,” he paused a moment, then continued,” tell me, Jane Ayre…”

“Yes, that’s me, Jane Ayre, “ the woman said proudly. There seemed absolutely no significance to her name. Matt was about to allude to it, but then he stopped, feeling foolish.

“Jane, I went to great lengths to book on the internet, to make sure that I got a reservation for a bungalow. Now you make me fill out all this stuff again?” Matt questioned her with a little indignation.

She smiled at him. Then she looked at the form he had filled out. He felt her pause the same way he had when he looked at the breastplate. “Mr. Riley, I am afraid that our computers are down. We have no way of knowing what the central office has done, but we have lots of bungalows available. Nobody ever comes here.” She smiled to assure Matt that his booking was safe.

“Well I am glad you can accommodate us, but still it seems foolish to have gone to all the trouble of booking a space on the internet…” Matt paused for a moment. An imposing looking man had come in and was staring at him. He was at first aware of the width of his nameplate. And then as he was reading the nameplate the man introduced himself.

“I am Montgomery Patton, the head warden of this park, this new park. It is my job to bring this area under control,” said the burley man.

“Hey Monty,” said Jane, “this man…”

“You must call me Mr. Patton, Miss Ayre.” Mr Patton spoke in an even, controlled, determined tone.

“Yes Mr. Patton,” she blushed and she giggled. Her expression suggested that she was used to far more intimacy, and that this formality was just a front.

“And do not refer to…” Monty picked up the document and looked at it, “merely as ‘this man’, please refer to him as Mr Riley.”

“Mr Patton,” she said correctly, taking a deep breath, “this man: Mr Riley, said he did his booking well in advance on the internet.”

“A good thing too,” Montgomery Patton approved. “We are very busy at this park.”

“Thank you Mr Patton,” said Matt (although Matt was invited to call him Montgomery). Matt took the keys to the bungalow and left, declining help with directions. He felt that this Patton was draining him and he had to get away. He found his bungalow and had a little lunch, and then he and Jasmine went for an evening stroll.

They were quite alone in the park, but it was very neat and well ordered. The next morning Montgomery Patton cornered him and gave him a long lecture about his plans to bring this part of the West Coast back to its former glory, how he would tolerate no alien species. Then he eyed Jasmine’s Jeep and talked at length about the damage done by irresponsible 4×4 types.

But Montgomery Patton eventually softened his mood and suggested they take a drive to the scenic area at the top of the cliffs and said that there was a path down to the sea, but to be careful not to stray off the path, that this was a conservation project that was of great importance, a fragile system where he would tolerate no disturbance.

“It is so beautiful down here,” said Jasmine, hugging Matt. “So wild and undisturbed.”

Matt sat down while Jasmine wandered around the seashore. The sea was brighter than the cliffs behind. Matt looked at the cliffs and felt sure that the imposing game warden was looking down on them, making sure his authority in this area was not being disturbed. He thought of Raiken, and was not sure why. Raiken was just another chap he was at school with, except that he was curious in the way that he always used to smile the whole time.

“Matt, come here” shouted Jasmine. It was the urgency in her voice that broke him out of his dream-like state. “It looks like some kind of antelope died here.”

Matt walked over to where Jasmine was standing. In front of him were the remains of several large antelope-like creatures, skulls, bones. He recognised the horns.

“They are goats, not antelope,” said Matt. “Goats are the enemies of men like Mr. Montgomery Patton.”

“Poor creatures,” said Jasmine, “I wonder how they died.”

“I wonder,” said Matt. He did not tell Jasmine that he could see bullet holes in their skulls. Matt could not be sure, but he thought that he could see bones in the heap that did not belong to goats: bones that belonged to giant birds, or maybe even bats.

Matt looked back to the cliffs. He could see Montgomery Patton Looking down at him sternly. With him was a group of wardens, some of them were women.

I was puzzled, even before the goat spoke. The sea was brighter than the cliffs behind. It was no longer early in the morning. Late enough and hot enough on a spring morning, to no longer be sleeping, or if sleeping to feel guilty and uncomfortable about it. Sticky even.

“I am Billy, said the goat. “And they are my flock.”

“I am Matt,” I answered. “Your flock seem to be having fun.”

“They are indeed, and that is their doom”, said Billy thoughtfully.

“And your secret.” I had said it before I even realised that this was the goats’ problem. Never mind the fact that they did not belong here, that they were aliens in a chunk of land that had been ardently earmarked for strict rehabilitation; it infuriated the conservationists that they could use this recreational ability to fly as a means of escape.

“We do not use flight as a necessity, we use it for pleasure, and this is our curse. In time, our flight will fail us in the time of need.” Billy was trying to shout at me over the noise of the sea, as he climbed the cliff to gain a vantage point.

I shouted back, “You could always give yourselves up to others, find sentimental men, who do not have a strict view of conservation.”

“Sentimental men are weak. I will not rely on the protection of sentimental men,” shouted Billy, and then he launched himself out, he dropped a moment and his wings hugged the air and he flew over me.

“Goodbye, Matt,” he shouted.

“Goodbye, Billy,” I shouted back.

I watched as he spiralled in the air with his flock. I could hear their bleats of joy carried on the wind. Then he gathered them up and as a flock they landed with a crack on the flat land above the cliffs on the other side of the bay and galloped off.

I felt as if the crack woke me from a dream.

Copyright © 2010 by Ace Cornelius
Illustrations © 2010 by Hendrik Gericke
Originally published in Something Wicked Issue 10

Ace Cornelius won the Francis Brett Young Prize for English Essay in 1979 and has been scribbling ever since, mostly without finishing much. He has recently completed the first draft of a novel called “Bad-Surfer”, inspired by the film Bad Santa, but with surfboards.
This will be followed by the “Outlaw Lutz” series, a kind of SA western/Louis L’amour thing.
He works as a 1st Assistant Director on TV commercials, and is known in the SA movie industry as the Angry Whale.
The Day the Goats Flew” is his first published story.

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