The Goat Woman of Largo Bay CHAPTER ONE
At first he thought she was a goat. Staring at the distant spot, Shad decided there was something about goats that had always irritated him. Nobody liked them, even if they were as common to Largo as fishing boats. But they were rude animals—facety,
his grandmother used to call them—invading your yard to eat your young tomatoes and glaring when you tried to shoo them away.
The thought came only a minute after Eric had shouted his name and Shad had placed the glass he’d been wiping on a shelf and hurried around the counter of the bar.
“What happening, boss?” he’d said.
“There’s something on the island!” Eric, his T-shirt and shorts flattened by the sea breeze, was pointing toward the tiny offshore island.
“I don’t see nothing.” Shad had squinted at the lump of rocks and its lone tree. “Probably just a bird, or a shadow.”
“I’m telling you, there’s something out there.”
A tall man with the red-brown skin of a northerner who’d been in the tropics too long, Eric was standing
statue-still, knees bent, a few feet from the edge of the cliff. Every part of him, the outstretched arm holding a pipe, the swirling white hair, the small paunch even, strained toward the island.
Atop the five steps leading down to the grass, Shad had shielded his eyes against the setting sun. Golden-orange, the island looked like a prodigal son sitting a quarter mile offshore. The water that separated it from the cliff was striped turquoise and aqua, long waves rolling toward the shore, forever restless without a protective reef.
“I see it,” Shad said.
“I told you so,” Eric said, and straightened. “What do you think it is?”
“Look like a goat, boss.”
Eric agreed, because Shadrack Myers was known in Largo Bay as a smart-man
, in the best sense of the term. He might be small and wiry, they said, but he was as bright as any Kingston professor and as wily as Anansi, the spider of the folk tales. The reason for this, according to the old ladies, was that he was born with a high forehead and the blackest skin a man could have.
“Who’d put a damn goat out there?” Eric asked.
“It only take one renegade to cause confusion,” Shad said. And the renegade knew that Eric wouldn’t do anything, because a foreign man couldn’t afford to make a fuss in a small Jamaican village.
“Why would they want to do that?” Eric said, and put his hands on his hips.
“Probably to separate it from the herd. Must be sick.”
“Sick? They can’t just take a sick goat out and leave it. Don’t they know the place is mine?” Eric said, and raised his arms to heaven just as Shad turned away.
Few people other than Eric noticed the little island anymore, and Shad tried to see it the way his neighbors did, as nothing more than background wallpaper, like the tall mountains behind the village. Looking at the roofless, paint-stripped walls on the island only left a sweet-and-sour feeling in his stomach.
Behind the counter, Shad cut limes into thin slices and prodded the last of the cherries out of the bottle, wondering how to find the owner of the goat. If he started talking about the animal, someone might row out and steal the goat. But if he and Eric didn’t do something, the owner might take other goats over, and there’d be even more trouble.
Setting a bottle of wine on the counter, he called to Eric.
“Boss, remember to order more red wine. We running low.”
If any customers had been seated in the bar, they would never have known that the slim, midthirties man bustling behind the counter—the shirt neatly tucked into the belted pants—was thinking of anything other than the job at hand. Instead, and as foreigners sipping a beer often did, they would have thought that Shad was the happiest man in Jamaica—and missed the haunted look behind his eyes. They could have been forgiven, because it was easy to assume from his trademark grin, with its gap between the front teeth, that Shad was a man with
few problems and a good ear; in other words, the perfect bartender.
While the bar was prepared for evening business, Eric sat on the top step, his back to Shad. The only response the younger man heard was a grunt, accompanied by a cloud of pipe tobacco, as always Canadian maple, which blew in with the sea breeze, filling the empty restaurant.
When it was finally too dark to see, Eric stood and tapped the dead ashes from his pipe bowl against the step. As he plodded past the bar, it was clear to Shad that the goat’s invasion was hanging over them both. It had brought back regrets that would linger until they took action.
The next morning dawned drizzly and gray, unusual for Largo in midsummer. Visibility was poor and Shad spent most of the morning placing and emptying buckets under the bar’s leaky thatch roof. Near him, Eric, his forehead lined with debt, sat at a wooden table in the bar calculating the cost of a new roof, looking up from his paperwork a few times to ask the name of a workman or a hardware store, glancing at the island while he did it.
“Boss,” Shad finally asked, his voice offhanded, “you going out to the island?”
“Nah, I don’t think so,” Eric said. He looked up and rubbed his knees, the way he did when it rained. “Did you find out who took a goat out? Anyone with a sick goat?”
“Half the goats around here are sick, man,” Shad said, rubbing a hand over his shaved head. Speculation in front of Eric was never a good idea, because next thing, he’d
be driving all over town asking questions and making accusations.
Two days later, pushing in and straightening chairs after lunch, a broom in one hand, Shad glanced up and saw someone rowing toward the island. The bright purple and red canoe was carved from a single log, like most of the older fishing boats. It beached on the eastern side of the island. The rower offloaded a few bags and disappeared. Staring without blinking, feeling behind him to make sure he didn’t miss the chair, Shad sat and watched the person return, again with bags, and row back east around the point.
A goat, a man rowing bags of things to and from the island—they didn’t add up to Shad, and he knew everything that went on in Largo. In a community of five hundred in an isolated corner of Jamaica, a village without a police station or a hospital, someone had to make it their job to sniff out—and snuff out—problems even before they emerged, and Shad was that man.
The bartender’s vocation as sniffer and snuffer had started in early childhood because he was a fierce runner, and since he was also a nice child, his ability to run had earned him many a ten-cents. When the nurse in the clinic was needed, when money had to be paid to the obeah man
, the magician on the hill, it was Shad they called. And every night, when he lay next to his grandmother in her iron bed, she snoring so loudly he could hardly fall asleep, he would think about what errand he’d run that day and what problem he’d helped to solve. And decades later he would do the same, lying beside a sleeping
Beth, thinking about the woman, the woman he’d thought was a goat.
The purple and red boat remained a puzzle to Shad even after a few discreet inquiries. Avoiding the fish market, where they gossiped too much for an investigation this subtle in nature, he questioned a few older fishermen who hung around the bar at night. But for all the complimentary white rums he provided, no one knew of the boat or a separated goat. It was just enough to intrigue a man who had to know.