Among the many stereotypes and assumptions about rural Southerners, one tries to perpetuate the myth that all of them are naturally capable in agriculture pursuits: managing plants, fixing things, tending animals. In this brief essay, Claude Clayton Smith describes one rural Southerner whose bright idea to incorporate an undomesticated farm animal into his family’s (and neighbors’) domesticated lives shows us that those myths are not universally true.
The Gallaghers’ Goat
by Claude Clayton Smith
Rich Gallagher, our southwest Virginia country neighbor in the late 1970s, was an artist, a serious oil painter who was always winning awards. He taught art at a local high school.
“All I want to do is paint,” he once told me. His wife Anne believed in his considerable talent, which she seemed to encourage by refusing to get pregnant. She was an affable blonde, nearly as tall as Rich.
Given his teaching schedule, Rich, like me, had the summers off. Not so with Anne, who worked somewhere in town. And yet we rarely saw Rich out in the yard. He was always in his studio, one of the back bedrooms that caught the best light. Rich was so obsessed with painting that he wasn’t much of a man-about-the-house, leaving the indoor tasks to Anne and the outdoor tasks — such as cutting their acre of grass — to themselves.
Which is why he bought a goat, a frisky goat with two horns that swept back from the top of its head like small bananas. It was the kind of goat you see in children’s books, right down to the hair on its chinny-chin-chin.
“How d’ ya like my new lawn mower?” Rich said, as we met at the mailbox one morning. He had tethered his goat with a length of clothesline to the kind of stake used for playing horseshoes, giving it the freedom to graze across the entire front yard. He figured he’d change the location of that stake every few days, keeping the grass trim all around his property. Which would leave him ample time for his painting.
The goat, at first, didn’t cooperate. Being a rather young goat, it jumped around a lot, kicking its heels. But eventually it got the message and set to work. It wasn’t long, however, before the kids on the ridge—a ragamuffin bunch of rascals and munchkins—discovered the goat and flocked to the Gallaghers’ yard to taunt it. But that didn’t last long. Because when Michael Moran, the oldest and toughest of the kids, dared to come close, the Gallaghers’ goat lowered its head as if to butt him, and all the kids fled, with Michael leading the way,
That’s what we called it — the Gallaghers’ goat — because Rich and Anne never gave it a name. They never got a chance to, because they didn’t keep it very long. Because it soon learned how to escape its tether.
“Daddy!” our four-year-old son called to me one afternoon. “There’s an animule in our yard!”
Racing out front, I found the Gallaghers’ goat grazing under the shade of our large tulip poplar, which it seemed to prefer to its own sunny front yard. Its clothesline tether was strung out behind it, and it kept one eye on me as I approached. Then it began to dance about, kicking its heels, occasionally lowering its head as if to butt me. So I retreated to the house, telephoned Rich, and he abandoned his painting long enough to secure his goat.
The Gallaghers’ goat got loose again the following day when Rich and Anne were out of town, coming over to graze beneath our tulip poplar. But I was able to catch it by the clothesline, drag it across the cul-de-sac, and retie it to the horseshoe stake. Soon after, however, it came right back to continue grazing, this time without its rope, having somehow learned to get the slip noose over its head. A few days later, Rich put a dog collar around its neck, but that was no problem, either. The goat simply chewed its way through the clothesline tether. So Rich yanked out the stake and gave up.
I don’t know what he did with that goat.
I never asked.
Claude Clayton Smith, Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio Northern University, is the author of eight books and co-editor/translator of three others. His own work has been translated into five languages, including Russian and Chinese. For further information, visit his website.
*You can also read Claude Clayton Smith’s “Rat Cheer” in Nobody’s Home.