The School Pet
In the second week of April a goat came to the school. It was escorted in a small blue van, with mesh encasement and tarpaulin cover. It arrived during recess.
The teachers and students stood in a semi-circle on the playground that extended to the school gate.
The van drove in. The children burst into loud applause. The teachers bowed in unison but didn’t clap. Some of them looked uncomfortable.
The van came to a stop just meters from where I stood. The driver cut the ignition and the engine sputtered and then was silent. The children stopped clapping.
The grounds became quiet. The driver came out, bowed abruptly to the teachers, “Ohayo gozaimasu,” ‘Good morning,’ then went around to the back of the van. His assistant, a nervous little man in a dirty gray uniform, fumbled with his door before he finally emerged. He held some type of contraption in his left hand. I couldn’t make out what it was. He bid everyone a hasty greeting and scrambled to join the driver, who was already busy unlatching the mesh cage. He appeared to be apologizing for his tardiness. The driver grunted distractedly and continued with his work. The assistant made busy. He undid the contraption and hooked it to the lip of the van. I saw that it was a kind of ramp.
With the preparations complete, it was time for the goat to emerge.
First, the driver gestured to the animal and made a snappish sound that sounded like a stifled sneeze. The goat responded in kind, with a similar sound, then marched slowly down the ramp. I craned my neck to get a better look. The driver and his assistant were standing ceremoniously to either side of the ramp while the goat made its way forward; they even managed to look contrite.
The goat was big. It was covered in thick, shaggy white wool right down its hooves; and when the wind blew it tousled it. It had big, stout looking horns that curled identically; and this gave it a symmetrical attractiveness: a handsome animal.
It descended the ramp with graceful composure, its eyes half-slits, its thin little mouth set. You could see it had a sense of its self-worth, and this made it vain.
At the bottom of the ramp it came to an easy stop and tramped its feet momentarily, a neat little exercise. It regarded no one; it focused on nothing. It was not fazed by its
new environment: it was not scared.
I could see the teachers quietly bristling at the animal’s unexpected self-assuredness. What a conceited creature! I thought.
The driver made the short snappish sound again and extended his right hand.
The goat walked over to stand by his side. The driver tenderly stroked its head. The goat didn’t respond in any over-zealous way; it was what it expected. It still hadn’t regarded anyone, and I got the feeling it was willfully ignoring us. The driver nodded at the assistant and pointed with his mouth. The assistant started, and made a little dash towards the van. He ascended the ramp and crawled into the dark recesses below the canvass.
When he emerged, still on all fours, a rope hung from his neck. He prepared to descend the ramp. But then the driver abruptly raised a hand, his fingers spread.
The assistant paused, cocked his head and gave the driver a querulous look, like a dog confused by its master’s command: the rope around his neck and his crawling position completed the effect. Then his eyes lit with comprehension and he removed the rope and threw it to the driver. The driver caught it without looking in its direction, a little rehearsed vanity perhaps, and then placed a gentle hand below the goat’s chin and eased the rope over its head and around its neck. It seemed a gesture the animal was used to, it didn’t make a fuss.
It was time for introductions.
The driver walked stiffly from teacher to teacher, tugging the animal along.
Both man and beast maintained forbidding looks. Kocho Sensei, the principal, laughed hoarsely and ruffled the wool on the goat’s head, “Sugoi ne!” ‘Amazing!’
The driver pursed his lips and gave a smart little bow, acknowledging the compliment. “Arigato gozaimasu.” ‘Thank you.’
Next in line was Kyoto Sensei, the vice principal. She clapped and giggled with delight and did a little jig where she stood. The driver seemed offended. She smiled at the goat and cupped its chin in her palm, raising its head. Then she stooped and brought her face level with the animal’s, and pinched its nose. “Eeh!” she exclaimed, “samui desu ne!” ‘It’s cold!’
The driver sighed, averting his eyes. His annoyance was plain. He tugged the animal along impatiently.
Next it was Matsumoto Sensei’s turn. He stood not far from me. He bowed deeply before the goat and said, with mock civility, “Ohayo gozaimasu.
Hajimemashite! ‘Good morning. Nice to meet you!’
The teachers and students laughed. The driver fumed. Matsumoto Sensei leaned forward and gave the animal’s belly a thwack with his splayed fingers. An unusual sound was produced, like that of a full coconut. More laughter. The driver looked ready to commit murder.
By the time it got me the goat looked sullen, so I just waved at it and gave it a frank smile. I didn’t want to worry it any further; and I was afraid of the driver.
Finally, it was the children’s turn.
I could see the driver’s anger giving way to depression. He looked at the eager faces, the energetic bodies brimming with potential abuse, and his shoulders slumped; his head hung.
I felt sorry for him, even sorrier for the goat.
Kyoto Sensei must have noticed his gloom. She approached him briskly and placed a hand on the goat’s neck, “Daijoubu,” ‘It’s o.k,’ she said, smiling. “Kochi desu,” ‘This way.’ She pointed to an enclosure that lay just beyond the sandpit, left of the playground. This was to be the goat’s home; it had been prepared in advance.
The driver looked relieved. He thanked Kyoto Sensei, smiled and bowed jerkily, then escorted the animal over to the area. The children were confused. They realized they had been cheated. Some of them made to follow the driver and goat but Kocho Sensei shouted for them to remain where they were. The younger ones were restless; some of them fussed.
The goat was tethered to a porous stump of wood that lay in cool shade, just within the pen; a small shed was also there. The driver leaned forward and rubbed the animal’s head affectionately, raking his fingers through the thick hair along its jaw line. The goat’s eyes became sleepy. I saw the driver’s lips moving; he was bidding the animal farewell. Kyoto Sensei excused herself to allow them privacy.
When he was through the driver walked back to the semicircle and said his goodbyes. And even as he thanked them and bowed repeatedly his sadness was plain; it appeared to exhaust him, and he seemed eager to leave the premises. When he got into the van he didn’t look back, and it was with a grim face that he reversed the vehicle and drove hastily through the gate. Only the assistant waved back at us.
And while the van was leaving some of the children were already breaking formation, sneaking across the yard towards the pen. Others didn’t bother with the ruse of stealth; they simply ran wildly across the playground.
The teachers shouted at them but it was useless. They had waited long enough; the goat was theirs now, and they were anxious to lay claim to it.
I looked across at the goat: its eyes were the biggest I’d ever seen them, wide with fright, its graceful composure lost. The children descended on it with screams and shrill cries of pure ecstasy. I feared for its survival.
The gym instructor blew his whistle, once, twice, three times. No use. In the end it was only Kocho Sensei’s stern voice over a loudspeaker that finally checked their euphoria and rescued the terrified animal. He instructed them to return to their classrooms and wait until the lunch break to play with the goat.
They left reluctantly. I could see some of them eying the school clock mounted atop the main entrance, checking to see how long before they could resume their assault.
In the pen the goat was lying on its side, its head prostrate on the straw that covered the ground. Its legs were fully extended, and its belly was heaving with long deep breaths; its eyes were unfocused and glassy: it looked like an animal without hope, wholly resigned to despair and dejection.
The gym instructor said to me in English, “This goat will have difficult time with children.”
I nodded, “Yes, it will.”
The lunch break came. The children ate their lunches at incredible speed; some didn’t bother to eat at all. They raced down the steps and headed straight to the shed.
A surprise awaited them.
On witnessing their earlier savagery, Kocho Sensei had decided to take precautionary measures for the animal’s safety. He had the groundskeeper install
a makeshift gate onto the pen, and he installed the groundskeeper just outside this gate, to regulate traffic entering and exiting the area: two at a time, at two-minute intervals.
The children were caught off guard but took the new development in stride. They quietly formed queues. The groundskeeper looked relieved.
So two at a time they entered, quietly at first, with a deceptive show of civility; and as soon as they felt secure within the confines of the pen they fell upon the goat with eager hands. It was all the groundskeeper could do to dart worried looks over his shoulder now and then, to make sure nothing was broken, that the animal remained intact.
They tugged the hair below its chin. They pulled on its horns. They used thumb and index to widen its eyelids, so it wouldn’t fall asleep. The goat received all these indignities with sedate detachment; it didn’t even bleat. The older children settled for feeling its wool. The goat averted its eyes and parted its legs, allowing its belly to be stroked. It seemed a concession it could deny at any minute, so the children made the most of it. “Ooh, kimochi…kimochi,” ‘Nice feeling,’ they said.
There was the matter of assigning a name. Surprisingly, it was unanimously decided that it would be Yagi, the Japanese word for goat. The boys insisted on Yagi-kun, kun indicating male; the girls insisted on Yagi-chan, chan indicating female. A quarrel ensued; someone suggested they check the animal’s sex. A stout boy in tight shorts volunteered.
He went inside the pen and walked over to stand behind the goat, which
was still reclining on its side. He stooped and lifted the tail. The children giggled.
After the inspection he shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, in comic bewilderment. The children grew frenzied; they jumped and shouted and pointed to the animal’s legs, suggesting that he spread them and look there for confirmation, “Asoko! Asoko!” “There! There!” He did. When he still looked confused the groundskeeper intervened and declared that it was a male. The boys celebrated. The girls murmured. So Yagi-kun it was. And for the rest of the afternoon the children used every opportunity to get the goat used to its new name, frequently shouting at it just to make sure. To an outsider, unaware of the situation, this would have resembled verbal abuse; it very nearly was.
By the end of the day the goat was haggard; its poise had disappeared; its handsomeness had been made to look common; its fine thick wool was disheveled and matted with straw, grimy with dirt and debris; and he bore the general taint of a day spent in over-exposure and over-contact. He looked unwell. And he just lay there, silent, eyes watery and unfocused, breathing deeply, looking set to die.
As the month progressed Yagi-kun grew more depressed. And the children weren’t too happy either. At first they had found it a pleasure to feed him, but soon this became a challenge. Yagi-kun was a picky eater, and refused nearly everything offered to him. He didn’t like bag-feed, and he didn’t care for leftover scraps from school lunches; he wasn’t too fond about grass either. This especially came as a surprise. The groundskeeper ventured that he must be sick. Kocho Sensei decided to consult a vet.
It turned out that grass wasn’t a goat’s ideal meal after all. They preferred bush and trees to grass. And they had four stomachs. The vet attributed their special diet to their unusual number of stomachs. None of us was in a position to argue.
So the children were tasked daily with gathering bush, wild flowers and tree bark from the overgrown property just beyond the school’s fence. They almost always came back complaining of itches and scratches. And soon they were feeding the goat in silent malice; the more frustrated ones cursed the animal under their breath.
There was also the cleaning of the goat’s pen. The groundskeeper instructed the enclosure be cleaned twice a week. The straw was to be changed, his pen swept and his water bucket washed and fresh water put in it. No one wanted to remove the straw; it stank of urine and in some cases it was still wet. It was also littered with droppings. Though this stank less it was still a nuisance; Yagi-kun’s bowel movements were constant, and he was eating more food daily, naturally increasing his output.
The children grew restive; some cried openly and promised rebellion. Kocho Sensei didn’t relent. He reminded them that they had passionately demanded a school pet, now that they had one they would have to bear the responsibilities. One came with the other. The matter was closed.
Yagi-kun remained dispassionate to the hostilities around him, silently concentrating on his own suffering, and somehow managing to gain weight on a diet of bramble, bark and bush.
Someone suggested that he needed exercise; he was becoming obese. I think it was Ueda Sensei. Kyoto Sensei said she would assign a teacher each week to supervise the goat’s exercise regimen—to take him for laps around the field, like a personal trainer. The gym instructor volunteered. I saw the relief on the teachers’ So the next day Yagi-kun’s calisthenics began in earnest. The teachers gathered to watch. The children weren’t interested. The gym instructor rolled the goat onto its side and performed a series of flexes with each of its legs. Then he rotated the animal’s head in slow careful circles. After that he prodded its belly with a stethoscope, why we weren’t sure. The goat received this new treatment with customary detachment, a bored look on its face. Next the gym instructor tried to get the animal to jog alongside him around the playground. The goat simply refused to move, no matter how hard he tugged his rope.
The exercise program was abandoned.
Two months went by. Summer came. The heat was extraordinary. Teachers and students alike walked around with tortured faces, fanning frantically and saying, “Atsui, ne?” ‘Hot, isn’t it?’ to each other.
Someone remembered the goat. Yagi-kun was losing weight, and was looking ill. He was also vomiting from time to time. The children were concerned. The teachers tried to comfort them.
Matsumoto Sensei said he knew what the problem was. It was the new season; it didn’t agree with the goat. He was suffering from a high fever and heat stress because of his thick wool: it was trapping the heat onto his body. And if something wasn’t done it could lead to a heat stroke. Everyone agreed it sounded like a reasonable diagnosis. I was surprised no one thought to call the vet. They asked Matsumoto Sensei what the solution was. He said shearing. He volunteered to do it.
There were no objections. And the shearing was to take place as soon as possible. The goat’s life depended on it.
So the next day after school Yagi-kun was placed on a gurney from the nurse’s department and transported to the shade below the biggest tree in the yard.
The area had been prepared in advance. There was a big galvanized basin to collect the wool and a stool for Matsumoto Sensei to sit on.
The teachers and children gathered. Matsumoto Sensei was the last to arrive.
He wore a long white coat and goggles; he also had a shear. I had never seen him so solemn. He was taking the matter very seriously. Someone asked where he had got the shear. Another person asked whether he was sure that goats should be sheared, he’d heard this was only done to sheep. Matsumoto Sensei reassured him; he’d done the research.
The shearing began. The children looked terrified; the younger ones cried softly; some screamed. You’d think the goat was being slaughtered. The teachers tried to console them, reassuring them it was for the animal’s own good. The children weren’t convinced, but they calmed down. We all watched the shearing in tense silence. Yagi-kun remained impassive throughout the whole ordeal, a wounded look on his face, a sad dimness in his eyes. He was a lonely martyr, who was deriving no pleasure from his sacrifice.
After the shearing he was simply ugly, withered and wrinkled. His nakedness was appalling. None of us had realized how much weight he’d actually lost.
As the days progressed the children’s apathy grew. The younger ones stopped playing with the goat altogether; the older ones forgot he existed. They openly refused to feed him; they had to be forced. For most of the time the goat was left in solitude, abandoned to his own idleness.
In the end Kocho Sensei decided to return him to his breeder.
The ceremonial formation was re-enacted on the playground, and the small blue van returned. The driver came alone this time and he appeared in a brighter mood. He cradled the goat in his arms, like a newborn kid, and gently stroked his head. The sleepy eyes returned. The goat nuzzled his palm and bleated weakly. The driver became emotional.
Some of the teachers dabbed tears. The children were unmoved, only eager to get out of the sun. Matsumoto Sensei smiled and bowed repeatedly, “Sumimasen!
…eeh, sumimasen!” ‘I’m sorry!…I’m sorry!’
I wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for, but the driver was too happy to notice. He deposited the goat into the back of the van and waved goodbye. We bid them farewell.
When I went to school the next day I noticed that the shed was removed, the fence taken down and the area swept clean. All signs indicating the goat’s tenancy were gone, destroyed. It was as if he was never there, only an invention of the mind.
The teachers betrayed nothing of what transpired the previous day; there was no mention of Yagi-kun, not in the slightest. It was the same with the children. They talked and laughed and played with renewed zest. The last months’ events were a distant memory.
They had found new passions.
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