Long before I had a chance to become acquainted with animals other than cats and dogs, I fell in love with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story of “Zlateh the Goat” (Zlateh Goat & Other Stories). In the story the beloved goat no longer gives milk. With Hanukkah approaching and money tight, Reuven decides to sacrifice her. He sends his oldest son, Aaron, to sell Zlateh to the butcher.
The goat and her human companion are caught in a blizzard and quickly lose their way. They stumble across a hay stack. Aaron digs out a makeshift cave, and he and Zlateh snuggle together inside it for the next three days. Thanks to Zlateh’s warmth and milk, Aaron survives the storm. The grateful family never again speaks of selling Zlateh.
The story is full of love and warmth. When I was a school librarian, I frequently recommended it to children and their teachers.
Years later I had goats of my own, the angoras whose hair is spun into mohair. They were friendly and loving. When I was with them, I always thought of Zlateh.
Today I came across the story of Noel Osborne, an Australian farmer whose goat helped keep him alive. In October 2002 a cow butted him into a manure pile where he lay helpless, his hip broken. The fickle weather of a southern hemisphere late spring brought rain storms, hot days, and cold nights.
The goat discovered him the first evening. He had found a bottle and was able to milk her into it. Though she wandered off to feed during the day, she returned to his side every night, snuggling against him for warmth and feeding him her milk. Osborne’s dog,Mandy, brought him bones and comfort, but it was the goat’s milk that brought him through.
Five days later friends stopped by the remote farm to pick up a kid goat. They found Osborne, still in the manure pile, and called an ambulance.
Maybe Oscar Wilde was right: “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”
As a storyteller, I’m fascinated by the way stories travel. For centuries they have followed human migrations, shifting with the landscape and the evolution of cultures.
At a storytelling festival, I told one of my favorite selchie stories. The selchies drop their skins on land and appear in human form. One night a young man captures a selchie and hides her skin. She adjusts to life on land, bears children, learns wifely skills. But she never forgets the sea. When she finds her skin, she pulls it on and dives back into her natural element.
When I finished the story, an indigenous teller approached me to share one of her own. In her version, the sea/land woman is an orca. I was thrilled when she recorded the story for me. It’s a gift I still carry with me, every time I move.
The motif of the animal bride has variants all over the world. So does its gender opposite, in which the husband is the shape shifter.
The stories travel and shift for a reason. They carry with them the deep expressions of human longing, of our uncertainties and fears.
Lapham’s Quarterly has a remarkable map that traces four story journeys: “Telling Tales: The evolutions of four stories”. Hasaim Hussein follows Pygmalion (“A man falls in love with his female creation” from 250 BC in a lost text by Philostephanus to 1999 in Los Angeles, in a film by Robert Iscove, She’s All That.
Another story on the map is Leviathan (“A mythical sea monster terrorizes the deep”). Hussein finds its beginnings in the Baal Cycle in 1350 BC and follows its metamorphosis to the popular movie Jaws.
Willa Cather, in her 1913 novel, O Pioneers!, wrote, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
We go on repeating them because only when we experience or witness them do we really understand their lessons. And their lessons are universal.