In ages past, the roads of stars and the fates of many were decided by the goats of old. Though most were not the brightest of creatures, or the most powerful, they could eat anything and this gave them charge over the cosmos. Wise men once said that empires fell when a goat of old chose to eat emperors’ fortunes, and emperors’ heirs. We see the solar eclipse only because once upon a time there were nine suns in the sky, until a goat of old ate eight of them. The surviving sun then showed only its dark side whenever that great goat wandered close to the world. Even time itself was once devoured by goats of old who cleared away the past so that the present and future might come to be.
Yet while goats of old were long-lived, they were not immortal, and over the ages less and less of them were born. Some say they lost their sense of purpose as rival forces of the universe took over their duties, while others say these goats of old, eaters of anything and everything and all, began to eat each other, dwindling their numbers so that males and females never seemed to meet. Still some say that the giant ones shrank, the tiny ones grew, and all the goats of old lost their minds, becoming the vacant-eyed creatures we know of as ordinary goats.
Few remained by the time one goat of old, having just finished devouring a forest after three centuries, realized he hadn’t seen another of his kin since his mother ran him off a thousand years ago. “We are dying,” he said to himself. “What a foolish thing to do.”
The goat of old resolved then and there to never die. Perhaps if he met another of his kind, they could sire more, and the goats of old would move the world, the stars, and time as they did before. “But how will I do it?” He had seen cities rise and fall, powers grow and die, and knew that magic existed which would keep him alive forever. Since he didn’t know which would help him, he decided he would devour anything magical that crossed his path and eventually he would digest enough magic, or the right kind, to become immortal.
A hundred years passed as the goat of old wandered the desert and the arid land quickly populated with people, animals, and magical creatures. One day, the goat discovered a brush fire where no lightning had struck and no man had been near to set it. “This strange incident mustn’t spread elsewhere,” he said, for though he craved eternal life, he still remembered his duties.
Unlike most fire, which is quiet when being eaten, this flame screamed. “Don’t eat me!” cried an efreet, hiding within the brush. “Let me go and I promise to serve you!”
This may have swayed a man, but the efreet was being eaten by a goat who would finish his task, and he soon dropped down the goat’s throat. “That is some small taste of magic,” the goat of old said to himself. “I must taste more.”
Many villages and a few great cities had emerged in the desert over the years and the goat of old found himself wandering into the great marketplace of one of these. His simple ears heard people say many things, first and foremost that you could find anything in the market, and he deduced that he could find his immortality here. He began to search barrels, crates, and storerooms, but all he found were spices, cloth, and sometimes people.
Then he began to search the market stalls, full of nets, jewelry boxes, and bottles, growing hungrier and thirstier by the minute, until at last he couldn’t help himself and grabbed the spout of a bottle in his teeth. As he made to drink, he heard a voice from within.
“Don’t swallow!” shouted a bottle imp. “Let me go and I promise to serve you!”
As with the efreet, this may have swayed a man, but the imp was being eaten by a goat who would finish his task, and he soon dropped down the goat’s throat. “Another taste of magic,” the goat said. “How many of these bottles and containers hold such treats?”
The goat of old grabbed another bottle, and then another. He drank from glasses, flasks, and lamps, devouring milk and oil, water and wine, until his head felt heavy and perhaps a little drunk. He hardly heard the voice when his teeth grasped the end of a brass lamp and turned it upward.
“Go on and drink,” a djinni commanded from within. “Take me from this prison and I’ll grant you three wishes.”
The goat did as asked, which he would’ve likely done anyway, and the djinni dropped down the goat’s throat, leaving the lamp.
“Hey, whose goat is this?” a merchant shouted. “Whoever is its master, get it away from my wares!” The man went on calling for someone to handle the goat and soon a young boy appeared to throw a harness around the goat’s neck. He had just led a goat to market for selling and decided that a free, unclaimed one would make his father happy. They would have another to sell once he was fat, or one to eat if needed. The goat of old’s head still felt too heavy to fight the boy, so he drunkenly followed the child all the way to a small farm outside the city.
The boy handed his father the coins for one goat, explained the discovery of the other, and put the goat of old in a pen with many other goats. The goat of old’s vacant eyes widened at seeing so many hairy, horned, hoofed creatures. “Have I died?” he asked the others. “Is this a place where our spirits rest? Cousins, brothers, sisters, speak to me. Do not be so silent.”
A few goats bleated and the goat of old’s spirit sank and rose at once. He was disappointed at having found normal, mindless goats, but he was also relieved to be alive. He remained in the pen for a while, eating what food was given, perhaps pretending on some nights that these goats were his fellows, but the only voices he heard were those of the boy and his father.
One day, he heard the father say, “That goat you found wandering hasn’t gained a pound in the weeks since you found him. He’s not even fat enough to sell. Tonight, you’ll kill him, skin him, and boil him into stew for the family supper.”
The goat of old didn’t know what to make of this. How could they expect him to grow fat on hay and oats when goats of old were destined to devour whole civilizations? Fortunately, another voice knew what was to come.
“Goat,” said the djinni’s voice from within the goat’s belly. “I thought I would be free when you drank me and that I could burst from your body. Instead we seem to have become a single vessel. I don’t understand what you are, but I do believe we’ll both die when that boy removes your head. I can grant three wishes so long as I’m contained. Make them and save us.”
The goat knew immediately what to ask for. “I wish to live, always.”
“It is done. What might be your second wish?”
Before the goat of old could even think of what else he might like, the boy appeared with an axe and lopped off the goat’s head. He seemed to believe that was the end of the goat’s life, but then the goat’s mouth moved. “Boy, end your evil deed and you can have one of my last two wishes.” The boy ran to his father, telling him of the goat’s offer, but all he received was a smack in the face and a command to finish his task.
“Make your second wish, before the boy returns,” the djinni said from the goat’s belly.
“I wish to feel no pain,” said the goat of old’s head.
“It is done. What might be your third wish?”
The boy returned to the goat then, dragged the body out of the pen, and cut the goat’s skin away, readying him for boiling.
“Boy, it’s not too late,” said the skinless goat, his head tossed into a barrel. “End your evil deed and you can have my remaining wish.” The boy ran to his father, telling him of the goat’s offer, but all he received was another smack in the face and a command to finish his task.
“Make your final wish, before the boy returns,” the djinni said. “I suggest you set me free so I can stop them entirely.”
Understanding that he was in an unenviable position, the goat of old spoke one final wish to the djinni. “I wish to be one with whatever eats me.” The boy returned, stripped the meat from the goat’s bones, and dropped it in a pot to be boiled into stew.
The boy tasted the stew a few times as his mother prepared it, and tasted several more mouthfuls of it when he and the rest of the family sat down for supper. Soon his belly was warm, and full of goat stew, and he went to bed pleased despite the blows he’d received earlier.
That night, when the goat of old opened his eyes, he found he had boy hands, boy feet, and boy everything else. His horns were gone, as was the hair of his chin, but he was alive and that was enough for now. He climbed out of the boy’s bed and into the boy’s clothes.
The boy’s father awoke then and the goat of old saw through his eyes as well. Then came the brother, the sister, and the mother, and the goat had their hands, their feet, and the rest of their bodies. “Now I’ll eat other things,” the goat of old said, and his voice emerged from five mouths at once. The family dressed and left their home, never to return. “I’ll eat magic that will make these bodies live forever. Wherever I dwell, I remain a goat of old and I can eat anything.”
So he did. After wandering the desert for a while more, the family stumbled upon a cockatrice, a creature that was half-rooster, half-serpent, with venom that could turn any living thing to stone. It ceased to live and fell down the family’s throats. They traveled north next, into lands of forests and castles, and found a pale man who drank the blood of other mortals to remain alive forever. He didn’t survive that long.
“We—I must convince one of these creatures to eat us—me,” the goat of old said from the family’s mouths. “These bodies cannot use the magic they devour. If we—I don’t find a way to make them eternal, they’ll crumble to dust and I’ll have wasted the djinni’s wishes.”
Soon the goat found a village where smoke and fire poured from its rooftops. While others screamed and ran away from the little hamlet, the family possessed by the goat of old strode deeper inside. “Would this be another efreet, who could lead to an imp, who could lead to a new djinni?” he wondered aloud. “Could this be the phoenix, who rises and falls, and is reborn eternally, who could teach me his ways once he’s in my belly?”
The goat’s human-shaped appendages never put another creature in their bellies. A dragon snapped the family up in one bite, dropping the people of the goat down its throat. Other families followed, but only the one possessed by the goat of old awoke the next morning and saw the world through a dragon’s eyes.
“These flying beasts are long-lived,” the goat-dragon said to himself. “I have the chance now to eat more magic and find the kind that will help me live forever—and return to my goatish form.”
His search wasn’t as simple as that. Though creatures seemed to appear willingly for a goat and hungrily for a family of mortals, they hid from a dragon. Some were fortunately too large to hide properly. An ogre thought he could change his form to a dragon’s and trick the goat, but like others, he soon dropped down the dragon’s throat. A troll thought he could hide beneath a bridge, but the scaly monster reassured him, “I am merely a goat of old, wearing a new skin.”
“A goat?” the troll asked. “I’ve no reason to fear a goat.”
“Of course you don’t.”
The troll emerged, proud, fearless, and edible for a dragon. Creatures such as these filled the goat-dragon’s belly with meat and magic, but immortality for his new body eluded him, as did the magic to return to his old form. He ate people, pixies, and nixies. He ate mermaids, mermen, and houses with the legs of hens. “I might live another thousand years as this creature, but I remain ignorant as a goat ever was,” he lamented. “I won’t live forever, and I certainly won’t sire any kids of old.”
A flash of light in the sky caught his attention. At first he thought it might be the flame of another dragon, one that could eat him eventually and give him many more years to live and discover a way to return to his goatish form. As he flew closer, he realized the flame held the shape of a bird.
“I know you,” the goat of old said. “You’re a phoenix, a bird that lives forever.” His dragon mouth opened wide, but the phoenix wouldn’t hide in vain like the last several creatures the goat had eaten. It first descended, forcing the dragon’s belly to skid along the ground when giving chase. It flew fast, and the only way the goat-dragon could approach was to wait for the firebird to circle the world.
Finally, it flew up toward the sun, and the goat-dragon wouldn’t be outdone, ascending faster and faster. The phoenix was quick and determined, but the dragon was really a goat of old, and they do not stop eating. He ate the heat left in the phoenix’s wake, the air that thinned as the two flew higher, and the clouds the phoenix passed through, growing stronger and lighter by the minute. When they at last reached the sun, the phoenix could fly no more and the ball of flame fell down the dragon’s throat.
“Now I’ll learn your secrets of death and rebirth,” the goat of old said, hovering near the sun. “And then—I do not know what I’ll do. I am only a goat.” The phoenix’s fire ran through his scales, setting him aglow with orange light, but it gave him no satisfaction. Looking down at the world, he wondered if there were any others of his kind remaining. “If none live down there, and the last has become a dragon, then the goats of old are no more. In my lust for immortality, I have doomed my kin.”
The usually unsympathetic sun turned away at that moment, showing its dark, empty side to the world and the goat-dragon, leaving all things black except for his glowing body. It eased his mind to believe that the cosmos could give his kin a moment of darkness and quiet, as if mourning the creatures that used to control the universe entire.
Then a deeper darkness blanketed the goat-dragon, his fiery scales extinguished, and he dropped down the throat of a great goat of old, a giant one who once upon a time ate the sun’s siblings, forcing the sun to hide whenever he came near. He looked to the world for a moment, remembering when he’d bit a chunk of it away and spit out the moon, remembering the swallowed suns, and remembering his smaller kin that once roamed the land.
His memories dissolved by the time he left the sun and the world, and in their place dwelled the memories of the smaller, more ambitious goat of old. “My lucky wish has returned me to goat flesh at last,” he shouted, and his voice rocked the stars. “Perhaps there are other great goats of old, soaring among distant worlds and lingering in the black places between the stars. I will find them, mate with them, and we will make many more goats of old to soon populate the world again. Then we’ll take hold of our destiny once more. All of existence will recall that their fortunes were once governed by our mouths and appetites.”
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
With a new body and renewed ambition, the now great goat of old began his trot toward the distant stars. He believed that somewhere, someday, the goats of old would rule once again. Perhaps their dining has begun to alter the universe already and the mortals are merely too small to comprehend the significance of goats.