Once, a goatling named Toto was born to a family of goats. He was exceptionally clever and terribly curious, two traits that are rare in most goats for good reason because they have historically little use for either. He irritated the grown-up goats constantly with his questions about why-this and why-that, so they periodically threatened to send him far away to live with their distant cousins, the fainting goats, who, in addition to having a muscle condition that caused them to freeze and fall over at random intervals, were also mute as hay and therefore unable to engage in conversation, scintillating or otherwise.
One day, Toto noticed that all his aunts and uncles and older cousins were gathered up by the two-legged hairless ones, adorned with red frills and rusted golden bells, and then marched off the marketplace. He waited all day, but they didn’t come back. He’d never seen so many members of his family being herded off at the same time.
“Where did they go?” Toto asked his mother while nuzzling her side.
She twitched her nose as she chewed on a twig. “The Day of Blood.”
“What’s that?” He asked. He had only just learned what blood was last Tuesday, when he tripped and rolled down a hill and nicked his hoof on the edge of a rock.
His mother spat out a bit of the twig and fixed her tiny black eyes on Toto. “Once a year, two-legs have a festival in which they line us all up, slit our throats, and eat us. The whole thing seems to makes them very happy.” She shook her head to brush off the flies sitting on her nose. “There’s a lot of blood,” she concluded.
Toto shrank under his mother’s hind legs. “But why?” he yipped.
His mother said, “Listen, kid. There’s a pecking order. Eat or be eaten. We’re goats. We eat grass. Humans eat us. That’s just the way it is. Now be quiet and go eat something.”
“Why can’t they eat grass like we do?” Toto demanded. “Grass is yummy and nutritious.”
But his mother’s attention was on a piece of cardboard in a trash heap nearby and she was chewing on it with relish. When Toto prodded her with his hoof, she said with finality, “We must be delicious.” Then she nudged him toward a heap of hay because not only was it past his bedtime, but his questions were irritating and made her think about the fainting goat option again.
The little goatling didn’t sleep a wink that night. His mind was crowded with images of the Day of Blood. He didn’t want to be eaten. He certainly didn’t want to be eaten in celebration of anything. What was so special about this festival? He resolved to get some answers from non-goats because he knew his family had nothing useful to tell him.
The next morning while his mother napped, Toto skipped behind their rickety wooden enclosure to see whom he could talk to. The chickens were categorically useless. They stared at him with glazed eyes, pecked at their own feet, and refused to answer a single question he had. Their lack of curiosity and ability to articulate past a one-syllable squawk was almost as disappointing as the other goats and Toto was disgusted. As he walked away, he heard a flurry behind him and a gust of wings. He turned around to see the chickens flail and flap about while an orange tabby chased them in all directions. It was hilarious. His mood lifted and he giggled and pawed the ground in delight.
The cat saw him and narrowed her green eyes in his direction. “What’s so funny?” she hissed.
“You!” the goatling bleated. The cat stuck her tail straight in the air and sauntered over to him.
“It’s against the Code of Feline Regulations (CFR) to laugh at us,” she said haughtily. Toto stopped skipping.
“Why?” he inquired.
“Because it makes us grumpy, which makes us hungry. And then we have to eat you,” she said. Toto turned his little neck sideways to stare at her.
“Yes, but why??” He asked. He skipped backwards, barely missing her paw as she swiped him with her claws out.
“Because that’s just the way it is,” she said.
“I’m sick of hearing that,” Toto huffed. “Why is everything just the way it is? Why doesn’t anyone think to change it?”
The cat rolled her eyes. “Because you taste good and I have no incentive not to eat you, kid.”
Now cats can be quite astute about people when they want to be, which is almost never. But something about the goatling’s tone made her whiskers twitch. Cats will never admit when they’re interested in you because that’s also against the CFR, so she did what any self-respecting cat would do in the situation. She stuck her hind paw up in the air and began licking her bottom. The goatling sat and waited. When the cat was finished she lay back down and said with feigned boredom, “since you’re still here, you might as well tell me what’s really bothering you.”
Toto sidled up a little closer to the cat but not too close because he knew she’d bite him if he did. “Well,” he said, “The Day of Bl…”
“The most delicious day of the year!” the cat exclaimed and rubbed her paws with delighted anticipation, her pretense of boredom forgotten completely. She closed her eyes in bliss and rolled over on her side while purring about tenderloin and rumps and entrails. She was purring so loudly she didn’t hear Toto’s horrified “STOP IT!” until he head-butted her. She sprang up and hissed at him.
“I want to know more about the Day of Blood. Where does it come from? What’s it about? What are two-legs celebrating?”
“Sit down because this will take a while,” the cat ordered while settling down.
“Deities,” she said. “What do you know?” Toto stared at her sideways and said nothing.
She yawned. “Ok. Let’s start with some feline history.” She told Toto about Bastet, the Cat Goddess of ancient Egypt, who defended the pharaoh and was worshipped by two-legs and cats alike. She explained that there were as many deities as there were stars in the night, and some were playful like the wind and some were silent like mountains and some just couldn’t be bothered about anything, including their worshippers. When deities quarreled, the monsoons came and flooded the rivers with their rage, and other times their laughter rattled the sky so hard that star clusters shook free from the night and careened off to who-knows-where.
She told him about a deity that two-legs worshipped, a God who liked to test the strength of his worshippers’ faith. She told him the story of two men, a father and a son. The father was old and had longed for a child his whole life, so God gave him a son. But then, God commanded him in a dream to kill the boy to show his faith. The father’s heart broke, but both he and the boy stood firm in their resolve to obey God. The father reached inside his heart and gathered up all his love for his son, which was as immeasurable as the night sky and as inevitable as the changing tides of the ocean. He tied it up into a knot that he buried deep in the earth where he knew he’d never find it again. Then, he sharpened his knife and placed his son’s head on a rock. But the moment blade was to meet skin, the old man heard a voice tell him that he had fulfilled the dream and proven his faith. When he looked down at his son, he saw instead an enormous white ram as a reward for his obedience. So he slaughtered the ram, and ever since then, two-legs has celebrated the memory of the event each year.
“So what you’re telling me,” Toto said, “is that something happened thousands of years ago…and I have to be eaten because of it?”
“Precisely!” The cat purred, tremendously satisfied with her storytelling abilities. She swished her tail and was about to leave when Toto called out to her.
“That’s not good enough! I’m busy and clever and I plan on doing great things with my life! I refuse to be eaten. Who can I see about this?”
The cat glared at him. “I’ve told you all I know, kid. But you’re talking about changing something that’s happened for hundreds of years. I can’t do that. Go find a camel. Be polite. They guard the doorways to the old world.” With that, she left.
So Toto went about finding a camel. It wasn’t terribly difficult; the city was suddenly full of camels in the weeks leading up to the Day of Blood. He snuck out to a market place close to his home. He slunk his way between vendors and buyers, and came upon a small clearing where an old, sleepy camel sat by a tree with a rope around her neck. She had huge feet and a dark brown hide the color of mud. Two-legs was nowhere in sight. Toto skipped up to her and bowed his head. “Oh wise one,” he said, “I have questions only you can answer. Will you help me?”
Over the years, camels have developed a bad reputation of grunting and swearing and belching loudly, but this is an unfairly one-sided perspective that doesn’t take into account the sheer breadth of vision they possess. Camels have been around since the beginning, when the earth was so quiet you could hear an ant crawl across a pebble. They’ve seen saplings turn to trees, and oceans turn to desert, and deserts turn to cities. They saw the first sunrise and they’ll hear night’s last sigh when the world ends. When you’ve been around that long, you’re entitled to some respect. The old camel looked at Toto through kind eyes.
“What do you want, child?”
Toto told her everything. He told her about how he didn’t fit in with the other goats and was always been chastised for his questions, and about the Day of Blood. He told her about the man and his son thousands of years ago, and about how he didn’t want to be eaten. The more the goatling talked the more agitated he became, gesturing with his hooves until he’d kicked up an enormous cloud of dust. The camel sneezed so loud it knocked Toto off his feet.
She twitched her nose until the tickling went away. “Your mind has travelled far from your family’s,” she observed mildly, “but you still don’t understand the essence of the story the cat told you.”
“What’s an essence?” Toto inquired.
“The core of the story. Its heart,” the camel said.
“SO TELL ME!” Toto yelped, forgetting his manners completely.
The camel stared at him. “It’s about sacrifice,” she said. “Sacrifice is when you give up something you love. The old man loved his son more than anything in the world, and he was ready to kill him for his faith. It’s the memory of that sacrifice that two-legs honour every year.”
It was all fascinating stuff, but Toto was action-oriented by nature, and tired of being lectured by the adults. He went as close to the camel as he dared, looked into her eyes, and announced, “Sacrifice is stupid. And I don’t want to be eaten. Can you help me?”
The camel sighed. The goatling was strange and had a lot to learn, but she couldn’t help appreciate his blunt approach to life. And the truth is, she didn’t much want to be eaten, either. So she replied, “I can open the door but I can’t change the story. Do you understand?”
Toto pawed the ground. He was nervous and determined. “Yes,” he said firmly.
The camel merely nodded, bowed her head, and closed her eyes. She began murmuring something under her breath and pushed together a heap of earth with her huge feet. Her murmuring got louder and then she spat gobs of saliva onto the mud, which she continued shaping with her feet. It was pretty gross but Toto was too scared to interrupt. She brought her big, gentle face close to his and nipped off a tuft of his fur. Toto winced. The camel mixed his fur in with the mud, which was now the shape of a lopsided bowl. In it was a crumpled-up piece of paper the colour of rust with strange markings across it.
“What’s that?” Toto whispered.
“A page in history,” the camel said.
Toto went closer and sniffed the paper. He liked the way it smelled. He took it between his teeth and started chewing on it, enjoying the crunch and rustle in his mouth. Then he began to feel light-headed. He swayed unsteadily on his feet and his hoof kicked the mud bowl. When he tried to set it upright again, his eyes widened. It suddenly seemed to have no bottom and it went on forever, deep into the earth in swirling rings of brown and black. It called to him, pulling him towards it and making him dizzy, and he couldn’t stop staring. He took a step forward to steady himself but suddenly the ground beneath his hooves was liquid and then he was whirling and tumbling headlong into a tunnel like a flake of dust. The hum in his ears turned to a ferocious roar and the world turned to black.
When Toto woke up, the air was hot and still, and the sun looked closer than he’d ever seen it. It hurt to breathe. He tested his little legs gingerly and stumbled forward towards the faint sound of voices, and took in his new surroundings. He was on a dusty mountain and the rocks underfoot bit into his hooves. Up ahead of him was an enormous moss-covered boulder and in the cramped clearing beyond, he saw an old man and a boy. Hidden behind the boulder, he watched the boy on his knees, and the man who held a knife in one hand and the back of the boy’s neck in the other. The old man’s grip on both was unsteady. Toto crept closer and saw the old man’s face was wet with tears.
Hearing the story from a bored cat and watching it unfold a breath away from him were two different things. When the Cat had recounted the tale about the father and son, Toto was furious that he was being dragged into the whole silly affair as a meal. But here on the mountain with the sun burning his flank, all he could see was the agony on the man’s face and the wandering terror in the boy’s eyes.
The old man lowered his knife towards his son’s neck. The fear in the boy’s eyes climbed up Toto’s throat until he could do nothing but run. He had to stop it. He bolted out from behind the boulder and charged straight at two-legs, bleating as loudly as he could.
The boy stumbled to the ground and the old man’s knife fell away. They breathed heavily, and stared at Toto. The boy was shaking. Toto didn’t know how else to comfort him so he climbed into his lap, stuck his head under the boy’s chin, and nipped at him lightly. The boy put a hesitant hand on Toto’s side and began stroking his back. Toto had never been petted before and he found he quite liked it. Goats don’t purr but in that moment, Toto came pretty close. The old man just stood and stared. When Toto turned around to look at him, he remembered something about the cat’s story.
“Where’s the white ram?” he thought. And then his heart sunk to his hooves and he grew light-headed with realization. His quest for answers had led him here, to the beginning, to the first sacrifice.
He was the white ram.
Everything stilled but the frantic blur in his brain in which he heard his mother’s voice, “we must be delicious,” and the cat’s purring exclamations about the Day of Blood. In panic, he tried to reason with two-legs. “You like sacrifice, yes? You know what’s not a sacrifice? Eating something delicious! You know what is? Not eating something delicious! Wouldn’t it be a bigger sacrifice if you didn’t eat me??” These were admittedly clever arguments but two-legs didn’t speak Toto’s language and the only thing the boy and the old man heard was a terrified goatling bleating at them in desperation.
The old man dragged Toto off the boy. He felt the sharp edge of the knife on his throat and a bright mosaic of fear burst open in his brain. He writhed and screamed at the old man to stop over and over again. He shouted in terror and tried to struggle away but his legs turned to water under him and he stumbled. The old man was too strong and Toto felt the fight leave his body. Exhausted and defeated, he fell to the ground, stomach heaving. He knew there was nothing more he could do to save himself. He’d walked right into this story and it would end with his death, the way it was always meant to. In defeat, he closed his eyes and began to cry. The knife-edge was sharp against his skin and for a moment the world flashed white, the exact shade of his mother’s flank.
And then suddenly with no warning, the pressure of the knife’s edge lifted and Toto could breathe again. He opened his eyes, dizzy and disoriented, and saw the boy’s hand gentle around the old man’s wrist. The boy bent his head to his father’s and spoke words Toto couldn’t understand. The old man looked even more tired than Toto felt, and he was silent a long time. Then, he walked a distance from Toto and sat down and dropped the knife to the ground. He stared in resignation at the goatling. The boy stretched his hand out and Toto stiffened for a moment but the boy’s touch on his neck was gentle and he stroked Toto until his breathing calmed and he wasn’t afraid anymore.
“You like sacrifice, yes? You know what’s not a sacrifice? Eating something delicious! You know what is? Not eating something delicious! Wouldn’t it be a bigger sacrifice if you didn’t eat me??”
Toto went to the old man and pawed at the ground near his feet. He kicked aside the sharp rocks his hooves unearthed, and began digging in earnest. He dug until his white fur was stained brown up to his flank when at last, his hoof felt something hard. He stopped digging and picked up a crumpled old knot between his teeth and placed it in the old man’s hands.
“This doesn’t belong buried in the earth,” he said. He was about to say more but he felt dizzy again. As he took a step forward, he tumbled face-forward into the hole he’d just dug, which seemed to have no end because he kept falling and falling. The world spun around him and once again, everything turned dark.
When Toto woke up, the sun was rising in a pale, orange sky and he could hear his mother snoring next to him. He nuzzled contentedly into her side and thought about everything that had happened. Although he knew he was clever, he felt decidedly relieved at having extricated himself from events far beyond his maturity level. His mother woke up and said with a yawn, “It’s time to get up, kid. Two-legs is taking us all to the market place today.”
Toto leapt up. His heart thrummed so loudly in his ears, he could barely hear his own voice. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN? THEY’RE STILL GOING TO EAT US ON THE DAY OF BLOOD???”
His mother sighed. “Kid, you really need to stop talking to the chickens. I don’t know what they’re telling you. It’s the Day of Mercy. They take us to the market place and bring us the freshest grass to eat while their children hug us and play with us. It’s annoying but we put up with it. Now, for the love of fainting goats, don’t ask me why-this and why-that. That’s all I know.” She yawned and headed out of the enclosure, not noticing how Toto’s face went from confusion to understanding to absolute delight.
“I’M NOT GOING TO GET EATEN!” he squealed with joy.
“Where would you get that idea?” his mother huffed.
“What’s mercy?” Toto inquired.
His mother fixed her eyes on him and glared.
Toto resolved to get some answers from the cat tomorrow.
Afsaneh Khaliq is a writer who writes under a pseudonym. She lives in her head and divides her time between states of dreaminess and disorder. Her stories often feature imaginary places, non-human beings, and large bodies of water. To no one's surprise, goats are her spirit animal.
About the featured artist: Born in 1998, Anusha Mahmood is a visual artist who graduated in 2023 from the National College of Arts, Lahore. Her work has been displayed at Alhamra and Tagheer. Her primary mediums are graphite and oil paint. Anusha’s work revolves around questions regarding the self and the unconscious mind. There are strong Goya and surrealist influences to be found in her imagery. Her practice is located in Lahore.