Jerry stood on tiptoe and stretched out his arms. Below him, the waters of the reservoir shone like black glass. Opposite, sunlight glinted from phones held up by the crowd lining the cliff. The well-rehearsed dive would be a triumph. Jerry pushed up on the balls of his feet, jack-knifed into pike position and dived.
Between the third and fourth of his four and a half somersaults, he turned into a goat.
The transformation lasted an instant and felt like an hour. Incredulity almost paralyzed him. Once again he felt the sudden drag on his spin, the itch of goat pelt, the weight of hooves. Goat bodies didn’t adapt to any dive, particularly in pike position. His spine hurt. His mind did headstands.
The first time it happened, he’d changed back in an instant, completed the next somersault, hit the water and rose to the surface again in triumph. That time, he’d been glad no-one was watching.
This time, instead of changing back, Jerry separated from the goat. Like elastic springing back to its former shape he shot back onto the cliff edge where he teetered, confused and disoriented, while the goat plummeted into the water below.
The crowd went wild. The dive went viral.
Somehow Jerry regained his balance. His wife, who’d been waiting behind him with his clothes, led him back from the edge. Soon half the town descended. In the days and weeks that followed, everyone wanted to know what had happened.
Jerry had no answers. Silent and distracted, he re-examined each movement, but couldn’t explain the goat, the separation, anything. He’d been practising for the Pan Pacific diving team, had exercised, eaten and slept well. He hadn’t touched anything even remotely unnatural. The whole thing was impossible.
Weeks later, a few women in the area miscarried, and he felt sudden dread. His wife was in the middle of her second trimester. The next day she doubled up in cramping pain, sobbing. As liquid ran down her legs, Jerry arrived in time to see his future son slip free of her body. Curled in on itself, knobby fists round its skull as if in self-protection, the foetus slid from his grasp. Blood, tissue and placenta followed. Jerry put his arms round Jessica. A community nurse arrived, comforted them both and cleared everything away.
For days, Jerry and his wife clung to each other.
The miscarriages continued. Desperate to find their cause, the authorities searched the town’s water supply. In the reservoir they dredged up the goat.
The miscarriages stopped.
The next day, Jerry found his wife slumped over the kitchen table. Unable to revive her, he ran into the street and shouted for help. Crowds surrounded him. Others had died, and they’d gathered to pay their respects. Jerry pushed his way through, and only stopped his blind progress when a cop took him aside, and listened to his story.
“Sorry, mate. People are dying,” said the cop. “No rhyme, no reason. Take it easy, now.”
Later, numb, he watched his wife stretchered away.
Jerry wandered the suburb, aimless. Nothing mattered now. Who cared what he did? The army picked him up. After checking his ID the sergeant looked up. “Well, it’s Goat Man.” He pursed his lips. “I’ll let you into a little secret. People think you started all this, with that stunt of yours. A goat, for crying out loud. Now I’m not one to judge. Tell you what: we’ll put you somewhere safe. Can’t have a lynching, now, can we?” He gave a humorless laugh and handed him over to reservists, who ferried him out to a deserted island an hour off the coast. They left him and raced their boat away, backs turned.
Perhaps a year went by. Jerry ate edible roots and fish, drank water from a spring and walked the beaches. Increasingly, food items washed up on the tide.
He talked to stones.
Once Jerry thought he saw footprints, or perhaps the marks of some amphibian that had dragged itself onto the sand. He shook his head. Clearly, the items came from wrecks, and weren’t intended for his personal use.
One day Jerry found a pile of fabric half covered in sand. He shook it out, and whistled. A woman’s dress, in pristine condition. Incredibly, he recognised it. His wife had been wearing it the day she miscarried. He’d never forget the pattern, or the tiny metal buttons shaped like flowers that ran down the front. Red flowers on the distinctive Japanese background. He inhaled. How could this be? He’d given Jessica’s clothes away. Besides, no fabric could have survived in such pristine condition. Jerry spread out the flared skirt, and saw two large bloodstains at the front. Tears filled his eyes. Carrying it carefully, he took it back to his makeshift tent and laid it, full length, next to the towel he slept on.
For days Jerry looked at it. Every time he touched the dress, he tried hard to think things through. How could his wife’s dress possibly wind up on this island? It defied all the rules. Did this new postpartum world operate with different laws of physics, or probability, or perversity?
As always, he found no answers. On his walk one day he stumbled on a large inflated inner tube, half covered in sand. When he tugged on its string, it snaked upward all the way to the water’s edge. Jerry tested its roughness between his thumb and forefinger. This had been his childhood. Before school he used to swing on a tube just like this. His father had tied it to the peppercorn tree in the backyard. Jerry lifted the tube and inspected it. The initials J T D, applied in gold oil paint by his father, stood out against the shiny black plastic. Jerry stared in disbelief. Those were his initials. J T D: Jerimoth T. Davies. How could this inner tube bob up from his childhood? What perverse universe did he live in? Jerry put it down again. Something from his childhood, especially such a perishable item, couldn’t possibly turn up here. He closed his eyes and remembered the warmth of the afternoon sun, the sharp peppery smell of the tree, the joy of flinging himself into the air. In some ways, every time he dived he relived that moment of utter abandon.
He opened his eyes. Look how that had played out. He’d abandoned his body, alright, swapped it for that of a goat. Worse, the goat may have poisoned the water supply, and caused death on such a scale he couldn’t bear to think. So much for ‘abandon’. But in this matter, the deaths, he was innocent. He hadn’t asked for the goat, had no connections with goats. His family owned a budgie. End of story.
One afternoon he noticed that his wife’s dress had somehow bunched up. He ran forward. As far as he knew, nothing lived on the island, except perhaps the amphibian that came in and out of the water. It didn’t look like the outline of a snake. He’d put money on something bulkier, some kind of animal.
A small leg kicked aside the folds of the dress. Jerry gasped.
The leg belonged to a baby. Jerry leaned down and uncovered a naked baby boy, who gurgled at him, fists waving and legs kicking. Shocked, Jerry quickly wrapped it up again -– didn’t babies need to be covered? He sat down. Half his brain seemed to be missing. Surely he could think this thing through. Jerry stared at the baby. He’d been on this island about a year, which seemed roughly the age of this infant. The boy held out a hand, and Jerry touched it. Suddenly he felt a wave of emotion. He’d seen that hand before. Jessica had been doubled over. The unborn foetus had wrapped its arms round its head. This boy was his son.
Heart pounding, Jerry picked the boy up. Perfectly formed, the small, well-fed infant with large blue eyes blew a raspberry and reached for his face.
Oh God, Jerry thought. First, Jessica’s dress, now, the baby, our son. How could this be? Bloodstains remained on Jessica’s dress. Its fabric had registered no lapse of time, yet in the intervening year the baby had grown and thrived. For him, a whole year had elapsed. What had happened to the normal passage of time?
The baby pulled a face, and howled. Oh God, Jerry thought, he’s hungry. There’s no food here, no milk and anyway, what would work for a baby? He’d never babysat a child, let alone cared for an infant.
Jerry cleared his throat. “Now listen …” The boy looked up at him, open-mouthed, wide-eyed. Those eyes, so like Jessica’s. They’d discussed names. Jessica had argued for Bryn, and at the time he’d hated it. After all, his own father had named him Jerimoth. “It’s an ancient name. You need one foot in the past,” his father had explained, earnestly, “so you can leap forward into the future.” Jerimoths graced both Books of Chronicles. And ‘Jerry,’ according to his father, spelled the future: so modern and forward-looking. ‘Moth’ of course, hadn’t gone down so well. His school friends and enemies had flung it back at him like cheap ammunition. Jerry had always hated the name. That had been his first reaction to ‘Bryn’. Somehow it reminded him of a moth, light and defenceless. Now, looking at the boy, he knew Jessica had got it right. “Bryn.” The boy gurgled, caught his breath then howled again.
“Okay, okay, I get it! You’re hungry!” Jerry looked around. “I’ll just … ” Help! Nothing he’d consumed in the last year worked for babies. Wrapping little Bryn in the dress, he held him against his chest and set off to scavenge. Who knew what the sea might bring him?
He found a children’s board book. Stooping, he examined its thick, waterproof pages. “Boats for Goats”. That sounded vaguely familiar. The inside cover carried an inscription: To Bryn, from Daddy.
Jerry’s heart raced.
It was his handwriting.
The book appeared to have been written for, maybe, a two or three year old. The baby had fallen asleep against his chest. What a relief. Jerry’s mind whirled. What was going on? Time seemed to have gone elastic, one moment twanging into the past, the next, into the future. In a year’s time, would he escape from the island and buy this book for his son? He glanced at the copyright notice, ISBN and publisher’s address. The year … yes, that was definitely in the future. And the Library of Congress Catalog information, well, well. So people still printed books. The author’s name … wait. Jerimoth Davies. He’d written this book and published it, a year from now.
He turned back to the front cover. “Boats for Goats?” Where would he have found the idea for such a book? He peered at the illustration. Judging by the enlarged udder, the boat-riding goat was a lady.
Bryn woke and wailed. Jerry hastily tucked the book under his arm and kept walking. Before long he found a crate that mercifully contained tinned fruit. Okay, that might work. In it, he also found a few jumpsuits that looked about the right size. Better.
When, the next morning, he woke to hear someone crying, he leapt to his feet. Bryn, lying in poo beside him, grinned. Jerry wiped him clean. The crying persisted, but seemed to come from a distance. Jerry ran outside. The bleating sounded more urgent. What looked like a raft, or maybe a boat, drifted closer to shore, with one occupant.
A boat carrying a goat.
Jerry laughed. He’d just bagged himself some fresh milk. They’d survive, he and Bryn, probably even thrive. Time would settle down again, Jerry felt certain of that. The inner tube held infinite promise. He’d get off this island and make some kind of future for his son, one with a tree and a swing.
The bleating got louder. Jerry grinned. The future had to wait. Right now, he had to get up close and very personal with this goat.
Brenda Anderson’s fiction has appeared in various places, including Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction and Eternal Haunted Summer. She lives in Adelaide, South Australia and tweets irregularly @CinnamonShops.