One woman’s husband was a cheater. He did it with the traveling gypsy, the miller’s daughter, the green-eyed spinster down the street, the shepherdess, the milkmaid with a dark braid, the woman that swept the church floor, the wife of the officer, and the son of the shoemaker. The man’s wife both knew and didn’t know about these things. A part of her knew, another one didn’t. Sometimes the former ruled the heart, sometimes the latter.
The man loved his wife. But another part of him became frustrated with her for not being able to contain within her the multitudes of life’s details he had found so interesting: the flecks of individual red hairs in the dark braid of the milkmaid, or the way the son of the shoemaker had a soft-spot for all beggars and petty criminals and wouldn’t admit it. And one part ruled sometimes, but the other part ruled more often.
He didn’t think of it as unfaithfulness. He was only living his life.
But the cheating husband once ran across the wrong kind of woman. She was and wasn’t beautiful, and, even more curiously, she didn’t seem at all interested in him – which made him desire her intensely. The woman was a traveler, passing through, or so she claimed. He had to beg her to do it, and even though she relented, she said, cryptically, that if he didn’t pleasure her exactly the way she wanted, he would come to regret it. He didn’t pay attention to her words, busy as he was undoing his trousers.
He tried with all of his might, but the woman had a strange, insatiable appetite. He had never met such a woman before, and soon found himself completely exhausted. Shortly thereafter, he found himself a goat. The woman wasn’t joking when she had challenged him.
The man had only himself to blame for his troubles, and so he didn’t even protest all that much when he found himself being rounded up by irate goatherds that very same night.
“This one looks like it might be old Limpy,” one said.
“But he doesn’t limp!” The other replied.
“Nobody’s perfect,” the first goatherd winked, and the man’s fate was sealed.
(Rumours abound as to what happened to the real Limpy – some versions of the story say he was eaten by wolves, and others, more charitable ones, insist that he sits at the right hand of the Underground King, and that the King has taught him how to play the fiddle)
The man’s wife missed him. She thought he had left her at last, and though some days it made her feel free and inspired her to weave a red ribbon into her hair, more often she just felt lonely. Solitude was a garment she wore. She could never get warm in it.
One evening, the woman joined the goatherds at their fire. One of the goatherds was good-looking, and put his arm around the woman. She liked the weight of his arm there, but not enough to do anything about it.
Out of the dark, another woman came to join them by the fire. She said she was a traveler and wandered here and there. The stranger had a face that looked beautiful and ordinary at the same time – the lonely wife wondered how that could be so – and thought it had something to do with the fire: what it chose to illuminate, and what it chose to keep in shadow.
“You two make a good pair,” said the stranger, and the lonely wife and the goatherd both blushed. “I’ve never met my match,” the stranger continued sadly. “I fear my greatest lover will be death.”
The lonely wife shivered. She didn’t like to be envied by this stranger’s with her ugly-pretty face. She got up and walked away from the fire, and the goatherd followed her, but she slammed the door in his face.
That night, the lonely wife began to pray. She prayed to forgive her husband, believing that this would bring him back to her. And in the days that followed, the goatherd came to her home and tried to help with her housework. Or sing to her. Or attempt to put his arms around her. Or sit and watch her go about her business. One night, finally, she gave him her attention, and that night he asked her to marry him. “I have a husband,” she replied, still breathless from the pleasure she had taken from him. “And what is this, then?” He asked, and stroked her breast for emphasis. “This is our life,” she said, as if that made any sense at all!
That morning, the wife crept out of bed early and stared at the fading stars and did not say anything for a long time. Out of nowhere, warm hands embraced her from behind. “Let me be, boy,” she said sternly.
“You must be a fool,” the stranger, for it was she, said. “Your husband isn’t coming back.”
“And yet I have faith in the faithless,” the lonely wife replied. “It’s in my nature. It was the reason why he and I were joined in the first place. I see that now, very clearly.”
“Fine,” the stranger sighed and waved her hand. Muttering something about how other people never knew what was good for them, she wandered off.
When the lonely wife came home, the goatherd was gone, but her husband was waiting for her. He was naked, and covered in grime, but he was her husband. The woman helped him bathe himself and clothed him in clean clothes and kissed his forehead. She saw that wherever he had been, he had a hard time of it. She also noted that he now walked with a limp. It didn’t stop her from making him get to work on the house with her, once he was clean and rested and tolerable.
Later, the tired wife and her tired husband sat by the door and smoked their pipes. The night was so quiet that the man could hear the beating of his wife’s heart. When he listened closely – he could hear how each beat contained within it a great harmony: the creaking of the mill, the church-bells, the sounds that filled the bedrooms of the neighbours… He hadn’t minded being a goat as much as he thought he would – something about it had appealed to his character – but being away from his wife had been too much to bear, and, before he was turned back, he had sincerely fantasized about being killed for his meat and released from being alive without her.
“Tell me, what did you come back for?” Asked the wife.
“Oh,” he said. “I am not used to words anymore. Let me describe my reasons to you in another way.”
And so the description went on until the morning, and went on every day until their deaths.
And the young goatherd who could have made the wife a good pair, but didn’t, left that village in the spring and was never seen again. Rumours abounded: some said he had tried to ford the river and was carried away by the stream, but others claim that he had his run-in with the Underground King, and came out quite unscathed, and managed to get his hands on half the King’s gold on top of it all.
- Copyright: Natalia Antonova