We Live Here

Thoughts While Burying Maggie (In Words)


At some point a grave is no longer a grave, just a depression. Then a disturbance in the soil. Then part of the garden, a pile of rocks. (She’s gone.)

Lots of rocks down here.

When is a pile not a pile? The Sorites paradox, which we inherited from the ancient Greeks, defies us to say precisely when a pile is no longer a pile (“sorites” is Attic Greek for heap or pile). It’s about vagueness. The philosopher Timothy Morton explains it this way: “If you take a single rock away from a heap of rocks, does that mean that it is no longer a heap? What if you take 10 rocks away? Where does a heap start, and where does it end?”

Up, and over. Up, and over.

There’s a very nice movie with Hugh Grant, “The Man Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain,” that deals with a similar quandary. It’s about a small village in Wales where its denizens refuse to accept the government’s decision that their beloved nearby mountain is too short (by about 70 feet) to qualify as a mountain. They resolve to collectively transport tons of earth to the top of the hill such that (spoiler alert) they “raise” it to the required 1,000 feet.

Clay? I’m hitting clay? Already? I’ve only dug down to about the level of my thighs.

Generations of gravediggers must find me laughable.

Our dear Maggie died last night. French Alpine goat. It was only her first winter with us.

The freezing rain hit, lashing, making everything icy. She had gotten out of her pasture.

She had really bad luck.

Number one: The fence. We needed to fix it, just didn’t get to it.

Number two: My mother was visiting for the holiday. When people visit, animals die — or they will if we let our attention get too divided. This time we did.

Other goats bleating in the distance. The most human-sized grave I’ve ever dug. They sound just like Maggie.

Number three: Kristin caught a cold. Normally she would have heard a nighttime cry for help. Not that night.

Number four: Sleeping on the living room couch, I had gotten used to hearing my mother’s night noises. So, late at night, half-asleep, when I heard something odd and disturbing, I chalked it up to Mom in our bedroom.

Maggie was yelling, desperate in the rain, uncovered, right outside my window.

But number five: I have a bad left ear. I heard the noise as coming from Mom because that’s where my good ear was aimed. Maggie vocalized, for five minutes (I think), maybe more, steadily. She wasn’t bleating. It was a noise I’d never heard before. A cry, a wail, a scream. Now I know: A goat’s distress call sounds a lot like a human having a nightmare. I thought it was Mom.

When does a scream for help turn into a rumble of despair?

Though I didn’t know it then, I think I heard Maggie give up.

Later, closer to dawn, I heard a recognizable bleat. I even looked out, but without my glasses. Nothing.

Again, Maggie was so unlucky, so many things went wrong.

But come on, I’m being much too easy on myself. In bad weather, bring your animals in. Period. Check and doublecheck. Obviously. This was another one of our damnable mistakes, which — not for the first time — brought disaster.

Why did Maggie do it? Why did she stay out on such a terrible night? It just never entered our heads that she wouldn’t stay in her shed with the others.

She was our most adventurous and risk-taking. She would break out and go to the neighbors, charm them into giving her carrots. We needed to manage her. We didn’t. She froze to death. We found her wedged between a couple of sheds, on her side, trying to the last to find shelter.

On Christmas eve, my wife Kristin read us Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” Have you read it? Devastating. She had me finish it. In tears, she couldn’t.

Kristin also told me about the Scandinavian legend, Odin’s Wild Hunt. The king of the gods plies the sky with his posse on freezing inclement nights, taking livestock and anything else out and about, unprotected.

It struck me what, maybe, Odin’s Wild Hunt is really about: It’s a metaphor for the monstrousness of our own stupidity.
I finish the grave. A brown hole in the frost. We put her in, say sorry, goodbye.

Later Kristin writes this in long-hand:

“Every time a loved one passes the rhythms of nature are clarified. In Maggie’s death, we see the harshness of a winter freeze. And yet the forest looks beautiful dressed in white and shimmering as the ice coats the branches. Even individual blades of grass stand erect with their transparent coats. They let us know they will return come spring.

“Two nights ago was the Winter Solstice — the promise of the returning light.

“That same day that Maggie died, Leona laid the first egg of the season.

“In Maggie’s death we still have beauty, light and life.”

José Alaniz is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Department of Cinema and Media Studies (adjunct) at UW. He lives blissfully with his wife and many animals in Longbranch.