This week I was reading The Vagrant, by Peter Newman, in which Ted Danson, Steve Guttenberg, Tom Selleck, and a baby wander through a post-apocalyptic wasteland that―oh, wait, sorry, that was Three Men and a Baby. No, in The Vagrant, there’s just one man, a baby, and a goat. And, eventually, a few hangers-on. They are definitely wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, though.
The Vagrant is set on a planet that may or may not have once been Earth, or at least Earth-like, and which has been largely destroyed―or rendered very inhospitable―by the opening of an interdimensional rift, known as the Breach, which spat out a horde of creatures known as Infernals. Not being able to survive in the local dimension in their true forms, the leaders of the Infernals get by via the tried-and-true method of stealing human bodies, which has a pretty nasty effect on the hosts. The lesser Infernals have been boiled down into a miasma, known as the Taint, that flows all over the place, corrupting, to various extents, the plants, animals, and humans it encounters.
Yeah, it’s kind of like that. Except for the pleasing taste part.
The last few coins have bought a boy’s freedom, a goat and a modicum of privacy for the journey. Of the three, only the goat can be classed as a necessity. Not many creatures survive the Blasted Lands without change. After the arrival of the infernals most died or were altered by the tainted energy that flowed from the Breach. Over time the survivors have by its infection bred far from their original forms until only a shadow of their former shape remains.
Although the goat is scrawny, bad tempered and stubborn, she is otherwise untainted and a reliable source of anemic grey milk.
Another unfortunate casualty of the arrival of the Infernals: The Oxford comma.
I am by no means disparaging the book when I say the goat is my favorite character; rather, I am complimenting the author’s ability to provide effective characterization without the use of speech; after all, the goat has roughly the same amount of dialogue as the main character (who is mute, for mysterious reasons) does. To show you what I mean, here are some of the goat’s greatest hits. Literally, in a few cases.
When he approaches the goat, she eyes him with open suspicion. She tries to back away but is held in place by the wire tethering her to the waggon. Unlike many of the humans held in bondage to the caravan, the goat remains defiant.
You go, goat!
The goat objects to the change in direction as it takes them further from the fields.
She pulls against the Vagrant.
The Vagrant pulls back.
The goat knows she cannot win but tries again anyway. The miniature rebellion is rewarded with an even sharper tug on her leash. The goat concedes, this time.
Between the man’s injuries and the Vagrant’s burdens it is an awkward manoeuvre but eventually the man is upright and leaning heavily on the goat, who is pragmatic about her newest indignity.
The Vagrant’s goals are complex and murky; the goat’s goals are much more straightforward:
1) Find things to eat
2) Eat them
Unnoticed, the goat picks up a glove from the table and starts to chew.
Next chapter, same scene:
Slowly, the goat chews, a mangled fabric finger hanging from her mouth. Her black eyes never leave the glove’s twin, sat helpless on the table.
Here is Actual Greatest Hit #1:
Joe levels the pistol but his smile falters at a sound behind him. Before he can understand its nature, an unknown force collides, charging hard against his legs, knocking him forwards. At speed, the goat emerges from the tunnel.
In addition to her primary goal of finding things to eat, the goat does have a few secondary goals. A major one is not to let herself get pushed around.
The goat does not move.
The Vagrant frowns and tugs at the leash.
The goat does not move.
The Vagrant closes his eyes, swaying slightly. He takes a breath, exhales, opens his eyes, and pulls.
Much to its displeasure, the goat is standing.
Exhausted, the Vagrant walks alongside, pulled in jerks by a tyrannical goat making the most of fortune’s reversal.
They pull up the goat with a rope. She sways slowly, comments rarely, dark eyes seething, planning revenge.
They set off early, making their slow way down the mountainside. The Vagrant lags often, the goat dragging him along, gleefully.
“Vengeance is mine,” sayeth the goat.
Of all the beasts and people in the line, the goat is among the smallest. This fact does not concern the goat. Despite capture she kicks and bites anything foolish enough to get close. The trait endears her to the meat runners, who dub her ‘Grim Beard’ and chuckle each time she makes a larger animal squeal.
The goat stands on the sharp-angled beach, insulting gravity. She watches people scurry without compassion.
When the goat finally finds some decent grass to eat, a tainted goose objects to her activities:
Grassy strips border First Circle’s streets and run across rooftops. Happily, the goat explores, availing herself of the lush pickings until a brazen honk smashes her idyll. Her jaw pauses mid chew and she looks up.
Something is watching her.
Flat feet, orange and webbed, support a plump, feathered body. It appears almost normal, the neck only slightly too long, the beak only a little too big for the head, eyes fractionally smaller than they should be.
It honks again.
The goat gives the remark the contempt it deserves, continues to eat. Only the twitch of a shortened tail conveys her annoyance.
A slapping sound heralds the tainted bird’s approach. It wobbles from side to side as it runs, spreading flightless wings wide, wrinkly skin showing through threadbare feathers. With a defiant cry the bird crashes into the goat, knocking her sideways, away from the grass and onto the road.
The goat regains her footing, bleating profanity. Eyes narrow as they track the bird patrolling its territory. The goat lowers her head. It is not a gesture of submission.
The battle for First Circle’s gardens begins.
You can guess who wins that battle. Sadly, things take a turn and our heroes are forced to leave their oasis of greenery, making a hasty water departure. The goat has become separated from the Vagrant’s group during this period but, no dope, does not hang around the garden the situation becomes hostile, thus activating the goat’s other major secondary goal: Not getting killed.
‘He was here!’ shouts a voice from the back. The crowd parts quickly, revealing nothing but an empty alleyway and the back end of a goat, fleeing the scene.
She’s fleein’ the interview! Which leads us to Actual Greatest Hit #2:
By the time the goat catches up, a space yawns between First Circle and escape. The goat’s eyes narrow. She doesn’t slow down, glare fixed on her target. Hooves kick on plasteel, then air, as she sails over the water, a meteor, malevolent.
Vesper points, delighted. ‘G—’
Her shadow falls across the Vagrant who turns, too slow to escape fate.
Man becomes crash mat and the boat rocks, water spraying up, dappling faces.
So, yeah, that’s the goat. Nameless and unable to speak, but highly proactive, the way a good main character should be.
Speaking of proactive characters, the novel I’m currently editing, Father’s Books, has some. One, anyway.
“Anything interesting in there?”
“Nothing much,” she said. “Just a tarp and a couple of sheds and a barbecue grill.”
“Great. We can cook some burgers. Can you see what’s in the sheds?”
“Not from here.” She looked down at Richard; he peered back at her from between her feet. “Hold steady. I’m going over.”
Rose could tell he had objections, and vaulted over the fence before he could raise them.
Okay, maybe she’s not quite as proactive as the goat. But that’s a pretty tough standard to meet, you know.