One Thursday, a goat walked into the classroom. The sixteen of us squeaked. Sister Pious turned from the broken-chalk slashes on the blackboard and glared and we stayed in our desks arranged in rows down the long, narrow room. If you had the misfortune to be short (like Sumita, now known as Angela), or had poor eyesight (like Maneka, re-christened Maria Christina), or sat all the way in the back (like Rosy, short for RoseMary, whose parents had the foresight to give her a saint’s name), you could have mistaken the goat for a dog. Dogs were common in the city, even on the premises of St. Agnes’ Girls School and Novitiate, bounded on all sides by high walls topped with curls of barbed wire. Goats were not. And we soon realized that goats were very different from dogs.
The goat trotted, bent forelegs and hooves skipping two at a time up to Sister Pious. Sister Pious stared at the goat. The goat was brown and middle-aged and utterly ordinary, the kind many of us had lived with in our villages before we came – by the grace of God – to the convent. It looked into Sister Pious’ face, a thin, lined face made more severe from the wimple pulling her hair out of sight. It turned and sized us up – all girls of course – and seeming to make up its mind, the goat lowered its head and charged into the wall. It rammed its horns against the wall over and over, making a cracking sound.
Now even the fear of burning in hell couldn’t keep us in our seats. We leaped across the room, blue pinafores lifting off like baby kangaroos. One of us – who was it? Maria Selvam, perhaps, the only one who welcomed our meatless Fasting Fridays – launched her body on to the goat, trying to drag it away from the wall, away from its mission. The goat reared its head, bucked, and the girl fell to the floor, taking down a few of us who’d followed her. From behind us, Sister Pious called, “Girls, girls! Get back in your seats.” Her voice was a reed in the wind, just like we’d been told St. Agnes, patron saint of young girls, chastity, and rape survivors, was.
The goat went at it again and again – bashing its horns against the plaster, plaster that was now flaking off in chunks, revealing brick and mortar beneath it. We may not have realized it through our cries, the high-pitched shrieks of thirteen-year-old girls separated from everyone they once knew to receive a convent education, but the goat wasn’t letting out any cries, no bleats, no yelps, the only sounds were the heave, knock, thump of it banging its head against the brick wall. We stood around crying, excited, Sister Pious forgotten.
The goat collapsed. We scattered. Sister Pious’ paralysis fell away. She shoved us aside and sank to the floor. She lifted the goat’s head, its body, and cradled it in her lap. Sister Pious was a bony woman, and her eyes behind her glasses, blinked profusely. The goat laid its head on Sister Pious’ shoulder and we saw her then, a middle-aged woman, prematurely old to us, married to the Lord, the veins on her arms like the cracks fissuring the wall. The goat’s head was bleeding; smears of red streaked Sister Pious’ habit. We watched her caress the goat, murmuring the Lord’s prayer, her hand like a lathe on fleece. And we knew then that pain wrought more pain, and some kinds of pain were preferable to others, and sometimes pain was peace, and that goats and nuns and teenage girls sometimes had no recourse but to bleed.