For Trina and Barb of Animal Haven Farm Sanctuary, Asheville, North Carolina

Reader, meet the two women who sunk
everything they had into taking in broken
animals—the gimpy and oozing
critters, the ugly, lopsided, tail-less

pets, urine-soaked and drooling, zested
with fleas, the matted and discarded
scrapheaps left growling and bucking, pissing
on everything, the good-riddance left roped
to a chain-link fence.

No, I take that back.
Instead I want you to be

those two: I want you crazy
enough to try to fix those beasts—
to feed and brush and bathe and dip and
sweetmilk them whole; I want you to try,
to always try, despite the odds,

just as you coaxed the docile
fat-blind pig up on legs that eventually
broke from his own inbred
weight, just as you spritzed the mites
off a mangy hen that would be limp
in the claws of a hawk
later that same day. On the hill, a stubborn
but sometimes gentle sheep grows
cold under a blue tarp,
and in your truck is a towel across
the backseat for your favorite
but neurotic-as-hell dog, how you rushed her
to the vet only to see her
put down.

No, let me make this real—

Reader, I want you tired, every joint
in your body stiff and worn.

I want you to finally strip off
your filthy clothes. Then, I want you jolted

from sleep by a cry that in your dreams
sounds like an infant wailing

and, now awake,

sounds just the damn same.

Go. Find that kid goat
bleating in the grainy dark.

He’s no bigger than a lap dog,
and on his fist-sized head are the buds

of his horns—tiny, like
two popcorn pieces of warm bone—

two bright spots, the only thing
you can see.

Flip on the switch.
Now, you know.

With bare hands I want you to
clear the froth from his lolling

tongue. I want you to grab a rag,
a sponge, the corner of your shirt—
anything you can find—to sop
up the liquid—so much of it
you can’t tell what’s what—be it
mucus or bile or vomit or blood—
as if every water has been brought up
for this giving-in, as if his body
is already a river and rushing

away. Now, use your arms:

it takes strength to steady the
convulsing of a thing even this young,
and then, once his gaze rolls back to

white, you know what to do, you know

your job: push together the furred slits
of his lids, close the extinguished
horizons of his eyes.

Don’t play stupid. You knew
this was coming. You’ve seen it

enough times. You’re not dumb,
just desperate to try

to save this little meat
goat the farmer dumped
at your door,
too septic and riddled
with worms

to even be killed

to eat.

Now, get on your knees.

Mop it up. As you wring
out the rags don’t push away
what you know of the sun,
let yourself admit the light,

how it made his ears pink and transparent

revealed the secret veins of leaves,
how you adored it when they periscoped
to your voice and he looked up to
give you the small meditations
of fresh milk and hay in his mouth.

Go on. Get sentimental
if you have to—have a good cry—

no one is here, and besides,
who would care? Because you try,
don’t you? You always try.
But always, that impossible
riddle, always the word

riddled with the word
worms, as if each whip-like body was curled
into a question, a wriggling puzzle, a mob
infestation of questions—parasites that love

a home so hard they turned that kid goat
anemic, fevering, stuttering with a murmuring

heart, shitting out a writhing

pile of larvae and eggs. Little sips—

little hooks—little burrows—this was how,
little by little, that little goat finally

collapsed, arched his throat back
as if to be slit, jerked his legs up into the
nothing like the fetus he was
just two months before.

But here is the point: Do not ever
let yourself think it didn’t matter.

It mattered then
as it matters now, because until

this morning rose dull on the horizon

with this useless, good-for-nothing
goat now dead on your floor,

regardless, in spite of, no matter,
you fed a beast worthless, a real

lost cause not unlike

this whole stubborn,
beautiful, fucked-up planet
about to seize and drown
in its own melt.

There really wasn’t a thing you could
do, but admit it: if you knew,
if you really could say he would not have died
last night but would certainly die
tomorrow, you’d force yourself

out of bed and do what it is you do:

you’d count his pills, warm his formula
over the stove, rake out his soiled pen,
and with arms wide, you’d bring him
a fresh bale of hay. Yes, that’s right: now say

his silly goat name—because, yes, every living
thing deserves a name—and you called him

Peanut, a playful way to say
he was a flake of the size he should have been,
so sick he did not jump or play as
he should but leaned his tiny face
exhausted into your leg. Now, bend

to stroke his scrawny
goat neck. Say, Good boy, Peanut.
We’ve got you. Now, now
there. Everything’s gonna be just fine.
You know it’s

a lie, but no matter.

Hope, you know by now,
is not a thing you feel
but something you do,
and this is your job. It’s what
you do; it’s what needs to be

From To Those Who Were Our First Gods (Rattle, 2018) by Nickole Brown. Used with permission of the author.