Two Islands

I was born in New York,” writes DAN BROWNE, “left it to become a pilot during World War II, spent a number of years in Paris where I pretended to write, travelled around the Adriatic islands under the same delusion, and finally returned to New York where I have written some television plays.” One of Mr. Browne’s plays, THE RAMP,is to be shown in summer theaters this season.

A PAIR of goats were the sole inhabitants of Mali Trk. The female was white; the male colored with patches of black and a tapering band that ran down from his forehead and circled his right eye. They grazed for the most part on beggarweeds, which grew after the spring rains in crevices between the limestone rocks of the small skull-shaped island. They drank seawater. During winter storms they found shelter in the numerous caves that rain, wind, and the Adriatic had gouged out of the weather side, and while waiting for calm to return, nibbled on moss and lichens. When they emerged, there was often seaweed washed ashore, and once from a capsized boat a CARE crate of dehydrated eggs, which they chewed open in a businesslike manner and devoured. The summer tides brought them supplemental rations of galley refuse dumped from steamers that called on the clusters of islands between Trieste and Rijeka, and the male often stood with his head hooked between his forelegs as he peered under the coastal ledges for carrot tops and potato peelings. The female would wait on higher ground until he straightened and would then descend unhurriedly and get her feet wet. At these times he regarded her momentarily, the marking above his eye suspiciously resembling an arched eyebrow, and then together they gobbled up whatever scraps chance had brought their way.

On this particular afternoon they were on the lee side prospecting the incoming sea, unaware that two kilometers away on the larger island of Velike Trk they were being observed through the General’s binoculars.

From the jetty in front of his summer villa, he watched their familiar pattern of movements as friends and youngsters piled into his runabout. A gun barrel crossed his line of sight. Dragy, the neighbor’s boy, was about to enter the boat with an old army rifle. “What are you doing with that?”

“It still shoots, no?” Dragy said.

“Put it back.”

“You said we were going to get her, no? Because she’s tenderer.”

“Just put it back.”

Dragy sprinted off. He returned wearing a long Indian headdress of plastic feathers and a container of suction-tipped arrows slung across his shoulder. The General started the outboard engine. Atilio, his plump son, was seated on a pylon at the end of the jetty. “Well,” the General called out, “what arc you waiting for?”

Atilio approached on a diagonal. His brown eyes were slightly bulged and thoroughly domesticated. He studied the crowded boat a meter or so below, squatted, stretched his right foot toward a seat board, and straightened quickly as the runabout shifted in the water. He circled, aimed his other foot tentatively, and was startled by a chorus of “Get in, already.”

Dragy raised his arm. Atilio took hold of it and steadied himself as he aimed his foot again. Dragy yanked him forward. Atilio dropped into the boat with a thud, stumbled and skinned his knee. He slipped in beside his younger cousin Marya and quietly began to scrape away the wad of chewing gum that Dragy had left in his palm.

THE General tossed aside the mooring line, rammed open the throttle, and swung the boat around brusquely. Istok, the old mongrel whose sight was failing, managed to keep himself from being pitched overboard and ventured a backward glance from the bow. He peered ahead. His nose twitched energetically, and he growled at the larger waves that loomed up in front of him from time to time. The adults revived their week-long animated discussion on the effects salt water might have on goat’s meat. One of them queried the General. He responded perfunctorily and pretended to concentrate on steering the runabout down the troughs of the waves and into the swells. As he neared Mali Trk, he veered toward a cove shaped like an open funnel and dropped anchor. The goats interrupted their prospecting to watch. The General maneuvered the boat closer to land and aimed for a boulder at the head of a path of rocks that led ashore. He entered the radius of the cove and disappeared from the view of the goats. A moment later the male appeared on the rim above. The female, chewing, drifted up behind him, and together they watched the runabout being tied off.

Dragy, feathers rustling, leaped from the boat with a shattering whoop and hopped from rock to rock toward shore. The female’s jaw stopped revolving. The male cocked his head and froze. Dragy landed on the beach, whooped again, and charged up the slope. The goats disappeared instantly.

With an assortment of yells and Istok’s barks the others scrambled ashore and took off after them. Atilio remained. He pulled the mooring line and brought the bow beside the boulder. As he set himself to jump, the anchor astern drew back the runabout. He glanced up. High on the rim the General’s broad, muscular figure was outlined against the sky. Atilio rolled over the side of the boat into chest-high water and waded ashore. He removed his shoes, and while emptying them of sand and water, discovered a hermit crab hardly larger than a pebble. He placed it gently on the ground, brought his face very close, and waited for it to make its first step back to the sea.

On top of Mali Trk, Dragy pursued the female across a kilometer of slope whose surface looked like a field of prehistoric teeth. The others ran in a group behind him. The female loped along easily and doubled the distance between them before she disappeared through a saddleback on the crest. Dragy followed her. The others halted, and an arm-waving discussion followed, accompanied by occasional gestures in the direction of Istok, who had chased the male in the opposite direction and was now off somewhere barking furiously.

Mr. Gligoric, a deeply tanned gray-haired guest of the General, brought up the rear in a moderate walk. He paused at a flattish rock tilted toward the sun, removed his spray-moistened shirt, and stretched out beside it. The General whistled several times. As the group began to drift back toward him, he went down to the beach.

Atilio stripped. The General wrung out Atilio’s shorts and turtleneck sweater, cleaned his shoes and socks meticulously, waited while he dressed, and marched behind him up to the rim. The group was still some distance away. Atilio sat down. The General cupped his hands under Atilio’s arms and raised him to his feet. “We’re going to eat that goat. Make up your mind to that. But we’ve got to catch her first, and that’s going to take all of us, and ‘all’ means you. So while you’re at it, make up your mind to that too.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“There’s really only one thing to remember. If it turns out to be you that she charges, wait until she’s almost on top of you, the very last second, then jump to the side and dive at her horns. Grab them and hold on. If she bites or kicks, no matter what she does”—he poked Atilio’s shoulder— “you hold on.”

The whites of Atilio’s eyes grew larger.

“Sure, you’ll probably get knocked around a bit, but you catch hold and don’t let go.”

“Daddy. I don’t like goat’s meat.”

“You never tasted any. Besides, after a week of nothing but pasta even Istok is beginning to look good.”

“I love spaghetti.”

“A few more days of it and I’ll be wheeling you around in a barrow.”

The General surveyed the island. Here and there a few beggar weeds rose above the white jagged surface. He plucked one. The tassel was brown and curled, and it crumpled to powder as he ground it between his fingertips. Only a slight elasticity along the stem evidenced life. He turned to face his son. “You remember when the goats were banned from here and I had to get rid of them? They were just about your age. Look around, Atilio, this is such a hard place. They didn’t lie down and die. They fought this island, and they’re alive. Every man, sometime in his life, finds himself on an island like this. If you’re to survive, you’ve got to learn to fight. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“Really, Daddy,” Atilio said, “I don’t think I’d like goat’s meat, and I do love spaghetti.”

“Oh, shut up.”

The others arrived. The General asked them to wait while he went off for Istok. He found the dog at the top of a gully, barking at the male, who was perched on a ledge a few meters below and accessible only by a leap. The male breathed lightly and evenly, and his eyes never wavered from the dog. “No, no, Istok, we want the white one.” Istok continued to bark. The General seized his scruff and dragged him away. The goat bolted down the gully. Istok broke loose and chased him. The General returned to the rim.

THE group was sprawled about Mr. Gligoric. As the General approached, he propped himself on an elbow and said that for him the expedition reduced itself to a simple mathematical equation. He was bound to expend a lot more energy trying to catch that damned goat than he would ever get from eating her. He lay back down on the rock. The General verbalized some hasty calculations on how much strength it would require to swim back to Velike Trk, and Mr. Gligoric agreed to prop himself on an elbow occasionally and act as lookout. The General repeated the instructions he had given Atilio on how to deal with the goat and divided the breadth of the island into eight sectors. He assigned one to each person and then was obliged to redivide the island on the basis of seven effectives when Marya’s mother insisted that the child should go along with her. The General took up his position in the center. He raised his right arm, and when he brought it down they began to march abreast toward the crown of Mali Trk.

The line assumed the shape of an inverted V as they proceeded up the slope, and the General slowed his pace. He slowed it again when they reached steeper terrain and converged on each of the three saddlebacks at the top. The General focused on the one through which the female had disappeared. He narrowed his eyes to lessen his shock should the goat suddenly hurtle out of the opening, and strained to hear any sound of hooves. Occasional yells and shouted remarks ceased from the others. A shriek sounded on his left, and he whirled. The line was immobile, as if caught in a photograph. Atilio’s head had disappeared into his turtleneck sweater. Marya, her face buried in her mother’s skirt, shrieked again. Istok, who had bounded through the saddleback in front of the girl, continued to utter a combination of whines and growls as he dashed about with his nose to the ground. Mr. Gligoric propped himself on an elbow. The movement caught Istok’s eye, and he charged down the slope at him with a ferocious yelp. The General continued to the top.

He gripped a boulder for support as the bure, unobstructed by terrain, struck him with its full force. The steady, powerful wind that drives down through the southeastern anchor of the Alps had scrubbed the sky of clouds and whipped the open sea into a mass of whitecaps. It had been blowing for eight days. After the first hour their usual trip in the runabout to the mainland for provisions had been out of the question. There was no electricity on Velike Trk, let alone refrigeration, and the few summer families had exhausted their supply of fresh meat on the second day. On the next, canned goods were gone, and then every meal had become pasta, of which there was an almost inexhaustible supply.

The General pulled Atilio’s sweater down from his nose. “Come on, boy, you’re not a dead leaf. Feel that wind. Let it hit you. It’s good.”

One of the men removed his sandal and kneaded his bruised instep. “Listen,” he said, “it’ll feel even better if you shoot off a flare and have the Coast Guard take us over to the mainland.”

“There’s no emergency,” the General said.

As he spoke, the male suddenly appeared and galloped to the crest. In a series of long leaps, his legs stretched in flight and his back arched gracefully, he made his descent down the face of Mali Trk like a skier schussing a mountain trail. In a moment he was gone.

The man with the bruised instep looked down the steep, jagged weather side. “Why don’t we go back for your rifle?”

“Why don’t you talk to the goat? Maybe she’ll be reasonable and jump into the pot for you.” The General looked at Atilio as he spoke. “What do you want? You’ve been all hot and jabbering for a week about getting her. All right, she’s down there somewhere. Now it’s getting interesting.”

The General dismissed the descent the goat had made as impassable for them. He pointed out two routes in detail, divided the group, and took a third, less obvious way down for himself. After a few meters he looked back. Atilio started down behind him. He made his way slowly around the cones and spires of stone and adjusted his footholds and handholds to small spans. Occasionally the wind caught the spray from the swells as they crashed into the eroded base, and lifted the moist froth onto him. The sea itself, high above the normal waterline, slammed into the white rock and stained it a mottled brown. Again the General was struck by the indomitableness of the goat and was pleased that the difficulties in catching her were beginning to measure in some degree the effort of her struggle for survival. It occurred to him that his sensibilities, as well as his senses, were touched.

A little above the base he found Dragy prowling around the entrance to one of the caves. “Shhh,” Dragy said. “I got her trapped in there.”

The General waited for the others and stationed them outside in a perimeter. He took Atilio’s hand, stepped around the bones of a litter, and entered the cave. The walls became indistinct after a few steps, then merged with the surrounding darkness. He could no longer see ahead. The odor of hide and manure grew stronger. Diffused with brine and seaweed, it was not unpleasant. “Oh, come on,” he whispered curtly to Atilio, “get your head out of that sweater.” He tapped his foot lightly in front of himself before he moved forward. The roar of the sea was amplified, and he strained to hear sounds of breathing or motion. A rustic directly ahead of him was followed by the grate of a hoof on stone. He released Atilio s hand and dived into the darkness at the sound. His knuckles crashed against rock. Instantly he hunched and caught the rest of the impact with his shoulder as he landed against a wall. A clatter of hooves reverberated in the cave as the male sped toward the mouth.

“Don’t bother!” the General yelled.

Dragy’s head appeared in the entrance. “What did you say?”

The goat rocketed out of the cave. Dragy closed his eyes fiercely and froze. A horn caught his headdress and tore it off. In a continuous movement the goat swept a glance over the semicircle, spun around, and, feathers flying, leaped to a shelf above the cave. The female trotted out of another cave and joined him. A few bounds and they were well on their way to the top.

“Spaghetti again tonight,” one of the men said.

“It’ll be easier going up than it was coming down,” the General said.

At the crest a sudden gust caught the headdress and lifted it from the male’s horn. It fluttered down a short distance. Dragy started after it.

Since they were obliged to make the ascent anyway, the General convinced the group to frighten the female into returning to the cave, where he intended to wait for her. “This time she’ll have the light behind her.” The group started the climb, and he walked toward the cave with Atilio.

Istok dashed up to them. His paws were moist and flecked with blood where the rock had sandpapered away the protective skin. The General patted him affectionately. Istok snarled and ran off.

They sat at the back of the cave and waited. The faint light was enough to outline their figures. “For God’s sake,” the General said, “will you get your head out of that sweater? Is it so terrible to have to fight a little for what you want? Are you going to be like that whole bunch? Between them all, they couldn’t fall down unless someone tripped them.”

The light in the entrance was diffused with gray when a man appeared and called them out. “I think she ran in there.” He pointed out another cave. They went in together, explored it desultorily, and found a maze with several exits. They returned to the boat.

Dragy and Istok were missing. Atilio volunteered to fetch them and found the two at the gully. A few feathers on Dragy’s headdress were gone, others crumpled, and the headband torn. He wore it around his neck like a muffler. Istok whined and growled and paced the edge. The goat was on the same ledge a few meters below. He chewed calmly, and his eyes never left Istok. Atilio ordered Dragy and Istok to return to the boat, but neither paid any attention. He picked up Istok. The dog began to lick his paws gently.

Suddenly Dragy sprang to his feet, seized a large stone, and flung it down. It struck the goat on the side of his head and knocked him from the ledge. He smashed against a shelf below, rolled off, and tumbled down the rest of the way. He lay absolutely still for an instant, then began to convulse. He rose with an immense effort, staggered, then wobbled ahead and disappeared.

Istok jumped from Atilio’s arms. “Stop!” Atilio shouted. Istok stopped. He grabbed the dog and shoved him into Dragy’s chest. “Go!” Dragy went.

Atilio slid and scrambled down the gully. He followed bloodstains a short way, lost them, and raced back to the boat. “Daddy, he’s bleeding.”

“It’s getting dark,” the General said.

“I saw blood.”

“I know. Get in. We’ll come back in the morning.”

One of the men seized Atilio and swung him into the runabout.

ATILIO did not appear for his spaghetti supper that evening. The General found him in the boat trying to start the engine. The first-aid kit was on the seat beside him. “Better open the gas line first,” the General said. “That valve on your right.” After a few more instructions Atilio succeeded in starting the engine. “All right, now shut it off. Turn off the gas line first.”

Atilio let it run.

“Shut it off and come out.”

Atilio did not budge.

The General untied the mooring line. “This moonlight won’t do you any good inside a cave. Do you have a flashlight?”

Atilio held his up.

“Remember to pull up the anchor and be careful of the reef as you go into the cove. Keep a sharp lookout for the female. If she butted you off a cliff, it might ruin your whole day. Maybe you’d better go back to the house and get my rifle.”


“There’s a full moon,” the General said. “Who knows, you might meet a werewolf. All right, what are you waiting for? If you’re going, go.”

“Let go of the line,” Atilio said.

The General retied it. He stooped and lifted Atilio out of the boat. “Come on home now and have your supper first.”

Atilio fled to his bedroom.

Later, he heard the outboard engine and ran to the jetty. His eyes were swollen, but he managed to make out the runabout heading for Mali Trk. He walked quietly into his father’s bedroom. His mother was asleep. The rifle was missing from the gun rack. He returned to the jetty and waited.

The General searched a number of caves before he found the goats. They were lying curled against each other. The female licked a long open cut on the male’s forehead. She blinked at the flashlight, then continued to run her tongue over the wound. The male’s eyes were closed, his hind leg twisted under his body. Blood glistened in his nostrils and along the side of his mouth. The General raised his rifle.

Atilio sobbed when he heard the shot. He caught his breath on the second one. He peered toward the island, wheeled about, and ran to his mother. “Mama, Mama!” He shook her. “Wake up, oh, wake up, Daddy shot himself.” She tried to rub the sleep from her eyes. “Daddy, he was so ashamed, he killed the goat and then he shot himself.”

She lay down on her pillow. “Yes, yes, now go to bed and I’ll let you have some coffee in the morning. Oh, we have no milk — ” Her voice trailed off.

“But he shot himself.”

“That’s all right. I have a black dress. Now go to sleep.”

Atilio ran to the jetty and waited. The wind carried the sound of the engine to him long before the boat came into sight. He squinted as he tried to make out the figure slouched inside. It appeared small until he recognized his father.

The General tossed him the mooring line and watched Atilio’s silhouette as it went through the clumsy movements of tying up the boat. He got out. Atilio looked into the empty boat and looked away. The General put his arm around his son’s shoulder. Atilio did not question him about the goats, and the General did not feel like talking. They walked home.