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Zidane the Ram


To have a happy childhood, you need to have a warm and furry pet—that seems to be a universally acknowledged principle. My daughter Eva wanted to have a very furry pet, and she’s had and loved cats. I wouldn’t get her a real bear; teddy bears didn’t work for her, and so she created a friend for herself, a little black bear. It was an imaginary bear, and the friendship with him lasted even beyond the time my wife and I imagined she was through with it.
      While Eva was sociable with her friends and cats, she relied on Little Black Bear, who was her most intimate companion, always at her side, keeping her warm and protected. We lived in Shawnee State Forest, in Ohio. One day Eva decided she needed to meet her friend. She put on her yellow rubber boots and walked out into the yard, past the old tobacco barn, and then up Snake Hill. We called it Snake Hill because Jeanette had once stepped on a rattlesnake there. She wasn’t bitten, but she was terrified enough that she didn’t like to hike there. Eva walked up the cleared path along a flash-flood ravine. I followed her, to see how far this three year-old girl would dare to walk into the dark forest. I don’t think she was aware of me walking some hundred paces behind her. She crested the hill and kept going. She was going faster and faster. Afraid of losing her in the bushes, I accelerated, and caught her by the collar of her jacket. She shouted, “Let me go!”
       “What are you doing? Running away from home?”
       “I am going to see Little Black Bear.”
       “There are no bears in our forest
       “Yes, there are. I must see him.”
      I put her on my shoulders, astride my neck. She kicked, and I held on to her boots, but she managed to slip out of the grip and banged me with the heel right on the nose. Luckily, it was a rubber sole, but my nose hurt to the point of stargazing. I brought her home and she wept for half an hour because her meeting with Little Black Bear was foiled.
      Although she thought she had disappointed her friend, Little Black Bear continued to be her trusted buddy. He could help her in crisis. When she was five years old, Jeanette and she visited a music store with all sorts of toys for kids. Eva took an exotic red frog (made out of plastic) and put it in her jacket. The shopkeeper noticed, and said,  “Your child is shoplifting!”
       “Why did you steal the frog?” Jeanette asked.
       “I didn’t do it. Little Black Bear did. He put it in my pocket.”
      Jeanette returned the frog to the shop assistant, and the disgraced half of the family left the shop. So when Eva wanted to learn to play the guitar, and I suggested taking cheap lessons at that store, Jeanette told me this anecdote to explain why they couldn’t go back.“But after three years, he wouldn’t recognize you, and why would he care?”
      We moved to Pennsylvania, to a forested hill. One night, when Jeanette had treated our deck, I took the back-door exit to go to my studio. There was a loud cracking of branches a couple of yards in front of me. What was that? Where was my German Shepherd? I walked in and turned on the light, and there was someone or something cowering in the doghouse. “It must be a bear,” I said.
       “Really,” Eva said.
       “Yes, I think it’s a Big Black Bear.”
       “I hope I see him.”
       “Who knows, maybe it’s the Little Black Bear who has become the Big Black Bear, and he came to see you.”
      Eva’s eyes grew wide—clearly, she was tempted to believe this, although she no longer believed in the Easter Bunny, having caught me hiding the eggs in the bushes around the   house.
      The following day a fifty-pound bag of dog food disappeared. I found it half-eaten way out in the woods. Clearly, a raccoon couldn’t do that, although raccoons can hardly ever be underestimated. Must’ve been a bear.
      Then, as we had a pot roast in the oven, there was rumbling. I went outside. The bear had put his paws through the ventilation opening in the wall and torn out the insulation.
      Next day I saw him in the bushes, not twenty yards away. The sun was lighting the green of the bushes and the trees, and amidst the green stood this awesome shiny black bear. I stood there and so did he. I wondered what he thought. Slowly he turned away and ambled and then ran, producing much branch cracking. I was glad I hadn’t stumbled into him.
      He also dug holes in the garden soil. Maybe he didn’t do it, but now I blamed him for every incidence of damage in the vicinity. I called the game warden, and asked him what to do about the bear. He came up the hill and said there were so many bears that they ran out of cages.
       “Generally,” he said, “we trap them and then take them to a state forest 100 miles away. Sometimes they make it back; most often they stay.”
       “If he bothers us again, can we get a friend to shoot him?”
       “No, that’s illegal, other than during hunting season.”
       “I don’t want to wait for the hunting season.” I showed him the damage the bear had done to the house and the garden. “Can’t I shoot him to protect my property and children?”
       “Well, nobody could prevent you from self-defence,” he said.
        I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods, and asked for a gun that would be good enough to kill a bear, but I decided   against buying one. Instead I bought a .22 Remington to shoot raccoons who ate my chickens.
      As though understanding all these conversations, the bear didn’t show up again. Maybe someone else shot him. Maybe he was trapped. But Eva was certainly sad that she didn’t get to see him. I imagine that she did think that it was Little Black Bear, who tried to visit her as Big Black Bear. Just as she was prevented by me from visiting him in her toddlerhood, he was prevented from visiting her now by mean men, including her dad.
      But I was not all that mean. I wanted her to have a happy childhood and she was already ten, running out of childhood. Jeanette agreed that a sheep might do for happiness. But not one, two, a male and a female.
       “This is not Noah’s ark,” I said.

The two lambs came out of the Toyota Corolla and hopped in the yard. The short-haired female was white and Eva named her Leche. The black male was smaller and limped. Eva named him Café. Leche ran away from us but Café liked to be scratched on the head, and he looked at me with his wet eyes and snorted. He was two months older than Leche and no longer needed milk—he was happy with grass and cracked corn. Jeanette bought him for ten dollars, as he was trampled by the flock and the farmer didn’t think he would make a good ram. Leche cost thirty dollars. She clamoured for milk, and Jeanette bought her formula. The milk had to be thicker than cow milk, richer in protein. So twice a day Leche sucked milk out of a plastic bottle, a quart each time. Yet if you stroked her, she would leap away from you and then come back. She tugged downward at the bottle nipple. We had a chicken coop without chickens so we put the lambs in it, elevated from the ground.
      Although Leche got a lot of milk, Café grew faster and pretty soon he was larger than her and his limp was gone. He ran around the green hopping and galloping. The German Shepherd loved the sheep. It seemed a natural friendship. Jude teased Café and Café ran after him and tried to butt the dog.
      It seemed he was growing horns but he tended to rub his head against the trees, and so his bumps didn’t grow. Maybe his sort would grow horns in the fields without trees to rub against. Because of his butting tendencies I renamed him Zidane, after the amazing French-Algerian soccer star, who blew away a world championship for France with a red-card-yielding head-butt. Maybe that was an unfortunate name as my ram grew to butt more and more, banging against the house door at night; he became a butt-head. When Leche was weaned from milk, and they got cracked corn to eat, he would butt her away and eat first. Nevertheless, she followed him everywhere and they roamed pretty widely, like a pair of wild dogs, even to the neighbour’s corn field. Since they raided the garden, eating young cabbage, peppers, and strawberries, I had to build a fence all around the garden, mostly because of the sheep and perhaps the deer. Now their task was to test the fence and crawl under it whenever possible. I’d have to corner them and catch them and lift them over the fence into the yard. They were a lot of work for pets, but the only pet was Zidane. You could scratch his head and he’d rub against your thighs. He smelled like a big old wool sweater. His head stayed black but his body turned light chocolate brown. His hairs were long and curly, and he was a beautiful tall ram. To get corn from me he at tacked the garage where I stored it. He banged against the doors, sometimes as early as four in the morning. Mehr, mehr. I joked that he could speak German, as that sounded like “more, more” in German. And when I looked up the etymology of Zidane, this came up: The term “Zidan” or “Zaydaan” is derived from the Arabic root word of “Zeed” which simply means “more” . . . thus the term or name “Zidan” would mean “a lot more.” I don’t know whether all rams are quite that lusty or whether, because of growing up with a handicap, he compensated with his huge appetite.
      For the hell of it, I sometimes went down on all fours to head-butt with Zidane but his skull was too hard for me; plus, as I’d had a concussion ten years ago, I didn’t think it was good to shake up the soup in my skull. As a kid I used to have a sheep, and no doubt it was a ram. We spent hours head-butting. He’d dig his hooves in the ground and charge at full speed straight into my skull, knocking me over. It hurt, but to be a good sport I persevered. He also ate all the roses and I climbed cherry trees and tore branches off so he could enjoy the leaves. My mother didn’t appreciate the sheer devastation Shestica inflicted, and one day, while I was being a good boy and at tending a Baptist conference in a village ten kilometres away—I had biked there and worked on my salvation, enjoying all the imagery of sheep in the church—mother sold the sheep. On the way back from the conference, I passed by the corner tavern at the end of our block. There was a sign, Svjeza janjetina. Fresh lamb. I panicked. I didn’t have any reason to think my pet was being eaten by the fat, ruddy- cheeked drunks in blue workers’ uniforms. Yet my sheep was gone, and clearly, it was my pet that was eaten on the spot. I learned that having pets was a sorrowful affair, almost as sorrowful as having a dead father, who’d died in front of me when I was eleven.
      Zidane loved to be scratched on the head, and he spent hours rubbing his head against trees.
      Leche and Zidane raided our garden, eating broccoli and cabbage, unaware that it was a moral issue. I’d run into the garden and shout at them to leave the fenced area but the gar den was too large, and it was usually an athletic event of running around, picking up a stick and threatening to whack them. Some of them I broke on Zidane’s forehead, but it never seemed to hurt him. Rather it stimulated him. He’d angle his head and look at me challengingly.
      Usually I’d have to grab him by the collar and drag him out of the garden. He liked to hang around me and if I hiked in the woods he’d follow like a dog. A friend of mine, a writer named Jeff Parker, visited me and commented that sheep were a lot like dogs, only dumber. I actually didn’t like their intelligence to be insulted. They were smart for what they wanted. In general, it seems to me when we judge the intelligence of other creatures who have other frames of reference, that it’s hard to judge them fairly.
      Zidane rubbed against everything—cars, deck, trees—when he wanted to be shorn. We wanted to call in a shearer but somehow never got around to it. I used a large pair of scissors and tried my best to get rid of his wool but it was too thick. It harboured little creatures, and he was like the angel in A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, with his hairs strewn with parasites, which was actually a very endearing and sociable trait. When he stood and cogitated and ruminated, looking at the humans around him at      a distance, our chickens would jump on his back, sometime three at a time, and peck at him. I wish I had taken a picture of it, but   all I did was admire the symbiosis of three species, or maybe four or five, but three that I could immediately identify. Our eggs were the best ever—everybody who ate them said so—and they were a result of free-range rummaging in the woods, and fields, and exercise which consisted of dodging hawks which sometimes descended like bombs from the thermals and the tall oaks, straight at the chickens. The chickens were eating worms in the woods, eating grass in the field, oyster shells which we gave them for calcium, and jumping on sheep and eating parasites. Maybe this was the ingredient which gave special spice to the eggs. Of course, the fact that they discovered a dead deer, and that they ate the deer, pecking at it like vultures, that could not be neglected. Zidane didn’t mind the chickens but if we gave them corn, he chased them. While one set was being intimidated, another came from behind and pecked more corn. In the end he just stood and marvelled at how he could do nothing to save the food for himself. If we fed him and Leche only, he’d mercilessly push her and butt her so he got most of the grains. It seemed it would be best for them to eat only grass and hay and tree leaves, but they were pets after all, and it’s like having kids. You know candy is no good for them, that you should instead offer spinach, but you still occasionally, for birthdays and Halloween, give them horrifying candy. Grains were bound to be better. I even got them oats. But feeding them too well made Zidane terribly sick, and he hid under the chicken coop, and bloated up to twice his normal size, and he panted, his black and purple tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. He gurgled, and I thought he was breathing his last.
       “Look  what  you’ve  done,”  Jeanette  said.  “You killed  poor Zidane by feeding him grains. I told you to stop it.”
       “I didn’t know.”
       “You’re a murderer,” she said, and called the vet. “I didn’t know you liked him.”
       “I didn’t know either, but I feel sorry for him. Now I see I do.”
      The vet took him into the clinic, gave him B vitamins and some other shots, even a transfusion, and Zidane came back, like new, and wanted more grains, but for a while he’d get only grass and hay. His salvation cost me $500, but I was happy, and I petted him and scratched his hard head, and he bobbed his head up and down. I guess he must have had some kind of natural psalm in his head, praising the Lord for life, something like Psalm 23.

      1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anoint- est my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

      Maybe King David would have been a better name for him?
      Zidane smelled wonderful, like an Icelandic sweater. He followed our cars and Leche followed him, and so they galloped half a mile down the mountain on which we lived. It was really a hill, eroded by millennia of winds and rains and ice, but historically it was a god-installed mountain, one of the oldest in the world, with the euphonious name, Bald Eagle Mountain. It stretches for 50 miles in Central Pennsylvania, the last ridge of the Appalachians facing the Alleghenies over a wide valley, just over the crest of the hill from us, at some 2,000 feet. It was a major fault line with the tectonic plates of Pangaea, Europe and the Americas dividing right here, but one part of Europe drifted and got stuck to America, while a new line was formed and split with the ocean. I know little of geology but this would make sense, to indicate why the Northeast is so inherently snobbish and standoffish with the rest of America. From this prehistoric ridge, Zidane would run into the first valley of the Appalachian range, probably not worrying about geology at all, his hoofs raising a cloud of dust. And he’d go back up. On one occasion the sheep disappeared and were gone for two days. I don’t know where the hell they went, but I looked for them with our German Shepherd, Jude, all over the place, up the ridge, down to the valley, east and west, and I shouted to no avail.
      And at night, if I slept in my studio, he would butt loudly against the door of the garage above which my studio sat. In the morning there were grease marks and dark stripes left on the white of the door. He would have loved to just stay indoors with us, to be our pet, but with his enormously productive digestive system, that would have been disgusting.
      He grew to consider himself the master of the hill. I am not sure what all his nights were like but with bears occasionally visiting, I wondered what it took to keep them away. Our dog, Jude, would sometimes stay indoors most cleverly when he could smell bear.
Zidane attacked my son once when Joseph wasn’t watching and knocked him to the ground. Joseph limped for a few days but was all right. He knocked down Eva and terrified Shara, her Indian friend, who no longer liked to visit. Sure, sometimes I limited the sheep to the lower field and spent 500 bucks building a long fence with my friend Boris. They could be contained in the field but they hated it. Soon they were out of food, and giving them hay in the middle of the summer made no sense. We had plenty of grass, and I bought a scythe, thinking I would harvest it, but I never got to it. Of course, I should have, it would have been a very useful exercise, beautiful in many ways. Especially with the snakes around, which we had—copperheads and rattlesnakes.
      Once Zidane knocked Jeanette down, and she said she wished she hadn’t saved his life. He got me a couple of times but it never hurt all that much. However, one time when I was planting an arbour vitae, I stood up and suddenly I saw Zidane flying at me. It was too late to react. He connected with my right shin right below the knee. The pain was instant and intense. I wrestled him to the ground, and knelt on his throat. His thick grey-black tongue popped out and he made a choking noise. I let go, but I was mad. Did he break my leg? He certainly bruised the bone, and I suspect he may have cracked it as the shin was blue for two weeks, and the pain persisted for two months. Now I was more cautious with him and if he reared his hind hooves to get leverage in order to start at me, I either evaded him behind a tree, or wrestled him, which he may have liked as a buddy kind of thing. Sometimes, when I had less patience, I whacked him on the head with a snow shovel. That seemed to tickle him.
      So, what to do?
      His balls hung low, and they were enormous—big enough for an elephant. Clearly, he had way too much testosterone, yet, strangely enough, after two years, he still had not become a father. He had tried, but somehow always on the wrong occasion. Once, during an ice storm, on a slope, he climbed Leche. She didn’t mind—she had angled herself seductively. Each time he was over her, with his two hooves on the ice, he slid and fell, and slid down the hill, banging against the house. He stood up, climbed up the hill, tried again, and slid again. I pulled her down the hill on flat terrain, so he’d be able to procreate, but since I touched her, he grew jealous and furious, as though I had wanted to do it. He ran at me to crush me and I evaded him, and he slid on ice way down the hill. And when he came back up, he tried to get me again. Now it was more important for him to get rid of male competition, it seemed, and he forgot about sex. Aggression seemed more intoxicating in his testosterone cloud. Despite his impressive balls, he may have been sterile, or Leche infertile. For a while I had wanted little lambs—they are such charming creatures—but now I was glad we had none. Of course, a real farmer would have had lots of them, and would have enjoyed the organic dishes made from them.
      Meanwhile, friends of mine and I were discussing whole foods at Otto’s brewery: you either didn’t eat meat or you did. If you did, you either killed it yourself, or delegated it to others, which certainly was no better but in a way worse. And you either ate concentration-camp food, miserable chickens locked up and tortured with antibiotics and light and shit, or you ate free range. If free range, then, probably from small quantities, and in small quantities, it meant you would actually know the meat you were eating. In other words, each small-time farmer, especially European-style, eats his pets. The shepherd grows a few head of sheep and cows, and then kills his pets. That must be an extremely painful moment for him but, at the same time, a real moment. You kill a bit of yourself, of your love, your beautiful world, in order to eat, and a feast is a double kind of thing—it’s always a funeral.
      If Zidane gave me trouble, shouldn’t I just eat him? To begin with, why raise sheep? Should they not support me after I’ve supported them and fed them for so long? They enjoy a couple of good years of fantastically free life, and then we have a feast and enjoy them and also feel sad for them. Yes, that made perfect sense. Who is serving whom? Am I their pet, or are they my pet? Now, these are simplistic questions, which in a brewery may sound deep, and in some way, are. I decided I could not eat Zidane, but that it would be better for my friends to eat him rather than to sue me for broken legs, as Zidane was becoming more and more aggressive. And what about Leche? She seemed to be so dependent on Zidane that it would make the most sense to let her become food as well.
      Moreover, we were about to move to Montreal. We couldn’t take them along, and we couldn’t expect there would be renters who’d put up with being rammed all over the place. I told Mike and Jim that they could take him. I thought they would just truck him away and turn him into food far from my sight, but Mike said, “No, the town ordinance in State College and Boalsburg prohibits slaying of cattle. We’ll do it in your field.”
       “Fine, go ahead, as long as I don’t look at it and Eva is not here, that should be all right.”
       “We have to skin them and let the meat cure. We’d have to hang them on one of your trees, maybe from the tree house.”
       “Tree house? That’s my daughter’s place, and to kill her pets and hang them from it is something she would really hate.”
       “Okay, how about in your garage?”
       “Are you kidding? They are my pets as well. I am not going to eat them, so why would I have them bleed on the cement and smell their blood below my studio. You could find some tree in the woods.”
       “Wouldn’t a bear get them?”
       “If a bear had wanted them, he would have got them already. Black bears are vegetarian.”
       “They might make an exception for fresh lamb.”
       “You call him a lamb?”
      Mike and Jim bought a fancy butcher knife for the occasion, they read manuals on how to butcher, and they came in, looking all jaunty like real gentlemen ranchers. I sent them into the field and didn’t want to pay any attention to their meat harvest but pretended in the meantime to be working on a novel; yet I could not concentrate. Five minutes later, I heard three gunshots, and   I saw them running. Zidane had fallen in the driveway and the hunters were now chasing Leche in the woods. They couldn’t contain Zidane in the pen; he managed to run out and they couldn’t catch him, so they hunted him like a deer. But I imagined what was started had to be finished. There were three more shots in the woods and the two men kept running after Leche. I called Jeanette on the cell phone not to come back at this time, but her cell phone was off. And a minute later, she and Eva pulled in with the jeep, parked, and Jim said to Eva, don’t look. Of course she looked. And when she saw Zidane, she started sobbing and trembling. She ran into the house.
       “Is Leche alive?”
       “They can’t kill her!” she said.
      I came out and said, “You got to stop. You can’t shoot Leche.”
       “Okay,” Mike said.
       “She’s just a little girl; didn’t I tell you not to do it right here?”
       “They escaped, what could we do?”
       “Well, take him away then.”
      They loaded him on the back of the pickup. Jim evened out the snow where he had fallen and covered the blood. They also now felt nauseated, we all did. This was a disaster. If it had been done more discreetly, perhaps it would not have felt like such a calamity, but the fact would be the same.
      Leche was spared. Instead of coming up to the upper field right by the house in the old shed below the chicken coop, she still went down into the old field to sleep. Maybe she didn’t understand that Zidane was gone. And she kept sleeping there every day, and showed up only for fresh hay and grains.
      Anyhow, I felt worse than I expected after Zidane was gone. Sure, now it was easy to walk across the yard and not look around for a potential attacker. We didn’t need too much hay. We didn’t need to keep locking up the sheep as Leche was benevolent. And soon, she seemed to thrive.
      I kept seeing him, visualizing him in the field, and behind the car, his forceful and lusty nature. And I remember the last time I saw him. I had actually hoped by then that Jim and Mike had given up on coming, as they were a month late. I gave Zidane cabbage and he did not eat but followed me along the fence, and I petted him and scratched his forehead. His eyes were wet. He bowed his head and waited. As I walked up the hill he was there looking after me. It crossed my mind, what if this is the last time we look into each other’s eyes? And it was. Did he understand that he was being betrayed, the quintessential human betrayal in progress?
      For two months Leche stayed in the hay where she and Zidane used to sleep, waiting for him, even at night with coyotes and perhaps bears around. Later she came up, and for a few weeks, every late afternoon when I was there, she and I would run around the
house in the fields. Eva ran after us, jealous that Leche came out to play with me, and after a while, Leche accepted her as part of the flock.
      Eva hadn’t been particularly close to Zidane, but the event was a painful one for her, and it strangely mirrored my childhood. She had lost other pets—to disease, cars, and other animals—but this one was the first loss to human callousness, to the practical system of eating. And it was my betrayal. I am not sure she trusted me or other people as much after this event, just as, I suppose, I had lost some trust in my mother after my pet ram was eaten at the street corner. I had seen her chop off chicken heads on a stump with an axe, and she had taught me that eating meat followed the gory murder of animals, and perhaps that’s why we ate meat only once a week. Now Eva decided to become a vegetarian, and she made exceptions, but would never eat lamb. There’s incredible sadness in how most of us live, on the blood of creatures.
      Life went on, almost as usual, after Zidane. Eva occasionally hugged Leche and kissed her forehead. We all ran at sunset, and Leche galloped and hopped high, like a happy lamb. And after us ran the shadow of Zidane, black head and cloudy body, bringing wetness into our eyes.

© 2017  Josip Novakovich

 This electronic version of “Zidane the Ram” appears in the author's collection, Tumbleweed, published by Vehicule Press, 2017. Book ordering available through and

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Author Bio
Josip NovakovichJosip Novakovich emigrated from Croatia to the United States at the age of 20. He has published a dozen books, including a novel, April Fool's Day (in ten languages), five story collections (Infidelities, Yolk, Salvation and Other Disasters, Heritage of Smoke, and Tumbleweed) and three collections of narrative essays as well as two books of practical criticism. His work was anthologized in Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize, and O. Henry Prize Stories. He has received the Whiting Writer's Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Ingram Merrill Award and an American Book Award, and in 2013 he was a Man Booker International Award finalist. He teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal.