What Agnon did with these familiar characters was so seemingly simple that it couldn’t but mean absolutely everything. Riffing on so many biblical and rabbinic themes that one could barely track them all, the story begins with a sick man whose doctors prescribe goat’s milk. But the goat he buys periodically wanders off for days, returning with udders full of milk whose taste is “like a taste of the Garden of Eden.” The man’s son decides to tie a cord to the goat’s tail and follow her. The goat then leads the son into a cave, an underground tunnel to an almost-mythical Land of Israel. (Rabbinic tradition suggests that when the messiah arrives, the diaspora Jewish dead will travel from their graves to Israel through underground caverns.) In the mystical city of Safed, the excited son is about to go back and get his father when he realizes that the Sabbath is approaching and he cannot travel. He quickly writes a note to his father to follow this goat, sticks the note in the goat’s ear, and sends her back through the tunnel. But when the goat arrives, the father assumes his son his dead; he has the goat slaughtered, and only then discovers the note. The father laments how he has doomed himself to exile, while the son flourishes “in the land of the living.”
Dana Horn writes about this story, S.Y. Agnon’s “Fable of the Goat,” in light of a new English translation and the difficulties therein.