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Every year, fallen leaves clog the drainage ditch, creating a skinny pond along the road, a creek that’s forgotten where it came from or where it’s supposed to go. Reeds call the place home, and duckweed and algae. Nameless foamy scum has a chance to settle in and relax during the first warm days after the torrents of winter, and a few iris, about to unfurl purple banners along the banks.

And frog eggs. Great clusters of them, like transparent grapes, cling to tangles of waterlogged twigs. If the stars weren’t nearly as large as we think they are, if they were made of some transparent stuff, they mighty huddle together like this in the cold night sky, for warmth, for comfort. If they were perfect globes made of clear jelly, each with its own little black heart. One of the hearts is wiggling.

“Look. It’s about to be born.”

“It tickles,” she says.

Puzzled, I turn around. She’s made a cocoon of her hands. She opens it, revealing a bundle of peach light, a butterfly. It has folded its wings and seems to be sleeping. The hands cradling the butterfly are Chinese, and perhaps the winged insect is dreaming of jade valleys, rice paddies, an arched bridge on the road to Shanghai.

“Butterfly or moth?” she asks.

Probably a butterfly. Moths are mostly nocturnal. And they spread out their wings when they land. Butterflies fold them up, like a pair of hands clasped together in prayer. The antennae are different.

My explanation is interrupted by the noisy snuffle of a goat peering at us through the chicken wire of a nearby fence.

Yang? she says, uncertain, nodding in the nanny’s direction.

The Chinese syllable she utters isn’t the yang that means disaster or sample or to look up. It’s in the second, rising, tone, and can mean beetle or melt or ocean or pretend, but in this particular case, it means sheep. Of course, it also means goat. Written out, the word has two little horns at the top to remind us. The goat blinks, as though she’s as confused as I am by the ideogrammatic language invented by the inhabitants of Cathay. Don’t worry about it, I want to tell her, all you have to do is grow hair, lick the labels off tin cans and let your udders fill with milk.

But, I can almost hear the goat sniffing in protest, how could anybody possibly confuse us with those stupid, baa-baa, wooly sheep?

What can I do but shrug? The truth is, for more than a billion of the earth’s talking animals, there’s no difference between the genus Capra and the genus Ovis. Proof of this disturbing fact is scotch-taped to the side of my refrigerator, in the form of a free calendar from a Chinatown grocery. This happens to be the Year of the Yang, and standing beside the horned character proclaiming which beast will be top dog for the next so many moons is a horned creature with the features of both a goat and a sheep.

After lovers share juices, they often share stories about life before they met. Some of the stories are heard but once. They may melt away in the telling, or be too trivial or too painful to tell again. Others seem to hover in the silence that frequently ensues after most of the stories have already been told, waiting for a word to bring them forth again, the whisper of a hand on naked skin. They’re like the buds of leaves on a maple branch, inaudibly muttering something about the coming spring. One such story is the tale of the necklace I bought for my goat Blue Horns. It’s the favorite of the woman holding the butterfly, and it passes between us, unspoken, as I reassure her that yes, yang will indeed do for the creature now scratching an itch against the fence.

Actually, it wasn’t a necklace. It was only a collar, a plain leather collar I used to keep her staked out among the mastic trees on a scrubby hillside above a defunct monastery on a Greek island. She was stubborn and greedy, so greedy she butted the blue paint clean off the metal barrels of grain we kept in the stable. That’s how she got her name, Blue Horns.

Catching her always involved a goat dance, a mad scramble around the pole where she was tethered. Milking her took two people, one to hold her in a hammerlock and one to squeeze her teats. A tricky goat, she would wait till the pail was full to kick it over. Or at the very last second, just as the last jet of milk squirted into the pail, there would be a cannonade of steaming nanny berries plopping into the white froth.

The other goats were in awe of her. They let Blue Horns eat first, drink first, lead the way up the hill. They gave her first crack at the greenest clover. When the billy came for springtime frolic, it was Blue Horns butting and bullying her way to the front of the line, then playing coy, making sure the billy sweated for his little spasm of pleasure.

One night she apparently did nothing but worry her collar millimeter by millimeter into her mouth, until she could chew through the leather. In the morning she was loose in the garden, gobbling down the most tender vegetables, the baby butter lettuce and tender pea shoots, the tips of tomato plants, nibbling away just enough so they would never grow back. I have a cousin sort of like that—at wedding banquets she always makes a beeline for the hors d’oeuvre table and picks over the canapés to find the most scrumptious, the showpieces the caterer has no intention of replacing.

Before I made the trip to buy a replacement at the agricultural supply store in the island’s main harbor, I looked up the word for collar in a dictionary. It was difficult, polysyllabic and pebbly, like many Greek words. Natives can be rather fussy about foreigners mangling their tongue, and I practiced saying “collar” the whole five miles through the olive groves and tangerine orchards along the paths to town.

“I would like to buy a collar for my goat,” I proudly announced to the clerk at the counter, certain that my pronunciation was perfect.

He burst into laughter. An old fellow sharpening a scythe at the back of the store looked up. The clerk waved him over.

“I would like to buy a collar for my goat,” I repeated.

Both of them began laughing uncontrollably, so hard they gasped for air. When their wheezes and guffaws finally subsided, the clerk ran next door to the barber shop to fetch the barber and a customer, still draped in a white sheet, with shaving cream on his cheeks. Perhaps one of them had spent time in Chicago or Sydney? I repeated my request, this time in English. They appeared bewildered, so I tried out my Greek again.

The harmony of their hoots was exquisite. They could’ve been a famous barbershop quartet rehearsing a laughing aria in a Gay Nineties musical.

“You must,” said the old man with the scythe, sobbing out the words, choking with laughter, “really love your goat.”

That much simple Greek I could understand. And somehow I did manage to make my wishes understood well enough to be sold a goat collar, at what I was quite sure was an inflated price. But months passed before I was able to fathom the reason for the gales of laughter, before I learned that my dictionary was hopelessly outdated, a relic of a pedantic quest to return Greek to its linguistic roots and make it pure. The word I had chosen for “collar” actually means necklace, the special kind of diamond-studded, stunning neckpieces worn by queens and empresses.

I nod towards the goat and mention that it is, after all, her year. Yang will do just fine. This woman who has come all the way from the land of pandas to share my nights smiles and moves her hands apart. The peach-colored captive awakes and flits away, heading east in the late morning sun. Yellow flowers just beyond the fence of the goat pasture await the butterfly’s arrival.

This petite woman who now knows my stories stands on tiptoe to brush my lips with hers. She brought me a butterfly. Or was it the butterfly that brought me her?

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