“Has the jury reached a verdict?”
“We’ve reached a conclusion, Your Honor.”
“How do you find the defendant?”
"You might well ask, sir -- If only we knew! You see, we haven’t found the defendant, haven’t found her at all, though not for want of trying. Each day of these proceedings, even today, has witnessed a new face in the dock -- none being in the least way familiar to us, or so it appears. And no one in this case seems in the least connected with the charges here brought. What sort of tribunal is this?
What we’ve arrived at, Your Honor, is more conclusion than verdict: that we simply can’t find the confounded defendant! Indeed, on account of these proceedings she’ll likely be esteemed more imaginal than real – that’s our other conclusion.”
The foreman of the jury, plainly at wit's end, minced no words with His Honor. The jury was hung, and that was that.
Upon hearing the aforesaid, his honor, Superior Court Judge Hebetatius P. Clocknoggin, flew into such a state of high dudgeon. His face, at first blank like a deer in the headlights, went from red to gunmetal blue beginning at the collar bones, the sort of chromomorphic display one might expect from a riled-up chameleon or perhaps a Jennie-O turkey on its way to Thanksgiving. He abandoned all pretense of judicial decorum.
“I’ll show you ‘hung’,” he bellowed, lurching forward over the bench in the direction of the jury box, his black robes barely keeping pace. He brandished his gavel like the hammer of Thor.
The bailiff, restraining the judge in a headlock, pulled him back into his chair.
His Honor collected himself for an instant, then slapped a black kerchief – baleful harbinger of death sentences – atop his bald pate and continued.
“I’m giving the lot of you all night in the old county jail to repent of your impertinency and wasting court time. You can roast hotdogs for supper on the lavatory Saltillo if you like – consider I could have you bivouacked atop a stinky old midden – and ponder your obligations under our system of justice.”
The old county jail, abandoned and recently condemned, had been slated for demolition, a symbolism not lost on the jurors who, grim-faced, now stared askance at their foreman as though the unfortunate turn of events had somehow been entirely his doing.
“Court stands adjourned until tomorrow.”
The following morning, leery of kitchen middens and discomfited by their night in the decrepit old loo, the jurors wasted no time. They deemed the defendant, LilthyEtta Saqueth Klatchbustle, rightly guilty of something -- if only of their present predicament. The indictment against her, unaccountably published on goatskin klaf, had seemed strangely vacant, no more than a recipe for chokeberry strudel, but Judge Clocknoggin was not to be trifled with.
“We find the defendant guilty, Your Honor -- yes, yes, quite guilty!”
“So say you all?” asked the judge half breathless, the query a mere formality.
“Guilty!” he exalted, not awaiting the foreman's reply but slamming his gavel like hammer to anvil. He was on the point of pronouncing sentence (this time sans the black kerchief) when a voice rang out from the back of the courtroom.
“Order? Order in the court...for pizza?” Attars of cheese and oregano wafted over the assembly.
“Right here,” cried Judge Clocknoggin, waving aloft the sleeves of his robe. He paid the pizza boy $15.34 for a large feta, pepperoni, mushroom, green pepper, black olive, anchovy, chive, and double rhubarb Fantucchi's Special. Then, through a garbled mouthful, he pronounced sentence upon the hapless Ms. Klatchbustle.
The accused was to be transported by steam ship to Woolloomooloo Station, Queensland, there to attend a herd of thirty-four feral goats. In addition to a herder’s usual duties, she would be obliged, like an epigone of Orpheus, to lull her charges to sleep each night by dint of hip-hop ostinatos, Gregorian chants, or dithyrambic Greek verse, whichever seemed most opportune -- but limited to one of these three. The term of her confinement would depend upon her success at this ritual.
“This sentence,” thought Judge Clocknoggin with smug satisfaction, “is as brilliant a piece of jurisprudence as ever there was, and I should reward myself pari passu.”
Retiring to his chambers, he poured himself a stiff sniffer of Hind Triomphe. And then another. And then another -- thirsty work, jurisprudence.
Yet things turned out quite differently than the judge might have imagined.
LillyEtta took to her penalty like a yellow jacket to hackberry jam. To her, the prospect of tending goats seemed more diversion than chore, and being adept at the harmonica, she relished the idea of singing them to sleep each night (like Gene Autry, astride a cayuse, punching cows on the Chisholm Trail).
She arrived in the Mulga region of Queensland late in the summer toting a monogrammed Hindmarch brown leather portmanteau and wearing a deep blue Chiselé peplum basque dress with matching velveteen snood.
The goats, unfazed by her chimeric complexion, adopted LilthyElla at once, though one of them -- believing it a tasty comestible -- made off with her snood. LilthyEtta forgave him.
Settling straight away into a daily routine, she cut Mulga leaves for her troop and watered them at a local billabong, where for a time a bulky saltwater crocodile kept up a nuisance before skedaddling at the prospect of becoming a handbag -- LillyEthra, once a Girl Scout, packed a formidable runcible spoon!
Each afternoon at 2:34 o'clock she milked the nanny goats using a fancy red-figure bowl of classical fable found in a feed shed (of all places), trusting that its sides – thin as eggshells – would hold up to goat hooves. For some reason, she hated galvanized pails and thought that in any case milk tasted better on clay.
And then came the matter of the eventide singing.
“If any of those musical genres will knock them out for the night,” LilthyEtta said out loud, “its sure to be a Gregorian chant. I’ll start off with that.”
A skeptical nanny cast her a sideways glance, but LilthyEtta took no notice. As shadows lengthened and the sun sank low, she began to intone Veni Creator Spiritus accompanying herself on the harmonica.
Veni, creator Spiritus
mentes tuorum visita,
imple superna gratia,
quae tu creasti pectora…
Next evening she tried out a dithyramb. “Goats figure prominently in Greek mythology,” she conjectured. “Surely their natural affinity for Dionysian hymns will lull them.”
She sang them the following paean (blowing high C on her mouth organ):
Believe me, together
The bright gods come ever,
Still as of old;
Scarce see I Bacchus, the giver of joy,
Than comes up fair Eros, the laugh-loving boy,
And Phoebus, the stately, behold!
Now nothing was left but hip-hop.
“I’m doomed,” thought LilthyEzra ruefully. “Rap music will drive them completely meshuga. Woolloomooloo will end up, not just a herding station, but my station in life – I’ll be trapped here forever!”
“Still,” she mused, “things could be worse. I could be taking dictation in Pittsburg.”
The next day passed all too quickly and as darkness fell LilthyEtta resigned to her fate, reluctantly broke into rap:
I used to sit with my dad in the garage
That sawdust that pine sol and the moss
Around every spring when the winter thaw
We'd huddle around the radio twist the broken knob
710 AM on KJR Dave Niehaus voice would echo throughout the yard…
One by one, they fell asleep – all save a grizzled old billy with a prehensile face who harbored such an uncanny itch for her that LilthyEtta wondered if he were Pan in disguise, still on the prowl for Selene.
Suddenly indignant, LillyIsla whacked him with a Mulga branch, then remorseful, consoled him (and herself) with a prodigal shot of stevia brandy. Warmed by the spirits, she nuzzled him and gave him a playful shake of his horns.
Through the dusty, crepuscular light, as the hour grew long, came the woof-wee-ooph of a didgeridoo and the drowsy chortle of Kookaburras bustling down for the night.
LilthyEtta curled up with the old billy's head on her lap and lamented the surcease of her plight.